African Vodun in the Age of Globalization

Ancient Mystery or Contemporary Religion?

Westerners’ knowledge of Africa typically includes images of safaris, poverty, and of course, “tribal” religion, with all of its racist connotations of “primitiveness.” Among African religions, Beninese Vodun holds a prominent place as the precursor of Caribbean Vodou and North American Voodoo. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, people taken as slaves from this part of West Africa transported their gods and adapted them to the challenges of their new lives. Although Vodun is alive and well in Benin today, its association with this historical period and its role as the source of African diasporic religions in the Americas have the unfortunate consequence of freezing the religion in time. This contributes to the popular notion of Vodun as an ancient and timeless religion, feeding racist stereotypes of traditional Africans bound to the past.

A Mami Wata devotee in her shrine, decorated with foreign images of a mermaid and an Indian “snake charmer” whose likeness circulated widely in Africa during the late nineteenth century. Douglas J. Falen.

In popular culture we see online media, tourist marketers, religious buffs, and paranormal aficionados  who depict Vodun as a six-thousand-year-old bearer of ancient mystical secrets and as the ultimate symbol of traditional African spirituality. The Beninese government has even capitalized on this reputation in marketing Benin as the “cradle of Vodun” to tourists and members of diasporic religions. In recent years, modest numbers of religious tourists and spiritual thrill-seekers from Europe, the Americas, and Asia have been traveling to Benin to be initiated as Vodun priests and adepts, in an effort to join an ancient tradition.

Vodun adherents do not feel the need to swear allegiance to a particular god or religion, often experimenting with multiple religions simultaneously in their quest for spiritual satisfaction.
This view of Vodun as a primeval religion contrasts with my research experience and a wealth of scholarship showing that Beninese Vodun is anything but a static relic of the past. It is  a dynamic religious system that stands out not for its conservatism, but rather for its ability to change, change, adapt, and incorporate foreign gods from ever more distant lands. Historical evidence suggests that since the eighteenth century, Vodun has been absorbing gods from neighboring peoples, both allies and enemies. In an effort to co-opt the supernatural protection of others, rulers of the Fon-speaking kingdom of Dahomey invited war captives to install their deities in Dahomey. Similarly, ordinary people adopted new gods that they hoped could address their spiritual and practical needs—providing health, wealth, and protection from malevolent supernatural forces. Many of the deities that are an integral part of the Vodun pantheon were actually foreign imports from the neighboring Yoruba and Aja peoples. The same craving for exotic powers holds for West Africans’ acceptance of Christianity, since Jesus may have been regarded as a potent addition to people’s spiritual tool-kit. Although some devout Christians reject what they call the “Satanic” indigenous religion, this strategy of hedging one’s bets gives rise to the popular expression that people practice Christianity by day, but Vodun by night. As a Vodun priest told me last year, even the deity Tron celebrates Christmas. Tron is actually an imported god who hails from northern Ghana, and this deity with Muslim associations has been welcomed into the Vodun cosmology of southern Togo and Benin. Mami Wata is another cosmopolitan spirit, born of the fusion between African water spirits, European mermaids, and Hindu imagery. These are just a few examples to illustrate that despite the West’s popular image of Vodun as an unchanging, “traditional” religion, it is instead an extremely dynamic and amalgamative manifestation of an enduring West African tendency to seek out new gods and spiritual powers. Vodun is in a continual state of reinvention.

A Tron priest prepares ritual materials for the installation of a new Tron shrine. Douglas J. Falen.

In Benin today, there are signs that this pattern of incorporative blending may be accelerating, opening a new chapter in Vodun’s story of reinvention. The catalyst for these recent changes is the widespread preoccupation with witchcraft, known as aze in the Fon language. In Benin, and across Africa, people express strong fear of witchcraft, which is blamed for failed business, illness, and death. However, as I discuss in my new book, aze is an ambivalent supernatural power that can also bring riches and protection from occult attacks. Although people are afraid of witchcraft, they are curious about its potential to help them, and often eager to acquire new spiritual abilities, including witchcraft, in a supernatural arms race.

The deity Tron is a perfect example of this phenomenon because it is a Vodun spirit that specializes in combating witchcraft. But because witchcraft is the most powerful force in the universe, part of Tron’s appeal lies in the fact that the deity is frequently considered a foreign form of witchcraft. In fact, as I argue in my book, Beninese people adopt foreign spiritual ideas out of an exoticism for new and more powerful foreign religious traditions that are classified as witchcraft. This quest for exotic spirituality leads to the popularity of Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Eckankar, Chinese healing, and Hinduism. Some learn about Freemasonry and Roscirucianism through correspondence with Europeans, while others join local chapters of Eckankar, a Minnesota-based Asian-inspired esoteric practice. These traditions teach people how to achieve a spiritual consciousness that reportedly allows them to undertake nocturnal soul journeys, which people naturally compare to the soul travel of Beninese azeto (witches). Hindu mysticism is considered the most powerful religious tradition but is also interpreted as witchcraft. People are exposed to this Asian spirituality through Hindu mystics who appear on television and tour the country offering training in healing and meditation. Traditional healers and Vodun priests also travel within and beyond Africa to conduct research on foreign spiritual powers.

A patient undergoes a supernatural protective ritual with a snake, inspired by a healer’s experiences in Asia. Douglas J. Falen.

For centuries, Vodun has been receptive to new deities that were incorporated into the local cosmology, but in recent years, we see a broader exoticism that seeks to appropriate foreign spiritualities from North America, Europe, and Asia. Many people say that the animating force behind all religions, including Vodun, Eckankar, and Hindu mysticism, is witchcraft. Therefore, one key novelty in these developments is that foreign religious and esoteric traditions are not merely additional Vodun deities, but rather new forms of the universal category of witchcraft. While it is premature to predict what will come of the latest spiritual trends in Benin, we are witnessing a logical but dramatic extension of the persistent West African predisposition towards spiritual change through the appropriation of foreign gods and religious ideas. This is a powerful reminder that African religions are dynamic parts of a contemporary cosmopolitan society, rather than relics of a timeless, ancient cultural tradition.

Douglas J. Falen is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College. His latest book, African Science: Witchcraft, Vodun, and Healing in Southern Benin, examines the philosophical foundations by which Beninese view science, witchcraft, and religion converging into a single, ambivalent, universal force.

Cite as: Falen, Douglas J. 2018. “African Vodun in the Age of Globalization.” Anthropology News website, Sepetember 11, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.961

Comments

Great stuff here Doug. I love the way you have engaged the “science” aspects of Vodun and paid testament to the power of inclusiveness and eclecticism. Poignant, cogent, and useful.

Thanks,

Eric Montgomery

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