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Observations placeholder

Dr William Sargant – Voodoo in Haiti and being 'mounted' by the loa



Type of Spiritual Experience


Dr William Sargant was born in Highgate, London, in 1907 and educated at Leys School and St John's College, Cambridge.  Up to 1972 he was Physician in Charge of the Department of Psychological Medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, London. He was Associate Secretary of the World Psychiatric Association and on the staff of the Maudsley Hospital, London for many years, He was also Registrar of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard University and Visiting Professor at Duke University. He was also the author of Battle for the Mind, and The Unquiet Mind.

A description of the experience

The Mind Possessed  - Dr William Sargant

The first proper Voodoo ceremony Mr Isa introduced us to was a very impressive one. We first saw the gods and goddesses being called down with all the complicated ritual involved, and then we saw various participants becoming possessed by the gods and goddesses, or loa, and behaving as they would behave.

In Voodoo you are described as being 'mounted' by the loa because your foot may suddenly stick to the ground; you then jerk forward on the other foot and this, too, sticks to the ground while the loa mounts. Gradually you take on the characteristic behaviour of the loa who has taken possession of you. You may talk, eat and drink as a loa, for the loa is a departed spirit who once lived on earth and has been deified. The loa approximate to our Christians saints in Heaven and have human attributes as well as divine ones.

Those possessed have no memory of the possession period, and it is believed in Voodoo that the loa cannot temporarily possess you while your own soul remains in your body.

When the loa enters or 'mounts', the worshipper's own soul is temporarily expelled. It was also interesting to find that, as in Macumba in Brazil, the people who watch a person becoming possessed must not reveal to that person how he behaved although they may tell him which particular loa entered him.

Sometimes possessions last for several hours: the possessed person behaves quite rationally but in the way the loa would behave.

The loa may ask for food and drink: he or she may talk to other worshippers or to the hungan, or priest. The function of the hungan is to intervene between the loa and the possessed person, if necessary. If the loa is apparently behaving too badly or roughly, and making too many demands, the priest may request him to leave the body or to modify his behaviour. In some of the ceremonies we saw a priestess, or mambo, also becoming possessed temporarily by one of the loa.

Many of the Haitian loa come from Africa, and the African gods are mostly benevolent deities who will help people if suitably placated. You may also seek their guidance and aid through dreams and through mediumship of adepts. It was when the African slaves in Haiti went up into the mountains to escape from their French masters, and there met and lived with the Indian natives while keeping out of the way of the French, that Voodoo gathered to itself loa who are much more evil, aggressive and angry than the African gods. In Voodoo there are therefore occasional violent possessions by such loa as Ghede (a devil), Dumballah (the snake god), and the various Petro loa, such as Baron Samedi, Legba-Petro, Erszuli Ge-Rogue.

Not all those possessed at the service went on to collapse, though many did, but at the end of their possession, as they came out of it, most of them seemed completely but temporarily exhausted, mentally and physically, as a result of emotional and abreactive release. With such a variety of possessing loa, all sorts of behaviour may be exhibited, which are accepted as coming from the loa and not from the people possessed.

The leader does his best to restrain their behaviour, but sometimes the loa get out of control. The spectators do not feel that the possessed are responsible for their actions during possession; they try to help them from falling or hurting themselves, or doing anything dangerous to other members of the group when anger or aggression is being exhibited by the loa.

When the priest himself went into a state of possession, he was looked after by his assistants and standard-bearers, in which case he would be led off into his own small room to rest, and would return a few minutes later to continue the ceremony. When the service was over most of the participants came round fairly quickly, and were soon their normal selves again. It was surprising to see how speedily normal behaviour could return, except for signs of obvious fatigue and a relaxation of tension. These were very normal men and women taking part, not mad or neurotic people.

Many of them were most intrigued when I played back to them on the tape-recorder the drumming, and the recordings of the voices of the loa talking through the mouths of the possessed.

The second genuine ceremony we saw was the most exciting of them all. It had been possible to film and photograph the first service because of the presence of a crude electricity supply, which gave just sufficient current to provide lighting. But at the second service, being farther out from Port au Prince, no light was available. We had asked for the ceremony to start early in the day, with the hope of filming it, but the mambo took so long with the preliminary preparations, such as drawing on the floor the symbol of the particular loa she wished to call down, that by the time the dancing and possession began, there was no light left for filming.

The dancing and drumming went on hour after hour and every sort of loa appeared at one time or another. We saw the Dumballah, the snake god and the person possessed by him behaved like a snake. At a later service at the same place we saw somebody possessed by Dumballah climbing into the rafters of the roof as a snake might do. Some of the possessed women displayed an abounding sexuality. We saw, among others, Erszuli, goddess of love, Baron Samedi, keeper of the graveyard, and Agwe, goddess of the sea.

Ogoun also appeared and Ghede, also god of the phallus. When Ghede descends and takes possession, he often exhibits very erotic behaviour as a challenge to the respectability of some of the visitors.

What was perfectly clear from these exciting few hours was that the various possession states provide an outlet for every type of normal and abnormal behaviour among people whose lives are one long struggle against poverty and despair. We saw them becoming gods, behaving like gods, and for a while forgetting all their troubles. After the ceremony was over they were quite convinced that for a time, despite their humility and poverty on earth, they had been one with the gods themselves. Life had regained purpose and dignity for them.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Hobby horse

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps