Possession in Haitian Voodoo and Pentecostalism: A Cross-cultural Analysis

Trance states are found in many diverse cultures, two of which are American and Haitian. The trance state is a biological phenomenon that serves a cultural purpose. The shared experience of the trance binds people together and allows them to have direct spiritual experience, which then strengthens their faith, whether it is at an American Pentecostal church or a Haitian voodoo ceremony. In this paper I will examine the similarities between these two cultures from a bio-cultural perspective.

Phenomenologically what happens when one is possessed is probably best explained by Emma Cohen. She writes:

For example, the agency of the host is often represented as withdrawing from the body of

assuming a passive role in relation to the control of the body, which is subsequently

occupied or animated by the possessing agent. Recent research in developmental

psychology suggests that person-identity is underpinned by a dualistic distinction

between oneself and one’s body that emerges early in childhood (Cohen 2008: 111).

She goes on to describe the concepts that psychologist Paul Bloom refers to as intuitive dualism. He states that this dualism is “an evolutionary by-product of the fact that humans have two parallel cognitive systems engaged in the perception of bodies and persons” (Cohen 2008: 111). One system deals with the physical world, while the other deals with the social world. These two systems never quite reach cohesion
and thus we are aware of this dualism.

Possession has been explained as a psychopathological phenomenon. However, today there has been an effort to differentiate religious experience from psychopathology. Cutten, in 1927 wrote that the practice of
glossolalia was related to schizophrenia (Richardson 1973). His work has been largely discredited. According to Chad Johnson and Harris Friedman, “There are many studies suggesting that psychological diagnostic practices are unavoidably value laden, subjective, and influenced by clinicians’ previous assumptions—that is, they are inherently subject to bias” (2008: 506). These ethnocentric biases lead some psychologists to dismiss religious possession as pathological. The DSM-IV has a category called “The Religious or Spiritual Problem” where it differentiates between religious problems and psychopathological ones. The dominant discourse now is to make a distinction between the truly religious experience and the delusions and hysteria of a mentally ill person
(Johnson 2008). The researcher Hine disputed the claim that Pentecostal glossolalia was a mental illness
(Richardson 1973). Carl Jung himself stated that the experience of glossolalia is “…a positive preparation for
integration of personality” (Richardson 1973: 200).

That is at the crux of the issue. Integration of the individual into the group is the function that possession and glossolalia serve. But what makes Pentecostal glossolalia and voodoo possession similar?

In Haitian voodoo the possession or trance state is the result of the lwa, or spirits, entering a person’s body. In Pentecostalism it is the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost which inhabits the person. Both are accompanied by some form of glossolalia. In voodoo the success of a ceremony depends on the frequency of possession and the lwa’s assumption of a visual form (Lowenthal 1978). It is considered desirable to be possessed by the lwa. The possessed are seen as horses for the lwa to ride. The spirits are offered gifts of food and other items in order to attract them to the ceremony (Bourguignon 1976). In Pentecostalism it is God, or more precisely His Holy Spirit that embodies individuals and causes them to speak in tongues. Speaking in tongues is considered a primary sign of the reception of baptism in the Holy Spirit (DeShane 2003). This too is considered desirable because it gives the practitioner the ability to live a more holy life.

The role that music and prayer play in both cases is very important. Singing and prayer in “revivals” is an important aspect of the Pentecostal experience. This usually accompanies the first stage of the morphology of Pentecostal glossolalia. In this stage the believer is told to be open and accept the Holy Spirit into their consciousness. Often prayer is used in this stage as well (DeShane 2003). In voodoo the first stage is accompanied by the praying of Catholic prayers, followed by chanting, singing, hand clapping, bell ringing, and
drumming (Lowenthal 1978). Ira Lowenthal writes, “The song and dance of voodoo ritual, and the nature of people’s involvement in it, are clearly instrumental to the induction of trance or dissociative states” (1978: 405). Song is an audible symbol of both the Pentecostal and voodoo practitioner’s devotion to the Spirit or spirits. The Spirit or spirits are attracted by song and a path is cleared in the consciousness of the practitioners for them to more aptly accept possession by the Spirit or spirits.

In both cultures trembling and convulsions can be seen as well as inarticulate vocalizations. In Haitian voodoo these body movements and vocalizations may conform to the rhythm of the music. These convulsive motions and glossolalia are seen in the initial stages of possession. Alfred Metraux writes, “People who are used to possession pass quickly through the whole range of nervous symptoms. They quake, stagger, make a few mechanical movements, and then, suddenly – there they are: in full trance” (1959: 121). The greater more
terrible lwa are more violent in their possession whereas the gentler ones are softer. The inexperienced one being possessed will also behave more wildly. Metraux writes, “His chaotic leaps and gestures are like the bucking of a wild horse, who feels the weight of a rider on his back” (1959: 122). During the process of possession the body is polarized between the head, where the lwa enter, and the feet, legs, and torso,
which connect the possessed with the group and the earth (Locke 1985: 13). Locke and Kelly write, “Phenomenologically, the sense of embodiment changes: the legs become heavy and may be rooted to the
ground while the rest of the body may seem to expand, contract or dismember” (1985: 13).

Vocalizations are also heard in Haitian voodoo possession. Lowenthal writes, “When a lwa first enters an individual there usually follows a brief period of inarticulate vocalization, including humming and yelping, accompanied by what is apparently uncontrolled gesticulation and body movement” (1978: 406).

In Pentecostalism these kinds of vocalizations take the form of what we call glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. In a Pentecostal service one initiate may be the focus of the group’s attention and he or she will spin around and begin speaking in tongues. Elaine Lawless writes:

When the seeking person begins to ‘get the Holy Ghost,’ the crowd around disperses to a degree, allowing the initiate to sway or twirl around and around in the ecstatic
semi-trance state that is customary with these experiences. At this point the initiate’s shouting may
increase with the increased intensity of the moment, the convert may begin to
‘speak in tongues.’ Others around the
initiate may also begin to shout and speak in tongues.

Again, this is all accompanied by loud music and singing. At the conclusion of this trance state the initiate may experience fatigue and may collapse on the ground.

What is happening to the brain during the process of glossolalia has been studied by neuroscientists. Decreased activity in the prefrontal cortices was found. This is consistent with the lack of control that the practitioner of glossolalia experiences. The authors of the study write also:

A left lateralization in the frontal lobes might be expected since singing and glossolalia are related to language functions.
While such a lateralization was not robust, the left hemispheric
structures appeared to have significant decreases that were not observed in the
right hemisphere. However, the lack of a
clear lateralization in the frontal lobes suggests that the expressive language
parts of the brain may not be as directly affected by glossolalia as might be
expected (Newberg et al 2006: 70).

This shows that glossolalia may in fact be from some outside source, as the language parts of the brain are not shown to be directly affected.

What is happening culturally during these phenomena is a cohesion of the social group and a recognition of the reality of the Spirit or spirits. There are also personal transformations as a result of possession. One major change in the individual is conversion. Beliefs are made solid by virtue of the fact that what is happening really feels real. It has been found that second generation Pentecostals speak in tongues less frequently than recent converts (Hine 1969: 221). Another role that possession plays in both societies is the solidification of attitudes and beliefs that are the norms. Possession also serves as a cathartic agent to relieve stress.

Possession is a phenomenon that may seem strange to many people brought up in the Northern United States, but in the South and in Haiti it is a reality of life. It brings people together and helps solidify their beliefs. Possession is an important social phenomenon in many people’s lives.

Works Cited:

Bourguignon, Erika. Possession. San Francisco: Chandler and Sharp Publishers, Inc. 1976.

Cohen, Emma. “What is Spirit Possession? Defining, Comparing, and Explaining Two

Possession Forms.” Ethnos. 73.1 (2008): 101-126.

DeShane, Kenneth. “A Morphology for the Pentecostal Experience of Receiving the Baptism in

the Holy Spirit.” Western Folklore. 62.4 (2003): 271-291.

Hine, Virginia H. “Pentecostal Glossolalia toward a Functional Interpretation.” Journal for the

Scientific Study of Religion. 8.2 (1969): 211-226.

Lawless, Elaine J. “’The Night I Got the Holy Ghost…’: Holy Ghost Narratives and the

Pentecostal Conversion Process.” Western Folklore. 47.1 (1988): 1-19.

Locke, Ralph G. and Edward F. Kelly. “A Preliminary Model for the Cross-Cultural Analysis of

Altered States of Consciousness.” Ethnos. 13.1 (1985): 3-55.

Lowenthal, Ira P. “Ritual Performance and Religious Experience: A Service for the Gods in

Southern Haiti.” Journal of Anthropological Research. 34.3 (1978): 392-414.

Metraux, Alfred. Voodoo In Haiti. New York: Schocken. 1959.

Newberg, Andrew B. et al. “The Measurement of Regional Cerebral Blood Flow During

Glossolalia: A Preliminary SPECT Study.” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 148

(2006): 67-71.

Richardson, James T. “Psychological Interpretations of Glossolalia: A Reexamination of

Research.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 12.2 (1973): 199-207.

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Comment by Neil Turner on April 17, 2010 at 4:15pm
Dear Mitchell,

After living for the past three years in Brasil, especially the city of Salvador, Bahia, I too have come into contact with spirit possession. In Salvador, Condomblé and Umbanda pervades many aspects of life here and interestingly co-exist quite successfully with the Catholic faith. I have had three distinct encounters. At first, as with most Westerners, I was in doubt of the authenticity of the experiences. However, later I became totally convinced that such a spiritualism exists. Perhaps, we can communicate in another forum other than one as public as the OAC.



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