A Voodoo Drum from Hayti

By: B. W. Merwin

Originally Published in 1917

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During the first three centuries of colonization of the New World many of the native customs and beliefs of West Africa were introduced and retained by the slaves. Of these, fetish worship with considerable development or modification survives even to the present time. In Hayti, as the Voodoo cult with its human sacrifices, this worship is the most primitive and degraded in the two Americas.

Attention was drawn to the cult recently by a Voodoo priest’s drum presented to the University Museum by Mr. J. Maxwell Bullock, who had received it from Major Alexander Williams of the United States Marines. During the insurrection in 1916 in Hayti it had been confiscated and its head punctured because the beating of a drum was the signal to assemble the Voodoo devotees and to incite them to a religious race war. The drum is carved from a log about two feet long and tapering from ten inches down to five inches in diameter. Over the large end is stretched a rawhide head which is held tight and in place by means of five projecting pins and a piece of native-made rope.

Voodooism or Voodoo has been somewhat modified in the West Indies and North America. In Hayti on account of the negro rule and freedom of religion the original customs and beliefs have been retained, and, beginning with the insurrections against the whites in 1790, an element of racial hatred has been added. In Cuba the early Roman Catholic Church had allowed the Voodoo worshipers some latitude which has been enlarged under the republic until now many of the negroes are strongly tainted with this racial hatred. In Jamaica the strictness of the English authorities, who have combated the practices of the cult since 1640 has modified it into a form known as Obeah. In Louisiana the term Voodoo has been modified to Hoodoo, which has some connections with the early cult. Elsewhere in the United States, especially in large cities or in communities where there are many ignorant colored people, there are some who serve as hoodoo men or conjurors and sell all sorts of charms to the superstitious blacks.

In order to get an idea of the importance of the Voodoo or Obeah man, a few beliefs and customs of the negroes of Jamaica and Hayti must be given. They believe that the body has two spirits, a good one that returns to Africa and a bad one that in the form of a spirit or “duppy” remains in the vicinity of the dead. In order to keep these duppies from settling about the house in case of a death, all of the standing water is thrown out. Food and rum are provided to propitiate the dead man’s duppy and furnish food for the good spirit on its journey. This food and drink furnish material for a wake which must be repeated nine days later.

At child birth the infant is protected by a green necklace emblematic of the sacred green snake. In some places, at the present time, a Bible and a pair of scissors, opened to form a cross, are placed under the child as additional protection. The child is not taken out of the house until it is nine days old, when it is strong enough to withstand the duppies. These duppies have solid bodies and are unable to go through walls like the ghosts of more civilized peoples. On this account the negroes stop up all of the cracks of the house at night to keep the duppies out. While asleep clothes are worn over the head, as it is here that the duppy prefers to catch a sleeping person. After dark the duppies are about, and the blacks will not venture out of doors except in crowds, and then with lights and a great deal of noise to frighten the spirits away.

It is the Obeah or Voodoo man who knows how to combat the duppies, which he can sometimes bottle and compel to do his bidding and destroy an enemy. With his knowledge of sorcery and witchcraft he is able by means of incantations, weird ceremonies, cabalistic drawings and charms to perform his special functions and maintain a high standing in the community. A good Voodoo man has a marvelous knowledge of medical and poisonous substances and is cunning enough to be conservative in his claims for his medicines and charms. To him the negroes go to be cured of their disorders, to get help to avenge themselves on some enemy, to get aid to win the favor of a member of the other sex, to discover and punish a thief or an adulterer, and to predict future events. From him are to be purchased charms consisting of bottles, old rags, egg shells, blood, feathers, parrots’ beaks, dogs’ teeth, alligators’ teeth, grave earth and rum. These charms will bring luck and also protect the owner from evil. By the negroes the Voodoo man is held in such fear and awe that in case a man learns that a Voodoo has cursed him he will quite likely pine away and finally die of fear. Also, if a thief finds out that the Voodoo man is after him he will usually confess and make restitution.

In Hayti the basis of Voodooism is the frank worship of a sacred green snake that must be propitiated in order to keep off the evil duppies. The meetings of the cult are held at night about bonfires in secret places in the forests. The presiding official is an old man “papaloi,” or woman “mamaloi,” who has gained renown as a Voodoo sorcerer. After assembling, all present take an oath of secrecy and then the priest exhorts them to remember the sacred green snake and to hate the whites. Prayer is offered to the divine serpent that is supposed to be present in a box placed near the fire. Then follows the sacrifice of a cock which the papaloi kills by biting off its head. With a great deal of drumming and incantation the blood is smeared over the faces of the worshipers and drunk by the officiating priest. A goat may be sacrificed with similar ceremonies. After the goat there might be a human sacrifice, as was reported by a French priest. He said that it was the wish of some of the devotees that a “goat without horns,” that is, a child be sacrificed. This was done, and the flesh, raw or partly cooked, was eaten by the members of the cult.

The incessant booming of the drum, the sight and taste of blood, and the great amount of rum drunk cause a religious form of hysteria to sweep over the audience. At the close of the sacrificial ceremony the worshipers begin a dance called the “loiloichi,” or stomach dance, which is well known in West Africa. The dance gets wilder and wilder and more degraded until it ends in an orgy of the worst description which lasts until daylight.

The French minister to Hayti in 1860 wrote an account of a woman’s having been put to sleep by a narcotic drug and buried. At night she was exhumed still breathing. She was then killed and her brains, heart and lungs removed, presumably for the celebration of some Voodoo mystery. In the investigation that followed a mamaloi was arrested who confessed and offered to assemble the authors of the murder by beating her drum in a particular fashion. This offer was not accepted on account of the number of important personages known to be involved. This fact serves to show the importance attached to the drums and the wisdom of the present day authorities in removing them.

Cite This Article

Merwin, B. W.. "A Voodoo Drum from Hayti." The Museum Journal VIII, no. 2 (June, 1917): 123-125. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/593/

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