Vodou: a wealth of gods and symbols

When they hear the word “Vodou”, most people tend to think of Voodoo as it is portrayed in Hollywood films, with celebrants falling into a trance, zombies, and effigies pierced with needles – as opposed to what it truly is, a belief system shared by millions of people worldwide.

Vodou is present not only in West Africa, where it originated, but also in North America, South America, and in the Caribbean, having been brought by African slaves to the New World. It is also represented in Europe, through migratory flows in the 20th century. Vodou is a religion as well as a philosophy of life, and encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practises.

In Vodou, this world and the invisible world are indissolubly linked. Mankind depends on this other world, which is peopled by ancestors, spirits, gods, and other forces that influence people’s lives. Every Vodou legend can be said to begin with a catastrophe: all the crises, diseases, deaths, wars and other disasters that affect mankind originate in this parallel world. In this regard, Vodou provides an explanation for misfortunes ranging from a failed exam to violent death; these can be interpreted as a message from the beyond. Through Fa divination, mankind can communicate with the vast pantheon of Vodou deities (there are an estimated 300 deities), all of whom are devious, prickly, jealous, vain and conceited. In short, these gods hold a mirror up to mankind.

Ritual, music, and dancing are used to communicate with the invisible world; and so too are objects, made from materials as diverse as wood, packaging, sticks, horns or bottles filled with herbs, recycled kitchen utensils, unidentifiable agglomerations of matter, sundry elements sewn, strung, or tied together. Marc Arbogast’s remarkable collection of Vodou artefacts conveys many private and collective tales about people’s lives, past and present. Over the past thirty years, he collected nearly one thousand such artefacts in Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana; and these have now found their way to the Château Vodou in Strasbourg.