Among the African rituals and customs described by Moreau de Saint–Méry, none terrified white planters in Haiti more than the practice of voodoo. His description of the rituals associated with voodoo and the hold it had on the minds of the enslaved people demonstrates both his fascination with the topic and the importance he attached to it.
There is an African dance which has been known for a long time, chiefly in the Western Part of the French Colony of Saint Domingue. It bears the name of Vaudoux (or Voodoo).
But it is not as a dance alone that Voodoo is to be considered, for it is set in circumstances which assign it a place among institutions in which superstition and some bizarre practices have a great part.
According to the Arada tribe, who are the particular votaries of Voodoo in the Colony and who keep up its principles and rules, Voodoo signifies an all-powerful, supernatural being. Upon this being hang all the events which occur on this globe. Now this being is a snake, not of a poisonous kind, often an adder. It is under the adder's auspices that the believers assemble. Knowledge of the past, learning of the present, and foreknowledge of the future are all attributed to this snake. The adder is never willing to share its power, or to tell its wishes except through the medium of a high priest chosen by the cult members. Later, a woman participates; a negress whom the love of this latter person has raised to the rank of high priestess.
These two ministers, who call themselves inspired by God, or in whom the gift of this inspiration is really manifested to the believers, bear the pompous names of "King" and "Queen." They are further called "master" or "mistress" in the autocratic meaning of the term, or, last the touching titles of "papa" and "mama." They are their entire lives the chiefs of the big Voodoo family and have the right to the unlimited respect of the members. These latter are the ones who determine if the adder accepts the admission of a new member into the society. As such, they prescribe his obligations and duties, and receive the gifts and presents which the god accepts as his due. To disobey them, to resist them, is to resist God himself. In short, it means to expose oneself to very serious dangers.
Once this system of domination on the one side and of blind submission on the other is established, the leaders set times and dates for future assemblies. . . . They follow usages which they may have brought from Africa and to which Creole customs have added certain variations; there are also certain obvious European items such as the scarf or the rich girdle which the Queen wears—but which she changes sometimes.
The meeting for the true disciples of Voodoo, or at least the ones which have lost the least of their primitive purity, is always secret. It is held in the dark of night and in a place closed and sheltered from all profane eyes.
Once at the rendezvous, each initiate puts on a pair of sandals and places around his body a more or less considerable number of red handkerchiefs or handkerchiefs in which that color dominates. The Voodoo King has more beautiful handkerchiefs and a larger quantity of them; also he has something which is all red and which encircles his brow—his diadem. A cord, generally blue, helps to set off his flashy dignity. The Queen, clad in simple luxury, shows also her preference for the color red, most often in her ornamental cord or her waistband.
The King and Queen take their places at one end of the room. Nearby is a species of altar on which is a chest containing the snake, where every member can see it through the bars.
When they have ascertained that no one has entered the precincts out of curiosity, the ceremony is started. It begins with the worship of the adder, through protestations of loyalty to its cult and being submissive to its orders. Led by the King and Queen, each renews his oath of secrecy, which is the foundation of the whole thing. Then follow all the rites which anyone in his delirium can imagine, anything that is most horrible, to render the ceremony more impressive emotionally.
When the votaries of Voodoo are thus ready to receive what the King and Queen affect to share with them, the royal pair adopt the loving tone of a sensible mother and father. They boast of the good fortune which is the endowment of everyone who is devoted to the Voodoo god. They exhort their adherents to have confidence in him and give him proof of it, while taking his counsels as to the proper course in various circumstances.
Then the crowd scatters and each person, according to his need and according to his seniority as a member, goes to plead with the Voodoo. Most slaves ask for the ability to direct the thoughts of their masters. But this is not enough. One begs for money. Another seeks the gift of pleasing a girl who will pay no attention to him. This one wishes to call back an unfaithful mistress, that one asks to be made well or to have a longer life. After them, an old woman wants to implore God to stop the scorn of someone whose happy youth she would capture. A young girl asks for everlasting love—or repeats the wishes that hatred dictates to her as to a preferred rival. It is not passion which proffers a wish, and crime itself cannot always disguise who the interested parties are.
For each of these invocations he receives, the Voodoo King meditates. The Spirit acts in him. Suddenly he takes the chest containing the adder, places it on the ground, and makes the Voodoo Queen stand on it. Once the sacred refuge is under her feet, this new pythoness that she is, is possessed by God. She shakes, her whole body is convulsed, and the oracle speaks through her mouth. Sometimes she flatters and promises happiness, sometimes she thunders and utters reproaches. In keeping with her desires, her own interests, or her whims, she speaks as if she is the law and there is no appeal. She says whatever she likes, in the name of the adder, to that assembly of imbeciles, who never raise the slightest doubt over the most monstrous absurdity. They know nothing else but to obey her or the adder's despotic fiat.
After all the questions have brought out from the oracle a reply of some kind, which may be ambiguous, the people form a circle. The adder is restored to the altar.
This is the moment when one takes up his tribute, which each has tried to render especially worthy of him. It is put in a covered hat, so that no one may be made to blush by some other's jealous curiosity. The King and Queen promise to make them pleasing to him. It is by the profit from these offerings that the expenses of the meetings are covered, and that help is procured, both for those present and for those absent who have some need, or from whom the society expects some thing for its glory and its renown.
The members propose some plans, they stop some overtures, they prescribe actions which the Voodoo Queen supports, always as the will of God, and which do not always have public order or public tranquility for their object. A new oath, as execrable as the first, commits each person to keep quiet about what has passed and concur in what has been done. Sometimes a vessel filled with the still-hot blood of a goat is used to bind the lips of the observers, who promise to suffer death rather than divulge anything or even to put to death anyone who forgets what he has committed himself to.
After that comes the dance of the Voodoo. If there is an initiate-to-be, the King traces a circle with some black substance and places the recruit in it. In the novice's hand is put a packet made up of herbs, animal hair, bits of horn, and other things just as disgusting. Striking the candidate lightly on the head with a little wooden blade, he intones an African song which all those around the circle take up in chorus. Then the member-elect starts to tremble and to do a dance, which is called "Come up, Voodoo." If unluckily the excess of his trance makes him leave the circle, the chant stops at once and the King and Queen turn their backs in order to dispel the ill omen. The dancer recovers, goes into the circle again, renews his trembling, limps, and has such convulsions that the King orders him to stop. The King taps him gently on the head with the blade or wand, or even with a cow's neck tendon, if he considers that right. He is led to the altar to take the oath and from this moment belongs to the sect.
The rite over, the King puts his hand or his foot on the adder's cage and soon is possessed. He then transmits this mood to the Queen, who in turn passes it on to those in the circle. Each makes movements, in which the upper part of the body, the head and shoulders, seem to be dislocated. The Queen above all is the prey to the most violent agitations. From time to time she goes up to the Voodoo snake to seek some new magic and shakes the chest and the little bells with which it is adorned, making them ring out in a very climax or folly. But the delirium keeps rising. It is augmented still more by the use of intoxicating drinks, which in their frenzied state the participants do not spare and which help to sustain them. Faintings and raptures take over some of them and a sort of fury some of the others, but for all there is a nervous trembling which they cannot master. They spin around ceaselessly. And there are some in this species of bacchanal who tear their clothing and even bite their flesh. Others who are only deprived of their senses and have fallen in their tracks are taken, even while dancing, into the darkness of a neighboring room, where a disgusting prostitution exercises a most hideous empire. Finally, weariness brings an end to these afflicting scenes. This is not before a decision has been announced as to the time of the next meeting.
It is very natural to think that Voodoo owes its origin to the serpent cult, to which the people of Juida are particularly devoted. They also say that it originated in the kingdom of Ardra, which, like Juida, is on the Slave Coast. And how far the Africans push their superstitions in regard to this animal, the adder, is easy to recognize from what I have just told.
What is very true of Voodoo and at the same time very remarkable, is the spirit of hypnotism, which brings the members to dance right to the edge of consciousness. The prevention of spying [it may be added] is very rigorous. Whites caught ferreting out the secrets of the sect and tapped by a member who has spotted them have sometimes themselves started dancing and have consented to pay the Voodoo Queen to put an end to this punishment. I cannot fail to add, however, that never has any man of the constabulary, who has sworn war upon Voodoo, not felt the power which compels him to dance and which without doubt has saved the dancers from any need for fighting.
In order to quiet the alarms which this mysterious cult of Voodoo causes in the Colony, they affect to dance it in public, to the sound of the drums and of rhythmic handclapping. They even have this followed by a dinner where people eat nothing but poultry. But I assure you that this is only one more calculation, to evade the watchfulness of the magistrates and the better to guarantee the success of this dark cabal. After all, Voodoo is not a matter of amusement or enjoyment. It is rather a school where those easily influenced give themselves up to a domination which a thousand circumstances can render tragic.
One would not credit to what extent the Voodoo chiefs keep other members in dependence on them. There is no one of these latter who would not prefer anything to the evils with which they are threatened if they don't go regularly to the assemblies or don't blindly do what they are ordered to do. One can see that fright has influenced them, to make them abandon the use of reason. In their transports of frenzy, they utter shouts, flee from other people's eyes, and excite pity. In a word, nothing is more dangerous, according to all the accounts, than this cult of Voodoo. It can be made into a terrible weapon—this extravagant idea that the ministers of this alleged god know all and can do anything.
Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry, A Civilization That Perished: The Last Years of White Colonial Rule in Haiti, (Philadelphia, published by the author, 1797-1798), translated, abridged, and edited by Ivor D. Spencer, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), 1-7.