Interview of a Voudou Witch Doctor
The past year and a half of my life has been spent living abroad – serving in a rural village on the island nation of Haiti . To say that Haiti has a deep history of voudou is a blatant understatement; voudou is at the nation’s core, running through the veins of every Haitian. Voudou and the Haitian culture are synonymous; it is an inbred set of beliefs. The roots of this faith extend from the west coasts of Africa, where millions of future Haitians were taken from their homes and sold into slavery in the Caribbean . When the slaves overthrew their French masters and gained independence in 1804, the nation was officially dedicated to the devil.
For the past year and a half of my life, I have lived on land that was once dedicated to the ultimate deceiver; that fact is sometimes daunting, but always challenging. Much deception and confusion remains as a result of the devil’s grip on this nation, but I desire to try to clear up some of the confusion foreigners have concerning the faith and practice of Haitian voudou. For my personal interview I chose to interview our village’s hougan or boko, which is Creole for witch doctor.
I met with hougan Marcellus at his nephew’s home; we had originally planned to have the meeting in the open-air building that houses the local weekly voudou ceremonies, but the afternoon rain forced us elsewhere. For the sake of clarity and partial necessity, I decided to enlist the help of our translator, who also happens to be the Christian nephew of hougan Marcellus. I came prepared with a list of questions and started off the interview by stating that I was only there to ask questions and try to become better educated about voudou so that I could iron out some of foreigners’ misconceptions – not to argue or accuse. He was very open to answering all of my questions; I think he tired of my curiosity towards the end of the interview, but overall he was nonchalantly friendly. I felt comfortable throughout the entire time period, even when I was asking more personal, possibly offending questions (if he profited financially from the services he offers and how much, etc.) I did not feel hated or belittled by the hougan – it was a cordial exchange of inquiry and information.
If anything, my expectations of his personality and how I would feel were far off-the-mark. I expected to feel disliked or put down simply because of the fact that my interviewee is the central leader in our community’s veneration of the devil – I wrongfully presumed a devotee of the devil to share some of his characteristics. I expected him to be arrogant about his beliefs and his position in the community and to have a gruffer demeanor. Quite to the contrary, he was soft-spoken and maybe even unsure of how to answer some of my questions about his faith. The fact that hougan Marcellus was less than emphatic made me feel that he himself was even unsure of voudou and its attributes. I walked home from the interview feeling an array of emotions – angered by the work of the deceiver, saddened for the deceived, and intrigued yet confused by all of the new information I had just received.
Hougan Marcellus defined voudou in his own words as “of the devil” and said its purpose is “for pleasure.” Although this is his personal definition, he told me that voudou is basically the same throughout the nation; there are not denominations like in other religions. I asked how he first became involved in voudou; many of his family members are professed born-again Christians. However, Haitian religious demographics are said to be broken down as 80% adhering Catholic/Christian and 100% to voudou. As stated previously, voudou is ingrained in the culture and it is very common to practice both faiths simultaneously; I wondered if upbringing had anything to do with his belief in voudou. He said that it was not his choice – he did not intentionally seek out voudou. Rather, he believes that he was sought – that the loa (voudou spirits) chose him to be a follower and leader in his community.
A witch doctor has many roles in his community; he is essentially the pastor, worship leader, accountant, and prayer-chain all rolled into one. A witch doctor leads the weekly worship ceremonies. There is not one sacred day like Sunday for Christians, each body has a different day that they pick to meet for worship but most take place after dark; our village’s is held on Thursday nights (as evidenced by the sounding rhythms of drums and chants from my bedroom window.) Attendance to these weekly ceremonies is required if one desires to take voudou seriously and for the voudou loa to take him/her seriously. If someone does not attend or skips a week, this basic rule of thumb of spirit worship/worshipers applies: if one chooses to ignore the spirits, the spirits can be expected to ignore him/her.
The ceremonies consist of calling the spirits, worshipping the spirits, and submitting requests to the spirits. There are two categories of spirits: good and bad. Reverence and appeasement to both is practiced. I thought that the concept of balance hougan Marcellus described of worship to each side was very similar to the Taoist concept of yin and yang; each kind of spirit exists in and of the other. The good spirits heal, protect, and bless; the bad spirits are associated with curses related to illness, injury, misfortune, and death. Spirits can be either female or male; when I asked if there was one spirit higher than them all, hougan Marcellus said that there are several that are revered higher than the others, but that there are thousands of spirits in voudou.
With so many spirits, I wanted to know how it is determined which spirit to worship and at what time. The answer he gave me was kind of unclear, but basically a worshiper moves from spirit to spirit, based on the out-put of the spirit. For example, if a particular healing spirit is providing no help, one moves onto a different healing spirit. Haitian voudou is an animistic religion in the sense that it is a faith characterized by the appeasement and manipulation of the spirits. If a bad spirit become upset with a worshiper, he/she must do more to please it. For example, a particularly bad spirit called Dentor is known as the wicked one and if he asks you for something, you give it to him – no questions asked.
The symbols of voudou that many foreigners hold are drums chants, dances, and black crosses. First of all, I discovered that the cross is rarely burned black, like many outsiders assume, but rather painted black and used to mark recognition and respect for ancestors of the area over which that particular cross presides. The only time the cross is burned is in a rite-of-passage type ceremony for voudou converts and the cross burning can only be done by voudou priests, which are much more ceremonial/political-type figures than active leaders in the voudou faith. The significance of the drum in the voudou ceremony is its use as a communication tool; its beats beckon the spirits to join and even occupy the worshipers. Prayers are also chanted to make the spirits come; some are said directly unto the devil and his spirits, but others are traditional Catholic prayers (Voudou followers were forced to assimilate Catholicism when French slave masters tried to convert their slaves. The slaves renamed many of the voudou spirits with the names of Catholic Saints. This intermingling of the two religions is a major reason why the nation is 80% Catholic, 100% Voudou; the two seem to go hand-in-hand.) Once the spirit has arrived, chants are sometimes spoken “for” the worshiper as the spirit speaks through and to them. From what I gathered, this state of “possession” is the ultimate goal of the worshiper as it shows that the spirits have taken favor with his/her follower. I think this statement was confirmed when I asked hougan Marcellus to define the weekly services’ purpose; it is a time for believers to “take pleasure with the spirit.” Dancing then can only be described as a major part of the “pleasure” purpose of voudou, both for the worshiper and the spirit.
When followers are possessed, often times the spirits will give them messages. It is the hougan’s role to interpret these messages/visions, usually for a small fee, similar to how one pays a palm-reader to predict the future. The hougan alone has the power to request the help of the spirits – for both good and bad. People seek out hougan Marcellus at the weekly ceremonies or a separate time to discuss and place curses or cures. For these, there is also a corresponding fee; I asked if there was a baseline price for cures/curses but hougan Marcellus said he basically names the price based on the size of the request. He also makes and administers some home remedies, but they are not his own. Rather, he is directed by the spirits which ingredients to use. For example, each leaf is associated with a different spirit and medicinal purpose and is revealed to him for use on the sick or wounded. This role is how the position earned the “witch doctor” title – but it appears to be less about mixing up magic potions and pomades and more about understanding the partially viable uses of the products of nature.
However, there are some sketchy, hocus-pocus-like guidelines concerning what the witch doctor has the power to treat and what should be treated by traditional health care. For example, if someone comes to him with a broken bone, he can only request the spirit’s help to heal it if the broken bone was a result of a curse that was placed on that person. However, if it was a simple accidental fall from a tree, he has no power in the situation.
Hougan Marcellus was trained by the then-abiding hougan of our village’s “congregation;” this is the typical procedure for knowledge and leadership to be passed from one hougan to the other – there is no sort of formal training or requirements to become a hougan. Known requirements do not exist because, as hougan Marcellus said, it is not a choice but rather a “calling” or predestined role. Before hougan Marcellus dies, it is his job to train who the loa (spirits) have chosen to be the next leader.
I discussed the concepts of predestination, the afterlife, baptism, and Jesus’ position in relation to voudou. When I asked hougan Marcellus what Jesus is to him, he said that Jesus is his “big brother” or in other words, a helping friend. Jesus and Mary are among the good spirits. Baptism is practiced but only occurs at night and is performed in the ocean water. I asked if everyone could be baptized or if one had to maintain a certain level of devotion to the voudou faith. He said that before a person can be baptized, he/she is asked a series of questions that determine whether or not he/she is knowledgeable about voudou beliefs and how committed he/she is to being a lifelong follower of voudou.
Predestination in the voudou faith is not very definite; rather, the spirits know what is going to happen and have control over one’s destiny, yet the person can attempt to manipulate the spirits in order to change the outcome of the future. This is where the role of curses comes into play; curses are placed against foes or in negation of previously placed curses to create the desired advantageous or malicious affect on the cursed person or family. Curses, which are received based on one’s appeasement of curse-specific spirits, are believed to hold the power to twist and alter fate.
There is no afterlife for the voudou follower; death is the final door. I asked how that could be and inquired about the difference in death and afterlife between a person who lived a good life and for example, a murderer. At this point, I kind of felt like hougan Marcellus was making up his answers but he said that a murderer or similarly “bad” person would suffer a much worse death than a “good” person. However, when a person dies – no matter what kind of life they lived – he is finished. Hougan Marcellus did say though that the Christian adherents of voudou go to heaven. I asked what his personal attitude was towards the practice of both religions and Christianity in general. His attitude and voudou’s general attitude is one of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” In other words, he said that there is no judgment or problem with the practice of both religions. As far as his attitude towards Christians, he said that he does not hate Christians or Christianity and that faith is more a matter of personal preference and spiritual calling.
It would appear the most obvious bridge for witnessing would be to focus on the Catholic aspects already dwelling in voudou; however, I believe that too much has been twisted for this to ever be a functional link. After sitting with the local leader of the voudou faith, I had a greater sense of voudou’s lack of guarantees and heavy reliance on each individual’s actions and ability to appease. I think these flaws would be the best things to concentrate on in preparing a way to share the Gospel with a voudou follower. I think that one would be prone to tire of continuous fluctuation in what the spirits desire and necessitate in order to produce the promised result. I believe within every person is a desire for justice and the truth; voudou’s conflicting beliefs and unsure practices are weak spots, but strong points for witnessing. Because our works will never be enough, there is no hope – it is a constant cycle of always coming up short. But with Jesus, we put all of our shortcomings in His hands and rely on Him to be our intercessor, rather than on unpredictable, moody false spirits. It is only then that we can rest assured.
In a country as unpredictable and unkempt as Haiti , the following passage from Romans 8 holds truths specifically relevant to potential converts from voudou and is one of the truest hopes for Haiti :
“13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." 16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. 17Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
From the Mom-
I am impressed by this paper Britt wrote. I asked her if we could post it here. A hundred Christian missionaries would have a hundred different opinions on voudou and how concerning it is. Some see it as sinister, some see it as simple superstition. This happens to be the fairly informed opinion of a 17 year old-one that I love. These are her thoughts after living in a very active Voudou area and interviewing the village Hougan.