By Hugh B. Cave
used by permission of the author
about 1955

A while ago I attended a voodoo service in Haiti at which a writer of Sunday features for American newspapers happened to be present.

One doesn't often find outsiders at an authentic voodoo service. Getting into such a gathering is difficult without personal contacts, and the real thing usually takes place too far from the capital to be convenient for people spending only a short time in Haiti. There are "ceremonies" offered in or near Port-au-Prince for tourists, of course, but these are little more than folklore presentations staged for money. Real voodoo is a religion, concerned not with tourists but with the invocation and worship of gods and spirits.

The service mentioned was in the seaside town of Petit Goave, about 45 miles from the capital on the Southern Peninsula. Rural slums line both sides of the main shipping district. The land is flat and dusty, except when the wet-season rains transform it into a chocolate pudding that smells rather cozily of donkey droppings. Many of the town's buildings are typically old-style Haitian, two-storied, unpainted, with wrought-iron balconies. Not the most pleasant country town in Haiti. Nor was the gentleman in question the most pleasant of visitors.

Obnoxious in the extreme, he got into trouble first with his arrogance, then with his camera. A guest at a voodoo service is not expected to whip out a camera and start taking flash pictures any more than one at a church service in, say, New York would be expected to do so. Certainly not without asking permission first. Then because the gentleman spoke no Creole and could not understand what he was being told, he became even more arrogant and was asked to leave.

Probably nothing much would have happened to him had he refused. In five years of residence in Haiti and many return visits I have met very few violent Haitians. But he did leave, and later wrote a rather long article about what he had witnessed. A friend, happening to see it, sent me a copy.

In this story our writer described the ritual dancing and singing at the voodoo service as "a wild sex orgy." The simple offering of a chicken as food for the gods was called "an unholy animal sacrifice," with so much about blood in it that his readers must have expected the newspaper page to drip all over them. Worse, he completely missed a really dramatic event that took place before his eyes.

(Though he and I were the only non-Haitians present, I hadn't attempted to explain anything to him. He had come in late and seated himself across the peristyle form where I was, and then he began brandishing his camera. I thought it wise to keep my distance lest I be thought, by Haitian friends present, to approve of his behavior.)

The service was one to Cousin 'Zaca, the patron loa of the peasant farmer. Normally this means a rather uneventful evening with touches of country humor. Some fellow is possessed by 'Zaca and, with a colorful sisal handbag draped over one shoulder, goes through the motions of sowing seed. (There isn't space in an article of this length to describe any voodoo service in detail; all I can hope to do is supply a touch of color.) My point here is that a second possession soon took place at this service, and arrival number two from the world of the spirits was the redoubtable Gede Nimbo, more often called Papa Gede, the guardian of the cemetery.

Now Papa Gede is Death, and he is at all times a jokester, which is why he often comes uninvited to a service. He likes to strut around with two cigarettes in his mouth, a top hat and black coat on, and an outthrust hand eagerly tickling female bottoms. His favorite libation, almost always awaiting him in case he does show up, is a first-distillation rum called clairin in which red-hot peppers have been steeped for weeks until it's fiery enough to sear the gullet of a granite statue.

So while our gentleman of the press was furiously taking pictures of the drummers, the dancers, the farmer who'd become Cousin 'Zaca, a boy about eight years old, sitting next to me on my bench, became possessed by Papa Gede and took off like Michael Jackson!

I had been talking to this boy. He had come with his mother from a home in the Hills a few miles away. His name, he said, was Ti Bagay -- obviously a nickname, for it means Little Thing. He was so pitifully frail that he looked as though an ounce or two of anything alcoholic would probably kill him. Keep that in mind.

When the loa mounted him - took possession of him, that is - the lad leaped to his feet with a wild yell an raced to the poteau mitan, the sacred central post at the base of which gifts are offered to the gods. As it happened, the houngan (priest) and his assistants at this service were people of foresight. Among the offerings was a bottle of Gede's favorite pepper-spiked raw rum. Originally the bottle had held a fifth of Haiti's marvelous Rhum Barbancourt, and it was full.

Also available for Gede if he came were a top hat, cigarettes, and matches.

When Ti Bagay slapped the hat on his small head, only his protruding ears kept it from thumping his shoulders. He stuffed two cigarettes into his mouth and lit them with a flourish. Snatching the full bottle of spiked clairin off the concrete slab at the base of the post, he thumbed the cork out and began prancing around the peristyle.

As I've told, Papa Gede delights in pinching female bottoms. Ti Bagay pinched away with equal enthusiasm. Gede gulps down his favorite drink - which, by the way, when mixed this way, is called in Creole a trompe. Ti Bagay gulped it down, too.

He emptied the bottle. And all the time he was doing this, our reporter with the camera was so busy with everyday other things that he couldn't see a genuine voodoo mystery unfolding before his eyes. Because Ti Bagay did not get drunk. Oh, he staggered a bit - perhaps as much from the speed of his dancing as from the trompe. And beads of sweat literally flew from him as he danced. And his eyes rolled at times. But he emptied that fifth of raw rum spiked with red-hot peppers and became neither drunk nor ill.

It should have killed him, medics have told me.

When the bottle was empty, Ti Bagay returned it to the base of the post, took off his top hat and coat, and calmly walked into the sacred hounfor at the end of the peristyle. But in just a few minutes he reappeared, returned to his place beside me on the bench, and sat down.

"Ti Bagay," I said, "do you know what you just did?"

He didn't. He was not even aware that he had left the bench. When I enlightened him, he at first seemed astonished, then delighted, that Papa Gede should have chosen him. He said he had never been possessed by a loa before.

The service over, I made my way to the poteau mitan and picked up the trompe bottle from which the boy had drunk. There were a few drops of the fiery rum left in it. I poured them into my cupped hand and touched my tongue to the stuff, just to make sure. For hours afterward my mouth was on fire.

Now if our gentleman of the press had written about that, instead of about "sex orgies" and "unholy animal sacrifices", he might have told his readers something about voodoo. But my hunch is that he already knew what he was going to write before he ever got to the service, because he'd been reading what other like him had written and was too mired in his own preconceptions to respond to the unexpected.

He wasn't the first, of course. He won't be the last.

For one thing, the observer who can't speak or at least understand Creole cannot possibly understand what goes on at a voodoo service. Could a visitor from Outer Mongolia comprehend what goes on at a Georgia camp meeting? And along with a knowledge of Creole, a background in African and Haitian history would be a help. Voodoo came from Africa in the slave ships, and the Creole tongue of today's Haitian peasant evolved from slavery as well. Coming from many different African tribes, those ancestors of today's peasants had no common language. Creole is a result of their efforts to find one by imitating the speech of their French masters.

So to get anywhere in voodoo you must live long enough in Haiti to learn Creole and then use what you have learned to become accepted and trusted in voodoo circles. But Creole is such a fluid tongue, and varies so much in different parts of the country, that learning it is no easy thing to do. My good friend Sister Joan-Margaret of the School for Handicapped Children in Port-au-Prince has an amusing tale she tells. To raise money for the school, which was founded and is run by the Episcopal Sisters of St. Margaret, she talks to various groups in the U.S. and elsewhere. Almost invariably someone in an audience will ask her to "say something in Creole, Sister, please!" How many non-Haitians, after all, have ever heard Creole spoken?

Sister Joan's stock reply is, "Sa ou vle'm di?"

"What does that mean?"

"It means 'Ouisa ou vle moin dit?' but no one ever uses all those syllables."

"But what does that mean?"

"It means, 'What do you want me to say?'"

But with or without Creole, almost every scribbler who has ever visited Haiti seems to have felt an urge to write about that country: its politics, its poverty, its spectacular scenery, and above all its mysticism. Hence the lurid voodoo stories filled with copycat stock items, many of which have crept into assorted horror flicks dealing with that subject and in earlier days were echoed in pulp fiction about voodoo. (I confess to having authored a couple of such pulp tales myself before I ever set foot in Haiti, but I've been trying to make amends ever since!)

Anyway, I have extracted a handful of such 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 our 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 fo 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.

    But Haiti, remember, is a poverty-stricken country with few doctors, and most of those are beyond the peasants' reach. Take away the houngan and the mambo, with their handed-down knowledge of herbal medicine, and the country people would have no one to turn to when sick. Then take away the voodoo loa to whom they look for guidance in just about everything that touches their lives, and they would feel abandoned. That's the right word: abandoned. Few outsiders seem to understand this.

Editor's Note: Hugh Cave's HAITI: HIGHROAD TO ADVENTURE has been called by novelist Kenneth Roberts "the best book on present-day Haiti ever written" and by others "the best report on voodoo in English." Bill Pronzini, in his Voodoo!, says: "Of the dozens of works about West Indian voodoo, perhaps the most authoritative and objective are Hugh B. Cave's Highroad to Adventure, etc. . . .[and] Cave's The Cross on the Drum is a first-rate study of the conflicts between Christianity and voodoo. . .containing a considerable amount of voodoo lore, as does Cave's recent macabre tale of voodoo and zombeeism, Legion of the Dead."

Other Cave books dealing with voodoo are The Evil and Shades of Evil, available now in bookstores.

We asked Hugh which of the books on voodoo (other than his own, of course) he would recommend. He replied:

"For a study in depth of voodoo itself I would suggest Milo Rigaud's Secrets of Voodoo. Milo is a member of the Haitian elite. I attended a number of services with him and was awed by the extent of his knowledge. Odette Menesson-Rigaud, his wife, is an expert photographer, responsible for most of the authentic photographs of voodoo that find their way into print.
"For the music of voodoo the books to go after are Haiti Singing and The Drum on the Hoe, both by Harold Courlander. Both contain music and words (English as well as Creole) to voodoo chants, along with definitive lists of voodoo loa and detailed descriptions of some of the services. Courlander has made some authentic recordings of voodoo music, too."


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