Cultural Anthropology

What is voodoo?
Answered by Martha Barksdale and Science Channel
  • Martha Barksdale

    Martha Barksdale

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. The ancient religion of Voodoo probably originated in the west African country now called Benin. More than 30 million people in Benin, Togo and Ghana practice voodoo [source: NPR ].The word "Voodoo," also spelled "Vodou" by many scholars and practitioners, comes from the language of that region and means "spirit" [source: Handwerk]. Indeed, Voodoo is a religion of spirits -- thousands of them.  The practitioners of Voodoo, often called Voodooists, believe the real world is intertwined with the spirit world. When we die, we pass over to that unseen realm where we can still observe and even help or harm the living. The spirit world also contains the Lwa, which embody certain characteristics, such as bravery or kindness. There are numerous spirits each possessing different degrees of each characteristic. The Voodooist seeks their counsel and advice through ceremonies and offerings. Voodoo spirits can also take over the bodies of believers, commanding those bodies to do their bidding. There are no unifying sacred writings or scripture in Voodoo.

    Beliefs in these Voodoo spirits came to the Americas with Africans who were captured as slaves more than 400 years ago. People from different villages lived and worked together in the New World and combined their traditions. Voodoo continues today in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil and New Orleans, but this Voodoo is somewhat different from the traditional African version. In the Americas, slaves often mixed their African religion with their captors' Catholicism and with Native American religious beliefs. They melded Roman Catholic saints with their familiar Voodoo spirits. Voodoo priests, like Catholic priests, are respected members of the community whose intercessions with the spirits are necessary. Priests perform healing rituals as well as provide counseling and practical help. Spirits don't just assist people with their troubles, however. Just like Christianity, Islam and several other large religions, Voodoo features malevolent spiritual figures who can act out to do harm to the living. Part of the tradition of Voodoo is this spiritual struggle between the forces of good and evil.

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  2. Voodoo is a religion that originated on the continent of Africa in the kingdoms of Kongo and Fon up to 6,000 years ago. The term "voodoo" means "sacred" or "spirit" in Fon and many of the words used in the religion come from the Kongo or Fon languages. There is one supreme god in Voodoo that goes by different names, depending on the region. For example, the god is known as Bondye in Haiti. This deity is tremendously powerful and beyond the reach of the average practitioner. Believers can reach Bondye only with the help of thousands of different spirits, known as Ioa or Iwa in Haiti. Voodoo is an oral tradition, so there is no central text or unified tradition of ceremonial rituals. Names of spirits and specifics of worship can vary by region or even among generations.

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