Voodoo (or Vodou) is a religion that came out of the African diaspora, in which Africans were taken from their native continent by European and American slavers and brought to the Americas. This resulted in the melding and appropriating of various religious and cultural attributes of Western religions into traditional African beliefs, leading to diaspora religions like Vodou and Santeria. Voodoo started in the 18th century in Saint-Domingue, which was a French slave colony; here, Africans were somewhat forced to convert to Christianity. In this process, a collection of beliefs taking elements from Christianity, Catholicism, and traditional African religions like Vodun and Yoruba was formed to create the Vodou religion (Mitchell, 2006).
In essence, voodoo is a belief system revolving around the existence of Bondye, a creator god, and the spirits that serve under him, known as loa. These loa are worshipped and communicated with through the use of ritual and rite, practitioners talking to a particular loa depending on what part of life a loa is in control of. Morality in and of itself is somewhat flexible, as there is not a strict progression of right and wrong; however, there is a heavy emphasis on love and familial support, as well as generosity. The most clearly immoral things in voodoo are greed and dishonor, as There is a heavy use of offerings and objects in voodoo, as these things and actions are provided to the loa in exchange for good fortune for the practitioner depending on the loa's domain. Often, music and dance is also used for offerings, leading to a particularly expressive and vibrant culture (Olmos, 2003).
The connections between voodoo and more traditional religions are very clear and complex, given its status as a pastiche of different beliefs and rituals exposed to Haitians over the years. The concept of the world being ruled by a plethora of spirits, each with its own distinct domain, comes from West African Yoruba, Fon and Ewe traditions; these deities also follow one supreme being who does not directly interfere in the workings of humanity, like Vodun's Mami Wata and Legba. The Vodun religion is one of the primary inspirations and sources for what would eventually become voodoo, as it was carried to Central America (and Haiti in particular) when Vodun practitioners were smuggled and shipped there from Africa. Vodun places a great emphasis on ancestors, as each spirit family has their own designated hierarchy of priests and priestesses (Mitchell, 2006).
The Christian and Roman Catholic elements of voodoo came when Africans were brought to Haiti as slaves; here, they adapted Vodun traditions to Christian beliefs to form the basis for voodoo. In essence, Vodun spirits and loa were able to be disguised as Roman Catholic saints to mask their disbelief from their European masters, and allow them to practice their own religion despite the Code Noir, established in 1685 by King Louis XIV, forbidding them to practice the religions of Africa (Desmangles 476). Since the various groups of Africans were brought together against their will, they combined their own beliefs (uniting many traditions of various African religions) with those of the Roman Catholics to form a unified religion and culture. This resulted in the eventual establishment of voodoo.
My own reaction to voodoo is one of fascination; I am intrigued by the strong cultural ties that were created by voodoo to unite a disparate group of people taken from their homes and forced to convert to Christianity. The establishment of voodoo, and its legitimacy following the Haitian Revolution, demonstrates a remarkable strength of will on the part of the Haitian people; slaves all put aside their differences and melded their own beliefs together to form a system that both worked for them and appeased their Catholic masters, who were obligated by law to convert them to Catholicism by the Code Noir. The vibrancy of the culture also fascinates me; I love the distinct and unique use of music, sound, dance and offering that is illustrated in voodoo, as well as the loa they worship themselves. By placing their faith in fortune and their own personal spirits, it makes voodoo distinctive and exotic as a religious practice from a point of view used to Eurocentric religions.
Voodoo is, to me, essentially a religion of rebellion and hope: it was formed as a consequence of horrible circumstances (slavery, indoctrination), and was a way for slaves to secretly rebel against their masters by taking control of their own religion. Instead of converting to Catholicism, they simply adjusted their belief system to mimic it just enough to pass scrutiny. As voodoo evolved past that point, it has increased in scope and prominence to become an integral part of Haitian culture, and one that should be appreciated.
Desmangles, Leslie G. "The Maroon Republics and Religious Diversity in Colonial
Haiti". Anthropos vol. 85, no. 4/6, pp. 475–482. 1990.
Mitchell, Mozella G.. Crucial issues in Caribbean religions. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
Olmos, Margarite, and Lizabeth Gebert. Creole religions of the Caribbean: an introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press, 2003.