Hoodoo and voodoo are often used interchangeably thanks to modern media. Both have a rich history and heavy cultural influence in Haiti and in the southern U.S., primarily Louisiana.
Both have their roots in West Africa, but there is a distinct line between the two. Hoodoo is a spiritual and magickal system. Voodoo (Vodou or Vodoun) is a religion.
Most practitioners of hoodoo are actually of Protestant faith. After the forced conversion of slaves into the United States, many held onto their spiritual practices but utilized the Christian Bible and Psalms as part of their workings.
The practice has evolved to include Jewish, German, Santeria, and other religions as practitioners migrated further north after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is much like witchcraft in that its practices can be layered within almost any religious or spiritual faith.
It encompasses many tools and practices – divination, spell-casting, and specific traditions that have been passed down from person to person. Because of its ability to be utilized with varying paths, its practices can vary from person to person.
In her 1996 publication, Dr. Leslie Desmangles, a Haitian professor at Hartford Trinity College wrote this regarding the practice of voudon:
It refers to “a whole assortment of cultural elements: personal creeds and practices, including an elaborate system of folk medical practices; a system of ethics transmitted across generations [including] proverbs, stories, songs, and folklore… voudon is more than belief; it is a way of life.”
She specifically references the Haitian voudon path, but it is also applicable to Louisiana vodou. The paths originate from West Africa, with modern day Benin considered its most likely origin. However it’s evolution stems from the inhumane slave trade practiced from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Upon arrival in Haiti, slaves were forced to convert to Christianity by law. While many converted as a means of survival, they held onto their culture’s practices and beliefs. These were their connection back to their culture and ancestors in a time when they faced unimaginable suffering.
Through generations of conversion to Christianity, families passed down beliefs and practices that melded the two closer together. Iwas, spirits, were identified with their Catholic counterparts.
Haitian voudon still maintains that Bondye, “The Good God” is the creator god. Iwas function as guides to direct the needs of day to day life. Both are respected and considered sacred, but ritual and ceremonies call to the associated Iwa for their assistance. Louisiana vodou has taken on slightly more Catholic influence, with its creator god being the Christian God. Saints are called for assistance within sacred ritual more often than the traditional Iwa.
It should be noted that voudon gave hope to the slaves suffering in Haiti. It was through voudon that they found the inspiration and strength to rise and revolt against the French colonists that sought to keep them enslaved. It is through this uprising that voudon was brought to the Americas when the French fled. Voudon has remained a powerful influence in Haiti as the people reclaim their communities. They still struggle to overcome the damage created by the slave trade and racist perspectives held against them.
Vodou in Louisiana would not be as influential for quite some time, until the rise of voodoo queens, most noteably Marie Laveau. Voodoo queens held much political influence in their neighborhoods. Politicians, lawyers, businessmen and other influential men often sought the guidance of these women in their decision making. The rise in power of these women was remarkable as they lived in communities that upheld oppressive practices and a strong separation of freedom between the white and black population. Even today, Marie Laveau is considered the Voodoo Queen of the south.
Being that I am from the south, I honestly thought that I would have been taught or… been at least a little more knowledgeable on this subject. Yet, I know that my extended family has likely never had a legitimate interaction with someone that practices these paths. It baffles me that we can be so closed off to a practice that could be happening literally right next door. There is so much misunderstanding perpetuated by the media in regards to Voodoo, Hoodoo, and Santeria. It breeds a culture of fear regarding anything “other.”
I believe it is our duty as we seek education to calm this fear. To take the opportunity to educate those around us, even if they have no interest in witchcraft or spiritual paths. It is only in this way that we can begin to destigmatize these paths and create closer bonds within our communities.
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