(Reuters) - Max Gesner Beauvoir, the "Ati" or supreme leader of voodoo, Haiti's traditional Afro-Caribbean religion, died at the age of 79, his family said.
Beauvoir died on Saturday, his family said, without mentioning the cause of death. The Haitian government said he died in Haiti.
"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 inside his coral stone-walled home outside the capital Port-a-Prince.
Sometimes misrepresented in Hollywood and pulp fiction as a black magic cult, voodoo is widely respected and revered by millions of Haitians. It is closely identified with the nation's history of slavery and its struggle for independence from French colonial rule.
"Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people and nothing can be done without that cultural basis. It is a way of life," Beauvoir said.
He was famous for holding well-attended voodoo ceremonies at his house where he made offerings, including bottled drinks, cows, goats and chickens, to the religious spirits.
Beauvoir played an important role in helping correct voodoo's sinister image in the world, said Canadian anthropologist, Wade Davis, author of the 1986 best-seller on voodoo, "The Serpent and the Rainbow."
"He welcomed everyone to his house and his perestil (temple)," Davis, 61, said in phone interview from British Columbia. "The man was the personification of charm. He was an ambassador, articulate in several languages, who moved easily between uneducated rural society and the highest intellectual circles in the city."
Voodoo has been practiced since the 18th century but it only won recognition as an official religion in 2003 under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
President Michel Martelly took to Twitter to express his sympathies on Beauvoir's death, which he said was "a great loss for the country."
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.
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.
Davis credited Beauvoir and his daughter, Rachel, with guiding him on his Harvard University doctoral thesis in the 1980s that uncovered the secret behind the notorious zombie "living dead" phenomenon, associated with voodoo.
"Max Beauvoir laid the country before me like a gift," Davis said, describing how Beauvoir and his daughter were instrumental in leading him to local practitioners who revealed the chemical composition of the zombie powder containing a neuro-toxin extracted from the puffer fish.
(This version of the story was refiled to add missing word "from" in last line)
Reporting by Peter Granitz in Port-au-Prince and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Bill Trott