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Voodoo ~ The Last Taboo?

Kayt Davies investigates the strange world of Voodoo, and looks into why it attracts so many followers and why so many shy away from it.

The two CDs on my desk both have chickens on them. There’s D’Angelo’s new release Voodoo ~ very smooth and groovy ~ and from Steve Tallis’ label Zombi Music I have ZoZo ~ dubbed the best Australian blues album of 1999.

The word Candomble’ keeps popping up for me ~ like newly grasped words often do ~ and I read an article last week about Hilary Clinton dolls with Voodoo pins selling well in the build up to the US election.

As an eclectic multiculturalist, I don’t like making harsh judgements about other people’s religions, but I confess to a shudder at Voodoo. Perhaps my vegetarianism is having trouble with the chicken thing.

I check out the reactions of the people around me. Lots of them shudder.

After a few decades in which taboos have been hurled at the cultural coalface like plates at a Greek wedding, it seems that voodoo is emerging as one of the last real taboos.

On the other hand it has a vast following. Fifty million people in West Africa, millions in South America and a growing number in the western world, via its percolation through soul and blues music.

Surely they can’t all be wrong, naïve or misled.

As a religion, Voodoo is based on a set of beliefs and practices transported from Africa to South America on slave ships in the 1700s. It wasn’t taken whole though. It was shattered by the slave traders who hunted and killed the hounon (the priests), rather than allowing them onto the ships, where they might have become catalysts for rebellion.

In the New World, the enslaved people ~ without their priests, struggling to get to know each other and each other’s languages ~ clung to their old beliefs and did what they could to reconstruct their old religion.

While this was happening they were compulsorily baptized by their masters and many were forced to attend church each week. As the worlds mixed correspondences were noticed ~ between St George and Iniissii, the young God of Hunting, between Nango, the Thunder God and St Bartholomew and Inun, the Water Goddess and the Virgin Mary.

It’s not hard to imagine them feeling that they needed all the spiritual help they could get, keeping images of the saints on the upper parts of their altars and old African fetishes underneath, praying to all of them for support and solace.

The result is that the scattered limbs of the old religion regrew into different forms in different parts of South America. In Brazil many millions of people adhere to the Umbanda and Candomble forms of the old religion. In Cuba it takes the form of Santeria, in Jamaica it is Obeah, in Haiti it is the Hollywood-popularized Vodou, while in the black neighbourhoods of New York, Los Angeles and Miami, its name is Hoodoo.

Then, to complete the circle, it was taken back to Africa by the slaves returning home where it has mixed and mingled with its sources making the lines of distinction vague and blurry.

In the way that Christianity and Buddhism exist in a myriad of different denominations, schools and forms, so too do the African/South American religions. These differences can be attributed to the different root sources, such as Benin as opposed to Yoruba, the Congo or Angola, differences in oppressive responses by the various South American governments, different kinds of influences from the South American Indians, and differences in the amount of Christianity they have integrated.

Brazil’s Umbanda, is perhaps the most Westernized, having abandoned blood sacrifices and taken on promoting virtues such as charity and altruism

Researchers, photographers and authors Henning Christoph and Hans Oberlander, describe the tiny West African nation of Benin the cradle of Voodoo, because of its role as the chief port of the slave ships. They say that today there are more than 750,000 Voodoo initiates in Benin, and that its influence as a social and political force, permeates the nation’s health organisations, trade unions, political parties and sports associations.

They say that there are also many thousands of “fifty-fifties” in Benin ~ people who are Christians and Muslims by day, who call on Voodoo priests and healers in times of need.

Flicking through a collection of their photographs I am fascinated and repulsed. I’m glad not to be there taking the photos, smelling the blood that is being dripped and smeared over everything.

Voodoo is an animistic religion. It adherents believe that nature and the natural forces are animated by divinities and spirits and that in ecstatic states, such as trance, it is possible to make direct contact with them.

According to Voodoo legend, Gbedoto, the self-created divine first cause, perpetually recreates itself by means of Ace’, the principle of creative energy. The many hundreds of voodoo gods are the descendants of Ace’, but they are also manifestations of the creation divinity called Mawu-Lissa.

These three divine characters are abstract and far removed from human life. Voodooists therefore address their pleas for help to the lesser manifestations of these great spirits ~ the equivalents of the saints or the Greek or Norse pantheons of gods and demigods. These are divinities such as Shango, the God of Thunder, Legba, the Messenger and Gu, the God of Fire.

Voodoo is not based on dualism that divides the world into polar opposites such as good and evil, life and death, Heaven and Earth, mind and matter. Which side of a sphere is the above and which is the below? ~ In the Voodoo way of thinking it is difficult to define these things. The result of this belief in unity is that the gods remain closely interwoven with human life, and intimate communication is possible.

This communication happens in rituals usually via the process of trance. During trance gods or spirits of ancestors enter the bodies of possessed persons and speak through their mouths.

While many Western-Christian minds shudder at this point and apply the label ‘Black Magic’, from a voodoo perspective, devoid of separation between good and evil spirits, this is just a natural process of communicating with beings in the unseen world.

Raised Western, and familiar with the image of spirits being angelic or devilish, I ponder the days when it was okay to shoot lions because they were bad. Western thinking has moved on, there are no longer good and bad animals, should we still be delineating good and bad spirits?

I put the question to Jungian analyst and writer Robert Johnson. He happily says that everything in our personal dream life is part of our own personal shadow, and as such that it can and should be illuminated, understood and integrated ~ no matter how scary it is.
If our culture and our religions are our collective dreams, is the same true of them ~ is everything that looks bad and scary really just unintegrated collective shadow ?

“Yes”, he says, adding: “but I only just dare to say that, and my knees are knocking as I say it ~ there are no bad parts, only left out parts that have gone sour.”

I’m feeling cautious too. Not sure that I’m ready to integrate the voodoo shadow. I balk at the sacrifices.

Sacrifice is an integral part of the rituals for communication between the worlds. The voodoo perspective on this is that the association between humans and the gods is one of giving and taking. The gods give help and protection and in return they can expect veneration and sacrificial gifts, among which they have their own preferences, the Water Goddess Mami Wata likes perfume, Shango bullocks and Dan likes corn.

It seems dark and uncivilized. But what is really happening? I look again at the photographs of the bullock being killed and offered to Shango. I see an African village, a bullock killed, prayers said, its spirit sent to a benevolent God and its body roasted and used as a feast for the villagers. Nothing too scary. Perhaps it is even more beautiful than our road trains to the abattoirs, where no prayers are said for the animals’ spirits.

Voodooists aren’t the only humans that kill animals ~ just think about the pet meat industry.

Voodooists also aren’t the only humans to use potent herbs and mind altering drugs. While this is sometimes done to induce trance states, there are many other applications of herbal magic in the Voodoo priests’ repertoire.

Like the witches and crones of Europe, the voodoo priests are in many cases the custodians of a vast body of knowledge about the pharmaceutical qualities of their local vegetation.

Western science in its relentless search for new cures is now researching traditional African and South American herbal law and verifying many genuine pharmaceutical effects. While some priests combine their herbal work with faith healing practices, others are properly qualified medical doctors who use herbal remedies as a complementary modality to other forms of treatment.

If it isn’t the voodoo spirits that are bad, or the sacrificial and herbal medicine practices per se ~ why does the cloud continue to hang so low over it?

The answer lies in the application of the spiritual technology ~ rather than in the hardware itself.

Witchcraft and sorcery are rife in voodoo communities. Talented adepts with dubious motives use their close relationships with various divinities, and their knowledge of herbs, to cast spells on other people, who frequently end up sending vengeful spells back, providing a healthy line of ongoing business for the spell makers.

Sossa Gue’de’houngue’ an eminent voodoo priest from Benin calls this kind of activity “Black Magic” and says that it is in contradiction to Voodoo. He says that anyone who has another person bewitched is arrogating the divine powers to him or herself, rather than leaving it to the gods to decide whether and how a person is to be punished for a transgression.

The basic principle of misuse of power is the one that Wicca has recently been battling. Fiona Horne, Sabrina and the crew producing Witchcraft magazine are all working hard to portray the old Celtic religion as a powerful, positive, back-to-nature modality. Not denying that it has been used spitefully in the past, they are making progress in advocating the ethical use of the theory and practices of Western Witchcraft.

Going broader, Voodoo and Wicca aren’t the only spiritual technologies (ie religions) that have been misused. There were the bad old days of the Spanish inquisition, and while the mother goddess cults of Asia Minor and the South American Mayan civilization have been romantically written about, a disturbing number of human skeletons bearing the signs of sacrificial death have been turned up by archeologists.

Perhaps the metaphor to use here is that you can swear in any language, but no language is inherently profane.

Feeling more relaxed I turn back to the pictures. They still scare me. The images are grotesque, designed to stimulate a fear response. Why?

Clinical Hypnotherapist Derrick Hill offers an answer. Frightened people are easier to hypnotize ~ ie to put into trance-states.

He sees the use of animal blood and grotesque images as a very practical tool, that brings the gods closer by enhancing the stress levels of the participants and making them more suggestible.

He says: “The power of fear is very widely used these days, and not only by Voodoo priests. Look at the media. What sells newspapers? Why do people buy insurance? Why do they buy so much stuff? Because we are all scared, the media tells us to be so we are. We are scared of the future, scared of each other, scared of not being good enough. And what do we do with all this fear, we do what were told to do. We buy things, that’s how suggestible we are.”

I wonder about the appeal power of the grotesque. D’Angelo’s Voodoo images are very hip and trendy, like Michael Jackson’s Thriller in its day. Like Goosebumps and Buffy it seems to be saying “I’m not scared” or perhaps “you can’t scare us cus we choose to be into even scarier stuff”. Maybe this is Generation Y’s way of saying: “Yes, we know you’re trying to brainwash us, but we’re not interested, will you please go away now.” ~ or is it just that they’re so accustomed to being scared that it feels comfortable.

Hill is wary about Voodoo. He doesn’t like the idea of people being controlled by fear. He believes in bringing the different parts of the human being together, the soul, spirit and body, rather than separating them.

Acknowledging a vast degree of variety in the ethics and practices within Voodoo, he says that one should always ask of a religion “What is the benefit of this? What powers it ~ Love or Fear? And does it ask for forgiveness or vengeance?”

He is not pointing the bone specifically at voodoo. He is prepared to criticize all fear based religions, even the parts of the New Age movement that speak about Karma as if it is a vengeful force that will get you if you step out of line.

As a hypnotist, he also raises issues about consent, informed consent and age of consent. The pictures show children dancing in trance. He’s heard about other ceremonies in Haiti where powerful trance-inducing drugs are used, he wonders about the long term effects on the young participant’s psychological and physical health.

The concerns seem valid, although it is sometimes uncool to apply Western standards of judgement to other cultures and their childraising practices ~ it was the rationale for the Stolen Generation after all.

Steve Tallis claims that his use of Voodoo images isn’t about inducing fear. He says the message in his music is an invitation to be inquiring, to go beyond the known into unfamiliar territory.

It’s never a comfortable process, peeling off the soft warm security blanket of familiarity stepping into the breach. Instinctively, we try to cheat, to look for roadsigns, to travel in the footsteps of someone else, anything to avoid confronting the truly unknowable stuff.

Jung was onto us intellectualizers. He described the process. He said we call it the unknowable and then spend our time trying to figure out what it is ~ forgetting that at the outset we called it “the mystery” ~ “the unknowable”.

The Voodooists don’t seem to have this uncomfortable relationship with the unknowable. They dive into it regularly and apparently joyfully ~ singing as they do: “If you want to plumb the secrets of Voodoo, you’ll have to wait for the end of the world.”

Perhaps that’s why they scare us.

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