What is Voodoo? A Tradition of Magic and Interconnected Realms

What is Voodoo? A Tradition of Magic and Interconnected Realms

When the word “voodoo” arises, it’s usually accompanied with misconceptions, fear, and a lack of understanding. Often thought of as a violent cult, the truth couldn’t be farther from the popular cultural associations, such as voodoo dolls, witchdoctors, and violent-tinged sorcery. Voodoo, more appropriately known as vodou, is an ancient and diversely practiced religious tradition tied to Africa, the Caribbean, and the Catholic church.

But what exactly is Vodou?

Voodoo: A Rich Tradition Born From Trauma

The word Voodoo/Vodou/Vodun translates to mean “the spirit of God.” Vodou is a monotheistic religion; followers, or vodouisants, believe in one divine figurehead called Bondye, or “the good god.” Additionally, Vodou has a lesser god hierarchy, Iwa, as well as Ioa who are more engaged with the day-to-day life than Bondye, who is considered to be more remote. The Ioa/Iwa are split into three families: Rada, Petro, and Ghede. Humans and Lwa have a reciprocal relationship in which believers provide sustenance and objects in exchange for the Lwa’s protection.

Vodou combines traditions from Africa, the Caribbean, Native Americans, and Catholicism. There is evidence that as far back as 1492, many in the Taino culture were executed for their practice of Vodou during Christopher Columbus’ conquering of Hispaniola. But as the slave trade grew, so did Vodou; the newly arrived African slaves and the surviving Taino found much in common in their shared rituals and approaches to healing.

Vodou does not have a central scripture, it is community-centric and supports individualism. New Orleans is North America’s vodou epicenter, where it arrived through the slave trade from West Africa during the 18th century. Catholicism was the primary religion in the city, and what is now known as “New Orleans Vodou,” is in actuality a hybrid between the two traditions. New Orleans Vodou has become so ingrained in the city’s culture that one need only search online to see the multitude of shops, tourist attractions, and other popular destinations that keep the tradition alive.

The United States of Hoodoo

What is a Voodoo Doll? Actually It’s a Healing Tool

The mere mention of a Vodou/Voodoo doll brings painful and revenge-filled pins and needles stuck in a cloth doll to mind for most people. But what is behind this practice?

The truth behind the practice of making Vodoo dolls couldn’t be further from this myth. Unlike the dolls that are sold to tourists, authentic Vodoo dolls are created for healing purposes, as well as to help communicate with those who have passed, and are used in rituals to invoke the lwa or loa for spiritual guidance.

Vodoo dolls are human effigies, figurines which represent an idealized persona or deity. Dating back to the Assyrian culture of the first millennium BCE, there is little evidence that any Vodoo dolls are intended to cause harm or seek revenge. However, the mythology behind Vodou dolls being used for evil purposes might be traced to the 1950s, when Haitian “cashew” dolls were imported into the United States. The eyes of the dolls were made from a form of castor beans and caused a swallowing danger for young children, leading to the dolls being banned as “lethal.”

Vodoo dolls have specific colors and corresponding energies associated with each pin:

  • Red: Power
  • Black: Warding off negative energy
  • White: Positivity
  • Blue: Love
  • Green: Money and prosperity
  • Yellow: Success
  • Purple: Spirituality

 

The authentic practice surrounding the dolls is connected to our relationship with the “otherworld" — a central tenet to Voodoo, regardless of the country of influence or origin.

Santeria vs. Voodoo vs. Hoodoo: Spiritual Cousins or Distant Relatives?

While Hoodoo may incorporate aspects of the Voodoo religion, it is in itself not a religion; Hoodoo is a trans-cultural folk practice centered on earth and botanical ritual objects, many of which originated in Africa, but with connections and roots throughout North America. For example, there is a rich tradition of Appalachian mountain hoodoo practitioners that is unique and connected to more ancient hoodoo traditions.

Santeria, like Vodou, is a religion based on one God who is also served by lesser deities, as well as communicating with the otherworld. The word santeria can be translated into meaning “the way of the saints” and is also heavily influenced by Catholicism, much like Vodou. Though one major difference between the two is that santeria is based in Spanish-speaking cultures, with deepest connections in Cuba and Mexico.

A History of Voodoo’s Oppression: Visible and Invisible Worlds

Similar to many other transplanted religious traditions, Vodou has often had to adjust and adapt to the dominant culture. In North America, as African slaves were forbidden to practice their native traditions and religions, the only way they could get around this oppression was to associate their Vodou deities and adapt their rituals to be reflective of the images, iconography, and saints of the Catholic Church. This is not unlike the experience of the Native American culture and Christianity.

Like many traditions, the relationship between the visible and invisible are interconnected, with death being another part of our spiritual journey. Is this some sort of Vodou dark or black “magic?”

Similar to many non Judeo-Christian tradition, the term “magic” is often used to describe a ritual or observance that is unknown or outside dominant religious practices. This misunderstanding, or lack of knowledge, can translate into an air of mystery, as well as feed into fears and misconceptions. In fact, Vodou “magic” is made up of many intricate and ancient rituals that are connected to the earth, the elements, as well as to the realms beyond our physical world — and many of which are part of a very rich mystical human fabric.

Want to learn more about the history of mystical practices? Check out the documentary American Mystic:

American Mystic


Samhain Unveiled: Tracing its Origins and Time-Honored Rituals

Samhain Unveiled: Tracing its Origins and Time-Honored Rituals

Samhain is a time-honored tradition followed by witches, Wiccans, ancient druids, and countless other modern pagans across the world, and celebrated as October turns to November. Samhain is a festival of the dead, meaning “Summer’s End,” and though you’re probably tempted to pronounce it “sam-hane,” it’s actually pronounced saah-win or saah-ween.

What is a Samhain Celebration?

Samhain is a sacred and ancient Celtic festival that marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It holds deep spiritual significance as it honors our ancestors, acknowledges the time of year when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is thinnest, and embraces the mysteries of life and death. Samhain typically takes place from October 31st to November 1st and involves various rituals and traditions, such as ancestor veneration, divination, bonfires, costume dressing, feasting, and releasing and renewing rituals. It’s also celebrated as the beginning of the spiritual new year for Wicca practitioners, which is also why it’s nicknamed “The Witches’ New Year.” Samhain serves as a time of reflection, transformation, and connection with the natural and supernatural realms, reminding us of the cyclical nature of existence and the eternal bond with our ancestral heritage. If this celebration sounds oddly familiar, it’s because our modern Halloween, although different, originates from this Gaelic tradition. Historically, most American Halloween traditions were brought over by Irish and Scottish immigrants.

How to Celebrate Samhain

Samhain is typically celebrated by preparing a dinner to celebrate the harvest. The holiday is meant to be shared with those who have passed on as well as those still with us. Set a place at the table for those in the spiritual plane, providing an offering for them upon every serving throughout the meal. In addition to those who have passed, invite friends and family to enjoy the feast with you. Typical beverages include mulled wine, cider, and mead, and are to be shared with the dead throughout the meal.

Halloween Similarities & Differences

Despite occurring at similar times and containing similar themes, Samhain and Halloween are not the same holiday. Halloween, short for All Hallow’s Eve, is celebrated on and around Oct. 31 and tends to be more family-focused. On the other hand, Samhain is more religious in focus and spiritually observed by practitioners.

There are some more light-hearted observances in honor of the dead through Samhain, but the underlying tone of Samhain is one of a serious religious practice rather than a light-hearted make-believe re-enactment. Today’s Pagan Samhain rites are benevolent, and although they are somber and centered on death, they do not involve human or animal sacrifices, as some rumors may claim. Another difference between Samhain and Halloween is that most Samhain rituals are held in private rather than in public.

When to Start the Celebrations

If you want to start honoring this pagan tradition, you might wonder when to start. The timing of contemporary Samhain celebrations varies according to spiritual tradition and geography. Practitioners state to celebrate Samhain over several days and nights, and these extended observances usually include a series of solo rites as well as ceremonies, feasts, and gatherings with family, friends, and the spiritual community.

In the northern hemisphere, many Pagans celebrate Samhain from sundown on October 31 through November 1. Others hold Samhain celebrations on the nearest weekend or on the Full or New Moon closest to this time. Some Pagans observe Samhain a bit later, or near November 6, to coincide more closely with the astronomical midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Most Pagans in the southern hemisphere time their Samhain observances to coincide with the middle of their Autumn in late April and early May rather than at the traditional European time of the holiday. In the end, it’s really up to you!

Honoring Life, Death, & Nature

Samhain isn’t necessarily a creepy, morbid holiday obsessed with death, as some may conclude. Instead, it reaches for themes deeper than that, tying in with nature’s rhythms. In many places, Samhain coincides with the end of the growing season. Vegetation dies back by killing frosts, and therefore, literally, death is in the air.

This contributes to the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the realm of the dead, facilitating contact and communication with the dead. For those who have lost loved ones in the past year, Samhain rituals can be an opportunity to bring closure to grieving and to further adjust to their being in the Otherworld by spiritually communing with them. However, it’s also a way to appreciate life when you get right down to it.

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