Mark of Voodoo
by Sharon Caulder, Ph.D.
Voodoo. The word conjures up images of dolls with pins in them, animal sacrifice, and hexes. A primitive religion, mysterious and dangerous even, with its adherents feared to curse you as soon as look at you. Or dismissed out of hand by non-believers as “mumbo jumbo.” Even in its own birthplace, Ouidah, in the Republic of Benin, Voodoo (the very religion practiced by 65% of the 5.4 million Beninese) was not even recognized by the government as an official religion until 1996.
With so much fear and stigma surrounding Voodoo in the Western world, why would Sharon Caulder, a college-educated, thoroughly modern woman with a Ph.D. and a successful holistic physical therapy practice in New York, want to travel to the unknown of Africa for months to delve into the mysterious antiquities of Voodoo? Her answer is Mark Of Voodoo, the fascinating chronicle of her journey to Africa in search of her spiritual roots.
Her reasoning is actually quite understandable — she wants to experience Voodoo firsthand, in itÃs “native” environment. A descendent of slaves from what is now the Republic of Benin, Dr. Caulder is also of the 109th generation of a matriarchal line of Voodoo practitioners. She also was ritually abused as a child in the name of Voodoo. Despite being later raised as Christian Scientist and studying other paths of spirituality, Dr. Caulder still felt a call to Voodoo, a quest to discover the truth about this much-maligned religion, as well as to research and heal her own traumatic childhood memories.
Despite having negative memories of Voodoo, Dr. Caulder was optimistic about what she would find on her journey. Her mission to Ouidah was twofold — first, she was to “gain as much knowledge as possible about how to use the power of Voodoo in (her) healing work,” the second part was to “understand and heal the wounds from (her) childhood” that stemmed from Voodoo ritual abuse. However, if Voodoo turned out to be as malicious as rumored, her purpose would be to sever her roots, protect her family and “purify (her) lineage for future generations.” No small undertaking for a Western woman who generations removed from her African heritage.
Her quest would take her to Oiudah, a coastal port in Benin that thrived during the slave trade as the point where many Africans were stripped of their dignity and herded onto ships to be sold in the New World as slaves. Upon her arrival, Dr. Caulder wastes no time is asking for the “chief of Voodoo.” Little does she realize there are many chiefs of Voodoo. Serendipitously, her guide takes her to the chief of Voodoo, Voodoo Supreme Chief Daagbo Hounon Houna (pronounced “DAH-bo”), the spiritual leader of all Voodoo clans, the very “pope” of Voodoo. At their first meeting, Daagbo recognizes the mark on Dr. Cauder’s spirit, the mark of Voodoo. He agrees to teach her, not as a common devotee but because of her matriarchal mark, as a Voodoo chief.
So now in Oudiah, far removed from modern conveniences, like an indoor toilet, electricity or running water, Dr. Caulder finds her spiritual roots, her Voodoo heritage, and her soul mate.
Voodoo (also spelled “vodu”) is richly complex belief system based on deity and ancestor worship. Voodoo is an energy, a tie that binds its adherents spiritually, physically, and emotionally. It’s also the little religion with a big name, as an estimated 1% of the entire world’s population practices Voodoo.
The Voodoo pantheon is an intricate array of many deities and their different aspects. Mami Wata is the supreme deity, able to manifest in several different forms, from beautiful black mermaids on rainbows to even a male form. Mami Wata is the spirit of the sea, the mother of waters. Mawu-Lisa is the creator deity, yet Mawu-Lisa is also another aspect of Mami Wata. There are dozens of other manifestations of Mami Wata, as well as other deities, such as Legba, Hervioso, Naete, and Damballah, with their own rituals and prayers. However, they are all connected to Mami Wata.
Initiates are known as Vodusi and are considered “wives” of their personal deities, whether the initiate or deity is male or female. Most initiates “have” only one deity, only a few have two. Dr. Caulder has two, Naete and Hervioso. As a Voodoo chief, she is in constant “dialogue” with her two deities.
So what about Voodoo dolls? Interestingly, Dr. Caulder found no voodoo dolls in Benin, save the small dolls used as representations of deceased twins. These dolls also provide a place for the twins’ spirit to reside on the material plane.
Dr. Caulder tackles the taboo subject of animal sacrifice head on. As explained to her by Daagbo, the animal agrees to be sacrificed by eating the leaves that are offered to it. The animal then becomes sacred. The animal is then ritually killed, sometimes its body tossed into the air and its position on the ground noted by a bocono or diviner. Blood from the animal is offered to the altar (a “storehouse” for the energies for the deities), and the animal’s body is taken away to be prepared as a meal. By eating the flesh of the sacred animal, devotees are then imbued with a physical manifestation of the sacred. This concept is almost identical to the Christian Eucharist — the wafers and wine are blessed and become symbols of Christ’s body and blood. By consuming the wafer and drinking the wine, Christians are taking in the essence of God into their own bodies.
Despite my limited knowledge of Voodoo and its practices, I was engrossed by Dr. Caulder’s frank and personal narrative style, especially her descriptions of the daily life in Ouidah and the conditions there. Dr. Caulder is quite candid about her romance with Daagbo and the conflicts she had with other Voodoo leaders. Included in the book are 16 pages of photos including some of Dr. Caulder’s personal altar. Mark Of Voodoo is extremely well-written, brutally honest, and an excellent “first read” for those wanting to know more about the mysteries of Voodoo.