I’ve seen the names of voodoo and hoodoo being tossed around as synonyms, as alternatives for spelling. But they’re not. I’ll admit that I only discovered this myself quite recently, so let me try to get another misconception out the world.
In short, voodoo is a genuine religion and hoodoo is not. Hoodoo is a form of folk magic. Spiritual practices. A magic system of conjuration. So actually many things you see in movies like “The Skeleton Key” and some parts of “The Princess and the Frog” are hoodoo, not voodoo. Doctor Facilier’s appearance however, is voodoo. So Hollywood, as usual, doesn’t help with the exact distinction between the two. However, there are some similarities and connections between the two, and in a few situations are very closely tied to eachother. They’re both of African origin, brought to America through slave trade for example, and both have a big presence in Louisiana, it being a historically central point for enslaved Africans. Both (but mostly voodoo) are usually depicted as evil as well, Satanic and dealing with dark forces. Superstitious primitives using animal sacrifices. It’s just another racist stereotyping stemming from not understanding something different, fueled by misinformed newspapers and Hollywood studios. Both voodoo and hoodoo agree that their God and spirits are not inherently good or evil, neither are their rituals, talismans or tonics. Those are just tools, and the wielder chooses what to do with it. I couldn’t find an example of a movie or series where it’s well depicted. “The Skeleton Key” comes closest, I think, showing a bit of both sides, hoodoo being used for benign and malign purposes.
Hoodoo has its origin in West African countries and is a blend of practices from tribes in, among other, Congo, Benin, Togo and Nigeria. So hoodoo, also known as rootwork, is an amalgam, with each practitioner having their own spin on how to do a particular ritual or an own way to make a certain potion. Hoodoo is used to aid in the daily lives of people, to find love, get healthy, gain power or to influence their luck and success. They create powders, oils and talismans commonly using, like many other spiritual and medical folk practices, herbs, minerals, animal body parts and personal tokens of emotional value, as well as bodily fluids like urine, saliva, semen or menstrual blood. Another popular hoodoo tradition is the Bottle Tree, where the evil spirits are trapped inside the bottle and subsequently destroyed by the morning sun.
The main concern of hoodoo people is spiritual balance and individual spiritual power. Anyone can do hoodoo, and being a hoodoo doctor to creat a potion or whatnot is never absolutely required. There are even commercial companies selling hoodoo products. In several hoodoo traditions, there is a genderless supreme being which does not interfere at all, but most practitioners nowadays are actually Christians, mainly Protestant. The Bible is a source for spells and incantations, they use psalms during rituals and the book itself is used as a protective talisman. God is the archetypal hoodoo doctor, with Moses as a conjurer, explaining his staff turning into a snake and the splitting of the Red Sea through magical powers. So it’s a bit odd to see hoodoo depicted as Satanic if hoodoo is so closely linked to Christianity. But what Christianity can’t defeat, it absorbs through syncretization. The practices are definitely different, but then again, hoodoo is NOT a religion in itself.
Voodoo (meaning spirit), in contrast, is much more standardized and widespread. There are a few branches of the religion, Louisiana Voodoo and Haitian Vodou being the most important ones. There’s also West African Vodun, Cuban Vodú and Dominican Vudú. All of these have their origin in Africa as well, making voodoo a great example of an African diasporic religion.
Left: Gris-gris, a typical talisman of Louisiana Voodoo.
Right: a typical Haitian voodoo altar, dedicated to the loa of death and fertility.
Louisiana Voodoo is a mix of West African, French and Spanish ways and its base language is Louisiana Creole French. They have voodoo queens, who make their living by selling amulets, charms, powers, spells and charms, … These queens were usually highly respected by both the black and white communities and had great influence in the city. The most prominent of these was Marie Laveau. It was also through her that voodoo experienced influences from Catholicism, syncretizing some of their spirits with Christian saints. There were voodoo kings as well, Papa Midnite from the Constantine comics is based on them. The practices of these kings and queens is very akin to hoodoo. Voodoo and hoodoo developed side by side in Louisiana, influencing each other, only adding to the confusion of one for the other. Hoodoo is not central to the Louisiana Voodoo faith, but has been an integral part of it for many years. One common practice is the use of gris-gris, an amulet to ward off evil or bring luck. Louisiana voodoo is also the origin of voodoo dolls, but the dolls do not have an important use at all, and never to actually curse someone or cause harm. The actual origin of sticking pins in dolls lies in Britain, the link to voodoo came when the United States wanted to further disgrace the African religious practices.
Haitian Vodun, or Vodou, is another syncretic religion, but has a more original pantheon of spirits. Their supreme being is called Bondye, deriving from the French Bon Dieu, since Haitian Creole is based on French. Bondye itself doesn’t interfere and is unreachable, all worship is directed to its servant spirits called loa, or lwa. Each of these loa precide over a certain aspect of life, much like Greek or Norse mythology, and have a personality that goes with that domain. The most famous of these is Baron Samedi, the loa of the dead.
Another loa is Papa Legba, the guardian of the crossroads and is the bridge between humanity and the spirit world. Papa Legba is also associated with communication, speech and understanding and is said to speak all languages in existence. Haitian Vodou does have temples for worshipping and priests to lead in prayer (though you don’t have to be a priest to do so). These priests are chosen by dead ancestors through possessions. The powers they gain from this can be used for good or evil. Vodou sorcerers are the ones usually using darker magic (I believe Doctor Facilier is a good example of this). Vodou practitioners revere death, and believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, but not a seperation of hell and heaven. The soul continuous to live again in the world itself, occupying trees or as a hushed voice in the wind. There’s obviously much more to their religion, but I can’t summarize it without another two pages of text. So if you want to know more, go to the wiki page.
Vodou had a resurgence when François Duvalier became (through populism) president of Haiti in 1957. Known as Papa Doc (he was a physician by profession), he established a cult of personality around himself as the physical embodiment of the island, modeling himself after Baron Samedi. He hid his eyes behind sunglasses and spoke with a nasal tone, the way loa are said to speak. His regime told that “Papa Doc was one with the loa, Jesus Christ and God himself”. Papa Doc established the Tonton Macoute (‘Uncle Gunnysack’, their equivalent of the boogeyman), a special operations unit to oppose the regular army and his political opponents. He made himself president-for-life, his rule ending with his death in 1971. He was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude, nicknamed Baby Doc, who continued his father’s reign of terror, funding his lavish lifestyle with drug trade and selling body parts from dead Haitians. Both father and son are responsible for many Haitians being murdered, tortured and exiled, while many more fled the country. In 1985, a rebellion began and Duvalier fled to France in 1986, leading to many more coup d’états and shifts in presidency, only a few of which were entirely democratic. I didn’t want this post to become too political, but be aware of the history of populism and what can often lead to (but als be mindful that Bernie Sanders is a populist as well).
The confusion of voodoo and hoodoo is grounded in similarities in both origin, practices and locality. They’re distinct, but also connected in many ways. But they’re not the same. I hope you learned something from this, and remember that but very few things are inherently good or evil, only the actions they are used in.
This blog was brought to you by: Screaming Jay Hawkins – I Put a Spell on You