Saturday, October 18, 2014

What Voodoo Has Taught Me

In my second necromancer book, The Necromancer’s Betrayal, I explored a little bit of voodoo albeit a more fictional/fantastical approach. I debated whether to include voodoo in my books because my representation of necromancers and their power over the dead is very different than that of a fictional voodoo practitioner, but once I started writing about my voodoo priest or Bokor, I realized the interaction between Ruby, the necromancer, and the Bokor created some interesting fodder for comparing how the different supernatural characters manipulate and control the dead.

But real voodoo or Vodun isn’t about raising the dead and is often misrepresented in movies and literature. Sure I loved The Skeleton Key, Serpent and the Rainbow and a multitude of books, including a great read, Darkfall, by Dean Koontz. Yet, how did voodoo become so maligned? Partly, the U.S. feared that the effects of the Haitian revolution of 1791 would spill over to the U.S. (According to legend, the Haitians beat the French using voodoo.) In addition, an unfortunate book was published and widely disseminated in 1886 called Haiti or the Black Republic. The book described voodoo as evil and influenced some of the beliefs held today.

In reality, voodoo is a complex cultural practice, a religion. Most of the voodoo in Haiti and New Orleans are syncretic religions that evolved from the West and Central African Vodun traditions. The slaves brought to the new world had to hide their beliefs and used the Catholic and Christian religions to disguise their practices and their deities.

Vodun dancer costume.
When I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa, my fellow volunteer and I took a whirlwind trip on cramped mini-vans from the Ivory Coast, through Ghana and Togo to Benin. While wandering around Ouidah, the spiritual center of voodoo, we stumbled upon a Vodun dance. While unsure exactly the nature of the ceremony, we likened it to some of the mask dances we’d become familiar with in the Ivory Coast. A brilliant, colorful, somewhat chaotic experience driven by percussion. We also walked the slave route previously tread by captured Africans to the beach where they were imprisoned on slave ships. Called La Porte du Non Retour, or the path or door of no return, the four mile stretch is lined with amazing statues, Vodun symbols, like the one pictured below.

My picture of a Vodun statue along
the Long Walk in Ouidah, Benin.
Besides Haiti, African Vodun left its mark in Brazil. My parents are Brazilian and I lived in Salvador, Brazil for a few years. Salvador is a beautiful coastal city heavily influenced by the Portuguese settlers and African slaves they brought over. The slaves and their ancestors developed their own versions of Vodun called Candomblé and Umbanda. The slaves came from different parts of Africa, including Benin, Togo and Angola, and blended their different gods to create the polytheistic Candomblé. You see a lot of reference to the Orishas (or Orixas), the dieties, in Brazilian music and art. In December, in Salvador, people gather at the beaches and make offerings to Yemaya or Yemanja or Iemanjá, the Orisha, or diety representing the essence of the ocean. Iemanjá was born from a syncretic blend of the Catholic patron saint Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of Seafarers) and West African Vodun and is often represented in Salvador as a mermaid. I was fortunate to observe the December ceremony as people loaded boats with flowers and candles and set them afloat in the ocean.

Music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies and heavily influence Brazilian Carnival. I experienced three carnivals during my time in Brazil and unlike the parade spectacle in Rio, Carnival in the Northeastern cities are more like huge streets parties. Sure in many instances you feel like a human sardine, but the energy, the music and food and drink…there’s nothing quite like it. One important Carnival troupe is the afoxe, a group that draws upon Candomblé percussion rhythms and song. One famous afoxe, The Filhos de Ghandhy or Sons of Ghandhy, formed in 1949 in Salvador to promote peace and fight discrimination. They appear during Carnaval dressed in white flowing robes and sing songs with multiple references to the Orishas, sometimes in in the Yoruban language.
My picture  of two Carnaval performers in
Candomble inspired costumes. Recife, Brazil.
So while I can still enjoy my zombie scares and draw upon the rich voodoo mythology for stories, I can appreciate the beauty of voodoo and its influence across cultures without worrying about said zombie rising from the grave. Have a great Halloween!


Sandy Wright said...

Thanks Noemi, I learned a lot about the Vouduin beliefs I didn't know. And the costumes are beautiful.

Mimi said...

Thanks Sandy!!!