“What draws me to Vodou is that there’s no division between the body and spirit…there is no boundary between them,” says Reza Aslan of this week’s trip to Haiti on CNN’s Believer with Reza Aslan.
In a gruesome moment a little bit later in the episode, sensitive viewers need to be forewarned that there is a graphic goat slaughter scene which Aslan takes part in.
A battle is raging for the souls of the Haitian people, according to Aslan.
Some in Haiti lay blame on a historic blood pact with the devil as the root of all the misery on this tiny nation besieged by poverty, disease and infant mortality rates higher than anywhere in the Western hemisphere.
Because of this blame game, there is a war between evangelical Christianity and the historical island religion of Vodou.
The colorful Iron Market in Port-au-Prince is where we land first. Aslan tells us, “There is an old saying that Haiti is 70 per cent Catholic, 30 per cent protestant and 100 per cent Vodou.”
He educates us on the local “lwa”, Vodou spirits that act as intermediaries between believers and God that can be worshiped through altars, music and dance. An lwa is then invited to take possession of a person through the work of a priest or priestess via a “mounting” process for the faithful.
The Vodou faith is a complicated and regionally specific religion centuries old and originally hailing from Africa.
When it hit the New World, Catholicism and other faiths were partially absorbed by Vodou practitioners for various reasons, some of which were for safety — to be shielded from those who considered it a pagan religion.
For caution’s sake, African and Haitian Vodou practitioners had to disguise their lwa (spirits) in recognizable (albeit darker skinned) Roman Catholic saints.
But catastrophic calamity and acts of God often spur religious upswells. After the 2010 earthquake, Haitians began to rethink their spiritual paths. Christianity, Aslan sees first-hand, is now winning the hearts and minds of the Haitian people.
Lwa are now labeled as demons, and spiritual possession replaces the “mounting” that the Haitian Vodouisants believe in.
The growing population of evangelicals view it differently and believe that their whole nation is under a demonic possession.
The Haitian history is recounted by Prof. Elizabeth McAlister who tells Aslan the story of the slaves who revolted against the French.
The white French, McAlister claims, were “freaked” with the non-Christian Africans’ multi-pronged blood-thirsty attack. Vodou was used as a successful force for liberation.
Evangelicals surmise that the founding moment and fate of their nation was sealed when Vodou leaders made a pact with Satan, ergo the island’s horrible lack of prosperity in every conceivable category.
White preacher James Glynn from Illinois has set up shop in Haiti. Aslan pays him a visit as he teaches that Vodou is evil and that Satan wants to “kill, steal from and destroy” all humans.
“Haiti is a little unique in that the nation was given to Satan,” says Glynn in a pretty damning statement. “It’s kind of the opposite of what happened with the American slaves who got the religion from their slave owners…they [American slaves] got it right.”
Haitians never liberated themselves from slavery, replacing the evils of the white man with the devil, according to Glynn.
Charismatic Pastor Pierre-André Muscadin is also interviewed, and he blames the roots of Vodou and their Haitian ancestors for their deal with the devil so to speak, the blood sacrifice (a slaughtered pig) to Satan for their freedom.
Leaving the ancestral lwa behind, Muscadin’s new Christians still believe these lwa are trying to “mount” them as his congregation makes a spectacle on stage.
They go totally bonkers for hours at a time. They flail, scream, writhe and act out demonic possessions. It’s a crazy scene of mass hysteria as he explains to Aslan how he fights the old religion and tries to exorcise it out of the followers.
But this growing evangelical movement is not a localized effort.
Aslan finds out how money is rolling in from outside the country from larger evangelical Christian sources.
Vodouists claim the schools and hospitals were all built by foreign Caucasian entities. But this preacher Muscadin welcomes the new money rolling in and has no truck with the Caucasian people coming to the island to create opportunities or fund his very church.
A completely different perspective is offered up by an Ugan (Vodou priest) Jean-Daniel Lafontant, who gives Aslan a tour of his Lakou (temple).
The structure itself is filled with a center pole, totems and “veve” where the spiritual world and physical worlds meet. It holds rooms with lwa’s like Erzulie Freda (love) and Erzulie Dantor (motherhood), which are worshiped.
Jean shows Aslan the way he deals with managing the malignant spirits, a room cleaned with special fluids and filled with remnants of their past, images of slavery and misery.
The lwa are summoned for a mounting ceremony as Aslan bears witness to this. “I think it’s a gift,” says Jean-Daniel and frankly, the act looks the same as the evangelical Christian church except the Vodou priest invites the spirits in, not exorcises them out as demonic.
The episode culminates with Aslan immersing himself in a sacred Vodou ritual.
At the rushing waters of Saut d’Eau, Aslan is joined by others as they scrub their bodies with aromatic leaves and soap. Aslan then joins others who head to this sacred water spot for a popular purification.
Water is a sacred element to make one worthy for a mounting of the spirits according to Vodou. Aslan strips naked and goes inside the waterfall. The concussive force was a cathartic moment for him and he is vibrating and appears to have had some sort of experience, walking off camera speechless.
The next scene sees Aslan now headed to a family’s home for a final Vodou ritual.
He says: “Now that I have been cleansed by the sacred waters of Saut d’Eau, I’ve been invited to take part in a ritual.” Vodou priestess Mambo Beatrice Daleus will serve as his guide.
Ahead of the event, veve are drawn and the lwa are then summoned. Who will be mounted is a mystery. Alcohol is the lure. The warlike lwa Ogou is called. Drums, dancing, drinking and chanting ensue.
Finally, one man has this aggressive lwa “mount” him as he brandishes a machete. Beatrice warns Aslan to “be strong” as a sacrificial goat is put on his shoulders.
Warning: This won’t end well for the goat.
Sensitive viewers may want to check out at this point. The offering of the goat’s life is up close and gruesome. “That was an intense experience…my tongue tastes like blood,” says Aslan who was made to taste the blood. And of the experience, he said: “It felt like lightning, a thunderstorm.”
At the end of the day, Haitian Catholics have an uneasy truce with Vodou but protestants view them as the devil incarnate, a travesty brought from Africa that has held down and continues to hold down Haiti.
What are Vodou’s answers to Haiti’s seemingly insurmountable problems? The easy and obvious answer is there are no schools financed by Vodou, which means the limitations are quite strong to marginalize this ancient faith.
In the end, Aslan found Vodou to possess beauty, compassion (except for sacrificial animals) and love of nature, and he also expressed his hopes that the Haitians accept their differences and not let outside influences dictate their internal spiritual life.
Believer With Reza Aslan airs Sundays At 10p ET/PT on CNN.