Voodoo: The Revolutionary Roots of the Most Misunderstood Religion

Is Voodoo misunderstood? Learn about the religion’s revolutionary roots and the truth behind the many stereotypes associated with it.

Jan 23, 2022By Olivia Barrett, BA & MA History

ulrick jean pierre herine slave cayman ceremony painting


Black magic, devil worship, zombies, human sacrifice, orgies, and cannibalism are many people’s frame of reference when it comes to Voodoo.


This small religion has a big cultural impact and a decidedly sinister reputation. Over two centuries of hostile propaganda have morphed Voodoo into a deeply racialized form of witchcraft in the popular imagination. In the wake of decades of racist sensationalism, the commercialization of Voodoo continually manipulates tourists’ fascination with the unfamiliar. Today’s Vodouisants are still forced to compete with a persistent distrust of their traditions.


Whether it is feared or mocked, Voodoo almost always inspires a kind of morbid curiosity in outsiders. But what is Voodoo really? Where did it come from? Why is it so misunderstood?


The Birth of Voodoo

Photograph from the Ouidah International Voodoo Festival, 2017, Benin, via Business Insider


Contrary to popular opinion, Voodoo (or voudou) is not a form of witchcraft or demonic worship. Haitian Voodoo is a syncretic folk religion that came into being when Africans were captured and forced into slavery, causing their cultures and religious beliefs to collide with Catholicism.

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The African roots of Voodoo may stretch back over 6000 years, making it one of the world’s oldest ancestral traditions. The more modern incarnation of this ancient African religion—Voodoo—emerged as a unique blend of Catholic and African magical and religious rites. Voodoo, however, is a dynamic religion with no standardized dogma. It is quite common and completely acceptable for two neighboring voodoo temples to practice different traditions. So defining Voodoo and the beliefs of its practitioners can be tricky.


Cayman Wood Ceremony, by Ulrick Jean-Pierre, via Ulrick Jean-Pierre’s Art Studio


That said, there are recognizable threads that unite the varying traditions of Voodoo. The African elements of the religious practice are derived mainly from the Dahomey region of West Africa (modern Benin) and from the Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe peoples of West Africa and the Kongo people from Central Africa. Many elements of African spirituality continue to exist in modern Voodoo, in the practices of transcendental drumming and dancing, worship of the ancestral dead, and worship of the spirits called lwa.


The lwa (or “loa”) are thought to be invisible supernatural beings that serve as intermediaries between humans and the supreme creator God known in Haitian Creole as Bondye (from the French “bon dieu” meaning “good God”). Despite the importance of the lwa, Voodoo, like Christianity, is a monotheistic religion.


Christian Elements in Voodoo

Photograph from the Ouidah International Voodoo Festival, 2017, Benin, via Business Insider


There are clearly recognizable Christian elements of Voodoo. Those unfamiliar with the practice might be surprised to learn that it has a lot in common with Catholicism, including prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, and rituals such as baptism, making the sign of the cross, and the use of candles, crosses, and images of saints. Some followers of Voodoo self-identify as Catholics and regard the saints and the lwa as different embodiments of the same entities. Other Vodouisants choose to distance themselves from identification with Catholicism and Christianity in general, holding that Catholic imagery and ritual in Voodoo was and is a mere facade intended to disguise African spiritual practices as Catholic rites.


The initial adoption of Catholic rites, after all, was indeed a result of European colonists’ ruthless attempt to suppress all aspects of African culture, particularly so-called “heathen” religious beliefs. In Haiti and across the Atlantic world, enslaved Africans were forced to toil in merciless conditions. Their homes, property, families, and communities were all torn away. They had very little left except their faith to which they clung tenaciously.


In Haiti, as elsewhere, there was an attempt to strip them of that. In 1685 the French king Louis XIV passed Le Code Noir, a decree that dictated the lawful conditions that were applied to slaves and slaveholders across the French colonial empire. Le Code Noir specified that slaves must be baptized as Roman Catholics upon arrival in the French colonies and that the practice of any other religion was forbidden. Slavers who allowed or even tolerated their captives’ subversive religious habits would be punished along with them.


The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, at the Jasna Góra Monastery, c. 1382, via The Wellcome Collection


But the colonists were outsmarted. As aforementioned, African and Catholic practices became integrated as a way of circumventing religious oppression so that the enslaved population could continue to practice their own religious customs under the guise of worshipping Catholic saints. For this reason, many lwa became equated with specific saints. Papa Legba, for instance, the lwa guardian of the crossroads and spiritual gatekeeper in Voodoo traditions, is associated with Saint Peter. Another lwa, Ezili Dantor, is thought to be a protective warrior mother and is the national lwa of Haiti. Syncretic modern representations of her are commonly associated with the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.


Photograph of Haitian women performing a bathing ritual, 2010, via National Geographic


The lwa are crucial to Vodouisants’ practice since Bondye is thought to be too distant for humans to contact directly. Believers recite prayers and perform sacrifices to call and feed the spirits. Once the spirits have been beckoned, the Vodouisants dance, hoping to be possessed or “mounted” by the lwa. This tradition is often met with suspicion, primarily because in European and Euro-American Christian cultures, possession is associated with the devil and demons. But for Vodouisants, to be possessed by a spirit is an honor and humanity’s primary means of communication with the divine. It is believed that the spirits communicate through possession, by which they can offer guidance to the worshipper, heal them or even speak to the congregation through them. In fact, many Haitians today believe that the lwa helped their ancestors break the shackles of slavery.


The Haitian Revolution and Voodoo’s Arrival in Louisiana 

Ceremony at the Bois Caïman-1791, by Dieudonne Cedor, 1948, via Haitian Art Society


On the night of 14 August 1791, as the story goes, slaves from a few neighboring plantations stole away in the night to meet deep in the forest at Bois Caïman, in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue. There, gathered around a bonfire, mambo Cécile Fatiman presided over a ceremony. The priestess prophesied that a revolution was coming. She said that it would be led by three of the men in her presence: Jean François, Georges Biassou, and Jeannot Bullet.


Slitting the throat of a black creole pig, Fatiman handed each a cup of the sacrifice’s blood to drink as they swore their solemn oath to destroy their oppressors. According to folklore, at that very moment, storm clouds gathered and thunder rumbled as Fatiman was possessed by Ezili Dantor. The warrior mother lwa then bore witness to the beginning of what would become the Americas’ first black republic: Haiti.


Thus began one of the most consequential movements in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) was a spectacularly successful insurrection that overthrew the white colonist population and freed black Haitians from enslavement. It was also responsible for bringing Voodoo to the United States. Over the course of those 13 years, many white planters fled Haiti with their slaves in tow, bringing their traditions and beliefs to Louisiana.


Louisiana, and more specifically New Orleans, then became the epicenter of Voodoo in the United States. This cultural import from the Caribbean had a profound influence that can still be felt today. But unfortunately, the average tourist’s experience of Voodoo in New Orleans may be warped by the persistent processes of misrepresentation that crystallized over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and really never went away.


The Evolution of Voodoo in the United States

Heroine Maroon Slave, by Ulrick Jean-Pierre, via Ulrick Jean-Pierre’s Art Studio


Due to its unique history, Louisiana had a very different ethnic and religious makeup to the rest of the United States by the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. At this time, the other states already had a unique American identity, having declared independence from Britain around twenty-seven years prior. Louisiana was not only late to the game in becoming an American state, but it was quite culturally distinct, having been a Spanish and French Catholic colony. Worse still, most of the black enslaved population in Louisiana had come from Haiti.


This was significant, given that the Haitian Revolution had been such a crucial turning point in the history of slavery, striking fear into the hearts of slavers across the Americas. It was the only slave insurrection that had seen success on such a remarkable scale, having overthrown a colonial government, abolished slavery, and installed the formerly enslaved people in power. The self-liberated slaves hit back at France, one of the most powerful empires in the world, and won.


Haiti and Haitians themselves, therefore, were seen to represent an enormous threat to the colonial world. Voodoo, as something unique to Haiti at that time, was viewed as an important factor. The authorities (like many of the enslaved) believed that Haitian Voodoo religious leaders and even the lwa had had a hand in instigating the rebellion. Now these Haitian Voodooists were on American soil and had brought their “dangerous spirits” and “heathen” religion with them. This, slavers feared, could be Antebellum America’s downfall.


Voodoo in the American Imagination

Zombie’s Voodoo Shop, photograph by Pedro Szekely, 2018, via flickr


Emphasizing these supposed ties between Voodoo and slave rebellions was one of the most important social functions of post-Civil War public Voodoo narratives. As historian Michelle Gordan has argued, Voodoo narratives were used to establish black criminality and hyper-sexuality as “fact” in the popular imagination; the practice of Voodoo could then be cited as evidence to justify racism and segregation. The exploitation of these phobias is strikingly apparent in the nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines that described rampant sexual hedonism, gory rituals, and even human sacrifice.


Take for instance a story published in the Daily Picayune in 1889, melodramatically entitled “Orgies in Hayti — A Story of Voudou Horrors That Pass Belief”. The author claimed that Vodouisants engaged in wild interracial orgies, carried out violent sacrifices, and had even cannibalized a little girl. The correspondent from New York claimed to have gathered this disturbing information while undercover in attendance at a Haitian ritual, “disguised” in blackface.


Like many alleged eyewitness accounts of its time, the story offers precious little in terms of credible information, instead relying almost entirely on sensationalist, highly racist propaganda and stereotypes:


“On this occasion a white goat was sacrificed, but my guide informed me that last year he was present… where a female child was stupefied with drugs, [her] veins opened and the blood sucked.” The reporter then goes on to insist that, though it “seems incredible… well authenticated cases where recently buried bodies have been exhumed, cooked and devoured by the almost completely barbarous inhabitants… have been heard of.”


Sketch of a Haitian Zombie, by Jean-Noel Lafargue, via Wikimedia Commons


Such violence, demonic rituals, and bloody sacrifices served to “prove” the supposed barbarity of people of Haitian/African descent in the white imagination. The sensationalistic reports of Vodouisants and their purportedly monstrous rituals could then be used to undermine Louisiana’s notably radical Reconstruction and emphasize the imagined horrors of black enfranchisement and desegregation. White newspapers ran stories promising “Full Particulars of the Hell-Broth and Orgies” with such astonishing regularity that by the late 1880s, a prominent African American newspaper called the New York Age lamented that “It seem as if each [newspaper] had a special agent to work in this particular field.”


Likewise, in the twentieth-century public, Voodoo narratives continued to rely on those racial and sexualized tropes, appropriating Voodoo as a form of gaudy entertainment. The image of Voodoo in the public imagination morphed into something slightly more complex as movies and novels shifted the focus away from “news reports” and towards sensationalistic fiction. Voodoo came to be seen as something fascinating, alluring, erotic even – but simultaneously dangerous and frightening.


Macumba Love, 1960, Movie Poster, via IMDb


This tantalizing sort of evil is palpable in films such as Douglas Fowley’s Macumba Love (1960. In the film, an American writer and his son-in-law are beset by a South American “Voodoo Queen” seeking to pursue her insatiable lusts, both for blood and sexual gratification. The theatrical release poster demonstrates the blatantly prejudiced overtones of the narrative, depicting the image of a ghoulish woman in a skeletal mask, holding a screaming infant over a flaming black cauldron while scantily-clad dancers revel in the violent ritual. Meanwhile, the captions read, “Blood-lust of the VOODOO QUEEN! Weird, Shocking, Savagery in Native Jungle Haunts…” The imagery and lexicon here used to describe Voodooists and their practices is very telling. It employs the very same racist appeals to the so-called “savagery” and “weirdness” of Voodoo to inspire shock and horror in its audience. Those same methods are still often used to represent Voodoo in film and television and to sell touristic experiences in New Orleans.


Voodoo Today

Photograph of a display at Chateau Musée Vodou, 2014, Strasbourg


From the 1960s up until the present day, Voodoo in the United States has been used as a source of entertainment and a tourist attraction quintessential to New Orleans. Nowadays, the city’s tourists are sold things like mass-produced Voodoo dolls, “blessed” chicken’s feet, and ghost tours, most often touted by people with no real connection to the religion but a desire to capitalize on its notoriety. But its cliché-ridden public image is in dire need of an update.


In an effort to tackle the prejudiced ideas surrounding Voodoo, institutions across the world such as the New Orleans Voodoo Museum, the Bureau of Ethnology in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Chateau Musée Vodou in Strasbourg, France, serve to offer the curious public a more educational insight into the history of this deeply misunderstood religion. Centers of art and research that are sensitive to Voodoo’s unique cultures and history help combat the misconceptions that continue to undermine it.


Meanwhile, there has also been an upsurge of interest in the spiritual practice of Voodoo amongst Americans, but especially in Voodoo’s spiritual heartland, Louisiana. Today there is a plethora of mambos and hougans (priestesses and priests) who serve a multi-racial community of believers who are serious students and followers of Voodoo. New Orleans’ modern intelligentsia are waking up to the potential of a religion that is seemingly much more in tune with contemporary liberal ideologies than more traditional Western faiths. As Wesleyan University’s Elizabeth McAlister pointed out in an interview with The Guardian, Voodoo is a religion with equality at its very core.


Voodoo affords its priests and priestesses and its male and female followers equal status. Moreover, it also seems that in Voodoo, all followers are valued and respected, including LGBT folks. McAlister notes that Voodoo inherently embraces notions of gender fluidity; female spirits can take possession of male bodies, and male spirits can possess the bodies of women. Poignantly, it is even believed that gay lwa can “adopt” and serve as protectors for young gay adults. Voodoo, having been so demonized and stigmatized throughout its existence, is by its very nature “radically un-judgmental”.


Voodoo: Conclusion


Modern Voodoo is still recovering its reputation in the wake of a smear campaign that has lasted for over two centuries (and still has not entirely let up). This legacy of Voodoo’s complex history is very much recognizable today. Nonetheless, more and more people are becoming cognizant of Voodoo’s complicated yet fascinating story and its practitioners’ rich cultural heritage.

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By Olivia BarrettBA & MA HistoryOlivia holds a BA from University College London and an MA in History from the University of Manchester, England. She specializes in histories of gender, sexuality and religion, with a particular interest in how the beliefs, folklore and mythologies of the past manifest in the present.