‘There is not a shred of doubt in my mind today that the African, in his own mysterious ways, has harnessed one of the strangest powers of all — the thing they call Ju-ju.’
James H. Neal
Thousands of men were at work constructing the new harbour at Tema Port, Ghana. The colossal project involved the clearance of vast swathes of land with state-of-the-art bulldozers and machinery. However, in the midst of the bustling industry, one solitary tree trunk refused to budge. Despite being subjected to numerous attempts to uproot it from the ground, it appeared to defy all logic, and stood obstinately intact in the centre of the barren landscape.
‘This tree be Fetish’ explained a local tribesman to a government official who had been assigned to oversee the work. The civil servant was bemused and clearly did not understand this curious statement.
Essentially, the man was suggesting that a powerful spirit (loa) dwelled within the tree. In Voodoo tradition if an object is said to be ‘Fetish’ it is effectively the host of such an entity. The only way that the tree could be removed successfully would be if a Fetish Priest was called in order to conduct an appropriate ceremony. Such a Holy Man was duly summoned. On arrival, the Priest explained that he would speak to the spirit and see if he could persuade it to move to another tree.
After entering a trance-like state, the Priest concluded that the ceremony had been a success, the spirit believed that the new harbour would bring many benefits to the local people and agreed to move on. Then, amazingly with minimal effort, the workmen were able to perform what was unthinkable a few hours before. The tree yielded obediently in the baked solid soil revealing a massive lattice of jagged roots for all to see.
There are many such incredible anecdotes regarding the mysterious religion most commonly known as ‘Voodoo’. In West Africa (where it originated) it is often called Vodun. As Alfred Metraux has noted, the peoples of this region have ‘kept alive beliefs and rituals inherited from the ancient religions of the classical East and the Aegean world.’ Voodooists identify with a sophisticated pantheon of Gods and spirits. Indeed, the religion may have evolved in the New World in countries such as Haiti, Brazil and the USA, but there remain clear similarities with the root practices. Christianity has been synthesised with Voodoo and particular saints have come to be associated with the loa (spirits) of Voodooism. For example Saint Patrick often represents Damballah-Wedo (the snake God) on account of his affinity with the reptiles.
Ceremony, ritual and trance are vital components of Voodoo, and the hunsi (initiates) meet at hunfort (a secluded place) to pay homage to the spirits. A clear hierarchy exists, and the hungan (priest) and/or mambo (priestess) will oversee the proceedings. Indeed, the sacrifice of animals, lively music and often frenzied dancing, led many westerners in the past to look down upon the religion and dismiss it as mere ‘sorcery’ or ‘black magic’. However, with an estimated half a billion followers throughout the world, Voodoo is clearly a vital aspect of daily existence for many.
Many may view Voodoo with suspicion and disdain on account of its distorted mainstream image. Popular media representations such as Ian Fleming’s Bond novel ‘Live and Let Die’ have fuelled both intrigue and fear. The infamous Voodoo Doll, amulets, potions and the casting of spells represent a belief system which appears to be the complete antithesis of Christianity. Nonetheless, it must be understood that a true Voodooist is aware and respectful of the subtle forces which exist in nature. The axiom of ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’ should always apply.
Clearly more serious study is required regarding the origins, evolution and influence of Voodoo throughout the world. Alfred Metraux’s research on Haitian practices throughout the 1940s and 1950s is most illuminating. However, it is understandable that practitioners may choose to be less than forthcoming to academics when Voodoo is often regarded with such suspicion and contempt. In nations which ostensibly champion Christianity as the official religion, Voodoo is frequently dismissed as a cult and deliberately marginalised from mainstream consciousness.