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West African Vodun: Wikis


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Voodoo altar with several fetishes in Abomey, Benin

Vodun or Vudun (Gbe pronunciation: [vodṹ] — that is, with a nasal u on a high tone) (so spelled in the Fon language of Benin and the Ewe language of Togo and Ghana; also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Voudou, Voodoo etc.) is a traditional Polytheistic organised religion of coastal West Africa, from Nigeria to Ghana. It is distinct from the various traditional animistic religions in the interiors of these same countries, as well as from various religions with often similar names of the African Diaspora in the New World, such as Haitian Vodou, the similar Vudu of the Dominican Republic, Candomblé Jejé in Brazil (which uses the term Vodum), Louisiana Voodoo, and Santería in Cuba, which are syncretized with Christianity and the traditional religions of the Kongo people of Congo and Angola.

The word vodún is the Gbe (Fon-Ewe) word for spirit. When the word is capitalized, Vodun, it denotes the religion. When it is not, vodun, it denotes the spirits that are central to the religion. "Voodoo" is the most common pronunciation amongst English speakers. Vodun is practised by the Ewe, Kabye, Mina, Fon, peoples of southeastern Ghana, southern and central Togo, southern and central Benin,and (under a different name) the Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria.


Vodun cosmology

Vodun cosmology centers around the vodun, spirits and other elements of divine essence which govern the Earth. Vodun has a single divine Creator, called variously Mawu or Nana Buluku, which embodies a dual cosmogenic principle, and of which Mawu, the moon, and Lisa, the sun, are female and male aspects, respectively. (Mawu and Lisa are often portrayed as the twin children of the Creator.) There are a hierarchy of lesser creations, the vodun, which range in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, the more impressive of which may be considered sacred. God does not trifle with the mundane, so the vodun are the centre of religious life. (It is often believed that it is these aspects of the religion, similar in many ways to the Trinity and the intercession of saints and angels, which made Vodun so compatible with Christianity, especially Catholicism, in the New World, and produced such strongly syncretistic religions as Haitian Vodou.)

The pantheon of the vodun is quite large and complex. In one tradition, there are seven daughters and sons of Mawu, which are inter-ethnic and related to natural phenomena or historical or mythical individuals, as well as dozens of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, tribe, or nation. There is a pantheistic quality to Vodun, since all of Divine Creation is considered divine, and therefore contains the power of the divine. This is a concept vital to medicine, such as herbal remedies, and explains the ubiquitous use of mundane objects in religious ritual.

Voodoo fetish market in Lomé, Togo.

Patterns of worship follow various dialects, gods, practices, songs, and rituals. In vodun, the practice of offering an animal sacrifice is common as a way to show respect and thankfulness to the gods. Worshippers also believe in ancestor worship and hold the idea that the spirits of the dead live side by side in the world of the living. They also utilise items that hold spiritual properties. Voodoo talismans called "fetishes" are objects such as statues or dried animal parts that are sold for their healing and spiritually rejuvenating properties.

West African Vodun, has its primary emphasis on ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own priestesshood, 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 form of an old man 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.

Queen Mothers

Mama, or Queen Mothers, are usually elder women who are elected by the kingmakers upon the death of the previous Queen Mother and are given the name of one of their highly respected female ancestors. The woman who is chosen is usually the oldest women in her clan, but this tradition may be overruled due to factors such as health, education, and national influence. The responsibilities of a Queen Mother are mostly geared towards activities among women. They take part in the organisation and the running of markets and are also responsible for their upkeep, which is vitaly important because marketplaces are the focal points for gatherings and social centres in their communities. In the past when the men of the villages would go to war, the Queen Mothers would lead prayer ceremonies in which all the women attended every morning to ensure the safe return of their menfolk.

The Deities

Vodun has many Deities (Orishas) to which they attribute characteristics. Contrary to modern beliefs and preconceived notions Voodoo is a Monotheistic religion. Similar to Catholicism there is One God with many helpers (Orishas). Eshu is the divine messenger deity who transfers and relays messages between the human world and the world of the Orishas. He is depicted as a very dark, short man who carries a large staff. He is commonly associated with having a pipe, candy, or his fingers in his mouth. He is the one who is said to be the mediator between the gods and the living and maintain a balance in order, peace, and communication. Mawu was an androgynous creator who bore seven children and gave them each the power to rule over a realm of nature- animals, earth, and sea. Mawu's youngest child, Legba, was to remain with her and act as a go-between with her other children.


Contrary to its reputation, Vodun did not develop to be used for evil. However, there is a dark side to Vodun practice. Sorcerers and sorceresses called Botono (also known as Aze/Azetos) are believed to cast hexes on the enemies of supplicants. The Botono claim to call upon evil Voodoo spirits to bring misfortune or harm to a single person or a group.


About 18% of the population of Benin, some 1 million people, follow Vodun. (This does not count other traditional religions in Benin.) In addition, many of the 43% of the population that refer to themselves as Christian practise a syncretized religion, not dissimilar from Haitian Vodou or Brazilian Cadomblé; indeed, many of them are descended from freed Brazilian slaves who settled on the coast near Ouidah. In Togo, about half the population practises indigenous religions, of which Vodun is by far the largest, with some 2½ million followers; there may be another million Vodunists among the Ewe of Ghana: 13% of the population of 20 million are Ewe and 38% of Ghanaians practise traditional religion. According to census data, about 14 million people practise traditional religion in Nigeria, most of whom are Yoruba practising Vodun, but no specific breakdown is available.

European colonialism, followed by some of the totalitarian regimes in West Africa, have tried to suppress Vodun as well as other traditional religions. However, because the vodun deities are born to each clan, tribe, and nation, and their clergy are central to maintaining the moral, social and political order and ancestral foundation of its village, these efforts have not been successful. Recently there have been moves to restore the place of Vodun in national society, such as an annual International Vodun Conference held in the city of Ouidah in Benin that has been held since 1991.

See also


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  • Bastide. R. African Civilizations in the New World. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971.
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  • Deren, Maya. "Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti." (London: Thames and Hudson, 1953).
  • “Demoniacal Possession in Angola, Africa”. Journal of American Folk-lore. Vol VI., 1893. No. XXIII.
  • Ellis, A.B. "Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa" (Chicago: Benin Press, 1965).
  • Fontenot, Wonda. L. "Secret Doctors: Enthnomedicine of African Americans" (Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1994).
  • Hazoum ‚ P. “Doguicimi. The First Dahomean Novel" (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1990).
  • Herskovits, M.J. and Hersovits, F.S. Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University,
  • Hindrew, Vivian M.Ed., Mami Wata: African's Ancient God/dess Unveiled. Reclaiming the Ancient Vodoun heritage of the Diaspora. Martinez, GA: MWHS.
  • Hindrew, Vivian M.Ed., Vodoun: Why African-Americans Fear Their Cosmogentic Paths to God. Martinez, GA. MWHS:
  • Herskovits, M.J. and Hersovits, F.S. "An Outline of Dahomean Religious Belief" (Wisconsin: The American Anthropological Association, 1933).
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. "Tell My Horse: Voodoo And Life In Haiti And Jamaica." Harper Perennial reprint edition, 1990.
  • Hyatt M. H. "Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork" (Illinois: Alama Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1973), Vols. I-V.
  • Journal of African History. 36. (1995) pp. 391–417.Concerning Negro Sorcery in the United States;
  • Language Guide (Ewe version). Accra: Bureau of Ghana Languages,
  • Manoukian, Madeline. “The Ewe-Speaking People of Togland and the Gold Coast”. London: International African Insittute, 1952.
  • Maupoil, Bernard. "La Geomancie L'ancienne des Esclaves" (Paris: L'universit‚ de Paris, 1943).
  • Metraux, Alfred. "Voodoo In Haiti." (Pantheon reprint edition, 1989)
  • Newbell, Pucket. N. “Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro”. S.C.: Chapel Hill, 1922.
  • Newell, William, W. "Reports of Voodoo Worship in Hayti and Louisiana," Journal of American Folk-lore, 41-47, 1888. p. 41-47.
  • Pliya, J. "Histoire Dahomey Afrique Occidental" (Moulineaux: France, 1970).
  • Slave Society on the Southern Plantation.” The Journal of Negro History. Vol. VII-January, 1922-No.1.

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