That Voodoo that you do

voodoocardsVoodoo, in its New World form, is a syncretized religion. It blends religion native to West Africa and Central Africa with Christianity. Reporter Marc Lacey wrote about the new Port-au-Prince-based head of Voodoo in a profile for the New York Times:

The goat tethered to a tree outside of Max Beauvoir’s home is doomed.

Beauvoir, tall and majestic with closely cropped white hair, is a voodoo priest who was just named the religion’s supreme master, a newly created position that is aimed at reviving voodoo.

His grand residence on the outskirts of the Haitian capital serves as a voodoo temple for practitioners and a late-night hangout for those paying customers eager to take in an exotic evening of spiritual awakening.

As you can see, it’s just a wonderfully written story. Lacey paints a picture of the vibrant dances and rituals conducted by Beauvoir. Lacey explains how the new position came about:

Popular in Haiti even among many of those who attend Christian churches, voodoo lacks the formal hierarchy of other religions. Most voodoo priests, known as houngans, operate semi-independently, catering to their followers without a whole lot of structure.

But many of Haiti’s houngans recently came together into a national federation and named Beauvoir, 72, as their public face. He is now the spokesman for a religion that followers believe too often gets a bad rap and is in dire need of an image overhaul. (Think “voodoo economics.”) Even before he got the job, Beauvoir was a voodoo promoter extraordinaire. With his own Web site, www.vodou.org, and a following among foreigners intrigued by voodoo, Beauvoir is criticized by some purists as too much of a showman.

The piece is very detailed, explaining Beauvoir’s education, including graduate study in biochemistry, and how it compares with the largely illiterate population of voodooists.

My only problem is that it didn’t really describe the beliefs of Voodoo. We learn that it mixes the animism of West African religion with Christianity. We learn that Beauvoir thinks Voodoo should play “a role” in resolving Haiti’s problems. But this is the entire explanation of Voodoo beliefs:

Haiti has long been a battleground for Christian missionaries who view voodoo as devil worship and work tirelessly to convert the population to Christ. Voodoo also has one god, modeled on God of the Christian Bible, but it incorporates pagan elements that make Christians uneasy: casting spells and catering to spirits that are seen as the major forces of the universe.

But you can learn that much about Voodoo from clumsy Hollywood depictions. I want more. Anyway, the piece really is very informative apart from that, explaining how politicians in Haiti reach out to Voodooists in order to burnish their populist credentials. Lacey also quotes people who are very leery of Beauvoir, saying they wouldn’t trust him with their money or child. All in all, a good read.

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  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    It’s an OK story, though I did have some quibbles. First off, the opening sentence? Classy! Here is a man wanting to change perceptions of Haitian Vodou, and the reporter starts off by fixating on the “doomed” goat that will be sacrificed? He could have at least mentioned that they also eat the goat. Secondly, there are all sorts of follow-up questions that should have been asked. What exactly does “supreme master” of Haitian Vodou mean? Is it a “first among equals” position? Or does it, as the New York Times headline claims, make him the faith’s “Pope”. Are their any dissenters from this plan? Vodou is very individualistic, at they very least the reporter could have interviewed a couple priests other than Beauvoir.

    A bonus, though perhaps not necessary in this article, is to talk more about how the politics of Haiti have shaped this religion. The piece mentions in passing Beauvoir’s connections to Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, but don’t explore what that means in the context of Haitian politics. Perhaps a short time-line of Haitian Vodou’s political and social ups and downs might have been helpful.

    For the curious, here is the write-up I did of this article the other day.

  • Ben

    I, also, am wondering how strong a mandate Beauvoir enjoys. The article only says that a group of houngans got together to elect Beauvoir, but gives no idea as to how many of the faithful this group represents. Can he really speak for Haiti’s voodooists, or only a small subset?