For many people, the word ‘voodoo’ immediately conjures up a picture of the zombies, the most publicized aspect of this ancient African religion, brought to the island of Haiti by the first batches of slaves during the seventeenth century. Zombie are people whose ‘deaths’ have been recorded, and whose burials have been witnessed, and who are nonetheless found living months or years later in a state of mindlessness. They are not legend, bur fact, as anyone who has made a serious study of voodoo will testify.
Zombies are created by voodoo sorcerers, skilled in the preparation of drugs which induce a state of coma indistinguishable from death. In one famous case, the daughter of a leading French family on the island vanished from her home, only to be found years later in a hovel in a native village, a mindless creature dressed in rags. Nothing could be done to restore her sanity, and she ended her days shut away in a convent.
Nude female voodoo doll in kneeling position, bound and pierced with thirteen pins. Found in a terracotta vase with a lead tablet bearing a binding spell (katadesmos).
The subject of zombies was treated so seriously by Haiti’s old colonial authorities that a special law was drawn up relating to them, Article 246 of the old Penal Code states:
‘Also to be termed intention to kill, by poisoning, is the use of substances whereby a person is not killed but reduced to a state of lethargy, more or less prolonged, and this without regard to the manner in which the substances were used or what were their later results, If, following the aforesaid state of lethargy the person is buried, then the attempt will be termed murder.’
In spite of much research, no one – except the hungans, the voodoo priests themselves – knows exactly how a person is transformed into one of the living dead. But when there is a reason to fear that a corpse may become a victim, his family can take certain measures to ward off this awful fate. The usual method is to ‘kill’ the person a second time by shooting or strangling him, or to bury him face down, with a dagger in his hand, so that he may kill any sorcerer who tries to disturb his rest. Sometimes, too, the mouths of the undead are sewn up, as it is believed that a corpse can only be raised if it answers its own name.
Once raised by the mysterious powers of the sorcerer, the zombie hangs in the narrow twilight zone between life and death. It can move, eat, speak, hear what is said to it – but it remains completely unthinking and unaware of its condition, and it has no memory of its former life. The zombie’s value is as a source of cheap labor; it can be exploited mercilessly and fed on a few scraps of food every day.
Zombies are recognized by their glassy stare and their slow, lethargic movements. Their voices, too, are flat and nasal, an echo of the voices of the Guede, the voodoo religion’s spirits of death. Only one restriction is imposed on anyone who owns a zombie; the creature must never be given salt. If a zombie eats salt, it becomes instantly aware of its condition – with disastrous con- sequences. It becomes possessed with a terrible desire for revenge, killing its master and destroying his property before going in search of its grave.
The zombies are, perhaps, the most dramatic manifestation of the voodoo sorcerer’s art. However, voodoo magic does not originate exclusively in Africa; it has been influenced to a great extent by superstitions that originated in France, and which were subsequently ‘borrowed’ by voodoo.Devotees of voodoo who were executed for cannibalism by the French colonial authorities in 1865.
There can be no doubt that the black magic of voodoo is behind at least a percentage of the mysterious deaths that occur in Haiti every year. As in medieval Europe, spells intended to kill or harm a person in some way are cast with the aid of an effigy or image symbolizing that person, although in Haiti this kind of witchcraft often takes an unusual form. The sorcerer usually sits in front of a bucket of water, muttering incantations designed to lure the spirit of the person he wishes to kill into the water. As soon as he sees the person’s image reflected in the water, he stabs it – and if he has been successful, the water turns red.
Haitian sorcery, however, is a two-edged weapon. The family of someone who has fallen victim to black magic are in honor bound to hit back at the person who originated the spell by similar methods – and they will spare neither time nor expense until they have their revenge.
The originator of a spell lives in constant fear that God will not condone his crime and withdraw the protection of the family loa, or spirits, leaving the person defenceless against the magic of his opponents.
The voodoo sorcerer normally performs his spells at a lonely crossroads or in a cemetery. The actual casting of death-spells is shrouded in secrecy, but the voodoo magician has several lethal supernatural weapons he can use to achieve his aim. The most terrible practice is called ‘the sending of the dead’, in which the spirits of the dead are sent to harass some unfortunate person. It almost invariably produces fatal results, with the afflicted person growing steadily thinner and spitting blood – unless he manages to find a more powerful sorcerer who is capable of making the dead spirit release its terrible grip.
Whether an invocation works or not depends on the approval of the dreaded Baron Samedi, the Lord of the Dead. The priest strikes the altar consecrated to the god three times with his knife, crying out the god’s name with each blow. He is then possessed by Baron Samedi, who speaks through his mouth and orders whoever is appealing to him for help to bring an offering of fruit to the cemetery at midnight. The client also takes a handful of earth for each of the dead spirits he wishes to send and must sprinkle it on some path frequently trodden by his victim. As soon as the victim walks over this earth, the dead enter his body and he is doomed.
In one respect, the voodoo cult stands out from every other form of occult worship in the world. To practice voodoo success- fully one has to be a Christian – and not only a Christian, but a Roman Catholic. The voodoo worshipper who answers the throb of the drums and attends the ancient ritual in some forest clearing every Saturday night firmly believes that he is acting like a good Christian – and would be plunged into the depths of despair if, on the following Sunday morning, he were to be refused Holy Communion at Mass.
This strange paradox is caused by the fusion of African and European beliefs. The average Haitian follows the rites of the Roman Catholic Church devoutly. as he has been brought up to do since infancy, but voodoo provides him with a more alive, physical belief which conveniently fills the gaps left by Christianity.
This explains why the voodoo gods share a common identity with so many Christian saints. St Patrick, for example, doubles as Damballah-wedo, the serpent-god, because legend has it that Patrick expelled all snakes from Ireland; St James the Great is also Oguferaille, the warrior-god, while St John the Baptist is Shango, the storm-god, and there are dozens of others. Voodoo has also borrowed heavily from the liturgy of the Church; listening to voodoo ritual is almost, in places, like listening to the Mass.
It took a long time for the Church to wake up to the fact that Christian religion in Haiti was becoming synonymous with voodoo practice. In fact, the first official attempt by the Church to suppress voodoo was not made until 1896, when the Bishop of Cap Haitien organized a ‘league against voodoo’. The campaign was unsuccessful and was quickly forgotten, but in 1941, when Elie Lescot was President, ‘a more determined effort was made to stamp out the ancient religion. The anti-superstition crusade that followed was in reality a form of Inquisition, in which all members of the faithful were required to take an oath never to take part in voodoo ceremonies again.
Not unnaturally, this caused great indignation among the people – particularly in a region known as the Marbial Valley, where two priests, one French and the other Haitian, persecuted voodoo with a ferocious and medieval hatred. With a band of followers, the priests visited every house in their parish, smashing every object that was thought to have an occult significance and cutting down sacred trees – the homes of benevolent loa.Francois Duvalier, the late president of Haiti. The infamous ‘Papa Doe’ was an believer of voodoo, and the Catholic Church ill Haiti was decimated under his regime.The effect was dramatic. Dozens of people became possessed by home-less loa, even in the Catholic Church itself, and had to be exorcized on the spot.
On one occasion, a group of screaming women were dragged before the priests, accused by neighbors of belonging to the feared ‘Sisterhood of the Werewolves’. They too were exorcized. The priests then ordered that all the big crosses in the family burial grounds must be uprooted, since voodoo rituals were held in front of these crosses.
The wooden crosses were piled in a heap and set on fire, and at that moment several people began to twist and turn in a frenzy, screaming that they were possessed by Baron Samedi and the hosts of the dead.
No amount of exorcism could drive out the spirits, which mocked the priests and prophesied calamities to come. It came as no surprise to the inhabitants of the valley when, in the following year, the Marbial Valley was hit by the worst drought in living memory.
The battle against the forces of voodoo resulted in a technical victory for the priests and their associates – for a time, at least. Then, in the 1960s, came the anti-Catholic campaigns of the late President Francois Duvalier, the feared ‘Papa Doe’, himself an adherent of voodoo. The campaigns were implemented by his secret police, the “Tonton Macoute’, and ended with the Catholic clergy in Haiti being decimated by exile. Voodoo once again had a strangle- hold on the people.
In spite of claims made by the clergy and others who have come into direct contact with voodoo, the idea that the old religion – which had its early origins in Madagascar – is based on cruelty and blood sacrifice is largely a myth. The fact that the myth is more universally accepted than reality is the fault of a few isolated cases which, taken together and quoted in almost every work dealing with the subject, have given voodoo a bad name.
Of these incidents, the most notorious is the so-called Bizoton affair, which took place in 1863.A man called Congo Pelle, whose sister was a voodoo witch, made plans to sacrifice his niece to a voodoo god. The child was kidnapped, strangled, cut up and eaten in a bloody ceremony, and a few days later another little girl suffered the same fate. The criminals were eventually captured, tortured and executed – the damage they had done to voodoo was irreparable.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that voodoo is based to a great extent on fear – and above all fear of the dark, of things unseen. The average Haitian peasant will not venture out alone after dark unless it is absolutely necessary – and it is not ghosts or evil spirits he fears as much an encounter with the ‘hairless pigs’ or ‘Grey Ones’, bands of sorcerers who are dedicated to black magic and who are so powerful that they form a kind of voodoo mafia.
The ‘Grey Ones’ cannot be identified by any badge or mark; they are often well-to-do people, living outwardly normal lives among their neighbors. If they are found out, the consequences can be terrible – for them. One merchant whose secret activities were discovered quite by chance was torn limb from limb by a crowd of enraged neighbors.
The ‘Grey Ones’ hold their Sabbats (gatherings) on certain nights of the week, which they say belong to them alone. They are summoned to the meeting-place by the sharp rhythm of a small drum, which – although it can be heard at great distances by the sorcerers – is said to be inaudible to the uninitiated.
They wear long red or white robes and a variety of headgear, including the traditional conical hat of the witch. In a winding procession, carrying candles, they go to some lonely crossroads where they hold a ceremony in honor of Maitre-Carrefour, the Grand Master of Sorcery, asking him to bless their activities. They then move on to a cemetery, where Baron Samedi is invoked, before lying in wait for some unsuspecting victim, who is not always killed. If he seems a likely candidate, he is given the choice of joining the sorcerers as a neophyte – or suffering an unspeakable death. Not many refuse the invitation.
Ordinary people may obtain a degree of immunity from sorcerers by having one of their souls – each person has two, according to voodoo tradition – extracted from the body by way of the head. A hungan places a lock of hair from his client’s head in a bottle, together with nail-clippings and tufts of hair from the various parts of the person’s body. A package of food, mostly bread and sweets soaked in white wine, is then clamped on the person’s head. A white cockerel is cooked and eaten by the per’ son’s family, great care being taken not to break any of the bones. These are gathered up after the meal and buried under the bed of the person under treatment.
The main danger attached to this process is that the bottle containing the person’s soul might fall into the hands of an enemy of an evil sorcerer – in which case the person is as good as dead, for not even the most powerful hungan can help him to regain mastery of the lost soul.
Belonging to a voodoo cult can mean an enormous financial strain, and yet voodoo fills an important gap in Haitian peasant society. In a country where organized medical services are practically non-existent outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, it is the considerable skill of the hungan that sees the peasant through pain and sickness. And apart from that, voodoo is a rich source of entertainment. Many people feel that its continued practice is entirely justified, despite its darker side, by the fact that it has enabled the people of Haiti to carry on African traditions and culture. In fact, if it had not been for voodoo, many ancient African rituals would have been lost forever.
But voodoo as a religion is no longer African, however. It is sheer paganism and black magic, dark legend and fairy-tale – and it belongs to the western world. This, perhaps, is where its true fascination lies.
The Haitian revolution of 23 August 1791 was put down by the French authorities with great brutality and served to strengthen the forces of voodoo.