Sunday, December 11, 2005


We continue our December exploration of Religion with Voodoo, or “Vodou”. The term comes from the French word “voudou”, which in turn comes from the name of a West African African spirit, “Vodun”.

As we all know, “Voodoo” has, in America, taken on a pejorative sense. This needs no illustration, but I heard on NPR a few weeks ago a commentator from KPCC, Mimi Pond, describing religious and superstitious practices she found idiotic (including the 3000-year old practice of Feng Shui, which Pond glibly simplified and cartoonized), as “Personal Voodoo”. (Pond’s inane commentary – an embarrassment to the venerable KPCC -- is available here.)

Who am I to complain? The dictionary ratifies Pond’s use of the term:
voo·doo n., pl. -doos.
1. A religion practiced chiefly in Caribbean countries, especially Haiti, syncretized from Roman Catholic ritual elements and the animism and magic of slaves from West Africa, in which a supreme God rules a large pantheon of local and tutelary deities, deified ancestors, and saints, who communicate with believers in dreams, trances, and ritual possessions. Also called vodoun.
2. A charm, fetish, spell, or curse holding magic power for adherents of voodoo.
3. A practitioner, priest, or priestess of voodoo.
4. Deceptive or delusive nonsense.
tr.v., -dooed, -doo·ing, -doos.

To place under the influence of a spell or curse; bewitch.

1. Of or relating to the beliefs or practices of voodoo.
2. Based on unrealistic or delusive assumptions:
voodoo economics

[Louisiana French voudou, from Ewe vodu and Fon vodun]


“Voodoo” is a religion – or a family of religions – and only recently have I roused myself to recognize that it is disturbing that an accepted use of the word is to mean “nonsense”. I am not the PC police, but this would not fly if one were to use “Christianity”, “Judaism”, “Islam”, or “Buddhism” in the same sense. Should we consider, for a moment, that this unthinking denigration of Voodoo has anything to do with its history of practice by West Africans brought to the New World as slaves? Can anyone think of a better illustration of the ability of power to define and assign value? Oh, we all know that Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs in his God and Jesus were great and noble; and we all know – the dictionary tells us – that the dark superstitious “Voodoo” of his slaves was dangerous, wicked, and backwards.

Everyone who’s been to college knows the relevant citations. See also lecture on representations of Voodoo in popular culture.

One particularly fascinating aspect of Voodoo is its opportunistic and resourceful syncretism, particularly how practicioners of Voodoo, facing repression from their Catholic masters, adopted the saints and symbols of Catholicism and employed them to their own purposes:
Saint Peter is depicted in most lithographs found in Haiti, holding keys - the key to the church. As in Vodou Mythology, Legba is the keeper of the gates to the spirit world, the keys would symbolize him. This association, can be seen with many other saints. It is one of the clearest visual ways in which Catholicism has been incorporated into vodou. Some further examples of this are Saint Patrick and Saint John the Baptist. Saint John’s cloths resemble very much those of Haitian peasants. He has a sack across his shoulders. The Vodouiants interpret him to be Zaka - the lwa in charge of farmers and growth. As for Saint Patrick, he is depicted surrounded by snakes which according to Catholic mythology he threw into the ocean. In vodou mythology, Damballah is a lwa which is very closely associated with snakes. Therefore these two images fused together in the minds of the followers of vodou. In every ounfu (a place where vodou is practiced) one can find a picture of Saint Patrick, along with other Catholic lithographs, yet when vodou practitioners are asked, they refer to these by the name of the vodou lwa. Many times these vodouiants are not even aware that it is a Catholic saint depicted.

Another visual symbol that is believed many times to prove the assimilation of vodou and Catholicism is the symbol of the cross. It is widely found in many different vodou rituals as well as in ounfus. Although the use of this symbol by vodousants was probably made stronger over the centuries of close association with the church, the cross itself is deeply rooted in vodou mythology. According to vodou mythology, the cross symbolizes the creation of the universe. When the Godhead Mawu Lisa created the world , she moved to the four corners of the universe, thereby creating a cross (Desmangles, 142). The cross still symbolizes the creation and the communication between the two worlds, that of the spirits and the of humans, not only in vodou but in many West African religions still practiced today. It is possible that as has happened with many other symbols and practices over the ages, the African cross would have disappeared from vodou practice, were it not to have been reinforced by the Catholic cross. But as with the lithographs of the saints, the enslaved people learned to interpret the Catholic cross in the light of their religious beliefs and traditions.
From Hunter College research paper at

Finally, we may be indebted to the theology of Voodoo for the origins of the term. See Wikipedia entry on “Voodoo”. (Note that this is my own speculative, unsupported theory).

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