PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Wednesday September 16, 2015 – Max Gesner Beauvoir, “National Ati” or supreme leader of voodoo, Haiti’s traditional Afro-Caribbean faith, has died at the age of 79.
A government statement said Beauvoir died over the weekend in Port-au-Prince after an illness. The exact cause of death was not immediately known.
President Michel Martelly took to Twitter to express his sympathy on Beauvoir’s death, which he described as a “great loss for the country.”
Born in 1936, Beauvoir left Haiti in the 1950s to study chemistry in New York City. After going on to the Sorbonne in Paris, he returned to the United States where he worked as a chemist for private companies.
A New York Times profile of Beauvoir said he returned to Haiti in the 1970s where his dying grandfather urged him into a life as an houngan, or voodoo priest.
In 2008, he attained the title of Supreme Servitur, a role that has historically been a fiercely protective one, designed to defend Haiti’s unique voodoo tradition from Protestant churches and Evangelical preachers.
The faith was brought to the island from Africa via the Atlantic slave trade in the 1600s and 1700s. It was banned by the French for its mystical, supernatural elements, and continues to be sensationalised and misunderstood.
Apart from its portrayal as a black magic cult in film and fiction, voodoo has faced attacks and ridicule from many sources.
In 2010, American televangelist Pat Robertson claimed the earthquake that devastated Haiti and killed hundreds of thousands of people was the result of “a pact to the devil” Haitians made when they rose against their French colonizers in the nineteenth century.
Later that year, voodoo practitioners faced harassment and even lynchings when they were accused of spreading the deadly cholera epidemic.
About 70 percent of Haitians are believed to practice voodoo. Beauvoir estimated there were more than 60,000 voodoo priests across Haiti, many living in rural communities.
“Voodoo heals the mind, soul and body. The soul is what we are, which controls everything, all our actions and mind,” Beauvoir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a January interview at a voodoo temple in his home on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
“Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people and nothing can be done without that cultural basis. It is a way of life,” he said.
Beauvoir was famous for holding well-attended voodoo ceremonies at his house, where he made offerings, including cows, goats and chickens, to the spirits.
He played an important role in helping correct voodoo’s sinister image in the world, according to Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis, author of the 1986 best-seller on voodoo “The Serpent and the Rainbow.”