Animist priest in the "Cave of the Sacrifices", Tengzug
Animal sacrifices, black magic, hypnotic dances and strange talismans are the kind of images most people associate with Voodoo. For years, popular culture has portrayed the religion as dark, mysterious, primitive and creepy. Yet Voodoo is derived from the oldest spiritual traditions in the world and dates back at least 10,000 years. Voodoo’s mythology and rituals are complex, and it is practiced by millions of people in West Africa (where these photographs were taken), the Caribbean, Louisiana, and, in different forms, in South America.
A fetisher at the Lomé fetish market
According to photographer Anthony Pappone – who took these photographs on his travels through West Africa – in Europe and the USA people “believe that voodoo is ‘black magic’ that is evil but [this] is false, the voodoo religion is based on respect and peace.” Spiritual fetishes (talismans), ceremonial dances, thanksgiving sacrifices and the veneration of ancestors are all important elements of the Voodoo religion. And fortunately for us, Pappone was able to capture many of these unique practices and fascinating ceremonies on camera.
A voodoo ritual in Togo
Voodoo, also known as Vodun, Vudun and Voudou, is followed in West African coastal countries like Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. The religion’s origins are a mystery, but researchers believe it probably developed from older animistic and ancestor worship. Ironically, it’s thought that the slave trade, which forced Africans of diverse backgrounds together in strange unfamiliar territory, actually strengthened Voodoo’s traditions. And the mixing of these different customs and religious practices is reckoned to have led to Voodoo in the form it takes today.
Although Christian missionaries and slave owners tried to stamp Voodoo out, sometimes violently, the religion actually incorporates quite a few Catholic elements. Indeed, in those terrible times, Voodoo practitioners were sometimes able to pass their religion off as Catholicism, fooling their cruel overseers. These days, Voodoo remains flexible and capable of assimilating ideas from different traditions. At its core, however, it is monotheistic, believing in a single creator god who is assisted by spirits known as “Orishas”.
A ceremony of fire in Sokode, Togo
The Orishas (also known as Loa) are said to represent different aspects of life and nature, and one of the most publicized and controversial Voodoo practices, animal sacrifice, is performed to give thanks to these spirits. Although the idea of animal sacrifice might seem strange and even repellant to some people, the Voodoo believers of West Africa see it quite differently.
In these more rural countries, animals are often slaughtered and butchered at home for consumption, and the act of killing an animal for food is simply considered a part of life. Therefore, when an animal is killed as a sacrifice, this isn’t seen as a sinister or cruel act. As Headwater/Delta Interfaith Executive Director Saumya Haas puts it, “It is the offering of life-giving energy in the preparation of sacred food.”
Nigeria Voodoo mask in motion during the "Festival des Masques de Dédougou", Burkina Faso
For those still feeling squeamish, there’s some good news: occasionally the spirits may ask for an animal not to be sacrificed and instead insist that it is looked after as a kind of entitled spiritual pet.
A Voodoo fetisher at a fetishes market in Lomé, Togo
Another prominent aspect of the Voodoo religion is the use of fetishes, which include dried animal parts and carved talismans. Fetishes are believed to be infused with spiritual power and can be used in religious rites to offer protection or to cure illnesses. What’s more, it’s not only Voodoo practitioners who use the fetishes; the fetishes market in Togo’s capital city, Lomé, attracts many Christian and Muslim customers as well. The infamous Voodoo doll is a kind of fetish used mostly in Hoodoo, which is a type of folk magic, as distinct from Voodoo, which comprises an actual religious belief system.
A woman dances as part of a Voodoo ceremony in a village in Togo
Women play an important role in Voodoo rituals. Traditionally, a woman known as the “queen mother” leads ceremonies like baptisms, weddings and funerals. Seen as one of the most vital people in the community, the queen mother is usually the eldest daughter of a village’s leading family collective and is also in charge of looking after the marketplace. Other women may be chosen by the oracles to become high priestesses.
A priest at the Temple of Pythons handles sacred snakes
One of the locations Anthony Pappone explored was a Voodoo temple in Ouidah, Benin dedicated to pythons – definitely not a place for anyone with ophidiophobia (an intense fear of snakes). At the temple, sacred pythons are allowed to slither in and out, entering neighboring lounges like important visitors. They even cross over to the Catholic church on the other side of the road! Fifty royal pythons live at the temple, and visitors can stroke or handle the snakes – which we’re assured aren’t dangerous. The site is popular with people interested in learning something about a religion that seems so mysterious to outsiders.
An elaborate Voodoo mask in Sahel, Burkina Faso
Dressed in their masks of long straw, the “Zangbeto” are believed to be possessed by spirits. In Benin and Togo, the Zangbeto, also known as the “Nightwatchmen”, operate as a kind of Voodoo police force. Using their human hosts, who are thought to be entranced, the spirits are able to walk the streets, keeping an eye out for troublemakers, both human and supernatural. They do not reveal their identities and they have the right to round up criminals for punishment. We imagine that, faced with these intimidating apparitions, wrongdoers would probably go pretty quietly!
A masked Egungun
Like the Zangbeto, the Egungun are also believed to be possessed. Egungun are a Voodoo tradition of the Yoruba tribes of West Africa, who hold that the costumed men host visiting spirits of the dead. While they are with the living, the Egungun spiritually clear the village and perform a dance that describes all the good and bad actions that have happened there since their previous visit. Afterwards, they may give out blessings or prophesize.
Men engaging in a fire ceremony in Togo
One of the more visually dramatic Voodoo ceremonies is the fire dance festival performed by the Tem tribe of Central Togo. The performers dance around a fire to the sound of rhythmic drums. Overpowered by the music, they get closer and closer to the flames until they’re actually dancing on the red-hot coals! They grab the burning embers in their hands, put them in their mouths, and run flames across their bodies, all without any injury.
A Voodoo sculpture in a hallowed forest in Ouidah
Admittedly, some Voodoo practices are more sinister. Recently, in Benin, over 100 graves were opened, and corpses were mutilated and looted for organs. The cemetery director, Joseph Afaton, thinks the body parts were sold as fetishes by the desecrators. This type of grave robbing is unusual, however, and a Voodoo high priest told the BBC that it is not a mainstream part of the religion and that the actions were condemned. Neither is human sacrifice an element of West African Voodoo – or at least, it hasn’t been for 100 years.
Dried animal fetishes
“Voodoo is older than the world,” says Voodoo believer and Benin tour guide Janvier Houlonon. “They say that Voodoo is like the marks or the lines which are in our hands – we born with them. Voodoo are in the leaves, in the earth. Voodoo is everywhere.” Anthropologist Wade Davis, meanwhile, is more matter of fact. “Voodoo is not some kind of dark mystical force, it is simply a legitimate religion.”
Carved statues near Gaoua in Burkina Faso
We thank photographer Anthony Pappone for sharing his fascinating photographs and stories with us. They’ve certainly help to give us a little more insight into one of the world’s most misunderstood religions.
The Temple of Pythons in Ouidah, Benin