Voodoo, or more properly Vodou or Vodun (Voodoo being a more Hollywood-ized version of the word), is a religion stemming from Africa that’s widely practiced in many Caribbean countries (most famously Haiti) as well as Africa, South America and Louisiana. The core belief in Voodoo is that there’s one god (Bondye) and that god employs spirits (or loa) to deal with day-to-day stuff like spiritual middle management. Each of these loa represents facets of earthy life. Like the Greek gods, loa are very powerful but have human foibles and egos, which can make invoking them tricky business. Many have a fondness for cigars, rum, mutton, mirrors and coffee and offerings of these items are encouraged to curry favor. The loa never appear in the flesh but possess those who call to them for short periods of time. It is considered a great honor to be mounted by the spirits.
Voodoo is a blend of ancient African religions dating back over 10,000 years. When Africans were forced into slavery all they had left were their local religious beliefs. Slave owners thought it prudent to mix the various tribes together on plantations, hoping that lack of a unified language and customs would prevent slaves from uniting. The various African beliefs of these mixed slaves merged into what is commonly known as Voodoo. Aspects of Christianity were also incorporated, often as a smokescreen behind which slaves could practice their religion without punishment from slave masters. Vodou actually translates as spirit, and the oppressed found hope in their beliefs. In many ways Voodoo’s survival is a testament to human will.
FUN FACT – The successful slave revolt in Haiti supposedly owes its success to Voodoo. It was during a Voodoo service that the warrior spirit Ogoun possessed Dutty Boukman. During this possession he laid out the plans for the revolution, and even named its leaders. The successful uprising began eight days later.
Voodoo’s consistent imagery of skulls, death and serpents seems frightening but stems from the faith’s roots in slavery. Slaves did not fear death, considering it a release from a lifetime of suffering. Therefore imagery relating to death had no negative connotations.
Voodoo also gets a bad rap due to the practice of animal sacrifice. I’m NOT defending this practice but would point out that Voodoo is rooted in agrarian societies. Every man woman and child in poor rural areas sees chickens and goats slaughtered every day; in fact, they regularly take part in it because that’s where dinner comes from. In short, animals dying are a part of day-to-day life. Voodoo priests are generally skilled butchers with no interest in torturing animals. Also the congregation actually cooks and eats these sacrifices; so they are not wasted. Again, I’m NOT defending animal sacrifice, just clarifying its background.
A male Voodoo priest is called a houngan, and a priestess is called a mambo and both have equal power in society. A Voodoo priest who practices evil (actually called red magic) is called a bokor. Haiti’s Poppa and Baby Doc both claimed to be bokors to frighten citizens into submission. The much feared Bizango cult were bokors who left behind a wealth of relics and artwork.
Zombies do exist in Voodoo folklore, usually as a person brought back from the dead by a bokor. Interestingly, the reanimated body is not considered the valuable prize in this process; stealing the soul of that zombie/person is where the evildoer gains his power. You can find endless volumes on Voodoo zombies and the science associated with them. I particularly recommend Wade Davis’ The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Voodoo’s image has not fared very well in books and movies, and it’s universally associated with zombies, Voodoo dolls and black magic. In truth it is a religion practiced by millions who find community and strength in their faith.
There’s plenty of good information about Voodoo online (and a lot of BAD information) but even Wikipedia can give you a far better grounding than some ignorant horror scribe like myself could provide.