The majority of the Africans who were brought to Haiti and the southern US as slaves were from West Africa, and their descendants are the primary practitioners of Vodun. The survival of the belief system in the New World is remarkable, although the traditions have changed with time. One of the largest differences however between African and American Voudun is that the African slaves of Haiti and the southern US were obliged to disguise their gods (Lwas) and spirits as Roman Catholic saints, a process called syncretism.
Most experts speculate that this was done in an attempt to hide their "pagan" religion from their masters who had forbidden them to practice it. To say that Voudun is simply a mix of West African religions with a veneer of Roman Catholicism would not be entirely correct. This would be ignoring numerous influences from the native Arawak Indians, as well as the evolutionary process that Voudun has undergone shaped by the volatile ferment of Haitian history. It would also be ignoring the large influence of European paganism in Roman Catholicism and its pantheon of saints itself.
Each individual practitioner follows a different Loa (or Lwa, "mystery"), a tradition or path, sometimes a saint. The main Loa is Olorun or Bondye; his enemy is Obatala. There are hundreds of lesser spirits or spirits, but the main ones of the pantheon include Legba, Ghede, Damballah, Agwe, Ogou and Erzulie. A male Vodun priest is called a houngan (alternate spellings: hougan, hungan); a female one is a mambo. The central aspect of Vodun is healing people from illness.
Vodun is also known as Voodoo, the dominant religious system practiced in Haiti. A common saying is that Haiti is 80% Roman Catholic and 100% Voudon. It has also been historically practiced in slightly varying forms as a minor religion in parts of the southern United States, although immigration has seen Haitian Voudun spread to urban areas of the northern United States with considerable Haitian-American populations. In the southern United States, it has also influenced the system of folk magic and folk religion known as hoodoo.
Haitian Vodun or Vodou can be divided into several rites, the largest of which are the Rada rite, whose origin is African and Petro rite, a "hot" school of Vodou which originated in the new world experience of slavery.
Some might be uncertain how much of the "dark magic" (including zombies and voodoo dolls) is based on Christian propaganda during the colonial era, on Hollywood movies and folk stories, and how much of it is actually practised by the "priests". Indeed, there is even some debate within the scientific community. However, the evidence is clear. Between the tremendous amount of puffer fish uncovered at archaeological sites, the "zombie powder" and "Zombies" who have been interviewed and/or examined, little doubt can remain as to the reality of this phenomena. .
Sticking pins in "voodoo dolls" was once used as a method of cursing an individual by some followers of Vodun in New Orleans; this practice continues occasionally in South America. The practice became closely associated with Voodoo in the public mind through the vehicle of horror movies.