Rumors of Voodoo involvement play a significant role in American folklore, especially in the South. However, very few studies have been conducted that subject the practice of Voodoo in America to rigorous examination. As demonstrated below, what we do know are the very basics of voodoo history and how it became first a Caribbean and then an American transplant.
The origins of the word Voodoo are not clear. Some practitioners claim French roots from the word Veau d'or meaning golden calf, while others point to a corruption of the West African term Vodu which historically has referred to various gods and spirits. The practice of what is commonly called Voodoo in the Caribbean and often known as Voodoun or Hoodoo in America, stemmed from the African occult religion known as Juju which dates back thousands of years to the Ashanti tribe who worshiped snakes.
African Juju has changed little over the centuries. The practitioner casts a good spell, a bad spell or a spell designed to protect a client from a spell already cast upon him. Some spells are benevolent, designed to help a sick person or help a person win the affection of a desired mate; others are malevolent, capable of inflicting serious injury or illness and even death on an enemy of the client. The practitioners powers are derived from various gods who tell him what action to take under a certain set of circumstances. Powers are also obtained from herbs and fetishes, inanimate objects that are believed to be inhabited by a spirit "capable of having its own way unless soothed and exorcised by the proper rites" of the practitioner. (d'Argent, 1970:18-19.)
Caribbean Voodoo was born when members of the Ashanti tribes were transported as slaves to Haiti. As they began their assimilation process, they combined some magical rites of the African Juju with religious rites from the Catholic church, thereby creating a new belief system which gradually spread throughout Haiti. The Haitian form of voodoo has many deities, known collectively as loa, who participate in ritualistic ceremonies in several different ways. Rituals are most commonly held to invoke a particular god who best fits the need of the moment. A student of Voodoo in Louisiana, Jacques d'Argent, describes three great rites or divisions governing Voodoo: "one is made up of good or benevolent gods, known as the Rada. The other two, Congo and Petro, consist of wicked or evil gods...In invoking and influencing the gods, the drum, brought with the blacks from Africa as an important part of their religion, plays an important part in the Haitian ritual...Dancing, like the drums, is an essential part of Voodoo ritual. Haitian dances are divided into sacred dances and dances of possession." (d'Argent, 1970:43-45.)
The Voodoo priest, or Houngon, is "at one and the same time priest, healer, soothsayer, exorciser, organizer of public entertainment and choirmaster." (Metraux, as quoted in d'Argent, 1970: 47.) That is, he is an influential figure in the Haitian community. He is not to be confused with a bocor or boko who practices sorcery or black magic usually condemned by the Houngon. It is the image of the bocor who usually provides the stereotypical portrayal of the voodoo practitioner-the one who tortures a doll or some other effigy that represents the intended victim. His magical powers are not only used to "bring about every evil, to cause death, illness, or injury, to obtain riches, to bring bad luck to enemies or good fortune to a client," but also to invoke the zombie - "a corpse that has been raised from the grave to live again as a mindless slave." (d'Argent, 1970:49.) In truth, Haitian Voodoo is comprised of both good and evil uses of magic as utilized by the Houngon and the bocor.
Voodoo first came to the United States in 1803 when the prohibition against importing slaves from the West Indies was lifted to allow planters access to more labor. What began in Louisiana as the Haitian transplant of voodoo eventually evolved into an American syncretism known as Hoodoo. This newer form of the ancient traditions developed differently in the United States, supplanting many of its religious aspects with more cultural and medicinal aspects. Indeed, the Hoodoo leader, known as a Hoodoo-doctor, "is a maker of medicine, a treater of ills, and perhaps a historian...he does not perform marriages, christen babies, or bury the dead. For these functions there is the ordained minister of one of the established churches. Hoodoo-doctors do conduct meetings, but never in a church or even a consecrated building as does the Haitian Houmfort. They prefer the outdoors, with a large tree for shelter where they can expound, undisturbed, their different theories of the supernatural in their own ways." (D'Argent, 1970:74.)
It would be incorrect to state, however, that Hoodoo practitioners use only white or positive magic; clearly some Hoodoo rites in various urban locations have invoked evil spirits, exacted discomforting curses, and mapped out the death of enemies. We remain uncertain about the extent to which it is practiced and the degree to which practitioners may or may not be involved in criminal activity directly connected to their belief in Voodoo.