Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Alfred Métraux - Voodoo In Haiti (pt. 1)


Alfred Métraux' 1958 ethnography "Le Vaudou Haitien" opens with words evoking and dispelling the lurid image of Voodoo:

"Certain exotic words are charged with evocative power. It usually conjures up visions of mysterious deaths, secret rites - or dark saturnalia celebrated by 'blood-maddened, sex-maddened, god-maddened' negroes. The picture of Voodoo which this book will give may seem pale beside such images.

In fact - what is Voodoo? Nothing more than a conglomeration of beliefs and rites of African origin, which, having been closely mixed with Catholic practice, has come to be the religion of the greater part of the peasants and the urban proletariat of the black republic of Haiti. It's devotees have asked what men have always asked of religion: remedy for ills, satisfaction of needs and the hope for survival.

Seen from close, Voodoo has not got the morbid and hallucinatory character which books have given it. A talented but rather fanciful American writer, W.H. Seabrook, has given the most complete account of the black legend of voodoo. But that legend belongs to the past."

The prominent place given to the American William H. Seabrook 1929 book on Haitian Voodoo, "The Magic Island", in the opening sentences of Alfred Métraux's classic ethnography of that religion, become all the more significant if one examines the back story of those sentences.


Alfred Métraux (1902-1963) was a close and long-standing friend to the so-called "philosopher of evil", Georges Bataille. They had met in 1922, while studying at the École des Chartes. Bataille and Métraux physically resembled each other, so much so that they were frequently mistaken for brothers. The two shared everything, "...including women in black silk pyjamas, with long gold cigarette-holders and boyish haircuts, moving around in poorly defined and rather ambiguous surroundings" (via this book ). During three to four hour long morning walks along Paris's rue deRennes or the Champs-Élysés, Métraux spoke to Bataille of ethnography. These talks would have a strong influence on the development of Bataille's thought.

Métraux had an impressive international career as an anthropologist. Wikipedia calls Métraux "one of the most significant anthropologists of the twentieth century". The friendship of Bataille and Métraux would "... remain strong even after one became a great scholar and the other a great writer" (via this book).

During World War II, Métraux served in the Morale Division of the US Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany in 1945, and personally witnessed the devastation of war and genocide. This made a deep impression on the anthropologist, and it motivated him to join the UN in mid-1946, when he began working as Chief of the Section on Research in the Department of Social Affairs in New York. In this capacity, he led the UNESCO Marbial Valley (Haiti) anthropological survey from 1948 to 1950; "Le Vaudou Haitien" is the result of that survey. In 1948, the Surrealist and ethnographer Michel Leiris participated in the survey, writing a highly interesting article on Voodooist chromolithographs. Leiris and Métraux had met in 1934.

Alfred Metraux committed suicide on April 12, 1963, and was eulogized by Leiris in a special gathering in his honor at UNESCO House.

To be continued...

1 comment: said...

It is interesting to note that since Alfred Metraux discovering Vodou in Haiti, Haitian Vodou have evolved greatly and on March 7th 2008, for the first time in Haiti's history their will be a High Vodou Priest overseeing the Vodou Religion in Haiti.

Max Beauvoir will be honored as the Spiritual Leader of Haitian Vodou.

Reginald Bailly
Archivex Haiti
National President of ZANTRAY (Children of Haitian Tradition)