Voodoo without Dolls

What a year it has been! Homebound, helpless against a health crisis, social unrest worldwide, including here… an ideal time for soul searching, I guess!  And now there is the hope of traveling again, though many things need to happen before we can do it safely.  Fingers crossed. So, this past year, I mostly took a break from my images and stories, not wanting to add to the deprivation we all felt.  But now, my thinking about traveling again sent me back to one of my last adventures before the pandemic, in West Africa, the land of Voodoo.

Voodoo, an intriguing word with many spellings (Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou), evokes so many esoteric images of black magic, witchcraft, spells, and dolls enough to make anyone want to know more.  In Bénin, a small country in West Africa, Voodoo is an official religion (along with Christianity and Islam), and it is now celebrated yearly in a national festival.  The Voodoo religion is also practiced in neighboring Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria.   Voodoo also traveled to the Americas, in Haiti, Louisiana, Cuba, and Brazil, where slaves from West Africa adapted it to their new environment, often having to keep its practice secret and mix it with Christian rituals. 

So, over a few years, I attended several Voodoo ceremonies in Togo and Benin, some private, others involving entire villages.  I am sharing what I saw and learned.  However, I make no claims to even beginning to understand the complexity of its rituals as Voodoo has about 100 divinities, and every one of them is worshipped differently.    

Voodoo is a religion that seeks guidance “from the spirits of those who have come before us.”  The word voodoo means “spirit” in the Fon language of the country formerly known as the kingdom of Dahomey (now Bénin), Voodoo’s birthplace.  The religion has one main god, Mawu, a female creator of all things which is represented by many significant deities, such as the divinity of the Sea (Mamissi), Iron (Gov),  Rainbow (Ayidohwedo), Fire/Thunder (Hebiosso), Snake (Dan), and Earth (Zakpata).  A Voodoo priest is a man or a woman who can summon the deities, a skill that is often passed from one generation to the next.  Each priest is the custodian of several divinities represented by structures that appear to be just a pile of rocks or old metal to an uninformed eye.   In a ceremony, the priest invokes the gods to manifest themselves and offer advice or prophecies in matters of love, health, family, finance, etc. This is typically done thru offerings and sacrifices to the gods:  the priest determines what needs to be offered, including live animals and potions made of powder from dried bones or skulls of animals that can be purchased at a Voodoo market.   Contact is made with the deities thru rhythmic dances to the beat of drums; initiated devotees then fall into a trance that enables their bodies to be inhabited by spirits.  Sometimes “guardians” wearing masks and colorful costumes are the ones that connect with the gods.  Alcohol is always offered to all the deities’ representations at the beginning of the ceremonies. 

In this post are images of three ceremonies I witnessed in Southern Bénin.  In my next post, there will be a few more. This first one was a tiny affair held to help solve an issue raised by a worshipper.  In a consultation before the ceremony, the priest had asked for the sacrifice of a live goat.  The ceremony started by offering alcohol to all the divinities guarded by the priest (and some attendees), followed by hours of frenzied dancing by initiated devotees.  Then the priest sacrificed the goat (I decided not to include these images), and the blood was offered to all the divinities.  

The following two ceremonies were performed in front of entire villages with “guardians” who could connect with the voodoo spirits.  One of the ceremonies involved “Egunguns,” which loosely translates to “Revenants.” Egunguns are associated with the Yoruba ethnic group, the largest ethnic group in Nigeria. They are believed to channel the souls of the dead.  Coming in contact with the Egunguns is thought to be perilous, and they have a minder who carries a stick to keep order.  During the ceremony, Egunguns danced into a trance while making strange noises, and followers can then ask questions to the spirit that had taken over the Egunguns’ bodies. 

One of the most colorful voodoo ceremonies is the one that involves Zangbetos, the guardians of the night. According to the tradition, the Zangbetos, wearing a costume of heavy strands of raffia or other material dyed in colorful hues, fall into a trance and twirl, which enables their “bodies” to be inhabited by spirits who have special knowledge of the actions of people.  The legend is that there are no humans under the costume, only spirits of the night.  They are believed to be watching over people and their properties, tracking down criminals, and presenting them to the community to punish. I have to admit that the Zangbetos are somewhat intimidating.  The children were afraid of them, and so was I when they started running in my direction. I hope they did not think I was a criminal.

Every Voodoo priest I met told me that the power of Voodoo is never used for harm; it is rooted in healing, doing good to others, and only used to help, never to hurt. So, don’t fear the voodoo dolls, which seem to have more to do with Hollywood than with Voodoo.

On to more ceremonies in my next story.




10 Responses

  1. The Zangbetos! Amazing. Loved the photo essay, France. Looking forward to the next installment. I’ve been fascinated by voodoo since a trip to New Orleans and learning about Santeria in Cuba. Interesting to see its roots in your photos.

    1. Thanks Kathy. I am fascinated by voodoo as well, I was quite surprised by what I saw and how many different “rituals” they seem to have. I would love to go to Haiti one day and see how it has evolved there. Thanks for reading.

  2. Thanks for including me int this post, France! Do you know anything about the dried raffia symbol with the square top?

    1. Hello Joyce, are you referring to the letters on the Zangbetos? If so, I don’t know what they mean but I asked when I was there and was told that it is written in the Fon language and that it only made sense to the people who are initiated. I am not fully sure whether this is true. I’ll ask again. Thanks for reading. France

  3. Hello France, and thank you once again. I have often wondered about Voodoo and the descriptions and photos are compelling. Thank you!!! May your travels happen soon and safely. xxxxKaren

    1. Hello Karen, there is way more to Voodoo than I can convey, it would require spending a lot more time than I was able to. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to go back at some point. But there is still so much uncertainty as to when we can safely travel again. Sending hugs, France

  4. Delighted to learn about a topic I don’t know much about and to have the Hollywood version debunked .

    Rituals and beliefs are strong across so many cultures that I am sure there is more in common than not .

    As always ..beautiful photography capturing how other people live , celebrate and acknowledge religious aspects of life .

    I am sure people often confuse sorcery ( like in PNG) with Voodoo .

    Hope you are well ..and hoping for a return to normal as vaccines roll out across the world .

    1. Dear Emilie, there is way more to Voodoo than my little story but at least it gives a sense of how things proceed generally. And yes, one of the things that I was told over and over, was that Voodoo is not witchcraft. I am hoping to be able to look at how it has developed in the Americas given that it had to stay underground for so many years. I am pretty sure it took a dark turn! But first, the world has to be vaccinated. After an inept initial response to the virus, the US is now full speed on vaccinations. Let’s hope the rest of the world has access as well.

      1. Yes the US has really gone ahead in the vaccine rollout . To paraphrase a famous line ..we are only as safe as the weakest link .
        The world needs to be vaccinated so we get to herd immunity.
        Australia is pretty slow getting ours going .

        With Voodoo I suspect that if one challenged the Voodoo priest you could find yourself in a spot of bother like in any religion .. priests needs to maintain their credibility so I guess one could see how things could always have the potential for problems .

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