Chapter I - The origin of Voodoo

Voodoo—that one word is enough to conjure up exotic, bewitching images: zombies shuffling through a graveyard at night; pins stuck in crudely fashioned dolls as an enemy many miles away experiences agonizing pains; priests cutting the throats of chickens and drinking the blood; assembled worshippers dressed in white dancing around a roaring bonfire. But, none of these images paints a realistic picture of Voodoo. For many of us, our perceptions of Voodoo are shaped by movies we have seen and popular books we have read. But in reality, Voodoo is not a secret practice of mysterious, sinister, island magic. Rather, it is a legal religion, with roots as old as Africa and with millions of followers today.

1.1. Voodoo from Africa to the West Indies

Voodoo originated in the West Indies country of Haiti during the French Colonial Period, and it is still widely practiced in Haiti today. The foundations of Voodoo are the tribal religions of West Africa, brought to Haiti by slaves in the seventeenth century. They were mainly captured from the kingdom of Dahomey, which occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin and Nigeria. The word 'Voodoo' derives from the word 'vodu' in the Fon language of Dahomey, which means 'spirit', 'god'. Haiti was isolated during much of its history, therefore allowing Voodoo to develop with its own unique traditions, beliefs and gods. The Haitian slaves were captured from many different tribes throughout West Africa. These tribes shared several common core beliefs: worship of the spirits of family ancestors; the use of singing, drumming and dancing in religious rituals; and the belief the followers were possessed by immortal spirits. Once living in Haiti, the slaves created a new religion based on their shared beliefs, at the same time absorbing each tribe's strongest traditions and gods. Influences from the native Indian population in Haiti were also integrated during this formative period. For many enslaved Africans such spiritual traditions and practices provided a vital means of mental and emotional resistance to bitter hardship. Indeed, although their beliefs and rituals may not have freed them, Africans seemed to be successfully frightening their captors. The white plantation owners forbade their slaves to practice their native religions threatening them with torture and death, and they baptized all slaves as Catholics. Catholicism became superimposed on African rites and beliefs, but the slaves still practiced in secret or masked as harmless dances and parties. Practitioners of this new religion, Voodoo, considered the addition of the Catholic saints as an enrichment of their faith, and included Catholic hymns, prayers, statues, candles and holy relics with their rituals. Today, upper- and middle-class Haitians have largely abandoned the Voodoo beliefs and practice Catholicism almost exclusively. Voodoo is largely practiced by the peasant class, which encompasses the majority of Haitians. It has also migrated with Haitians to many other parts of the world, with particularly strong communities in New Orleans, Miami, Charleston and New York City. Each of these communities has created new rituals and practices. Worldwide, Voodoo has over fifty million followers.

1.2. Voodoo from Haiti to New Orleans

Voodoo came to the Americas a little over 250 years ago. The raids on the 'African Slave Coast' began about 1720 and thousand of Africans were sold into the West Indies, and also directly to New Orleans. Life for slaves in Louisiana under French and Spanish rule was full of misery and pain. They had to work from dawn till dusk and then were locked up in heavily guarded quarters for the night. It was also against the law to assemble for any purpose. Much of this brutal treatment was based upon the constant fear of an uprising. This first generation of slaves were savage, brooding and sullen, filled with hatred for their captors. The whites hardly considered them as human. For example, soon after the founding of New Orleans (1718) a slave camp was established in nearby swamps where the blacks were "broken".

There, they were worked and beaten until those who survived were considered tame enough to be sold to plantation owners. Not only the slaves were punished if caught gathering for dancing or for any other reason, but sometimes their owners would suffer, too. So meeting for Voodoo or any rites was nearly impossible in those days. Except for superficial conversion to Catholicism, some masters did not allow their slaves to practice any religion at all. In 1782 the governor of Louisiana even prohibited the importation of blacks from the West Indies because he considered them to be steeped in Voodooism and threatening to his citizens' safety. Moreover, he sought to outlaw the practice of Voodoo fearing that its evil forces would serve as a rallying point for slave uprising, especially as white colonists were greatly outnumbered by those they held in bondage. It was not until the successors of James Monroe had concluded the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803 that some of these restrictions were lifted. In addition, by now, a new generation of Africans had grown up, a generation that spoke the language of their owners and was more obedient, and who, for the most part, accepted their status as slaves. Consequently, a new generation of less despotic owners had developed. Most of the fear of uprisings had dwindled. Discipline and punishment were less severe and it seemed that slave owners had finally realized that slaves were a valuable property. It was at last recognized that the slaves required recreation, and they now were allowed to gather on the plantations for dances, weddings and religious celebrations of various sorts on Sundays. In 1803 the prohibition against blacks from West Indies was lifted. Approximately at the same time, slaves in Haiti ultimately used their African-born rituals to fuel their own rebellion. Between 1791 and 1804 a series of slave revolts, which were inspired by spirit worship, finally culminated in the expulsion of the French from the island. Many of the French who were able to escape fled to Louisiana, some accompanied by their French speaking, occult-practicing slaves. This was the beginning of organized Voodoo in Louisiana. For until then Voodoo had hardly been a living force in Louisiana. It had appeared again and again, but only to be brutally suppressed. For some unknown reason, Voodoo had remained much stronger in the West Indies than in Louisiana. The Santo Domingo blacks had preserved their ancient worship almost completely. Their masters, however, liked New Orleans and many of them settled down in or near the city, instead of in the plantation areas where it would have been more difficult for the slaves to organize their voodoo ceremonies. Due to their concentration in the city and the new and more liberal laws they were soon well organized and had also converted many New Orleans blacks. It is said that the first meeting place of the Voodoos in New Orleans was an abandoned brickyard in Dumaine Street, but soon the police drove them from this place, and it was then that they began to gather along Bayou St. John and along the shore of lake Pontchartrain. There are many more or less reliable versions of these ceremonies, including blazing bonfires, drums, ecstatic dances, snakes, sacrifices and the drinking of strong alcohol beverages and blood.

Chapter II

Home of Voodoo