Pacific & Atlantic Photos, c. 1920s. Original silver gelatin print, measuring 24 cm x 16.5 cm (9.5 in x 6.5 in). With Pacific & Atlantic Photos rubber stamp on verso, along with a lengthy holograph caption in blue pencil: "HOF 221287 / copyright by Carl von Hoffman from P&A / The Voodoo belief among African natives / The bewitched natives drink water with voodoo gods blessing. They then vomit it and the bad spirits leave them. This is forbidden by the white man in Africa and is a prison offense. The photographer came upon this group in a bush by the river by chance." Mild rippling, rubber stamp faded on verso. Good. Item #2965
ORIGINAL PHOTOGRAPH PRINT BY A CELEBRATED CHRONICLER OF AFRICAN VOODOO.
Fine image by Carl von Hoffman (1889-1982) documenting a voodoo ritual in Zululand. Von Hoffman was a soldier in the Russo-Japanese War, an adventurer, author, and photographer. In 1924, von Hoffman was solicited to participate in a trek from Cairo to Capetown, during which time this photograph was most likely taken, and which inspired a return trip shortly thereafter to what was then Rhodesia. His second visit allowed him to study in detail the religious rites and customs of a single African tribe, providing his research material for "Jungle Gods."
In "As Told at The Explorers Club: More than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure," von Hoffman describes a love potion gone wrong, the ritual cure being part of the subject of this photograph. The published account reads:
"It turned out that the witch doctor was Lucas M'Zungu, a great Voodoo doctor, a combination of witch and witch doctor with a smattering of the white man's religion. I approached the place with caution in the hope of watching the performance unobserved. The Voodoo practice, as any witchcraft, was forbidden by the white man's law, and my appearance would probably have disrupted things...After some hesitation, the man came forward and, in Zulu, with a few English words thrown in, said that he was about to drown some spirits. There were three pots near by, with fires beneath, and some of the women were pouring water into them. The Voodoo doctor, dressed in a black robe, stood there holding a Bible in Zulu script, and mumbling incantations. The patients now came forward, stripped to the waist, to be anointed by the Voodoo doctor with lion fat, and among them was the girl who had been bewitched...muttering to herself but no longer raving. Each of the patients was then told to kneel and drink from the can of water placed before him, while the doctor kept up his incantations. The hot water was served in gallon cans, which formed part of the Voodoo equipment, and the patient was not allowed to stop drinking until the can was emptied, as otherwise the magic would lose its force. As soon as one can was emptied by a patient he would be given another, urged on by being told that the more magic he consumed the more certain was the cure...When all drinking ceased, the doctor showed them how to insert their fingers in their mouths as far back as possible, with the result that much vomiting started. To those struggling, the doctor shouted that the evil spirit was fighting within them, that it was trying to stay in their stomachs, and must be driven out by throwing it up. After ridding themselves of the water, the patients got up and walked away with smiling faces, for now they were un-witched. The raving girl was among the cured. When the Voodoo doctor, M'Zungu, left the ravine, his safari contained goats, cows, and sheep that had been paid him for the cure." (pp. 64-65)
As can be seen in this passage, South African voodoo (or vodun) combines Christian (usually Catholic) flavor and traditional African spiritualism, similar to Haitian voodoo. Vodun cosmology centers on vodun spirits and divine essences that govern the Earth, emphasizing the fact that the spirits of the dead live alongside those of the living. Witch doctors are considered healers (and emphatically not witches themselves), also called sangomas in south Africa, and are highly revered and respected in their societies. As such, part of their role is to narrate the history, cosmology, and myths of their tradition, and they fulfill various social and political roles within their communities, including divination, healing illnesses, and directing birth and death rituals. Muti, medications made from plants, animals, and minerals and imbued with a special spiritual significance, have powerful symbolism; for example, lion fat was often used on children to give them courage. In von Hoffman's example, the patients were annointed with lion fat to endow them courage before they faced the evil spirits in the vomiting purification ritual.
Von Hoffman is well known for his photographs of Theodore Roosevelt, Pancho Villa, and the Mexican Revolution, as well as his role as cinematographer for D.W. Griffith. Beginning as an apprentice with Brown Brothers, he went to work for the New York Globe as a press photographer, followed by the Mutual Film Company.
A fascinating view of an African voodoo ritual, captured at a time when such ceremonies would be seldom seen by non-Africans.