Researching Afro-Caribbean Religions: Voodoo, Santeria, And More
Welcome to the first part in a series on Afro-Caribbean religions, put together to answer some of the questions we’ve had in the past about voodoo and related religions which invariably end with “how do I research for this?!”
Why Did You Choose Voodoo?
Complete these sentences. It doesn’t matter how short, in-depth the answer is.
1. When I think of voodoo, I think of ….”
Did you think of voodoo dolls/zombies/”black” magic ? You may have misinformed (and potentially negative) intentions for it in your story from growing up on Hollywood voodoo.
2. “Voodoo in my story excites me because…”
Did you think it’d be perfect for your magical villain and/or protagonist? Again, you may have Hollywood voodoo on the brain. If it’s for your villain, be advised that “evil voodoo shaman” is yet another lash on a long-dead horse of negative stereotypes that has been around since 1932 gave us White Zombie. Now, nobody’s denying you permission to write a voodoo villain, but please don’t let your antagonist the ONLY representative of voodoo within the narrative.
Narrowing It Down
After completing those sentences, you may realize you’re just looking for a magical element for your story. If so, voodoo might not be for you because voodoo is a religion. If you want to do voodoo respectfully and avoid stereotypes, then you need to take care not to write Hogwarts Of The Caribbean. There are many magical traditions which aren’t religions and can carry the exact same allure for your work’s purposes.
Of course, stripping out the worship does not make research any easier or less potentially offensive. Rather, it just makes your work and research more on topic. Regardless of what is and isn’t popular among their respective, modern-day cultures, indigenous and mixed belief systems are still peoples’ heritages, almost invariably with a tempestuous history that should not be ignored or silenced.
So, decide for yourself: Do you need a tradition which is religious, magical, or both?
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
I challenge you to choose an alternative to Voodoo because if you check out NGram viewer and compare how ‘voodoo’ weighs in against any diasporic competitor in English-language literature, the difference is enormous.
There’s so much more out there within and without the “voodoo” category. For starters, the variants: Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican Vudú to name a few. There are even Canadian Vodouisants, particularly in Quebec, of Haitian heritage; the point here is you can go beyond Haiti.
You also may want to set the Loa aside and give Santería, Umbanda and Candomblé a chance – they’re distinct, but similar, have magical traditions inextricably blended within them, and probably have the same thing you’re looking for. You could even take it straight to Africa and look into the founding beliefs like Yoruba (The Orisha Tradition).
In addition to African groups, Mesoamerican beliefs of the Aztec, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and so on may be strong contenders for your narrative even in a modern setting because not only can they also feature ancestor worship, a robust spirit world, trance states and a once-gods-now-saints, they can be witnessed today by people who still believe in it. You just have to be willing to put in a little more effort since these beliefs are labeled “Catholic” now: just like Vodouisants tend to be, the followers of this Latino syncretism are largely Catholics of indigenous heritage.
The most prevalent example to look up is pan-Mayan syncretism and/or Maya Catholicism, which features things like worry dolls (distinct from voodoo dolls) and San Simon Maximón de Guatemala, “the Evil Saint” who accepts offerings of things like tobacco and Coca Cola. Some belief systems have withstood the test of time and others are just now being dusted off, such as with Mexicanidad or Mexicayotl (an Aztec culture and philosophy revival movement started in the 50s which includes breathing life back into Aztec beliefs).
Your research may not be as direct because you’re not going to find “The Complete Field Guide To Modern Mesoamerican Syncretism” but you’re also not going to find “Everything You Need To Know About Voodoo To Write Your Book: An Annotated Guide,” either.
Research Starting Point: Keyword List
Here’s a list of things that You Should Know Exist by country (there is overlap and this is not an exhaustive list). This includes religions and magical practices devoid of liturgical worship.
Most of these I’ve chosen because they are from specifically West African belief systems, but some of them I have chosen because they happen to have the dynamics of offering spirits propitiation or magical traditions.
Each belief system, religion or not, is its own iceberg with robust history and various amounts of representation. Some are alive and well, others are the subject of controversy. The research part is your job.
Afro-Cuban: Abakuá, Santería, Palo Monte, Cuban Vudú, Palo (Las Reglas De Congo).
Afro-Dominican: Dominican Voodoo
Afro-Haitian: Haitian Vodou
Afro-Nicaraguan: Garifuna Catholicism.
Afro-Puerto Rican: Santería, Puerto Rican Vudú (Sanse), Espiritismo
Afro-Trinidadian: Shango (AKA “Trinidad Orisha”), Obeah, Spiritual Baptism.
Afro-American (South, Central and North)
Afro-Brazilian: Candomblé, Umbanda, Quimbanda, Xangô de
Recife, Xangô do Nordeste, Tambor De Mina, Santo Daime, Lucumi.
African-American: Hoodoo, Louisiana Voodoo, Spiritual Baptism.
There is not a convenient label to put on Mesoamerican traditions blending into Catholicism, but awareness of the fact is worthwhile. You may wish to look up “Zapotec religion,” “Mixtec religion,” and “Aztec religion” for leads. However, here are some labels:
Latin America in
General: Curanderismo, Brujeria,
Espritismo (which has African-inspired and Mesoamerican-inspired variations).
Incan Origin: União do Vegetal (Brazil), Vegetalismo (Peru)
Guatemalan: Maya Catholicism, pan-Mayan syncretism
Even though my personal answer “Where do I start with Haitian/Louisiana voodoo?” is “BY LOOKING AT EVERYTHING BUT THAT” hopefully you will find it exciting that Louisisana/Haitian Voodoo/Vodou is but a page in an entire book, a room in a mansion.
In my next post on Afro-Caribbean Religions I will cover beliefs that are more-or-less consistent among voodoo and religions like voodoo.