Voodoo and Hoodoo are perhaps some of the most commonly misconstrued religious and spiritual practices. They are often associated with dark magic, Satan worship, zombies, evil dolls, and harmful spells. In actuality, Voodoo and Hoodoo are celebrations of life, the spirit world, and the natural energy surrounding us. They differ from any other spiritual practice because of their African origins, and both remain a strong connection between those forced into American slavery and their homelands in Africa.
Voodoo and Hoodoo are both amalgamations of ancient African beliefs and European practices. They are considered the product of many cultures because they derive many teachings from across religions. It must also be said that it is impossible to separate Voodoo and Hoodoo from their historical context.
What role did the slave trade have in Voodoo and Hoodoo?
From the 15th to 19th Century, 20 million African people were taken and kidnapped from their homes and enslaved by the United States and the North American continent. Those enslaved were forced to leave behind their lives, cultures, beliefs, and native lands, among many other things. The horrors of slavery are too long, gruesome, and triggering to list here, but the damage still lives on today. The history of slavery in the United States and across the Western world is dark, but we must shine a light on it if we are ever to move forward, deliver justice, and head towards peace.
With all of that being said, there were a vast number of slaves from various ethnic groups across Africa who were brought to the North American continent. These groups included (but were not limited to) the Kongo, Igbo, Akan, Mandé, Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, and Fulbe peoples. Because of severe religious persecution punishable by torture and death, many Africans were forced to give up and forget their ancient practices. As such, traditions carried on in secrecy and meshed with one another to form what we now understand to be modern-day Hoodoo and Voodoo.
What’s the difference between Hoodoo and Voodoo?
While the belief systems of Voodoo and Hoodoo vary from one another, both are often conflated and used interchangeably. Simply put, Voodoo is a religious tradition, while Hoodoo is more of a folk magic practice.
As a religion, Voodoo is an organized institution with established rituals and religious leaders, services, and teachings. Hoodoo, on the other hand, does not have one organizing body. Rather it is seen as a more personal or individual practice.
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What are the origins of Voodoo?
Not unlike Hoodoo, Voodoo is a combination of different beliefs and schools of thought. Unlike Hoodoo, however, Voodoo absorbed many Roman Catholic and Christian traditions, mixing them with what is known as Haitian Vodou. As African slaves were integrating with plantation and slave owners, the religious ideologies and iconographies combined to give way to Voodoo as we understand it.
Similar to Hoodoo, Voodoo arose from the Southern United States. One of its current hubs is none other than New Orleans, Louisiana, where many practitioners remain and celebrate the origins of their religion.
How did Hoodoo begin?
As briefly mentioned earlier, the influx of the various African cultures into North America during the transatlantic slave trade gave way to Hoodoo tradition and practices. Hoodoo began in the Southeastern United States when people from different West African cultures were brought together under slavery. It is said that the early 1800s gave way to a rise in Hoodoo teachings; the practice was spreading and gaining popularity.
Hoodoo spread by word of mouth and adopted the local Southern United States flora and fauna into its practices. Likewise, it also brought in some Eurocentric thoughts and ideas and mixed them with their own, creating an entirely unique system of beliefs.
What is conjure?
Conjure is actually a synonym for Hoodoo. Like Hoodoo, it refers to African folk magic used to heal and protect. Using the word “conjure” to describe these practices is also said to have originated in the 19th Century along the Mississippi River. Both Hoodoo and Conjure are used interchangeably, as they are both describing the same set of practices.
What are the main practices and beliefs of Hoodoo?
As mentioned earlier, Hoodoo is not a centralized religion. It is a folk magic practice that welcomes any drawn towards its metaphysical powers.
The primary purpose of Hoodoo is to empower its practitioners to call upon supernatural forces and energy to better their lives. At its foundation, Hoodoo is a system of spiritual practices based on the powers of herbs, roots, and other natural substances. Those who practice Hoodoo will often use various tools not limited to herbs, candles, curios, and symbols. Ancestor veneration is also a big player in the Hoodoo tradition. Here are a few major staples in the Hoodoo practice:
- The spirits are available for help when called upon.
Hoodoo comes with its vast pantheon of spirits ready and willing to help those who call upon them. Hoodoo practitioners believe that spirits will never intervene unless they are intentionally brought into a particular situation by means of conjuring – including ancestors.
In this context, conjuring means engaging in a ritual to bring forward, or conjure, a particular spirit. These rituals vary greatly depending on which entity you are calling upon and for what reason.
- Personal effects are often used in rituals.
Often, a Hoodoo ritual will call upon the user to place some hair, nail clippings, blood, or bones to mix with other ingredients to produce a result. The idea is that your personal energy (or energy of the objects you are mixing in) will draw powers more quickly to you – for both positive and negative results.
Typically, you will see spells centred around luck, love, and protection. This Hoodoo tactic may sometimes be used for a negative impact (although this is rare!). An old wives’ tale says we should always burn fallen pieces of hair or nail clippings so that others may not use our personal effects against us.
- Manifestation lies at the crux of most Hoodoo magic.
Using the spirits associated with certain herbs, roots, insects, and ancestors, Hoodoo practitioners aim to wield their personal, spiritual powers to enact the desired outcome. The user would often focus on manifesting good fortune, love, healing, and protection using spirits and their associated objects.
For example, if a person practicing Hoodoo was trying to prevent her husband from leaving her, it is said that she should take a loadstone, rabbit’s foot, nine hairs from her husband’s head, and place everything in a red bag and bury it under their front door.
- There are initiation rituals for new practitioners.
Traditionally, a Hoodoo doctor would be responsible for initiating a new practitioner. These initiations would vary significantly from one another but always have the intention of connecting the new person to the spirit realm.
You don’t need to be initiated to practice Hoodoo. However, having a mentor or taking an apprenticeship will teach you everything you’d ever want to know. Many of the Hoodoo teachings are only passed along verbally, sometimes through families or small communities of people.
- Bottle trees outside of the home are for protection.
Scattered across the Southern United States, bottle trees are constructed outside of the home to protect them. These are simply bare trees with colourful bottles placed on the branches.
This tradition stems from ancient religious practices from the Kongo and aims to trap and kill unwanted spirits by attracting them to the shiny bottles. The idea is that spirits will be drawn towards the bottles and become trapped, eventually perishing in the sunlight permeating the bottle.
What are the main practices and beliefs of Voodoo?
Largely considered an amalgamation of the Catholic and Vodou religions, Voodoo is a monotheistic organized religion practiced in all reaches of the world. Voodoo practitioners believe in one ultimate God, not unlike the Catholic God, called “Bondye.” They also attribute many religious teachings to the Catholic Saints and other lesser beings. Like Hoodoo, Voodoo practitioners have a close relationship to spirit and their ancestors. However, their practices and beliefs differ quite a bit from Hoodoo:
- Bondye, Lwa, and Vilokan are centralized figureheads in the Voodoo religion.
As mentioned before, Bondye, known as “the good god,” is the supreme God. After Bondye, there are lesser deities who are called “Lwa.” It is said that the Lwa are more involved in the day-to-day workings of man and have a more direct relationship with the individual. The Lwa are divided into three primary families (sometimes associated with the Catholic saints.
Rada: Rooted in ancient African teachings, the Rada family are seen as kind and benevolent spirits. They have the potential to tend towards aggressive behaviours but are largely creative and demure. They are associated with the color white.
Petro: This family of spirits rules over the darker domains. They are not Rada’s evil counterpart but instead exist on the other side of the same coin. Where there is beauty, there is naturally darkness. The Petro family of spirits operate in this space. Their color is red.
Ghede: The Ghede spirits are rulers of the dead. They are known to take souls to the afterlife and celebrate life amidst death. They have ties with the color black.
Vilokan, meanwhile, is the afterlife and home of the Lwa. It is described as a forest island submerged under water and guarded by great, powerful spirits.
- Altars are commonly found within a Voodoo practitioner’s home.
These altars serve to create a closeness between spirit and practitioner. They are spaces where offerings can be left and items of significance to the individual and the spirit(s) they are trying to call forward.
It is not uncommon to find candles, animal bones, herbs, tinctures, imagery of their Lwa or Saints, and curios on a Voodoo altar.
- Rituals are a significant portion of practicing the Voodoo religion.
While beliefs in different Lwa and Catholic Saints vary from person to person, the standardized rituals unite the Voodoo religion. For example, veves (or symbols) are drawn to invoke certain Lwa or Catholic Saints to ask for protection or good fortune in conjunction with offerings.
Rituals seek to deepen and develop the user’s connection with the spiritual realm. By doing so, they are getting closer to Bondye/God and empowering themselves to harness the powers of the spirits they call upon.
- Voodoo practitioners often make and give away gris-gris.
Gris-gris are charms imbued with positive or negative energy, depending on the creator’s intention. They can be worn for protection or hidden under the pillow of an enemy to cause harm. They come in all different shapes and sizes and reflect the nature of their intentions.
- Many Voodoo practitioners are herbalists, part of the Catholic religion, or gifted in divination.
Just as with any religion, there are a wide variety of people who practice Voodoo. Some are concerned with the medicinal properties of herbs, while others follow more in alignment with the traditional Catholic teachings. Voodoo practitioners have also been known to use Tarot for clarification, connection to spirit, and divination purposes.
The unifying factor is the belief in one ultimate God and the practices that serve and enlighten those engaged in Voodoo.
Voodoo and Hoodoo Today
Rooted in ancient African teachings, Voodoo and Hoodoo are strong remnants of the transatlantic slave trade and preservation of old, forgotten, and dying cultures. They are a means for practitioners to connect with their roots and ancestors, empowering them to live balanced and harmonious lives.
It is common to see inaccurate and harmful depictions of Voodoo and Hoodoo in the media and elsewhere as they are deeply misunderstood practices. Because of the stigmas attached to Voodoo and Hoodoo, many are quick to write it off as dark or evil – but that could not be further from the reality. Hopefully, as more accurate information unearths itself about these two practices, many will start to see that there is nothing to fear. The future looks promising for these two traditions as the Web and social media work to educate the masses and curious onlookers.