Santet and Voodoo: Reflections from a Trip in New Orleans
At first, Voodoo reminded me of Indonesian’s black magic called “santet”. It comes from Java Island and is used mainly by Javanese ethnic groups. The shaman, who was believed to have magical power, will deliver needles or nails to the targeted person as per request. Sometimes the shaman used a mediator to deliver black magic like the target’s pictures, clothing, hairs, or dolls. The target would become ill for an unknown reason. It’s common in Indonesia to assume that a person is a victim of santet if they have been ill for a long time without apparent medical explanation from the doctors.
After visiting a voodoo museum in New Orleans (Louisiana, the USA), the Voodoo I had known was unlike the Indonesian santet that I know. The Voodoo has an interesting cultural and historical background that totally opposite to what it is now being hyped. Voodoo in Louisiana or often known as New Orleans Voodoo was originated from West Africa. Voodoo is a belief system called Vodoun or Vodu initially to connect the spirits and the mortals. Fon people introduced it in West Africa, which is now the Republic of Benin, by enslaved sub-Saharan Africans from West Africa during the colonial period. The word spirit in the Fon language is “Vodu”, which later becomes Voodoo that is often associated with the West African practices in former French colonies such as Saint Domingue (Haiti) and Louisiana (the USA).
The Voodoo museum itself is small and mainly dedicated to representing the history of Voodoo in New Orleans. As I entered the museum, the first thing I saw was a painting of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. She was known as a leader of Voodoo religious rituals and healer who took care of ill and hungry people. There was nothing negative about what she did as the Voodoo Queen.
However, in its journey, Voodoo has become popular as a superstition associated with “gris-gris” or talisman that is believed to have the magic than its original form as a belief system. For example, the Voodoo doll with sharp pins on it is actually “gris-gris.” A person who has the doll takes control over it, usually by targetting specific person. It contradicts the original Voodoo as a belief system in the past and the practice by the Voodoo Queen to heal and help people.
It’s known that even at present days, some people use santet or Voodoo dolls to get revenge after being hurt by others. While I doubt such a thing works, I have heard stories of the unexplained and weird situations often blamed on the magic curse like santet to play along behind the unexplained. For instance, a friend’s uncle has been sick for a long time, and no doctors in Indonesia able to explain his illness. Closed people to her uncle started to talk about his business rival who sent a santet to make him sick for a long time. Or another story that I heard recently of a pond full of fish that died instantaneously over a night, then the owner blamed it on the santet that missed its target. These magics, in the end, are often used to explain the unexplained or to get revenge. Either you believe it or not, it has become an easy way out for some humans with troubled lives than to solve the matter to its core.
I, too, once thought that Voodoo was similar with santet, thanks to those Hollywood movies I watched that perpetuated this inaccurate notion about the tradition. Have you watched High on the Hog on Netflix? It’s a really good documentary series on how African Americans transformed American cuisine. The first episode focuses on the roots of the tradition in Benin, which of course mentions about Vodun. I think you may like it.
A poster with step-by-step instructions, like baking a cake. It seems this gives the wrong impression of the practice. I understand is can be effective, as a belief system, for positive and negative. Enjoyed reading your presentation and the photographs.
ive been to Benin and there is definitely elements of voodoo around. Ive also been to that museum but so long ago now I only have very limited memories of it. But definitely something worth doing thats a little different from the standard New Orleans for sure
This is such a fascinating post, in part because I love New Orleans and then the fact that growing up and learning about voodoo it was always linked to the ‘dark side’ of this mystical practice… I think more of the way Hollywood pushed it to the masses. The story of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, is the way I’d like to think of it and approach it as it seems logical 🙂 Great photos, as always, and wonderful to see you posting again!
Interesting reading about where voodoo originated, and the connection there is in Haiti. I have heard of voodoo dolls, but it they are something I never knew much about.