Voodoo (aka Vodun or Vodou) can best be described as a unique religion surrounded with mystery and very strong opinions. Many people view the Voodoo religion as a nightmarish combination of spells, witch craft, zombies and rituals, unfortunately promoted by popular movies or TV shows. However, Voodoo may not be as frightening and taboo as previously thought.
The roots of Voodoo are thought to have begun in Africa close to 6,000 years ago. A evolution of their native religion remained dominant until the arrival of Europeans and Christianity. Once the Slave Trade began, elements of native African traditions were transported to the Americas where it has since blended with Christian theology and symbolism and really took off, even becoming the national religion of Haiti (alongside Roman Catholicism).
Since then, Voodoo has grown in popularity thanks to the copious amounts of media references. From names in songs to famous movie roles like the creepy witch doctor in Pirates of the Caribbean (as seen in the photo below), Voodoo has come to some light (some good some bad) and it is highly recognized in pop culture today.
The major focus of Voodoo is on spirit (the word “vodou” actually translates to “spirit”). Voodooist agree with the statement that “everything is spirit;” spirits are referred to as Lwa/Loa and are seen as individual beings that serve their own specific purpose and are accessible to us mere mortals because God is not. And as part of the mixture with Christianity, many of the Lwa’s values and descriptions fall in line with those of Roman Catholic Saints
When a fete (“ceremony”) for a Lwa takes place, it is intended to be open to the public. However, the reality is that true Voodoo is typically found in close-knit communities which may prove difficult for an outsider to gain access. These fetes can be in honor of every Lwa, a single Lwa, or specific groups of Lwa. Followers of Voodoo complete these rituals/ceremonies in order to serve the Lwa in exchange for something such as protection, wealth, good luck or even love.
For example, one would hold a fete for the Gede Lwa group if they were having issues in the family such as a sick child. Gede Lwa are seen as the spirits of death and fertility or in this case, family. During this ritual, one would build an altar and fill it with specific offerings for the Lwa they are hoping to contact (as seen in the photo above). For the summoning of Gede Lwa, this includes images of skeletons or skulls, candles and offerings to a specific Gede Lwa such Papa Gede, who happens to love cigars, or a cross for Baron.
During the actual ritual, participants will make music through singing, dancing and playing instruments and pray to Papa Gede and the rest of the Lwa associated with the ritual and hope to catch their attention and be possessed. As surprising as that sounds, possession by a Lwa is the underlying goal of each ritual. According to the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, people are “taken by the spirit” during possession. Voodooists do not view possession as anything evil or as something that should be avoided, rather welcomed. In these fetes, possession means communication and contact with the Lwa that the person was reaching out to.
Possession is not seen as anything violent or painful; when possessed, the individual will speak to others in the fete. Typically, the possessed person will answer questions and offer advice to those seeking. By the time the fete is over, the Lwa will leave its temporary “host” and that person will return to their old selves often with no recollection of what the Lwa has said through them. Hopefully, once the ritual is complete, those seeking answers will feel satisfied with their contact and get the answers they were looking for.