More Vodou, Blame, and Commentary

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 15, 2010 — 6 Comments

Now that the initial shock of the massive earthquake hitting Haiti (see here for information on sending financial support) has filtered through the media, and the news-cycle starts to move on from Pat Robertson, more in-depth analysis and commentary are starting to emerge. Starting with more articles and editorials that explore the religious character of Haiti, like Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado’s essay for Religion Dispatches.

“What I wanted to say is that Vodou is not some sort of sorcery, or the product of some “pact to the devil” (thank you Pat Robertson). I also wanted to correct his erroneous assumption that Haiti is a nation of Vodou practitioners. It is, and continues to be, overwhelmingly Christian.”

Maldonado, author of “Afro-Cuban Theology: Religion, Race, Culture, and Identity”, predicts that Christian Pentecostalism will receive a big boost in the wake of this tragedy, just as it did in Guatemala after a massive quake in 1976. Its apocalyptic theology and literalism appealing to a shell-shocked and traumatized people. Meanwhile, Rachel Tabachnick at Talk To Action notes the long history of Christian missionaries demonizing Haiti’s history and Vodou religion,  placing Robertson’s comments in a long and sordid context.

“The mythology of Haiti has played a significant role in its recent political struggles.  While many people go to Haiti to provide humanitarian relief, there have also been floods of missionaries, of both the religious and political variety, who have responded to the call to save Haiti from the pact with the devil.”

Another Vodou-related aspect to this ongoing tragedy is what to do with the thousands of dead. In the Vodou religion, no-one but relatives are supposed to touch the dead until the proper ceremonies have been performed. Reaching out, neighboring Brazil has offered to provide a graveyard, while respecting the religious concerns of Vodou practitioners in Haiti.

“Brazil is offering to build a cemetery in Haiti for the thousands killed in this week’s quake, and promising it will respect the Voodoo beliefs of part of the Caribbean country’s population, officials say. The proposal stemmed from the “great concern over the presence of abandoned bodies in the streets, which could create epidemics,” the defence ministry said in a statement on Thursday … “A special attention will be given to adherents of Voodoo, a religion with a strong following in Haiti,” the statement said. One of the considerations in that regard is that “relatives do not accept that anybody touches their dead until their rituals are over.” Voodoo was brought to Haiti from Africa during the time of slavery. A version of it called Candomble exists in Brazil, which also became home to a large African slave population.”

Meanwhile, Benin, the African nation that shares strong cultural ties with Haiti, partially due to it being the acknowledged birthplace of West African Vodun, is holding special rites and ceremonies in solidarity with the victims (the president is also organizing aid).

“In an outburst of solidarity with the victims of the earthquake, the people of Benin and particularly those of Allada have organised traditional ceremonies to appease the spirits and seek the blessing of their ancestors for the Haitians. “A purification ceremony is planned for Haiti and a trip to the devastated island is even possible. We will continue to pray that it never happens again,” says the Queen of Allada.”

Sadly, it also sparked some unfortunate theodicy along with the solidarity.

“Queen Djehami believes that this week’s earthquake has happened because Haiti’s ancestors failed to carry out sacrifices. She explains that during his trip to Haiti six years ago, King Kpodégbé had warned the then President of Haiti of the need to organise sacrifices to appease angry spirits and ward off evil ones. His trip was part of bicentenary celebrations marking the death of Toussaint L’ouverture. Although the Haitian authorities probably didn’t ignore the king’s warning, they did put off organising the rituals. “Haiti is profoundly African and these things should not be underestimated,” exclaims Queen Djehami.”

Implying that the earthquake may have been caused by angry spirits is little better than saying it was all due to an imaginary pact with the Devil. Sadly, disaster seems to almost invite such wrong-headed thinking. Witness actor Danny Glover’s assertion that global warming, and the failure to do something productive at Copenhagen, caused the earthquake.

“When we see what we did at the climate summit in Copenhagen, this is the response, this is what happens, you know what I’m sayin’?”

While there is some speculation that global warming could affect earthquakes, there is no evidence that Haiti’s earthquake was triggered or made worse because of it. Glover’s attempt to politicize this disaster while bodies are being dragged out of collapsed buildings, and millions are in crisis, is seriously misguided.

Finally, the Pagan blogosphere has been commenting on this situation. The Immanence blog, while not reacting specifically to Glover’s comments, does a splendid job of rejecting theodicy in the name of Gaia/nature (he also recommends the Haitian charity Fonkoze).

“That said, nature is also never merely nature either. We are part of the nature that acts, part of the system of relations by which the earth twists and moans and writhes in its sleep. There’s little point in looking for a global warming “signature” here. Rather, it’s about vulnerability — and its just (or unjust) distribution among us. As the world globalizes, as we come to see and feel the pain on our screens, we come to build the body of humanity. But the building of it is highly, deeply, radically uneven. An anthropologist working in Haiti, whose e-mail was forwarded to me by a friend, laments the news coverage, “which depicts this as a natural catastrophe, when the real problem is substandard housing and lack of infrastructure.”

Over at Beliefnet, Pagan blogger Gus diZerega, while criticizing Pat Robertson’s assertion that Haitian Vodou is demonic, recalls a Vodou ceremony he attended in New Orleans, and Thorn Coyle avoids trying to find an explanation for the suffering, and instead sticks to what she can fathom.

“What I can fathom is that humans are suffering. Yesterday I donated money to Yele Haiti because all of the funds go directly to the victims of the earthquake. I have heard that the website is overwhelmed today (there were already volume issues yesterday, when I visited the site) but Wyclef Jean reports that one can text “YELE” to 501501 and $5 will be added to your cell phone bill. $5 is not too much to ask from most of us, but for those who cannot afford it, we are also being asked to send our prayers. Might I also recommend we honor the shifting earth and count our blessings where we find them?  May the Gods, humans, and Loa be with Haiti in this time of extraordinary need.”

Fathoming that people need help, and then acting on it, is the strongest form of magic one can do in this circumstance. Remember, I’m keeping an updated list of Pagan and Pagan-friendly efforts to raise funds for aid in Haiti, here.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Lokisgodhi
  • Jonathan

    I guess you've already ruled out the possibility that in some cases aid and politics cannot be separated.

  • Robin Artisson

    Ace in the hole, man!

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    No. I'm saying let's remove folks from danger before we start lining up the political arguments.

  • Lokisgodhi

    I kind of like the 'death to the infidel' thing when they're referring to Christians. ;-)

  • Snoozepossum

    (bows to Brazil for doing instead of talking)