What is Voodoo? Making Sense of Animal Sacrifice, the Undead and Possession

Presenting Voodoo to my readers has been challenging: it is a vast, varied and much-abused subject. These issues come with considerable cultural baggage, so bear with me.
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Editors note: While this article adheres to the AP Style, 'Vodou' is considered a more appropriate spelling by the author and other scholars.

Presenting Voodoo to my readers has been challenging: it is a vast, varied and much-abused subject. In my first post, I introduced some basic concepts and history of Voodoo in the Americas. In this one, I will try to explain three of the most controversial aspects of Voodoo: Animal sacrifice, images of the "undead" (skeletons and zombies!) and possession. These issues come with considerable cultural baggage, so bear with me as I try to cram them into 1,000 words or so.

Animal sacrifice

In Voodoo, food is one of the many offerings ceremoniously given to the Lwa (Spirits) and is usually shared afterward as a communal meal. In a meat-eating society, animals are food. In small-scale cultures, people slaughter animals at home rather than buying meat at the grocery store. Animal sacrifice is not about a morbid fascination with death of an animal; it is the offering of life-giving energy in the preparation of sacred food.

Here in the USA, most of us are ambivalent about animals. In our minds, the act of killing an animal is morally charged, but the act of eating one is morally neutral. The absence of death in our lives makes death compelling and mysterious. But in other cultures and in our rural areas, it is an unremarkable aspect of existence; slaughtering an animal is as neutral and necessary as putting a can of soup in a grocery cart.

Some Voodooists in the U.S., including my community in New Orleans, don't consider animal sacrifice culturally appropriate and do not practice it, preferring to offer store-bought food to Lwa and community. (For the record, I am vegetarian.) My mentor and friend Sallie Ann Glassman once suggested that if someone wishes to perform animal sacrifice, they should slaughter and butcher their own food for a year before considering offering it in ceremony. But to other Voodoo communities, animal sacrifice is natural and integral to their tradition. They take animal life with reverence, cook the meat and eat it.

As long as hunting and the slaughter of animals for meat is accepted in our country, less familiar cultural practices that take animal life must also be respected.

Skeletons and zombies

In Voodoo, death is considered natural, a part of every person's experience: a transition, not an ending. Gede (pronounced GEH-day), the Lwa of the dead, is often represented as a skeletal figure wearing a top hat and sunglasses. He is a dapper fellow, funny and welcoming. Gede is also the Lwa of sex and healing; natural parts of human life connected to the cycle of living and dying.

During the days of slavery, death was the only release from horrific conditions, so the figure of death became a friendly one. Gede welcomes those who have passed on to Ginen, the "Island Beneath the Ocean." Ginen is the dream of a lost African homeland; in death they return to this paradise and can look over their living descendants. Voodooists have a great deal of honor and respect for their predecessors. Skeletons and graveyards represent those ancestors. In Voodoo, our loved ones who have passed out of this life are revered as guides and holders of wisdom. We are the living flesh upon the bones of the ancestors. They are part of us.

As for zombies... (You're kidding, right? Am I really going to write about zombies in a national publication?) OK, here goes:

"Le Grand Zombi" is also the name of a Voodoo spirit associated with snakes, but not to be confused with "zombies" as we understand them.

Zombies are the boogeyman of Voodoo culture. Zombies in American pop culture today are apparently self-propelled and lurch out of graves for a variety of reasons, but earlier stories depicted them as silent, mindless laborers with no free will, completely controlled by a master. That sounds like the life of a slave. To people who lived in slavery, nothing could be worse than an afterlife of similar servitude. It was the direst threat, the most horrific fate: a denial of natural life process and the extinguishing of a suffering person's only hope. Even in death, there would be no release.

(Some scholars have speculated on other contemporary cultural significance of zombies in Haiti. This issue is much too complex to explore here; if you're interested, check out Wade Davis's controversial book.)

Zombies reflect cultural fears so perfectly that we've made them our own. Movie zombies today are often created by a terrible virus, shadowy corporate dealings or a botched government program. These are things that make us anxious, even without zombies chasing us around as a result.


Imagine that you find yourself in a culture where rape is the only known sexual act. How do you explain consensual sex? How do you introduce the term "lovemaking"?

For a culture that defines possession as spiritual invasion, violation and violence, it's challenging to imagine how it could be welcome, joyous and enriching. It's also a culture that's missing out on a beautiful aspect of life.

Part of Voodoo is building a relationship with the Lwa. This relationship does not happen overnight, and involves exploration and trust. During ceremony, Voodooists drum, sing and dance to reach an ecstatic state and invite the Lwa to possess and speak through them. There are degrees of possession, just as there are degrees of any emotional or religious experience.

Possession is a rapturous, freeing experience. It breaks down identity boundaries of social status, gender, and race -- another reason it makes society uneasy. We tend to be very attached to those labels, but it does us good to overcome them. The brash young man may also contain the coquettish female spirit of love; the older, dignified lady can slip her identity and become the life of the party, the healer, the warrior, anything. Everything. We all contain multitudes.

For the Voodooist, possession opens us to what is needed in the moment. It is an embrace of the universal Holy Spirit. Experiencing, accepting and rejoining that kernel of "otherness" that is fully us, is an essential part of our humanity. It's why we dance.

If you've ever lost yourself in song, athletic endeavor or sex, you know a little about reaching both within and beyond yourself. If you've ever composed poetry or produced a piece of art that seemed to come from some creative beyond, you know how to let Spirit -- or whatever you chose to call it -- flow through you. These are deeply personal experiences that move us beyond mere personhood.

Even without being specifically religious, these acts can feel sacred. They are instinctive, mystic expressions of joy and healing; ancient urges explored by modern people. Voodoo reconnects us to our own sacred experiences: life, death and everything -- everything -- in between.

Once again, a short article on a complicated subject. Please keep your questions coming! I will endeavor to address them in subsequent posts.

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