The supreme leader of the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou—Haitians prefer "vodou" to "voodoo"—died on Saturday. Max-Gesner Beauvoir, 79, was a biochemical engineer educated in the US and France who became a vodou priest upon returning to his native country in the 1970s. Vodou expert Elizabeth McAlister explained to NPR in 2010 that the vodou religion "operates through revelation"—and without any scripture, central doctrine, or pope-like figure. As the New York Times reported in a 2008 look at Beauvoir, his position as supreme leader was one newly created at the time by houngans (vodou priests). They had joined forces and made Beauvoir their "public face," as the Times put it, one who could represent the often misunderstood and sensationalized religion.
NBC News reports vodou is thought to be practiced by all but 25% of Haiti's population. It evolved in that country when colonists brought slaves from West Africa there in the 1600s; forced to practice Catholicism, they "adopted saints to coincide with African spirits," reports the AP. Beauvoir's death was announced yesterday by Haitian President Michel Martelly as "a great loss for the country." It may only be the beginning for Beauvoir, however. "The Haitian people do not get afraid of death," he told NPR in 2010. "We believe that everyone lives 16 times—eight times we live as men, and eight times as women," with that new life beginning after a year and a day spent underwater. The purpose, according to Beauvoir: "to gather all kinds of experiences." (Read more voodoo stories.)