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Sunday, May 27, 2012

African Religiosity Retention in New Orleans: Voodoo

Upon hearing the word voodoo, many conjure images of dolls stuck through with pins, headless chickens spewing blood, aimlessly wandering zombies, or any number of the horror scenes from the 1989 movie Angel Heart.  Few recognize Voodoo as a religion, and fewer still acknowledge its African roots and the level of comfort and continuity the practice provided to the enslaved Africans of New Orleans.  Common misconceptions people have about voodoo are that it is merely magic and not a real religion, that voodoo and hoodoo are the same thing, and that those who practice voodoo are polytheistic, and even worship the devil himself. 
One way to logically examine and effectively argue about the religion of voodoo is to compare it to other religious practices of enslaved Africans in the Americas, specifically in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina and the St. Augustine area of Florida.  In doing so, one will find that while the ways the religions of New Orleans (Voodoo) and the Sea Islands and Florida express their beliefs may be different, the core framework of monotheistic belief accented by intercession of the spirit world either by possession or prevention, the use of nonliving items believed to contain powers, and memberships within secret societies with initiation rites is essentially the same.  Because the religion of the native whites in the New World varied based on geographic location, and because the dispersion of the enslaved Africans in the New World was based upon which area of Africa the American slaveholder desired their slaves to come from, the resulting acculturation and religiosity of the Africans looked very different depending on which part of America one examines.  The New Orleans area of Louisiana received the majority of its African slaves via the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Santo Domingo, which themselves also had imported slaves from the Bight of Benin and Bight of Biafra.  They arrived in New Orleans, which was already an amalgamation of American and French whites whose primary religious affiliation was Roman Catholic.  In contrast, the slaves of the Sea Islands and Florida arrived to Charleston via Sierra Leone, the Windward Coast, and the Gold Coast.  Known as “low country”, the whites of this area were mainly of English and Scottish origin, and their primary religious affiliation was Protestant, specifically Episcopalian, Methodist and Baptist.  
The first common misconception about Voodoo is that it is not a real religion but merely magic.  It is easy to see why one might take this position, as outwardly many of the practices appear to be magical in nature.  Dancing, spirit possession, and talismans all look very suspicious, especially to Protestants, who have been taught that putting faith in anything besides Jesus is a sin.  This is one reason why African retentions of Voodoo have been strongest in areas of America where Roman Catholicism thrives.  Both faiths (Voodoo and Roman Catholic) worship one God (God the creator vs. the Supreme Being), make intercessory prayers or offerings to spirits (saints vs. spirits of ancestors), and frequently use non-living things as a source of power (holy water or rosaries vs. chicken feet, herb talismans, etc.)  Many of the same practices of voodooist are seen in non-voodoo African retentions in the Sea Islands and Florida.  In his essay African Religious Retentions in Florida, Robert Hall shared this account from an 1880 newspaper, The Floridian:
“A man in Tallahassee assisted by an elderly woman, astounded onlookers by appearing to vomit nails, moss, and other debris.  His friends believe strongly in the reality of it all, and insists that he had a spell put on him by a woman to whom he was engaged to but whom he jilted and who now protests that she intends to pay him off for his base desertion.” [i] 
Clearly, the practices of making talismans, charms and curses existed outside of theVoodoo religion of New Orleans, demonstrating that these practices were original to African religiously, and not merely magic.  Practices of divination, manipulation and herbalism are all elements of African religiosity (as well as many other world religions) and not merely the superstitions of folklore.
            Another main misconception about the religion of Voodoo is that its practitioners are polytheistic and worship many Gods.  This is simply not true.  Jessie Ruth Gaston wrote in The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans:
“Vodu has a highly organized hierarchy of deities, with vodum priests, priestesses, novices, and other persons devoted to serving and protecting them.  At the top is the Supreme Being (Creator or God).  Below the Creator, lesser deities serve as intermediaries.  Clans, families and villages also have their own deities to protect them, justify their claims to power, and to legitimize their rights of occupation.  The deities have prescribed methods of worship, certain ceremonial dances, dress codes, foods, and days set aside in their honor.” [ii]  
Clearly, the deities are no more than intercessors, or intermediaries between humanity and the Supreme Being.  Much like the saints of Roman Catholicism, these intermediaries are assigned their own special days of the year, and have certain attributes that make them relatable to certain towns, clans or families.  It is not unknown for Roman Catholics to attend mass on their saint’s ascribed day, to name their children after the saint of which the day it was born, or to marry or baptize on the days of specific saints.  This is merely a way for people to feel more connected and experience their religion, instead of it just being a written, lifeless practice.  Where the catch may be, is the term deity being used for the Voodoo supernatural forces.  The term deity can mean a god or goddess or it can mean a divine quality or nature.  The word deity originates from Old French (deite), which means divine nature, not God.  Given the French nature of New Orleans, it is easy to see how this word was assigned to an African concept that had no English language equivalent.
            Almost every organized religion has some element of either its past or present that it either regrets or would disassociate from if it could.  Examples of this are the extreme literalists and the concept of Jihad for the Muslims, the crusades, the selling of indulgences,  the abuse of children by ordained clergy, and the money scandals of the televangelist for the Christians, and the polygamist practices of the extreme Mormons.  Within the religion of Voodoo, the opportunity to sell potions that had no power or validity to unsuspecting buyers in order to merely make money became prevalent and known to most as Hoodoo.  Hoodoo does not have established rites, rituals, priests, priestesses, or even a Supreme Being of which they pay homage to. Therefore Hoodoo is not a religion, but instead a group of magical practices.  Gaston’s essay touches on this, but does not go as far as to say that many aspects of Hoodoo diminished the credibility of Voodoo in America.
            Sadly, some associate the magical superstitions and con-artist techniques of Hoodoo with African American religion in general.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The religiosity of the imported Africans was deeply important to them.  While the oppression of slavery and the acculturation into the native white religious traditions did change the expression of their religion, it would be a travesty and a disservice to resulting African American religions and religious practices to refer to them as “magical”, “superstitious” or “witchcraft.” In contrast, the Voodoo of New Orleans and the beliefs held by the blacks of the Sea Islands and Florida were true religious expressions deeply rooted in African tradition. 

There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin sick soul.
~early 19th Century African American Spiritual
thought to have originated in the Sea Islands

Eh ye ye Mamzelle Marie
Ya ye ye li konin tou gris gris;
Li te cuori lekal , aver vieux kokodril;
Oh ouai ye Mamzelle Marie
~VooDoo Chant of Marie Laveau
Voodoo Priestess, New Orleans,


[i] Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr, 2006.Pg. 232
[ii] Pg. 115

1 comment:

  1. Voodoo and hoodoo have caught my attention within last weeks reading assignments. I like how you discussed New Orleans and Florida's different aspects of voodoo, hoodoo, and religion all together. I have to say that I think that their ways of practicing religion are quite intriguing. People often have misconceptions about voodoo and hoodoo because of lack of education about the two religious practices. Just as the media has influenced many good and bad things throughout the past few decades; I think that it has made people think that all voodoo and hoodoo is bad and evil. If the media started discussing the good parts of these religious practices I believe it will entice more people to take it upon them selves to learning about voodoo and hoodoo. It would also give people a second to take a step back and not be so judgmental on people who practice different religions, especially religions that are portrayed as "dancing with the devil"" practices.