What a year it has been! Homebound, feeling helpless against a health crisis, social unrest all over the world, including here… an ideal time for soul searching, I guess! And now there is finally hope of traveling again, though lots of 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 feeling of 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 that are 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 every year 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 couple of 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 often 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 and so forth. 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, I have images of three ceremonies that 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 of the attendees), followed by hours of frenzied dancing by initiated devotees. Then the goat was sacrificed by the priest (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 can 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 has 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 made a point of telling 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 seems to have more to do with Hollywood than with Voodoo.
On to more ceremonies in my next story.