[While looking through the INEXPLICATA archives, I came across one of our most popular features from the pre-Blogspot days: an article about zombies written by contributing editor Manuel Carballal, who visited the island to look into Haiti’s occult practices, much as he had done earlier in Cuba. Although we often receive complaints about straying from ufology into other areas of the unknown, it is precisely this diversity – and the fearless journalism of reporters like Manuel Carballal – that have made INEXPLICATA stand out since 1998 — SC]
By Manuel Carballal
The scene could have been derived from any suspense film. Manuel Delgado instinctively held on tightly to his television camera as we clutched our machetes. Our vehicle was being surrounded by a dozen ebony-skinned Haitians. The blancs, as they derisively call Europeans, are not welcome in Haiti and we had been warned that under no circumstances should we venture into the shanty towns outside Port-au-Prince where, we were told, “there exists a 90 per cent chance of being mugged.” We ignored this sage advice, of course.
After endless minutes of waiting, our guide allowed us to emerge from the car. Monsieur Balaguer, an important bokor — a voodoo high priest — would allow us to visit his hounfor or temple. The hounfor consisted in a humble wooden shack whose center contained the peristyle, the indispensable central column of every voodoo ritual, by means of which the gods or loas descend to earth. A filthy light bulb and seven candles enabled us to see the disquieting form of Monsieur Balaguer, a tall man with sparkling black eyes, who covered his head with a Stetson.
While our guide stated all the arguments at his disposal in order to have Monsieur Balaguer allow us to film his “she-devil” and his “zombie”, we were startled by a sudden blackout. The dirty light bulb was extinguished, plunging us into the shadows, illuminated only by the seven candles around the peristyle. Balaguer greeted his “she-devil” — supposedly located behind a mysterious metal door — by rapping on it a few times. From the other side, “something” responded with brutal blows against the door, causing the entire temple to shake. Suddenly we were told that the bokor had to consult the loas: we looked on as Monsieur Balaguer fell int a sort of trance, being “ridden” or possessed by Bravo, one of the loas who shares the lordship over death and cemeteries with Baron Samedi and Baron La Croix. Subjecting us to a sort of “trial,” exchanging a curious combinations of handshakes to which we instinctively responded to, Balaguer drank rum through an ear as he smoked a cigarette through one nostril.
The fact of the matter is that in Haiti, Western patterns of logic become fragile in the face of the unpredictable, incomprehensible and irrational voodoo cult — vodú in the native tongue — which originates from the Fon language of Dahomey, meaning “deity” or “spirit.” This is the precise nature of voodoo: a spirit that envelops Haiti, influencing each and every cultural or social manifestation of this small country, the poorest of the Americas.
Voodoo Reaches the Presidency
No single cultural manifestation is longer-lasting or more influential than a country’s religion. In Haiti’s case, this influence becomes particularly apparent. In late 1995, when President Bill Clinton visited Haiti to supervise the “changing of the guard” — American troops being replaced by UN peacekeepers, more than four thousand Haitians converged upon the square in front of the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince to witness the event. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, restored to power thanks to the intervention of twenty thousand U.S. troops in October 1994, would preside over the event.
Bill Clinton had barely finished his conciliatory speech concerning military intervention in Haiti when a white dove landed next to his microphone. Immediately, thousands of Haitians roared their approval and applauded in the light of such an unequivocal “sign of approval” from the gods. The Voodoo loas had accepted Clinton. This “innocent coincidence” made thousands of Haitians–and more importantly, secret societies like Bizango, who had promised to protect the country against foreigners through magic–put aside their anger against the new white invaders, respecting the wishes of the gods. Voodoo is the main power in Haiti: no one would dare contradict the wishes of the loas, or what is interpreted as their wishes.
From the days of Macandal, the pioneer of independence in the 18th century to the times of General Raoul Cédras, no Haitian ruler has forgotten to acknowledge the all-powerful influence of voodoo in Haiti. President Aristide was no exception. In spite of having been a Catholic priest, after an interview with several houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses) on July 19, 1995, Aristide officially announced the construction of a great Voodoo temple within the capital. In this manner, the president equated the Voodoo religion with other “accepted” religions, granting Voodoo practitioners a “cathedral” similar to the Baptist churches, Masonic temples or Catholic parishes which are so numerous in Haiti.
Warlocks in Charge
But there was one Haitian ruler who knew how to make use of Voodoo as a political tool: the mythical and shadowy “Papa Doc,” François Duvalier. In 1954, the legendary “Papa Doc” published (with Lorimer Denis) a monograph entitled L’Evolution graduelle du vaudou (The Gradual Evolution of Voodoo). The knowledge of Voodoo displayed in this book was evidently utilized during his political career.
As a young man, along with other Haitian intellectuals, Duvalier published a nationalist newspaper called Les Griots. At a time when the government torched the sacred Voodoo drums and other objects of worship as a sign of loyalty to the Catholic church, Les Griots revindicated Voodoo as a religion and as rebellion against American colonizers. It isn’t surprising that “Papa Doc” gained the support of the traditional secret societies, and that during his 1957 campaign, the hounfour or Voodoo temples were utilized as his local party headquarters.
Immediately after rising to the presidency of Haiti, Duvalier named the feared bokor of Gonaives, Zacharie Delva, as commander-in-chief of the army, and began to revindicate Voodoo as the official religion. His personal bodyguard, a sort of “esoteric police,” were the Volunteers for National Security (VSN), the feared Tontons Macoutes who spread terror throughout the island (the name Tontons Macoutes refers to an old Haitian folk tale of the “men with the sack”. Misbehaving children were warned that their tonton — uncle — would take them away inside a macoute, a sack). All the hounfor who were not aligned with the Duvalier regime were locked up and rebels were persecuted. According to his biographers, “Papa Doc” ordered a special airplane to bring him the head of former rebel captain Blucher Fhilgénes. The man was decapitated and his head was placed in a bucket of ice. According to the rumors filtering out of the Presidential Palace, Duvalier would spend hours contemplating the head and consulting its spirit in secret rituals.
“Man speaks, but doesn’t act. God acts, but doesn’t speak. Duvalier is a god.” This was the thought echoing through the streets of Haiti. Papa Doc had woven around himself a terrible magical legend thanks to his knowledge of Voodoo, a legend that none dare question, and which allowed his dictatorship to flourish for decades. In fact, many peasants believed that “Papa Doc” was an incarnation of the dreaded Baron Samedi, lord of cemeteries. “They cannot have me. I am an immaterial being,” Duvalier said during one of his speeches in 1963. The fact is that his legend exists to this day, and many believe that Duvalier has become a loa, a spirit of the Gede family that can still manifest itself in certain rituals…
Blood, Rhythm and Possession
We were engulfed by frantic drumbeats. The convulsive dancing of the hounsí –Voodoo initiates–bewitched us, and the markedly African chants and litanies overwhelmed us. The entire montage of the Voodoo ritual we were witnessing in Cachimán, near the border with the Dominican Republic, created an almost dreamlike atmosphere within the confines of Voodoo priest Manuel Sánchez Elie. Without a scrap of hesitation, one of the houngan’s assistants delivered a powerful blade-stroke on the neck of a ram, abruptly decapitating the animal while its blood showered everyone present. The ram’s head was torn from its body and offered to the gods, while two acolytes stripped the body, which would be served to the participants later. Voodoo religion is an imprecise mixture of blood, music and esthetics.
Voodoo, like Santería, Umbanda, Candomblé or Palo Mayombe, is the product of synchretism between African religions and Christianity. The ancestral beliefs brought by African slaves to the New World as their only treasure was forcibly mimetized with the saints of the Catholic onomasticon. The orishas and African loas were disguised as saints, mystics and martyrs in order that their worship could survive in a hostile world, which was that of slave-owning whites. This abstract mixture of witchcraft, paganism and christianity survives to this day.
This article continues tomorrow June 10, 2015!