Voodoo Newspaper Clippings And Pulp Tales

| Wednesday, September 1, 2010 | |
Voodoo Newspaper Clippings And Pulp Tales Cover I have extracted a handful of exaggerations from newspaper clippings and pulp tales in my files. Here they are, with a few comments:

1. Sticking pins in Voodoo dolls to torment or kill an enemy.
I've attended many different kinds of Voodoo services in Haiti's villages and mountains and have yet to see a pin stuck in a doll of any kind. Small dolls depicting the various loa are sometimes found on hounfor altars, but these are used in ceremonies. If anyone does stick pins in dolls for evil purposes, it would have to be a bocor (sorcerer) and he would do so for a fee. The bocor has about as much to do with true Voodoo as a devil-worshipper has to do with Christianity.
2. Sex orgies.
This may be sadly disillusioning, but there is very little sex in Voodoo. Erzulie, the love loa, when possessing a female participant at a service, may command the sexual attention of a chosen male. This is a form of sex, no doubt, though ritualistic rather than orgiastic. But any other sex that takes place is likely to be between young couples who slip away from the festivities for fum and games of their own in the surrounding darkness.
3. Bloodthirsty animal sacrifices.
Chickens are frequently killed as food for the loa. Sometimes their necks are wrung; other times their heads are cut off; occasionally they are seized by the neck and whirled around the whirler's head at high speed. In two of the newspaper clippings from my files the writers claim to have see houngans bite the heads off chickens. Well, my dictionary says there are certain carnival people, called geeks, who "perform sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken," and I saw it done once at a "ceremony" for tourists. But - sorry - I've never seen it done at an actual Voodoo service.

Other animals sacrificed are goats, sheep, and bulls, though the latter are too valuable to be used in any but very special services. I once attended what is probably the most secret Voodoo service of all, the annual week-long affair called La Souvenance, held in special fenced-in village in the foothills near Gonaives. This service is so special that only houngans and mambos (priestesses) attend it, and having once checked in, no one is permitted to leave until the week is over.

At such an affair one would perhaps expect the most esoteric of sacrifices, but the only unusual animal I saw offered to the gods was a large ram. I did, however, see the rare assator drum played - this one was more than eight feet high and was played by men on ladders! - and I met a possessed old Haitian who claimed to be Moses and talked fluently for half an hour in what I think was Hebrew.
4. Nakedness.
This crops up time and again in stories about Voodoo. Naked dancers flinging themselves about in a frenzy are stock characters, it would seem. Well, I'm sorry. I've seen and photographed any number of naked peasant women washing themselves and their laundry in country streams (you first talk to them and make friends), but not once have I seen anyone naked at a Voodoo service. The trend is just the opposite: to flowing white robes for the women and gaudy costumes for the men.
5. The Voodoo spell or curse.
Again I say maybe. A friend of mine who taught English at the College St. Martial in Port-au-Prince once let me examine a hand-lettered volume compiled by a fellow priest whose forte was botany. This man had spent years collecting Haiti's medicinal plants so that he could describe and do watercolors of them. There were 383 such plants listed, and most were poisonous if taken in large enough doses.

Your houngan or mambo knows most of these plants and can employ them in such a way that a curse or spell might seem to have been cast upon the recipient. Really, though, that isn't Voodoo. It comes under the heading of witchcraft of sorcery again, and the bocors who practice those dark arts are loners. Zombies, for instance, are a product of the bocor, never of the Voodoo houngan or mambo.
6. Human skulls at Voodoo "ceremonies."
Where, oh where, do these writers see such things? I've been in all parts of Haiti. I walked across the wild, roadless mountains of the Southern Peninsula - a grand adventure that provided background for Legion of the Dead. I rode mule-back through the equally wild and roadless Massif du Nord - which provided background material for The Evil. I wore out four jeeps exploring the country's back roads. A study of Voodoo was part of all this. And not once have I seen a human skull at a Voodoo service. A bovine skull now and then, yes. And sometimes skulls of goats. But never a human one.
7. People dancing barefoot on live coals.
Yes, sometimes. But more often the people who do this are walking, not dancing, and appear to be in some kind of trance. Some Pacific Islanders perform the same ritual. But some Voodooists are able to do an even more impressive thing that our people of the press don't seem to have caught up with yet. They build a fire of charcoal, plant a tall iron bar like a crowbar in it, wait for the bar to become white hot, them grasp it in bare hands and parade around the tonelle or peristyle holding it above their heads.

Incidentally, at a brule zin, which is an initiation service for those about to become hounsi kanzo, the initiates go through an even more remarkable ritual. To describe this service would take thousands of words. I did so in Haiti: Highroad to Adventure. But in the end there are seven iron cooking pots full of oil, with fires blazing under them. The initiates are required to proceed slowly form pot to pot, dipping their right hands in each. Something they have acquired through weeks of meditation and preparation prevents the boiling oil from stripping their hands to the bone, but what it is I don't know.
8. The mad, frenzied dancing.
Give the movie-makers a black mark on this one, along with the writers. I don't recall the names of the pictures, but at least three times I've sat through so-called Voodoo movies in which the dancing was atrociously unVoodoo. Fact is, all the dancing at a Voodoo service is ritual dancing and much of it is slow. The only time I've ever seen "frenzied" dancing was one, in Quartier-Morin near Cap Haitien, when more than a dozen spectators appeared to become possessed at the same time. It was probably some kind of mass hysteria, and even so, it wasn't as wild as what some of our teenagers indulge in.
9. And finally, child sacrifice.
We should at least mention this because so many sensation-seeking writers seem to feel they have to. The facts? One of the very first books about Haiti discussed the sacrifice of children at Voodoo "ceremonies." I threw the book out of my library years ago because it contained so many errors; therefore I can't turn to it now to determine whether its author claimed to have actually seen a child sacrifice or merely heard about one. I tend to remember he got his information secondhand, as he did nearly everything else in his book. Later writers copied him, of course. Anything as sensational as that was bound to attract the titans of titillation. But I have never heard even a whisper about child sacrifice from anyone in Voodoo, and I doubt it ever happened.

If I seem to be overly defending Voodoo here, perhaps a bit of summing up is in order. Voodoo, again, is a religion. This doesn't mean that all houngans and mambos are saints, any more than all Protestant ministers and Catholic priests are saints. Unquestionably there are houngans and mambos who engage in extracurricular activities for whatever they can get out of it, though the Haitian peasant certainly hasn't much to be fleeced out of.

Books You Might Enjoy:

Pangaia - Handcrafted Ritual Tools
Zoroaster - The Chaldean Oracles
Josh Norton - Charging An Enochian Tablet
Anonymous - Healing Gemstones And Crystals