Headlines early last month, announcing the enthronement of what the New York Times called “Voodoo’s Pope,” drew attention to one of the world’s most misunderstood and frequently maligned religions. The official title of the newly-created position is “Supreme Chief” or “Supreme Master,” and the figure in question, Max Beauvoir, a houngan (priest) and longtime self-styled public relations figure for the religion both in Haiti and the United States, wasted no time in issuing statements to the press addressing the unenviable position of the religion he now represents.
“My position as Supreme Chief in Voodoo was born out of controversy,” he said, casting blame on “the voice of Hollywood” for enduring caricatures of the faith and its practices. Indeed, depictions of Voodooists as sinister magicians (not to mention the issue of zombies) have done much to shape popular opinion of the religion. Yet the exceedingly problematic reception of Voodoo has more complicated roots. Voodoo is met with disrespect, suspicion, and outright fear for a confluence of reasons, and these entangled issues are what Beauvoir must somehow seek to address, and, indeed, what he claims his position was created to address.
Voodoo in Haiti, since its inception, has functioned as a politicized force, first playing a crucial role in the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), associated with armed revolt and raids by maroon bands on slave plantations. Later, in the resistance to the American occupation (1915-34), Voodoo was associated again with assault and warfare. During the dictatorships of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier (1907-71 and 1971-86) the religion was linked with the nefarious tonton macoutes militias, and in retribution for these abuses, after Duvalier’s fall, hundreds of Voodoo practitioners were killed in what Beauvoir calls “pogroms.”
Haiti was the first country founded by former slaves. In America, conceptions of Voodoo have been inseparable from conceptions of race. The religion has therefore suffered from explicitly racist portrayals, and has acted as a canvas for race hatred and race-based fear. Derived in part from African tradition and practiced primarily by black-skinned peoples, Voodoo has, for hundreds of years, been victim of sensational accusations associating its practices with cannibalism and other outlandish and canned racial stereotypes.
Voodoo’s secretive nature also continues to hinder its public reception. Secrecy as a theological tenet, mysterious initiations, and a priestly economy wherein houngans and mambos are paid for their services based on claims of power to manipulate invisible forces are all regarded with suspicion by contemporary, Western, secular audiences. Likewise disturbing are two central practices: the sacrifice of animals and spirit possession. The former is bloody, the latter theatrical and sometimes violent, as dancing practitioners lapse into ritual trances and are “ridden” by loas from the Voodoo pantheon.
Such acts strike many outsiders as “Satanic,” an inaccurate but nonetheless damaging label with which Voodoo is frequently plastered. Compounding the problem is Voodoo’s symbolism, prominently featuring the snake, which Voodooists identify with life and God but Jews and Christians identify with evil and the devil. Then there is the tricky issue of Christian saints’ names, prayer formulas, and iconography appropriated by and occurring within Voodoo rites, resonating with longstanding fear within Christianity of the parody and perversion of its rites and symbols.
Finally, Voodoo suffers from a flaw built into both scholarly and popular typologies of religion, that of hierarchical thinking about religions. Beauvoir argues that Voodoo’s character derives from its location as a “popular religion.” But lacking a sacred text, law codes, or traditions of written commentary, Voodoo is a marginalized tradition (marked as “primitive,” as if religions evolve along a given trajectory) compared to those “world religions” that come to dominate empires.
Until now, Voodoo also lacked a formal institution of authority. The establishment of a national federation of Voodooists and their election, in turn, of Beauvoir to his current post is a radical (and not uncontroversial) move. Beauvoir’s hope is not only, of course, that Voodoo will receive long-due legitimization on the world stage, but that it will also play an active role in addressing Haiti’s poverty and social ills, paving the way for a self-sufficient and sustainable future. It is a tall order, but Voodoo, a religion practiced since the 18th century and only officially recognized as a religion by the Haitian government in 2003, has proven its capacity to persist.
Sightings is a publication of The University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center.