Religion & Culture | Dispelling the myths surrounding voodoo
"You have a strong attachment to the traditions handed on by your ancestors. It is legitimate to be grateful to your forebears who passed on this sense of the sacred, belief in a single God who is good, a sense of celebration, esteem for the moral life and for harmony in society." John Paul II
The dirt road was having its way with the car I was driving. I was lost and the sun was fast setting. Without the luxury of a GPS tracker, my hope of finding the babalawo (voodoo priest) was fading fast.
It is bucolic Trinidad, behind's God back, they say. The houses were small, many wooden and dilapidated, each with open yards and trees that gave shelter from the sweltering heat a few hours ago.
With no one in sight to assist, I decided to head back to the city, but not before calling my nephew. His words I still hear today: "Look for the most dreadful looking house in the area and there you will find your voodoo priest." I laughed, followed his advice and did find the person I sought. And I wondered, is there really a correlation between voodoo and poverty?
Myth 1: Voodoo and poverty go hand-in-hand.
It is a common belief that voodoo is a dark practice that mires its practitioners in poverty. While this appears true, especially for those eager to malign any and everything African and non-Christian, the facts point to a far different conclusion.
Having reviewed documentaries on Benin, one of Africa's poorest countries where the official religion is Voodoo, and having wandered through the spiritual landscape of Trinidad and Tobago, and that of the diaspora in Brooklyn, spending hours learning in peristils (voodoo temples), and doing the same in Venezuela where Santeria is prevalent, and in other countries in Central America, I cannot deny that a high percentage of the underclass do embrace voodoo.
But surely, there is no correlation between poverty and voodoo. In fact, I need not scratch my head to identify poverty-stricken areas throughout Latin America that embrace Roman Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. I can also look at swathes of poverty-stricken regions in Asia that embrace Islam, Hinduism, and Jainism.
(It is important here that we do not conflate poverty with simplicity. Poverty does not necessarily mean the absence of material goods. The wealthy are oftentimes lacking in peace, comfort, and well being, they are poor in spirit. I hesitate then to brand others as poor on the sole basis that they not surrounded by outward signs of luxury.)
Myth 2: Voodoo is devilish magic that involves blood.
The spectacle of the dancing and writhing voodoo practitioner in a state of reverie is not unlike the Christian faithful that babble and twitch in hysteria during deliverance services. And is there really a difference between blood sacrifice in voodoo and the exigencies of a Christian god that relishes blood offerings in the Old Testament then suddenly decides on the ultimate blood sacrifice as mythologists in the New Testament?
And what of the ritualistic slaughter of cattle during Eid al- Adhar by Muslims around the world? And what should we make of Roman Catholic Transubstantiation and the blood of St Januarius kept in a sealed glass in Naples Cathedral that is kissed and revered by every pope?
We have been conditioned to view these customs as solemn, reverential practises. Sadly, we are quick to cast every Afrocentric religion that practises ritualistic sacrifice of animals to the bowels of hell.
Notable is that voodoo, as practised by a veritable priest, is not open to thrill seekers, and materialistic hustlers. Voodoo is not a religion of parlour tricks and devilish incantations that is oftentimes marketed by Hollywood for shock value.
It is a personal and private relationship between individuals and the cosmos. Regrettably, this authenticity, for the most part, has become a thing of the past, but blessed are those who to sit at the feet of a true priest or priestess and receive good tidings from the loas (gods). Some aspirants are that fortunate.
In the classical setting, they are rigorously trained in the so-called mysteries of life. This esoteric journey demands personal discipline, wisdom, and knowledge of culture, traditions and lineage. The houn-yo (postulant for initiation) must live up to the highest ideals of his or her bizango (esoteric society) and the society at large.
Myth 3: Voodoo is based on superstition.
Superstition is defined as excessively credulous belief in and reverence of supernatural beings. Doesn't this describe just about every religion?
Myth 4: The loas (gods/spirits) of voodoo are evil spirits.
This is largely a Christian and Islamic belief. Note that Christianity and Islam are very recent 'inventions'. Voodoo surfaced at the dawn of time. Voodoo is nature, Voodoo is the universe. Further, are we to believe that no good spirits revealed themselves to humankind before the birth of the Judo-Christian and Islamic faith?
Myth 5: Voodoo is a primitive religion.
Voodoo, also called Orisa (Trinidad), Condumble (Brazil) and Santeria (Spanish-speaking Caribbean) is a veritable religion with its own body of philosophy (eschatology, soteriology, metaphysics, ethics, ontology), and its own canons related to science, arts, and culture.
Far more sophisticated than Christianity and Islam, Voodoo presents a cosmological gestalt of dualistic and complimentary forces that are subject to universal laws.
Defining Voodoo is not a simple exercise, even for adepts. There are Fon expressions that reflect the complex nature of this philosophy: 'Voodoo gongon', 'Voodoo d'ablu', meaning: Voodoo is deep, Voodoo is obscure.
Fact: Voodoo is an endangered philosophy that must be respected and preserved.
The problem is not Voodoo but rather its skewed image that is pedalled by mountebanks masquerading as priests, chiefs and wonder-workers.
Voodoo is neither pernicious nor threatening, rather it faces its own threats from the outside. Not unlike traditional Christianity that is corrupted by bible thumping con artists donning cassocks and clerical collars, Voodoo is being destroyed by its own brand of frauds posing as babalawos (priests) and mambos (priestesses).