Voodoo’s view of the quake in Haiti

By Elizabeth McAlister Associate Professor of Religion, Wesleyan University Vodouists in the Haitian diaspora are praying on their knees today, … Continued

By Elizabeth McAlister
Associate Professor of Religion, Wesleyan University

Vodouists in the Haitian diaspora are praying on their knees today, just as Catholics and Protestants are. Why did this devastating earthquake have to happen in Haiti, a country already so vulnerable that people live on a dollar a day, where on a good day, the government cannot employ or educate or provide health care for the majority? In Port-au-Prince, they are coping by searching and rescuing, sharing resources, crying, and praying. In Vodou most ritual is about finding balance, putting yourself into equilibrium with the spirits, with your family, and with yourself. In Haiti things are way out of balance. We might say that spirits of death have launched a coup d’état.

My friend and colleague, the artist, educator, and priest of the spirits, Erol Josué, has been praying and crying in Brooklyn. Through Twitter, Facebook, and his cell phone he has learned of at least twenty dead friends in several Port-au-Prince congregations. He told me today that for him, as a spirit-worker, this event is both scientific and symbolic. This is indeed a natural disaster for Josué. But the land in Haiti is a person, he said. We consider it a woman, our mother. “Haïti Chérie,” as the well-known ballad goes. She wants to know, ‘who will make me beautiful, put clothes on me, and take care of my children?’ When you mistreat her, and uproot her trees, when you give her too much responsibility, she is like a woman with cancer. The tumor metastasizes, and explodes.

For Erol Josué, the earthquake was mother nature, the land of Haiti, rising up to defend herself against the erosion, deforestation, and environmental devastation that have been ongoing for the last few decades. “Everybody was smashed to the ground,” said Erol. “Rich and poor. But look how symbolic this is. The Palace is smashed, the legislative building, the tax office, and the Cathedral. The country is crushed. We are all on our knees.” This Vodou priest is not speaking about divine retribution, as has Pat Robertson. God is not punishing us for disobedience. Erol is speaking about a giant natural rebalancing act, a reaction against human dealings with the ecosystem.

For the last 25 years I have had the privilege of studying and writing about the Afro-Creole religion in Haiti, the traditions known as Vodou (Anglicized as voodoo). It is a worldview that encompasses philosophy, medicine, justice, and the arts, in a cosmic scheme where the fundamental principle is that everything is spirit. Said the famous painter and Vodou priest André Pierre, “The first magician is God who created people with his own hands from the dust of the earth. No one lives of the flesh. Everyone lives of the spirit.” We humans live in the material world, and other spirits–called lwa, or mystères, “mysteries”–dwell in the unseen realm. God created the spirits to help govern humanity and the natural world. The ancestors and the recently dead are with them. Unfortunately, there are far too many recently dead crossing over to join the spirits this week.

When you cut a tree, in Vodou, you are supposed to ask the tree first, and leave a small payment for the spirit of the tree. For years nobody has asked, or listened, or paid the land when making policies or laws in Haiti. Farmers have given up since imported rice undercut their local prices. Whole villages left the provinces, and migrated to the capital, leaving the land behind and swelling the capital city to bursting. The people running the country–from within and from without–have abused Our Mother. She is doing what is natural, like a horse throwing a rough rider.

This interpretation, this theology, is the poignant parable of an exhausted and grieving spiritualist. Others, who may read this and disagree with great force, will not necessarily share it. But Vodou works through spiritual revelation, and this is the revelation Erol gives me today. Vodou has no single spokesperson and no inerrant text. It has God, the angels, and the spirits in the unseen realm. And now there are thousands and thousands of souls, who are being carried, each by a spirit of the dead, into Guinea, the world of the ancestors. It seems fitting to close with the first and last lines of the poem “Guinea” by Jacques Roumain:

It’s the long road to Guinea
Death takes you down
Here are the boughs, the trees, the forest
Listen to the sound of the wind in its long hair
Of eternal night . . .

There, there awaits you beside the water a quiet village,
And the hut of your fathers, and the hard ancestral stone
Where your head will rest at last.

(Translation by Langston Hughes, 1958)

Elizabeth McAlister is author of “Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Learn more about Afro-Creole religion in Haiti at Patheos.com.

  • rexreddy

    Deforestation and other bad ecological practices have done major damage to land and soil of Haiti that is true.

  • racheljean

    “Voodoo is evil and satanic. If you knew anything about voodou, you would know what you just wrote is BS.

  • CellBioProf

    If more individuals practiced the respect for Mother Earth as urged in Vodou, the world would be a better place for all of us. Sadly, it wouldn’t prevent earthquakes, but it would mitigate myriad other “natural” disasters that are at least in part human-made: for example, the destruction of wetlands are coastal areas leading to the devastation from Hurricaine Katrina.

  • randfb

    This article validates what Pat Robertson declared. Voodoo is satan worhip with sacrifices offered to satan. Half of the population of Haiti practices Voodoo.God is very opposed to satan worship as He has shared many times in His Word.Repent and call upon Jesus and He will give you life.

  • dmm1

    Voodoo is not Satan worship in the sense that most people think of when they say “Satan worship.” It is a syncretism between monotheism (with Judeo-Christian leanings) and animism. This is not unusual in the history of humanity. It is similar to the Native Americans’ traditional religions, most of which have a concept of a Great Spirit along with spirits of animals, trees, rocks, rivers, etc. The ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped many gods (mostly nature gods) but also revered Zeus (Jupiter) as the All-Powerful God over all.From the Christian point of view, though, all of these religions violate the command from God to “have no other gods before Me.” The Apostle Paul told the New Testament Christians that the gods of the people around them were not gods at all but rather demons in the service of Satan. Thus, Voodoo is Satan worship, but at several removes. By these criteria, most of humanity could be labeled Satan worshipers — including most Christians, who often worship the gods of money, power, greed, gluttony, pride, etc. Such criteria may be helpful within a Christian church, to let the Christians understand how utterly lost people are without Christ. However, it is very unhelpful to point the finger at people and accuse them of being Satan worshippers. And

  • paris1969

    The reason there is so much strife between religions, is because so few people respect the religions of others. I would expect that Voudou, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is experienced and lived in a variety of ways. To see it as satan worship or evil, is just childish rantings of people with closed minds.

  • dottydo

    The alchemistry in Haiti is oddly ready to harm people with poisons and even death at a whim, with no moral compass about it at all, whatsoever.Was this quake from bad mining practices?

  • SUMB44

    Pat Robertson was lambasted because he said Haitians made a pact with Satan to defeat the French and was therefore cursed. Erol Josue states that Mother Nature exacted her vengeance on Haiti for mistreating the environment? I’m not sure, but I doubt this article will help dissuade the Pat Robertsons of the world… This mixture of nature worship and paganism is exactly what Pope Benedict warned against last week in his cautions about modern environmentalism.

  • robert63

    I believe in one all powerful God, and I believe in accepting by faith the existence of God. However, the government of Haiti had been warned by the offices in the Government of the United States that there was the possibility of an earthquake in their area back in 2008. God gave man the ability to think, judge and make decisions in an autonomous manner. We can see things as they may evolve if we look and question how things work. This is a gift science has evolved into and works to a certain degree for some things, not so well for other things. If this earthquake were a punishment from God, why was there warning before it happened. The disaster of was going to happen as a result of tectonic activity in that part of the world regardless. It is disappointing that religious leaders should take this as an opportunity to make fools of people who this past year have proven that the level of education in this country and the connection with the real world and the small communities of this country is way out of balance.

  • mikeghouse

    A simple question to those who are drawing conclusions about Vodoo traditions. Where does this arrogance come from? What makes you believe that your way makes sense and others don’t? Heck, it makes sense to the believer not you or I. What you believe is not what I believe and vice versa.We have to refresh our minds; the right wingers amongst the missionaries were biased bunch of people, in their eagerness to convert, they called other beautiful traditions in a derogatory way. Can they look down upon Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other faiths?Vodou, paganism, atheism, wicca, and all the other earth based traditions serve the same spiritual needs of humanity as do the Abrahimic and Dharmic faiths.

  • DwightCollins

    are haitians like nigerians, consume everything but produce nothing…

  • Paganplace

    “”But the land in Haiti is a person, he said. We consider it a woman, our mother. “Haïti Chérie,” as the well-known ballad goes. She wants to know, ‘who will make me beautiful, put clothes on me, and take care of my children?’ When you mistreat her, and uproot her trees, when you give her too much responsibility, she is like a woman with cancer. The tumor metastasizes, and explodes…”"My Gods, but if that doesn’t sound like old aisling poems about Ireland…

  • Paganplace

    “”However, the government of Haiti had been warned by the offices in the Government of the United States that there was the possibility of an earthquake in their area back in 2008.”"While having for years before had all funding and even loans to *do* anything about it choked off?

  • Paganplace

    “”Vodou, paganism, atheism, wicca, and all the other earth based traditions serve the same spiritual needs of humanity as do the Abrahimic and Dharmic faiths. mikeghouse”"I’m not sure I’d say ‘the same,’ since it seems some feel there are ‘needs’ not involving… Caring for the land, and each other…But when needs get like *this,* everyone knows what to do. Please. Let’s do it.

  • mikeghouse

    Vodou, Paganism, Atheism, Wicca, Maya, Toltec, Hopi, Shinto, Oloriyo and all the other earth based traditions serve similar spiritual needs of humanity as do Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Bahai, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Jainism and other faiths. Each society has its own equilibrium. Once we jolt the arrogance out, that our faith is the only way, then we may find true freedom from the bondage of arrogance. Mike Ghouse

  • Paganplace

    “”Once we jolt the arrogance out, that our faith is the only way, then we may find true freedom from the bondage of arrogance.Mike GhousePosted by: mikeghouse”"It’d surely be a good thing. The sanctimonious are circling about this tragedy like vultures, and, well. It’s sickening. Robertson’s only the loudest.

  • ccnl1

    If there is a god:From Father Edward Schillebeeckx (famous contemporary theolgion), Church: The Human Story of God, Crossroad, 1993, p.91 (softcover) “Christians must give up a perverse, unhealthy and inhuman doctrine of predestination without in so doing making God the great scapegoat of history” . “Nothing is determined in advance: in nature there is chance and determinism; in the world of human activity there is possibility of free choices. Therefore the historical future is not known even to God; otherwise weFor God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women.”

  • ccnl1

    To the more important facts of life considering the horror of the earthquake in Christian/Pagan Haiti:If there is a god:From Father Edward Schillebeeckx (famous contemporary theologian), Church: The Human Story of God, Crossroad, 1993, p.91 (softcover) “Christians must give up a perverse, unhealthy and inhuman doctrine of predestination without in so doing making God the great scapegoat of Nothing is determined in advance: in nature there is chance and determinism; in the world of human activity there is possibility of free choices.

  • Paganplace

    Well, CCNL, I think part of your problem (as well as the common ones of those you quote) …is that trying to cram the living world, and natural events, into a good/evil/control paradigm of what ‘God’ is… Or is not…Is that it goes nowhere. Even in the lushest forests, trees fall.The gentlest Mother still shakes fiercely with any birth. The most bountiful,life-giving seas will storm, foam, and rage, and lush plains also give rise fierce whirlwinds. This is the way of things. This is the life of the world…You don’t ignore these things until the Earth shakes, build slab concrete and overpopulation, and then call those who live there ‘evil’ because they have some of their own spirituality, then wonder where ‘goodness’ is when the structures fall. Earthquakes, nor Mother Earth, nor ‘God’ actually cause mass casualties. Falling buildings do. Now, there’s not much one can do about the Earth shaking. But we’ve long had the knowing how to make *fact* that there is shaking, and storms, and other things, especially in certain places, something that doesn’t have to result in anything quite like this. The *cause* of this humanitarian disaster… Came long before the earthquake. Long, long, before. By our human standards, anyway.

  • ccnl1

    God if he/she/it exists or Mother Nature give us the gift of rational thinking. Living on an earthquake fault and/or in flood/hurricane/tsunami zones violates rational thinking. The taxpayers of the USA should not have to continue supporting this stupidity. Rebuilding New Orleans is a mistake as will be rebuilding Port au Prince.

  • laca7

    The most important issue at hand is not blame, my faith is better than yours, they live somewhere you’re not supposed to live or they got money & warnings years ago but the simple fact is that people are dead, dying, starving, needing medical attention, food, & water.Nature is predictable & unpredictable all the way around. Where can you live on earth without an element of nature having the last word? Floods, snow, rain, hurricanes, electric storms, cyclones, draught & earth quakes ultimately rule us small humans in life on a planet that may not be able to keep up with our demands.If Haitians were born into poverty who is to blame? If greed, politics, and governments received aid money but did nothing for the populace who is to blame? What countries profited from the clear cutting? Who purchased products from this country of $1 a day living?WHO IS TO BLAME? I AMI flushed the toilet this AM after a healthy breakfast, washed dishes, cleaned my closet of the wood hangers I no longer like because they take up to much room for my fat & skinny clothes, emptied the trash, took a nap with a book, had fruit for lunch, cleared my hall closet of old towels, refilled kleenex containers, got on the internet, spent an hour on the phone with a friend, took a shower, blow dried my hair, started a load of laundry, paid some bills, thought about traffic in the rain, walked my dog, steamed veggies & baked chicken for dinner, now it’s time for me to get in my warm big bed with lots of covers.WHO IS TO BLAME? I AM

  • logimaks

    The Creator’s planning is absolutely difficult to fathom. In The Quraan, “Wallhu Khairul Maakereen” {God is The Best of the best planners} We MUST learn something from Haiti, this time. The Creator kept the so-called Geologists sleeping! Such a Massive Geological Activity did NOT develop overnight. I had been developing over some period. Experts were sleeping at The Creator’s desire. Look back to the last Decade. The Creator’s Domain have been hit hard by human. Let “In God We Trust” be resurrected in our spirit and action so that God may save our big cities like, New York, L.A.,,Chicago. We pray to The Creator for Haitians’ so heartily!

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