“Never have I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or as powerful as the spectacle of Vodoun possession.”
Haiti is saturated with cliche-the poverty, the tortured landscape, the spate of abominable political leaders, consistent it seems only in their personal greed and disregard for their people. But find a quiet place somewhere-perhaps beneath the spreading branches of a sacred mapou tree, or on a hotel verandah at dawn, when, from sheer exhaustion or moved by the splendor of the city basking in such soft light, 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, one whose beauty and magic make it unique in all the Americas.
The challenge of travel is to find a way to isolate and understand the germ of a people, to measure and absorb the spirit of place. In Haiti one begins in Port-au-Prince. The capital lies prostrate across a low, hot tropical plain at the head of a bay flanked on both sides by soaring mountains. Behind these mountains rise others, creating an illusion of space that absorbs Haiti’s multitudes and softens the country’s harshest statistic: a land mass of only 10,000 square miles inhabited by over seven million people, making it one of the most densely populated nations on Earth.
Port-au-Prince is a sprawling muddle of a city, on first encounter a carnival of civic chaos. A waterfront shantytown damp with laundry. Half finished public monuments. Streets lined with flamboyant trees and redolent with the stench of fish and sweat, excrement and ash. Dazzling government buildings and a presidential palace so white that it doesn’t seem real. There are the cries of the marketplace, the din of untuned engines, the reek of diesel fumes. It presents all the squalor and all the graces of any Caribbean capital.
Yet as you drive through the city for the first time, down by the docks perhaps, where the shanties face the gleaming cruise ships and men with legs like anvils haul carts loaded with bloody hides, notice something else. The people on the street don’t walk; they flow, exuding pride. Physically, they are beautiful. They seem gay, jaunty, carefree. Washed clean by the afternoon rain, the entire city has a rakish charm. But there is more. In a land of material scarcity, the people adorn their lives with their imagination: discarded Coke cans become suitcases or trumpets, rubber tires are turned into shoes, buses transformed into kaleidoscopic tap-taps, moving exhibits of vibrant, naive art. And it isn’t just how things appear; it is something in the air, something electric-a raw, elemental energy not to be found elsewhere in the Americas. What you have found is the lens of Africa focused upon the New World.
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 their narrow traffic on the trails, the billowy walk of girls beneath baskets of rice, the silhouette of 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. Every one of these disparate images translates into a theme: 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, like a psychic education, 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 Fon word from Dahomey that simply means “spirit” or “God.” It is not a black magic cult; it is a system of profound religious beliefs concerning 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 prescribes a way of life, a philosophy and code of ethics that regulate social behavior. As in a Christian or an Islamic society, within a Vodoun society, one finds completeness-a distinct language; a complex system of traditional medicine, art, and music inspired by African antecedents; education based on the 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. The believers do not endow natural objects with souls; they serve the loa, which are the 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, and it is with the loa that Haitians interact on a daily basis.
The spirits live beneath the great water, sharing their time between Haiti and the mythic homeland of Guinée. But they often choose to reside in places of great natural beauty. They rise from the bottom of the sea, inhabit the rich plains, and amble down the rocky trails from the summits of mountains. They dwell in the center of stones, the dampness of caves, the depth of sunken wells. Believers are drawn to these places as we are drawn to cathedrals. We do not worship the buildings; we go there to be in the presence of God.
In summer in Haiti the spirits walk, the people follow, and for weeks the roads come alive with pilgrims. The most revered site is a waterfall named Saut d’Eau, where years ago Erzulie Freda, the goddess of love, escaped the wrath of the Catholic priests by turning into a pigeon and disappearing into the iridescent mist. Saut d’Eau is doubly important to Vodounists for it is also the home of Damballah-Wedo, the serpent god, the repository of all spiritual wisdom and the source of all the falling waters. Legend has it that when the first rains fell, a rainbow, Ayida Wedo, was reflected. Damballah fell in love with Ayida, and their love entwined them in a cosmic helix from which all creation was fertilized.
The waterfall carves a deep, hidden basin from a limestone escarpment, and for three days in July the trail descending to the falls quivers with the mirage of pilgrims coming and going. There is no order to their arrival, but it is a constant stream-as many as 15,000 appear-and the basin nestled into the edge of the mountain swells like a festive carnival tent to absorb everyone. It is a joyous occasion; one sees it on the faces of the children, the young city dandies leaping over the rocks like cats, the ragged peasants laughing derisively at a fat, preposterous government official. But for the devout it is also a moment of purification and healing, one chance each year to partake of the power of the water, to bathe and drink, and to bottle a small sample of the cold thin blood of the divine.
In the cool, limpid light of dawn the pilgrims gather around the periphery of the basin, where the herbalists set up their dusty stations, displaying sooty boxes, hunks of root, loose bags of healing leaves and tubs of water and herbs. Houngan and mambo-Vodoun priests and priestesses-speak of magic done with dew, and tie brightly colored strings to barren young women or around the bellies of plump matrons who, in time, dangle the strings from wax stuck to the surface of the mapou tree, consecrated for the blessings of the gods.
One need only touch the water to feel its grace, and for some it is enough to dip into the shallow silvery pools, leaving their offerings of corn and rice in small piles. But most go directly to the cascades, women and men, old and young, baring their breasts and scrambling up the wet slippery bedrock that rises in a series of steps toward the base of the falls. At the lip of the escarpment the river forks twice, sending not one but three waterfalls plunging more than 100 feet. What is not lost in mist strikes the rocks with tremendous force, dividing again into many smaller chutes, each one becoming a sanctuary. The people remove their clothes, cast them into the water, and stand, arms outstretched, beseeching the spirits. Young men move directly beneath the head of the falls, which batters their numb bodies against the rocks. Their prayers are lost to the thunderous roar, the piercing shouts, and the screams of flocks of children. Everything is in flux, with no edge and no separation-the sounds and sights, the passions, the lush soaring vegetation, primeval and rare. Merely to submit to the waters is to open oneself to Damballah, and at any one time at the base of the waterfall in the shadow of the rainbow, there are two or more pilgrims possessed by the spirit, slithering across the wet rocks.
The ease with which the Haitians walk in and out of their spirit world is a consequence of the remarkable dialogue that exists between human beings and the spirits. The loa are powerful and if offended can do great harm; but they are also predictable, and if 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 the songs, riding the rhythm of the drums. Once possessed, the believer loses all consciousness and sense of self; he or she becomes the spirit, taking on its persona and powers.
One night on the coast just beyond the Carrefour road, I was invited to the temple of a prominent 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, 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 around the centerpost, the poteau mitan, in a counterclockwise direction 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 seconde 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 their sound that swept over the senses. 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 and directed it had the very palm trees above swaying 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 poised 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 forty minutes the dance went on, and then it happened. 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 one of excruciating emptiness, a moment of hopeless vulnerability. An initiate froze. The drum pounded relentlessly, deep, solid blows that seemed to strike directly to 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, out of which she soon broke to hurtle about the peristyle, stumbling, falling, 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 that the ceremony had been invoking, had arrived.
Never have I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or as powerful as the spectacle of Vodoun possession that followed. The initiate, a diminutive woman, tore about the peristyle, lifting large men off the ground to swing them about like children. She grabbed a glass and crunched it in her mouth, swallowing small bits and spitting the rest onto the ground. At one point the mambo brought her a live dove; this the hounsis sacrificed by breaking its wings, then tearing the neck apart with her teeth. Soon two other hounsis were possessed, and for an extraordinary thirty minutes the peristyle was utter pandemonium, with the mambo racing 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 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 and in every regard 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 quite unwarranted assumptions. For one, 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-the beliefs of the individual experiencing possession are dismissed as externalities. 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.” One prominent Haitian physician, acknowledging that possession occurs under strict parameters of ritual, nevertheless concluded that it was the result of “widespread pathology in the countryside which, far from being the result of individual or social experience, was related to the genetic character of the Haitian people,” a racial psychosis, as he put it elsewhere, of a people “living on nerves.” Such inadequate explanations are typical of uninformed observers of the Vodoun faith.
Until the turn of this century most references to Vodoun merely acknowledged its role as a catalyst in the only successful slave revolt in history. The notion of Vodoun as something evil and macabre emerged largely after 1915, when the U.S. Marine Corps occupied Haiti. For the next twenty years the island was inundated with missionaries and marines, mostly from the American South, who were both captivated and appalled by everything they saw, or thought they saw, in the infamous Black Republic. Americans at home shared the fascination. Books, with titles such as Voodoo Fire in Haiti, Black Baghdad, A Puritan in Voodooland, The White King of La Gonave, Cannibal Cousins, and The Magic Island, in turn inspired a succession of Hollywood B-movies-I Walked with a Zombie, The White Zombies, Zombies on Broadway, and Zombies of the Stratosphere.
In any other era, these books and movies, full of pins and needles in dolls, children bred for the cauldron, and zombies crawling out of the grave to attack people, would have been immediately forgotten. However, appearing when they did, they conveyed an important message to the American public: any country in which such abominations took place could find salvation only through military occupation. This false and absurd depiction of Vodoun accounts for its reputation as a nefarious black magic cult.
Vodoun, in truth, is a complex, metaphysical world view distilled from profound religions that have their roots in Africa. The essence of the faith is a sacred cycle of life, death, and rebirth unique to the religion. For the acolyte, death is feared 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 which 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.
It is possession, the return of the spirits to the body, that 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 the believers not only have direct access to the spirits, they actually receive the gods into their bodies. That moment of spirit possession-what Maya Deren, dancer and author, 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.”
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, when he said, “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.
The god of war and fire dwells in the north, in the shadow of a mapou tree that marks the place where once each year a mud pond spreads over a dry roadbed near the center of the village of Plaine du Nord. Like the waters of Saut d’Eau, the mud of the basin is said to be profoundly curative, and each year thousands of pilgrims arrive, some to fill their bottles, some to cleanse their babies, many to bathe. Unlike Saut d’Eau, the area is hemmed in by houses that funnel all the energy of the pilgrims into a small, intensely charged space. And in place of the serenity of Damballah, there is the raging energy of Ogoun.
Around the basin a ring of candles burns for the spirit, and the pilgrims, dressed in bright cotton, lean precariously over the mud to leave offerings of rum and meat, rice and wine. There is a battery of drums to one side, and those mounted by the spirit enter the basin, disappear, and emerge transformed. A young man, his body submerged with only his eyes showing, moves steadily like a reptile past the legs of naked women, their skin coated with slimy clay. Beside them, children dive like ducks for tossed coins. At the base of the mapou, Ogoun feeds leaves and rum to a sacrificial bull; others reach out to touch it and caress its flank, and then the machete cuts into its throat and the blood spreads over the surface of the mud.
On my last day in Haiti, I was watching all this when I felt something fluid-not water or sweat or rum-trickle down my arm. I turned to a man pressed close beside me and saw his arm riddled with needles and small blades, the blood running copiously over the scars of past years, staining some leaves bound to his elbow before dripping from his skin to mine.
The man was smiling. He too was possessed, like the youth straddling the dying bull, or the dancers and the women wallowing in the mud. Men and women, descendants of those who had been dragged in chains from an African homeland, embraced by a new landscape which they, in turn, had impregnated with all the forces of light and darkness. “Haiti,” a Vodoun priest once told me, “will teach you that good and evil are one. We never confuse them. Nor do we keep them apart.”
Essay from Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire by Wade Davis, published in the U.S. by Island Press and in Canada as The Clouded Leopard by Douglas & McIntyre.