Vodou
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Basic Information

Vodou (also voodoo, voudou and other, related spellings) is a shamanistic/spiritualist religion common in the French Carribean1 and its diaspora.
Vodou is a syncretic faith born from the fusion of Roman Christianity and several African polytheisms and animisms, mostly amongst the populations of black Africans imported to work as slaves in the plantations of the Carribean area.
It is closely related to Santeria and Obeah … similar faiths from the Spanish and English speaking regions of the same area. It should not be confused with hoodoo, which is a form of folk magic from the southern USA - also a syncretic European/African tradition but not a religion.

Vodou recognises a supreme deity called Bondye or Bondoo2 who rules over many lesser powers called loas or lwa. He himself has withdrawn from his creation and may not be directly approached, meaning that voudisants3 must deal with the loa only at least until they die.
As part of the syncretism, each loa is identified as being a Saint from the Roman Christian canon - for example Papa Legba, the gatekeeper to the realm of the dead in Vodou tradition, is usually identified as an aspect of Saint Peter who fulfils a similar role in the Roman tradition. Each loa is also identified by a unique pictogram or veve.

Religious services are lead by a hougan (male) or mambo (female) who is responsible for calling up and controlling the manifestation of the loas, who then possess one or more of the congregants for at least part of the ceremony. Part of the hougan or mambo's job is to identify arriving loa and provide them with appropriate props for their manifestation. Animal sacrifices, music, dancing and feasting are normal parts of a service and many of the loas are also fond of drinking and smoking cigars.

The loas are said to belong to a number of nachons (nations), each with its own characteristics - the most prominent of these are:

Rada Loa:
Apparently the oldest and most benevolent, closely associated with old African deities.

Ghede Loa:
Another large tribe, at least partially composed of ascended ancestors and ruled over by the four barons (Samedi, La Croix, Cimitiere and Kriminel) and a female loa called Maman Brigitte. Something of a kingdom of the dead they are prone to be lewd, rude and boisterous when in possession.

Petro Loa:
A very recent nation of hard and violent loa that seem to have come into being in or around the Haitan Revolt. Very warlike and hard to deal with - unsurprisingly the much feared Loa Marinette (allegedly the ascended spirit of the mambo that started the revolt) is one of the Petro loa.

Kongo loa:
A minor nation of loas, originating from the Congo region of Africa.

Nago loa:
Another minor nation, originating from Nigeria.

There are also complicated family lineages within the nachons (and occasionally between them).

A mambo or hougan who delves into the darker realms of vodou - dealing with the more aggressive spirits and seeking aims that are not for the benefit of their community - is often called a bokor. This is particularly common for a solitary practitioner who doesn't lead a congregation.

Sources

Bibliography
1. full source reference

See Also

  • Marie Laveau "The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans" a 19th Century Mambo and allegedly a potent theurge.

Game and Story Use

  • If your PCs need a shaman in a modern setting, a hougan or mambo may be their best choice … or a celebrant from some similar Carribean religion, depending on where they live and what diasporae are to hand.
  • Some understanding of Vodou is pretty much indispensible for any adventure set in Haiti since it can be extremely pervasive - due to its syncretic nature many people who would consider themselves mainstream Romanists will also participate in Vodou practices and vice-versa.
  • Vodou and the related religions are good models for anyone wanting to create a related, fictional religion.
  • Hollywood's general abuse of Vodou as a religion of evil is also a good model for cultural misunderstandings.
    • Of course, if you want to portray Haiti under the rule of the Duvaliers … where bokor type behaviour was a lot more prevalent then by all means Hollywood it up. The Duvalier family purposely used a great deal of the darker aspects of vodou to inspire terror in their subjects.
    • Speaking of the Duvaliers … and similar malignancies … some occultists put a lot of Haiti's troubles post the revolt down to the machinations of the Petro Loa serving in the role of spiritual UXO. A clear case of desperate people failing to observe the Charles Dexter Ward Principle.
  • Vodou is also (and largely unjustly) famous for it's zombies and extensive use of poppet magic - either of which would be the work of a bokor if they appeared at all.
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