A glimpse into the origins of fetishism

Posted by Kate Butler

On the evening of Mar. 20, 2013, Dr. Elizabeth Perez of Dartmouth College brought the culture and history of fetishism and voodoo to life for the students and faculty gathered in Emerson Auditorium.

In her lecture, titled "Inventing the Fetish: Voodoo, Religion and the European Thing for African Objects," sponsored by the College's religion and philosophy departments, Perez discussed the origins and evolution of voodoo in Africa spurred by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its new roots in the New World and its distorted image in European viewpoints and representations in popular culture today.

The spiritually and ritually significant objects known as fetishes were similar to talismans in voodoo worship, but did not have same connotations they carry today. Perez claims that while the Europeans discovered fetishes, the objects were actually invented during the evolution and demonization of voodoo in the New World, a process caused primarily by European interference and misinterpretation, as well as the slave trade. The exoticism and power of African objects fascinated Europeans, but they considered ritual objects to be connected to an unfamiliar polytheistic tradition that was viewed as sacrilegious, much in the same way that Africans were considered to be subhuman.

These objects of worship were made from a variety of materials and were unique to their owner. Slaves brought these talismans from their homes to the plantations of the New World, only to have them confiscated by plantation owners or missionaries. Already stripped of their independence, the slaves also lost these important objects, which were deemed inferior and replaced by "worthy" religious objects like rosaries.

The creation and use of the term "fetish" and the glorification of a supposedly viable religion reinforced the "worthless" and unreligious view of the objects and the style of worship they represented. This created and emphasized a contrast between religion, especially Christianity, and fetishism, setting them as opposites.

Despite the confiscation of fetishes, the spiritual rituals and traditions survived, as can be seen by the spread of voodoo throughout areas of the New World like the American South and the Caribbean. However, the European viewpoint and mindset of fetishism has also survived in many ways, impacting the views and portrayals of voodoo and fetishes in popular culture today. Although there have been many negative and distorted depictions of voodoo and its followers, it continues to endure despite the stereotypes. As Perez concluded, in the end worship is a private matter, and one's ideas about what constitutes religion depend on personal beliefs of ritual and faith. 

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