Voodoo: Should We Take a Second Look at This Religion?


Voodoo is hugely misunderstood. Vodou, also spelled Voodoo, Voudou, Vodun, or French Vaudou is a traditional Afro-Haitian religion. It represents a syncretism of the West African Vodun religion and Roman Catholicism by the descendants of the Dahomean, Kongo, Yoruba, and other enslaved groups who had been transported to colonial Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was known then) and partly Christianized by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a religion that dates back four centuries! The word Vodou means “spirit” or “deity” in the Fon language of the African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin). Everything is spirit, and humans are spirits that inhabit the world. Of course the unseen world is populated with spirits, angels, ancestors, etc.

So, how did we end up with the mindset that Voodoo was evil and the dark side of the supernatural?

When you think of Voodoo you think of dolls stuck with pins, witchcraft, and evil hexes. You cringe and hope you never become on the other end of a Voodoo “spell.” To answer this question, we have to first realize where it came from and how it traveled to the western world. Then we have to ask ourselves where did it go and why?

You would think Voodoo isn’t as widely practiced in the United States as it is in Haiti, due in part to the requirements of sacrificing animals, such as chickens, doves and goats, but this isn’t the case at all. In fact, Rev. Orlando Espin, a professor of Afro-Latin religions at St Vincent de Paul Regioon Seminary, says that he estimated that there are roughly a half-million practitioners of voodoo in the United States, with about half of those living in South Florida. If you are wondering why South Florida, it’s because as Haitians and other people of African descent made their way to Florida, some of them brought their ancient religious beliefs with them. In fact, Scholars and voodoo priests said increasing numbers of South Florida Haitian-Americans in their 20s and 30s are turning to Voodoo religion. Voodoo is practiced at home making it difficult to measure the number of adherents.

“Voodoo is a way of life. Voodoo is dignity, it’s a celebration.”


Voodoo came to the Caribbean when Africans were brought there by Europeans as slave labor. By 1804, people of African descent took control of Haiti from their oppressors, establishing the oldest Black republic outside of Africa and the Voodoo religion became an important part of the Haitian identity.

Voodoo made its way to the United States landing first in Louisiana with enslaved West Africans, who merged their religious rituals and practices with those of the local Catholic population. New Orleans Voodoo is also known as Voodoo-Catholicism, a religion associated with nature, spirits and ancestors. It was reinforced when the followers that fled Haiti after the 1791 slave revolt moved to New Orleans, Louisiana and a lot of other freed people of color practiced the culture. Voodoo queens and kings were spiritual and political figures of power in 1800s New Orleans. The core belief of New Orleans Voodoo is that one God does not interfere in daily lives, but that spirits do. Connection with these spirits can be obtained through various rituals such as dance, music, chanting, and snakes.

The most famous voodoo queen was Marie Laveau (1794-1881), a legendary practitioner buried in St. Louis Cemetery No.1. She was a devout Catholic and encouraged others to do so as well. She lived in the French Quarter on St. Ann Street, where people would ask her for help. She was a free woman of color who adopted children, fed the hungry and nursed the sick during the yellow-fever epidemic. She was known to help enslaved servants and their escapees. It is said that politicians, lawyers and businessmen often consulted her before making any financial or business-related decisions.

Did you know famous African American actress Angela Basset actually played Marie Laveau in the Coven seasonal episode of American Horror Story?

“It’s not only Haitian immigrants, but that includes whites and Afro-Americans as well,” said Reverend Orlando Espin. County police agencies have seen evidence of voodoo rituals when doing search warrants. Palm Beach County has at least five houses of worship, which operate essentially underground out of fear of repercussions due to such elements as animal sacrifice. Despite this fear, it is still actively practiced and its capital is New Orleans, Louisiana.

Congo Square, now located in Armstrong Park, once served as a gathering place for enslaved Africans. They practiced their traditions and culture, including Voodoo! During the 1930’s, true Voodoo went underground when New Orleans became a tourist destination. At that time, businesses were started, charging money, selling fake potions and powders believed to protect the wearer from evil or bring good luck. Nowadays, you can visit The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum at 724 Dumaine Street in the French Quarter and it will tell you all about the Voodoo history of New Orleans.


After a Voodoo priest named Dutty Boukman started the Haitian Revolution of 1791 naming slaves as leaders in the resistance, it sparked terror in the white colonist that sought to keep slavery in the U.S.

The early slaves that were held in large groups, relatively isolated from interaction with white settlers, were able to keep these traditions intact. It was a source of strength for African slaves who had to endure fierce conditions when they found themselves uprooted and moved around the world as capital. Voodoo played a major role in the resistance to slavery and the continued existence of our identity. Our ancestors believed that if you take away the so-called supernatural elements, you will see an expression of our identity.

Unlike Eurocentric (a belief system assuming that European American culture and Western culture is the norm and should be viewed as the standard against which other cultures are judged religions), it does not decline or focus on the past, but continues to understand its origin. It lives in the here or now and evolves as the times and people do.

Voodoo was developed so the enslaved could worship their own Gods under the domination of their Spanish and French plantation masters.

At first, in the late 1800’s, most slaves hadn’t been converted to Christianity yet, but as the years followed, Christians, Baptist and Methodist practically forced this religion onto our people. Preaching about hope and redemption they even believed that God said that white people were superior to Black people and that they were fated to live as slaves, per the Bible. For many slaveholders, this outlook made it so easy to convert slaves and establish biracial churches. Fortunately, for our enslaved ancestors, slave preachers might emphasize the need for obedience to the “master” while whites were present, but among other slaves they went back to their old teachings, emphasizing themes of suffering and redemption. Slaves would sing spirituals filled with lyrics about salvation and references to biblical figures like Moses, who led his people to freedom. These songs functioned even more explicitly as expressions of resistance, encoding messages about secret gatherings or carrying directions for escape!

Although Voodoo is often called a syncretic religion because of its Catholic appearances, the Rev. Orlando Espin thinks syncretism is a wrong term to use because slaves did not have much of a choice in converting, therefore, they used Catholicism to mask the practices of their own religion, thereby pretending to be Catholic.

In the 1820’s and 1830’s, two of the most significant slave rebellions in American history were plotted by Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. 60 to 80 slaves set out and killed 55 whites during this time. Even though this rebellion ended, there were rumors of more on the way. White people brutally retaliated against Black people for ten days, killing hundreds of slaves and even free Black people (that had nothing to do with the rebellion). This led whites to figure out how to prevent further rebellions, passing laws that cracked down on slaves and free Blacks.

They outlawed teaching Blacks to read or write, and forbade Blacks from preaching or holding religious services. Since Voodoo had given slaves a sense of power and strength that white people couldn’t understand, they certainly cracked down on that as well. Looking back at the revolution in 1791, it was generally believed, a ,secret vodou ceremony had provided the spark for the violent uprising that liberated the country from its French masters. ,However, in the 1820s to 1865, slave masters were also concerned about what the enslaved were learning in the Bible as well as reading. If anything, the slave masters would rather read and teach what they wanted and how they wanted than for the slaves to learn for themselves.

De white folks ’fraid to let de children learn anythin’. They fraid dey get too sma’t and be harder to manage. Dey nebber let em know anything about anythin’. Never have any church. Effen [If] you go you set in de back of de white folks chu’ch. But de niggers slip off an’ pray an’ hold prayer-meetin’ in de woods den dey tu’n down a big wash pot and prop it up wif a stick to drown out de soun’ ob de singin’. I ’member some of de songs we uster sing. –FANNIE MOORE, enslaved in North Carolina

Black preachers couldn’ preach tuh us. . . De white preacher would call us under a tree Sunday evenin tuh preach tuh us. Dis is whut his text would be: “Mind yo mistress.” Den he would ceed tuh preach — “Don’t steal der potatoes; don’t lie bout nothin an don’ talk back tuh yo boss; ifn yo does yo’ll be tied tuh a tree an stripped neckid. When dey tell yuh tuh do somethin run an do hit.” Dat’s de kind uv gospel we got.— EMMA TIDWELL, enslaved in Arkansas

Nevertheless, slaves were very much aware of Voodoo and some would practice in the dead of night, chanting and dancing. Others were told to stay away from the devil magic and keep their head focused on the Lord and their Christian ways.


In Western culture, a hex is similar to something like the Italian version of the ‘evil eye’ that is warded off by those who believe in its power by wearing a piece of jewelry fashioned like a horn. A hex is a spell or a threat that something bad is going to happen to somebody. For example, it isn’t done verbally, but ritually and certainly not with dolls with pins stuck in it. The person is even usually told that they are going to be hexed.

Hex is a very small element of Voodoo and although it is meant to serve evil purposes, the myth that it is used as a tool to curse someone has been propagated by Hollywood in particular. This doll pertains to a type of African folk magic called hoodoo. They have very little place in the religion and are not used by the majority of practitioners at all!


For the most part, those involved in voodoo practice it for the same reason any other religion is practiced. It offers a sense of purpose, peace and order and the practitioners invoke the divine beings for favors in such areas as health, family life and job welfare. Sounds a lot like what other religions do, right?

“You have to remember that in Haiti, there is one doctor for every 10,000 citizens,” says Elizabeth McAlister, a scholar of African religions at Wesleyan University. “So the burden of health and psychiatric care — and pastoring — falls on traditional religious healers. Priests and priestess are the front line of social services for most of the people.”

White people can’t gain off natural medicines, they can’t use it to become rich like they do by selling us prescription pills and keeping us going back for more man made medicine.

Voodoo isn’t all that different from western and central African beliefs. They all merge the worship of nature, ancestors, angels, etc.

“Voodoo is not evil. It’s not the devil. If you believe and someone thinks badly of you and tries to harm to you, voodoo will protect you. Some say it is the devil, we don’t believe in the devil and even if he exists.

-Regional High Priest of Voodoo Daagbo Hounon (Benin)

For many West Africans in the diaspora, voodoo has become a symbol of coming home. Daagbo Hounon is from a small town in Benin that offers an “initiation” from people from all over the world to come and learn about the practice. The younger generation in America is starting to accept Voodoo more and more as they dip into their spiritual identity. African belief systems still suffer for relevance as Christianity is still practiced by most Black people in America.

As our people begin to wake up, educate and dig deeper into their old roots, it is almost as if we are being called to look at something bigger than ourselves. Bigger than religion. What is the harm in trying to understand what our ancestors so successfully understood?

The soul of Black people is not hidden behind the pages but the tradition that have been stripped from us, that we have been taught to fear. I challenge us to take a closer look and to not fear what we don’t understand, especially if we haven’t even given it a chance. It is a part of our ancestors culture and may even be directly apart of your own history. We have had so much taught to us about European culture and the way Europeans live, but what about how we live? How our ancestors lived centuries ago; as Kings and Queens and free. I encourage you to explore this more.

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