The V Word

When, during the campaign for the Republican nomination in 1980, George Bush, Senior, came up with the phrase voodoo economics to mock the policies of his rival, Ronald Reagan, he might have been celebrating the centenary of this adjectival noun, which emerged, almost by accident from what now seem quaintly-spelt predecessors.

And he was drawing on at least fifty years of its use as a powerful charm to ward off the ever-present danger, it would seem, of the irrational in the midst of the modern. ‘Just why Freud should have resorted to voodooism instead of falling back on his early scientific training is not clear,’ wrote an earnest disciple of behaviourism in the late 1920s.

But to appreciate its history as an English word we would have to go back much further – to a party of twelve Capuchin missionaries who arrived on the West African coast in the middle of the 17th Century, equipped with a catechism prepared in France with the help of an interpreter. The Doctrina Christianawas probably the earliest published work in any African language, and the word chosen as the nearest equivalent to the missionaries’ Dios was Vodu, more usually spelt today vodun in the Fon and related languages spoken in Togo and Benin.

The mission was not a success, and apart from a handful of other appearances in travellers’ accounts of the period, vodu never really caught on. It just could not compete with another, Portuguese, word that took root in the languages of the European powers that came to dominate the region – French, Dutch and English – in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fetissofetiche, and eventually fetish came to name all that seemed un-enlightened in an age of enlightenment, not only in Africa but – by the middle of the 19th century – just about anywhere, as the Marxist concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ and the Victorian catalogues of the perversions illustrate.

Vodu did reappear, though, in the 1860s as the British presence on the West African coast intensified and the hinterlands sized up by cartographers, diplomats and (once more) missionaries. By the 1890s, we find pressing demands for a greater awareness of the local languages. A B Ellis, a British army officer, after writing an impressionistic account of the region entitled The Land of Fetish (1883), turned to a more systematic approach and a subsequent work a few years later states clearly that ‘the generic terms used by the Ewe-speaking peoples for gods and superhuman agencies of all kinds, are edro and vodu.’

Ellis went on to note that the term survives in the French Caribbean in the ‘Vaudoux worship of the negroes of Hayti’ where many slaves from the region were transported in the 18th Century. Europeans had long been familiar with vaudou or vaudoux, ever since a snake cult devoted to a god of this name had been described in some detail by a colonial official on the eve of the St Domingue slave rebellion in 1791. According to Moreau de Saint-Méry, the snake-god communicated with its worshippers at secret ceremonies, presided over by a ‘king’ and ‘queen’, involving animal sacrifices and patterns of conduct we would recognize today as spirit possession.

The independent state of Haiti that emerged from the bitter struggle was closely observed by both pro-slavery and abolitionist campaigners overseas. But by and large they paid little attention to African religious practices. No doubt one reason vaudoux receded from the literature was that these practices were suppressed by successive governments. Furthermore, visitors tended to associate with the Francophone elites in the capital, who would have been keen to stress the modern, ‘civilized’ character of the new nation.

When the first wave of British travellers arrived in Haiti as the debate on slave emancipation in the West Indies gathered pace in the late 1820s, they were primarily concerned with assessing economic performance and political stability. Their remarks on religion tended to focus on the corrupt and inefficient Catholic clergy, and its inability to uproot local superstitions these authors rendered imprecisely as heathenism. At their most specific, they tended to assimilate this heathenism to the Jamaican form more familiar to their readers: Obi or Obeah.

This period of latency came to an end during the regime of Faustin Soulouque (1847-59). Under Soulouque, vaudoux was encouraged, and the self-styled Emperor made use of its network of rural leaders to reinforce his authority and power (much as François Duvalier did a century later). The Baptist missionary W W Webley wrote home in December 1849 of a religious dance he witnessed, noting – in what was possibly the first appearance of the word in an English-language text – that the worshippers ‘form themselves into one vast society (called les vaudous), which almost deluges the Haitian part of the island.’

Moreau de Saint-Mery’s account began to be quoted widely, but English-language accounts make no attempt to give vaudoux a more Anglicized spelling, beyond Webley’s reluctance to use the French pluralizing ‘x’. This form is acknowledged in the Oxford English Dictionary, marked by the symbol that indicates that it is ‘not naturalised, alien’.

Meanwhile, newspapers in New Orleans – where a good number of slaves from St Domingue ended up, many of them via Cuba, from where slaveholding refugees were expelled in 1809 – made much sensationalist copy out of the voudou, in which some similarities with the rituals described by Moreau de Saint-Méry may be discerned, for instance, the regal titles adopted by its leaders, such as ‘Queen’ Marie Laveau. This Creole term, almost certainly dating from the French colonial period, appears routinely in English-language writing about the city until well after the Civil War. In George Washington Cable’s novel The Grandissimes (1880), translations of passages in Creole leave voudou unchanged.

Nevertheless, the Americanization of Louisiana gradually leaves it mark on the word. From the 1850s one finds it acquiring English inflections (voudouedvoudouism) and it begins to lose the characteristic French spelling of the vowel sound: vodouvoudowvodoo, and eventually voodoo, which, in an article in the first issue of the Journal of American Folklore (1888), was declared the form now ‘commonly written in the United States.’ The main purpose of the article, however, was to provide vaudoux with a spurious etymology that derived it from the Swiss canton of Vaud, a claim repeated in dictionaries for several decades to come.

Recorded around the same time is the variant hoodoo. The words are sometimes used interchangeably in the United States, but they commonly mark a distinction. Voodoo more often refers to the more organized, religious or quasi-religious, ceremonies (such as communal dancing and singing), which had become rare in New Orleans by the end of the 19th Century. On the other hand, hoodoo is usually associated with the business of root doctors and conjure men and women who assist their clients to influence others by means of contagious and sympathetic magic – or, to counter or protect against such influence. Not easily distinguished from Euro-American forms such as palmistry and spiritualism, hoodoo continues to flourish across the rural South and any large cities where there are significant African American populations, although it also attracts a substantial white clientele.

By the First World War, voodoo had displaced its competitors entirely in English language writing. One of the reasons for its success must be due to the fact that, while it is the result of the domestication of foreign spelling and pronunciation, the word ended up more alien in English than it ever was in French. If vaudoux and voudou seem susceptible to morphological analysis to a French-speaker – and therefore to false etymologies that obscure their African origin – voodoo is defiantly exotic, an impenetrable combination of forceful consonants and rhyming vowels.

Its repetitive, drum-like character evoked – in that potent late imperial conflation – both the language of infants and the ‘lower races’. ‘Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you’, goes the refrain of Vachel Lindsay’s notorious poem ‘The Congo’ (1914), a veritable showcase of the savage alphabet, with tattoocannibal, and jungle also in evidence. Its extensive use of alliteration, assonance, repetitive rhythms and foregrounded sounds – ‘broom’, ‘room’, ‘boom’, ‘tune’, ‘moon’, ‘do’ – suggest how well ‘voo-doo’ suited the primitivist strain of Anglophone modernisms emerging in New York and London at the time.

Most authors of travel books about Haiti – particularly during the US occupation (1915-34) – were obsessed with the apparently superstitious beliefs and barbaric practices of the rural peasantry. During this period we can see a change as voodoo, regularly associated with cannibalism since the 1860s, acquires a new representative in the shape of the zombie, which soon found a profitable niche in the motion picture industry. But if this development helped to bring voodoo to a wider audience, it quickly spread – the way fetish had a century earlier – way beyond its original field of application. It circulates much more widely than the names of other Afro-Caribbean religions such as obeah or santería, which remain to this day ethnically specialized in their reference.

The term is now widely used to refer, slightingly, to almost any traditional magico-religious practice, whether believed to be of African origin or not. It is also employed as a metaphor to express disdain for rival policies procedures or bodies of knowledge (hence ‘voodoo economics’ and also, by extension, ‘voodoo programming’) or inexplicably persistent misfortune (the Bermuda Triangle is also known as the ‘Hoodoo Sea’, for example, and ‘cup hoodoo’ – a run of bad luck in knock-out competitions – is an expression familiar to readers of British sports journalism).

For more serious writers, voodoo may sometimes lend weight to the kind of social commentary that cultivates a careful ambivalence towards the multicultural Western metropolis. Thus the word figures in Joan Didion’s reflections on the absurd regulations that outlaw in-sink garbage disposal units in New York City. For her, it shows ‘how a familiar urban principle, that of patronage … can be reduced, in the bureaucratic wilderness that is any third-world city, to voodoo.’ While Martin Amis finds it useful in conveying a certain cosmopolitan edginess in his novel London Fields, where he refers to ‘the voodoo and the hunger, the dreadlocks and dreadnoughts … of the Portobello Road.’

Amis chooses his words well, for voodoo, like dreadlocks, has another, counter-cultural, history, which this fleeting picturesque allusion can only obliquely acknowledge. Vachel Lindsay faced a storm of protest over ‘The Congo’ from civil rights campaigners such as W E B Du Bois and Joel Spingarn of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. For many of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, however, the vernacular cultures of the American South and the Caribbean represented self- or collective-empowerment, and a vital (if symbolic) alternative to an established order that is seen as socially destructive and spiritually bankrupt.

Pre-eminent among them, Zora Neale Hurston, conducted fieldwork in New Orleans and Haiti, and ‘hoodoo’ and ‘voodoo’ play a major role in her fiction. And if she risked opprobrium from contemporaries who failed to see her difference from primitivists like Lindsay, she posthumously became an inspiration for a younger generation of African American writers and film-makers who have drawn on these themes in their work, most notably Ishmael Reed, who developed his own ‘neo-hoodoo aesthetic’.

Reed’s ‘conjure’ poems have been recorded by the blues singer Taj Mahal, reminding us that African American folk beliefs and practices have long figured in black popular music. From the 1960s they were self-consciously reworked by white artists, such as New Orleans singer-songwriter Mac Rebennack as ‘Dr John’ (named after an associate of Marie Laveau). The title of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ (1968) finds echoes as diverse as Voodoo Lounge (1994) by The Rolling Stones, and ‘Voodoo Ray’, a late 1980s club hit from A Guy Called Gerald.

We might identify, then, two broad traditions in the rhetorical inflation of voodoo: a positivist strain that deploys it to denounce error, and a romantic tendency for which it points to a higher truth. But, as always with such rigid classifications, the distinction is rarely clear-cut, and the two feed off each other, perhaps most obviously in the way the word never quite manages to fend off the uneasiness that accompanies the mysterious and inexplicable.

It is perhaps not surprising that Haitians themselves have been suspicious of any foreign representations of their country, ever since they reduced it to voodoo. From the 1930s, ethnographers made a concerted effort to challenge the misconceptions surrounding the religion multiplied in the face of the word’s semantic promiscuity, They began to refer to it as, variously, vodunvodoun, or vodou, in an attempt to more accurately reflect local pronunciation, and to take account of the emerging systems of orthography being developed for the language spoken by the majority of the population, itself variously spelt as Creoleor Kreyòl.

In the twenty years or so, the form vodou has become fairly standard in both French and English-language studies of Haitian religion, and has been gaining acceptance in non-academic writing too, from William Gibson’s novel Count Zero (1986) – which imaginatively reinvents it as a cosmology for cyberspace – to the Lonely Planet Guide to Haiti (1999).

This shift has put those who would continue to use voodoo on the defensive. Arguably, however, voodoo today no longer figures large in the lexicon of Haiti’s bad press. If the brutal regime of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude (1957-86) guaranteed the term an extended life for overseas observers, who seized on the way the ruling elite made strategic use of traditional religious networks and symbols, it is probably true that the keywords of the international news agencies are now determinedly more prosaic. Indeed, it may not be a word at all that now defines Haiti for the outside world, but rather a phrase: ‘the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere,’ a phrase, as Joel Dreyfuss has pointed out, that is both ‘absolutely true and absolutely meaningless.’

The government of former Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide tried hard to shake off the legacy of dictatorship, and distance itself from the alleged complicity of the Church in the vicious attacks on vodou religious leaders in the dechoukaj (uprooting) of former Duvalierists following the overthrow of ‘Baby Doc’ in 1986. In a move towards reconciliation, Aristide announced the consolidation of the religion’s place in national life in a decree of 4 April 2003 which, in the words of the press release, promised that ‘Vodou is henceforth to be fully recognised as a religion, empowered to fulfil its mission throughout the country consistent with the constitution and the laws of the Republic, pending the adoption of a law relating to its legal status.’

That the New York Daily News chose to report this under the punning headline, ‘Voodoo’s all rite, sez Haiti gov’t,’ with a more or less matter-of-fact article, may well indicate that the power of voodoo no longer draws on its reference to the Caribbean. It has become, as it were, generically exotic. And so – although some of the early responses in the Western media to the January, 2010 earthquake might suggest otherwise – it has all but parted company with vodou.

For a more detailed and fully referenced account, see Alasdair Pettinger, ‘From Vaudoux to Voodoo’Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol 40 No 4: Special Issue on Caribbean Cultures (Autumn 2004), pp415-25.