Part 4: Biblical Demon Possession and Haitian Loa Possession

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by Howard Culbertson

II. Loa possession in Haitian voodoo

     An American military attaché and his wife who have 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 worshippers 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 which 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.
     All kinds of 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 well be "the visitation of a supernatural being."24
     It thus is doubly important for any Christian working in Haiti to understand loa possession. First of all, because loa possession is one of the items which Haitian society valorizes. Secondly, one has to make a decision, however tentative it may be, as to 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 which would lead scholars to make comparisons between what is described in the Bible as demon possession and 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 his or her own special voice, manners, facial expressions and physical attributes. Each loa even has his or her 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 loa who has possessed him.28
     When a loa possesses a person, other people in the immediate vicinity have no doubts in their mind as to the identity of the 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 are possessing. While paintings of Catholic saints are sometimes used in voodoo sanctuaries to represent some of the more well-known loas, these loas 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 church 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 loas 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 irreconcilable conflict between a person and his patron-loa.
     The powers which 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 loas are fallen angels."33 That, of course, is the same explanation which 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 certain 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 which calls into serious question any 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" which seems to characterize 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 of the loas.39 Behavior which 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 such 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 have to 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, 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 is lower in the cities and particularly among the well-educated sector of the population. The Haitian elite have even made some unsuccessful attempts to stamp out voodoo and for a long time refused to even grant it the status of a folk religion.

8. Voluntary versus involuntary

     While not actively sought after, loa possession in Haitian is very much welcomed. This is not true in most of the possession cases in the New Testament. There does 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 worshipper may wish to not be possessed. The worshipper may even take certain countermeasures against being possessed. These precautions are not always successful, and the worshipper will sometimes be possessed against his or her will.

9. Deliverance and transference

     Upon conversion, Protestants 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 that born-again believers have from possession is recognized in Haitian society. Former missionary Orjala notes that Nazarene pastors in Haiti are continually being called upon to cast out the loa.46 This deliverance, when it occurs, seems to be instantaneous even as is the deliverances recounted in New Testament documents.
     The Roman Catholics, on the other hand, lacking an emphasis on a life-changing born-again experience, have been fighting a losing battle with syncretism. Today, most voodoo worshippers also consider themselves to be Roman Catholic. [ for an example of syncretism in Mexico, see the video "Celebrating the Day of the Dead" ]
     When a voodoo worshipper 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 to someone else by a voodoo priest.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 loas 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 . . . [ continue reading ]

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.


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