Max Beauvoir, the biochemist who became Haiti’s chief voodoo priest, dead at 79

By Sarah Kaplan

Max Beauvoir, the supreme leader of Haitian voodoo, poses during an interview at his home outside Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 8. Beauvoir, died Sept. 12 at the age of 79, according to his family. (Anastasia Moloney/Reuters)

Max Beauvoir was a middle-aged businessman with little interest in the occult. The son of a doctor and a scientist himself, he boasted degrees from schools in New York and Paris and a burgeoning career as a biochemist in the U.S. He was not the kind of man who went about seeking spiritual encounters.

So no one was more shocked than he was when his nonagenarian grandfather, lying on his deathbed in Haiti surrounded by more than a dozen descendants, lifted a single, unsteady finger and pointed it at Beauvoir.

”Grandfather turned to me and said, ‘You will carry on the tradition,’” Beauvoir recalled in 1983, 10 years after the moment that changed his life. “It was not the sort of thing you could refuse.”

“The tradition” was voodoo, Haitians’ vibrant amalgam of Christian traditions and the animist rituals of their West African ancestors. Beauvoir’s grandfather had been a houngan, or priest, and had selected Beauvoir to carry on the faith.

Beauvoir did so, with enthusiasm. Abandoning his scientific research and commercial work, he became the public face of voodoo and its most prominent advocate in a nation wracked by political upheaval, natural disaster and cultural change. In 2008, when Haiti’s struggling houngans came together to elect their first chief, Beauvoir was their pick.

“We Haitians want to move forward in life,” he told the New York Times at the time. “We need to find our identity again, and voodoo is our identity. It’s part of our collective personality.”

Beauvoir died in Port-au-Prince Saturday after an illness, according to the Associated Press.

In Haiti, where many people practice at least some elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism, the 79-year-old Beauvior is mourned as a national celebrity.

“A great loss for the country,” tweeted President Michel Martelly.

A woman kisses the feet of Voodoo leader Max Beauvoir during ceremony in honor of the victims of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, March 28, 2010. (Jorge Saenz/AP)

But that kind of reception is relatively new for Beauvoir, who spent much of his second life as a houngan battling Hollywood’s stereotypes, Christian missionaries’ antagonism and his own people’s mistrust. Until 2003, voodoo was not even recognized as a religion in Haiti.

The faith has its roots in Haiti’s history of slavery and is revered for its role in Haitian’s successful struggle for independence from French rule. Like Christianity, voodoo has one God, but in practice the religion bears much more resemblance to the traditions of the West African slaves who founded it: Spells are cast, animals are sacrificed, one of the religion’s 401 spirits are invited to possess followers at raucous, colorful ceremonies.

Beauvoir began his study of voodoo in 1973, at age 37. And because of his scientific training and American background, he swiftly became the resource of choice to people who wanted the religion of zombies and ritual sacrifice interpreted by a “Western” voice.

The ethnographer Wade Davis, author of the 1986 book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” on the voodoo process of making zombies, credited Beauvoir and his daughter Rachel with guiding his research.

“Max Beauvoir laid the country before me like a gift,” he told Reuters. Davis’s book was turned into horror film of the same name involving “zombie drugs” and an unflattering portrayal of “witch doctors.”

But Beauvoir wasn’t usually willing to indulge outsiders’ visions of voodoo as some sort of primitive paganism. In his thinking, voodoo was far less backward than that other powerful force in Haitian society — political corruption. From his Peristyle de Mariani, the grand residence on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where he held ceremonies and operated a village clinic, Beauvoir lobbied for voodoo as a solution to Haiti’s problems.

For example, the country’s 6,000 houngans should be recognized by the government and trained in healing, he said, since they vastly outnumbered Haiti’s handful of doctors. And voodoo priests should have a formal role in government, since they were more representative of Haitian society than the government, which only reflected ”the values and taste of the elite and the foreigners who pay our bills,” he told the New York Times.

That interview was in 1983, when Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still in power. The second-generation president for life, who spent lavishly but ruled with a dictator’s iron hand, had a rocky relationship with Beauvoir and the houngans. On the one hand, his father, Francois (“Papa Doc”), had relied on voodoo to bolster support for his regime and recruited houngans for his dreaded Tontons Macoutes, the “bogeymen” secret police who suppressed his opposition. On the other hand, Beauvoir was critical of the younger Duvalier’s excesses, and the two clashed over what Beauvoir said were his “deeply nationalist views.” More than once, the outspoken priest found himself hauled before the Tontons Macoutes for questioning.

That fact didn’t protect Beauvoir after Duvalier’s ouster three years later. Enraged about the houngans’ role in keeping the Duvaliers in power — and perhaps egged on by Christian groups — mobs attacked and killed more than 100 voodoo priests in the days after Baby Doc’s departure from the country. According to a Newsweek article in 1986, Beauvoir’s home was besieged for two days by a crowd clamoring for his death.

Houngans cannot sleep quietly in their beds any more,” he told the Guardian.

Supreme chief of Haitian voodoo Max Beauvoir speaks on Feb. 24, 2010 during interview with AFP in Port au Prince. (Anthony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images)

Eventually, the post-revolution violence quieted down, and Beauvoir returned to his religious practice. With a flair for showmanship that some critics found unseemly, Beauvoir turned his home into a temple for followers and fellow priests and a tourist destination for (paying) visitors looking for an exotic encounter with the supernatural.

In “The Rainy Season: Haiti-Then and Now,” the journalist Amy Wilentz wrote of Beauvoir as an opportunist with “the oily manner of a man whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone with your money or your child.”

Beauvoir waved off that, and most other criticism.

But he couldn’t keep himself out of politics. He was a severe critic of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Catholic priest who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. After receiving one too many death threats, he and his family fled to Washington in the 1990s, where Beauvoir founded the Temple of Yehwe and based his efforts to sell voodoo in the U.S.

For example, voodoo practitioners do not stick dolls with pins, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at a “demystifying voodoo” conference in 1997, and the possessions were nothing to be alarmed at: “The mind of the man cannot comprehend the whole God. The spirit comes and talks to everyone and helps solves their problems. After the ceremony, everyone feels better.”

In 2008, frustrated with their lack of influence, Haiti’s houngans made the unprecedented decision to form a national federation. Beauvoir, the obvious choice for their public face, wasted no time returning to his home country

At a special ceremony at the Peristyle de Mariani, accompanied by the beat of drums and blaring music, Beauvoir was named “Ati,” or the supreme chief of voodoo.

After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, Beauvoir held a memorial ceremony for the more than 15,000 killed, and called on his fellow hougans to help with the recovery effort.

“One must understand that Haiti is voodoo,” he told the Boston Globe at the time. “Helping Haitians is nothing else but helping ourselves.”

Sarah Kaplan is a reporter for Morning Mix.

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