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Gamers' Grimoire

Good Mojo

by Anituel
Feb 16,2005

 

Good Mojo

Voodoo is probably the best-known magical system world-wide due to the many outlandish stories and dramatic people and places associated with it. The flavor of Voodoo has been evoked in many movies, novels and other performances by the use of mysterious symbols, bright colors and ecstatic, joyous dancing. I hope to demonstrate for you how this energetic flavor and texture can be used in a roleplaying game.

Setting
Voodoo's history, even in summary, is a fascinating one. The religion finds itself sourced in the Yoruban and Dahomian cultures in Africa, though many other cultural factors have since entered it.

When Africans were brought to the many islands around the South East of the United States, they were generally being transplanted into Catholic society by their 'masters', the French and Spanish. While the Europeans tried to convert the Africans to Christianity, it generally didn't work very well, especially initially. The slaves, in an attempt to keep their cultural roots intact, began to hide their Loa or Orishas (more on them later) behind the images of the Saints.

This trick very likely worked well, at first, but eventually was figured-out by the fact that the Africans and their descendents still insisted on practicing magic and performing their religious rites. As long as the slaves kept a veneer of Christianity, though, the French mostly left them to it. There was likely very little the French could have done that wouldn't have incited a slave-riot, such as eventually occurred in Haiti where the Houngan (white magicians) and Bokor (black magicians) helped to incite anger and righteous indignation in their fellows of African descent, whether amongst the black slaves or the 'half-caste' freemen at their consistent mistreatment over the centuries. This, of course, is one of the big causes of the revolution which took Haiti as its own nation from the French.

Voodoo is not the only manifestation of the spirit of African religion and magic here in the Americas. Voodoo involves contact with otherworldly entities called Loa, while Santeria (which developed in Cuba, under Spanish influence) involves an identical group of entities called Orishas. When Voodoo moved into the United States (it is currently still commonly practiced in Louisiana and Mississippi, while Santeria is fairly common in Florida and Southern California), some African-Americans learned the magic of Voodoo and began spreading it about completely outside of any religious affiliation as Hoodoo. Hoodoo is still popular amongst many underprivileged communities around the nation, most powerfully in the southern states, while membership of the Church of Santeria is on the rise.

In South America, Santeria is celebrated, as is Macumba which is most common in Brazil and most closely resembles a combinatin of Voodoo, shamanism and necromancy.

Beliefs and practices particularly suited to roleplaying games
In Voodoo, Santeria and Macumba, God is considered to be too elevated and distant for humans to communicate with. This is where the Loa (Orishas, etc.) come in. Some people have called them Gods, but when compared to other beings of magic and lore more closely resemble demons: they are semi-divine beings who can be dealt-with person-to-person, even as equals by those who know their secrets and have something to offer in exchange for services rendered.

There are two 'sides' to Voodoo, though both are considered to be equally important parts of the religion. The Houngan is the 'orthodox priest' of Voodoo; he or she presides over large festivals, healing and uncursing rituals and rituals meant to honor the Loa. The Bokor, or 'black magician', acts as a foil for the Houngan. Bokor can be hired to curse others, to perform love and money spells for the desperate, or to call-up the spirits of the dead. While the Bokor also work with the Loa, they are most infamous for their communications with the Devil, sort of a black sheep of the Loa family.

Magic, in Voodoo, is primarily accomplished through the agency of the Loa. Even the simplest of spells call upon the Loa by name, and for anything more complex, a full invocation of an appropriate Loa is performed with the aim of having the Loa possess one or more of the congregation to receive its payment for the job it is to do. For most things, the Loa demand payment in the form of sacrifice of some sort. This sacrifice is generally food, drink, drugs or objects of beauty, though sometimes even sex is given. The desired payment generally has a lot to do with both the individual Loa involved, as well as the severity of the job the Loa is to do. Papa Legba, for example, specializes in opening-up opportunities for people and guiding them to different phases of their lives. He prefers good cigars and rum, as well as candy for his payment, and is often summoned-up at crossroads, which symbolize the many opportunities and possible paths of life. He appears in the guise of a wise and smiling old man, or in Santeria, as a good-humored young boy named Elegua.

Hoodoo is different insofar as the Loa are either left-out altogether, or replaced by the Saints and Archangels of Catholicism. In fact, Hoodoo has its very own Saint called "Saint John the Conqueror" or "High John". There is even a root named for him, "High John the Conqueror", which is used in numerous Hoodoo spells. Hoodoo practitioners, or 'root workers', are mostly practitioners of what's called 'sympathetic magic' (see also my previous article on witchcraft). That is, they rely upon a sort of abstract connection between physical objects which were either once together, or are similar in some way. The afforementioned High John root, for example, resembles a human hand, so represents power and freedom of action. Small bits of the root are chewed for help in keeping out of jail, while entire 'hands' of the root are put into herbal sachets called Mojos or Mojo Hands along with other herbs and symbolic objects (graveyard dust, coffin nails, mandragon root and charcoal being common ones) and carried as talismans for all manner of purposes.

Uses in your roleplaying game
Voodoo can provide an excellent cultural backdrop in your world, especially for horror or mystery games. In Haiti and even the southern United States, there are numerous Voodoo 'secret societies' with their hands in business and politics of their local areas. Many of them have the good of their fellow citizens in mind, but others are a bit more sinister, acting much like the crime families of the Mafia and taking command of things from behind the scenes.

Constructive and destructive magics are equally represented in Voodoo with the Houngan and the Bokor. Thus, there is room for both heroes and villains within the ranks of Voodoo magicians, not to mention antiheroes and 'wolves in sheep's clothing'. There is drama within the practice of Voodoo, as well. Brightly colored clothing and candles, lively music and dancing as well as bizarre symbols (called vévé, used to represent the Loa) are all found in typical Voodoo rituals. Animal sacrifice is also used in Voodoo and Santeria, but mostly for major festivals and the animals sacrificed (goats and chickens, usually) are always cooked and eaten as a symbolic meal shared with the Loa.

Let us not forget that the zombie (zombi) comes straight from Voodoo. Unlike the use of this word in most of Western culture, zombis are more complex than just being walking corpses and, in fact, there are two types of zombi.

The type which most people are familiar with is, of course, the 'corpse zombi'. This creature is made by a compound primarily made-up of tetrodotoxin from the caribean puffer fish, which is used to infect a victim. Generally, this 'infection' is achieved by making a powder of the poison compound and tiny glass shards which, when stepped-on in bare feet (which is still more common in Haiti than wearing shoes) allow for the ingress of the the poison itself into the body. There are tales, though, of Bokor who have had airborn fomulas which allows them to blow the powder into the face of the victim for it to be breathed-in. Tetrodotoxin, if used in the proper dosage, causes the victim to fall into a dreamless, totally unconscious sleep. Even many doctors are easily fooled by this state, thinking that the individual is dead. It is in this state that the individual is buried. Generally, the victim awakes in their coffin, already below six feet of earth and quickly running out of breathable air. The lack of oxygen usually causes brain damage, which the Bokor takes advantage of by digging the person up and forcefully reprogramming them to work as unpaid laborers on farms and plantations.

There is another type of zombi in Hatian Voodoo: the spirit or astral zombi. In Voodoo, there are three major parts of the human being's make-up: the corpse (body), the ti bon ange (little good angel) and gros bon ange (big good angel). The gros bon ange is the part of the person which returns to the Creator upon death, while the ti bon ange stays with the body as it decomposes, until finally released to the Afterlife. It is very common for adherents of Voodoo to have their community Houngan store their ti bon ange in jars, specially enchanted to protect the individual's spirit contained within. This way, if a Bokor tries to steal their ti bon ange at any time, the ti bon ange is protected from such attacks until its time comes to go to the Afterlife. If the jar is ever captured by a Bokor, however, his or her magic can thus take the ti bon ange out of it and transform it into an astral zombi.

While it may seem terrifying to have barely living human bodies with a merest shred of their former personalities left walking amongst you and yours, or having undead spirit beings lurking about unseen, most Hatians are much more afraid of becoming zombis than they are of zombis themselves, who are viewed more as pathetic creatures than frightful or dangerous.

What is Voodoo famous for, though? The Voodoo doll, of course! Interestingly, this is a rather recent addition to the tools of Voodoo and Hoodoo; it was introduced to the Africans and their descendents by the Europeans! In Europe, especially the British isles, dolls were commonly enchanted by witches to serve as proxies for the real target of a spell, most commonly for healing ailments of specific body parts. These dolls are still called poppets by magical practitioners.

Hoodoo can be an extraordinarily fun cultural detail in horror games, especially 1920s Call of Cthulhu and similar games of a dark and paranoid nature. In many cities in the United States, for quite a few decades, African Americans lived in their communities mostly apart from whites. It was primarily during this time that many such communities had their own resident root workers who could be hired to curse (or 'lay a trick', in Hoodoo terminology), return curses upon their senders ('turning the trick'), heal illness, or create a Mojo hand (talisman made of herbs and other symbolic objects in a flannel or cotton sachet) to help the person to get a job or stay out of jail. It was even fairly common for rich white folks to hire Hoodoo root doctors to curse their business rivals and punish cheating spouses. Legend has it that famous blues musician Robert Johnson got hooked-up with a Hoodoo group and, with their aid, made a pact with the Devil (or, more likely, Papa Legba) at a crossroads at night to win him skill in blues guitar as well as fame.

Voodoo and Hoodoo both bear close resemblance to the cultish magic in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, thus making them perfect in Call of Cthulhu and other Lovecraft-inspired horror games. Additionally, in the late 1800s, there was a sudden revival of interest in the occult all over the United States and Europe which jump-started the initial interest of Europeans and those of European descent in the practice of Voodoo. Hence, the prominent place in 19th century fiction of the zombi and 'African black magician'. A gothic or gas-lit horror adventure (such as Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death), especially one set in the southern states of the US, could make easy use of them as villains, hirelings or helpful sources of information. The prudent GM should bear in mind the secrecy of root doctors, Houngan and Bokor alike, however, by making them either difficult to track-down, difficult to talk to, or both.

When placing Voodoo-style zombis in your games, keep in mind the dramatic impact of the zombi as a tragic figure, more than a terrifying one. Zombis generally are not used as thugs or even guards, but rather as grunt workers on plantations. Astral zombis even are generally used to gather information about somebody or something, as opposed to attacking them; many Bokor prefer to do their own magics rather than have servants do it for them. Additionally, the only way of freeing an astral zombi is to recapture its jar and get it to a Houngan or other skilled magician who can release the ti bon ange, while the only way of freeing a zombi corpse is to kill it, because its brain is too far gone for the person to ever be their old selves again.

I hope you got something useful out of this article. In the next one, I'll take an idea common to this and the previous article, named sympathetic magic, and describe how it can formed into an alternative (or additional) magic mechanic for your favorite game system.

Non-Fiction
The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis (the book, not the movie)
Urban Voodoo by Christopher S. Hyatt, PhD, and S. Jason Black
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Voodoo by Shannon R. Turlington
Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: a Materia Magica of African American Conjure by Catherine Yronwode
Chaos & Sorcery by Nick Hall

Fiction
The Serpent and the Rainbow (the movie)
I Walked With a Zombie (movie)
White Zombie (movie)

Mood Music
Vodou: Ritual Possession of the Dead
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings by Robert Johnson
The Very Best of Dr. John by Dr. John
Voodoo Jive: The Best of Screamin' Jay Hawkins by Screamin' Jay Hawkins

May you live in interesting times,
Anituel

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