Comparison: Biblical Demon Possession and Haitian Loa Possession


Essay by Howard Culbertson, former missionary to Haiti


James Theodore Holly, a Black American who was the first Episcopal bishop of Haiti, once called that Caribbean island nation: "the Mary Magdalene of the nations, possessed by seven devils."1 Among the devils that Holly enumerated was voodoo, a syncretistic religion practiced by about seventy percent of the Haitians. Holly's negative evaluation of voodoo's contribution to Haiti echoes that of several other writers. Unfortunately, a good deal of what has been written on Haiti voodoo has been written "with more imagination than insight"2 according to Harmon Johnson, WorldTeam missionary to Haiti.

In the Western world, voodoo has amassed quite an exotic reputation. An integral part of this African/New World hybrid religion is the worshiper's possession by the voodoo gods, the loa. This particular religious experience -- which is the focus of this essay -- has been interpreted in all kinds of ways. On the one side is William Sargant, a physician in psychological medicine. He contended that voodoo and its attendant phenomenon of loa possession is something that enables Haitians "to live lives of comparative happiness because they have found a religion which does bring their gods to them. And their gods live in them, and they live in their gods."3 On the opposite end of the spectrum are those like Bishop Holly, who considered loa possession to be demonic or satanic in origin. For Holly and others, these are real demonic encounters.

In this essay, I want to explore the possibility of a link or at least similarity between loa possession in Haiti today and the demonic possession described in Scripture. The study will be broken into two major parts. First, we'll take a look at demon possession in the Bible. An attempt will be made from the various scriptural accounts to establish some identifying characteristics. Secondly, the identifying characteristics of Haitian voodoo loa possession will be listed along with parallels that may occur in the biblical incidents of demon possession. This essay will concern itself only with demon possession and will not include cases that might be classified as the result of demonic influence.

This essay will not address issues of the authenticity or accuracy of the biblical accounts. For the purposes of this paper, it will be assumed that:

  1. The gospel accounts were written in the first century by the traditional apostolic authors
  2. These accounts are accurate eyewitness descriptions that contain actual words of Jesus of Nazareth.

It will also be assumed that the demon possession in the New Testament is of supernatural origin and cannot be explained merely on the basis of present-day psychological research. If the parallels seem clear enough between biblical demon possession and Haitian loa possession, it shall be assumed that it, too, has something of the supernatural in it.

In the sources consulted for this study, different spellings are used for the name of the religion (e.g., voodoo and vodun), the names of gods or spirits (e.g., loa and loua), and for other features of this Haitian folk religion. To facilitate comprehension, the spelling of words will be consistent throughout this essay, even in quotations where a different spelling was used by the original author.

1J. Carleton Hayden, "James Theodore Holly (1829-1911) First Afro-American Episcopal Bishop: His Legacy to Us Today," Journal of Religious Thought 33 (Spring-Summer, 1976): 53

2Harmon A. Johnson, "The Growing Church in Haiti" (Coral Gables: The West Indies Mission, 1970. Mimeographed), p. vii.

3William Sargant, The Mind Possessed: A Physiology of Possession, Mysticism, and Faith Healing (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1974), p. 181.

1. Biblical demon possession

A. Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures

Within Scripture, actual possession by demons or demonic forces is almost exclusively a New Testament phenomenon. Certainly, references to demons do occur in the Old Testament. Demons or evil spirits are mentioned in such passages as Leviticus 17:7, Deuteronomy 32:17, 2 Chronicles 11:15, Psalms 95:5 and 106:37, and Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14. None of these biblical passages speak, however, of that "use of a living body by another spirit" as one writer has defined possession.4 Though spiritism is forbidden in Scripture, what is referred to in Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 18, and Isaiah 8 does not include possession.

J. S. Wright is one of the few Old Testament scholars to assert that the Old Testament does actually contain identifiable references to demon possession. He says:

In the Bible, the pagan prophets probably sought possession. The prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 would come in this category. Mediums, who were banned in Israel, must have deliberately cultivated possession since the Law regards them as guilty people, not as sick (e.g. Leviticus 20:6, 27). In the Old Testament, Saul could be used as an is an outstanding example of unsought possession (1 Samuel 16:14; 19:9)5.

In this case that involves Saul, Wright stands almost alone in labeling it as "an outstanding example" of possession. Among other Biblical scholars, only a few, such as early Methodist scholar Adam Clarke6 and David Erdman7, allow for the possibility of actual demon possession having occurred in Saul's case. Although the scripture says that "an evil spirit from the Lord tormented (Saul)", most writers view Saul's problem as one of simple insanity. They would opt for a blanket statement like that of Laird Harris, professor at Covenant Theological Seminary: "Demon possession is not mentioned in the Old Testament."8

B. New Testament

The picture changes considerably when we turn to the New Testament. In the New Testament, demons (daimon in Greek) are referred to more than 100 times, with many of those references involving possession. This is particularly true of the gospel accounts where J. Ramsey Michaels, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, asserts: "Nothing is more certain about the ministry of Jesus than the fact that He performed exorcisms."9

Dealing with demon possession was integral to Jesus' daily life and ministry. It was also something in which He involved the Apostles and His other followers. As Bible scholar and Christian apologist Merrill Unger reminds his readers: "Not only did Jesus cast out demons, . . . but he delegated this power to the Twelve, to the Seventy, and even to believers."10

Unfortunately, only a few of the cases in Scripture are treated with sufficient detail to be of any help in this study. Even those descriptions are often briefer than one would wish. In several passages where demon possession is mentioned, it is only in passing, such as in Mark 1:32: "They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons." The lack of further detail doesn't provide much help for a study of this type except to support a distinction in scripture between demon possession and illness. Nine cases in the New Testament are described with enough detail to make possible some comparisons between them and modern-day phenomena such as Haitian loa possession.

1. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

The synoptic gospel authors include seven cases of demon possession for which some descriptive details are given. These are:

  1. The demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:23-26; cf. Luke 4:33-37)
  2. The Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20; cf. Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39)
  3. The daughter of the Syro-Phenician woman (Mark 7:24-30; cf. Matthew 15:21-28)
  4. The demon-possessed boy (Mark 9:14-29; cf. Matthew 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43)
  5. The dumb man (Matthew 9:32; cf. Luke 11:14-15)
  6. The blind and dumb man (Matthew 12:22-28)
  7. The crippled woman (Luke 13:11-16)

2. The Gospel of John

No case of demon possession is recorded in John's Gospel, either with or without detail. Jesus himself is, however, accused by his enemies of being demon-possessed in an episode in John 7:20-21.

3. Acts

The Book of Acts has two cases of demon possession described in some detail. These are:

  1. The slave girl at Philippi (Acts 16:16-18)
  2. The strong man at Ephesus (Acts 19:13-17).

4. Remainder of the New Testament

The rest of the New Testament writings do not describe any cases of demon possession. However, demons and demonic powers are mentions in passages like Timothy 4:1; Ephesians 6:12; James 2:19; and Revelation 9:20 and 16:14.

William W. Orr suggests that there is a clear reason for the abundance of cases of demon possession in the first part of the New Testament after almost no mention in the Old Testament and then their sudden disappearance from the Scriptures. Orr, who uses a dispensational lens to look at scripture, says it was part of the devil's strategy "to assemble the whole host of demons from all corners of the universe to thwart and defeat, if possible, the purpose of Christ's coming into the world."11

When the demons failed in that, Orr says they dispersed throughout the universe again, and this concentrated activity recorded in the New Testament subsided.

4Kyle Kristos, Voodoo (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1976),p. 12

5New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. "Demon Possession" by J.S. Wright.

6Adam Clarke, A Commentary and Critical Notes, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, n.d.), p. 259.

7David Erdman, "The Books of Samuel," A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Vol. 5, Philip Schaff, tr. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1877), p. 222

8Laird Harris, "One View of Demon Possession," His, March, 1975,p. 9

9J. Ramsey Michaels, "Jesus and the Unclean Spirits," in Demon Possession: A Medical, Historical, Anthropological and Theological Symposium, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1976), p. 41.

10Merrill F. Unger, Biblical Demonology (Wheaton: Van Kampen Press, 1952), p. 78.

11 William W. Orr, Are Demons for Real? (Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, 1970), p. 16.

C. Features of Biblical Demon Possession

None of the cases of demon possession identified as such and described in the Bible are exactly alike the others in their manifestations. Some are certainly more sensational than others. It is possible, however, to list certain features or characteristics that seem part of demon possession. Such marks of demon possession would include:

1. Exchange of Personality
In most of the cases of demon possession in the Bible, a totally different personality presents itself and takes total control of a human being, speaking and acting through that person while the person himself no longer seems present. S. Vernon McCasland, a University of Virginia professor, calls this exchange of personality "the most decisive mark of demon possession."12 In his classic book on demon possession, John Nevius, a Presbyterian missionary to China, argued that "to persons of this class alone [ where personality exchange occurs ] is the term 'possession' properly applied."13 This phenomenon is most clearly evident in the demoniacs at Capernaum and in Gadera. However, in all of the other cases, the Scriptures speak of demons being asked to leave a person.

The characteristics of this personality exchange include:
  1. The new personality self-identifies as a demon and will even give a title or name different from the name of the person who is being possessed.
  2. The new personality uses personal pronouns that indicate a distinctly different person. When the demon speaks, the first-person is consistently used, while third-person used when reference is made to the person being possessed.
  3. While in the state of possession, the possessed person displays sentiments, facial expressions, and even physical attributes totally different from those of that person's normal state.
  4. Contrary to medieval artists' representations or the present-day image of the good angel and evil angel that sit on our separate shoulders, the separate demonic personality does not have a physical or corporeal existence apart from the persons it possesses. Unlike angels, demons in sacred scripture appear as "discarnate spirits". 14
2. Clairvoyance
In some biblical cases, a person in a possessed state displays clairvoyance and occult powers. The clearest example of this is the slave girl in Philippi. In other instances, the possessed person appeared to recognize Jesus for all he was without ever being introduced to Him. This happened in both of the cases in the book of Acts as well as in the cases of the Capernaum and Gadarene demoniacs. Alexander even argues that this particular characteristic alone indicates that demon possession is something more than mere insanity. "The confession of Jesus as the Messiah or Son of God is . . . the classical criterion of genuine demonic possession." 15
3. Unusual Strength
While not mentioned in every case, the exhibition of unusual or supernormal strength characterizes some instances of biblical demon possession. The possessed man in Ephesus overpowered seven other men. The Gadarene demoniac could tear apart chains.
4. Moral Impurity
When the exchange of personality occurred in a demon-possessed person, a change in moral character toward impurity sometimes took place. The Gadarene demoniac, for instance, ran about naked, and the spirits in him seemed to have no regard for the property rights of others. The possessed man in Ephesus was ill-tempered -- to say the least -- when he was possessed.
5. Seizures and Convulsions
Some instances of biblical possession -- notably that of the demoniac boy -- include seizures and convulsions and other symptoms such as rigidity and foaming at the mouth. Sometimes, as in the case of the boy and of the Gadarene demoniac, there was an almost visible conflict within the person that manifested itself in self-destructive tendencies.

Some skeptics have seized upon this particular category of characteristics to argue that demon possession was nothing more than epilepsy. This is, however, only one of the categories of symptoms. Epilepsy does not also have the other symptoms in this list.
6. Physical illness
Demon possession is sometimes, though not always, accompanied by physical illnesses that are identified as being caused by the demon. These include blindness, muteness, and paralysis. It must be noted, however, that a distinction is made in Scripture between sickness and demon possession. "The New Testament writers show the ability to ascribe similar disorders on some occasions to demonic reality and on other occasions not." 16 Thus, there is a blind man possessed by a demon; there are other blind men who are not.

The other manifestations of demon possession tend to be episodic, with the person at times being demon-possessed and at other times not. The illnesses in the biblical cases do, however, seem to be continuously present until the demon is cast out.
7. The socioeconomic factor
Unger notes that "it is perhaps not without significance that almost all the cases of demon possession are recorded as occurring among the rude and half-Gentile populations of Galilee."17 No cases are recorded in Jerusalem and only one in Capernaum. The others were in rural sections of Galilee, Gadera, and in the regions of Tyre and Sidon, and Caesarea Philippi.
8. Voluntary versus involuntary possessaion
Most of the biblical cases seem to indicate that these were involuntary possessions. The details of the stories are not explicit enough, however, and scholars do not agree. "Theories vary from assigning complete responsibility to denying any accountability whatever," says Unger.18
9. Deliverance and transference
In eight of the nine cases in the New Testament, the person was delivered instantaneously from the demon and, in the case of the Gadarene demoniac, occult transference took place and the demons entered another being--in this case, a herd of swine. This instantaneous deliverance is also evident in the cases where demon possession is mentioned only in passing such as Mark 1:32-34, Matthew 8:16-17, Luke 4:40-41, Matthew 4:23, Mark 3:7-12, Matthew 12:15-16, and Luke 6:17-19.

All these incidents of demons being cast out seem to have occurred without the "conjurations, incantations, or religious or magical ceremonies" today associated with exorcism.19

D. Normative for all times?

Before leaving this data to turn to loa possession in Haiti today, one must consider the hermeneutical question: How are these descriptions to be considered? Virkler answers that question:

"We have no guarantee that the relatively brief descriptions of demonically-caused symptomatology found in Scriptures were meant to be considered normative examples of possession across time and cultures. All that the narrative accounts of demonization found in the Gospels and Acts claim is that they are accurate descriptions of demonization of that time, not normative descriptions of demonization that can be used for all succeeding generations.20"

With that caution in mind, let's now turn to the literature available on Haitian voodoo to see if parallels can be found between loa possession and the biblical accounts of demon possession.

12 Shelby Vernon McCasland, By the Finger of God: Demon Possession and Exorcism in Early Christianity in the Light of Modern Views of Mental Illness (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951), p. 15.

13 John Livingston Nevius, Demon Possession (Fleming H. Revell, 1894; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1968), p. 288.

14 Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology edited by Leslie Shepherd. s.v. "Possession"

15 William Alexander, Demonic Possession in the New Testament (1902; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 150.

16 Graham, Dow, "The Case for the Existence of Demons," Churchman (94), p. 200. 17Unger, p. 94.

18 Ibid., p. 95.

19Ibid., p. 101.

20Henry A. and Mary B. Virkler, "Demonic Involvement in Human Life and Illness," Journal of Psychology and Theology 5 (Spring, 1977), p. 100.

II. Loa possession in Haitian voodoo

An American military attaché and his wife, who spent several years in Haiti, have written: "Haiti is a magic island, and the laughter of a thousand African gods echoes through her mornes."21 These gods and their periodic possession of voodoo worshipers have fascinated anthropologists and tourists alike since the last century. Actually, voodoo should properly be defined as an ancestral worship cult. However, spirit or loa possession does play a very important part in voodoo. And this possession experience is, says Haitian psychiatrist Emerson Douyon, one of the things that Haitian society "valorizes."22 The experience is not just for the voodoo priest (a male houngan or a female mambo) or to a bokor (a shaman or sorcerer loosely linked to voodoo practice), but it is for all adherents.

Various explanations have been advanced for this phenomenon called loa possession. It has been regarded variously as a form of neurosis, as the fulfillment of a "need for self-transcendence, an attention-getter, an opportunity to act out fantasies, a chance to shed responsibility, . . . mass hysteria, or masochism."23 Kristos writes of hallucination or mass hypnosis as possible explanations and then says it could be "the visitation of a supernatural being."24

Thus, it is doubly important for any Christian working in Haiti to understand loa possession. First, loa possession is something that Haitian society values. Second, one has to decide, however tentative it may be, what these gods are whose laughter echoes through the mountain valleys of that Caribbean island nation.

A. Parallels with Biblical demon possession

Dow argues that "there is correspondence between descriptions of present-day demonic phenomena . . . and the descriptions . . . in the New Testament."25 Anthropologist Alan Tippett goes a step further, particularizing the parallel when he says: "Probably there is no better extant example of possession phenomena in the whole world than the form known as voodoo, especially the variety in Haiti."26

What are some of the similarities or parallelisms that would lead scholars to compare what the Bible describes as demon possession with modern-day possession phenomena?

1. Exchange of personality

When a Haitian loa possesses a person, a markedly different personality seems to take control. "The possessed person behaves quite rationally," says Sargant, "but in the way the loa would behave."27 There are literally hundreds of loa, each with its own special voice, manners, facial expressions, and physical attributes. Each loa even has its own "food and drink preferences, color and clothing preferences" to the extent that a possessed person may even change clothes after being possessed to conform more closely to the particular loa.28

When a loa possesses a Haitian, other people in the immediate vicinity have no doubts as to the identity of the particular loa that has appeared. Later -- hours or even occasionally days -- when a possessed person returns to his normal personality, he or she will remember nothing of what transpired during the possession state. It is as though the person has truly been absent from his or her body while another being was using it.

While the Haitians do fear zombies and other kinds of spirit world creatures who appear from time to time, the loa apparently have no corporeal existence apart from the persons they possess. While paintings of Catholic saints are sometimes used in voodoo sanctuaries to represent some of the more well-known loa, these loa only appear when they have a human body to utilize.

2. Clairvoyance

While possessed, many of the Haitians exhibit mediumistic abilities. Anthropologists have documented cases of possessed persons knowing secrets to which, in normal life, they would not have had access. Haitian ethnologist Jean Price-Mars tells of possessed persons giving predictions and prophecies about the future.29

There are also some instances in which the loa recognize the higher authority of Jesus Christ, even as happened in New Testament times. Even given the peaceful co-existence that seems to exist between Roman Catholicism and voodoo, anthropologist Francis Huxley relates isolated instances in which loa prohibit people from going to Christian church services and forbid them to "hear the words of the Gospel."30

With Protestantism, of course, the antagonism is more pronounced. Nazarene missionary Paul Orjala tells of loa who "speak directly to the Christian through the person possessed and argue their right to do their work." 31 Haitian anthropologist Jacque Romain notes if a person becomes a born-again believer, there is an irreconcilable conflict between that person and his patron loa.

The powers that the loa or spirits give to their "horses" were explained to Oberlin College professor George Simpson by at least one voodoo priest as due to the fact that "the loa are fallen angels."33 That, of course, is the same explanation that many conservative biblical scholars give for demons.

3. Unusual strength

The ability of possessed persons to physically do things not ordinarily possible for them seems even more prevalent in Haitian loa possession than it was in the cases of demon possession recorded in the Bible. Jeremie Breda mentions "an old man (who) climbs a tree like a monkey" while possessed and "a girl (who) handles a red hot iron without feeling pain."34 Anthropologist Melville Herskovits writes of the extraordinary bodily strength he had witnessed in possessed persons.35 Harold Courlander, anthropologist, and folklorist, joins other writers in recounting stories of loa who cause their "horses" to eat glass or broken razor blades without causing any injuries and of other Haitians who plunge their arms into boiling oil while possessed without suffering any after effects.36

It is this characteristic of unusual physical ability that calls into serious question the explanation of loa possession as mere role enactment. Some characteristics of loa possession could be easily simulated if role-playing was all that was involved. However, the super-normal strength and abilities like those described in anthropological studies would seem difficult, if not impossible, to simulate in a merely theatrical performance.

4. Moral impurity

Simpson has noted that in normal, everyday life, there is "considerable sexual modesty among the peasants."37 The picture changes radically during possession experiences. Huxley writes of the "sexual megalomania" that characterizes many possessions.38 Possessed persons often have to be restrained from taking off their clothes to go naked. Courlander writes of the contempt for proprieties and of the lascivious and lurid behavior and speech of some loa.39 Behavior that would be quite unacceptable to the community and even to the possessed person himself is excused because the loa -- not the person being possessed -- is responsible for unacceptable behavior and speech.

5. Seizures and convulsions

Almost without exception, the beginnings of a loa possession are marked by "trembling, by a kind of frenzy without controls or direction. (The person being possessed) may stagger, fall, and go into convulsions."40 This seizure gradually wears off, and the personality of the individual loa begins to appear. Finally, the person seems normal, except that he or she has completely switched personalities, including perhaps sex.

Sometimes possessed persons also exhibit self-destructive tendencies. "loa will cause their 'horses' to rub hot pepper into their eyes. Still others will compel possessed persons to cut themselves with machetes."41 At times, possessed persons must be restrained from throwing themselves into deep water.

6. Physical illness

loa possessions in Haiti are almost always episodic, with many of them coming during religious ceremonies (even those in the Roman Catholic church!). Physical illnesses do not accompany this type of possession. However, Frederick Conway of San Diego State University says, "When they are angry, the loa are believed to express their displeasure most frequently by making a family member ill." 42 Gerald Murray, a University of Florida professor, notes that Haitians believe that causing illness is a principal activity of the loa. The peasants do, however, differentiate between "spirit-caused illness (maladi loa) as opposed to naturally caused illness,"43 a distinction also made in the New Testament.

7. Socioeconomic factor

Loa possession occurs most often among the rural subsistence farming population and its members who may have emigrated into the cities. As in Biblical Palestine, the incidence of possession in Haiti is lower in the cities, particularly among the well-educated population. The Haitian elite have even made some unsuccessful attempts to stamp out voodoo and, for a long time, refused to grant it the status of a folk religion.

8. Voluntary versus involuntary

While not actively sought after, loa possession is welcomed by Haitians. This is not true in most of the possession cases in the New Testament. There do not, however, seem to be attempts on the part of the Haitians to work themselves into a state of possession. Occasionally a tourist, or even an anthropologist who has gone to watch a voodoo ceremony, will be possessed without his or her having willed the possession. Huxley relates the story of a young Haitian Protestant who had gone to witness a voodoo ceremony "and despite all he could do, had been possessed."44 Sometimes, during a certain period, a voodoo worshiper may not wish to be possessed. The worshiper may even take certain countermeasures against being possessed. These precautions are not always successful, and the worshiper will sometimes be possessed against his or her will.

9. Deliverance and transference

Upon conversion, Protestant Christians normally are freed from further loa possession experiences. In fact, Tippett says that "the type of Protestantism most successful in Haiti is the form most hostile to voodoo because it comes into encounter with it on a meaningful level."45 The freedom born-again believers have from possession is recognized in Haitian society. Former missionary Orjala noted that Nazarene pastors in Haiti are continually called upon to cast out loa.46 This deliverance, when it occurs, seems to be instantaneous, even as were the deliverances recounted in New Testament documents.

On the other hand, the Roman Catholics, lacking an emphasis on a life-changing born-again experience, have been fighting a losing battle with syncretism. Today, most voodoo worshipers also consider themselves to be Roman Catholic.

When a voodoo worshiper dies, a type of transference ceremony is held in which a voodoo priest removes the "talent" of the one that had been possessed and transfers it to someone else.47

B. Unique Features of Loa Possession

Some aspects or features of Haitian loa possession are absent from the accounts of demon possession recorded in Scripture. These include:

1. Part of a religion
Loa possession is a recognized feature of voodoo, the Haitian peasant religion. "Peasants welcome the (possession) experience and express neither surprise nor fear" when it occurs.48 None of the instances reported in Scripture appear to be an integral part of the religious practices of a group of people. In Haitian voodoo, moreover, everyone actually has a loa-patron, whether or not he has even been possessed. There is no record in the New Testament of such a belief or practice as regards demons.
2. Glossolalia
Price-Mars wrote of occurrences of glossolalia during loa possession.49 There are also documented reports of certain loa speaking perfect French, although researchers were certain their "horses" could not do so in normal life given the fact that "probably no more than five percent of the population can speak French fluently."50

21 Robert Debs Heinl Jr. and Nancy Gordon Heinl, Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People 1492-1971 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), p. 690.

22 Emerson Douyon, "A Research Model on Trance and Possession States in Haitian Vodun," in The Haitian Potential: Research and Resources of Haiti, ed. Vera Rubin and Richard P. Schaedel (New York: Teachers' College Press, 1975), p. 172. 23Heinl, p. 682.

24 Kyle Kristos, Voodoo (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1976), p. 34.

25 Dow, p. 199.

26 Writing in Demon Possession: A Medical, Historical, Anthropological, and Theological Symposium, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1976), p. 155.

27 Sargant, p. 174.

28 Gerald F. Murray, "Population Pressure, Land Tenure, and Voodoo: The Economics of Haitian Peasant Ritual" in Beyond the Myths of Culture: Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Eric B. Ross (New York: Academic Press, 1980), p. 298.

29 Jean Price-Mars, Ainsi Parla L'oncle . . . Essais d'Ethno-graphie (Port-au-Prince, 1928; reprint ed. Ottawa: Editions Lemeac, 1972), p. 182.

30 Francis Huxley, The Invisibles (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1966), p. 113.

31 Paul Orjala, This Is Haiti (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1961), p. 51.

32 Jacque B. Romain, Quelques Moeurs et Coutumes des Paysans Haitiens (Port-au-Prince: L'imprimerie de 1'etat, 1959), p. 206.

33 George Eaton Simpson, "The Belief System of Haitian Vodun, American Anthropologist 47 (January, 1945), p. 46.

34 Jeremie Breda, "Life in Haiti: Voodoo and the Church," Commonweal 24 May 1963, p. 241.

35 Melville J. Herskovits, Life in a Haitian Valley (1937; reprint ed., New York: Octagon Books, 1964), p. 372.

36 Harold Courlander, The Drum and the Hoe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), p. 40.

37 George Eaton Simpson, "Sexual and Familial Institutions in Northern Haiti," American Anthropologist 44 (1942), p. 669.

38 Huxley, p. 125.

39 Courlander, p. 56.

40 Ibid., p. 11

41 Ibid., p. 40.

42 Frederick J. Conway, "Pentecostalism in Haiti: Healing and Hierarchy" in Perspectives on Pentecostalism: Case Studies from the Caribbean and Latin America, ed. S.D. Glazier (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), p. 8

43 Murray, p. 302.

44 Huxley, p. 162.

45 Tippett, p. 156.

46 Orjala, p. 51.

47 Simpson, "Belief System," p. 47.

48 Thomas E. Weil, et. al. Area Handbook for Haiti (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), p. 52.

49 Price-Mars, p. 193.

50 "Development Assistance Program, Agency for International Development," USAID Haiti: Department of State. Manuscript, June, 1977, p. 125.


The question now is: How shoiuld we interpret the data from the Bible and from anthropologists and missionaries? There are many of similarities between biblical demon possession and loa possession in today's Haiti. Are the parallels strong enough to conclude that this is the same phenomenon?

Arguing from a biblical perspective, Joe Schubert says no: "The solution which is most consistent with the total biblical teaching is that demon possession, though a first-century reality, is not present in the twentieth century." 51 On the other end of the spectrum, Tippett says that all the characteristics of possession in Haitian voodoo "line up with the New Testament experience."52

In this search for a conclusive answer, one encounters a caution by Henry Virkler, professor of psychology at Palm Beach Atlantic University. In an article in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, Virkler says: "Nearly every symptom thought to be an indicator of demon possession is also found in the psychopathology of nondemonic origin."53

Approaching it from a non-dogmatic phenomenological angle, Graham Dow says: "A coherent understanding of certain behavioural phenomena is given by the demonic model . . . There is sufficient correspondence between the demonic model of perception and the data of human behavior."54

Granted, there are some differences between the cases of biblical demon possession and the descriptions of Haitian loa possession. However, there are enough similarities that it may easily be concluded that loa possession is demonic following the model of the New Testament cases. Haitian believers and missionaries working in that country identify it unquestionably as demon possession. This identification has enabled them to deal with loa possession in an effective manner. The weight of the evidence does tip the scales in favor of viewing loa possession as a present-day century equivalent of biblical demon possession.

51 Joe Schubert, et. al. The Devil You Say? Perspectives on Demons and the Occult (Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company, 1974), p. 22.

52Tippett, p. 164.

53Virkler, p. 99.

54Dow, p. 207.

Bibliography of sources used by Howard Culbertson to research Haitian voodoo loa possession and what is described as demon possession in the Bible. Please note that some of the works are by Haitian anthropologists.


Alexander, William. Demonic Possession in the New Testament. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980.

Breda, Jeremie, "Life in Haiti: Voodoo and the Church," Commonweal 24 May 1963, pp. 241-244.

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Haitian Vodou, often referred to as Haitian Voodoo, is a syncretic religion that originated in the Caribbean nation of Haiti. Its roots can be traced back to the merging of African religious beliefs brought to Haiti by enslaved West Africans during the transatlantic slave trade and elements of Catholicism introduced by French colonizers.

When Africans were forcibly brought to Haiti as slaves, they brought with them diverse spiritual and religious practices from various regions of Africa, including regions that are now part of present-day Benin, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, and the Congo. These traditions included beliefs in spirits, ancestor worship, ritualistic practices, and herbal medicine.

In Haiti, these African religious beliefs and practices underwent a process of syncretism, blending with Catholicism, which was the religion of the French colonizers. This blending was a means of preserving their African spiritual heritage while outwardly conforming to the religion imposed upon them by their oppressors.

Over time, Haitian Vodou developed into a distinct religious tradition with its own rituals, deities (known as lwa or loa), ceremonies, music, dance, and iconography. It became an essential aspect of Haitian culture and identity, influencing various aspects of life, including art, music, folklore, and social structures. Today, Vodou remains an integral part of Haitian society.

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