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Voodoo Likely the First African-American Religion in America

Slaves from West Africa brought the religions of their ancestry to the U.S. generations ago, and then used that spirituality to hold on to their heritage.
SpiritualRay Staff
By Mark Hoerrner

Chicken bones. Conferring with spirits and ethereal deities. Visions of graveyard rituals. These are the images movies and superstition have conjured about the practitioners of the religion of voodoo, or Vodoun.

Unlike Judeo-Christian religions, Vodoun encompasses all areas in a person's life and incorporates intricate rituals for even the smallest daily routine. The religion stems from natural religions cultivated and handed down from generation to generation in Africa. Largely based on general concepts such as 'nature' or the 'spirit', Vodoun is the predecessor to American voodoo. The name 'voodoo' is actually a term created by those who saw the religion as evil, but it has derived from several sources, including 'Vodou' in the Fon language and 'Vudu' in the Ewe language. All told, more than 30 tribal groups in West Africa subscribed to the religion.

'Vodou' means 'spirit', and is used to identify the divinity of nature that is staple to the Vodoun tradition. The Ewe tribes use the term to describe not only nature, but the totality of existence and harmony within the juxtaposition of the worlds of the living and the spirit realm.

When slaves were first brought from Africa to America, Voodoo was immediately outlawed by the largely Christian slave owners and demonized as a savage religion. Immediately, the religion became one of the key ways for slave to resist the oppression of their slave owners, and it gave them a very personal connection with their African homeland.

"When the Africans were transported to the New World, the religion became considerably maligned and actively suppressed by the colonial government," says Mamaissii 'Zogbé' Vivian Hunter-Hindrew, founder of the Organization of African Traditional Healers in an interview with About.com. "This was so because the Vodou's philosophical and political structure and cultural manifestation emphasized the warrior gods who sustained and directly aided the Africans in their numerous slave rebellions, and ultimately their freedom from the brutal system of chattel slavery forced upon them."

Hunter-Hindrew, considered a holy leader in the religion, points out that some of the things that have led to the mislabeling of Voodoo practices in the west are misconceptions about magic and animal sacrifice.

"This is perhaps one of the biggest myths regarding the esoteric understanding of African Traditional Religions in general," she says. "and the Vodoun religion in particular. There is no use of magic in Vodoun as it is understood and practiced in the West. However, there are aspects of phenomena, or what some would regard as 'miracles' that are made manifest by the Vodou spirits themselves. But, these manifestations in no way involve the use of 'magic' or 'trickery' as Hollywood has often misrepresented it."

She is also quick to point out that while the religion does incorporate animal sacrifices with stock animals―particularly chickens and goats―these creatures are often shared in communal meals by practitioners and given a high state of regard within the spiritual realm. She notes that this differs considerably from the Western slaughterhouses that take dispassionately bred livestock and process them for general consumption throughout the world.

The American tradition of Voodoo has also been integrated into the heavily herbal-based 'Hoodoo', which incorporates elements of Vodoun and a number of other West African religions.

African religions have experienced a phenomenal increase in participation by African-Americans over the last 25 years or so. Neo-pagans and wiccans are also finding a place in the Voodoo world, though Hunter-Hindrew notes that many of these practitioners misunderstand the religion they are toying with.

What Hunter-Hindrew is promoting now, however, is the realization that the religion, as she states above, requires the acknowledgment of ancestry. While new practitioners can still join the religion and seek to serve the Vodoun spirits, it's a different road than those who have African ancestry.

"Unfortunately, because they lack direct ancestral ties in the tradition," she says, "their emphasis is focused mainly on the 'power' of the divinities and what they've been told that they can manifest from them, as opposed to acknowledging and honoring the African ancestors who carry the 'ase' (power). They have yet to understand that in order to really know the mysteries, there is no getting around the African ancestors and those who carried these mysteries in their blood and were enslaved here in the West, for it is the Ancestors who control the mysteries."