for National Geographic News
Voodoo is widely regarded as a mysterious and sinister practice that's taboo in many cultures. The mere word conjures images of bloody animal sacrifices, evil zombies, dolls stuck with pins, and dancers gyrating through the hot night to the rhythm of drums.
But experts on voodoo beliefs say there are many misconceptions about the practice, which is performed in various forms worldwide.
"Voodoo is not some kind of dark mystical force, it is simply a legitimate religion," says anthropologist Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who has studied voodoo extensively in the Caribbean nation of Haiti.
Haiti is ostensibly a Catholic country, but voodoo is widely practiced there. In his best-selling book The Serpent and the Rainbow, Davis wrote: "As the Haitians say, the Catholic goes to church to speak about God, the vodounist dances in the hounfour to become God."
Yet voodoo goes even beyond religionit's a world view, Davis says in the National Geographic Channel program Taboo: Voodoo, which airs in the United States on Monday, October 21, at 9 p.m. ET.
"It's not just a body of religious ideas," Davis says, "but a notion of how children should be raised, a notion of what education means, an awareness of politics."
The exact origins of voodoo are unknown, but it's generally agreed that its roots lie in West Africa. The nation of Benin, once known as Dahomey, is considered the cradle of voodoo, which means "spirit" in the local language.
A "spirit" religion, voodoo likely evolved from ancient traditions of ancestor worship and animism.
Once banned, voodoo is now an official religion in Benin, with about four million adherents in that nation alone. Forms of voodoo are also practiced in other African nations, the Caribbean, South America, New Orleans, and elsewhere.
Voodoo beliefs spread from Africa's shores to America on slave ships. Subjected to forced labor and expected to adopt a foreign Christian religion in their new land, enslaved Africans turned to the familiar spirits of their ancestors to help them survive a painful transition.
In the process, voodoo underwent major changes.
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