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Voodoo Brings Solace To Grieving Haitians

People take part in a Voodoo ritual during Day of the Dead celebrations at the national cemetery in Port-au-Prince in November 2009. (AP)

Erol Josue lost more than two dozen friends and extended family in Haiti's devastating earthquake. The Voodoo priest, who lives in New York, says he has spent the past week saying traditional Voodoo prayers.

"We thank God that we are still alive," he says, "but we also pray to give a good route, to give a good path for the people who passed away. And also we pray to ask the question, 'What happened?' "

Spirit Worship And Revelations

The Myth Of Voodoo Dolls

A common misconception surrounding Voodoo is the premise of "Voodoo dolls," which are common in Hollywood films and pop culture. The 1932 movie White Zombie, set in Haiti, advanced the idea that Voodoo priests stick pins into dolls to place curses on people.

However, Voodoo dolls have no roots in Haitian Voodoo, though some followers of New Orleans Voodoo use dolls in this way.

The custom's origin is unknown, but there are similarities between the dolls and European-based folk magic as well as western and central African practices.

Source: Speaking Of Faith, American Public Media

-- Katherine Bascuas

Voodoo is playing a central role in helping Haitians cope with their unthinkable tragedy. Outside of Haitian culture, few know what Voodoo is. Elizabeth McAlister, a Voodoo expert at Wesleyan University, says at its core, the philosophy is really pretty simple.

"Voodoo in a nutshell is about the idea that everything material has a spiritual dimension that is more real" than physical reality, she says. "So everything living — but even rocks and the Earth — is considered to have spirit and have a spiritual nature."

McAlister says there is no unified Voodoo religion. There's no "Voodoo Pope" or central authority, no Voodoo scripture or even a core doctrine.

"It's a religion that really operates through revelation," she says. "So people can receive dreams or visions, and even be possessed by spirits, and that spirit can tell them something, and that's the revelation."

Widespread Below The Surface

And yet, Haitian Voodoo blends many of its rituals and beliefs — which came with the slaves from Africa — with Western Catholicism. For example, Voodoo believers worship Le Grand Maitre, or Grand Master, who is the equivalent of the Christian God.

They pray to loa, or spirits, who then intercede with God on their behalf — just as Catholics pray to saints. Voodoo believers also revere their ancestors, who guide them through their daily difficulties.

On the books, 80 percent of Haitians say they are Catholic. But Josue says Voodoo is widespread — just under the surface.

"Haiti is not a Catholic country," he says. "Haiti is a Voodoo country."

Apparently that's what Pat Robertson thinks as well. Less than a day after the earthquake, the televangelist declared that Haiti has been cursed since 1791 when, he said, Voodoo practitioners "made a pact [with] the devil" to rid themselves of French occupiers.

"They said, 'We will serve you, if you'll get us free from the French,' " Robertson said last week on his Christian Broadcasting Network. "True story. And so the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' "

Josue and others say that claim is outrageous. They never made a pact with the devil, and Voodoo does not engage in devil worship. And yet, he says many Haitians are asking why the spirits, who are supposed to protect their country, let so many die. He believes the spirits are angry with how Haitians have denuded the forests and mistreated the Earth.

"Haitians believe Haiti, she's a woman," Josue says. "We believe she's a mother, and [when] that woman got that pain, she [said], 'Enough.' "

Offering Comfort In Death

But even as Haitians mourn the death of tens of thousands of people, Voodoo gives them an eternal perspective, says Max Beauvoir, the supreme servitor of Voodoo, or the highest priest, in Haiti.

"The Haitian people do not get afraid of death," he says. "We are sure that we come back again."

After a person dies, he says, he or she goes underwater for a year and a day, then passes on to the next life.

"We believe that everyone lives 16 times — eight times we live as men, and eight times as women. And the purpose of life is to gather all kinds of experiences," says Beauvoir.

During those 16 lives, a person moves from body to body, country to country, attaining wisdom until he or she merges with God.

To help souls pass easily from death to new life, Voodoo priests like Josue preside over requiem ceremonies with water, candles, coffee and songs. But when death comes unexpectedly, Josue says, it's confusing to the souls. And now the earthquake has yielded another spiritual tragedy: mass graves.

"We have to make sure we bury our ancestors," he says. "We have to show respect to them. And to put them into a mass grave is no respect for our culture, no respect for our ancestors."

So today, Josue prays and sings, to help those souls find their way.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Voodoo is playing a central role in helping people in Haiti cope with tragedy after last week's earthquake. Haitian Voodoo is a blend of spirit worship and Catholicism.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has more.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Erol Josue lost more than two dozen friends and extended family in the earthquake. He's a Voodoo priest who lives in New York, and he says he spent the past week saying traditional Voodoo prayers.

Mr. EROL JOSUE (Voodoo Priest): We thank God we're still alive, but also pray to give a route, to give a good path for the people who passed away. And also we pray to ask and question to understand what happened.

HAGERTY: Voodoo is called a mystery religion. But Elizabeth McAlister, a Voodoo expert at Wesleyan University, says at its core, the philosophy is really pretty simple.

Professor ELIZABETH MCALISTER (Religion, Wesleyan University): Voodoo in a nutshell is about the idea that everything material has a spiritual dimension that is more really real. Everything living - but even rocks and the Earth -are considered to have spirit and to have a spiritual nature.

HAGERTY: McAlister says there is no unified Voodoo religion. There's no Voodoo pope or central authority, no Voodoo scripture or even a core doctrine.

Prof. McALISTER: It's a religion that really operates through revelation. So people can receive dreams or visions or even be possessed by spirits, and that spirit can tell them something, and that's the revelation.

HAGERTY: And yet Haitian Voodoo takes many of its rituals and beliefs, which came with slaves from Africa, from Western Catholicism. For example, Voodoo believers worship the Grand Master, who is the equivalent of the Christian God. They pray to loa, or spirits, who then intercede with God on their behalf, just as Catholics pray to saints. Voodoo believers also revere their ancestors, who guide them through their daily difficulties.

On the books, 80 percent of Haitians say they are Catholic. But Erol Josue says Voodoo is widespread, just under the surface.

Mr. JOSUE: Haiti is not a Catholic country. Haiti is a Voodoo country.

HAGERTY: Apparently, that's what Pat Robertson thinks as well. The televangelist declared that Haiti has been cursed since 1791 when, he said, Voodoo practitioners made a pact with the devil to rid themselves of French occupiers.

Mr. PAT ROBERTSON (Televangelist): They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. And so, the devil said, OK, it's a deal.

HAGERTY: Josue says that is outrageous. Voodoo does not engage in devil worship. And yet, he says many Haitians are asking why the spirits, who are supposed to protect their country, let so many die. He believes the gods are angry with how Haitians have denuded the forests and mistreated the Earth.

Mr. JOSUE: We Haitian, we believe Haiti, she's a woman. We believe she's a mother. And that mother, that woman who got that pain, she say, enough.

HAGERTY: But even as Haitians mourn the death of tens of thousands of people, Max Beauvoir says Voodoo gives them an eternal perspective. I called Beauvoir, who is the supreme servitor of Voodoo in Haiti, at his home outside of Port-au-Prince.

Mr. MAX BEAUVOIR (Supreme Servitor of Voodoo, Haiti): The Haitian people do not get afraid of death. We are sure that we will come back again.

HAGERTY: After a person dies, he says, he or she goes under the water for a year and a day, then goes on to the next life.

Mr. BEAUVOIR: We believe that everyone lives 16 times: Eight times we live as men, and eight times we live as women.

HAGERTY: During those 16 lives, a person moves from body to body, country to country, gathering wisdom until he or she merges with God.

To help souls pass easily from death to new life, Voodoo priests like Erol Josue preside over requiem ceremonies with water and candles, coffee, and songs like this one.

Mr. JOSUE: (Singing foreign language)

HAGERTY: When death comes unexpectedly, Josue says, it's confusing to the souls. Now, he says, this earthquake has yielded another spiritual tragedy: mass graves.

Mr. JOSUE: We have to make sure we bury our ancestors. We've got to pay respect for them. And put them in the mass grave is no respect for our culture, no respect for our ancestors.

HAGERTY: And so today, he prays and sings to help those souls find their way.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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