As I wrote in my previous post (Voodoo without Dolls), I have tried to learn more about the intriguing world of Voodoo by traveling to West Africa, where it originated. Though I make no claims to even beginning to understand the complexity of its rituals, I saw and learned a few things about this religion that I am happy to share. (For those of you who read my previous post, think of the following paragraph as a refresher).
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 Dahomey (now Bénin), Voodoo’s birthplace. The religion has a female main god, Mawu, the creator of all things, but she is represented by many significant deities. 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 my last post, I described three ceremonies that I attended in Bénin. This post is based on my visits to a few more, again some private, others involving entire villages.
The ceremony worshipping Kokou, the god of Iron and a highly feared warrior, is probably the most energetic one I witnessed anywhere. The initiated cover themselves in a yellow paste made of palm oil and corn flour and wear a raffia skirt. Then they dance frantically to the rhythms of the drums, going back for more palm oil when needed. One of them cut his arm, which seems common when under a ceremonial trance, based on the number of scars visible on their arms. Again these “initiated” become inhabited by the spirits of Kokou.
This second ceremony was in Togo. Before starting, the priest visited all the representations of the divinities and offered them alcohol. The devotees also used alcohol to wash each other’s feet. Rhythmic dancing went on for hours and culminated with the priest spreading powder on the ground and breaking an egg on top of it. Two of the participants went into a trance at that point.
The final two ceremonies were pretty similar in how they unfolded, but the gods invoked were different. In both cases, I was first invited to the house of the priest where walls were covered with photos of those of the family’s ancestors who were also Voodoo priests. (When I inquired jokingly whether this was a family “business,” I was told that it was not the case and there were signs that allow them to identify the chosen one who would then have to go through a lengthy training). After the home visit, we proceeded to pray at the deities’ representations, and a group of dancers came, in one case all dressed in white as in Togo, and in the other case, all wrapped in a reddish color.
There is no doubt that Voodoo is a fascinating world far removed from the shady reputation it has acquired from uninformed or ill-intentioned observers. I was told by one of the Voodoo priests that “only the initiated can understand the depth of the practice and that for others, it will always seem incomprehensible and illogical.” That seems to be an accurate assessment.