The Voodoo That You Do

Words by Camilla Mortensen | Photos by Todd Cooper

Zombies, voodoo dolls, evil spells, animal sacrifices and Hollywood horror scenes of possessed people drinking blood: When you hear the words “Voodoo” and “Santería,” chances are those are the images that come to mind. But talk to anyone who actually practices one of these Caribbean religions, and they’ll tell you that those stereotypes are way off base.

But this is Oregon, and what are the chances of you actually running into anyone who practices Santería? Oregon is not exactly known as a hotbed of diversity even when it comes to religion. And with all the negative stereotypes and exaggerated media reports about practices like Voodoo (properly spelled Vodou), the average vodouisant or santero isn’t exactly broadcasting her religious preferences in public.

Thanks to countless horror movies and lurid headlines, religions like Vodou and Santería get a bad rap, and believers in these African-based practices aren’t always all that eager to talk about them. But those who are comfortable talking about it will tell you that these practices are far from devil worship and are in fact healing religions with long and tumultuous histories. Music and respect for the gods dominate their conversations, not discussions of sacrifice or possession.

The Rhythms of the Spirits

Antonio Vicioso
Tre Hardson and Martha
Hardson’s altar to Ellegua

Vodou has been a part of Antonio Vicioso’s life since before he was born. “My house was full of candles,” he remembers. 

Candles are used on the household altars to the saints called lwa in Vodou and orishas in Santería. Vicioso’s mother named him for St. Anthony, to whom she prayed when she hoped to become pregnant. In the Dominican Republic though, St. Anthony isn’t just a Catholic saint; his depiction on an altar can also refer to Papa Legba, the lwa of the crossroads who opens doorways and makes things possible. Vicioso’s mother later became a born-again Christian, but he found himself drawn to the gods of Dominican Vodou.

Vicioso grew up in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and New York before making his way west to Eugene. Tall and rail thin with piercing eyes, Vicioso, who plays locally with his band Anba Tierra, embodies the balance between relaxation and intensity that characterizes the Caribbean. “It was through music, really,” he says of how he became involved in Dominican Vodou. “A voice inside me said I would work with Dominican rhythms.”

The rhythms Vicioso works with are the ones used to “bring down the spirits” in Dominican Vodou. The form of Vodou found in the Dominican Republic is different from Haitian Vodou, though they share a common ancestry. “Dominican Vodou has its own strong spirits,” says Vicioso. Vodou and Santería are possession religions, so “bringing down” these strong spirits means helping those spirits enter into a believer’s body. 

Vodou and Santería and their sister religions like Dominican Vodou are monotheistic like Christianity. There is one god, called Bondeye in the Haitian Creole of Vodou or Olodumare in Santería, which combines African and Spanish terms in its worship, but this deity is far away and hard to reach. Instead, practitioners appeal to a pantheon of spirits, the lwa and orishas that are similar to Catholic saints, to intercede when something is needed. 

The spirits have particular personalities, colors and characteristics that epitomize each of them. In Vodou, Erzulie Freda is a goddess of love and longing, symbolized by a heart, and Ogun is a god of iron and war. Papa Gede is a lwa of death, with a cross as a symbol, but because death and life are intertwined, his symbol is also a penis, and he grants health and fecundity.

Believers communicate with the spirits through reading oracles like cards, consulting divinatory seashells or throwing pieces of coconut and reading the results. They say they can also communicate directly with the spirits during a ceremony in which the spirits possess other participants who have gone through a long initiation process.

Drums, clapping, music and singing are used to bring on spirit possession. Each spirit has his or her own rhythms and songs that are played both to bring the possession on and to “unhorse” the spirit at the end, says Vicioso. Those who are possessed are called horses or chwal in Haitian Creole because the lwa are said to ride or mount them, as a person rides a horse. When Papa Gede mounts a chwal, his dances are playful and sexually suggestive. Women will bump their crotches up against him to ensure fertility. Once someone is possessed, that person takes on the characteristics of the lwa or orisha, regardless of gender. So a man can be possessed by a female spirit and will take on feminine attributes while possessed.

As a drummer at Dominican Vodou ceremonies, Vicioso plays to bring down the spirits. Listening to the beats of his drums, even somewhere as prosaic as a classroom in Eugene where Vicioso plays to educate UO students about the religion, it’s not too hard to understand how the rhythms can bring on a trance. The repetitive sounds wind their way around the room, and the songs are sinuous and haunting.

Some vodouisants become possessed without even the aid of music, says Vicioso. “I know people who you ring a bell next to them and they’re possessed,” he says. “Their voice changes and they start doing things that are out of this world, and they do it very naturally.

He tells of a time a Petwo spirit, from the fiery side of the Vodou pantheon, “picked up a glass and chomped it down” eating the shards without any signs of pain. Vicioso laughs and says, “The woman who owned the house” where the ceremony took place “came running,” and she said with irritation, “I just bought those glasses!” 

Once the spirit has entered the body of a vodouisant, the lwa then interacts with the other participants in the ceremony, giving out much needed advice and healing. Possession at these ceremonies is not demonic or evil; it is a basic part of the religion Vicioso says is “beautiful and valuable — a natural healing religion.”

The drums he plays are powerful instruments, according to Vicioso, and always have been. “That’s why they banned the drums,” he says of the Haitian slave owners who tried to stop the religion during its early days in the New World. Vodou and its rhythms have been vilified and banned since before the Haitian Revolution that made Haiti the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. It was a drum ceremony led by a Haitian Vodou priest called an houngan that kicked off Haiti’s successful slave revolution.

Having a nation of freed slaves so close to the U.S. was like “a sore thumb,” Vicioso says. Demonizing Vodou was “done on purpose,” he says, “through the media and through Hollywood.” And that demonizing continues to this day. According to Vicioso, the real dark powers aren’t in Caribbean religions, they’re here in the U.S. “There’s black magic in Wash-ington,” Vicioso says of the current Bush administration. “That’s zombiism to the highest level to me.”

African Gods and Catholic Saints

Vodou and Santería were both born of a similar meeting of African religions with Catholicism, stirred up in a cauldron of colonialism and slavery. Researchers call the religions “syncretic,” meaning they meld seemingly disparate belief systems. Vodou came into being when the Fon peoples were brought as slaves from what is now Benin in Africa to Haiti by French colonizers. Santería (also called Lukumi or La Regla de Ocha) came primarily from Yoruba peoples who were brought to Cuba and Puerto Rico. 

The African peoples brought their gods and beliefs with them but were forbidden by the enslaving Europeans to practice their native religions. One justification put forth for slavery was the belief it was better to be enslaved and Christian than it was to be free and heathen. 

The slaves saw parallels between their own gods and the saints that are part of the Catholic religion. The powerful orisha called Chango in Santería, for example, is a god of lightning. In Santería, Chango became linked up with the Catholic St. Barbara, who is often depicted with a bolt of lightning behind her. Thus an altar to Chango would bear both an African carving of Chango and a Catholic lithograph of St. Barbara. The name Santería itself comes from the idea that when the African slaves appeared to be worshipping the Catholic saints (santos) they were actually venerating the orishas. Most vodouisants and santeros in the Caribbean are also Catholic or Protestant. 

An old and oft-cited joke in Haiti goes: Haiti is 80 percent Roman Catholic, 15 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou. Haitian dictator François Duvalier was known for using references to Vodou during his reign as Haiti’s “president for life,” wearing the black garb and speaking in the nasal tones of the lwa of the cemeteries the Baron Samedi.

After slavery ended in the Caribbean, the worship of the powerful African-based religions continued, and when practitioners left the Caribbean and immigrated to the U.S. and elsewhere, they brought their gods and beliefs with them. The immigrants continue to practice their religion and pass it on to others who feel called to it by the spirits.

Serving the Spirits in Oregon

The house that Tre Hardson, (aka Slimkid3) a singer who recently relocated from L.A. to Oregon, shares with his fiancée Martha looks like every other house on the street in a neighborhood just a few miles from downtown Portland. It’s one of a row of houses so similar that it would be easy to pull up to the wrong front door even if you lived there. 

Once you walk in the door, though, it becomes clear this house is a little different. A large altar draped in cloths in shades of blue dominates the living room. It is a throno in honor of Hardson’s orisha Yemaya, a goddess of the sea. The throno was created in celebration of Hardson’s ocha birthday, the one-year celebration of initiation into the religion and the coming together of a practitioner with his or her orisha. Initiates called iyawos wear white during their initiation year and are brought into the religion by a madrino or padrino, or godparent, who oversees the process and helps the iyawo communicate with the spirits.

Sitting by the front door is what looks like a concrete head with shells for eyes resting in the middle of what appears to be a small house filled with toys and candy and flanked by burning candles. This is an altar for Ellegua, a Santería spirit that corresponds roughly to Papa Legba of Vodou. Both are gods of the doorways, spirits that make things possible. Ellegua “likes toys and candy, things to do with kids,” says Hardson.

Though animals are sometimes sac-rificed to the spirits of Vodou and Santería, most gifts that are given to the gods are items like perfume and alcohol or foods like candy, honey or apples. The spirits are honored through lighting candles and refreshing glasses of water on their altars.

 “Animal sacrifice, probably even more so than spirit possession, is one of the misunderstood parts of the religion,” says Martha who wrote her master’s thesis on Santería. “If the situation calls for it, it’s carried out respectfully. The animal is prayed to and thanked for giving its life. In most cases then it’s cooked and eaten. It is no more wasteful than buying a package of chicken wings.”

Santería’s tradition of animal sacrifice is an element that is often played up in the media. But as Hardson points out, sacrifice in Santería honors the animal as well as the orishas. “Stand in front of the grocery store or McDonald’s. You’re so detached. Stand in front of a row of chicken wings at Albertson’s. Who prayed over those?”

Many Paths to Heaven

Thanks to a 1993 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, Santería’s practice of animal sacrifice has been deemed protected under the First Amendment, but that hasn’t stopped outsiders from misunderstanding the practice and the religion.

“There’s this sensationalism that surrounds it that I just can’t tolerate,” says Martha. “Anything that has the history this religion has is going to be exoticized — even in Pirates of the Caribbean there’s the voodoo lady!”

Hardson, a rapper who is currently on a reunion tour with the Pharcyde, and Martha, a journalist (and former EW intern), say they haven’t experienced the prejudices against the religion that many practitioners face. The immigrants to the U.S. who “serve the spirits” of Vodou and Santería often come from a lower socio-economic group and already face racial biases, making them even less inclined to discuss their religion publicly. 

Hardson and Martha say they know there are practitioners of Caribbean religions around the Northwest but that they are hard to find, “There are Cuban santeros here who are very quiet about it. You won’t just bump into someone,” Marth says.

“We’re fortunate because we live in a place like Oregon,” she says. “Here people are open to things that are not mainstream, particularly things with a spiritual bent. And anything that’s anti-establishment and anti-institution flies here.”

Of those who choose to malign religions like Santería, she says, “To some people it might seem crazy to give fruit to Chango, but there are millions of people on this Earth today who believe the Catholic saints did great work on Earth and that when they died, they became part of the divine. It’s institutionalized racism to say the same can’t be true of African people.”

“A padrino once told me that he almost became a Catholic priest before becoming a santero,” Martha says. “He told me there are many paths to heaven; this one happens to be mine.”

“It’s for healing people, helping people, helping your community,” Hardson says of his religion. “People that I talk to who are afraid of this religion, I tell them what my padrino told me: ‘It’s not the religion; it’s the people.’”

Hardson adds, “The orisha comes down and tells you what do. And some things don’t really make sense, and you really don’t question it.” He stresses the importance of respect for the spirits. According to Hardson, it is not the orisha working for the santero, but the worshipper who works for the spirits. You take the advice of the spirits, he says, “You do it, and it works. Absolutely it works. Everything that we’ve put our heart into and we need it, we’ve gotten it.”