Tag Archives: voodoo

Origin of the Voodoo Doll

Boy, did you piss me off today. So while you weren’t looking, i took a piece of your hair/clothing/belonging, went home and i am now sticking pins in it. You, of course, are having sudden unexplained pains in certain areas of your body.

This is the popular image of Voodoo Dolls. However, the use of such dolls not only for Voudon, but also across multiple cultures and history is much more varied. They are also used for healing, protection, love spells and spiritual guidance.The dolls are used as messengers to the spirit world. To accomplish this they are nailed to a tree in a graveyard with a message to the world beyond. .

As with any form of Magick, the assumption is always that symbolic actions performed with intent can have an effect in wider or spiritual realms and cause changes beyond the simple act itself. Thus the doll is not just a doll. They are made to have an empowerment potential which is activated when a piece of cloth, hair, rope, tack, etc is attached to it which can effect people or events.

So where so these dolls come from?

Voodoo dolls as we know them today are actually the combination of two sources: the Western African practice of Bocio and the european Poppet.

The European Poppet.

It is from the European Poppet that we get the pin sticking stereotype. The european Poppet uses what is called ‘sympathetic magic’. Whatever happens to the doll happens in the real world. Hence the pin sticking.

European folk magic has used the poppet since before Europe, actually. It traces back to Egypt. In 1100 BCE, the many enemies of Pharaoh Ramses III of Egypt (which included the women of his harem and a treasury official) used wax images of him to bring about his death.

The poppet later pops up with great zest in Greek culture. Called kolossoi, they were not only used for sympathetic magic (i.e. pin sticking) but to constrain ghosts, troublesome spirits, and even gods. They could also bind lovers together. Most anything you think about when you think about Voodoo dolls the Greeks were all about. The Tragedy writer Theocritus writes about burning and melting wax poppets to achieve love spells. (poppet candle magic! What didn’t the Greeks do? Geometry, philosophy, poppets and butt sex. Damn, they could party.)

They made their way into folk magic in europe. From there they branched off. Much like Tarot branches into both an esoteric art and playing cards, poppets exist as not only folk magic, but children’s dolls and then theater as they evolved into the modern day puppet. I would note that puppets as theatrical devices trace back to 1000BC in India and China. Never the less, the word puppet comes from poppet and the two traditions evolve and intersect in tangent with one another.

The influence of the European poppet on the Voodoo doll is greater than people realize, who assume it is purely an African invention popularized by slaves brought to the New World. The slaves did bring their own version which differs in some subtle but profound ways: bocio.

The African Bocio.

The slaves torn from Africa brought with them their own fetishes (and by fetish, i of course mean the traditional defintion of  “the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects”) Bocio.

Bocio were designed more as objects that take on animation and become mediators to the spirit world. They could communicate with ancestors, gods and if necessary, through that intereaction the ancestors or dieties could bring some type of help, supplication or protection to the doll’s sender, influencing events both positively and negatively. The point of difference is that traditionally, the doll itself is not the power nor does it represent a real person. It is merely a messenger to those with the power to affect change. Eventually the doll did came to be able to store, harness and direct the owner’s own spiritual power therebye containing spiritual powers, although it still did not represent another human being.

Sacred materials like claws, feathers and animal skulls are bound to the surface of a wooden figure with cord or cloth, then encrusted with clay, palm oil or sacrificial blood. The bocio are very striking, very intense and are supposed to be that way.

When the slaves arrived the marriage between european traditions and african traditions resulted, the combinations of which have sparked some of the greatest creative artistic explosions in history. (we could talk only about music for days). The poppet and bocio merged in varying degrees and became the Voodoo Doll that we think of today.. There are of course a myriad of Voodoun traditions, from Louisiana to Haitian, who practice their own variations when using Voudon dolls. Aditionally, Poppets themselves have also evolved and enjoyed a resurgence in modern evolutions of European magic, with Wicca being the most well known.


Posted by on November 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Haitian Drumming For Dummies

Haitian drumming comes directly from the West African drumming tradition, an amazing and diverse musical tradition going back beyond historical record. My intention for this post is to give a very, very basic overview of Afro/Haitian percussion for non musicians.

Let’s start with an example or two of Haitian drumming. I chose 2 vids which are very clear and easy to follow. There’s much cooler Vodou drumming vids, but for educational purposes these are much clearer.

Percussion playing all revolves around the idea of poly-rhythms. That is, each drummer plays a simple pattern. When these patterns are played at once, over top of each other, they create a much denser and more complicated sound.

A great example, one i use when i do artist in resident workshops with kids, is the use of nursery rhymes. Name some nursery rhymes: hickory dickory dock, ba ba black sheep, three blind mice. Okay, we have three people and each one is going to play one fo these nursery rhymes on a drum. When all three play their different nursery rhymes together, you get a really interesting and complex wall of rhythm.

This is the essential idea of percussion. The African tradition is an amazing one and the Haitian drumming for Vodou is a direct descendent of West Africa, Nigerian, and Congo traditions.

Sometimes rhythms will be of different lengths which creates wonderful layers of rhythm, and sometimes different time signatures are layered on top of each other. I notice a lot of drumming in which the bell plays at a fast 6 count (6/8) while other drums play at a slower 4 count (4/4). This also creates a wild effect, where the music seems to wrap around itself without any beginning or end. By this i mean when you listen to say a pop song, you an count along with it 1, 2, 3, 4 over and over. When these tempos layers occur it is harder to say where a 1 is… it can be more than one place or simply lost in the spiraling rhythm.

While putzing around the net watching videos of drumming i came across these 2 educational vids which are flat out fantastic. They illustrates perfectly how the entire concept works at its most basic level. You only need 1 in this post so we’ll use this one:

Bingo. You see? Different rhythms over top of one another. So percussionists in a tradition know numerous, very specific rhythms the way a western musician would know all sorts of well known melodies and chord changes.

Now, in Haitian Vodou drumming there are all sorts of specific rhythms one would use depending on what part of the ceremony one is in and which Loa is being called up. Usually the drummer playing the Maman Drum (the Mother Drum) leads the changes. The ensemble is playing a certain series of rhythms for a particular Loa spirit to come. When the Maman player perceives that one of the dancers is becoming possessed, he will break from the rhythm into a new, specific, counter rhythm to facilitate the spirit’s arrival and intensify the music. Sometimes the rest of the drummers will change with him and sometimes they will continue the groove while the Maman player eggs the Loa on to a state of full possession of the celebrant.

The Drums.

Unlike most West African percussion ensembles, Haitian drumming does not use a djembe. The Haitian ensemble is often made up of 3 drums plus a bell, although there is a type of ensemble made up of only 2 drums. We’re going to focus on the 3 drum ensemble, called the Rada Batterie.

The Maman (or Mother) Drum is the biggest, the Segon is medium sized and Boula is the small one.

There is always a bell, called an Ogan, but this can be any metallic object, such as a hoe blade that will make a good tinky sound.

This is the main ensemble, although occasionally a priest will use a gourd that functions as a rattle, and a bass drum can be added for very simple bottom rhythms.



Here is another vid of drums in action during a real ceremony:

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Posted by on July 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Haitian Vodou

As long as we’re using aspects of Haitian Vodou and drumming for inspiration on a music and plot idea, we might as well do some research and learn some stuff. Although it’s the drumming that interests me the most, educating myself in all apsects of the various tangents that pop up in writing this show has been a huge joy and the main purpose of this blog. I assure you, 90% of my posts here are on topics i knew nothing about prior to writing the show and blog. (This includes steampunk itself, the weimar era, etc.)

Vodou is an African religion that is actually a hodgpodge of West and Central African religious worship interlaced with Catholicism. The slaves captured and sent across the sea pooled together their religous knowledge, gods, spirits and ritual to create Vodou.

As Catholicism was forced onto the slaves, numerous similarities were found between Christianity and their ancient African heritage, and these were combined. For instance, Catholics saints each had particular attributes and were prayed to in hopes they’d intervene. This was just like the Loa spirits and many saints became stand ins for African Loa.

Baron Samedi

In Vodou, there is one father God, Bondje, above all else. Bondje is taken from the french Bon Dieu, or Good God. This ultimate one great God is distant and does not really interact with his Creation, so if one wants intereaction and assistance, one must turn to the saints and angels… the spirits under Bondje, the Loa (Iwa).

What is particularly interesting is that many of these spirits do indeed have counterparts in the Christian heirarchy of saints and angels. Peter gaurds the gates of heaven, and his image was used to represent Papa Legba, who guards the gate of the spirit world and who must be called and honored at the beginning of each ritual to let the gate open.

Erzulie is the beautiful female spirit of Love and water, and she is represented by the Virgin Mary. Each person has a particular spirit who is closest to them and who watches over them, essentially a replication of a Gaurdian Spirit.

So one is left with a large pantheon of spirits to interact with, honor, and ask favors of.

8 Loa: Ezili Freda, Ogou, Ayida Wedo, Danbala, Gran Brigitte of the Gede, Bawon Samedi of the Gede, Lasiren, and Agwe

These Loa fall into 3 general categories:

Loa Rada: The “cool” spirits. They are graceful, stately, elemental and cosmic in nature. Their songs and dances are decorous and graceful, and the drumming that accompanies them is of an even beat. During possession by Rada, the celebrants sing and dance beautifully. The  Rada trace back to Africa.

Loa Petwo: The “hot” Spirits. They are newer and we added when the various slaves reached Haiti. They are aggressive and they come from the times of slavery and the rage and frustration slavery produced. It was the Petwo who were called and cultivated to help with the Haitian uprising in 1791 which resulted in the slaves liberating themselves and establishing the first black peoples’ republic, which is now Haiti. The drum beat accompanying Loa Petwo is uneven, and celebrants possessed may cough up blood, stick themselves with pins or knives, or eat glass, all apparently without being harmed when they come to themselves again.

Loa Ghede: The ancestral spirits.  They are spirits of the family line which can date back to Africa  They are often “quite rowdy and raunchy, sprinkling their conversation with profanities and sexual innuendo. Haitian culture is generally very conservative and does not normally reward such behaviour, but the loa Ghede can commit such social transgressions with impunity – being dead, they are beyond punishment, and they seem to feel that shocking people is perfectly reasonable. They typically do not use profanity in an abusive manner, but prefer to make people laugh at their over-the-top behaviour. Predominantly male, and praised with raucous songs and enthusiastic dances, the loa Ghede are the ancestors who bridge the gap between ‘Gine’ (Africa) and the living of Haiti. The Ghede’s names all end in La Croix in honour of Baron and Maman Brigitte who reclaim the souls of the ancestors and make them into loa; both Baron and Maman Brigitte’s symbol is the cross. Vodouisants possessed by the Ghede often dance suggestively (though without desire – it is a paradox that the Ghede represent both eroticism and death), drink strong spirits, and behave outrageously.”

The Loa apparently all live in a city beneath the sea (except for Agwe) called Ile Ife or Vilokan. The number of Loa are substantial. They are grouped into nations and families. There are 21 nations of Loa. Loa are also related to each other in families, and each family has a surname. So for instance the Ezili family has two sisters who are rivals, Ezili Freda and Ezili Dantor. 

Boukman, a Vodou priest, began the Vodou ceremony that started the 1791 uprising that freed Haiti.


An altar

A ritual is either personal or public and seeks to provide communion between the individual or community and the divine and/or spirit. Personal rituals usually include an altar. The altar is a very important aspect of personal prayer and is often elaborately decorated with candles, cloth, herbs, items associated with the Loa, symbols of the Loa (veves) and offerings of food and drink. Worshippers can light candles, sing, dance, make offerings, or simply pray quietly

The public ritual on the other hand is where the wild stuff goes down.

“Public rituals are more dramatic in nature. They take place in the hounfort (temple) or peristyle (an open but roofed sacred space). Both have a central pole dedicated to Papa Legba, around which all the activities revolve. The hounfort is decorated with the “veves” of the loa and altars. Beginning with a salute to Legba, keeper of the gate between worlds, the congregation is led through a pre-ritual feast and then songs and dances for the Rada, the Ghede, and the Petro. Vodouisants may become possessed by loa during the ceremony; the loa may wish to pass on specific messages, or simply manifest to enjoy the music and dancing.”

From M. Rock: “After a day or two of preparation setting up altars, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of Catholic prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyol and African “langaj” that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the “Priye Gineh” or the African Prayer.

“After more introductory songs then the songs for all the individual spirits are sung. As the songs are sung spirits will come to visit those present by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. Each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and will give readings, advice and cures to those who approach them for help. Many hours later in the wee hours of the morning, the last song is sung, guests leave, and all the exhausted hounsis and houngans and manbos can go to sleep.”

One last little interesting tidbit: the Voodoo doll, you know, the one you stick little pins into, is NOT an African invention, it comes from European folk magic, the Poppet (from which puppet is derived). Vodou had ritual carvings of Loa or objects of power. The European Poppet was introduced by the Europeans and while the “voodoo” doll became used in Hoodoo,  which is folk magic not actually part of the religion, it is not a part of Haitian Vodou. Poppets are used by nailing them to a tree in a cemetery to act as liaisons to the afterworld, usually to carry some sort of message.

The “voodoo doll”  has become popularized due to movies and works of fiction. There is no question that Vodou has been on the receiving end of  a long campaign to paint it as evil, savage, and satanic, first by slaveowners and their culture, then by foreign Christians. Hollywood functions as a mouthpiece for painting fear and misunderstanding, mostly because it exists to excite popular imagination.

There is no question that Vodou and its very idea make Christians uncomfortable. One essential reason for this is that Christianity is mostly a fertility based religion; calm, pastoral, symbolizing the seasons and their renewal. Vodou is an ecstatic religion and its rituals promote altered states of consciousness. It is NOT calm. It is highly experiential. It is alien. It is however closer to the Charismatics and some evangelical forms of Christianity, althought they would vehemently deny this. (But look closely…)

One last thing: Vodou does also have rituals in which there are animal sacrifice. No doubt about it. The animals are killed in a very specific way which practitioners insist are humane and are indeed faster and simpler than most slaughterhouses where you get your meat from. The Loa feed off the life force of the animal and its blood. Make of this what you will.

Here is a list of some Loa:


Papa Legba Atibon – He is imaged as an old man, St. Lazarus is used to represent him in the hounfo or temple. He opens the gate to the spirits, and translates between human languages and the languages of the spirits.

Marasa Dosu Dosa – They are twin children, either in twos or threes. Imaged with Sts. Cosmas and Damien, or the Three Virtues.

Papa Loko Atisou and Manbo Ayizan Velekete – The prototypical priest and priestess of the tradition. They confer the office of priesthood in initiation.

Danbala Wedo and Ayida Wedo – The white snake and the rainbow, together they are the oldest living beings. Danbala brings people into the Vodou. St. Patrick and Moses are used for Danbala.

Ogou Feray – He is a fierce general who works hard for his children but can be moody and sullen at times as well.

Ogou Badagri – He is a diplomat, and is Ogou Feray’s chief rival.

Ezili Freda – She is a mature light-skinned woman who enjoys the finest things, jewelry, expensive perfume, champagne etc. She is said to own all men (or she thinks she does) and can be very jealous. She gives romance and luxury. She is so pure she must never touch the bare ground. Her main rival is her sister Ezili Dantor

Agwe Tawoyo – He rules the sea and those who have crossed the ocean, and is symbolized by his boat named “Imammou”. St. Ulrich is his saint counterpart.


Gran Bwa Ile – His name means “Great Wood”. He is a spirit of wilderness. He is fierce and unpredictable, and a section of the grounds of a Vodou temple is always left wild for him. St. Sebastian is used to represent Gran Bwa.

Ezili Dantor – a Petwo lwa, she is a strong black single mother. She does not speak, but makes a “kay kay kay” sound in possession. She is nurturing and protective but is dangerous when aroused, even to her own children. Her image is the Mater Salvatoris of Czestokowa. She often uses a dagger or bayonet, and her colors are often red and dark blue. A little known fact is that she is actually a hermaphrodite, and takes both men and women in marriage.

Ti Jan Petwo – the son and lover of Ezili Dantor.

Simbi – the Simbi lwa live in fresh water rivers and are knowledgeable in the areas of magic and sorcery.

The Bawons – they rule the cemetary and the grave. There are three – La Kwa, Samdi, and Simitye.

The Gedeh – The Gedeh spirits are all dead spirits who rule death and humor and fertility. They drink rum steeped with 21 habanero peppers and bathe their faces and genitals with this mixture also, to prove that they are who they say they are. They are sung for last at a party for the spirits. Chief of the Gedeh is Gedeh Nibo, with his wife Maman Brijit. St. Gerard represents the Gedeh.


Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Steampunk Voodoo

And then, on a little island in the middle of the Danube, it hit me: a Steampunk Voodoo song.

This subculture song is not the only song i’ve have to put thought into, but it’s the one i’m documenting here on the blog, and it’s proven to be the one with the longest journey to fruition.

If we recall, i was in a quandary. The last version of this song, a dirge-y, Portisheady-but-heavy and more mechanical track which showcases a youth subculture in the opera who are enamored with the mechanical mannequins in whom reside dead people…. didn’t work. It had two main flaws. One, the song was decent but not exceptional, and two, more importantly, its dirge-y nature, which fit my idea for the subculture, was a bad tempo at bad time in the larger piece. The larger piece wanted a track with a much faster tempo in that spot.

So back to the drawing board. So i thought and came up with a good idea, but there was one piece missing… i was trying to explain my issue to my wife and was telling her how my brain kept throwing the band Rusted Root up whenever i would consider this, which was just plain ridiculous, because something like Rusted Root doesn’t fit this at ALL and what the hell is my brain doing, trying to fuck up the entire show i’ve been working so hard on? (wouldn’t be the first time…)

I don’t even remember what she said, i don’t recall anything other than at some point she facetiously said the word Voodoo and BOOM. House moment. You know, where House just gets up and walks away in the middle of the person’s sentence. I didn’t walk away but it all suddenly fell into place.

The subculture… these kids raised in households all of which have mannequins; mannequins who supposedly contain the soul of some dead relative or another. Who barely move, maybe slowly turn their heads towards you when you speak, never talk themselves, but who are normal fixtures to this new generation. And this generation goes on to form a new subculture, one enamored with the dead, one alien to their parents and scary to the older generation, one featuring its own music yet still within the context of the music for the rest of the show….

Why… Steampunk Voodoo! THAT is an interesting subculture. THAT is a fucking awesome idea for a style of music i can invent. THAT can make a track that will exceptional, add a REALLY interesting element to the 3rd act.

I will use Haitian drum rhythms, the kind used for Vodoun rituals, but instead of organic drums, play them rhythms using the metallic, clanging, industrial percussion i’ve use throughout the entire opera and use a chanting theme throughout the song, backing the lead female’s lead vocal line. The instrumentation on top of the metallic, industrial Hiatian drumming will be cabaret instruments: Piano, accordian, tuba, and grinder-like organ, as well as a drum kit.

The marriage of these will create a vigorous, intense, driving track which will be in a style only describable as Steampunk Voodoo. (I do like the Haitian spelling of Vodou)  It will be the kind of music these kids make when they get together in their clubs, and the staging potential for it is through the roof.

Fits the plot needs and even suggests better ideas for Byron’s motivations. (okay, technically it would be Dieselpunk Voodoo, but we’ll get into the various Dieselpunk, Atompunk, Steampunk derivatives later, not to mention, steampunk is the better all inclusive term)

So there you go. I am going to make a song in the style of steampunk voodoo. This won’t even begin to happen for another week due to prior commitments, but stay tuned. I will post it when finished.

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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


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