Rousing Spirits: Inside Haitian Voodoo

The long walkway was lined with painted crypts. Electric blue. Aqua marine. Black. White. Some were topped with crosses. Others had large and rusting padlocks hanging from their hatches. And still others were smashed open by grave robbers — the ragged remains of their occupants left atop the shattered ruins.

My escort, Martin, and I walked toward an ornate, house-sized tomb just inside the entrance of the graveyard. As we approached, two shirtless men leaped from the shadows of the crypt wall. Martin and I froze. One of the men screamed something in Creole — the common tongue in Haiti.

“What’s his problem?” I asked.

“You’re not allowed in here.”


“Not allowed?”

“He’s saying that the mayor said that no one except family members is allowed here.” I smelled a shakedown, but this wasn’t the place for a confrontation. I waved off the mayor’s agent and headed back toward the entrance. As we turned the corner, Martin grabbed my arm and pulled me quickly into an alley. Crouching low, he looked over his shoulder. “I don’t think they saw us. We should be fine.”

We waited for a moment and then headed back into the graveyard, careful to avoid our friends. After winding through several rows of stone and plaster, we came upon a small group of people, circled around a tall and burning concrete cross. An older man with a baseball cap, sunglasses, and a prayer book stood behind the dozen or so men and women. As he read aloud from the book, each person would approach the fire-blackened cross. Some tossed alcohol onto it, sending flames billowing up. Others splashed the cross with water, or set lit candles onto its arms.

Then they began to chant, low and guttural.

“They are asking the spirits’ permission to enter the cemetery to visit their family members,” Martin whispered.

“Then why are they staring at me?” I asked. One man had begun digging a hole at the foot of the cross while another walked through the crowd, whispering from ear to ear. Each time he did so, he shot a look in my direction.

Martin leaned into me. “Maybe we should go.”


A Religion From Bondage

I’d come to Haiti to investigate voodoo — to witness the ceremonies and to understand the role it plays in this traditionally Catholic country. My trip took place a few short months before rioters stormed Port-au-Prince and overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the year following, journalists flocked to the capital, reporting from the relative safety of the hills overlooking the city. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media commentary missed the mark, focusing almost exclusively on the legacy of colonization in the problems and ignoring the influence of the nation’s religion. Haiti cannot be understood apart from the voodoo that is everywhere. And Haitian voodoo is like nothing else in the world.

Modern voodoo traces back to the arrival of the first slaves to the former French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the second half of the 17th century. These slaves were predominately from the empire of Dahomey — a region that is today comprised of Benin, Togo, and Nigeria. By the late 1700s, there were nearly 500,000 slaves in the French colony.

Sold into servitude by their own people, most were believed to be criminals and prisoners of war. Others were tribal priests “that resisted the total reign of the monarchy over the empire’s religious life,” writes Shannon Turlington, author of Voodoo. These holy men brought their religion to Haiti. And it caught fire. Religion was the one thing the masters couldn’t take from their slaves. Continuing the tribal worship was the one link they had to the lives they led before they were taken. Over time, though, the rites evolved and combined, as the various tribal groups mixed and merged with one another. In Secrets of Voodoo, Milo Rigaud notes, “The result of such tribal fusion was that two different groups more or less combined their beliefs, thereby creating in the new slave community a voodoo rite, which to this day is not ‘pure.'”


The God of Voodoo

Contrary to popular thought, voodoo is a monotheistic religion in which practitioners worship one god, named Bondye. The god of voodoo, however, isn’t like the Christian Deity. While he’s the creator of all things, he’s a distant, aloof god, unreachable by human beings. Instead of communicating directly with Bondye, worshippers must form relationships with supernatural spirits called Lwa. In this way, the Lwa serve as intermediaries between humanity and the remote Bondye. These spirits oversee all human activities. Once living human beings, they have acquired their power and wisdom through the experience of their past lives, and they each have a distinct personality — some good, some evil. There are literally thousands of Lwa, and they form a distinct hierarchy.

Practitioners of voodoo serve and correspond with the Lwa through a variety of devotions, the most popular being the full-scale voodoo ceremony. Difficult to perform, they’re carried out for a specific intention — health, thanksgiving, celebration, or simply to honor a particular spirit. The ceremonies are generally held in the oum’phor — or temple of voodoo — and are overseen by a priest or priestess. Called the houn’gan and mam’bo, respectively, their power is represented by an asson — or rattle (similar to a magician’s wand). The priest is a counselor, doctor, and magician — an intermediary between man and the spirit world. Practitioners believe he’s capable of speaking directly to the spirits.

I needed to find one of these men.


The Voodoo Priest

From the street it looked like a dead end. But for the next ten minutes, my new guide, Francis, and I followed the stranger through the narrow cinder-block canyons of Port-au-Prince. Walking, climbing, and twisting, we made our way through filth-smeared tunnels of garbage and human waste, only made worse by the suffocating Haitian humidity. Further and further we went, deep into this labyrinthine slum. If our guide ran off, I would never have been able to find my way out again.

I called out to Francis, walking ahead of me. “You’re sure we can trust this guy?”

He looked back and gave me a quick nod. He wasn’t smiling, and I wasn’t comforted.

But before real fear could take hold, the stranger stopped and gestured to a canary-green corrugated aluminum door.

“We are here,” he said.

Francis and I looked at one another and then back at the door. It was anonymous — as unremarkable as the many others we’d passed.

The stranger reached across its width and pulled it open. Inside was darkness. I couldn’t see much at first, since my eyes were used to the sun outside, so I had to feel my way forward into the unlit room.

My eyes grew accustomed to the dark, and shapes came into view. First, I made out a plastic skeleton hanging to the right of the door. Beneath it, sitting atop an altar was a statue of Jesus mixed in with wax-covered vases and votive candles. Various offerings were scattered across the concrete floor: empty Heineken, wine, and rum bottles and a not-so-plastic-looking human skull.

Our host switched on a small light bulb dangling from a wire. In front of me, on the dirt floor, was a black wooden cross with a baby-sized wicker chair affixed to it. Bound and hanging from the top of the cross was a disrobed Barbie doll with a dusty black pirate’s hat prominently displaying a skull and crossbones.

I quickly scanned the room. The stranger who led us here had disappeared. In a room this small, I would have thought that impossible. Francis shrugged in confusion, when we heard movement from the corner of the room. The stranger stepped out of a dark doorway and motioned for us to follow him.

“Come this way,” he said. “He is waiting for you.”


Smuggling Voodoo

In a country that’s allegedly 80 percent Catholic, how can voodoo continue to have such national prominence? The answer is found in the uniquely Haitian versions of Catholicism and voodoo. In short, slavery and native religion weren’t the only forces at work in forging Haitian voodoo — Catholicism played a foundational part as well.

Catholics first made their appearance in Haiti shortly after Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492. In 1697 the Spanish began to cede power over the region to the French. By the mid-18th century, the small island was becoming an agricultural powerhouse, and because the yield of crops far outpaced the labor pool, the French continued the mass importation of slaves. At this time, Catholicism was the only religion permitted. Indeed, according to Henry Gilford in Voodoo: Its Origins and Practices, in 1664 there was a decree issued that “ordered all slave owners to have their slaves baptized Catholic and to instruct them in the ‘Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion.'” The decree was strengthened in 1685 by the Code Noir (or Black Code), which banned all other religions apart from Catholicism.

Sadly, these codes were just the start of what was to be a long history of violence and repression. In 1758 and 1777 Catholic missionaries working in conjunction with the police enacted “The Police Rulings.” These rulings, according to Leslie Desmangles in The Faces of the Gods, “prohibited the slaves, ‘under penalty of death,’ from meeting… especially in the absence of a Catholic priest.” Perhaps most significant were the “Anti-Superstition Campaigns” — carried out between 1864 and 1941 — wherein the Church and government officials worked together to destroy voodoo properties and artifacts and imprison the practitioners. Moreover, every Catholic was ordered to reject publicly the practice of voodoo and adhere firmly to the Christian faith.

Despite the best efforts of the Church and the government, the tribal bonds between the slaves strengthened, and the practice of voodoo spread. But this time, the worship ceremonies were held in secret — away from the watchful eyes of the authorities.

Soon, the slaves began to use Catholicism as a cover. From the ritual of baptism to devotion to the saints, most Catholic practices could be put into the service of voodoo.

This combination has resulted, effectively, in the practice of two different religions, with a majority of Haitians still relying on voodoo for their spiritual needs (while confessing Catholicism as their national religion). Perhaps nothing illustrates this reality better than the worship of the Lwa. For instance, practitioners of voodoo believe that the Lwa Legba acts as a kind of guardian between the human and spirit worlds. For this reason, Legba is associated with St. Peter, who Catholics believe holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, the voodoo use of St. Peter is strictly superficial and is based largely on symbolism and imagery. Nevertheless, most Catholic saints have a voodoo counterpart.

Perhaps the most important parallel — both substantively and symbolically — is the funeral mass. “The mass for the dead has remained the major contribution of the Catholic Church to the voodoo follower,” explains Laënnec Hurbon in his book, Voodoo: Search for the Spirit. Indeed, the funeral mass adheres closely to the Catholic tradition — so much so that the use of a Catholic novena is commonplace. However, there are still fundamental differences.

While voodoo does hold that one part of the soul appears before Bondye, it rejects any notion of a physical resurrection of the body. Death is simply the transformation from a physical to a spiritual state. Furthermore, while a portion of the soul goes up to god, the remainder descends to “Ginen,” a mystical realm based on the African homeland of the former slaves. Because there’s no clear and consistent construction of heaven within voodoo theology, adherents are left with a hope centered around a romanticized vision of their land of origin. (In Ginen, their souls join those of the brothers and sisters who have gone before them.) In this way, voodoo focuses on the worship of this world and the life adherents are living now, rather than a future transcendent life. Furthermore, when the aloof Bondye is combined with the Lwa (who resemble the Greek gods in their vices and imperfections), the result is a pantheon of unpleasant beings, few of which invite enthusiastic worship. In short, it’s difficult to love an unloving god — and more difficult still to hope for an eternity with him and his bickering and vain lesser spirits.

This absence of hope is all too evident on the streets of Port-au-Prince and in the faces of the Haitian people. There’s good reason for this. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with pre-earthquake unemployment at over 70 percent. Those fortunate enough to have jobs make an average of less than $1 a day. Clearly, these conditions are not a direct result of voodoo — the history of this nation is replete with political demons that worked mightily to crush human initiative and ambition. But when material despair is coupled with a theology that offers little transcendent hope, only pathos remains.


A Voodoo Temple in Port-au-Prince

Francis and I followed the stranger through the curtained doorway. We emerged in a small room, and the stranger turned to light a candle. The space filled with an orange flicker. In the dim light, I saw him — the well-known voodoo priest I’d been looking for. A tired-looking man of about 45, Dominic was wearing a tank-top undershirt and sitting at a small red-washed wooden table.

He let out a long sigh and motioned for me to have a seat.

There was a human skull with a candle pressed into its crown on the table in front of him. I could make out yarn, matches, a knife, and a black wooden cross — all scattered across the table. Behind Dominic on a white-tiled shelf was an arched altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary. To our left was a mad jumble of statues, jars, and bottles of alcohol. It reminded me of the small shops in the Witches Market in La Paz, Bolivia.

The man stretched across the table and handed me the skull. I took it and turned to Francis. “What’s going on?”

“Isn’t this what you came for?”

“No, I’m here to witness a voodoo ceremony. Not to become the object of a ceremony.”

Francis shrugged. Across the table from me, Dominic raised his hands with his palms facing upward.

“He’s going to make a prediction for you,” Francis said.

“No,” I protested, “There’s no need…”

“Yes,” Francis insisted. “Now you must stand.”

“Stand?”

“Yes, he says you must stand.”

Reluctantly, I got up out of my chair. Dominic handed me a bowl full of a noxious smelling mixture he had prepared — by the scent of it, fingernail polish, paint thinner, and vodka.

“He’s cleansing you,” Francis said, as the man splashed the solution onto me. With this formality over with, we returned to our seats, and Dominic looked deeply into the candle flame. Soon he began to speak in Creole. Francis leaned into me to translate: “He says that you and your wife will have good fortune tonight and in the near future.”

“I don’t have a wife.”

“Then your girlfriend.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

The two men spoke quietly for a moment. Finally, Francis turned back to me: “He says you will have great success in business.”

I sighed. This was not what I came for. I stood and signaled to Francis that the ceremony was over, and it was time to leave. As we walked back out into the light of the midday sun, I noticed for the first time a crucifix around Dominic’s neck.

“Are you Catholic?” I asked him.

“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “Catholic.” He looked sad when he said it.


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