How Voodoo Works

World of Warcraft's Temple of Zul'Gurub features witch doctors, blood drinkers, hoodoo piles and voodoo dolls.
World of Warcraft's Temple of Zul'Gurub features witch doctors, blood drinkers, hoodoo piles and voodoo dolls.

You don't have to look far to find references to Voodoo in popular culture, especially in the Western world. Zombie movies, of course, have distant roots in Haitian Voodoo. Novelty stores sell pin-filled dolls to target anyone from miscreant romantic partners to unreasonable bosses. Even World of Warcraft has its own brand of Voodoo, found in Zul'Gurub's Hakkari witch doctors, jinxed hoodoo piles and punctured voodoo dolls.

Representations like these are a big part of what many people would mention if asked to describe Voodoo. Some people would also talk about spiritual possession and animal sacrifice. Many might reference a specific place -- usually the Caribbean islands, like Haiti and Jamaica, or the southeastern United States, especially New Orleans and the Mississippi delta.

In spite of their prevalence in most people's minds, many of these stereotypes have nothing to do with Voodoo. Others are related only tangentially. However, some of the stereotypes include a grain of truth, and one -- spirit possession -- is central to the Voodoo religion.

According to the Voodoo tradition, there is one supreme god, who is known by different names in different parts of the world. In Haiti, for example, he is called Bondye, which comes from the French bon dieu, meaning "good god." Regardless of which name people use, the primary god is immensely powerful and beyond the reach ordinary followers. For this reason, Voodoo practitioners must rely on hundreds or thousands of other spirits to communicate with god.

A Voodoo ceremony in Togo, Africa
Photo courtesy Mami Wata Healers Society of North America Inc., image public domain

These spirits are known as loa or lwa in Haiti; anthropologists writing about African Voodoo often refer to them as spirits or gods. The spirits exist in a hierarchy. There are major, powerful loa, many of whom have their own holidays, celebrations or other observances. There are also minor spirits, who play various roles in different regions. Communities and even families have their own loa, such as the spirits of beloved or influential family or community members. The loa receive their power from god and communicate with god on behalf of followers.

During ceremonies and observances, followers of Voodoo ask the spirits for advice, protection or assistance. The process is reciprocal; followers must look after the loa by performing rituals, which sometimes come in the form of animal sacrifice. Other rituals allow followers to thank the spirits for protection, blessings or good fortune. To maintain a good relationship with the loa, followers must also conduct themselves properly according to the customs of both the community and the religion. In this way, the practice of Voodoo can influence a person's day-to-day decisions and activities.

Part of the Voodoo belief is that loa communicate with followers through possession. The loa temporarily displaces the soul of its host, or medium, and takes control of the medium's body. According to this belief, the medium cannot feel pain or become injured while possessed. The loa speaks through the medium, often giving instructions, advice or prophecies of future events. Sometimes, a loa rebukes followers for failing to perform their duties to the loa, their family or their community. In some Voodoo traditions, a few select people have the privilege of becoming possessed. In others, the loa may choose to possess anyone at any time.

This idea -- that powerful or influential spirits can possess people -- unites two distinct forms of Voodoo. One exists primarily in the northern and central portions of the western African coast. The other is practiced primarily in Haiti, as well as in parts of North and South America. Books that explore either form often explain the religion through a series of stories or anecdotes instead of as a straightforward analysis. There are several reasons for this:

  • Voodoo is an oral tradition without a primary holy text, prayer book or set of rituals and beliefs. In different regions, Voodoo practices, the names of gods and other traits can vary considerably.
  • The religion makes use of a wealth of rituals and observations that affect followers' day-to-day lives, making a straightforward list of observances impractical.
  • In many ways, Voodoo is a personal religion. Followers have direct experiences with spirits and loa, and these experiences can be dramatically different from place to place and person to person.

To get an idea of where Voodoo came from and how it works, we'll explore the religion's history as well as the symbols, objects and customs that are common in its practice. We'll begin by taking a look at African Voodoo.

African Voodoo

Voodoo originated in the African kingdoms of Fon and Kongo as many as 6,000 years ago. The word "voodoo" comes from the Fon language, in which it means "sacred," "spirit" or "deity." Other words used in Voodoo today also come from the Fon and Kongo languages. For example, a Voodoo priestess is often referred to as a mambo or manbo. This is a combination of the Fon word for "mother" or "magical charm" and the Kongo word for "healer."

The Fon kingdom was located in what is now southern Benin, a region some anthropologists refer to as the "cradle of Voodoo." People also practice Voodoo in Togo, Ghana and other countries in northwestern Africa. Approximately 30 million people in Togo, Ghana and Benin practice Voodoo today [source: National Public Radio: Radio Expeditions]. Voodoo is also an official religion in Benin, where as many as 60 percent of the people are followers [Source: BBC].

Since Voodoo is primarily an oral tradition, the names of gods, as well as the specifics of different rituals, can change in different regions or from generation to generation. However, African Voodoo has several consistent qualities no matter where people practice it. Along with the belief in multiple gods and spiritual possession, these include:

  • Veneration of ancestors
  • Rituals or objects used to convey magical protection
  • Animal sacrifices used to show respect for a god, to gain its favor or to give thanks
  • The use of fetishes, or objects meant to contain the essence or power of particular spirits
  • Ceremonial dances, which often involve elaborate costumes and masks
  • Ceremonial music and instruments, especially including drums
  • Divination using the interpretation of physical activities, like tossing seed hulls or pulling a stone of a certain color from a tree
  • The association of colors, foods, plants and other items with specific loa and the use of these items to pay tribute to the loa
This Voodoo altar incorporates dolls, bottles and ordinary objects.

Many of these traits, particularly ancestor worship, polytheism, and the importance of music and dance, are also important in other African religions. So, in practice, Voodoo looks a lot like other traditional African religions. Many observances appear to be part celebration, part religious service incorporating rhythmic music, dancing and songs. Many rituals take advantage of the natural landscape, such as rivers, mountains or trees. Through decoration and consecration, ordinary objects, like pots, bottles or parts of slaughtered animals, become sacred objects for use in rituals.

In parts of Africa, people who want to become spiritual leaders in the Voodoo community can enter religious centers, which are much like convents or monasteries. In some communities, initiates symbolically die, spending three days and nights in complete seclusion before being returned to the outside world. Initiates learn the rituals, colors, foods and objects associated with different deities, as well as how to communicate with the loa. The spirits have different personalities and different requirements of their followers, much like the gods in Greek and Roman myths.

Some people associate Voodoo with evil, but many of its rituals, even those that include the sacrifice of live animals, focus on respect and peace. Its religious leaders become community leaders, providing guidance and settling disputes. Leaders also frequently provide medical care in the form of folk medicine. Priests, priestesses and other practitioners typically dedicate their work to helping and caring for others. Curses, witchcraft and spells designed to do harm fall instead into the category of bo. However, most anthropologists agree that Voodoo leaders have a working knowledge of bo, which is separate from Voodoo, believing that understanding how it works is necessary to fighting it. Sorcerers known as botono, rather than Voodoo priests and priestesses, are said to control more sinister spells. In some cases, though, people act as both priests and botono, depending on the situation.

This African form of Voodoo is a precursor to the Voodoo practiced in Haiti and other parts of the Western hemisphere. The regions of Africa where Voodoo has thrived are also areas that were heavily trafficked during the slave trade. Slavery brought Voodoo to the Americas. Next, we'll look at the changes to Voodoo that took place on the other side of the Atlantic.

Haitian Voodoo

In the American colonies, African Voodoo became what is known as Haitian Voodoo today. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on an island known to its indigenous Taino inhabitants as Ayiti, or "Land of the Mountains." Columbus re-named this island Hispaniola, or "Little Spain." Colonists arrived, building plantations that became rich sources of crops like sugar, coffee and indigo. To make these plantations profitable, colonists relied heavily on slave labor. Eventually, Hispaniola became the countries known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Many of the slaves brought to Hispaniola from northern and central Africa in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries practiced Voodoo. But the colony's slave code required all slaves to be baptized as Christians. This forced conversion had a big influence Voodoo. Since slaves could not observe their religion openly, they borrowed many elements from Catholicism to protect their own spiritual practice. This process, known as syncretization, strongly influenced voodoo in Haiti:

  • The names of Catholic saints became the names of loa. In many cases, the loa's role reflected that of the corresponding saint. For example, Saint Peter holds the keys to the kingdom of Heaven and corresponds to the loa Papa Legba, who is the spirit world's gatekeeper.
  • Catholic religious holidays became Voodoo holidays for the corresponding loa. For instance, celebration for a family of spirits called the Gedes, who are personifications of dead ancestors, take place on All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day.
  • Christian crosses became symbols for the crossroads, which represents life-altering choices and steps in the spiritual path for followers of Voodoo.
  • Catholic hymns and prayers became part of Voodoo services.

Several other influences affected Voodoo as well, including the traditions of the local Taino tribes.

The resulting form of Voodoo is a creolized religion, made up of influences from many other religions. But in spite of these additions, Haitian Voodoo strongly resembles African Voodoo. Priestesses, known as mambos, and priests, known as houngans, conduct religious services and provide traditional folk remedies. People who wish to become mambos or houngans often enter an apprenticeship as initiates with other leaders rather than joining a large-scale worship center. Many ceremonies take place in a structure called a honfour, which serves as a temple or sanctuary.

A woman in a trance stands in a pool of water during a voodoo Easter ceremony, April 16, 2006.­

­ As in Africa, possession is an important part of Voodoo in Haiti. The person being possessed is often called a horse who is ridden by the possessing loa. The possessed person may move unnaturally, speak in unknown languages or make clear, direct statements to the other followers. Sacrifice is also important, and many ceremonies involve sacrificing goats, chickens or other animals. In many cases, the combination of possession, animal sacrifice and the ritual dancing and music that accompany them can seem dramatic or even frightening to outside observers.

Voodoo ritual objects for sale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Public domain image

Haitian Voodoo also incorporates clothing, objects and decorations to invoke or show respect for the loa. Kongo packets, or medicine packets, hold healing or medicinal herbs and items. Worshippers carry flags called drapo through areas used for worship to show respect for the spirits. To call to and invoke the loa, people play a variety of drums, bells and rattles. Altars hold numerous ritual objects, such as decorated bottles, dolls and kwi, or calabashes full of food offerings. Worshippers use the dolls as mediums to contact specific loa or the spirit world in general, not to inflict pain or suffering on others. Today, many of the objects have become part of Haitian artwork and crafts. Some Haitian artists, for example, focus on creating depictions of different loa, elaborate drapo or ornately decorated ritual objects.

Although prevalent in Haitian lore, zombies are not typically part of voodoo practice.

As in African Voodoo, mambos and houngans do not typically curse or harm other people. However, some followers believe that bokors, or sorcerers, have the ability to use magic to cause misfortune or injury. Bokors are also part of zombie lore -- some believe that a bokor can use poisons and capture a person's soul to create a zombie. You can read How Zombies Work to learn more about the theories.

Voodoo is an important part in the day-to-day lives of many Haitians. Estimates vary, but in general anthropologists believe that more than half of Haitians practice Voodoo. The religion has also played an important role in Haitian history. The French Revolution in 1789 sparked revolutions elsewhere in the world, including in several colonies in the Americas. In 1797, a Voodoo priest performed a ceremony at Bois Caiman in the Haitian mountains. This ceremony prefaced a slave revolt that lasted until 1804, and the people of Haiti fought armies from Spain, France and Britain. Eventually, Haiti became the first free, black colony in the Americas. This ceremony and its importance are somewhat controversial, but they have become part of the Haitian lore.

Voodoo is widely and openly practiced in Haiti. It also exists in various forms in New Orleans and the southeastern United States. In some cases, the Voodoo practiced in other parts of the Western hemisphere is mixed with other, similar traditions, pagan practices or other customs. However, in some regions, folk magical practices known as hoodoo have overtaken Voodoo in the public eye. Love spells, curses and methods of revenge generally fall under the umbrella of hoodoo and are not Voodoo practices at all.

Confusion with hoodoo is only one reason that Voodoo is controversial. We'll take a look at a few others next.

Voodoo Controversy

Since its growth in Haiti, Haitian Voodoo has spread to other parts of the world. Slaves transported from Haiti to the Mississippi delta carried their traditions with them, and Voodoo expanded from there. Today, people practice various forms of Haitian voodoo openly in Haiti. In other parts of the world, people often practice more covertly.

In many parts of the Western world, people view Voodoo with suspicion. Some people believe it is outright evil or that it encourages worship of the devil. In some countries, missionaries make a deliberate effort to convert people from Voodoo practice to Christianity. There are a number of reasons for these views.

From 1915 to 1935, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) occupied Haiti. During and after this period, Haiti became the setting for books and movies, which often depicted Voodoo as sinister, cruel and bloody. Movies like White Zombie, released in 1932, portrayed Voodoo priests as evildoers who made innocent people into zombies.

Around the same time, hoodoo became more commonplace in parts of the United States, including New Orleans. Previously, New Orleans had had a thriving Voodoo community, lead by Voodoo queens, including two women both known as Marie Laveau. One Laveau disappeared in the late 1870s, and the other died in 1881. Under their successors, the Voodoo community eventually splintered and became less publicly visible. At the same time, vendors began selling hoodoo charms and trinkets throughout New Orleans. Eventually, hoodoo, along with its curses and spells, became synonymous with Voodoo in New Orleans and other parts of the South.

The burial site of Haitian Voodoo leader Marie Laveau
Public domain image

But fictional portrayals and public perceptions are only part of the sense that Voodoo is dark or disturbing. In addition, the practice of Voodoo includes activities that are taboo in other religions and cultures. Many ceremonies involve the sacrifice of live animals and the use of animal blood. Some also include the use of dried animal carcasses and animal parts. While animal sacrifice has been a part of major religions, including Judaism, it is not commonly practiced today. Snakes, which many people find frightening, also play a part in some Voodoo ceremonies and Voodoo symbolism. For example, in Haiti, snakes are associated with one of the most powerful loa, known as Damballah. For this reason, followers often use images of the Catholic Saint Patrick that incorporate snakes to represent Damballah.

The idea of spiritual possession is troublesome to many people, but it also has a place in other religions. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism, gods can temporarily inhabit the bodies of oracles. According to Tibetan lore, the Nechung Oracle, or the protector deity Dorje Drak-den in the body of a Buddhist monk, successfully instructed the Dalai Lama on how to escape Chinese forces in Tibet 1959.

One practical concern about Voodoo practice involves public health. In some Voodoo ceremonies, followers may injure themselves as a show of faith or as a demonstration of a loa's power. Followers may bleed freely or may bleed onto altars or sacred objects. Public health officials state that this may encourage the spread of disease. In addition, many Voodoo leaders, especially in rural areas, offer medical advice and folk remedies. Sometimes, this advice runs contrary to established medical thought concerning the spread of illnesses, especially HIV and other diseases spread through contact with infected blood.

Finally, death is a substantial part of the Voodoo religion. The spirits of dead ancestors, leaders and other important people are central to the Voodoo practice. Critics argue that the emphasis on appeasing dead ancestors creates a culture of fear. Supporters counter that many other religions have placed the same emphasis on appeasing gods. In addition, since death is a topic that makes many people inherently uncomfortable, it is logical that a religious tradition that embraces death may make people uncomfortable, too.

While Voodoo has little to do with many of the nefarious aspects people associate with it, some of the stereotypes that surround it have some basis in real Voodoo practice. To learn more about Voodoo and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • American Museum of Natural History: Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou
  • Caistor, Nick. "Voodoo's Spell over Haiti." BBC. 8/4/2003.
  • Cussans, John. "Voodoo Terror: (mis)Representations of Voodoo and Western Cultural Anxieties.
  • Davis, Rod. "American Voudou." University of North Texas Press. 1998.
  • Government of Tibet in Exile. "Nechung - The Oracle of Tibet."
  • Guynup, Sharon. "Haiti: Possessed by Voodoo." National Geographic News. 7/7/2004. 07/0707_040707_tvtaboovoodoo.html
  • Handwerk, Brian. "Voodoo a Legitimate Religion, Anthropologist Says." National Geographic News. 10/21/2002. 1021_021021_taboovoodoo.html
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  • Holloway, Joseph E. "Africanisms in American Culture." Indiana University Press. 1990.
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  • Ward, Martha. "Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau." University Press of Mississippi. 2004.