The Hidden History of African Voodoo

In Search of Voodoo: Roots to Heaven

Directed by Dijimon Hounsou (2018

Film Review

Produced and narrated by Binenese actor and model Djimon Hounsou, this documentary is a autobiographical documentary film exploring the history and characteristics of African voodoo. Despite a lengthy discussion of European colonizers to wipe out voodoo belief systems, most of the film focuses on voodoo drumming, dance and sacrifice rituals. Personally, I was quite disappointed by the scant focus on the importance of trance-formation in voodoo rituals.

Hounsou describes Benin* (where it’s an official religion) as the birthplace of voodoo, although many Africans adhere to this belief system in Nigeria, Ghana and central and southern Togo. The word voodoo derives from vodu, meaning “spirit” in several West African languages (eg Ewe and Fon).

The voodoo currently practiced in Benin acknowledges a supreme (female) being called Mawu-Lissa, as well as lesser gods of the sun, mood, sea, rivers and Earth. There is also a trickster god who facilitates communications between the gods. Most practitioners deny that voodoo is a religion, but rather a way of life that emphasizes strong interconnections between humankind, the rest of the natural world and a spirit world consisting of the gods and the spirits of deceased ancestors.

Voodoo practitioners in Benin also engage in Ifa, a system of divination, involving the decoding of over 200 binary symbols to predict a person’s destiny and character.

Drumming and ritual dancing are heavily emphasized in African voodoo rituals, largely because they result in trance formation. This enables practitioners to better communicate with Legba or deceased ancestors who intervene between human beings and various gods. Blood sacrifice of chickens, with participants consuming the sacrificed animal, is also important in voodoo rituals.

African voodoo thrives in rural Benin, though a few shrines persist in the cities. There is still considerable competition between voodoo and Christianity and Islam, the other major religions in Benin. In many churches, Catholic and voodoo rituals are combined.

Sorcery (spells and curses associated with voodoo in the New World) is frowned on in African voodoo. Likewise healing undertaken by voodoo practitioners is based solely on the healing properties of specific plants.

*Benin is a country in West Africa. Formerly known as Dahomey, it’s bordered by Nigeria, Togo, Burkino Faso and Niger.

The full film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

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