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The ancient practices of voodoo have a barbaric and sinister reputation, especially among Europeans. This cruel image, propagated by films and popular literature, includes black magic, bloody human sacrifices, evil zombies, dolls stuck with pins and black people dancing in a trance to the primitive rhythm of drums. How much of this is true? Next to nothing.

In reality, voodoo is one of the world’s oldest known religions, a combination of practices which have been present in Africa since the beginning of human civilization. The word voodoo comes from the West African word vodun, meaning spirit. The religion is still practised by millions all over the world, especially in the Caribbean and in South, Central and North America. Its main aim is the spiritual rebirth of an individual through his contact with god. In voodoo, the universe is all one. Each thing affects something else, so we all serve as parts of One. God is manifested through the spirits of ancestors, who must be honoured in ceremonies. Voodoo is an animist faith–objects and natural phenomena are believed to possess holy significance, a soul.

Skulls and ritual masks.
Voodoo practitioners believe in one god–an abstract and omnipotent force–but they communicate with the divine through thousands of spirits, called Loa. They control nature, health, wealth, work and happiness. Each spirit has its own favourite vegetable, colour, number and day! The spirits appear in the wind and rain, the thunder and lightening, the rivers and oceans, as animals or plants. Voodoo is also healing the body (its medical side is well known), maintaining identity (it’s a state religion in Benin and Haiti!) and retaining freedom (it developed among slaves).

In voodoo, ancestors are believed to return in spirit to their families after death. Their souls bring wisdom, experience and universal values. Therefore, voodoo priests often use objects that the
ancestors once liked or owned, e.g., flowers, candles, tobacco, even food and drink… Their prayers usually start with the words: Hail to all my ancestors, those remembered and those forgotten.

During my stay in New Orleans, I happened to participate in some voodoo rites. A typical ceremony starts with the priest or priestess sprinkling the ground with clean cold water. Then the ritual dances begin and gifts are left for all voodoo spirits. One of the important spirits is Victorious John, the defender of slaves. Legend has it that John assumed the human shape of an African to outsmart the oppressors. When slavery was abolished, he disappeared and his soul entered a kind of root, since that time known as John’s Root. Today, it’s the most popular cult object used in New Orleans voodoo rites. It accompanies the prayer for success and bravery: Be praised, High John. There is still violence and oppression in our world. Give us wisdom and strength to withstand them.

Tourists coming to New Orleans can visit the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, situated in the famous Old French Quarter at 724 Dumaine Street. It was founded in 1972 by Charles Massicot Gandolfo, an artist and historian, who is its owner and custodian to this day. The museum displays thousands of exhibits connected with the past and present of voodoo. The institution organizes regular voodoo ceremonies and tours. One of the highlights of such tours is the tomb of Marie Laveau, a 19th-century voodoo queen. You can also visit haunted houses, the Voodoo Catholic Church, a voodoo drugstore and –of course–numerous souvenir shops.

And the museum itself? The art gallery boasts the portrait of the High Priestess, Marie Laveau herself, paintings showing ancient and modern voodoo rites, maps, African and Caribbean masks, sculptures and statuettes, voodoo instruments as well as old occult books and manuscripts. Interestingly, you can see lots of artefacts connected with other cults and religions displayed on the walls as well.

This is where you can find the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.
Before leaving the museum, you must walk under an alligator head, supposed to dispel evil spirits, and then visit the official voodoo museum shop. The friendly staff will advise you what to buy and how to use it. Apart from books and albums, you can get talismans, charms, magic oils and powders there. Mr Gandalfo will be glad to offer lectures and consultations to those who become a bit more interested in the ancient practices of voodoo.

Ryszard Wolański


translated by Jerzy Chyb

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