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JCAL explores ‘largely misunderstood faith’

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These are what most Americans associate with voodoo, mainly because of the way white slaveholders viewed the religion, a misconception perpetuated through the 20th century by horror...

By David J. Glenn

Pins stuck into dolls. Barbaric sacrifices. Monstrous zombies.

These are what most Americans associate with voodoo, mainly because of the way white slaveholders viewed the religion, a misconception perpetuated through the 20th century by horror movies.

But voodoo, also known as voudou, voudoun, vodoun, Sevi Lwa, and more, goes back some 6,000 years in Africa, and more recently became a major religion among slaves and their descendants in the Caribbean, notably Haiti, combining many elements of Roman Catholicism adopted during the French colonial period.

“Only recently has attention been paid to the ritual objects used in this largely misunderstood faith,” states the promotional material for an exhibit starting Tuesday, Feb. 20 at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, “Sequined Surfaces: Haitian Voudoun Flags.” The exhibit features 50 flags, some designed by voodoo priests and priestesses and others designed and sewn by individual believers.

Curators of exhibits like this hope to dispel at least some of the misconceptions about voodoo.

White settlers who forcibly brought Africans to South America and the Caribbean for use as slaves had no understanding of the religion, and considered it a threat to Christian domination. They destroyed shrines, and killed or imprisoned voodoo priests.

As late as 1884, a book by S. St, John titled “Haiti or the Black Republic” distorted the religion as an evil practice characterized by human sacrifice, cannibalism, and other atrocities. None of this was true, but that didn’t stop people outside of the West Indies from accepting it as an accurate account, and in the net century, Hollywood found the conception to be good fodder for horror movies beginning in the 1930s.

Now some 60 million people worldwide continue to practice voodoo, a good number of them in the Haitian communities of Queens.

Followers of voodoo worship a pantheon of spirits (voodoo means “spirit”) called Loa, which means “mystery” in the African language of Yoruba.

In the voodoo traditional belief system, a chief god, named Olorun, is remote from human affairs and unknowable by man. But he ordered Obatala, a lesser god, to create the earth with all its life forms.

There are no fewer than hundreds of spirits under the rule Obatala. They include Agwe, the spirit of the sea; Baron Samedi, guardian of the grave; Aida Wedo, spirit of the rainbow; Erinle, spirit of the forests; Ogun, spirit of war; Ogou Balanjo, spirit of healing; and Ezili, or Erzulie, spirit of love.

As many religions, voodoo rituals revolve around courting favor with the spirits in hopes of getting more food, improved health, a better way of life. a voodoo temple, or “hounfour” has at its center a pole where the gods are said to communicate with the people. the alter is usually decorated with candles, pictures of catholic saints, and other symbols.

Priests only perform “white magic” in the hopes of bringing good fortune and healing. “Caplatas” practice “black magic,” including sometimes administering powerful drugs that can turn a person into a “zombie,” as if her were the walking dead. Voodoo followers do believe that the dead can be revived after burial (which is performed Roman catholic ceremony) but with no will of their own. This belief was probably the inspiration for the classic film, “Night of the Living Dead.”

Most followers, however, do not believe in a power to curse individuals by sticking pins in a doll. this was once practiced by some voodoo followers in New Orleans, and persists today on small scale in parts of South America, but is not a mainstay of the faith.

For more information about the JCAL exhibit, call 718-658-7400.

Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at glenn@timesledger.com, or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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