Most of my urban fantasy novel “The Obsidian Mirror” is loosely rooted in the traditions of North American and meso-American cultures. But I didn’t want to leave out all the other rich traditions of the Americas, and the one I know the most about happens to be Vodún—more commonly called Voodoo (which is a Hollywood invention).
You might ask, why is a nice middle-class white woman who has never lived in the Caribbean interested in Vodún? Excellent question! The answer is: I don’t know. I was just interested. I started reading about Vodún sometime in my early twenties. I can’t remember the names of most of the books I consumed, but the best by far was Wade Davis’ “The Serpent and the Rainbow”—which was not much like the later movie of the same name.
Davis was a Harvard botanist who was encouraged by an older professor to go to Haiti to collect plants that might have psychopharmacological value. Haiti offers a wealth of plants known to have potent effects, mostly toxic, that had never been scientifically analyzed. Haitian mambos and houngans (Vodún priestesses and priests) reportedly used things known as “zombie cucumber” and “zombie powder” to create zombies by raising the dead. Davis was supposed to go and see if these things actually existed outside the realm of the movie theater.
They did, and Davis found them. He also demonstrated that zombies were quite real. Ill-intentioned houngans used a blend of various poisons to put victims into a deathlike sleep, where heartbeat and respiration were slowed to imperceptibility. Bodies in rural Haiti are not embalmed, but buried as quickly as possible to avoid the inevitable rapid decay in a hot, wet climate. The houngan and his helpers would disinter the “corpse” the night of the burial, then allow the victim to partially recuperate. The victim was kept in a state of drugged compliance with the use of poisonous fruit—the “zombie cucumber.”—and used as the houngan’s slave labor.
However, what I principally learned about Vodún is that it is a perfectly legitimate religion—as legitimate as any other. The evil houngans and mambos were a tiny minority of Vodún practitioners. Most were in the business of healing and spiritual comfort, as is any pastor or rabbi. Vodún is a pantheistic religion, with many spirits, or loas, personifying various characteristics. There is an all-powerful single god, Bondye, but he does not interfere in human affairs, so followers of Vodún apeal to the loa, who are much more down-to-earth. Dumballah-Wedo is the father god, personified by the serpent, which is wise and all-knowing. Madame Ezilée represents sexuality and feminine beauty. Baron Samedi—beloved of Hollywood for his gruesome skull-face and black top hat—is the spirit of sex and resurrection, an interesting combination. He is also a Trickster, like Coyote in the American Southwest or Anansi in Africa, but he is not the gruesome horror that the movies make him out to be. And so on—there’s a quite a lot of loa.
Vodún is a charismatic religion. Worshippers become ecstatic, offering themselves as “horses” for the loa to ride. Observers say it is easy to tell which loa rides each individual by their characteristic behavior. Madame Ezilée is all sensuality and seductiveness. Baron Samedi is a wencher and enjoys smoking and drinking. Afterwards, celebrants are usually exhausted and may not remember what they have been doing while possessed. Ceremonies are usually for benign purposes such as healing, celebrating an occasion–or entertaining tourists.
Well, it gets more complicated, and there are various forms of Vodún, just as there are different flavors of almost any religion. Various traditions came from different African tribes. And of course, it got mixed up with the Catholicism of the French colonizers of Haiti. But it is well established, and practiced more widely than you might think.
How do I know this? Many years ago, I visited New Orleans to attend the annual convention of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. ) I was a public relations executive, but my agency sent me to represent them anyway. I did not decline.) The meeting was held in a hotel right smack dab in middle of the French Quarter. I had never been to the city before, and was determined to see as much as I could during the time I was not attending meetings on “Maximize Your Agency Billings” or “Integrated Communications: Agency of the Future?”
I picked up a little street map of the Quarter to assist me in my ramblings. I quickly noticed the Voodoo Museum and made my way to the spot indicated on the map. There was nothing there but the usual French colonial house fronts turned into shops full of rag dolls, gold-embellished shell jewelry and “Cajun Chewing Gum.” I asked a few people about the museum over the next day or two, and finally someone knew; the museum had moved its location. I went to see it the next day.
It was a gray day, spitting down rain, simultaneously chilly and steamy. I arrived dripping wet in the marble-tiled lobby. The museum was located on the ground floor of an old New Orleans house, built around an open atrium with a garden. The lobby had been the original entry hall of the house. To my left was a reception desk, behind which sat an enormous black man knitting a bright orange and green sweater the size of a circus tent. He was chatting with a tall young white man with long blond hair. They both stopped talking as I approached and the knitting man took my fifty cents admission. In exchange, I got a little map of the museum.
I took the map and stood by the open doors into the atrium. There were exhibits in the garden, but the rain was sheeting down in buckets, so I decided to stay indoors. The young blond man walked over and stood beside me. He didn’t say or do anything, but he made me uncomfortable, and I decided to move into a small room marked “Marie Laveau Room.” It turned out to be a very small room indeed when the man walked in after me. I peered into antiquated and dusty museum cases at the unlit exhibits, usually labeled on yellowing paper in faded typewriter ink, and tried to ignore him. He showed no signs of going away, so I walked out again. He walked out after me.
Feeling quite nervous by this time, I hesitated in the lobby. Finally the young man spoke.
“Would you like a tour of the museum?” he inquired. He had a slight accent of some sort that I couldn’t place, but he wasn’t from New Orleans.
“Do you work here?” I asked, still suspicious. He nodded. “How much?”
“No charge,” he responded.
“What do you do here?”
He nodded toward a nearby sign that read, “Psychic Readings.” “I do the readings.”
“Are you a practitioner of Voodoo?” I asked, wondering if the young man could tell me more about the exhibits than did the faded labels.
“Vodún,” he corrected me gently. The correct way to say it is ‘Vodún.’ Voodoo is only in the movies. My name is Roland, by the way.” He held out a long-fingered, slender hand. I introduced myself and shook it, still a bit reluctantly.
“Vodún is a world religion, like Christianity, Judaism or Islam,” he went on. “It’s practiced everywhere.”
“Really? I thought it was just in Haiti and New Orleans?”
“No, you can find it anywhere. Even in Israel, where I come from.” Curioser and curioser. We had a good 15-minute discussion about world religions and Vodún, and I decided he was the real goods. He knew a great deal about many different religions, and was not just jiving me. I followed him through the museum, and I had a fantastic time asking questions and learning about Vodún. Occasionally, I would express revulsion at some particularly gruesome exhibit, and Roland would shake his long elf-locks at me.
“That was then,” he said several times. “It’s not like that now.” I could only hope he was right.
At the end of the tour, my confidence in Roland’s essentially benevolent intentions had grown, and I asked him for a reading. He took me to a sheet-draped back room. A small marble-topped table with elaborate wrought-iron legs stood to one side, the kind of table you might see in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Its small surface was crowded with greasy Burger King wrappers and a plaster skull with a candle stuck to its dome. Roland clucked and swept the mess off the table, muttering excuses. He left for a few minutes and returned with—to my surprise—a pack of Tarot cards. I didn’t know what to expect, but I hadn’t expected Tarot, which I didn’t associate with Voodoo—excuse me— Vodún. I had never had a Tarot card reading either, and settled down with anticipation.
I don’t remember all the details of what Roland told me, or which cards he turned up, beyond The Empress, which he said was my card. Oddly, it usually turns up in my readings, so I guess he was right. (Not that I have Tarot readings frequently, but I do have an extraordinarily gifted friend who does them for me from time to time.) What I do remember is that he told me I would suffer the normal hurts and losses of life, but I would never undergo tragedy, such as the death of a child. And he also said that I should never, EVER! become involved with the occult. It would be too dangerous for me.
That struck me as odd then, and it still does. I was being warned away from the occult by the practitioner of an occult religion who was telling my fortune through occult divination. In a museum dedicated to the occult.
As I left, Roland gave me a card, where he could be reached at any time. The simple black-and white card had his name and address—which was the Divine Light Christian Mission. And I guess that was the cherry on the top of this particular experience.
I never became involved in the occult, beyond a continuing fascination in learning about it. And I have not—yet—experienced major tragedy, though I have come too close for comfort. But I had to find a way to use Vodún in my novel, and invented a mambo named Mama Labadie who plays a fairly important role in the plot. In the midst of meso-American gods and characters from Native American folktales, Mama Labadie stands out rather conspicuously. But Vodún is as much a part of the Americas as any aboriginal tradition, and if I get the chance to write another book, she may pop up again.