Voodoo- History of the Arte
However, although the first area that comes to mind when the term Voodoo is mentioned is the nation of Haiti where the origin of this religion lies in indigenous spiritual paths of West Africa. Particularly the areas that are covered by the countries of Benin and Ghana today. There is also a third influence on Voodoo from the South-eastern United States, particularly in the area of Louisiana. The latter magickal practices are an amalgam of French and Spanish settlers plus Creole and influences from other areas of the African continent and the Indian subcontinent.
Haiti is located in the Caribbean, on the Island of Hispaniola which it shares with the Dominican Republic. The latter takes up the majority of the island, leaving Haiti only the western three-eighths. This is the result of colonial history of the area involving the French, Spanish, pirates of various nationalities which, sadly, is too complex to go into detail in this article. Suffice it to say that Voodoo was one of the few autonomous activities that the slaves could practice and was instrumental in helping them overthrow the ruling elite in 1791.
The physical basis of the revolution was laid by Jacques Vincent Ogé, who was the son of a freed slave and promoted egalitarianism for all regardless of skin colour when he was involved in the French revolution of 1789. He petitioned the European delegates from the plantations, but the request was denied, and he returned to Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, to see if he could influence the Governor to grant full civic rights to all persons over 25 years old regardless of ethnicity. He failed, and tried to start an uprising amongst the general population to gain this right. This also failed, and he was executed. But the cultural influence that he started lead to the successful slave uprising a year later with the aid of the various Voodoo leaders and groups.
After a great deal of planning, they came together in a Voodoo Ritual known as the The Bois Caïman ceremony as it was held in a thickly wooded area. Boukman a Voodoo priest from Jamaica, and a local High Priestess officiated at the event. The details of the event, and even the date have become unclear over the intervening years, with even the date not being certain. But the uprising lead, eventually, to the freedom of the slaves, but only after a long bitter struggle, including the area being caught up on the fringes of major power struggles in Europe due to the importance of the sugar industry to several economies.
Unfortunately even after Haiti attained independence Voodoo was not recognised by the state as a valid religion or spiritual path. In 1835 this spiritual path was banned, and this lead directly to the evolution of secret Voodoo societies that, like many of the original Chinese Triads, served to provide solidarity and protection against the abuses of power by the elite.
These societies also served to provide the poor with protection and solidarity against the exercising of power by the elite. As with many secret societies each had its own symbols and codes. They protected practitioners and adherents as best they could until 1915 when the USA occupied Haiti to protect American economic interests, and ameliorate the influence of Germany which was perceived as a threat during the Great War which was happening at the time. The occupation lasted until 1934. Once again Voodoo was a key part of the Haitian resistance to the occupying forces, and it was during this time that Voodoo attained the exotic reputation that is associated with it today.
This was due to the American forces encountering something outside their mainstream religion and for many it was their first close-up experience of magick in action. Stories filtering back to people in the US quickly found their way into the fiction and films (movies) of the time, being dramatised as they were. Tales of wild rituals, zombies and other esoteric sights all percolated through popular media giving rise to the many inaccurate images of Voodoo popular today. This was the beginning of Haiti's reputation of being a mystical island.
In 1941 Élie Lescot was made President of Haiti, and received the backing of the US when he supported the allied forces during the Second World War. The resultant regime permitted the Catholic Church, to campaign against Voodoo. Temples and artefacts were destroyed and the Priests and Priestesses imprisoned. This continued until 1946 when a series of military coups destabilised the power structure and lead to the rise of a middle class There was a greater tolerance of Voodoo as part of the rise of an interest in their roots, this resulted in the first serious studies of Voodoo based on understanding the background and symbology. Voodoo rituals were also adapted for the developing tourist industry.
It was around this time that the book "The Traveller's Tree" by Leigh Fermor was published detailing the author's travels in the Caribbean. It was used as a source by Ian Fleming for the information on Voodoo in his second James Bond book "Live and Let Die". Leigh Fermor wrote part of The Traveller's Tree at Fleming's estate Goldeneye in Jamaica.
In the next article we will look at the way Voodoo was warped by the anthropologist and Doctor Francis Duvalier into a tool for suppression of the general population, and a key tool in his dictatorship. Then see how it has become accepted as a force for good by at least one mainstream religion.
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