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Voodoo, Vodou, or vodoun, gets its name from a corruption of vodu – “gods and spirits” in the language of Dahomey (now Benin) and Togo. Shiploads of Africans in chains were taken from there to Haiti’s island, Santo Domingo, in the sixteenth century.
In the desperate misery of slave culture, West African supernatural beliefs began to blend with New World witchcraft, creating a distinctive religion, which became a way of life for its followers. The religion featured a mother goddess, lesser deities who attended to various human needs, and psychic rituals.
By 1782 slave owners were alarmed at the spread of voodoo, which had taken particular hold in Martinique and Santo Domingo. In French-owned Louisiana there was a ban on buying slaves from those islands because voodoo was believed to encourage rebellion. Slaves were forcibly baptized as Catholics, and the teachings of the Church were laid on native beliefs. By the early nineteenth century voodoo was practiced throughout the West Indies. Within a few decades it became both the folk religion of Haiti and a large presence in the cultural life of New Orleans.
Voodoo works through the invocation of gods and spirits who possess priests, giving worshippers access to protection, healing and divination. Rites tell believers the sources of their misfortune – usually hostile acquaintances who have used black magic against them – and provide them with means of neutralization. Among these are gris-gris – small bags containing herbs, oils, hairs, bones and other items, such as nail-clippings and sweat-soaked clothes. Zombies, known to most people as fantasy figures in horror stories and films, are an especially frightening aspect of voodoo. They are believed to be the soulless dead revived by magic, or else disembodied souls. In the unhappy history of Haiti which won its freedom from France in 1804, dictators have often used voodoo beliefs to frighten and subdue the population. But voodoo does not always have sinister connotations. New Orleans has claimed a host of voodoo kings and queens, none so famous as Marie Laveau, a tall mulatto of striking beauty. She was a beloved figure whose numerous good deeds caused many to overlook the darker side of her cult, which included animal sacrifices and curse-casting.