The Voodoo Trail: Togo and Benin
Who doesn't know the Voodoo dolls with magic dark power from horror movies? Well, if you ever get an opportunity to visit the region of West Africa, especially Togo or Benin, then you might experience the real Voodoo, which is quite different from the picture we get from these movies. Voodoo is a traditional animistic religion and has its roots in West Africa, mainly Benin. The Voodoo was also spread around the world (mostly in slave ships), you can find Voodoo, sometimes as a syncretic religion combined with Roman Catholicism, for example on Haiti, Brazil, Louisiana or Puerto Rico. Vodun, Vodon, Vodoun or Voudou are all equivalent terms for Voodoo, which means 'spirit' in the Fon language.
Although the 'Voodoo dolls' somehow exist, the correct term is 'Voodoo fetish' in form of a talisman. The word 'fetish' derives from the Portuguese word 'feitiço'. A fetish is a creature, an object, a talisman or an amulet, believed to have supernatural or divine powers. It can be a doll like the well known Voodoo doll; however the fetish object can be virtually anything: for instance a crocodile, a snake, a tree, a flower or simply a rock.
The followers of Voodoo believe that the spirit and the divine essence can be found everywhere, in every part of the earth, in every living organism. All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine. Worshipping fetishes is a way to connect to the major deities who governs the forces of nature and human society. Through decoration and consecration, ordinary objects, like bottles, pots or parts of slaughtered animals, become sacred objects or 'fetishes' for the usage in rituals.
Fetishes in form of a talisman are commonly used for their protecting, healing or spiritually rejuvenating powers. However the jinxed 'Voodoo doll' as a symbol of an enemy to curse him with misfortune, pain and even death by thrusting pins into the doll is in no way part of the traditional African Voodoo but merely a fiction of movie directors. On the other hand, there is a 'dark side' as well in Voodoo in form of evil sorcery and black magic.
The spirits of the Voodoo religion are called 'Loa' and they exist in a hierarchy. The word 'Loa' means ‘mystery’ in the Yoruba language. Since Voodoo is a religion of many traditions, the names and the hierarchy of the Loas can vary considerably from village to village. Voodoo is also an oral tradition and a personal religion. Therefore the rituals are different from region to region and the experiences with spirits and ‘Loa’ can differ dramatically from one person to another.
Voodoo is the centre of the religious life in West African villages and often celebrated in rituals or ceremonies. If you are lucky to be invited to a ceremony you should first carefully look for the fetishes of the ceremony and try to discover the sacred spot of the village or the ceremony itself. Sometimes it is easy, for instance you will see a pile of sacrificed animals. But it also could be a small hole in the floor or in the wall of a hut where smoke arises. Or the fetish is visualized in form of a drawing at the wall; let's say a crocodile or a snake. Very often in that case the spirit is in the house. The spirit, or 'Loa', could be a family member, or an ancestor of the family.
The most important part of the ceremonies and rituals are the dances, which often involve elaborate costumes and masks. Some of the dancers try to enter a trance to communicate with their ancestors or with the Voodoo spirits, the 'Loa'. The Voodoo spirits temporarily replace the soul of the dancers in trance and take control of their bodies. The participants of the ceremony ask the dancer in trance, and therefore the Voodoo spirits or the ancestors, for advice, prophecies, protection or assistance.
Egunguns are a very special but important part of Beninese Voodoo, mainly in the region of the Yoruba tribe. 'Egungun' is a Yoruba word and means: 'the souls of the dead who have returned to earth for a short time to pass on specific advice to the living'. The ancestors return from the realm of the dead as a ghost, and present themselves in the physical form of human beings at the Egungun ceremony. During an Egungun ceremony one or more dancers fall into trance and spirits of the ancestors enter their bodies. Elaborate costumes adorn the masked dancers, and through drumming and dance, these dancers become possessed with the spirits of the ancestors. The spirits either hand out advices or punishment. The given advice is a direct word of god, and the advice is final.
In order to understand the importance of the ancestor cult, it is helpful to know a bit more about the belief in after-life in the Voodoo religion. In Voodoo death is not the end of life. One important aspect of the Voodoo after-life is the chance to be remembered by the living. The ancestors are much more than just dead relatives, they play an active role in the daily life of the living. There are several ways for the living to keep in touch with the ancestors, for example in dreams or in form of the possessed dancers in a ceremony. Since the ancestors are kind of 'bilingual' they speak the language of the spirits as well as the language of the living. In exchange for being ritually remembered, the ancestors hand our prophecies from the spirits or give advices, but sometimes also punishment for family members who maybe have forgotten the ties to their ancestors.
It is difficult to estimate how many people are still following the Voodoo cult in West Africa, some sources mention that about 25% of the population of Benin follows Voodoo, in other sources you can read about 50 to 60%. It is true that many followers of Voodoo converted to Christianity in recent years and left the cult. But it is also true, that many of them, although now officially followers of Christianity, return to the animal sacrifices, the veneration of fetishes and the dances with the spirits and ancestors.