September 30, 2000
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I quickly discovered, however, that these perceptions have as little basis in reality as any other Hollywood myth. Voodoo is an ancient African faith, every bit as legitimate as Christianity, Judaism or Islam. In fact, Voodooism encompasses a way of thinking and behaving. Its very name originates from the Fon word Voudon, which means "the power, that who is visible, and the creator of all things." Voodoo, then, incorporates all of the energy and spirituality in the universe. The people Daphne and I interviewed contended that Voodoo is more than a religion practiced for an hour every Sunday. They consider it to be an entire "way of life."
I accepted this explanation, of course, but couldn't help wondering -- what about the serpents and skulls? Was there a reason I had so many false impressions about Voodooism (besides an over-active imagination and years of too much TV)? Well, as it turns out, many of the things I once associated with Voodooism really do play a role in it -- just not the same role it does on TV. In fact, Voodoo just might be the most misunderstood religion in the world today. But before we start talking about dolls stuck with pins, let's delve into this mysterious faith's history and see how it came to New Orleans in the first place.
To trace the roots of Voodooism in the New World, we have to travel all the way to the West Coast of Africa. Africans have been a deeply spiritual people throughout their history, and many brought their indigenous religions to the Caribbean and the United States, when they were forced into slavery. The problem was, most slave owners considered these faiths to be "barbaric." The 1724 Code Noir, which was established by French colonizers in Louisiana, required "masters" to instruct their slaves in Catholicism and have them baptized. This was devastating to the Africans. Not only had they lost their families, freedom and homeland, they were about to lose their spiritual foundation as well.
Over time, however, slaves noticed many parallels between their own faith and that of their "masters." For instance, both religions recognize one supreme God and a series of intermediaries that stand between Him and the faithful. In Catholicism, these intermediaries are called Saints; in Voodoo, they are Loas. So the slaves secretly paired off the Saints and Loas who shared similar attributes. St. Peter, for example, became the counterpart for Papa LaBas, the Loa who guards people's entrance to the spirit world. In this way, slaves could pretend to worship St. Peter while they were actually praying for Papa LaBas. This enabled Africans to maintain their own faith and please their masters at the same time. On Spanish islands, this melding of Catholicism and African religion became known as "Santeria," or "The way of the Saints," and is still widely practiced in Cuba and Miami today. On French colonies it was named "Voodoo" and remains the primary popular religion in Haiti. Scholars are still uncertain when French-speaking Haitian immigrants brought Voodoo to Louisiana, but court records incorporate some of its lingo as early as 1773.
The problem is that few tourists -- or even New Orleans natives -- understand Voodooism. In fact, many associate it with evil. "We always have people coming in, wanting to buy a little doll that they can stick with pins so they can kill off their enemies," said Sarah Cacioppo, a sales attendant at the Voodoo Shop on Bourbon Street. "But we don't advocate negativity at all. Everything we sell has positive energy."
So now we know what Voodoo is not, but we still haven't learned what it is. Let's start with the Loas. These spirits rule over the world's affairs, including family matters, harvests, love, happiness and health. In order to keep them happy, Voodoo practitioners give them offerings according to their preferred colors, numbers, and types of food and drink. Daphne and I saw an amazing example of this at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. African sculptures served as the foundation of each altar, but scores of other offerings mingled among them, including Mardi Gras beads, stones, tambourines, candles, clipper ships, lighters, chapstick, conch shells, horns, brooms, antlers, feathers, straw baskets, perfume bottles, skulls, puffer fish, starfish, crutches, sun glasses, rolls of film, packages of cigarettes, and stacks of dimes and pennies! The walls were covered with tribal masks that had dollar bills stuffed through their mouth, nose and eye sockets. Gods of nearly every major religion were represented, including Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and various Catholic and Russian Orthodox saints. Scarves, veils, lace and ribbon added to the vibrant decorum. Food was plentiful, including caramels, honey, coconuts, cupcakes, a nutrigrain bar, dried bananas, garlic and a red onion. The Loas had plenty to drink as well, including wine, bourbon, whiskey, tequila, rum and Coke. There were also bowls of standing water, which are believed to absorb negative energy. When sprinkled on an altar, water refreshes the spirits.
And the serpents? In Voodoo, snakes are not seen as harbingers of evil -- as in the story of Adam and Eve -- but as a symbol of man. Women often dance with serpents to represent the spiritual balance between the genders. Crosses, meanwhile, symbolize the crossroads where heaven and Earth meet.
The more I learned about Voodooism, the more I empathized with its adherents. It must be frustrating to practice a religion that, thanks to Hollywood and commercialism, the world sees as evil. Up until the early 20th century, the police were raiding Voodoo ceremonies, forcing its practitioners underground. Some say that the only reason it stayed alive was the devoutness of its adherents, particularly its women.
Meanwhile, Voodoo practitioners themselves could hardly be more tolerant. Nearly every major religion in the world is represented in its colorful altars. Voodooism openly embraces people of all races, genders and ages. I wonder when this acceptance will be returned.
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