Haiti's Vodoun Followers

How faith transforms the devout and unites a country of believers

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Haiti is saturated with cliché: the poverty, the tortured landscape, the sprawling muddle of Port-au-Prince, the agonizing succession of abominable political leaders who disregard the welfare of their people. But find a quiet place—perhaps beneath the spreading branches of a sacred mapou tree, or on a hotel veranda at dawn—where you can forget all that you have heard about this turbulent country. Breathe deeply and listen to the rhythm of the land, and you will hear voices speaking of another Haiti whose beauty and magic make it unique in all the Americas.

Today, evidence of its African heritage is everywhere in rural Haiti. In the fields, long lines of men wield hoes to the rhythm of small drums; just beyond them sit steaming pots of millet and yams ready for the harvest feast. Near the center of a roadside settlement, or lakou, a wizened old man holds court. Markets sprout up at every crossroads, and like magnets they pull the women out of the hills; one sees them on the trails, girls beneath baskets of rice, a stubborn matron dragging a half-dozen donkeys laden with eggplant. There are sounds as well: the echo of distant songs, the din of the market, and the cadence of the creole language, each word truncated to fit the meter of West African speech. All these disparate images translate into a few closely related themes: the value of collective labor, communal land holdings, the authority of the patriarch, the dominant role of women in the market economy. And these themes, in turn, are clues to a complex social world.

Yet images alone cannot begin to express the cohesion of the peasant society; this must come in symbols, in invisible tones sensed and felt as much as observed. In this country of survivors and spirits, the living and the dead, the Vodoun religion provides the essential bond. Vodoun is a word from the Fon people of Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa that simply means "spirit" or "God." It is not a black magic cult; it is a system of profound religious beliefs about the relationships among man, nature, and the supernatural forces of the universe. Like all religions, it fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible.

Vodoun not only embodies a set of spiritual concepts, it also prescribes a way of life, a philosophy, and a code of ethics that regulate social behavior. Within a Vodoun society, as in a Christian or an Islamic society, one finds completeness—a distinct language; a complex system of traditional medicine, art, and music inspired by African antecedents; education based on oral transmission of songs and folklore; a system of justice derived from indigenous principles of conduct and morality. The religion cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entire community.

Vodoun is not an animistic religion. Believers do not endow natural objects with souls; they serve the loa, multiple expressions of God. There is Agwe, the spiritual sovereign of the sea; and there is Ogoun, the spirit of fire, war, and the metallurgical elements. But there are also Erzulie, the goddess of love; Guede, the spirit of the dead; Legba, the spirit of communication between all spheres. The Vodounists, in fact, honor hundreds of loa because they recognize all life, all material objects, and even abstract processes as sacred expressions of God. Though God is the supreme force at the apex of the pantheon, he is distant; it is with the loa that Haitians interact on a daily basis.

The ease with which Haitians walk in and out of their spirit world is a consequence of the remarkable dialogue between human beings and the spirits. The loa are powerful and if they are offended can do great harm; but they are also predictable, and if they are properly served will reward men and women with good fortune. But just as humans must honor the spirits, so the loa are dependent on people. They arrive in response to the invocation of songs, riding the rhythm of the drums. Once believers are possessed, they lose all consciousness and sense of self; they become the spirit, taking on its persona and powers.

One night on the coast, I was invited to the temple of a prominent houngan, a Vodoun priest. I watched quietly as a white-robed girl—one of the hounsis, or initiates of the temple—came out of the darkness into the shelter of the peristyle. She spun in two directions, placed a candle on the dirt floor, and lit it. The mambo, or priestess, bearing a clay jar, repeated her motion, then carefully traced a cabalistic design on the earth, using cornmeal taken from the jar. This was a vévé, the symbol of the loa being invoked. After a series of libations, the mambo with a flourish led a group of initiates into the peristyle and counterclockwise around the centerpost, the poteau mitan, until they knelt as one before the Vodoun priest. Bearing a sacred rattle and speaking in a ritualistic language, the houngan recited an elaborate litany that evoked all the mysteries of an ancient tradition.

Then the drums started, first the penetrating staccato cry of the cata, the smallest, whipped by a pair of long, thin sticks. The rolling rhythm of the second followed, and then came the sound of thunder rising, as if the belly of the earth were about to burst. This was the maman, largest of the three. Each drum had its own rhythm, its own pitch, yet there was a stunning unity to the sound. The mambo's voice sliced through the night, and against the haunting chords of her invocation the drummers beat a continuous battery, a resonance so powerful that the very palm trees above swayed in sympathy.

The initiates responded, swinging about the peristyle as one body linked in a single pulse. Each hounsis remained anonymous, focused inward toward the poteau mitan and the drums. Their dance was not a ritual of posed grace, of allegory; it was a frontal assault on the forces of nature. Physically, it was a dance of shoulders and arms, of feet flat on the ground repeating deceptively simple steps over and over. But it was also a dance of purpose and resolution, of solidarity and permanence.

For 40 minutes the dance went on, and then the maman broke—fled from the fixed rhythm of the other two drums, then rushed back with a highly syncopated, broken counterpoint. The effect was a moment of excruciating emptiness, of hopeless vulnerability. An initiate froze. The drum pounded relentlessly—deep, solid blows that seemed to strike the woman's spine. She cringed with each beat. Then, with one foot fixed to the earth like a root, she began to spin in a spasmodic pirouette, then hurtled about the peristyle, stumbling, flailing, grasping, thrashing the air with her arms, momentarily regaining her center only to be driven on by the incessant beat. And upon this wave of sound, the spirit arrived. The woman's violence ceased; slowly she lifted her face to the sky. She had been mounted by the Divine Horseman; she had become the spirit. The loa, the spirit invoked by the ceremony, had arrived.

The initiate, a diminutive woman, tore about the peristyle, lifting large men off the ground to swing them about as if they were children. She grabbed a glass and crunched it in her mouth, swallowing small bits and spitting the rest onto the ground. The mambo brought her a live dove; this the hounsis sacrificed by breaking its wings, then tearing its neck apart with her teeth. Soon two other hounsis were possessed, and for an extraordinary 30 minutes the peristyle was utter pandemonium. The mambo raced about, spraying libations of water and rum, directing the spirits with the sound of her rattle.

The rhythm changed and the spirits arrived again, this time riding a fire burning at the base of the poteau mitan. A hounsis was mounted violently—her entire body shaking, her muscles flexed—and a single spasm wriggled up her spine. She knelt before the fire, calling out in some ancient tongue. Then she stood up and began to whirl, describing smaller and smaller circles that carried her like a top around the poteau mitan and dropped her, still spinning, onto the fire. She remained there for an impossibly long time, and then in a single bound that sent embers and ash flying throughout the peristyle, she leapt away. Landing squarely on both feet, she stared back at the fire and screeched like a raven. Then she embraced the coals. She grabbed a burning stick with each hand, slapped them together, and released one. The other she began to lick, with broad lascivious strokes of her tongue, and then she ate the fire, taking a red hot coal the size of a small apple between her lips. Then once more she began to spin. She went around the poteau mitan three times until finally she collapsed into the arms of the mambo. The burning ember was still in her mouth.

For the nonbeliever there is something profoundly disturbing about spirit possession. Its power is raw, immediate, and undeniably real—devastating, in a way, to those of us who do not know our gods. To witness sane, respectable individuals experiencing direct rapport with the divine fills us with either fear—which finds its natural outlet in disbelief—or envy.

Most psychologists who have attempted to understand possession from a scientific perspective have fallen into the former category, and perhaps because of this they have come up with some bewildering conclusions, derived from unwarranted assumptions. Because the mystical frame of reference of the Vodounists involves issues that cannot be approached by their calculus—the existence or nonexistence of spirits, for example—psychologists dismiss as externalities the beliefs of the individual experiencing possession. To the believer, the dissociation of personality that characterizes possession is the hand of divine grace; to the psychologist it is but a symptom of an "overwhelming psychic disturbance."

Vodoun, in truth, is a complex, metaphysical worldview distilled from profound religious ideas that have their roots in Africa. The essence of the faith is a sacred cycle of life, death, and rebirth unique to the religion. The acolyte fears death not for its finality but as a crucial and vulnerable moment in which the spiritual and physical components separate. One aspect of the soul, the ti bon ange, or little good angel, goes beneath the Great Water. A year and a day after the death, in one of the most important of all Vodoun rites, the ti bon ange is ritualistically reclaimed and placed by the houngan in a govi, a small clay jar, which is stored in the temple's inner sanctuary. That soul, initially associated with a particular relative, in time becomes part of a vast pool of ancestral energy from which emerge the archetypes that are the loa, the 401 spirits of the Vodoun pantheon. To Haitians this reclamation of the dead is not an isolated sentimental act; on the contrary, it is as fundamental and inescapable as birth itself. One emerges from the womb an animal, the spiritual birth at initiation makes one human, but it is the final reemergence that marks one's birth as sacred essence.

To be sure, there are other less benign forces in Vodoun: the conjurers of dark magic, the manipulators of the hexing herbs. Yet to ask why there is sorcery in Vodoun is ultimately to ask why there is evil in the universe. The answer, if there is one, is the same as that given by Krishna to a disciple: "To thicken the plot." Indeed, nearly every religion has a notion of darkness and light. In Christianity there is the fallen archangel who is the devil, and the Christ child, the son of God. For Vodounists, sorcery is merely the manifestation of the dark side of the universe. Balancing those malevolent forces with the magical power of the positive is the very goal of the religion.

Possession, the return of the spirits to the body, completes the sacred cycle: from human to ancestor, from ancestor to cosmic principle, from principle to personage, and personage returning to displace the identity of man or woman. Hence, while Vodounists serve their gods, they also give birth to them. The ultimate experience in Vodoun ritual is the moment when the loa responds to the invocation of the drums and rises from the earth to inhabit the body. In many ways Vodoun is the most quintessentially democratic faith, for its believers not only have direct access to the spirits, they actually receive the gods into their bodies. That moment of spirit possession—what dancer and author Maya Deren described as the white darkness—is by no means a pathological event. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of divine grace, the epiphany of the Vodoun faith. As Haitians often say, "White people go to church and speak about God. We dance in the temple and become God."

Wade Davis is the author of Shadows in the Sun (Island Press), from which this article was originally excerpted. Adapted from Shambhala Sun (Jan.-Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 1345 Spruce St., Boulder, CO 80302-9682. Reprinted by permission of Island Press. Copyright © 1998 Island Press.