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
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
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
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
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
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
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.