In A Nutshell
Pop culture continually intermixes many African Diasporic traditions and portrays them exclusively as Voodoo. However, most of what is portrayed in books, movies, and television is actually hoodoo. Voodoo is a religion that has two markedly different branches: Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Vodoun. Hoodoo is neither a religion, nor a denomination of a religion—it is a form of folk magic that originated in West Africa and is mainly practiced today in the Southern United States.
The Whole Bushel
Hoodoo, known as “Ggbo” in West Africa, is African-American folk magic. It consists mainly of African folkloric practices and beliefs with a significant blend of American Indian botanical knowledge and European folklore. It is in no way linked to any particular form of theology, and it can be adapted into numerous forms of outward religious worship. Although it is not a religion, there are elements of African and European religions at the core of hoodoo beliefs. Teachings and rituals are passed down from one practitioner to another—there are no designated priests or priestesses and there are no divisions between initiates and laity. Rituals vary depending on the individual performing them; there is no strict approach that one must adhere to. Today, hoodoo is mainly practiced in the Southern United States, and most people who practice hoodoo are Protestant Christians.
Hoodoo tradition emphasizes personal magical power invoked by the use of certain tools, spells, formulas, methods, and techniques. It ascribes magical properties to herbs, roots, minerals, animal parts, and personal possessions. Some spells even make use of bodily effluvia and detritus (menstrual blood, semen, urine, spit, tears, nail clippings, hair…you get the picture). Hoodoo spells are typically carried out with accompanying Biblical text, usually from The Book of Psalms, but they are generally not performed in Jesus’s name. The intention behind hoodoo practice is to allow people to harness supernatural forces in order to improve their daily lives.
The word “voodoo” comes from an African word meaning “spirit” or “God.” Vodou is an African Diasporic religion that comprises traditional African religious practices of numerous tribes—some of those tribes were rivals forced to unite for survival under the conditions of slavery. The tribes combined practices and thus created regleman (ritual order) to honor each tribe’s spirits. Their practices were also influenced through syncretism with French Catholicism; this is evidenced in the use of Catholic saint images to represent the Lwa (spirits) honored in Vodou.
Vodou is an established and structured Haitian religion that is a significant part of the Haitian culture. Followers of the religion believe in a god called “Bondye.” He is understood to be an omnipotent and distant god who does not directly intercede in the lives of humans. Practitioners worship him indirectly by venerating the spirits that assist him. Vodou has an initiated priesthood, but initiation is not required to join the religion (in fact, most people are not initiated). The main liturgical language of Vodou is Creole, the local dialect of Haitian French.
Vodoun (Louisiana Voodoo) is also distinctly different from Vodou (Haitian Voodoo). Vodoun is a fusion of religious and magical practices found today in the Southern United States. This combination of practices is derived from African traditions, namely West African Dahomeyan Vodun, and was brought over during the African slave trade. Vodoun has a correlation with Spiritualism and shares many magical practices with hoodoo. It encompasses various Lwa (spirits of Vodou), a considerable presence of the Catholic saints, and bits of Southern folk magic (including gris-gris, wanga, and mojo bags). Vodoun lacks the regleman (ritual order) that Vodou has. The primary liturgical language is English mixed with some French Creole.