The Serpent and the Rainbow
"Haiti will teach you that good and evil are one. Wenever confuse them, nor do we keep them apart.' Due mainly to prejudice and ignorance, voodoo has long been associated with "black magic' and the dark arts. But as this amazing tale reveals, the Haitian traditional religion is, for its adherents, a source of light.
In 1982, Dr. Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist from Harvard,seeking new knowledge about anesthetics, traveled to Haiti hoping to penetrate the myth-shrouded religion we call voodoo (Haitians do not call their religion by that name--to them the word refers to a specific event, a dance ritual) and to discover the ingredients of the "zombie poison' used to create "the living dead.' In The Serpent and the Rainbow, Dr. Davis unravels the mystery which, Castaneda-like, nearly unraveled him. Along the way he provides a brief, though excellent, history of Haiti and the slave trade, and gives etymological tracings of some of the words associated with the country's religion.
This vivid portrait of Haitian spirituality removes much ofthe tarnish Hollywood has imparted to voodoo.Vodoun is not an animistic religion, Max Beauvoir hadtold me. The believer does not endow natural objects with solus; they serve the loa, which by definition are the multiple expressions of God. There is Agwe, the spiritual sovereign of the sea, and there is Ogoun, the spirit of fire and the metallurgical elements. But there is also Erzulie, the goddess of love; Guede, the spirit of the dead; Legba, the spirit of communication between all spheres. The vodounist, in fact honors hundreds of loa because he so sincerely recognizes all life, all material objects, and even abstract processes as the sacred expressions of God. Though God is the supreme force at the apex of the pantheon, he is distant, and it is with the loa that the Haitian interacts on a daily basis.
Never in the course of my travels in the Amazon hadI witnessed a phenomenon as raw or powerful as the spectacle of vodoun possession that followed. The initiate, a diminutive woman, tore about the peristyle, lifting large men off the ground to swing them about like children. She grabbed a glass and tore into it with her teeth, swallowing small bits and spitting the rest onto the ground. At one point the mambo brought her a live dove; this the hounsis sacrificed by breaking its wings, then tearing the neck apart with her teeth. Apparently the spirits could be greedy, for soon two other hounsis were possessed, and for an extraordinary thirty minutes the peristyle was utter pandemonium, with the mambo racing about, spraying rum and libations of water and clairin, directing the spirits with the rhythm of her asson. The drums beat ceaselessly. Then, as suddenly as the spirits had arrived, they left, and one by one the hounsis that had been possessed collapsed deep within themselves. As the others carried their exhausted bodies back into the temple, I glanced at Beauvoir, and then back across the tables of guests. Some began nervoulsy to applaud, others looked confused and uncertain.