Some Reflections on Vodoun

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Listening to an interview with a practitioner of Vodoun several years ago, it seemed impossible to doubt that he’d experienced what he descrribed. That there were many gods, but not like the transcendent God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. More like humans, though greatly more powerful. one purely good, possibly some evil, but mostly, like humans, mixed.

In Vodoun, it seems to practice is to allow one’s self to be possessed by the god, and “ridden”. It also seems that the gods ride their human “steeds” pretty hard. At least in the sense of doing a lot of athletic, exhausting dancing, but I’m not sure there isn’t more to it than that.

One of my friends, living in the
Caribbean for years, has become involved with Vodoun there, but, he says, has never allowed himself to be possessed.

Some of his friends in that circle, he wrote, told him he ought to allow it, but he told them no. “How it go look,” he asked, for a white North American to be possessed. That cracked them up.

Ancient societies were usually polytheistic, but the most sophistcated among them tended to see one god above all others, or all the gods as aspects of one. Now positions seem to have hardened for a lot of people: you believe in one God or none. Compromises are politically incorrect. So what is to be made of Vodoun, explicitly polytheistic, whose practitioners seem to experience SOME-THING that outsiders don’t share.

The man I heard being interviewed some years ago became connected with Vodoun in his native Haiti, then came to North America to pursue the subject academically. When in the USA, he said, he likes to visit Pentecostal churches, where the spirit comes down. But he’d like them to employ more differentia-tion. He said he’d experienced over 400 different spirits.

How is one to understand such experiences, which it seems few North Americans share? Possibly one way is the Sufi belief in three worlds humans are able to live in: One, the material world we all seem to live in (nonetheless perceived at least a little differently by all); Two, the spirit world, where the gods of Vodoun and other pagan gods might be presumed to live or have lived; and Three, the spiritual world, which would be the home of the tran-scendent God.

Our world, while expanding in our geographical and intellectual experience, has been contracting spiritually. Many humans have become atheists (including my friend in the Caribbean), possibly in reaction to the dogmas of many religions supposed to be spiritual, but frequently operating with the predatory cynicism of gangsters or the heads of nations. They seem to find no meaning in the idea of God, maybe even of God as hostile authority. Others step outside of the Western religious tradition to find meaning in other traditions.

And there are the traditionalists, some of whom still seem to find meaning in the old forms of church, synagogue or mosque. Some of them are quite aggressive about their beliefs, threatening punishment to anyone who doesn’t share them, but not all traditionalists are like that. Some seem to have found a place of belief, faith or experience that’s comfortable for them, and feel no need to impose on others, as long as not imposed on.

This world is always uneasy, though, perhaps because these other two worlds are less allowed to interpenetrate it. We, particularly in the West, have built a civilization that allows us to ignore the natural world, for instance, most of the time. The natural world is there to supply us with what we want, and we usually pay little heed to anything else about it.\

We use TV, movies, radio, music, computers, cars, sports, houses and money to distract ourselves from it, to say nothing of loves and hatreds, or durgs. Scientists try to measure natural phenomena, but few others pay more than passing attention. Nature is stereotypically beautiful until it’s not, so we notice storms, droughts, earthquakes, fires and tidal waves for awhile, then turn our attention back to ourselves and our neighbors. That doesn’t give us a very wide or deep perspective.

Our ancient ancestors were intimately aware of an involved with nature. They depended on nature for success in the hunt and for fertility in both agriculture and humans. The watched the skies closely and distinguished subtle astronomical phenomena that our casual glances at the sky could not disclose.

They asked the spirits of animals to allow them to use the animals for food, so they wouldn’t starve, and the animal spirits allowed them to kill. Somewhere this respect for other forms of life got lost.

Later peoples sacrificed animals, after they’d stopped sacrificing humans. Was one better than the other? Is that what the gods wanted? The ancient Greeks cut down most of the trees in Greece for buildings, ships and firewood. The Venetians cut down all the trees on an island off the west coast of Greece, so that all the soil washed into the sea, then let the wood rot in their shipyards without even using it.

Today we pollute air and water without regard for anyone, let alone the natural world, which we prefer to forget we depend on. This attitude is suicidal, though it’s possible we’ll manage to exterminate ourselves in a different way from poisoning for profit. Thus do we succeed in squeezing divinity out of the world.

Of course the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world will dismiss the Haitian gods as demons, which is both easy and politically correct within their evangelistic world. But, as usual, that’s overly simplistic. Have the gods of Vodoun brought the Haitians good things? Not in the political realm (at least lately), and Haiti is already an ecotastrophe.

Maybe Vodoun did inspire Haitians to become the first slave society to carry out a successful revolution, but the inspiration unfortunately stopped there. Haiti had the misfortune of being only half an island in the backyard of the USA, France, Spain and Great Britain. Their fortune didn’t extend far enough to keep them independent, and those who aren’t independent get taken advantage of. And one never knows, the same may happen to us.

The United States of America has always had advantages that Haiti didn’t, even though it was, in its time, the most profitable colony in the world. For one thing, we always had a lot more space, with a lot of arable land and natural resources. We’ve been busy ruining what we have, but since we’ve always had a lot more, it’s taking longer for the bill to come due. We can absorb more catstrophes than Haiti can, and Hati’s been having one after another, whether natural or political.

But I wonder just how well we’ll take it when the bell tolls for us. Haitians have learned to endure disaster. Will we, with a largely sclerotic religious life, be able to do the same?

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