Religion professor, author Dr. Leslie Desmangles dispels the myths to show a very real faith.
What is the origin of vodou?
The religion has its roots in West Africa, Desmangles says. It centers on a supreme being called Bondye (from the French, meaning “good god”) and deities known as lwa. People worship the lwa and ask them to intercede on their behalf for specific needs, such as good harvests and love. Small altars are used to honor ancestors and to pray to specific gods.
Is vodou an organized religion?
Yes. There are vodou temples and priests and priestesses who teach the religion, Desmangles says, but there are only two or three religious ceremonies in which practitioners gather en masse. People typically worship at home or in small groups. “It’s a way of life, rather than a ‘religion,’” Desmangles says. There is a very strict moral code, he says, and the process of being initiated into the faith is “very serious and can take several months.”
How did Catholicism get mixed into vodou?
When West Africans were transported as slaves to Haiti and Louisiana, the French felt a “moral responsibility” for them, and Catholic missionaries wanted to convert them so their souls would be “saved,” Desmangles says. The slaves, recognizing similarities in the two faiths — and perhaps to persuade missionaries of their conversion — incorporated elements of Catholicism into their practices, he says. All vodou services, for example, begin with the prayers “Hail Mary” and “Our Father,” he says. Saints who were similar to gods became linked.
How did vodou become “voodoo”?
You can blame creative writers and Hollywood for the image most Americans have of the religion, Desmangles said. In the early part of the 20th century, expeditions were being made to discover “deep, dark Africa.” Novelists were very creative in embellishing — or misinterpreting — what the explorers found, and people became intrigued with the idea that the natives worshipped the dead and practiced black magic, he says.
Why do such images continue in the 21st century?
Mostly it’s because tourists who visit such places as New Orleans expect to find “voodoo” practices and consider it part of the area’s charm, Desmangles says. While there are no such things as gris-gris to ward off evil spirits or voodoo dolls pricked by pins to seek revenge in the religion — and those who practice vodou there do not believe in them — there is money to be made by selling such things to tourists, he says. Interestingly, the religion has become more accepted in Haiti, where it is recognized by the government and openly practiced, he says.