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Observations placeholder

Dr William Sargant – Voodoo in Haiti and the possession of Lavinia Williams



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 last Voodoo ceremony in the slums of Port au Prince was another exciting experience. There was nothing fake or phoney about it and the possessions were numerous and intense. Agwe, goddess of the sea, appeared, and the man possessed by her was miming the rowing of a boat, Erszuli, goddess of love, appeared, behaving most erotically, pulling up her dress and making other sexual gestures. Ghede also came down to show his usual sexual activity. Possession states went on for a long time and here, perhaps more than anywhere else, all participants seemed to end up in a temporary state of profound stupor and inhibition.

At all these ceremonies, the beating of the drums controlled the behaviour of all those possessed. The drummers would watch the dancers keenly and when the latter showed signs of becoming possessed they beat their drums in such a way as to increase the depth of possession, so that the dancers fell more and more under the domination of the loa.

It was to this last ceremony that Lavinia Williams came with us and, at my suggestion, started to dance. She had done so at a previous ceremony with no severe sequelae.

But this time, very quickly, she went into full possession by one of the loa, ending with an entranced collapse on the floor, which I filmed. She came out of possession fairly soon after her collapse and did not seem unduly upset by the experience. However, I did not feel it was the first time this had happened to her.

Male loa can possess females and female loa males, and most people 'inherit' a particular loa from previous generations of the family. Just as we talk about inheriting certain behaviour patterns from our parents, so in Voodoo it is thought that certain loa possess certain families and influence their behaviour; and these family loa may dominate people's lives.

 In Voodoo it is also possible to be possessed by different loa at the same time.

 Like their equivalents in other parts of the West Indies, these loa are identified with Christian saints and may be used for help in people's daily lives. Voodoo worshippers see nothing wrong in going to a Voodoo ceremony and then on to a Catholic Mass. Like the Christian saints, the loa lived on earth before going into the spirit world, and so they are mindful of the needs of human beings: even as loa, they still retain some human characteristics, needs and desires.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Hobby horse

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps