Haitian Vodou’s Supreme Chief

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 5, 2008 — 7 Comments

If one looks at the practice of Haitian Vodou, you can’t separate the political unrest and desperate poverty from the ancestral faith of the island. So it is in this light that we must consider the news that a coalition of houngans (priests) have named Max Beauvoir the “supreme master” of Haitian Vodou.

Max Beauvoir, the public face of Haitian Vodou.

“Beauvoir, tall and majestic with closely cropped white hair, is a voodoo priest who was just named the religion’s supreme master, a newly created position that is aimed at reviving voodoo … Popular in Haiti even among many of those who attend Christian churches, voodoo lacks the formal hierarchy of other religions. Most voodoo priests, known as houngans, operate semi-independently, catering to their followers without a whole lot of structure. But many of Haiti’s houngans recently came together into a national federation and named Beauvoir, 72, as their public face. He is now the spokesman for a religion that followers believe too often gets a bad rap and is in dire need of an image overhaul.”

Beauvoir, who is the head of Le Peristyle de Mariani and the Temple of Yehwe, should most likely not be considered Vodou’s “Pope”, as the New York Times headline names him. Instead, his title of “supreme chief” is probably closer to a mix of “first among equals” and ambassador. Beauvoir says the position was created out of a sense of desperation among voodooists in Haiti over issues of political unrest and the religion’s survival.

“My position as supreme chief in voodoo was born out of a controversy,” Mr. Beauvoir said, saying Haiti’s elite had marginalized the houngans who generations ago wielded significant influence in society. “Today, voodooists are at the bottom of society. They are virtually all illiterate. They are poor. They are hungry. You have people who are eating mud, and I don’t mean that as a figure of speech.” … As it is now, he said, the government seeks the input of Catholic and Protestant leaders when grappling with societal issues. “But do they call for the input of the voodooists?” he asked, shaking his head.”

In addition to downward mobility, and dealing with rampant poverty and social unrest, Vodou practitioners in Haiti also have to deal with vilification from Christian missionaries who brand them devil worshipers and work tirelessly to convert the population. A “perfect storm” of troubles that resulted in this new position of authority. In Beauvoir’s view, Haitian Vodou needs to play a central role in the revitalization of Haiti, instead of trying to adopt Western values and traditions.

“They have been seduced by Western attitudes,” he said of current leaders. “They believe foreigners think that way so they have to think that way. They fear that if they don’t oppose voodoo, they won’t get a dime in their bowl.”

However, while Beauvoir may have noble goals, his own political dealings are somewhat controversial. He has been linked with Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the last dictator of Haiti, who fled the country in 1986. In addition, Beauvoir has nothing but scorn for ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and sees the current crop of Haitian political leaders as sell-outs to Western power. But then, perhaps these views can be understood within the prism of Haitian Vodou, which enjoyed political and social power under the Duvaliers, and faced violent reprisals from Catholic and Protestant mobs in the chaos the followed their ouster.

What is certain, is that Haitian Vodou, like its homeland, is in grave peril and teeters on the edge of a complete violent collapse. This move by some Voodooists to centralize and actively advocate for their survival seems a logical move for a faith that feels backed into a corner. It should be interesting to see what Max Beauvoir, as newly dubbed supreme chief, will accomplish in this new role, and if the station will outlive Beauvoir to be passed on to another houngan. Whatever the ultimate outcome, this is certainly a important development in the history of a little-understood faith.

Jason Pitzl-Waters