New head of voodoo brings on the charm

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti: The goat tethered to a tree outside of Max Beauvoir’s home is doomed.

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.

His grand residence on the outskirts of the Haitian capital serves as a voodoo temple for practitioners and a late-night hangout for those paying customers eager to take in an exotic evening of spiritual awakening.

Called the Peristyle de Mariani, it is where Beauvoir and his followers dance around a giant totem to the beat of drums. It is where they light bonfires to summon the spirits. And it is where they drain the blood of animals like that scrawny white goat to, among other things, heal the sick.

On a recent night, Haiti’s voodooists convened for a special ceremony. With music blaring and devotees dancing with all their might, two children threw white rose petals on a red carpet. Then along came Beauvoir.

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. (Think “voodoo economics.”) Even before he got the job, Beauvoir was a voodoo promoter extraordinaire. With his own Web site,, and a following among foreigners intrigued by voodoo, Beauvoir is criticized by some purists as too much of a showman.

“My position as supreme chief in voodoo was born out of a controversy,” Beauvoir said, explaining how Haiti’s elite have marginalized the houngans that 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.”

Beauvoir, a doctor’s son who was not particularly interested in spiritual matters in his youth, left Haiti in the mid-1950s for the City College of New York, where he studied chemistry. Then he went off to the Sorbonne for graduate study in biochemistry. After various jobs in the New York area, he returned to Haiti in the early 1970s to conduct experiments on traditional herbal remedies.

It was then that voodoo called.

His nonagenarian grandfather was dying and the entire extended family had gathered around his bed. Before he went, though, the old man pointed at Beauvoir and ordered him to take over his duties as a voodoo priest.

Beauvoir said he was taken aback. He did not know the man well and could not understand why he had been selected from the 20 or so other family members in the room. And he knew almost nothing about voodoo.

But that was decades ago. Beauvoir has devoted the rest of his life to studying the religion, a mix of Christianity (introduced by slaves to mask their paganism from their masters) and animism that traces its origins to West Africa, which is also where Haitians, descendants of slaves, originated. The more he learns about voodoo, Beauvoir said, the more convinced he is that it can, and should, play a role in resolving Haiti’s problems, especially given the religion’s reach among the most disenfranchised people.

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.

Haiti has long been a battleground for Christian missionaries who view voodoo as devil worship and work tirelessly to convert the population to Christ. Voodoo also has one god, modeled on God of the Christian Bible, but it incorporates pagan elements that make Christians uneasy: casting spells and catering to spirits that are seen as the major forces of the universe.

To turn things around, Haiti’s voodooists decided they needed to organize themselves and confront voodoo-bashing head on.

“We decided to come together and form a new voodoo structure,” Beauvoir said. “We Haitians want to move forward in life. We need to find our identity again, and voodoo is our identity. It’s part of our collective personality. We feel the government we have is relying too much on foreigners to fill their pockets.”

Voodoo and politics have long been intertwined in Haiti, with some past leaders reaching out to voodooists as a way of burnishing their populist credentials. Beauvoir has himself been linked with Franc,ois Duvalier, or Baby Doc, the dictator who fled the country in 1986 after a popular uprising against him. And Beauvoir opposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s rule, becoming a hated figure among loyalists of the former Catholic priest.

In “The Rainy Season,” her book on Haiti, Amy Wilentz portrays Beauvoir as an opportunist who preys upon his people and has “the oily manner of a man whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone with your money or your child.”

Beauvoir waves off such criticism. He acknowledges that he received death threats from political opponents in the mid-1990s and was worried enough about his safety – and that of his wife and two daughters – that he fled Haiti for the United States. He settled in Washington, D.C., where he continued with voodoo ceremonies from his apartment not far from the White House. Recently, though, he returned home and wasted no time in grabbing the voodoo spotlight.

Speaking of the current crop of political leaders, Beauvoir is as harsh as some are about him.

“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.”

The movie industry is another focus of Beauvoir’s wrath. And he speaks as something of an insider, having helped the anthropologist Wade Davis with his investigation of voodoo, which first became a book, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” and later a Hollywood movie.

On the big screen, zombies are scary monsters, Beauvoir complained, and not the carefully controlled subjects of voodoo science that he believes them to be.

“The voice of Hollywood has grown beyond the border of the United States,” he said. “It’s everywhere. The voice of Max Beauvoir is very small compared to that.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 5, 2008.
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