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Obituary - The Economist - 20150919  

2015-10-04 18:04:51|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Obituary: Max Beauvoir —— Priestly spirit

Max Beauvoir, biochemist and high priest of Haitian voodoo, died on September 12th, aged 79

FOLK religions rarely have leaders or articulate their doctrines. And until Max Beauvoir felt its call, voodoo’s main achievement was survival. Hollywood sensationalised it; Christian missionaries out-competed it; Haiti’s corrupt rulers co-opted it, and America used it as evidence of barbarity to justify invasion. Uniquely among religions, even its name has pejorative overtones: “voodoo economics”.

But its charms, ceremonies and beliefs, rooted in west African animism and topped up with elements of Christianity, gave comfort and identity to the people of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Mr Beauvoir’s aim was to turn voodoo from a downtrodden and semi-secret cult into a proud and public religion.

He was an unlikely candidate. A biochemist, he studied in New York and at the Sorbonne in Paris, and patented a method for synthesising steroids. He returned home in 1973 to try to extract cortisone from sisal. But a year later his dying grandfather, a houngan or voodoo priest he had not seen for 20 years, pointed a wavering finger and told him: “You take over.”

Though puzzled that he, rather than any of the 20-odd cousins round the deathbed, had been chosen, he at once agreed. The cultural side of the religion fascinated him; he could at least study the herbology, he reasoned. He was happy to explain spirits, potions, dances and trances to the curious; they included Bill and Hillary Clinton, honeymooning in Haiti 1975. His French wife gamely joined in, becoming a priestess. They began holding ceremonies, initially for family and friends, and soon for hundreds of fee-paying devotees. But only in 1976, when he first experienced spirit possession, did he begin to believe in voodoo’s supernatural element, he said.

It was a good life. But voodoo was tightly tied to the Duvalier dictatorship, which had recruited houngans, once the country’s elite, into the fearsome secret police, the tontons-macoutes. To terrify believers, “Papa Doc” Duvalier styled his diction and appearance on Baron Samedi, the debauched master of the dead in the voodoo pantheon. When the regime fell in 1986, mobs lynched scores of voodoo priests, and besieged Mr Beauvoir’s home.  

Mr Beauvoir blamed the Vatican for that, and his anti-Catholic views meant he soon fell out with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the firebrand ex-priest who became president. Amid death threats, the Beauvoirs moved to Washington, DC—to minister to the spiritual needs of exiled Duvalierists there, critics said. It was a sad comedown. The police, unimpressed by voodoo spirits’ power to bend the world to their will, stopped him holding ceremonies in Rock Creek Park. He drew a small flock to the Temple of Yehwe, the spare room in his two-bedroom flat on Connecticut Avenue, but the building manager complained about the noise.

Internationally, he remained a celebrity exponent of his faith. It was not black magic, and had nothing to do with sticking pins into dolls, he explained. The real name was Vodou, derived from a word meaning “Spirit” or “God” in the Fon language of Benin. It was monotheistic, but its many recognised spirits were important messengers and helpmeets for the deity. It healed mind, soul and body, guiding “all of our actions and all of our thoughts”. Sacred trances did not create the monstrous zombies of Hollywood depiction: they result from the sacramental administration of tiny doses of nerve poison, which enabled the spirit to leave the shackles of the body and talk directly with God.

But untangling voodoo’s spiritual and political significance from its practices was hard. Zombie powder, according to a book written by a Harvard ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, with Mr Beauvoir’s help, contained a hallucinogenic plant called datura, crushed skull from a toddler’s decomposing corpse, freshly killed blue lizards, and a large dried toad with a dried sea worm wrapped around it. Later research cast doubt on the efficacy of this preparation in producing lasting trances.

In 2008 the houngans decided they needed a leader who would settle disputes and make their case in public. They chose Mr Beauvoir to head their new federation, as the “Ati” or high priest of voodoo. He returned to Haiti, and, walking across white rose petals strewn on a crimson carpet, he ascended a varnished throne carved out of a giant tree trunk, to his new role as voodoo’s titular head.

Mind over matter

No longer was the religion to be secret or shameful: it epitomised the spirit of the great slave revolt of 1791 and was the best antidote to the corruption that plagued Haiti, he argued. The 60,000 voodoo priests should play a role in politics: they were closer to the people than the cosseted elite with their corrosive dependence on foreign values and money. Voodoo exemplified solidarity and self-help—a spirit that was sorely needed after the devastating earthquake of 2010.

Not everyone was impressed. His showmanship struck some as hucksterism and the lavish, choreographed ceremonies at his temple seemed redolent of a nightclub. But he smoothly dismissed his critics as prejudiced and ignorant: Haitians wanted voodoo and should not be ashamed of it. Like his country, he would not yield without a fight.

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