Archives For Voodoo

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

XKCD by Randall Munroe

XKCD by Randall Munroe

  • Considering how many times Wicca has been called the “fastest growing religion in America,” by both supporters and detractors, the latest XKCD comic reminds us to not get too wrapped up with the numbers, because they can be deceptive.
  • At Religion Dispatches John Morehead writes about Burning Man, and the fear it generates of an “alternative Pagan social order.” Quote: “For evangelicals like Matthews, Burning Man embodies deep-seated fears which can also be seen playing out in other aspects of American culture. Many conservatives fear that America is undergoing decay, and this is taking place in the spiritual realm as well. A lingering economic malaise, coupled with our continued cultural fascination with apocalyptic scenarios, provides a context in which Burning Man functions as a Rorschach test.” The whole thing is worth a read.
  • The University of Texas at Austin has published a new psychology study in the June issue of Child Development that shows a “reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, often increases rather than declines with age.” Study lead author Cristine Legare noted that “the data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology.” 
  • The Americans United Wall of Separation blog critiques efforts by Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to carve out exceptions for religious bullying at public schools. Quote: It attempts to carve out an exemption for protected “religious” bullying. In several states, Religious Right groups have attempted to exempt bullying and verbal harassment based on sincere religious beliefs. In other words, a fundamentalist Christian kid can harass a gay student as much as he wants as along as he sincerely believes what he is saying. Some yardstick there!” You can read the FOF-ADF document, here.
  • A married couple’s strife leads to arson, and hospitalization for both. Both admit on the record to having marital issues, yet the headline, and part of the article, is about how the wife believes in Voodoo due to past instances where she called the police with, quote, “bizarre accusations.” There doesn’t seem to be anything Voodoo related with this incident, so why include in the headline? Seems prejudicial to the wife, and distorts what could be a tragic, and sadly common, case of domestic violence escalated to extreme levels.
  • Rev Dr Peter Mullen must live a small, sad, life. How else can you turn watching the opening of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics into a concern-trolling editorial about how we’re descending into Paganism? Quote: “But then I looked further and thought, at least, that I glimpsed a little of what this confusion says about modern society. We are indeed eclectic. And the old word for this, when applied to widely held beliefs and practical behaviour was “paganism” – the worship of many gods: that mountain of confusion classically represented by the panoply of argumentative deities on Olympus. Only an eclectic contemporary paganism could allow the godless Big Bang to walk hand in hand with the sacred flame.” Seriously. Can someone take this guy out to a movie or something?
  • The Republican National Convention is now over, and I know everyone wants to talk about Clint Eastwood’s interview with Invisible Obama, but I wanted to point out this exploration of Tuesday night’s closing invocation by Samuel Rodriguez, a member of the radical spiritual warriors of the New Apostolic Reformation. Quote: “Blessing the convention was National Hispanic Leadership Conference President Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who has served as an apostle in C. Peter Wagner’s International Coalition of Apostles and has extensive ties to Wagner’s movement.” I’ve covered this movement quite a bit over the years, and their ascendancy/integration within the Religious Right is troubling for those hoping for a “big tent” religious conservatism, or a more moderate conservative Christianity.
  • Erynn Rowan Laurie, author of “A Circle of Stones” recently completed a pilgrimage to Ireland, and she has posted the first installment of her write-up. Quote: “Our visit to both of the wells was held in a deluge. I think every well we visited while we were in Ireland, with the exception of Brigid’s Well in Mullingar, was rained on. We certainly connected with the watery side of Brigid’s powers during our pilgrimage! Prayers were offered for Brigid’s blessing on our work, offerings were made, and intentions set in the pouring rain. I remembered all my friends and the folks who had donated to my travel funds for the pilgrimage at her well, offering prayers for them, as well.” I look forward to future installments!
Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

Northumberlandia (Banks Mining/PA)

  • We carved and shaped a giant goddess image into the earth, but please don’t think it’s Pagan, says a spokesperson. ”Northumberlandia is just a lady, she doesn’t represent anything, but I think it’s understandable that people have their own interpretations.” Chas Clifton retorts: “Check back at one of the quarter or cross-quarter days.”
  • For those inspired by Aristophanes classic play Lysistrata, you might wonder, do sex strikes really work? Slate.com says “yes,” but mostly as way to draw attention to an issue. Quote: “The Togolese group cites as its inspiration a strike organized in 2003 by a women’s peace group to encourage the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. (The effort was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.) Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace did force an end to the war, but their tactics were more complicated than a simple sex strike: They also staged sit-ins and mass demonstrations, which were arguably far more effective than the sex strike. Leymah Gbowee, the leader of the peace group, wrote in her memoir that the months-long sex strike had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention. Until today, nearly 10 years later, whenever I talk about the Mass Action, “What about the sex strike?” is the first question everyone asks.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

After the 2010 Haitian earthquake there was quite a bit of attention on the religion of Vodou, though largely that attention was not positive. Immediately after the quake there were triumphalist smears from figures like Pat Robertson, and allegations that it was Vodou that held Haitians back from progress. While there were emerging “Vodou voices” rising up in defense of the religion, most notably Max Beauvoir, but more often than not the centrality of Vodou to many Haitians was often ignored. So it is a breath of fresh air to read Silvana Ordonez’s piece on Vodou among Florida’s Haitian-American community for the Miami Herald, talking about how the faith brought solace and re-connection after tragedy struck.

“A Voodoo ceremony makes you feel as light as a feather,” explained [Mambo Ingrid] Llera. “That’s where we go for therapy. We don’t go to the doctor, we go to Voodoo.” In ritual ceremonies, which typically last from several hours to several days, Voodoo practitioners pray, sing and dance to the rhythm of drums. “A wonderful combination to get connected with the unknown world, which is the spiritual world,” she added. “That’s where we release it all and find strength.” Since the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, more Haitians in South Florida have reconnected with Voodoo, according to local practitioners. “They have no choice, but to go back to their roots. It is registered in their DNA, this is who they are, this is where they feel more comfortable, this is where they can forget things,” said Llera. Llera has also witnessed a interesting phenomenon: a wave of young Haitian-Americans joining the religion of their ancestors.”

There’s been a quiet trend of Haitian-Americans re-embracing Vodou for years now, but its been only sporadically covered by journalists. These younger converts seem more willing to speak out about their faith, and a show willingness to fight popular misconceptions.

“Gone, for most, is the shame that used to be associated with the stigmatized religion. Unlike some of their parents who practiced Vodou in secrecy, the newcomers to the religion invite friends to Vodou ceremonies, have altars in their homes and work to shatter the stereotypes.”

While still small, there seems to be a growing number of Haitian Vodou practitioners who are raising their public profiles. For instance, last year saw the production of a Canadian documentary entitled “Real Voodoo” which looks at the effects of anti-Vodou rhetoric in Haiti, and interviews Haitian-Canadian practitioners like La Belle Deesse.

“Based on the people seen in this film, those who practice voodoo seem to be more likeable, more  relaxed, happier in their lives and more open-minded toward others and their beliefs, than the people who rail against it.”

Haitian Vodou in its homeland faces immense challenges, from anti-Vodou violence, to aggressive proselytism by Christian groups receiving federal funding from our government. At the same time, Vodou tourism is held up as a potential economic goldmine for a Haiti that wants to rebuild itself. Lost in this push-pull is the lives of Vodouisants worldwide, and how their faith nourishes and sustains them. As the Haitian diaspora grows, and Haitian Vodou becomes a point of pride within those communities, we could see a new paradigm for this faith, how it is received by non-initiates, and how these practitioners interact with their motherland. It is far too easy to lose sight of how Vodou serves its adherents in the lofty geopolitical and cultural discussions about Haiti and its future, forgetting that Vodou is a source of solace and enrichment. Silvana Ordonez’s article is a welcome corrective to that trend.

This past Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of the massive earthquake that almost completely destroyed Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, killing hundreds of thousands, and throwing the country into chaos. A number of mainstream news outlets have marked the occasion with retrospectives and updates on Haiti’s progress, and  various ideas of what Haiti (and the hundreds of NGOs operating in Haiti) should do to speed recovery. By all accounts building and rebuilding in Haiti has been slow, the green-lighting of new projects frustratingly intermittent, and often controlled by outside charities instead of the newly elected government. Today, over half a million Haitians still live in tents and temporary shelters, with many more living in “houses” that are quake-damaged and unsafe. Meanwhile, the subsequent cholera outbreak, which sparked a wave of religiously-motivated anti-Vodou killings in rural areas, continues to rage on at an alarming rate.

Many in the modern Pagan and occult communities feel a deep affinity and love for Haiti as the home of Haitian Vodou, a syncretic faith tradition that has seen a growing number of Pagans become students and initiates of its teachings. After the earthquake many Pagans reached out to help, with former COG First Officer Peter Dybing there on the ground in the immediate aftermath, providing emergency services. Dybing continues to work for the reconstruction of Haiti through a charity called “100% for Haiti,” and urges fellow Pagans to support their work.

“Out of the rubble has risen a Phoenix of compassion and hard work. Artists in Saint Croix U.S. Virgin Islands banded together and held an action to benefit the community and 100% for Haiti was born. Over the last 20 months much has improved. We have constructed a school of ply wood, purchased tables, hired teachers, built facilities, provided meals to the children and even have began to insure the kids get some medical attention. All accomplished with a pluralistic humanitarian intent.”

But what of Vodou voices on this anniversary? We know that Haitian President Michel Martelly wants to build a tourism industry around Vodou, but what other roles and initiatives are Vodouisants a part of? Max Beauvoir, the appointed “supreme master” of a coalition of Haitian houngans, seems to be acting as the government’s official face of Vodou, meeting with visiting dignitaries like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and giving interviews to foreign journalists, though American press outlets seem to have avoided Beauvoir lately, perhaps because of the uncomfortable things he says about Christian missionaries in Haiti. Haitian-born anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse, writing on the occasion of this anniversary, bemoans the “geopolitically driven myths” about Vodou, and worries about the effects of this “spiritual uprooting” in the wake of the earthquake.

“In my early teens, in the aftermath of migration and bombarded with narrow and negative views of Haiti, I vividly recall deciding to go back there only when the political situation changed. I ended up pursuing a degree in anthropology for the same reason and in the process became too cognizant of the ways Vodou, as an African-based cultural heritage, was under siege. By the time I made my first return, missionaries proliferated and provided social services neglected by the compromised and combative state. Conversion to Protestantism was de rigueur. We were not immune.

My family’s connection to the spirits, which was always tenuous, had practically disappeared as various parcels of land had been sold off and were now inhabited by strangers or newcomers to Port-au-Prince.The diasporic ties that bind continued to fray. No one cared as the stigma had taken hold. This was most evident in the neglected peristyle or temple that was once revered as sacred space where community gathered. When a cousin boldly stated “bagay sa yo pa a la mode ankò” (or “such things are no longer in style”), he was echoing a broader sentiment. Many among the young see serving as old fashioned. The spiritual uprooting of the last three decades was exacerbated by the devastating earthquake nearly two years ago that also fractured so many temples. That was a sign of things to come. Ours eventually crumbled as the last of the stalwarts converted.”

While Vodou is facing challenges in post-earthquake Haiti, it continues to be a part of the Haitian psyche, and influences its artists as they try to make sense of what has happened to them.

To get a look at Haiti’s thriving art scene, that first afternoon, photographer Ron Haviv and I turn up at a downtown art community, which is hosting its Second “Ghetto Biennial.” In its confines, a good bit of the art is under-laid in a sort of vestigial nod to West Africa by an undercurrent of animal-sacrifice religion of voodoo. It is a religion practiced by few, yet known (and feared) by many. And it makes for some striking art. The Ghetto Biennial is a high-energy visit. People are moving everywhere. Out front are tall, black-painted, angular metal sculptures with actual human skulls, also painted black, attached to their tops. “Yes, those are real,” says a man watching the sculptures when I experimentally tap one of the skulls with my index finger. “The artist gets them because his atelier is over near the graveyard.”

You can read more about post-earthquake Haitian art, here.

Haitian Vodou, like Haiti itself, seems to be at a crossroads. More and more people outside of Haiti are drawn to Vodou, but the faith faces grave challenges both structural and spiritual. As Haiti’s slow reconstruction moves forward, will Vodou manage to thrive in its home, or will it be changed irrevocably by the pressures of this chaotic time? There are no easy answers, but those of us invested in Haiti, Haitian culture, and Haitian Vodou, must remain vigilant to their ongoing struggles and challenges. Haiti must not be lost down the memory hole as new tragedies or events spring up.

News did not grind to a halt while I was away at the AAR Annual Meeting, and I have a few important updates on previously reported stories here at The Wild Hunt that I’d like to share with you before I continue unpacking my AAR coverage.

James Arthur Ray Sentenced: Perhaps the biggest news to break while I was away is that New Age guru James Arthur Ray, who was convicted in June of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony he led at a retreat in Sedona, has been sentenced to two years in prison (three two-year concurrent sentences) and fined nearly $60,000 in restitution for his crimes.

Prosecutors had sought consecutive three-year sentences for James Arthur Ray on each of the three counts of negligent homicide on which a jury convicted him. The judge instead imposed three two-year terms, to be served concurrently. Ray and his attorneys asked for probation, but Judge Warren R. Darrow said the evidence shows “extreme negligence on the part of Mr. Ray.” “A prison sentence is just mandated in this case,” he said.

Victim’s families and Native American activists alike are both unhappy that Ray didn’t get a longer sentence, though Lakota elder Marvin Youngdog did hope the conviction would act as a deterrent to others appropriating and misusing Native ceremonies. Quote: “Now, he’s a convicted felon; let the word go out to others.” From all accounts an appeal seems likely. This story has been covered extensively by The Wild Hunt, as I feel this case, and the issues it raises have ramifications for the wider Pagan community. Here’s some highlights of my past coverage: “Reactions to Ray Verdict from Native Voices, Victim’s Families, and Pagan Community,” “James Arthur Ray Trial Begins,” “Checking in With James Arthur Ray,” and “The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy.” You can be sure we’ll be following future developments.

Pope Benedict XVI and Vodun Leaders: While I was heading to San Francisco to be among religion scholars, the head of the Roman Catholic Church was headed to Benin for a three-day visit to the West African country of Benin, birthplace of Vodun (aka Voodoo). Anticipating this planned visit, I wondered what the pontiff would say to Vodun leaders in a planned meeting.  As the BBC notes, Vodun is “completely normal” there, an interwoven part of the culture, and Vodun leaders like Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala (mentioned previously on this site) were hoping for words of reconciliation and bridge-building.

High-ranking Voodoo priests have been invited to meet the Pope. One of the Voodoo leaders, Dah Aligbonon, said he hoped the pontiff would urge Roman Catholics to be more tolerant of Africa’s traditional religions. “I invite the Pope to tell his followers to stop acts of provocation against the Voodoo culture,” he said, Reuters reports.

So what happened? So far I haven’t been able to find any accounts of the meeting(s), and what was said. However, there’s been some side-coverage of the Pope’s interactions with Vodun and African Traditional Religions in Benin. The National Catholic Reporter notes that Benedict “urged Catholics to resist a ‘syncretism which deceives’ and to uphold a Christian faith that ‘liberates from occultism’ and ‘vanquishes evil spirits.’” On a somewhat more positive note The Washington Post reports that the new papal document unveiled in Benin,  “Africae Munus” (”The Commitment of Africa”), “stresses the importance of dialogue with Islam and practitioners of indigenous African religions.” I’ll be writing more about this topic once first-hand accounts of the Vodun meetings emerge.

Haiti’s Vodou Tourism: Turning from Vodun in Benin to Vodou in Haiti, we pick up on a story I first noticed back in SeptemberHaitian President Michel Martelly wants to “rebrand” Haiti, and Vodou tourism is part of that vision. In Martelly’s first address to the United Nations he said: “Do you know how many people would like to come to Haiti and try to understand what Voodoo is?” This was no idle rhetorical question as Haiti’s new tourism minister, Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, is already utilizing the allure of Vodou to boost ambitious plans for a new tourism industry for the island nation.

“Because we are talking of Voodoo, and there again, it is an initiation to what makes us unique and gives us the force to propose, Haiti on the most popular tourist routes as is now the Caribbean basin. Haiti as a must-visit, because its cry at the world is and remains “Unique Haiti, magic Haiti ! (bewitching, fascinating)” Although recognized as a religion and institutionally to the equal of all others, since 1992, Voodoo is more that this normative and formal status ; it marries and inspires all fields of conscious as the unconscious of every Haitian. It is the starting point of the Foundation of our Nation. Voodoo is in Everything, it is tautological in the expressions of each, both at the level of the laborious daily, than at the level of representations of the artistic creation (dance, music, literature, cuisine, cinema, painting and sculpture) both traditional and modern.”

Former Haitian presidential candidate Jean H. Charles has lauded the appointment of Villedrouin, calling her one of three Haitian women who represented the country’s “highest good,” and noting that Haiti has “immense” potential as a tourist destination, specifically listing Vodou-related events. So it looks like Vodou tourism is full-steam ahead in Haiti. What this will mean for Vodou, both in Haiti and abroad, should be an interesting question to follow in the months and years to come.

That’s all I have for now, but stay tuned for more AAR-related coverage and other great Pagan-oriented news updates!

Just a few quick news notes for you on this Thursday.

COG Local Council Protests Go Daddy: The Dogwood Local Council of Covenant of the Goddess (COG), a regional body that serves Witches and Wiccans living in Georgia and Alabama, have sent out an announcement that they have stopped using the Internet domain service Go Daddy and are joining an ongoing protest that stems from company CEO Bob Parsons shooting and killing an elephant in Zimbabwe.

“We understand that Parsons’ acts were within the legal limits of Zimbabwe’s laws. And he may believe that he is doing good. However, the ends do not always justify the means. After careful consideration, we, as Witches and members of humanity, have decided to protest these killings,” states Hawk, First Officer of Dogwood Local Council and High Priestess of GryphonSong Clan [...] “While we do not want to see humans starving as a result of these roving elephants, we cannot condone the progressive annihilation of a species simply because they are in our way. And the African Elephant is still on the WWF endangered species list.”

Parsons has repeatedly defended his actions as humanitarian in nature, criticizing his critics as unwilling “to step up and do anything,” saying they are “all talk and no walk.” Vanity Fair notes that Parsons seemingly failed to realize that the “heroism of rich white men shooting elephants” has long ago fell out of fashion. As for Dogwood’s protest, it remains to be seen if the rest of COG, or other Pagan organizations, will follow suit.

The Wicker Tree Will Be Coming to America: Fangoria reports that “The Wicker Tree”, the forthcoming companion film to the classic 1973 Pagan-themed horror film “The Wicker Man,” has been picked up by Anchor Bay Entertainment for distribution, and that the film will be screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Fango has learned that writer/director Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER TREE—the British helmer’s semi-sequel to his 1973 classic THE WICKER MAN—has been picked up for distribution in North America and the UK, as early as this fall. The film’s international sales agent, High Point Media Group, will screen THE WICKER TREE at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival on May 14 and 16. Anchor Bay Entertainment will release THE WICKER TREE, described as a “companion piece” to the original film and based on Hardy’s 2006 novel COWBOYS FOR CHRIST (the initial title for the follow-up movie, previously attempted and scuttled a few years ago), which takes place 40 years after the events of the previous film.”

So we could be seeing this film in theaters this fall! Maybe just in time for Samhain? We’ll keep you posted. You can read all of my “Wicker Tree” coverage, here.

New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo Gets a Magazine: New Orleans Voodoo Examiner Denise Alvarado brings our attention to a new quarterly magazine entitled Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly.

“Recognizing the resurgence of folk magic and the growing community of hoodoos, rootworkers, and spiritualists, Planet Voodoo has created a new, high quality journal that meets the needs of today’s conjurers and curious. Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly (HCQ) journal is the first publication of its kind that focuses on New Orleans Voodoo and hoodoo and related African derived traditions. It shares historical and contemporary information about aspects of the conjure arts, including magico-religious practices, spiritual traditions, folk magic, southern hoodoo, and religions with their roots in the African Diaspora and indigenous herbalism. Each issue of Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly brings you original and traditional formulas, spells, tutorials, root doctor, spiritual mother, and conjure artist profiles, information about New Orleans Voodoo and more!”

The periodical was created by Alvarado and her business partner Sharon Marino. The first issue came out in March, is in full color, and is 100+ pages long. If you want order a copy, please visit Planet Voodoo.

The unofficial results are in from Haiti’s March 20th run-off presidential election and it looks like Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly has secured the necessary percentage of votes in order to become that country’s next leader. The president-elect has already sent out a conciliatory gesture of Haitian unity by inviting Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, both recently returned to Haiti from exile, to his inauguration. The former singer received support from musician (and would-be candidate) Wyclef Jean, and his Fugees bandmate Pras, during the election.

Martelly and former US president Bill Clinton

“For me, Mr. Martelly is a clear departure from the status quo … a man with a vision for the future of Haiti, who listens to young voices,” said Jean, whose own bid to run for the Haitian presidency was blocked on ineligibility grounds.

President-elect Martelly also seems very friendly to, and supportive of, the Vodou community in Haiti. Early on Pras noted that Martelly had the support of the “voodoo guys” in Haiti, and one of Martelly’s closest advisors and supporters in Haiti has been Richard Auguste Morse, a former musician and businessman who was initiated as a Vodou Houngan (priest) in 2002. In a recent interview with AllHipHop.com, Martelly made explicit Vodou’s important cultural and fiscal role in Haiti’s future.

“Even though the country is predominantly Christian, we need to accept voodoo as part of our culture, for example. It’s a very mysterious thing. People tend to want to learn more about it. And we need to utilize it within the tourism industry. There is a thing called “The Ceremony at Bois Caïmans,” which was the ceremony that started the slave revolt that lead to Haiti’s independence. We should have, like a Broadway show so people all over the world could come and see “La Ceremonie du Bois Caïmans.” We need to exploit these things, we need to exploit our history and our past because it’s a great past! It’s like we don’t know who we are. We need to restore pride, and for this, we can’t do it alone.”

However, the candidacy and election of Martelly hasn’t come without controversy, many have accused him of being a “stealth Duvalierist,” though supporters claim too much is being made of those connections.

“You have to take [the friendship with Michel Francois] out of the political context,” says Gesner Champagne, a childhood buddy who married Martelly’s wife’s sister. “You might like the conversation you have with that person. You might like the good time you have with that person. It doesn’t have to be political. You just like the guy.”

What is clear is that Martelly has had political ambitions for some time, and now they are realized. Whether he becomes a positive change-agent from outside the fractured political system, or has “the makings of an autocrat,” remains to be seen.

This issue has been tackled by others already, but I just thought I’d put my two cents in since this story is still popping up on my news feeds. It goes something like this: Two people have what seems to be a consensual sexual encounter in Brooklyn. Their intimate moments consummated on a bed ringed with lit candles. Sadly, one of those candles tipped over onto some fabric, starting a fire, a fire that couldn’t be put out. I’ll let Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano explain the rest.

“Time and time again we respond to tragedies that could have been so easily prevented,” Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said. “This fire had so many of those elements — candles left on the floor near combustible material, one of the occupants trying to douse the flames before calling 911 and an open door, which allowed fire to spread into the hallway. Hopefully others will learn from this tragedy.”

This is a text-book fire safety failing, one that sadly claimed a life. That couple could have been any ordinary careless couple, and had it been, this tragic story would never have made it past the local Brooklyn news. Yet, because of a certain detail, it has ignited the newswires.

“Fire marshals said the fire started around 6:40 p.m., when a woman visited a man in the building and paid him $300 to perform a voodoo ceremony to bring her good luck. The man was known in the neighborhood as a voodoo priest, the AP reported.”

That’s right, it was a Vodou ritual. So instead of candles, they are now “voodoo sex candles”, now a “voodoo sex ceremony caused [the] deadly Brooklyn fire”, instead of an overturned candle and bad reaction to the initial fire it started. Now, the press searches for ironic rejoinders to the dryer newswire accounts.

Nelson “Pepe” Pierre, 66, claimed “he could turn people into ghosts, move buildings, turn people into buildings,” said Patrick Louis, who also lived in the East Flatbush building. “But that day, I guess, he couldn’t turn that fire out.”

Yes, his magical powers couldn’t put the fire out! Because Voodoo/Vodou is silly and superstitious! Plus, sex ritual! OMG! Can you imagine this story being written in this sensationalist manner if the couple were evangelical Christians?

“Betty and Robert, despite being properly married and bible-believing Christians, were unable to call down the Lord’s aid in ending the blaze. Neighbors have wondered if it was the judgment of the Lord.”

A sentence like that, even from a tabloid, would have provoked a storm of controversy. Even the normally sedate New York Times uses the phrase “Voodoo candles” in their headline. CNN trumpets that “Voodoo sex ceremony starts fatal fire.” No, neither the ceremony, nor the sex, nor the religion of Vodou started the blaze. What started the blaze was a knocked over candle into flammable fabric. If an overturned candle had accidentally burned down a church, would the headlines call them “Christian candles”? If it had happened during a baptism in that hypothetical church, would the press say that “Christian baptism starts fatal fire?” No. Because one faith is seen as normal, and another is not. So the tragic death of a woman, and the loss of homes for dozens more, is reduced to a sensationalist punchline because Vodou happened to be involved.

As the first anniversary of the quake that almost completely destroyed Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people, passed us by this week many mainstream news outlets did retrospectives of coverage and check-ins on the country’s progress. The Guardian spoke with local Vodouisants on the anniversary about their belief that the souls of those killed will soon be returning.

Right across the street from the palace, by her tent, Ronite Sant-Louis, a devoted voodooist says her faith has been put to the test since last 12 January when she lost a six-year-old son under the rubble of her now vanished home. “Several times this year I felt like God has abandoned us, I even tried to cancel him from my life in January. But now I want to keep believing my son will be back soon.” For the voodoo, souls of the dead reincarnate in a new body, getting a new life without recollection of the past after it has been washed and scrubbed at sea by angels for 365 days. Of the people who died tragically during the earthquake, 100,000 are believed to have been voodoo followers. According to voodooists, today those souls would be ready to step back on Haitian soil, “like snakes that shed their skins”.

Recently, Vodou has been making international headlines as mobs have started blaming practitioners for a devastating outbreak of cholera, killing over 40 Vodouisants that we know of. Some have tried to debunk the idea that these killings are religiously motivated, pointing out the social stress and mass death cholera is inflicting on some remote communities, but that seems to contradict other eyewitness accounts.

I ask Saint-Louis what the biggest challenge is with the cholera epidemic. He tells me it’s the lack of education and information. “When I go to pick up a body, sometimes the family tries to fight,” he says. “They deny their relatives have cholera. They blame the vodou man for infecting the water. The government needs to educate people. But don’t attack me; I’m trying to prevent cholera, not spread cholera.” As if on cue, five angry men show up next to the van. They are friends and relatives of the man who died. They’re angry the clinic wasn’t open last night. They deny St. Felix died of cholera, and they accuse the government of kidnapping the body.

In his more candid moments, during this flurry of journalistic activity over cholera and the quake anniversary, prominent Haitian Vodou leader Max Beauvoir has more or less intimated that he believes Christian missionaries are stirring up anti-Vodou animus.

Beauvoir said he suspected that representatives of some other religions might be stirring up popular fears against voodoo practitioners using the cholera as a pretext. “I saw this coming. Since the earthquake some people have been blaming us, saying that we cast spells and did evil things which brought the earthquake as a punishment,” he said.

But hard evidence for this accusation has been hard to come by. There was one instance of violence in the initial aftermath, and accusations of one pastor running a conversions-for-food program, but little comprehensive study of the issue. This is somewhat understandable considering the amount of chaos, death, and violence that has wracked Haiti for the past year, so we often have to rely on what Christian groups are telling their own followers. Those reports have often been troubling. Placing the winning of souls as the primary strategy toward progress in Haiti, and often describing their missions in terms of spiritual war.

[Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll] taught that although Haiti has been set free from slavery as a nation, they also need to pursue spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ. “Tragically, many professing Christian churches have historically included voodoo practices. I explained how a slave only has a master who uses them, but a son has a father who loves them. God is our Father and he sent his only Son to make them sons,” [...] Driscoll shared that he chose the topic because of the long-standing history of slavery in Haiti, from the physical slavery that existed prior to the country’s liberation to the spiritual slavery to the demonic voodoo that is widespread today.

A stark example is this testimony from Baptist missionaries, where a Vodouisant burns his tools, and his only source of income, while hinting that it saved him from the cholera-fueled murders.

“That was my way of saying, ‘Down with Satan and up with the cross,’” said the former witch doctor, who now goes by the name Montfort. His conversion occurred months before a rash of voodoo priest killings started in Haiti, spurred by a fear their black magic was spreading cholera. Montfort had given his life to Jesus, and he wanted to let others know publicly that he was repenting of his old ways. God had given him a new life, and he was anxious to start living it.

I think “anxious” is a funny word to use in this context. Why did they decide to mention the anti-Vodou cholera killings in this conversion story? If it happened “months before,” what is the relevance except to point out that it is dangerous to be associated with Vodou now? I fear there is a larger story that isn’t being told in Haiti. What are Christian groups, both indigenous and from missionary operations, preaching to the crowds? How much is religion fueling cholera fears? While the United States debates the effects of inflammatory rhetoric in spurring violence, should we also have that debate regarding Haiti? If extreme accusations are going to take root into violence, wouldn’t it be in a country that is experiencing massive turmoil and instability? At the very least, our press should examine if Christian organizations are cynically taking advantage of this turmoil to increase the size of their flocks.

Since I first reported on Vodou practitioners being killed and persecuted in Haiti over frustration and fears concerning the ongoing cholera outbreak the situation seems to have only gotten worse. At the beginning of December around 12 Vodouisants had been killed by angry mobs, now that number has ballooned to over 40.

Officials counted 40 people killed – mostly voodoo priests – killed in one region of Haiti, the AFP news agency reported, with five others killed elsewhere. “The victims… were stoned or hacked with machetes before being burned in the streets,” communications ministry official Moise Fritz Evens said. Haiti’s communications minister said she abhorred the killings and insisted that the answer was to improve general education about how cholera is transmitted. “Voodoo practitioners have nothing to do with the cholera epidemic. We must press for an awareness campaign about the disease in the communities.”

Prominent Haitian Vodou leader Max Beauvoir says that the government isn’t doing enough to protect Vodou practitioners, and that the leaders of other faiths in Haiti have had a hand in stirring up this current deadly anti-Vodou hysteria.

“My call is to the authorities so they can assume their responsibilities,” said Beauvoir, who fears more attacks against voodoo devotees. Most of the lynchings occurred in the southwest of Haiti but also in the center and the north. [...] Beauvoir said he suspected that representatives of some other religions might be stirring up popular fears against voodoo practitioners using the cholera as a pretext. “I saw this coming. Since the earthquake some people have been blaming us, saying that we cast spells and did evil things which brought the earthquake as a punishment,” he said.

The impact of education campaigns by the government and NGOs seem to be of limited effectiveness in stemming this disturbing trend of anti-Vodou violence. This is only exacerbated by the ongoing instability of the government in the still-contested elections. The real question now is how much worse will it get? Will these attacks and murders against Vodou practitioners and priests continue to escalate? What role has anti- Vodou propaganda had in this violence? I can only pray that an end to this madness and chaos comes soon.

Just a few quick news notes for you this Saturday.

Subcultural Red Light Districts: The aptly-named city of Banning, California is looking to adopt changes to its zoning codes, targeting certain kinds of businesses.

“Under the proposed development standards, tattoo and body-piercing parlors, hookah and smoking lounges and businesses that specialize in fortunetelling or occult arts would be kept away from schools and parks, residential neighborhoods and businesses that sell alcohol and adult merchandise. Their hours of operation would be limited. Someone who wants to open this type of business in Banning would have to obtain a conditional use permit from the city. Such permits cost $4,779 and have to be approved by the Planning Commission.”

They are, in essence, working to make sure no-one opens a tattoo parlor, occult shop, or smoking parlor in any place where people might congregate. They can’t even open near an “adult” book shop! This is how you ban certain kinds of businesses without actually banning them, make the barriers so high few can surmount them. It remains to be seen if singling out such businesses like this is legal, or will hold up to litigation. The city council is scheduled to take up the matter on Jan. 25, 2011.

Teaching Vodou: The Lexington Herald-Leader interviews history professor Jeremy Popkin about his class “Haiti in the Modern World”, which includes a section on the religion of Vodou. According to Popkin, the class was a way for the campus to discuss and explore Haiti after it came to international attention during the January earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince. The paper also interviews Vodou scholar Leslie Brice about the oft-misunderstood faith.

There is a movement to create a centralized way to share information about voodoo. There is now a federation of voodoo practitioners in Haiti. But efforts to alter what for hundreds of years has been a religion passed down as an oral tradition have encountered resistance, said independent voodoo scholar Leslie Brice, who spoke at UK earlier this fall. Some of the resistance is because people fear the religion will be mocked by those who don’t really understand it, Brice said. Voodoo is often portrayed in popular culture, especially movies, as a singularly dark force, said Brice, who is studying to be a voodoo priestess. But, she said, it really is a religion centered on healing. When slaves were first brought to Haiti they came with “nothing except for what was in their minds and hearts,” she said. The religious traditions they brought with them were crucial to their survival, she said.

In a culture that often depicts Vodou as a detriment to Haiti’s future, and often only reports on it when something horrific happens, classes like these are vitally needed to educate people as to Vodou’s true nature and legacy. Classes like these, along with an emerging “Vodou voice”, may be essential to preserving this faith at a time when Haiti is in serious crisis.

Saving the Wicker Man Library: The Whithorn Library, the front of which was featured in 1973 cult classic film The Wicker Man, is in danger of being closed down due to government austerity measures. Jan Cole, and other campaigners, are trying to rally support to stop the historic library from being shut down.

The "Wicker Man" Library

“The library is part of the famous Wickerman Trail which popular with tourist fans as well as, surprisingly, stag parties who have been known to turn up in fancy dress. Occasionally fans will be seen to re-enact the film, or take a rubbing of the plaque outside.”

A sit-in protest was held last week, and there already seems to be some response from local government. Hopefully this site will be spared, not only because it was in a cult film that many of us love, but because libraries are wonderful things that should be honored and protected! You can keep track of the campaign at their official Facebook group.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!