Voodoo is the westernisation of the religious tradition originating in West Africa, which became prominent in the New World due to the importation of African slaves. West African Vodun is the original form of the religion; Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo are its descendants in the New World.
West African Vodun
Vodun is practised in the coastal regions of West Africa from Nigeria to Ghana. Vodun is practised by the Ewe, Kabye, Mina and Fon peoples of southeastern Ghana, southern and central Togo, southern and central Benin and (under a different name) the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria.
Voodoo is the most common spelling in popular culture, is often viewed as offensive by practising communities of Vodun, due to the farcical and often racist depictions of Hollywood.
When the word is capitalised, Vodun, it denotes the religion. When it is not, vodun, it denotes the spirits that are central to the religion.
Vodun centres around the Vodun, spirits and other elements of divine essence which govern the Earth. There is a single divine Creator, called variously Mawu or Nana Buluku, which embodies a dual cosmogenic principle, of which Mawu, the moon, and Lisa, the sun, are female and male aspects, respectively. Vodun has its primary emphasis on ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own priestesshood, who are often hereditary. In many African clans, deities might include Mami Wata, who are God/desses of the waters; Legba, who in some clans is virile and young in contrast to the old man form he takes in Haiti; Gu, ruling iron and smithcraft; Sakpata, who rules diseases; and many other spirits distinct in their own way to West Africa.
The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from Western and Central Africa. The Vodun practitioners who were enslaved in the United States were primarily descended from the Ewe, Anlo-Ewe, and other West African groups.
In Haitian Vodou, spirits are divided according to their nature in roughly two categories, whether they are hot or cool. Cool spirits fall under the Rada category, and hot spirits fall under the Petwo category. Rada spirits are familial and congenial, while Petwo spirits are more combative and restless. Both can be dangerous if angry or upset, and despite claims to the contrary, neither is "good" or "evil" in relation to the other.
Everyone is said to have spirits, and each person is considered to have a special relationship with one particular spirit who is said to "own their head", however each person may have many lwa, and the one that owns their head, or the "met tet", may or may not be the most active spirit in a person's life in Haitian belief.
New Orleans Voodoo
Also known as Louisiana Voodoo, New Orleans Voodoo is a form of the Voodoo spirituality which historically developed within the French and Creole speaking African-American population of the U.S. state of Louisiana. It is one of many incarnations of African-based religions rooted in the West African Yoruba tradition, including the Ifá, Vodou, Santeria, Candomble and Palo traditions, syncretized with the Catholic religion via the slave trade.
It was through New Orleans Voodoo that such terms as gris-gris and voodoo dolls were introduced into the American lexicon.
Myths and Misconceptions
Voodoo has come to be associated in popular culture with Satanism, zombies and "voodoo dolls". While there is evidence of zombie creation (see the case of Clairvius Narcisse), it is a minor phenomenon within rural Haitian culture and not a part of the Vodou religion. Such things fall under the auspices of the bokor or sorcerer rather than the priest of the Loa.
The practice of sticking pins in dolls has a history in European folk magic, but its exact origins are unclear. How it became known as a method of cursing an individual by some followers of what has come to be called New Orleans Voodoo, which is a local variant of hoodoo, is a mystery. Some speculate that it was used as a means of self-defence to intimidate superstitious slave owners. This practice is not unique to New Orleans voodoo, however, and has as much basis in European-based magical devices such as the poppet and the nkisi or bocio of West and Central Africa. The practice of hurting a person through the use of a Voodoo doll became closely associated with the Vodou religions in the public mind through the vehicle of horror movies.
Many people are also under the misconception that Voodoo incorporates human sacrifice and cannibalism in its practices. This myth was perpetuated by the writings of Sir Spenser St. John, who was a consul to Haiti. In his book, Haiti: The Black Republic (1889), "the singly most negative book every written on Haiti" sensationalised claims of sacrifice and cannibalism, which was then picked up by the media causing hysteria over the Vodun and Vodou religion.