This is the English translation by Hugo Charteris from the French original by Alfred Métraux. The author first visited Haiti in 1941, returned there several times between that year and 1953, and spent the years of 1948 and 1950 as the head of a sociological survey in the island. Having taken a deep interest in Voodoo during all these years, and having become closely associated with several of its priests and priestesses, he is well qualified to discourse on that religion.
A ‘religion’ it unquestionably is; although a strange one, for superficially, and only superficially, its votaries are Roman Catholics.
Its origins lay in well-named ‘darkest’ Africa and it was brought to the West Indies in the mid-seventeenth century when Negro slaves were first imported to the Caribbean Islands. Many of them were natives of the Congo, Guinea and Nigeria, but the great majority came from Dahomey and the dark gods of that country become, under such names as Papa Legba, Damballa-wedo, Baron Samedi and Elizi-Freda the most powerful loa of the Voodoo pantheon. But there are scores of others all of whom, if called upon, have the power to possess their worshippers and throw them into fits.
This calling down of the spirits is the main object of all Voodoo ceremonies. The worshippers meet at hunfort – large or small compounds – each administered by a priest (hungan) or priestess (mambo), who is assisted by numerous initiates (hunsi). To the mesmeric influence of drumming the congregation enters on a dance that becomes ever wilder, animals are brutally sacrificed and their blood drunk, the loa are called upon, men and women worshippers become frenzied, cry out in the voice of the god that is said to ‘ride them’, foam at the mouth and finally collapse.
In every hunfort there is an altar. On it are offerings of fruit, flowers, vegetables and bottles of rum and coca-cola, set in front of pictures of Christian saints. This association with Christianity is due to the fact that all planters were compelled by law to have their newly imported slaves baptized as Roman Catholics. But the slave owners discouraged the preaching of the gospels, because. the teaching of Jesus might lead the blacks to believe they were their masters’ equals. Such a restricted knowledge of the white man’s religion resulted only in the slaves paying lip-service to it and associating saints such as St Patrick – who is always represented with a snake at his feet – with their own serpent god.
There is ample evidence that Voodoo is the most bestial, cruel and depraved of all religions, but there are two reasons why Doctor Métraux does not give the full picture of it. Firstly, as he says in his foreword – the place of which is taken by this introduction – he lived only in a part of Haiti where the worst Voodoo rites were not practised; secondly, that he discusses Voodoo ‘only from the point of view of an anthropologist with method and prudence’. In other words, he leans over backward not to offend Haitians.
He does tell us something of the torture inflicted on birds and beasts before they are sacrificed and of the hideous practices of the sorcerers; but not that men consider it an honour to be allowed to kiss the vagina of a woman while she is possessed and in convulsions, or of men copulating with pigs – as was the ritual for initiation into the Mau-Mau.
His reticence is understandable in view of the fact that his book is dedicated to Lorgina Delorge, an old Negress mambo, whose guest he was for a considerable time; and that he had many friends who were devotees to this licentious cult.
Yet one should bear in mind that Haiti is the most densely populated country in the Western hemisphere. In consequence the majority of its inhabitants are desperately poor. And that for the very poor the only pleasures available are music, dancing and copulation.
But whatever mentions of depravity Doctor Métraux may have discreetly omitted, the fact remains that his account of the Voodoo religion, its gods, their followers, beliefs and ceremonies is more informative than any other.