Wild Spirits

By Jeffrey Anderson

Jeffrey Anderson describes an unexpected personal encounter while conducting research in Haiti.

Photo of the ounfò of Eric Pierre, Empereur in La Gonave
Ounfo of Eric Pierre, empereur in La Gonâve. Photo provided by Jeffrey Anderson.

Historical research is a lot like detective work. The historian investigates evidence without knowing for sure just what he or she will discover. Studying the history of Voodoo for my recent book, Voodoo: An African American Religion, has been rewarding almost as much for finding what I did not expect as for what I did.

Take, for instance, the time I got stuck overnight on an island off the coast of Haiti and subsequently had my phone stolen by a Vodou spirit. By that point, I had been in Haiti for a couple of weeks and had gotten used to a daily routine of meeting my translator, Jony Louis, outside the guesthouse where I was staying and setting off for a day of visiting Vodou temples, called ounfo, and the clergy who minister in them. This particular day, we departed early in the morning with the goal of catching a boat to La Gonâve, a large island off the coast of central Haiti. There we were to meet with a prominent Vodou priest, the empereur Eric Pierre.

Even before we boarded our inflatable speedboat, I began to learn things I did not expect. I was struck by the sight of large, wooden sailing ships along the dock. Clearly not the yachts one finds anchored off tourist destinations, these ships had no decks, just deep, oblong hulls. They were loaded with cargo, including large dune buggies precariously balanced amidships, spanning from rail to rail over the open space. Later, on La Gonâve, I would see the shipyard where locals build them. Though I dearly wanted to travel to the island aboard such a ship I had thought consigned to bygone days, Jony Louis pointed out that they took roughly six hours to reach the island, which would make us late for our meeting with Eric Pierre. Bowing to practicality, I climbed into the speedboat.

Photo of two fishing boats
Two fishing boats, Arcahaie. Photo provided by Jeffrey Anderson.

We reached the island without incident, but upon landing, Jony Louis learned to his surprise that our boat would return to the mainland after only a brief stay and that we would have half an hour at most to get to the ounfo, talk with Eric Pierre, and return. There would be no other boats departing that day.

With so little time, this will be a wasted day, I thought to myself. We should have planned better.

Desperate to avoid offending the priest, we made our way as rapidly as possible to the meeting, apologizing that we would have only a few minutes to talk. We spoke quickly and met the priest’s lovely wife. Then, rather downcast at our short visit, we rushed back to the docks. We were too late. The boat was gone.

Unsettled by this discovery and the fact that neither of us had a change of clothes, toothbrush, or anything else one usually carries for overnight stays, we decided to make the best of the situation and headed back to Eric Pierre’s ounfo. The empereur was more than kind, picking up where we left off and telling me about his temple and his plans to expand it.

Then, to my delight, he invited us to join him that afternoon at a family event honoring the djabs of his hillside family property. Djabs, literally “devils,” are not deemed demonic in Haiti. Instead, believers understand them to be wild spirits, similar to the better-known lwa but lacking in cultivation and manners. Like lwa, they can possess those who honor them.

To a point, the ceremony was much like many other Vodou rituals I had witnessed, including the drawing of religious symbols called vèvè, singing, and joyful communal interaction among the few dozen participants. Once the possessions began, however, it took a dramatic turn. During most ceremonies, participants welcome such favor from the divinities. That was not the case with the uncouth djabs. Eric Pierre’s wife had, in fact, been warned that she would be possessed and had taken steps to prevent it, weaving a protective amulet into her hair.

The first to be possessed was a young woman, who became belligerent, yelling at members of the crowd and wandering in and out of the nearby tree line. Soon, she approached another young woman who stood about an arm’s length to my left, animatedly speaking to her and then touching her. The second woman began to sob as she, too, felt the oncoming possession. Soon, the two had left the crowd to return dressed in the garb of rural laborers, outfits favored by djabs.

While I was entranced with what was to me a very foreign experience, I suddenly heard a scream to my right. Turning in alarm, I first saw a cloud of dust. Then I discerned the figure of the priest’s wife violently rolling away from me down the side of the rocky hill. Eric Pierre would later explain that this violent onset of possession was her punishment for resisting the djab.

Fully engrossed in what I was witnessing, I failed to notice that the first of the women to be possessed had crept near me. Before I even saw her, she had plunged her hands into both of my pockets, managing to grab my cell phone—narrowly missing my wallet. She sat down with the second possessed woman on a mat a few yards in front of me and began toying with the phone.

I had no idea what to do. Of course, I wanted my phone back, but how to get it? I do not speak Haitian Kreyòl, and simply trying to take it back was out of the question. Eric Pierre found the whole exchange amusing, chuckling at my obvious consternation and embarrassed indecision. After a few moments savoring the situation, he addressed the djab, cajoling it to return my property. Though the spirit initially refused, it ultimately relented, and I recovered the phone.

Jony Louis and I remained some time longer, watching the possessed women, now joined by Eric Pierre’s wife, trade insults amongst themselves and the crowd and messily consume a pot of sweet potato stew. After about three hours, Eric Pierre announced that he was ready to depart if we were. Jony Louis and I got up from where we had been sitting and said goodbye to the many participants with whom we had been interacting.

In one sense, I was reluctant to leave the scene of what had been an exciting new experience for me. On the other hand, as I stood up, I became painfully aware that the Caribbean sun had badly burned my lower legs. Some of the participants near me noticed my discomfort and asked what was wrong. Though initially dubious that my vividly red legs—previously lily white—had been burned by the sun, they soon accepted my explanation and gave their condolences, wishing me a speedy recovery.

Eric Pierre and another attendee used their motorcycles to drive us to the home of a relative of Jony Louis, who agreed to put us up for the night. Arising early the next morning, we boarded a speedboat well before dawn. I’m glad we did not plan better, I thought, looking across an unlit sea that resembled nothing so much as giant pool of ink.

Head shot of Jeffrey E. Anderson

Jeffrey E. Anderson is professor of history and associate director of the School of Humanities at the University of Louisiana–Monroe. He is author of The Voodoo Encyclopedia: Magic, Ritual, and Religion; Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Conjure: A Handbook; and Conjure in African American Society.

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Book cover image for "Voodoo: An African American Religion"

Despite several decades of scholarship on African diasporic religion, Voodoo remains underexamined, and the few books published on the topic contain inaccuracies and outmoded arguments. In Voodoo: An African American Religion, Jeffrey E. Anderson presents a much-needed modern account of the faith as it existed in the Mississippi River valley from colonial times to the mid-twentieth century, when, he argues, it ceased to thrive as a living tradition.

Anderson provides a solid scholarly foundation for future work by systematizing the extant information on a religion that has long captured the popular imagination as it has simultaneously engendered fear and ridicule. His book stands as the most complete study of the faith yet produced and rests on more than two decades of research, utilizing primary source material alongside the author’s own field studies in New Orleans, Haiti, Cuba, Senegal, Benin, Togo, and the Republic of Congo. The result serves as an enduring resource on Mississippi River valley Voodoo, Louisiana, and the greater African Diaspora.

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