Introduction to Voodoo in West Africa

Voodoo. It’s a word with a certain … image, cultivated by American gothic horror films mixed with a small amount of, shall we say, ‘racism’, or at least an ignorance amongst westerners as to the purposes/beliefs, and especially the practices involved.

However, you might want to leave all those images behind now, at the door, with your shoes. Thank you, now let’s begin.

While often associated with countries like Haiti, Voodoo, or more properly, ‘Vodun’, is very much a West African religion, that ended up in the Caribbean for, uhm, obvious reasons. Its heartland is amongst the Fon people of the Dahomey Kingdom who live predominantly in what is now southern Benin. While it certainly encompasses spirits (of more than one kind) and fetishes (not those sorts of fetishes), it’s certainly not the sphere of voodoo dolls and necromancy. The bit about speaking to your dead ancestors though, that’s partly true.

Spirits

Spirits are the centre of the Vodun religion. It’s beyond the scope of my blog to go into the detail of all the different spirits and what they do, suffice to say that while there is a hierarchy and a family of important deities who control both the spirit world and the everyday human world, there are local spirits in everything from rivers and trees to local villages and individual families – the latter include a lot of spirits of ancestors who stay around to protect and help people and environments who were close to them, where necessary.

A temple in Abomey dedicated to Legba; the outside of the temple has various painted motifs of the spirit god in question. All of them holding his manhood proudly.
A temple dedicated to the gatekeeper spirit Legba. Easily identifiable.

One of the most important spirits in the Vodun hierarchy though is Legba. He is the youngest son of the Creator deity Mawu, and his role is to act as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’, and through whom priests speak to the spirit world – no spirit can be contacted without Legba’s bidding. He’s represented as a young man with a big cock. Obviously …

A representation of Legba, the Gatekeeper Spirit, in his own small hut in Grand Popo.
I believe this is a physical representation of Legba, in his own hut in Grand Popo.

Some spirits are maleficent, and speaking with the spirit world is quite dangerous unless you take necessary precautions. Most of the time, the only people allowed to communicate with the spirits are Vodun priests, who surround themselves with protective fetishes/amulets, but sometimes ‘lay people’ are invited to join a ceremony. In this case, the priest will often either anoint the attendee with water, or get them to drink some out of a suitably protected bottle.

The Barefoot Backpacker is sat behind a table. On the table is a very ornately decorated bottle, with feathers, attachments, string, lots of stuff. What is in the bottle is something known only to the Vodun priest. But you can bet your life it won't be lemonade.
A typical spirit bottle, ornately decorated with protection motifs and objects. Do not take it lightly.

I say water. Reader, it is not water. It may have once been water but I can honestly say that if the drink I had in Grand Popo in the company of a priest is typical, the spirits present inside that bottle were far stronger than any evil spirit trying to cross dimensions could ever hope to be. If you had set that bottle alight, it could probably have shot to the moon. Another couple of them and I’d certainly have been seeing my ancestors…

Fetishes and Potions

Communicating with the spirits isn’t a simple case of telling the operator to call Shango and go “Ẹ káàsán. Ṣe o lè rán me lộwộ?” (assuming you speak Yoruba, who also practice Vodun – I was unable to source any ‘Teach Yourself Fon’ literature from the library. Alternatively, if you’re further East and speak Ibo, “Kudeu. Kédụ kà ịmérè? Nwere ike ịnyere m aka?”).

Rather, each of the Vodun spirits is invoked by means of a ‘fetish’, or specific object, and each spirit has their own specific object, which relates in some way to what they do. This may sometimes be a anthropomorphic representation of the spirit in question, or it could be an object that relates to their remit in some way.

A 'fetish' used in a Vodun ceremony – this particular object is a fertility fetish and is a large (not quite as long as my forearm) wooden object that looks exactly as you would imagine a fertility fetish to look. Possibly painful if used for the other use.
An example of a fetish. It probably shouldn’t take much imagination to know what which particular spirits would be invocated with it.

However the fetish itself is usually not enough – a ‘preparation’ has to be applied. This is a special ‘mix’ of liquid, powder, and detritus that is either smothered onto the fetish, poured into a vessel atop the spirit’s representative form, or otherwise ingested, applied, or burned as necessary.

One of the stereotypes of Voodoo in western culture is tales of boiling up potions made from animal bones, eyes, and other gruesome things – this is where those stories come from. The ‘ingredients’ (for want of a better word) for these poultices are bought from a ‘fetish market’; I had the ‘pleasure’ of wandering through one in a small village close to Abomey. While there’s always a wide variety of ‘products’ for sale, and yes animal bones/skulls are pretty common, live animals (often chickens or reptiles), furs, feathers, and herbs are also on offer.

Typical stall at a fetish market in Abomey – trays of dead animal bones  (mainly goat heads), twigs, and miscellaneous things in jars at the back that I daren't think about.
Fetish market stall in Abomey, mainly it seems selling goat heads.

The make-up of each potion/poultice is secret, known only to the Vodun Priest, and even the rituals behind making the poultices are shrouded in mystery – I was told a tale by one priest that the potion he used on my visit was made up of some crushed bones, a few powdered minerals (it was a bright red, stronger than the colour of the road, so assume that something with iron had been included), and a spot of water, all mixed together under the moonlight in the nearby forest. Mmmh.

A typical poultice made as part of a Vodun ceremony, It's got water, twigs, bones, and other stuff in it. If you're reading (or being read) this alt text it suggests you're using a screen reader because you have issues with your vision, or alternatively a very old web browser or slow internet connection that doesn't display pictures. For once, be thankful.
A typical poultice made as part of a Vodun ceremony, It’s got water, twigs, bones, and other stuff in it.

In addition, each ‘recipe’ is specific to the job in hand, so for example a ‘love potion’ (not something they believe in, as a rule) would involve a whole different set of ingredients to a poultice designed to ensure safe passage on an upcoming journey. While there are ‘generic’ poultices, pretty much any request can be catered for, and each ‘ceremony’ will take a slightly different course depending on need.

Incidentally, when I asked, I was told the most common reasons for invoking the services of a Vodun priest were to ensure exam success, to have children, and to find love, in that order. Nothing at all about wanting to smite your enemies.

A Voodoo Ceremony

A Voodoo ceremony itself is focussed much more on acknowledging the spirits (through the use of offerings, often simply water poured onto a representative fetish’s head) and repeated short chants, rather than anything mysterious and malign. They’re often conducted by the priest alone, but if someone has a specific request, they will be usually invited in to take a small part.

This is what happened to me on my visit (needless to say the photos in this section were taken by my guide, and not by me); I was invited into the back room of a large hut, completely bedecked in idols and fetishes. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to them, rather they were stood on the floor around the walls, haphazardly. Marie Kondo would have had an apoplexy.

Fetishes and idols around the floor of the Vodun priest's hut.
Fetishes and idols around the floor of the Vodun priest’s hut.

It was a generic ceremony, although I did point out my biggest feeling was one of travel, rather than love or anything like that. The priest did some preparation behind a screen, and emerged with a bowl of … stuff. I was afraid to ask, but I knew he wouldn’t have told me anyway. It had the feel and look of a badly-made chicken rogan josh.

Partway through a Vodun ceremony – the Barefoot Backpacker is holding a bowl of poultice made by the Vodun priest.
I’m holding the bowl of poultice. It did not smell as bad as it looks.

He then demarcated a circle on the ground, and got me to stand in the middle of it. It was apparently important that I be barefoot for the ceremony, to allow myself to be ‘grounded’ and allow the spirits to enter. He then handed me the bowl and told me to hold it out in front of me and close my eyes, while he did some channelling and contacting of spirits.

Partway through a Vodun ceremony – the Barefoot Backpacker is having his head tapped with a stone totem by the Vodun priest.
Having my head tapped with the totem.

I was then given what I would possibly badly describe as a ‘totem’ – a stone club with a carved head at one end – and got me to tap my shoulder with it. He then took the totem back, tapped me on my head three times with the head end, then tapped my feet.

Partway through a Vodun ceremony – the Barefoot Backpacker is having his feet tapped with a stone totem by the Vodun priest.
Having my feet tapped with the totem. You can see the chalk circle I’m standing in too.

The next object to be used was a decorated horn with a depression at the top end which could be used to store liquid. He poured some of his concoction into this dip, and then poured from the dish into similar receptacles on top of a couple of the idols and fetishes. Again he tapped me on the head with it three times, before allowing me the opportunity to pour the liquid onto the heads of the idols.

Partway through a Vodun ceremony – the Barefoot Backpacker is pouring poultice into a dish at the top of one of the idols on the floor.
Pouring poultice into the idols. The idea is to appease them by giving them an offering. We all have different tastes.

He then gave me what I presume was a dead frog or chameleon. It certainly looked like the bony skeletal framework of an animal. I was told to hold it tightly, and put my hand over my heart. There may have been some incantation involved.

Partway through a Vodun ceremony – the Barefoot Backpacker is clutching the skeletal framework of a dead animal – a frog or a chameleon.
Clutching a dead animal as if my spirits depended on it.

The final step was another stone object with poultice in – it was a large fetish and needed two hands. I had to hold it tightly, close my eyes, and concentrate on what I wanted, not to tell anyone what I was thinking as that would break the spell. Once I’d brought it to mind, I needed to once again pour some of the poultice into the top of the fetishes that lay around the room.

The whole ceremony took only maybe half an hour, but it was a very intense time, deeply spiritual and even a non-believer like me couldn’t help but be awed by the detail and the meaning. It’s obviously not for me to say whether what I concentrated on wanting while in the ceremony took place, but I do feel blessed.

Vodun Today

Vodun is the third most practised religion in Benin, with around 12% of the population reporting their adherence on the most recent survey – the vast majority in the south, around Abomey and Ouidah.

The actual figures for worshippers is probably much higher; it’s well attested that the Beninois have often merged practices of two religions. This is particularly true amongst Christians in Benin, who make up just under half the country but again who are most prominent in the South. As I’m sure you’re aware, Christianity, especially Catholicism, has a passion for stories involving angels of the Lord coming down to Earth and speaking with people or performing miracles. It’s not a huge leap to correlate those angels with Vodun spirits – “You might call him Gabriel, we call him Ogoun”.

Benin is also noted for religious freedom being enshrined in law and the constitution, although interestingly officially the country itself is secular, thus no one religion is allowed to dominate and impose itself.

The highlight of the Vodun calendar is January 10th, which has been designated ‘Voodoo Day’. It is a Bank Holiday in Benin, and think of it as a kind of Vodun version of Mardi Gras, with parades, music, dancing, and lots of colour. And probably lots of bones. I unfortunately was in Benin about a month too early to celebrate, but I’m sure I’ll be back one day to celebrate it. The biggest celebrations take place in Ouidah, which is considered the ‘home’ of Vodun; there’s even a magical sacred ‘Vodun Forest’ just outside the city.

All this, and more, I learned on my five-week trip around West Africa – an incredibly interesting part of the world. I’ll soon be publishing a travelogue, a real book, on my adventures, so stay tuned for that!

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What happens when you go to a Vodun Ceremony in West Africa. The image is a of a 'fetish' used in fertility blessings. It looks exactly how you expect it would.

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