Secrecy and the Search for Divine Power

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Timothy R. Landry
Contemporary Ethnography
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , November
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The mysteries of voodoo—Vodún or more properly vodúnsinsɛn in West Africa—repel many Westerners, but fascinate and attract many others, so much so that a good number of foreigners visit Africa to experience or receive initiation into the religion. Timothy Landry’s new ethnography, Vodún: Secrecy and the Search for Divine Power, explores the town of Ouidah, Bénin, which recently has not only hosted many Western spiritual seekers but also has overtly advertised itself as a Vodún destination. In the process, Landry raises a good number of issues relevant to religion in general, including power, secrecy, materiality, personhood, globalization, and race and (post)colonial privilege.

As Landry explains in the introduction, the book “is first and foremost a look at the ways in which African religions, such as Vodún, have begun to expand in new directions with the support of recent trends in spiritual tourism” (4). Vodún has proven to be an especially, but perhaps not exceptionally, adaptable religion, capable of absorbing “foreign gods, customs, and ideologies” (5) and undergoing transformations “through ritual and economic exchanges” (6). This plasticity is particularly interesting and surprising, given Vodún’s emphasis on secrecy, yet secrecy is ironically both an enticement to many seekers and a remarkable source of creativity and possibility.

In fact, the first chapter explicitly deals with what even locals sometimes call “Voodoo tourism” or the problem or opportunity of accessing the secret and forbidden. The whole point of seeing and joining a religion like Vodún is gaining entry to secret knowledge and places, which means that visitors do not want to be denied access but do not want that access to be too easy; otherwise, they might judge that they are only having a tourist (read, inauthentic) experience. Accordingly, locals—guides as well as adepts like diviners—must carefully curate the spiritual quest of foreigners, serving “as religious brokers—selling ceremonies or other spiritual services such as spiritual baths or charms () for local and foreign spiritual seekers alike” (44).

And this latter point, which the author reiterates later in the text, is important, for commercial transactions (providing instruction, divination, or power-objects for money) has always been a feature of Vodún—and of all religions, no doubt—and does not diminish their sacredness or secrecy.

The second chapter describes the initiation process in more detail, the author himself undertaking apprenticeship as a Vodún diviner. Landry notes the changes that have occurred to initiation as foreigners have increasingly consumed it, including shorter rituals, the elimination of certain elements like scarification, and the substitution of other elements that are prohibited or unsavory such as endangered animal parts or human remains. The discussion also stresses the changes that occur to the individual initiate as s/he “receives the forest,” suffering or enjoying “ontological change” into a different kind of person, an embodiment of Vodún power and secrets, as part of what the author calls an “occult ontology.”

Secrecy is also central to the third chapter, paradoxically related to the market for religious goods and knowledge and therefore to the circulation and adaptation of Vodún. Foreign seekers obviously want to carry something back to their homelands—in their heads or in their suitcases—which speaks to the materiality and transportability of religion. Vodún masters in Bénin have no objection to the gods and powers traveling to America, Europe, and elsewhere; in fact, like enthusiasts of most religions, they want their spirits to spread. But numerous problems follow, not the least of which is a loss of control over that knowledge and power. Many African diviners fret that their knowledge will be used to enrich visitors at the expense of locals or that those foreigners will abuse the gift. Others assure seekers that they can substitute American or European materials (e.g., leaves, which are a prominent item in ceremonies) for African ones, as nature itself is locally specific but universally powerful. And on the subject of change and adaptation, Landry notes that visitors who are keen to learn certain facets of Vodún are reluctant to learn or even accept other facets, especially witchcraft. Witchcraft, which seems indivisible from Vodún for most Africans, is easily detached for Westerners.

A presentation on religion such as this perhaps necessarily must grapple with the issue of “belief,” which Landry does in the fourth chapter. As most ethnographers and scholars of comparative religion have discovered, the “salience of belief” (126) as a native concept is questionable, and the author concludes that “belief” is at best problematic when applied to Vodún. Practitioners of Vodún (and, I am sure, other religions too) often conceptualize belief in terms of efficacy rather than veracity. That is, belief is “a consequence of their experience with effectiveness and not an initial requirement for religious identity” (127). He demonstrates this point with cases of individuals who have “converted” in both directions between Vodún and Christianity—or who vacillate between or integrate both.

The final chapter returns to the pervasive issue of globalization, specifically in terms of postcolonial and racial politics. White foreigners, supplied with money and an imaginary of African exoticism, could be seen as exercising their privilege to expropriate knowledge, objects, and power from Africans for their own amusement and/or gain. Landry establishes with certainty that visitors innovate with the knowledge/objects/power they obtain, but it has been ever thus in religions. In fact, the author insists that the very secrecy that is essential to Vodún facilitates its transnational flow.

Vodún is a well-written, entertaining, and insightful ethnography, useful for scholars but accessible for students and general readers. It debunks many misconceptions about the religion and its local variants (like voodoo in Haiti and the United States) while making observations that are applicable far behind that particular family of religions. Anthropologists and others increasingly appreciate the materiality, flexibility, and transportability of religions including Christianity, and the book is a welcome addition to an important and growing literature on dynamic global religious processes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy R. Landry is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at Trinity College.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.