The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti

Desmangles, Leslie G
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. xiii + 218 pp. $32.50 cloth, $12.95 paper

The Catholic Church in Haiti: Political and Social Change

Greene, Anne
East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993. 312 pp.

Reviews by Robert Lawless

The following was published in 1995 as "Religious Forces in Haiti" in Journal of Third World Studies12(2):477-481.

In his 1966 seminal book on Religion: An Anthropological View Anthony F.C. Wallace wrote, "Religion is a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in man and nature" (p. 107). In this authoritative 1992 book Desmangles writes, Voodoo "is a religion that, through a complex system of myths and rituals, relates the life of the devotee to the deities who govern that life" (p. 2).

Although the word voodoo is commonly used derogatorily in English, Voodoo is simply the religion of most Haitians. As Alfred Metraux wrote in his 1959 Voodoo in Haiti, the first full-length anthropological study of Voodoo, "Its devotees ask of it what men have always asked of religion: remedy for ills, satisfaction for needs and the hope of survival" (p. 15). No contemporary scholar argues anything but that Voodoo is an independent and legitimate religion. The study of Voodoo, then, should provide a systematic expansion of our knowledge about religion in general.

Desmangles certainly does this through the accomplishment of three goals:

"(1) My first aim is to describe the historical events in Haiti that have caused Vodou to incorporate ethnic religious traditions from diverse regions of Africa into its theology" (p. 6). "(2) Although Vodou has assimilated much of Catholic theology, it is also continuous with African religious traditions" (p. 11). "(3) The third aim of this study is to describe Vodou as a tertium quid, part of which is a 'creole' phenomenon that owes little to Africa or Europe but is indigenous to Haiti" (p. 15).

Desmangles concludes by pointing out that Voodoo "works" because "it is interwoven so completely within the fabric of Haitian life" (p. 180) and that "Vodou's adaptation to Haitian culture far exceeds that of the [Roman Catholic] church" (p. 180). In a relatively short study Desmangles has demonstrated that Voodoo is an integral part of Haitian culture.

Desmangles's most original contribution comes in his two chapters explaining the deities in the Voodoo pantheon, in which he interprets the many lithographs of Roman Catholic saints in terms of their meanings to Voodooists. Importantly he points out that the two major nations of deities, the Rada and the Petro, cannot be understood as representing a distinction between good and evil. Desmangles supplies a much more sophisticated understanding of Voodoo that has to be read in its entirety to be appreciated.

I do find Desmangles's uses of sources to be occasionally puzzling. There is certainly no need to give Wade Davis's notorious Passage of Darkness additional publicity by citing him as the source for a commonly known Creole saying (p. 4) or as the authority on the structure of the lakou since he did no firsthand studies of familial organization (p. 64). Davis is also quite inappropriate as a source for historical information (p. 19); the "history" in Davis's book comes only from (often questionable) secondary and tertiary sources.

Some of the text seems curiously biased toward the Catholic church. For example, Desmangles writes, "By the time the break [between Haiti and the Vatican] was healed in 1960, it was too late: Haitian religion had become a strange assortment of Catholic and Vodou beliefs" (p. 43). Too late for what? Strange to whom? Desmangles means too late for Catholicism to reestablish itself, but why not say just enough time for Voodoo to establish itself. The assortment may seem strange to outsiders but does it seem strange to Voodooists? Nevertheless, Desmangles does reach his goal of further illuminating the widely misunderstood religion of Voodoo.

Greene also clearly enunciates her goal: "The principal question raised and addressed in this study is: what was the role of the Catholic Church in Haiti in the downfall of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier?" (p. 1). As might be expected from a book with this goal, Greene overlooks and minimizes the role of those outside the Church. She does write, "While this book focusses primarily on the role of the Church in the Duvalier regime, it must be made clear that the U.S. government is a major political actor in the dynamics of Haitian power" (p. 50).

Greene believes, for example, that the Church station Radyo Soley played a "significant role in the events leading to the overthrow of the Duvalier regime" (p. 148); it broadcast in Creole and had a catchy theme song that became a symbol of the efforts to oust Duvalier. Without underestimating the thirst of Haitians for information--much of which did come from the radio--the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February 1986 was not quite the straightforward overthrow of an unpopular dictatorship by a popular uprising, whether or not based in the Church. What actually happened was a very orderly escape of an admittedly unpopular dictator that the United States wanted out before the popular uprising became uncontrollable. The United States--with the cooperation of its military branch, the Haitian army--was very much involved in easing Duvalier out of power. A militarily enforced discipline beneath the facade of a democracy--which to the U.S. government means the election of an acceptable person--was much preferable to the rapid turnover and messy corruption of the inefficient and often incompetent ministers and bureaucrats of Jean-Claude's administration.

Also, Greene relegates the participation of students to a footnote (p. 208). Indeed, the violent police response to student demonstrations in November 1985 led to mobilization of anti-Duvalier feelings from several unlikely sectors of the nation, including, for example, the Haitian Association of Industrialists.

Greene does recognize that the history of the Church is "unheroic" (p. 73) and that the Church was largely irrelevant to Haitians until the 1970s. The Church mission changed as a consequence of Vatican II, the indigenization of the Haitian hierarchy in 1966, and the regional conferences of Medellen in 1968 and Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. "The focus of Church evangelism has shifted from concern about spiritual and educational well-being of the urban elite to the collective well-being of the nation, particularly its poor" (p. 132). And "since 1966, it has increasingly used Creole . . . and sought to incorporate Haitian culture into the liturgy. It has taken its evangelical message and socio-economic expertise to rural areas" (p. 132- 133).

Whatever may have been the significance of the Church in the departure of Duvalier, "the Church . . . reverted to the past, silent in the face of a military coup, political repression, and economic misery" (p. 253). Indeed, the hierarchy of the Church rarely supported any radical change, and currently only a few in the Church offer leadership for the oppressed in Haiti.

Although the organization of the book does allow the author be quite repetitious, restating various historical facts several times, the book is an important contribution on a topic not often clearly discussed, and Greene cites an enormous number of sources, including interviews and government and Church documents.


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