Anthropologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence* Wade Davis is the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness, books that explore Haitian voodoo, magic, and zombies.
Davis recently spoke with National Geographic News about how voodooists might view the recent Haiti earthquake, the concern many Haitians are feeling as they bury loved ones without proper rituals, and U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson's remark that Haiti's earthquake is God's retribution for a voodoo "pact with the devil."
Note: Davis's views are not necessarily those of National Geographic News.
What is Haitian voodoo?
Voodoo is a religion, a complex spiritual worldview, the distillation of profound religious ideas that came over from Africa during the slavery era and through time became manifest in any number of traditions in the New World.
It is ... a fusion of a number of religious traditions, of which Catholicism is one influence. Haitian culture and religion was inspired by virtually all of Africa from Senegal to Mozambique.
What do voodoo followers believe in?
Voodoo is based on a dynamic relationship between the living and the spirit realm.
The living give birth to the dead; the dead become the spirits; the spirits are the multiple expressions of the divine.
A human being has both a physical body and a soul or spirit, and at death the two dissociate. The spirit of the individual slips away and must be ritually reclaimed by a priest in a ceremony at a certain time after death, usually a year and a day in Haiti.
The spirit initially associated with a particular relative, a father or grandfather or whatever, in time becomes reclaimed and is placed into a vessel, which is placed into the inner sanctuary of a temple.
In time the vessel becomes part of a vast ancestral pool of energy, and out of that pool emerges the archetypes of the spirits of the voodoo pantheon, which are seen as multiple expressions of the greater god.
In ritual these spirits, or lwa, can be summoned. Responding to the power of prayer, they momentarily displace the soul of the living such that human being and God become one and the same. This is spirit possession, the moment of divine grace.
As Haitians often told me, we go to church and speak about God; the voodooist dances in the temple and becomes God.
An analogy might be your grandmother's soul going to heaven and then coming back as an angel that both helps you and inhabits you.
What do you think of Pat Robertson's recent remarks that this month's earthquake in Haiti was God's revenge for a pact Haitian slaves made with the devil to overthrow French colonists in the late 1700s?
Cruel, ignorant, unforgivable, the ravings of a lunatic. He doesn't even know what he's talking about.
What happened—according to both historical record and the founding history for the Haitian state—was that there was a voodoo ceremony where the symbol of freedom sang out, which was the sound of the conch trumpet [spurring African slaves to rebel against French coffee and sugar plantation owners in 1791].
In the same way that we speak so reverentially of Washington crossing the Delaware, that was the catalyst of the slave revolt. It was the only successful slave revolt in history [to have won control of a country], and it's said to have begun with a voodoo ceremony.
So Pat Robertson is saying by that comment that voodoo itself is the devil. Voodoo is not a black magic cult, nor does it have anything to do with a Christian notion of the devil.
All he's saying by that comment is that all African religion is devil worship, and he's revealing not only his ignorance about what voodoo really is, but also his bias that any religion not his own is devil worship.
For a man who aspired to the presidency he revealed himself to be remarkably unschooled in American history.
Had it not been for the revolutionary slaves of Haiti, we might well be speaking French in much of what is today the U.S.A.
Napoleon at the height of his power dispatched the greatest military force ever to sail from France. Its mission was twofold: Crush the slave revolt in Haiti, and then proceed up the Mississippi, hem in the expanding 13 Colonies, and reestablish French dominance in a continent that only 30 years before at the Treaty of Paris had become British North America.
Thanks to the Haitian patriots, the French armada never reached New Orleans [and Napoleon decided to sell much of what is now the western U.S. via the Louisiana Purchase.]
But it's not just televangelists who have a dark impression of Haitian voodoo. Why is that?
The thing about African religion is that it's very dynamic and astonishing. To see someone possessed by the spirit and actually become a god and handle burning coal with impunity and cut into the skin and so on—your reaction is either fear or disbelief for those of us who don't know our god in this direct way.
There's no question that in African religion there are very theatrical displays of faith.
The reason you cut yourself or handle burning embers is to show that a person taken over by the god is a god and can't be harmed.
There are things like animal sacrifice that we get very upset about. Well, actually what's going on there is—as in many religious traditions—a sense that disease or misfortune must be addressed by reestablishing energetic equilibrium. So you make an offering, and that offering is something precious to you, whether it be human blood or animal blood.
Also, in the 1920s, the U.S. Marine Corps occupied Haiti. This was during the era of segregation, and most of the U.S. Marine Corps in Haiti were Southerners. Afterward, every one of them seemed to get a book contract, and ... they were all filled with pins and needles and zombies that don't exist. They gave rise to the Hollywood movies ... such as Night of the Living Dead and Zombies on Broadway and so on.
Does the Haiti earthquake look any different through the prism of voodoo?
In traditional African belief, no event has a life of its own. Everything is connected in a flow of causal association.
Many Haitians in their agony and sorrow will be asking deep and anguished questions: Why now? Why us? What more can a tormented nation and a people be expected to bear?
I think all cultures would respond in such a way to such an unimaginable and unprecedented cataclysm. After 9/11 we all [in the U.S.] asked, Why do they hate us? Which in a sense was another way of asking, Why did this happen?
Is voodoo a potential source of consolation to Haiti's earthquake victims?
For all its challenges, Haiti remains a place of extraordinary human resourcefulness, a land where people having so little have found a way to adorn their lives with the imagination. Culturally it is arguably the most vibrant and extraordinary country in the Americas.
In a time of tragedy and pain, the Haitian people, like people everywhere, will find comfort in faith, be it Christianity or the traditional religion of voodoo.
All people in all cultures honor the dead, and the fact that the sheer scale of the disaster has precluded the possibility of proper ritual burials will be a source of concern and sadness to all Haitians.
Perhaps in time some of this grief may be released in a ceremony of national remembrance that will honor all who have been lost.
For now the rest of us, the entire global community, must do everything we can to support the living and facilitate the rebirth of a nation that has given so much to the world.
More on the 2010 Haiti Earthquake
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.
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