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Dr. Facilier is a deceptively deep Disney villain. At, first glans he appears to be your run-of-the-mill witch doctor. Someone you would see at the post office or apothecary emporium without giving it a second thought. But in reality, this character has roots that go well beyond the minds of Disney. Dr. Facilier was Inspired by two prominent figures of the Voodoo religion. Baron Samedi, the Loa of death and Papa Legba, the gatekeeper to the spiritual realm.
Some of the magic we see in use comes directly from Voodoo as well. When the writers of “Princess and the Frog” were making their pitch, they basically said, “You know that 500-year-old European fairy tale about a princess kissing a frog? What if we set it in Louisiana, and change the villain from a witch doctor?”
Then after getting the green light, they went wild with that concept. Pulling everything they could from New Orleans culture and the Voodoo religion. Telling a beautiful story and creating a villain with far more layers than he lets on.
Dr. Facilier is the trickster antagonist who uses Voodoo magic to transfigure Prince Naveen into a frog. He also tries to weasel his way into inheriting the La Bouff family fortune and stealing it. He gains magical abilities after making a deal with dark Voodoo spirits he refers to as his “friends on the other side.” Those new abilities, when used in conjunction with his silver tongue, put him within kissing distance of attaining his goal.
When his plans all fall apart, thanks to the intervention of our heroes, he has no way to deliver on the promises he made to those friends. They end up dragging him to the spirit world in a very horrific way for a children’s film. It possibly isn’t as bad as other Disney film villain deaths but it’s about the implications. When you consider how powerful these spirits are, even in the mortal realm, you have to wonder what that implies about their abilities in their own world. People have to wonder who is Dr. Facilier’s friends. Are they all evil? What are their names and what do they represent? And how does it all tie into real Voodoo practice?
The Loa Origins
To clarify, Dr. Facilier does not represent Baron Samedi or Papa Legba in the same way that Disney’s Hades is supposed to represent Greek Mythology’s Hades. Dr. Facilier is not a god. He’s just a regular guy who, after striking a deal with Voodoo spirits, gains their power. Having said that, his personality and appearance are essentially the results of fusing the aforementioned deities. This brings up the question, does Facilier just copy them to intimidate his victims?
There’s actually a Bond film that does the exact same thing, and a former President of Haiti, Francois Duvalier, employed these tactics as well. Let’s start our breakdown with Baron Samedi, who bears quite the resemblance to Dr. Facilier when he is in his physical form. He has dark skin, stands tall, wears a large top hat and tuxedo, and has a skeletal face.
Baron Samedi is known as a “Loa” in the Voodoo religion. Not exactly a god, but a divine figure who resides in the spirit world. In the movie, the Loa are the shadows and masks that help out Facilier and appear during his dance routines. While the designs of the masks may actually stem from one’s use in traditional African rituals. This is a more artistic representation of Loa intended to demonstrate that he is affiliated with darker and more dangerous forces. In reality, Loa can take many forms depending on which world they occupy and are not all evil. They can be if you disrespect them, but their purpose is to serve God, also known as Bondye. To be clear, he is considered to be the same as the Christian God. In fact, you can think of Loa as the Voodoo equivalent of angels.
Baron Samedi Origins
Samedi is considered the head of a certain family of Loa called Guede. They are known for being obnoxious as well as having powers over death and fertility. His specific domains are graveyards, gravestones, resurrections, and sex. You would have to ask for his blessing to come with those things. To speak to the Samedi your best bet would be to die. He’s the one who greets all the new spirits in the realm of the dead and leads them to the underworld. The other option would be to meet him at a crossroad, which has supernatural associations and folklore of all cultures due to it being an “in-between zone.” Also, it is said it is somewhere where important choices are often made.
The way to get on Samedi’s good side is pretty similar to every other Loa. Instead of being prayed for, they are served refreshments. As a result, in the film, Mama Odie’s house is surrounded by empty bottles. Samedi is said to prefer his rum spicy, even too spicy for other Loa. So he usually makes his own. He typically has some of that on hand, a few cigars, and sometimes some spliffs.
Another big way Baron Samedi differs from Facilier is that he is married. His wife’s name is Maman Brigitte. She’s usually symbolized by a black rooster, but her human form has red hair, green eyes, and pale skin. Originating from Ireland, she’s the only white Loa in all of Voodoo and her domains include life, death, justice, motherhood, and obscenities.
Papa Legba Origins
So as you can see there is a lot of overlap between Facilier and Samedi. But those few areas where they differ can actually be connected to another deity. His name is Papa Legba and he’s the gatekeeper of the spirit world. Many recognize him with the association from the show “American Horror Story” but his character is not Papa Legba. They may call him that, but everything from his design to his role in the show was based on Baron Samedi.
It was a producer’s idea to change his name to Papa Legba because it’s not as well known. Normally he’s depicted to be a poor old man, wearing a straw hat, dressed in rags, and smoking a pipe. He’s also accompanied by dogs most of the time and walks with a limp because his feet are in two different worlds. The one of the living and one of the spirits. To keep his balance, he carries the gateway between the two worlds around with him in the disguised of a cane. Similar to how no one can speak to the dead spirits without the blessing of Baron Samedi, Papa Legba has to grant permission to someone to open that gate in the first place.
Like Samedi, Papa Legba can be found at a crossroads. Also like Samedi, Legba likes to reveal new opportunities and paths forward to those who pass by his crossroads. But because he is a trickster deity, not all roads lead to a happy ending. That’s what makes them so similar, both are silver tongue devious Loa’s who love to play tricks.
Voodoo is an example of a syncretic religion. Brought to the Caribbean and ultimately the United States by the way of the slave trade. It actually started as a religious vote throughout West Africa, but it was heavily influenced by Catholicism. Not just through exposure to the new belief system, but also because slaves had to adapt the rituals so their masters would be more comfortable with them.
It should be made clear, if it’s not already, Voodoo is not an evil religion. It’s been portrayed that way in pop culture for decades through characters like Dr. Facilier. But that’s largely due to its association with witchcraft and centuries of propaganda from the Christian church. Causing people to assume that all witchcraft is somehow evil. That’s one thing to appreciate about “Princess and the Frog.” They made a point to include the Mama Odie character who also uses Voodoo but is the exact opposite of Dr. Facilier. In the film, Facilier uses real tarot cards to manipulate Prince Naveen and Lawrence and they basically lay out the plot of the movie right in front of the viewer’s eyes.
Methods of Voodoo
Tarot cards origin came from European mysticism. They had nothing to do with traditional Voodoo beliefs. But the cool thing about Voodoo is that it’s always evolving and so tarot readings can be part of someone’s personal religious practice. Dr. Facilier uses a talisman to steal blood from Prince Naveen and transform Lawrence into his doppelganger. There is a belief in ritual talismans and the practice of capturing spirits inside bottles. That’s essentially what Facilier’s doing when he takes Naveen’s blood.
The film just uses a more visual way so the audience understands what’s going on. Towards the end of the film, when they capture Naveen for a second time. Soon they’re able to move forward with their plan. Which is to marry the fake Naveen (Lawrence) to Charlotte La Bouff. Allowing them to kill her father, Big Daddy La Bouff, with a Voodoo doll to inherit his fortune.
But real Voodoo dolls aren’t in use for that purpose. What we now call Voodoo dolls evolved from hand-carved African wooden figures known as Bokio. When blessed by spirits, they are thought to be possessed by spiritual energy. People can think of them as the physical manifestation of prayers, which can have both honorable and malevolent purposes, just like prayers could in every other religion. When slaves were brought to America by the slave trade, they could no longer make Bokio. They made a decision to change methods of expressing their beliefs. Instead of carving small wooden statues, they made little figures out of rags. That is how all forms of art depict Voodoo dolls.
By: Zaylah De La Torre
National Geographics: Haiti: Possessed by Voodoo
The Disney Wiki: Dr. Facilier
Ancient Origins: Baron Samedi And the Voodoo Loa of Haiti
National Park Service: LEGBA – Guardian of the Crossroads
Inset Image Courtesy of Alexandr Samoyluk‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of Kim Scarborough‘s Flickr Page – Creative Common License