Voodoo

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Voodoo is probably the best example of African syncretism in the Americas. Although its essential wisdom originated in different parts of Africa long before the Europeans started the slave trade, the structure of Voodoo, as we know it today, was born in Haiti during the European colonization of Hispaniola. Ironically, it was the enforced immigration of African slaves from different tribes that provided the circumstances for the development of Voodoo. European colonists thought that by desolating the tribes, these could not come together as a community. However, in the misery of slavery, the transplanted Africans found in their faith a common thread.

They began to invoke not only their own gods, but to practice rites other than their own. In this process, they commingled and modified rituals of various tribes. The result of such fusion was that the different religious groups integrated their beliefs, thereby creating a new religion: Voodoo, an Afro-Caribbean religion that mixed practices from the Fon, the Nago, the Ibos, Dahomeans, Congos, Senegalese, Haussars, Caplaous, Mondungues, Mandinge, Angolese, Libyans, Ethiopians, and the Malgaches.

There is a revered God, an assortment of spirits, and many rituals. Worshippers communicate with their God through the ‘loa’ or spirits. This relationship is based on trust and mutual give and take. The people conduct ceremonies to honor them and loas, in return, are helpful in their lives.

The strength that the Africans in Haiti gained from their religion was so strong and powerful, that they were able to survive the cruel persecution of the French rulers against Voodoo. When the French realized that the religion of the Africans was a threat to the colonial system, they prohibited all African religion practices and severely punished the practitioners of Voodoo with imprisonments, lashings and hangings. This religious struggle continued for three centuries, but none of the punishments could extinguish the faith of the Africans who kept their religion in secret.

The black magic aspects of this religion play a very minor role and are not typical of voodoo. In the early to mid 1900’s, there were exaggerated claims about voodoo and movies portrayed followers as ignorant people who were obsessed with evil. Werewolves, zombies, the casting of spells and the use of voodoo dolls were sensationalized as the common practices of these people. In actuality the use of black magic is rare but this stereotype remains with us even today. It was in the midst of this struggle that the revolution was conspired. The Voodoo priests consulted their oracle and learned how the political battle would have to be fought in order for them to be victorious.

Today the system of Voodoo reflects its history. We can see the tribal mixture in the names of different rites and in the pantheon of gods, which is composed of deities from all parts of Africa.

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