Whether it’s spelled Voodoo, Vodou, or Voudoun, this frequently-misunderstood religion of the African diaspora is starting to get a makeover in the American consciousness. A traditionally secretive religion, Vodou has long been represented in movies and television shows as being focused on sticking pins in dolls and making people into zombie slaves. That image is starting to change, however, in ways that could make members of the Pagan community sit up and take notice.
In contrast to the Hollywood vision of Vodou, an exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago seeks to present an accurate picture of Haitian Vodou through its artifacts. According to a press release about the exhibition, “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti looks beyond myths and manufactured Hollywood images – exhibition visitors will see no dolls with pins stuck into them. Instead, the exhibition explores the underground history and true nature of a living religion and reveals Vodou as a vital spiritual and social force which remains an important part of daily life in Haiti.” Text and video of members of the religion are used to explain the symbolism behind, and uses of, the more than 300 objects, many of which are on loan from the Marianne Lehmann Collection in Pétionville, Haiti.
Patrons of the Field Museum will come away with some understanding of Haitian Vodou, one of the major branches practiced in the United States today. The other is Louisiana or New Orleans Voodoo, a tradition which evolved in that southern city thanks in part to the fact that slave families were more likely to be kept together than they were in the East. Followers of the two paths kept mostly to themselves in the city, according to a profile of the religion in Newsweek, although initiation into both wasn’t entirely unknown. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina changed all that; many Vodou practitioners lived in the Ninth Ward, which bore the brunt of the damage when the levies broke:
“After Katrina, the remaining members began to forge a new, cross-faith community. The mixed ceremonies and social gatherings served a support network for participants from both sides of voodoo as they rebuilt their lives. “We became more close-knit. Those of us who stayed and didn’t evacuate opened what lines of communication had been closed,” says Michael “Belfazaar” Bousum, an employee of Voodoo Authentica and a priest of New Orleans voodoo.
“The new scene has also encouraged members of the ancient religion to create a web presence —- forums such as “Vodou, Voodou, Vodoun, Vodun” on Facebook and “A Real Voodoo Club” on Yahoo Groups are popular —- as well as welcoming outsiders to their events for the first time. “Before, you really would have had to know who a mambo or a houngan was to participate in a public or private ceremony. You would have to be in the inner circle. Now it’s accessible with a few keystrokes,” says Parmelee. “Plus, people who left are returning. The community is definitely coming back.””
The most impressive demonstration of this new face of Vodou is surely the New Orleans Healing Center, a 55,000-square-foot complex which has become a focal point for the religion since it opened in 2011. The center hosts public ceremonies, a bustling shop, and has gone a long way towards normalizing perceptions of this religion in New Orleans. It cost a reported $13 million to build, including both public and private funds, and represents the type of infrastructure many Pagans yearn for, and others shun.
There are many reasons why such an massive project was possible in the Vodou community, while similar ideas remain dreams for Pagans. For one, while there are different schools of thought, Vodou is not an “umbrella” of often unrelated faiths, as Paganism is. For another, Paganism is wrestling with questions of money that Vodou has mostly put to rest.
“Gardner said not to charge for spiritual services,” explained Lilith Dorsey, who writes the blog Voodoo Universe, but “Marie Laveau was the first to charge for services.” She was referring to Gerald Gardner, whose contributions to Wicca in the 1950s set the tone for many conversations in the Pagan community today, and 19th-century Vodou priestess Laveau, whose impact on New Orleans Voodoo was equally seminal. “Some people may have no other way of making a living,” she said, “they might be uneducated, or crazy, or this is just the only skill they have.” Instead of having a cultural bias against accepting money, in Vodou it’s expected.
One of the interesting details about this mainstreaming of Vodou is the monotheistic bent it’s taking. The Newsweek article is quite clear on that point, saying that both New Orleans and Haitian Vodou “are monotheistic (the highest god is Bondyè, the “good lord”), are mostly oral- instead of text-based and celebrate thousands of cosmic and natural spirits (akin to Catholicism’s saints).” Since Dorsey writes about Vodou for a Pagan site, The Wild Hunt asked her if Vodou is a monotheistic religion.
“That’s a sticky question,” Dorsey replied. “It’s more acceptable to be monotheistic in this culture. I approach it anthropologically: if you offer to it, it’s a god or goddess. I consider lwa and oreshas to be gods. In the Catholic Church they call them saints, but they function like gods.” However they function, though, in her experience, “People don’t want to have a lot of gods.”
Dorsey, who maintains connections to the Vodou communities in New Orleans and New York City, also said that not everyone is happy with the public face of Vodou that is emerging. “Will it be good? I can’t say. On one hand, the more neighbors you have who practice Voodoo the more okay it seems. I have neighbors who are okay with Voodoo but not with ‘evil Santeria.’ On the other hand, public ceremonies mean cameras, and there are things one should not be taking pictures of. “That’s hard for the average person to determine. I do a class on ritual blessings for camera, and once you start talking about photography, that’s another whole level.”
Art museums and shiny new healing centers are signs that the face of Vodou is changing fast. Dorsey said that, like water, it will find its own level. When it does, it could be possible to draw some conclusions about how Pagan religions may change as they become more normalized, for good or ill.