It turns out that I dont really know all that much about voodoo. Hollywood never taught me the complete story. But being here in Benin, the birthplace of voodoo, I am starting to understand this mysterious religion, and I have not seen or heard of anyone poking a doll with needles.
There is a big difference between voodoo and witchcraft (which is also practiced here). Witchcraft, I am told, is all about doing damaging things to other people or animals. Voodoo, on the other hand, has a lot to do with spirits and is meant to try and help people.
In Ouidah, we visited the python temple- an ancient voodoo structure errily located underneath several large trees filled with bats. The outside is not very impressive, but the numerous royal pythons roaming around sure do get your attention! For the voodoo, the pythons represent a god, Dan, and so they use the snakes in ceremonies and put their prayers before them.
Every seven years, the voodoo priests use the temple in order to purify the town. They cleanse the temple and put forward a big jug of water where the people can come and wash themselves clean. On different occasions, women who have trouble becoming pregnant will visit the priests and they will perform some ritual deep in the woods to try and help the woman become more fertile (one example involved scratching a woman's body with a claw).
Sometimes, priests will perform certain acts that take a persons spirit and sends it into a bird, which will then be able to transport them to Europe or somewhere else. For days at a time, I am told, a persons body will be copletely still ("If you saw them, you would think that they are dead", I was told). Eventually, the bird returns, and the persons spirit retuns to the body and the person continues their life as normal. Maybe this is the way I could get my mother to fly (if I actually believed in voodoo)!
In Oudiah, the Gate of Return is paradoxically close to the Gate of No Return. For the voodoo, a person never dies- their spirit is always with us, but cannot communicate with the living after death. This Gate of Return is meant to welcome back the spirits of all those slaves who died away from their families. Now, after being violently taken from their homes, they are back in the land of their ancestors.