If you have ever been to the French Quarter in New Orleans, LA, you may have visited, or at least seen, a store called Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. There, you can get readings and buy all kinds of talismans and charms to help improve your life based on the Voodoo religion. Marie Laveau has actually been long dead and had nothing to do with the store. She lived from 1794 to 1881. However, she was such a renowned figure in the religion, that her reputation continues on even until today.
Marie Laveau was a Louisiana Creole practitioner of Voodoo who was born free in New Orleans. She began to gain her reputation and her power by working as a hairdresser catering to wealthy white families. Truth be told, not much of Laveau’s magical career can be definitely substantiated. Much of the knowledge we have is based on oral tradition which has been passed on about her.
Tradition has it that her religion was a mixture of occult practice and Roman Catholic beliefs. It included teachings about African spirits and ancient religious concepts. She was even said to have had a snake called Zombi, named after an African god.
Laveau also had a daughter who was also named Marie (often called Marie Laveau II by historians). It is said that the mother was more proficient with the magic while the daughter was skilled at pulling off public events. In the process of it all, they both became know as the voodoo queen and were able to become quite prominent and wealthy.
As far as her magical ability, there is seemingly a bit of intrigue involved here. Some believe that her feared magical powers of fortune telling were not really magical powers at all. In fact, she was able to develop a very significant network of informants in order to get the information she used to impress people with her “knowledge” and build her reputation. Much of her information was gained by carefully listening to the gossip of her clients while working as a hairdresser. She was also able to obtain inside information on her wealthy patrons by instilling fear in their servants whom she either paid or “cured” of mysterious ailments. There are some who believe that she also ran her own brothel and cultivated informants through that source as well. In any event, she became the queen of Voodoo in New Orleans and her reputation persists to this day.
The image of Voodoo, in modern times, has primarily been shaped by Hollywood. The first image that comes to most people’s minds relates to zombies walking around graveyards with their arms sticking out in front of them and of sticking pins in dolls. That fact is, though, Voodoo is simply an animistic religion that traces its roots back to the tribal life of West Africa as much as 6000 years ago. Its more well known modern roots are from Haiti.
The word Voodoo is derived from the Nigerian word vodu, which simply means divinity, spirit or deity. The religion is also referred to as voudou, voudoun, vodoun, and hoodoo.
During the era when the Americas were being settled by Western Europeans, a very strong slave trade developed and scores of slaves were brought over to the West Indies. These slaves brought their traditional religion with them. As they settled into their new land, their masters forced them to convert to Roman Catholicism. However, the infrastructure for fully incorporating them into the church was not well established and they were not completely assimilated into the church. The result was a blended belief system made up of Roman Catholic teachings combined with traditional African rituals.
Modern forms of Voodoo reflect this mixture and you will find ceremonies integrating Catholic rituals, prayers, liturgies, and reverence for the saints merged with old African animistic observances. It is also not unusual to find Voodoo worship places filled with pictures and statues of Catholic saints, and to hear hymns addressed to the saints and the Virgin Mary.
From Haiti, many of the slaves were sent to the United States. As a result, you will find adherents of Voodoo located in the U.S., particularly in the south. Probably the most well know enclave is New Orleans. Haiti still remains the dominant country in which Voodoo is practiced, though it is also found in parts of South America, Africa, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Cuba.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
Voodoo is based on the idea that spirits in the spirit world interact with humans on earth in a symbiotic relationship. Humans provide food and other materials to help the spirits make their way in the spirit world, while the spirits provide health, protection from evil and good fortune to humans on earth. The spirit beings are understood to be a mixture of ancestral spirits and lesser gods known as Loa. The interaction is largely based on ritual ceremonies led by a Voodoo priest or priestess.
The purpose of rituals, in Voodoo, is to make contact with the spirits in order to invoke their help. These ceremonies are held to celebrate lucky events, to get help in escaping bad fortune, to celebrate a holiday, for healing, to celebrate the birth of a child, to celebrate a marriage and to provide a smooth transition into the afterlife after death.
Although there are regional variations in Voodoo ceremonies, for the most part they are all quite similar. They are presided over by a priest or priestess. The rituals include singing and dancing to the beat of drums which calls out the presence of the spirits. There are offerings of food and the blood of animals. As the music, drink, and dance begins to take effect, the participants fall into a trance as the Loa take possession of their bodies. In this state, the spirit may manifest itself by speaking, singing, or cursing, as well as offering advice or healing the sick.
The Voodoo religion teaches that there is one supreme being named Bondje. Beneath Bondje, are hundreds of minor gods and Loa. Loa are the spirits of departed people who led exceptional earthly lives (much like the concept of saints in the Roman Catholic tradition). The Loa are believed to exercise control over nature, and the health, wealth, and happiness of humans. Jesus Christ is not a part of the ancient Voodoo tradition, but as Christian ideas were mixed into the religion, Jesus became a part of their pantheon of gods.
Human beings are believed to be a material expression of the universal life energy that all living things share. The physical body is believed to contain a soul which consists of two parts. The “small soul” is an individual’s personal essence. This part is able to journey out of the body during sleep (in dreams), as well as when the body is being possessed by the Loa during Voodoo ceremonies. The “large soul” is a portion of the universal life energy which enters an individual at conception and departs at death.
In Voodoo, salvation does not relate to forgiveness or of overcoming sin. Rather, it deals with the practical issues of how to effectively make it through this life. The gods are called on to help one navigate this life and to move smoothly into the next.
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
The followers of the Voodoo religion believe in one Supreme Being, called Bondje. Below Bondje, there are scores of minor gods and the spirits of ancestors. Bondje is understood to be an impersonal force and is too detached from the material world to be concerned with the problems of mankind. Only Bondje is all-powerful. The Loa can cause a garden to grow, but only Bondje can cause the seed to germinate. Thus, Bondje has delegated the operation of the material realm to the Loa. As a result, Bondje is acknowledged to exist but is considered too remote to be worshiped. Worship is focused on the more immediate deities whose power is understood to be great, but also finite.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
Material reality is the creation of Bondje, but control over the creation falls to the Loa. They exercise dominance over nature, and the health, wealth, and happiness of humans. The relationship between human beings and the Loa is symbiotic. The Loa provide prosperity for the humans while humans provide food, and other necessary materials for the Loa.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
A human being is believed to be composed of five elements: the physical body, the life energy that animates the body, the star of destiny (which actually resides in the heavens apart from the body), the “little good angel” (or small soul) which is an individuals personal essence and the “big good angel” (or large soul) which is the life force that all living things share. The small soul is able to travel out of the body during sleep (in dreams), as well as when the body is being possessed by the Loa. The large soul enters a person at conception and at physical death rejoins the spirit world.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
Voodoo does not consider death to be the end of life. Rather, it is simply the transfer of an individual’s life force from one condition to another. When a person dies the small soul remains near the corpse for a week. During this period the soul is vulnerable and may be captured and turned into a zombie by a sorcerer or taken over by evil spirits. As a result, death rituals are very important to help the spirit make a smooth transition into the spirit world.
Over time, the body decays and the small soul returns to the ground as earth energy. The large soul returns to the high solar regions where its life energy was first produced. At that point it joins the other Loa as a Loa itself. If all of the proper rituals are not accomplished, the soul can become trapped on earth bringing misfortune on surviving family members.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
In Voodoo belief, knowledge is simply assumed to exist as an essential part of the universal life force.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality).
Voodoo has a very strong moral tradition. However, morality is defined differently than in Western Culture. In Voodoo, a moral person is someone who tries to do the right thing in every life situation. There is no such thing as personal evil. Evil is seen to be a creation of man and, thus, has no absolute value. It is highly subjective and situational. Each individual is personally responsible for his or her own actions.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
History is conceived of as linear in the present material world but without transcendent meaning. However, it is believed possible for a person’s life force to recycle back into another life at a future time.
There are no sacred scriptures in Voodoo. Their authority is based upon ancient traditions which have been passed down orally through succeeding generations.
Evidence for the Authority
There is no objective evidence to support the traditions of Voodoo. The order of reality is based on subjective perceptions and the experience of believers as they have lived life over the centuries.
Voodoo is, in many ways, a traditional Animistic belief system. Its roots are in African Animism but has been hybridized to a degree by the insertion of certain Roman Catholic forms. That being said, the influence of Roman Catholicism is primarily superficial.
There is no rational basis for accepting the beliefs of Voodoo as representing the truth about the nature of reality. It is based on traditions which have no basis of support outside of the subjective experience of its practitioners. As such, these practitioners need to be confronted with the truth about Jesus Christ and given an explanation as to why their belief does not match up to the standard of the teachings of the Bible.
© 2010 Freddy Davis