Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Voodoo Etymology?

This is all quite contrary to the typical scholarship these days which says the word Voodoo is a term of African origin meaning a demon or spirit, but these little historic investigations seemed enough of interest to report:

"The word Voodoo (Vaudoux) is not African and it may well be that it has the same origin as the word Vaudois, from the Old French term Vaudais that meant "Sorcerer." The Voodoos are, in effect, like sorcerers."

Something I came on while digging for info to use in Voodoo Conjure, that was interesting etymologically, was that the older French sources always spell Voodoo as Vaudoux and pretty much always use it plurally. One also finds more earlier references to Voodoo in French sources than in English (the earliest religious "vaudoux" I've seen being an account published in 1809 by Descourtilz. There's also an account published 1801 by Moreau de Saint-Mery, which he claims was actually composed in 1789, where he describes "a dance called Vaudoux" from Haiti but where it's unclear if it's merely a fun dance or a religious dance.)

I incline to doubt the claim that it comes from Vaudois though it does seem to have more merit than a lot of the voodoo etymologies -- checking my copy of The Old French - English Dictionary, vaudois is listed as an adjective and a noun, respectively given to mean "heretical" and "heretic" with the latter having the extra information "[a] Waldensian (follower of heretical evangelist Petrus Waldo.)" (Which indicates that in fact it comes from the name Waldo, or Vaudès in French.) The word isn't even listed in Cotgrave's 17th century dictionary although it seems to have remained the preferred term for Waldensians even in English right through the 19th century. I think people had given up on worrying over Peter Waldo/Pierre Vaudès by the 16th century when being a protestant became semi-acceptable, which makes it seem a bit unlikely any "sorcerer" French slaves would have picked it up as a title; but still, there are pictures from the mid-15th century portraying Waldensians as flying on sticks and brooms so I guess there was some negative magical connotation there at one time. The French had been taking slaves from African from as early as the mid-16th century so it is, I suppose, not totally impossible if the term got used early on... but then why doesn't it appear anyplace for 250 more years?

Another possible hint to the origins: the earliest use of the term "vaudoux" that comes up on Google Books is from a 1777 Health Gazette account of a surgeon describing some unusual female affliction he saw. "I saw, in Nantes, a net-maker's wife, aged about 45 years, living on Rue des Halles, who showed the same symptoms of la Vaudoux." The doctor describing the matter doesn't seem to be talking about anything African or Caribbean or the like, nor does he seem especially to be from either of those places. It suggests, however, it may have been a French term for a strange malady. Also seems to be a feminine noun.


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