Wade Davis on voodoo, the Haiti quake, and Pat Robertson

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Anthropologist Wade Davis is an incredibly engaging and eloquent explorer of the world's cultural diversity, what he calls the Ethnosphere. He has written a slew of amazing books about the dangers faced by disappearing cultures, both to the people whose vibrant cultures are getting wiped out, and to us. His latest book is The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, based on his CBC Massey Lectures last year, but he is perhaps best known for The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), an illuminating study of Haitian voodoo and zombis. National Geographic interviewed Davis about the earthquake in Haiti, voodoo, and Pat Robertson's idiocy. From National Geographic:
What do you think of Pat Robertson's recent remarks that this month's earthquake in Haiti was God's revenge for a pact Haitian slaves made with the devil to overthrow French colonists in the late 1700s?

Cruel, ignorant, unforgivable, the ravings of a lunatic. He doesn't even know what he's talking about.

What happened--according to both historical record and the founding history for the Haitian state--was that there was a voodoo ceremony where the symbol of freedom sang out, which was the sound of the conch trumpet [spurring African slaves to rebel against French coffee and sugar plantation owners in 1791].

In the same way that we speak so reverentially of Washington crossing the Delaware, that was the catalyst of the slave revolt. It was the only successful slave revolt in history [to have won control of a country], and it's said to have begun with a voodoo ceremony.

So Pat Robertson is saying by that comment that voodoo itself is the devil. Voodoo is not a black magic cult, nor does it have anything to do with a Christian notion of the devil.

All he's saying by that comment is that all African religion is devil worship, and he's revealing not only his ignorance about what voodoo really is, but also his bias that any religion not his own is devil worship.

For a man who aspired to the presidency he revealed himself to be remarkably unschooled in American history.

Had it not been for the revolutionary slaves of Haiti, we might well be speaking French in much of what is today the U.S.A.

Napoleon at the height of his power dispatched the greatest military force ever to sail from France. Its mission was twofold: Crush the slave revolt in Haiti, and then proceed up the Mississippi, hem in the expanding 13 Colonies, and reestablish French dominance in a continent that only 30 years before at the Treaty of Paris had become British North America.

Thanks to the Haitian patriots, the French armada never reached New Orleans [and Napoleon decided to sell much of what is now the western U.S. via the Louisiana Purchase.]

"Haiti Earthquake & Voodoo: Myths, Ritual, and Robertson"


  1. Surprisingly this is a bit misleading from my understanding of Haiti.

    The deal with the devil I have been taught relates not to the use of Voodoo at the Bois Caimen ceremony. Rather it reflects the belief by some regarding the spirits invoked that night. The belief is that if Water spirits had been called and not Fire spirits then the nation may not have suffered so much misfortune over the last 200 years.
    Though may also argue that had Water spirits been invoked then a successful revolt may not have occurred.

    Unfortunately we all know it was the disastrous French reparations that have had the real ruinous affect on the nation.

    Pat Robertson is an idiot, but I figured boing boing readers deserved to know the subtleties.

  2. To be pedantic about it, Robertson’s brand of Christianity considers all non-Fundamentalist (Protestant) Christian religions to be Satanic, not out of ignorance of their core beliefs, but because in his theological view, all other religions are actually worshiping Satan in disguise because Satan deceives people into not worshiping the true God of Christianity. Therefor, to him, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, and Voodoo are just as satanic as a Church of Satan.

    Granted, that is a type of ignorance, but not one necessarily born out of not knowing the nature of Voodoo.

    1. I was about to say the exact same thing. Roberton is an arrogant, selfish and power driven ass… but his point of view is merely reflecting a basic belief stated by the bible, that being that there is only ONE WAY to reach the big guy up in the sky. Ergo, voodoo is a sneaky way for the enemy to lure more unsuspecting people down below. Dogmatic, of course, but that’s the name of the game- if you assume this premise, then everything else must logically follow.

      1. Naw. Luke 13:4 refutes that. NIV:

        Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?

        If you read around that quote, you’ll find that Jesus is saying that disasters don’t happen to people because God is especially angry with them, which is what Robertson was claiming. So Robertson may have been following Paul, but he’s not following Jesus.

        I’m not even a Christian, but I’m a better Christian than Pat Robertson.

        1. Not to get into a theological argument here, but all that passage is saying is that everyone who has sinned and not repented is equally guilty and equally doomed. Robertson is simply pointing out the specific way in which Haiti is doomed.

          As if he’s one to talk, I know.

          1. What it’s saying is that God will not use disasters to single people out for punishment. Everyone is equally doomed, but disasters on Earth aren’t God’s way of punishing people.

            That’s even for your own sins, never mind something your ancestors did in 1791.

  3. Pat Robertson isn’t necessarily ignorant himself.

    He’s counting on his audience being ignorant.

    The fact that this well-funded jackass is still on the air suggests he knows his audience very well.

  4. To be fair (?) to Robertson, there is a long tradition of Christianity (and Judaism) decrying satanic influence in all non-Christian/judiaic religions.

    Isaiah and Elijah mock those who worship through idols, the torah says not to swear by the names of other gods. Paul allows that its ok to buy meat from temples that have sacrificed it to zeus, etc, but that to actually go to the zeus temple feasts is to feed “at the table of demons”.

    Robertson might be trying to follow the Apostle Paul in this.

  5. Davis is a little bit guilty of what he accuses Robertson of…

    He conveniently leaves out the massive affect of malaria and yellow fever on the French, which sapped their strength as much or more than the Haitian rebels.

  6. As a Greek am grateful to Haitian patriots. Haiti was the first nation to recognize Greece’s right to independence in 1821 practically immediately after the revolution started. They even sent the revolutionaries help by means of 25tons of coffee that was meant to be sold in France and buy weapons for the revolution. Despite Haiti being poor and recovering from their own independence war. Their Voodoo is much better than anything this hatemonger has to offer.

    So yeah fuck this Robertson and every retarded subhuman that believes in him.

  7. Why do people like Robertson assume everyone belives in the Devil like he does? I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny either. You can’t make a pact with someone who doesn’t exist.

    1. Because Robertson also assumes, through a bit of circular theological logic, that if you don’t believe in the devil, as he does, then you are in fact worshiping Satan through his guise of atheism or alternate religion.

      I have had the dubious honor of actually hearing fundamentalist preachers basically say that the Easter bunny and Santa Clause were essentially disguises of Satan because they are presented as non-holy trinity supernatural figures.

  8. Davis should do his homework. he fails to mention much larger catalysts for the ‘continued’ degradation of Haiti.

    while offhandedly deriding ‘racist southerners’ in general and their ‘book deals/movie deals’ post occupation, which he attributes to reinforcing inaccurate stereotyping of voodoo as bad PR for Haiti, the Natl.City Bank of NY is strangely absent.

    NCBNY along w/the US Fed Reserve took over the entire island including it’s national bank, prohibiting any foreign monies’ entry into the country other than through them, eventually forcing Haiti into such debt, they never recovered.

    so, that stranglehold honor goes to Astor, his ‘front shadow’ agent Taylor and later the Rockefeller clan.
    CitiBank/CitiGroup as we now globally know it, was very busy in world during the 20’s replicating their success in Hati… China, Spain, Peru. China even filed suit to have funds returned, of course this was met w/snickers and pronouncements on the sovereign rights of nations and their destinies.. not southern.

    there is also no mention of who controlled those publishing/movie industries that eagerly sought to capitalize on ‘bad zombi PR’ of Haiti. they weren’t southern either.

    how unusual…on issues of mistreatment of blacks or black slavery, southerners usually get sole blame but the french share the derision this time.

    all too usual…the song remains the same…northern industry/commerce and northern money barons get a pass.

    orwell said it, he who controls the past controls the future.

    tsk, tsk, davis… as an anthropologist, seems like you’d more about your subject matter..

  9. It’s interesting what other theological implications are behind Robertson’s tirade…

    There’s a common belief that any time something bad happens, it is God’s judgement on those folks because of their wrongdoing. This isn’t actually consistent with the Bible itself – look at Job – the entire book is basically a dialogue about why bad things happen, with the end conclusion being that we can’t really say why God does the things he does.

    Basically, Robertson is a dishonest, shortsighted and hateful blowhard, and isn’t correct even by his own standards.

  10. Robertson is amazing, really. He has the chutzpah accuse Haitian slaves of making a pact with Satan, when their opponents had made the most clear-cut pact with Satan imaginable – keeping slaves on a massive scale.

    Really, can there possibly be in all of human history a more clear, literal, unambiguous example of a pact with the devil, than the decision to get rich by enslaving another people?

    1. Well, apparently Robertson thinks slavery was OK. After all, in this country it was only black people.

      Don’t try to figure out what he could possibly have been thinking. It will just make you feel all dirty.

  11. People suffering horribly because they did something “evil”, though, does provide a comforting out if you think there’s an omnipotent, omniscient diety. Because otherwise, he just kills people for jollies when he gets bored, and you’ve basically got forms of Ctulhu worship at that point.

  12. Meanwhile, the thing that is usually ignored about Vodou is that it’s not a religion in the usual sense, and the majority of its practitioners (especially in Haiti) are devout Christians. Just not the sort of Christians Robertson approves of.

  13. Virtually no one is a self-proclaimed devil worshipper, even members of the Church of Satan. That’s why people like Pat Robertson have to set everyone else straight, that ANY spiritual ceremony that doesn’t deify his version of Christ is actually a pact with the prince of darkness.

  14. When we’re done putting Robertson in his place, would it be okay to note that Vodoun is a form of mystical obscurantism that, like many others, is used to maintain local currupt power structures in Haiti and is part of what has held that nation back for so long?

  15. You guys are being WAY too kind to Robertson. This has nothing to do with his religious beliefs. The man is a white supremacist and he’s been using Christian Fundamentalism to further that core goal since he got into the business. Long before they got on the “God Hates Fags” bandwagon, Robertson and Fallwell used the pulpit to try and defend Jim Crow and attack the Civil Rights movement. Robertson defended Apartheid as protecting the rights of a white minority surrounded by enemies. This isn’t anything new and it isn’t based in his values as a Christian, it is based in his heritage as a Dixiecrat.

  16. Beware, unbelievers! Pat Robertson can leg press about forty zillion pounds — with the power of JESUS!


    Pat Robertson is an senile old man surrounded by sycophants who nurture his silly delusions, no doubt for a variety of vile personal reasons. Simple greed for dollars would be the most charitable explanation. I take him for a dime-store version of King Lear.

    With that said, Haiti has been a mess for more than two centuries, and is on no path to prosperity now. Not the fault of any devil, just human folly.

  17. On the other hand, it’s not like Voodoo is doing anybody any favors. This BBC documentary on the subject is much more straight to the point about what it’s actually like than Wade Davis’ work. Davis is an ethnobotanist, a plant guy with a sideline in culture. He never fully saw the ramifications of Voodoo. I won’t comment on that myself, and yes I think Pat Robertson is a dick. But this video shows very clearly what Voodoo actually is.


    1. This video emphasizing a sensational aspect of Voudou as practiced in Benin. In a very poor country, people in positions of power (theological, social, political) often exploit others out of their own greed and desperation. This happens in all religions. If your stance that all religion is bad because of this, well, I don’t agree. Secular people exploit others as well. Prices for initiations should be adjusted to the country and the people–if they are not being adjusted to help the community as a whole, then the fault is with religious leaders, not the religion itself.

    2. Well to be fair West Africa is not Haiti and there practices are likely completely different , Wade Davis has spent a lot of time in Haiti and is a respected and accomplished Scientist, i think i will defer to him on this subject .

  18. There can be only one real reason for Mr Robertson’s apparent authority on the matter: http://weeklycoitus.co.nz/?p=683

    I am a firm believer that the current glut of zombie media is some weird self-defense zeitgeist to help us deal with the second coming. Possibly.

  19. Pat Robertson should also return all the down payment monies he took from the less fortunate and misguided people that continue to keep him filthy rich in return for a better abode in an imaginary heaven after their death.
    What is the truth behind the devil story?
    The Western world refuse to believe that a group of rag tag African as they see us, had tacticians, strategists and thinkers far more brilliant than them and was able to defeat them military.
    They refused to acknowledge defeat and ascribe it to some supernatural agency. It is a convenient way to have the feeble minded divert their attention from significant historical fact.
    According to Anthropologists, Africa is the cradle of mankind. Voodoo emerged in Africa as the progenitor of all religions on this planet.
    African and black in the Diaspora should go back to the Alma matter-Voodoo. Get rid of the second hand religions such as Christianity, Muslim, Hindu and other.
    Voodoo as a cultural force will be the catalyst that will unify Black everywhere one day.
    Arab, White, Hindu will continue to disrespect Blacks as long Blacks continues to reject the African culture to embrace foreign cultures.
    Get rid of the Koran, Bible and the various Hindu ritual books. They were tailored for the interest and glorification of the Arabs, Hindus, and Europeans respectively. That is why African names, tribes, cultural values and so on are omitted on those books. They have been using those books as an instrument of conquest to steal your lands, subjugating you and short change you.
    That is why they induce you to call a particular person your savior when in fact his ancestors were born in the Middle East and your ancestor were born in Africa. You don’t have to look in a mirror to realize that you don’t look alike.
    They use this book for their empowerment. That is why the Europeans are waging an incisive and vicious war against Voodoo. That is why they are vilifying the Voodoo and other aspect of the African culture. The missionaries in Haiti have a long term agenda. They might try to coerce the Haitian Government to get rid of Voodoo later on.
    The doll and the needle are European inventions and have nothing to do with Africa. The communion symbolizes cannibalism. The cross historically has been used for execution. Thus, the cross symbolizes a crime scene.
    More people on this planet have been killed by Christians, Muslims, and Hindus under the name of religion than during the Second World War. Those religions have been hotbed for social discrimination, injustice and polarization. The Haitian elite supposedly is Christian but “Yo pas camarade pitit sor Yet.”

  20. I will briefly try to clear up some of the myths surrounding Vodou. Hollywood has promoted a faith that is so far form the real religion that the two are not at all similar. The Aid organizations are reacting to that image. The humfo or church group is the center of life and it operates also as a farm. On the farm, the people grow their own food and raise their own animals. When food supplies run low or at times when extra food is needed. Vodouins will hold a ceremony. It is like a Madri Gras as Sylvia Browne said on Sally Jessie Rapheal show some years ago. We give our animals a great meal, use perfumes on them and if they step forward use them in the ceremony. You see, we believe we are all leaves on the same tree as you take care of one leaf the whole tree does better. Animals as well as humans have a spirit and are a leaf .We give to that animal the choice, and if it chooses we kill them very quickly and humanely. We pray and give thanks to god for our blessings and to the animal for becoming our food. Christians have a similar practice. They raise their animals on a farm where they are often mistreated, kill they at times les than humanely and pick them up at a butcher. Christians often then pray over their meal as we do. In Haiti, they do not have grocery stores like we do in the west. The church farm is a natural evolution and it insures care and respect given to all.

    We believe in one god.We believe in Jesus ,Mary and Joseph, the holy trinity and obvouisly what we call Good God. Vodouins hold that you must never hold a grudge nor should you act out of emotion. It is ok to feel it but not react out of it. That one can be hard especially when you get cut off in traffic or other silly things in our daily life. A priest must help all that come to him, no matter what. If one has no home or income ,the humfo becomes a source of hope and a chance for a new start. I read recently, one journalist say Vodou was actually more like Buddhism.We strive for purity of heart. Only those that have achieved self mastery over their own faults as well as joy can hope to reach up and touch the hand of a saint or angel. If you are cruel, unjust or still confined by your own faults then the angels will not work through you. It is through this interaction that Hollywood has promoted the image of possession. In truth it is very hard to strive to that level and earn the time with these divine beings. You cannot be cruel or hurtful or act selfishy and expect any angel to go near you as they wont. It must be earned.
    I hope to bring light to the truth of how we live and dispel so many other Hollywood realities that are nothing like the true Voduin faith.
    thank you for your time

  21. When I was young I was told evil spirts did not exisit. Yet every weekend my mother, I and my siblings spent hours talking to the dead or alive who knows now? Now I am old and have seen the living and the dead co-exist I wonder how and why?
    I have the rite to pick and choose which way I go out and that way is the way. I have the proof, the insite, that good will overcome all bad. I have met Satin in all forms, on purpose cause he is what I have searched for, I guess I am lucky that way. I have found the light source against evil. The devil is scared of me. I know this truth from beyond my birth. My message is important! I would so much like to share it with you but I am scared, but not affaird. Luf can not touch me, he has tried, and holds back. He uses others to do his deeds and they are not sucessful. Like I mentioned before I am old now, I have live life beyond expected and happy now to share to any who is willing ask how?

  22. Christian slave holders created Haiti as a hell on earth for black people, christian America blockaded the country for decades after independeance, and then helped France impose ruinous reparations on it. Christian America then occupied it repeatedly and supported and imposed rapacious local governments on its suffering people, yet according to Pat Robertson, the real problem with Haiti is the presence of voodoo.

    Christianity lost it way and whatever moral authority it may once have had long ago when the majority of its leaders and followers in the West signed on to the belief in concepts and practices of white supremacy and used them to justify chatel slavery and colonialism and any atrocities or extremes of behavior which the maintenance of those systems required. In the process, of doing so, self-described Christians have probably murdered more people in more parts of the world than the Mongols, Nazis and the Communists and a host of other murderous institutions and cultures combined have. The fact that in 2010, people such as Pat Robertson who opposed the civil rights movement and supported apartheid are still revered and defended by millions of followers, says a great deal bout that static nature of that faith and its inability to face evil when exists within the faithful themselves or when it serves their need to dominate others.

    Christians would do well to examine their own long, sorry history of being on the wrong side of justice over and over again, and mending their own behavior before even considering criticising the beliefs or non-beliefs of others.

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