LOUISIANA, HOME OF VOODOO WORSHIP IN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Almost 15% of of the population of Louisiana state practice Voodoo. Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo, is described as a set of religious practices which originated from the traditions of the African diaspora. It is a cultural form of the Afro-American religions which developed within the French, Spanish, and Creole speaking African American population of the U.S. state of Louisiana.
The real voodoo queen of New Orleans; Voodoo Macambre.
It is one of many incarnations of African-based religions rooted in West African Dahomeyan Vodun. They became syncretized with the Catholicism and Francophone culture of south Louisiana as a result of the slave trade. Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with—but is not completely separable from—Haitian Vodou and southern Hoodoo. It differs from Vodou in its emphasis upon Gris-gris, voodoo queens, use of Hoodoo occult paraphernalia, and Li Grand Zombi (snake deity). It was through Louisiana Voodoo that such terms as gris-gris (a Wolof term) and voodoo dolls were introduced into the American lexicon.
Voodoo devotee in New Orleans
Voodoo was brought to the French colony Louisiana from Africa and from the Haitian exiles after the Haitian revolution. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives came directly from what is now Benin, West Africa, bringing with them their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo.
The slave community quickly acquired a strong presence in Louisiana. The colony was not a stable society when slaves arrived, which allowed African culture to maintain a prominent position in the slave community. According to a census of 1731-1732, the ratio of African slaves to European settlers was over two to one. The ownership of slaves was concentrated into the hands of only a few of the white settlers, facilitating the preservation of African culture. Unlike other areas of active slave trade, there was little separation in Louisiana between families, culture, and languages. The Embargo Act of 1808 ended all slave imports to Louisiana. Authorities promoted the growth of the slave population by prohibiting by law the separation of families. Parents were sold together with their children under fourteen years of age. The high mortality of the slave trade brought its survivors together with a sense of solidarity. The absence of fragmentation in the slave community, along with the kinship system produced by the bond created by the difficulties of slavery, resulted in a “coherent, functional, well integrated, autonomous, and self confident slave community.” As a result African culture and spirituality did not die out, but rather thrived in French Creole culture.
The practice of making and wearing charms and amulets for protection, healing, or the harm of others was a key aspect to early Louisiana Voodoo. The ouanga, a charm used to poison an enemy, contained the poisonous roots of the figure maudit tree, brought from Africa and preserved in the West Indies. The ground up root was combined with other elements such as bones, nails, roots, holy water, holy candles, holy incense, holy bread, or crucifixes. The administrator of the ritual frequently evoked protection from Jehovah, the Christian God, and Jesus Christ. This openness of African belief allowed for the adoption of Catholic practices into Louisiana Voodoo.
Another component of Louisiana Voodoo brought from Africa was the worship of ancestors and the subsequent emphasis on respect for elders. For this reason, the rate of survival among elderly slaves was high, further “Africanizing Louisiana Creole culture.”
The First Trial of Voodoo Gatherings
Congo Square in New Orleans, Louisiana was the main place of gathering for the earliest Voodoo practitioners in the 19th century. It was then closed to them for fear of uprising, but then in the 1840s it was re-opened to them. From then until the beginning of the Civil War, it would remain as a mainstay for the Voodoo gatherings and rituals. The New Orleans newspapers began to defend the Voodoo practitioners in its articles most likely because of the publicity it gave them. In 1850, police arrested a large group of white and black women who had gathered together for a Voodoo dance. The arrests were said to be due to indecent character.
The women who were arrested fought back against these violations against them. This marks one of the first times in history that Voodoo women fought back against the law. They summoned a counsel who fought for the them saying that the practice of Voodoo was nothing more than a religion. Therefore, the arrests against them were unjustified. However, the courts took a different spin on the trial and used the law that white women and slaves were not allowed to assemble in any way or form. From this time on, the Voodoo practitioners started to give the police a hard time. The struggle between the opposing sides had only begun.
(Source: Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. 1994)
During the 19th century, Voodoo queens became central figures to Voodoo in the United States. Voodoo queens presided over ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. They also earned an income by administrating charms, amulets, and magical powders guaranteed to cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one’s enemies.
Painting of Voodoo iconic pioneer Queen of New Orleans Marie Laveau
Most noted for her achievements as voodoo Queen of New Orleans in the 1830s was Marie Laveau. Once the news of her powers spread, she overthrew the other voodoo queens of New Orleans. She acted as an oracle, conducted private rituals behind her cottage on St. Ann Street of the New Orleans French Quarter, performed exorcisms, and offered sacrifices to spirits. Also a devout Catholic, Marie encouraged her followers to attend Catholic Mass. The influence of her Catholic beliefs further facilitated the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system. Today, she is remembered for her skill and compassion for the less fortunate, and her spirit is considered one of the central figures of Louisiana Voodoo.
Honoring Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and the Original Market Vendors of New Orleans, LA in St. Louis Cemetery #1Today, thousands visit the tomb of Marie Laveau to ask favors. Across the street from the cemetery, offerings of pound cake are left to the statue of Saint Expedite; these offerings are believed to expedite the favors asked of Marie Laveau. Saint Expedite represents the spirit standing between life and death. The chapel where the statue stands was once used only for holding funerals.
Marie Laveau continues to be a central figure of Louisiana Voodoo and of New Orleans culture. Gamblers shout her name when throwing dice, and multiple tales of sightings of the Voodoo queen have been told. Her grave has more visitors than the grave of Elvis Presley. Although she is not yet officially considered a saint, there is a strong movement to have her canonized.
Priestess Yaffa, also known as Rose, dances during her ceremony
as Voodoo Queen in New Orleans, Louisiana. 1991
During the 1930s, true Voodoo went underground when New Orleans became a tourist destination. Voodoo acquired an exotic, Hollywood image in the 1932 film White Zombie. The misconception developed that the principal elements of Voodoo are hexing and sticking pins into dolls.
Visiting tourists asked favors of voodoo practitioners, who made it a point never to refuse one who asked for help. Exhausted by fame, voodoo became an underground religion. At this time, those in search of a fortune took up the “business of superstitions,” charging money, as true voodoo followers never did, for fake potions, powders, and gris-gris.
The main focus of Louisiana Voodoo today is to serve others and influence the outcome of life events through the connection with nature, spirits, and ancestors. True rituals are held "behind closed doors" as a showy ritual would be considered disrespectful to the spirits. Voodoo methods include readings, spiritual baths, specially devised diets, prayer, and personal ceremony. Voodoo is often used to cure anxiety, addictions, depression, loneliness, and other ailments. It seeks to help the hungry, the poor, and the sick as Marie Laveau once did.
Louisiana Voodoo and Christianity
Catholic Voodoo church in New Orleans
As a result of the fusion of Francophone culture and voodoo in Louisiana, many Voodoo spirits became associated with the Christian saints that presided over the same domain. Although Voodoo and Catholic practices are radically different, both saints and spirits act as mediators with the Virgin Mary and Legba presiding over specific activities. Early followers of Voodoo in the United States adopted the image of the Catholic Saints to their spirits.
Other Catholic practices adopted into Louisiana Voodoo include reciting the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer.
Voodoo superstitions and spells
Many superstitions also related to the practice of Hoodoo developed within the Voodoo tradition in Louisiana. While these superstitions are not central to the Voodoo faith, their appearance is partly a result of Voodoo tradition in New Orleans and have since influenced it significantly.
- A lock of a girl's hair brings good luck.
- If you lay a broom across the doorway at night, a witch can't come in and hurt you.
- Having a woman visit you the first thing on Monday mornings is bad luck for the rest of the week.
- Don't borrow or lend salt because that is bad luck.
- If you sweep trash out of the house after dark you will sweep away your luck.
- Don't shake a tablecloth outside after dark or someone in your family will die.
- To stop a Voodoo spell being placed upon you, acquire some bristles from a pig cooked at a Voodoo ritual, tie the bristles into a bundle and carry them on you at all times.
- If a woman sprinkles some salt from her house to yours, it will give you bad luck until you clean the salt away and put pepper over your door sill.
- If a woman wants her husband to stay away from other woman, she can do so by putting a little of her blood in his coffee, and he will never quit her.
- If a woman's husband dies and you don't want her to marry again, cut all of her husband's shoes all in little pieces, just as soon as he is dead, and she will never marry again.
- You can give someone a headache by taking and turning their picture upside down.
- You can harm a person in whatever way you want to by getting a lock of his hair and burning some and throwing the rest away.
- You can make a farmer's well go dry by putting some soda in the well for one week, each day; then drawing a bucket of water out and throwing it in the river to make the well go dry.
- authentic voodoo ceremonies on the rhythms of a Cajun/Zydeco band
In Voodoo spells, the "cure-all" was very popular among followers. The cure-all was a Voodoo spell that could solve all problems. There were different recipes in Voodoo spells for cure-all; one recipe was to mix jimson weed (Warning: due to the toxicity of Jimson Weed, it is not advised for unskilled practitioners to create) with sulfur and honey. The mixture was placed in a glass, which was rubbed against a black cat, and then the mixture was slowly sipped.
Portions at the Voodoo museum in New Orleans
The Voodoo doll is a form of gris-gris, and an example of sympathetic magic. Contrary to popular belief, Voodoo dolls are usually used to bless instead of curse. The purpose of sticking pins in the doll is not to cause pain in the person the doll is associated with, but rather to pin a picture of a person or a name to the doll, which traditionally represents a spirit. The gris-gris is then performed from one of four categories: love; power and domination; luck and finance; and uncrossing.
New Orleans voodoo spell kits
Voodoo and Spiritualism
Voodoo has now attracted many whites and native Americans to its fold. The hallmark of the New Orleans Spiritual Churches is the honoring of the Native American spirit named Black Hawk, who lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, not in Africa, or Haiti. Furthermore, the names of some individual churches in the denomination—such as Divine Israel—bring to mind typical Black Baptist church names more than Catholic ones.
Sallie Ann Glassman performs a ceremony every year on June 23rd on the Magnolia Bridge over Bayou St. John. (Historically June 23rd has been venerated in the practice of Voodoo. The famous Voodoo priestess was said to have held ceremonies involving Voodoo rituals Bayou St John in New Orleans, commemorating St John Eve. Modern day practitioners have kept the tradition alive.)
The New Orleans Spiritual religion is a blend of Spiritualism, Voodoo, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism; the Voodoo-influenced "Spiritual Churches" that survive in New Orleans are the result of a mingling of these and other spiritual practices. It is unique among African-American "Spiritual" religions in its use of "Spirit Guides" in worship services and in the forms of ritual possession that its adherents practice.
New Orleans Voodoo devotee cleansing and purifying
New Orleans Voodoo Lucky Penny Stew
New Orleans Voodoo Lucky Penny Stew
Today, Voodoo is a major tourist attraction to the city of New Orleans. Shops selling charms, gris-gris, candles, and powders cater to both tourists and practitioners. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum houses numerous artifacts and provides daily tours of the museum, the St. Louis Cemetery, and the New Orleans French Quarter. The museum also provides spiritual services including matrimony blessings, marriage ceremonies, consultations, and other rituals. Voodoo ceremonies have been held against contemporary problems facing New Orleans, such as crack cocaine abuse, burglaries, prostitution and assaults
A New Orleans Voodoo devotee performing rituals
Voodoo Queen Of New Orleans
Actually there are two women who can claim that title, a mother and daughter, both named Marie Laveau.
Very little is known about the first Marie. Accepted wisdom for years has been that Marie I was born in 1794 to a French creole planter, Charles Laveau and his mistress Marquerite Darcentelin Saint Dominique (modern day Haiti) and moved to New Orleans as a child. However, there is compelling evidence that Marie was actually born in 1801 in New Orleans. This is due to research by Ida Fandrich recently who found a baptismal certificate for a Marie Laveau born on September 10, 1801 in New Orleans. Whether this is the same Marie Laveau is still debatable as it was not an uncommon name in New Orleans.
Marie I was described as beautiful, tall, and statuesque with curly black hair, flashing bright eyes, reddish skin and ‘good’ features (meaning that she favored her white ancestry as opposed to her African). She married a free born man of color Jacques Paris in 1819, which would have made her either 18 or 25 at the time. Jacques however disappeared shortly after their marriage and was presumed dead, although he may just have opted out of the marriage. Whatever the explanation, Marie now called herself ‘the Widow Paris.’ She worked as a hairdresser for many white Creole women as well as the free women of color.
Marie eventually ended up living with Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion in a common-law marriage. Fandrich believes that Glapion was not a free man of color as has been repeated in various biographies but a white man who passed in order be accepted as her husband. Although its often been stated that Marie and Glapion had 15 children, Fandrich believes that they only had five, only two of whom lived to adulthood, and that the other children attributed to her belonged to her half-sister, another Marie Laveau.
New Orleans in the years before the Civil War had an interesting society that made it one of the most unusual cities in the nation. In the heirarchy of New Orleans, there were the French Creole planters and their families who occupied the French Quarter, then the Americans who began to arrive in the city after the Lousiana purchase settling in the Garden district, and then you had the gen de couleur or the free people of color who were a kind of shadow society that mimicked the white social structure. Many free people of color even owned slaves. The young daughters of the gen de couleur were offered to the white creole planters at the Quadroon balls, where the most beautiful were chosen to be placees, set up in houses on North Rampart street. The mothers who may themselves have been placees, negotiated the arrangement, whether the children, particularly the sons, would be educated in France. A settlement was normally arranged in case, the Creole planter tired of his placee, in the future.
This was the world that Marie Laveau I lived in. Although Marie had been brought up a Catholic, she became involved with the religion that we know as Voodoo. At this time in New Orleans, it was common for Voodoo to be practiced along side of Catholicism, the way the ancient Celts still kept their ancient practices as Christianity spread through Ireland and Scotland. Voodoo in the United States was a combination of various African religions, superstition, blood ritual and animism. Voodoo came about most likely in Santo Domingo ( now modern day Haiti) where the slaves devoted rituals to the power of nature and the spirits of the dead. The term “voodoo” was probably adapted from the African Fon spirit, “vodu”. For many slaves, these spiritual traditions provided a means of emotional and spiritual resistance to hardships of the life they were made to endure. After Toussaint L’Ouverture overthrew the governement in Santo Domingo, French creole planters who fled brought their slaves with them to New Orleans and they brought Voodoo with them. In the early days, slaves were allowed to congregrate in the evenings after their daily chores.
The main meeting place for Voodoo worship was Congo Square (now Beauregard Square) on North Rampart Street, but these meetings freaked out the white citizens of the city, who feared that the meetings could lead to a slave uprising. As a result, new laws were enacted in 1817 that forbid blacks to get gather for dancing or any other purpose except on Sunday, and then only in places that had been designated by the Mayor of the City. However, it turned out that Congo Square was that place, and the meetings continued as always but only on Sundays. Like Harlem in the 1920’s, Congo Square became a popular place for whites and tourists to watch the entertainment.
Young New Orleans boys after a voodoo rituals
In New Orleans, Voodoo was a matriarchy, 2/3 were female. At one point there were more than 40 recognized Voodoo priestesses, but Marie Laveau was the ‘Boss Woman’ of them all. Marie had trained with the famous “Voodoo doctor” Jean Montaigne (Doctor John or John Bayou as he became known), who was then the most powerful Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, and learned from him how to make the most potent charms, potions and gris-gris. She also gained an extensive knowledge of herbs and natural healing remedies.
Legend has it that Marie acquired her cottage at 1020 St. Ann Street from a grateful father whose son was in trouble with the law. Marie put a green pepper gris-gris under the judge’s chair leading him to be lenient. The truth was probably far simpler. Marie had a network of spies made up of servants and slaves that worked in the houses of the elite in New Orleans, which she controlled with fear. She also learned a great deal while dressing the hair of the Creole women who vied for services. Then as now, women tended to confide their secrets about their lives o their hairdressers. Marie used this information for blackmail and to give the illusion that she had learned things from the spirits.
Marie Laveau, her secret knowledge which she had gained from the Creole boudoirs combined with her own considerable knowledge of spells along with her flair, became the most powerful woman in New Orleans. Whites sought her help in their various affairs and amours while blacks saw her as their leader. Judges paid her as much as $1000 to win an election, other whites paid $10 for an personal consultation or visit. She freely helped most blacks. To visit her for a reading became fashionable.
Like other scandalous women, she also learned to cultivate the press. When she died, the Times-Picayune editorialized saying “Much evil dies with her, but should we not add, a great deal of poetry too.” She invited the public, press, police, and others thrill-seekers of the forbidden fun to attend. Charging admission made voodoo profitable for the first time. Hundreds would turn up to watch Marie hypnotize her giant snake Zombi at the Voodoo ceremonies. She blended aspects of Catholicism in to Voodoo, adding incense, statues and holy water to the mix. Marie was said to arrange orgies between the quadroom and octoroon women and the white men who paid dearly for her services, replacing the Quadroon balls that had been fashionable before the war.
Skulls at the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans
Despite her reputation as a Voodoo priestess, Marie was also still a devout Catholic. She paid visits to men condemned to death in prison, bringing them food and prayer beads. In 1853 Yellow Fever once again threatened New Orleans. A special committee of gentlemen was quickly appointed to request Laveau’s help on behalf of all the people to minister to the fever stricken. Many who survived the endemic owed their survival to Laveau’s dedicated care and ministrations.
In 1875 Marie Laveau announced her retirement in order to concentrate on tending to the sick and condemned in New Orleans’ prisons. Within a few years however, she moved into a back room of 150 St. Anne Street. There under the care of her eldest daughter Marie Laveau II, she lay bedridden until she finally passed into the world of the “loas” (ancestor spirits) on the 15th June 1881.
After her death, there was a myth that Marie had risen from the grave. In reality, it was Marie’s daughter Marie Laveau II, who continued her mother’s work well into the 20th century. Marie Laveau II gradually took over the business, thus adding to the many myths and legends that surround the Laveau name. Marie II was a strikingly woman bearing many of her mother’s features; she also had a strong and dominant personality that she used to control the lives of others. Like her mother, Marie II also started out as a hairdresser.
Marie II continued to run rituals and parties from “Maison Blanche” out by Lake Pontchartrain, the house which her mother had built for secret Voodoo meetings and liaisons for the rich elite. Like her mother, she also made special arrangements with the police and media, who never raided her premises without prior notice, and then only for show and appearances sake.
Marie II was also adept in the use of herbs and other healing techniques, and sick people often came to the house on St Anne Street for treatment or a cure. Most of her healing medicines combined the use of natural products, roots and herbs that contained genuine curative elements, but she also employed other factors, including the body’s own natural healing mechanisms and the powerful effects of suggestion. To this end her cures were often accompanied by ritual praying, chanting and the burning of candles and incense for added affect.
While Laveau II continued to reign over the Voodoo ceremonies and run the Maison Blanche, she never gained the same high respect her mother had earned. Apparently she lacked the warmth and compassion of her mother, and instead inspired fear and subservience. Some claim Laveau II drowned on the 11th June 1897 during a big storm on Lake Pontchartrain.
Marie Laveau I managed to transcend racial, social and religious lines in 19th century New Orleans which was unusual in a segregated city, where blacks and whites didn’t freely mix after the Civil War. One could say that she raised the practice of voodoo from a local religion practiced by slaves to an art form. To this day, visitors to her tomb in Saint Louis Cemetary #1 draw three crosses (XXX) on its side, hoping that her spirit will grant their wishes. There are those who believe that Marie Laveau returns to life once each year to lead the faithful in worship on St. John’s Eve. Another myth says that her ghost has been seen in the cemetery, recognizable thanks to the “tignon”, the seven-knotted handkerchief, that she wears around her neck.
Offerings to Marie Laveau, VooDoo Queen by Star Cat on Flickr.
The Wishing Tomb
Controversy persists over where Marie Laveau and her namesake daughter are buried. Some say the latter reposes in the cemetery called St. Louis No. 2 (Hauck 1996) in a “Marie Laveau Tomb” there. However, that crypt most likely contains the remains of another voodoo queen named Marie, Marie Comtesse. Numerous sites in as many cemeteries are said to be the final resting place of one or the other Marie Laveau (Tallant 1946, 129), but the prima facie evidence favors the Laveau-Glapion tomb in St. Louis No. 1. It comprises three stacked crypts with a “receiving vault” below (that is, a repository of the remains of those displaced by a new burial).
Marie Laveau`s tomb where people mark 3 x`s to luck
A contemporary of Marie II told Tallant (1946, 126) that he had been present when she died of a heart attack at a ball in 1897, and insisted: “All them other stories ain’t true. She was buried in the Basin Street graveyard they call St. Louis No. I, and she was put in the same tomb with her mother and the rest of her family.”
That tomb’s carved inscription records the name, date of death, and age (62) of Marie II: “Marie Philome Glapion, décédé le 11 Juin 1897, ágée de Soixante-deux ans.” A bronze tablet affixed to the tomb announces, under the heading “Marie Laveau,” that “This Greek Revival Tomb Is Reputed Burial Place of This Notorious ‘Voodoo Queen’ … ,” presumably a reference to the original Marie. Corroborative evidence that she was interred here is found in her obituary (“Death” 1881) which notes that “Marie Laveau was buried in her family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.” Guiley (2000) asserts that, while Marie Laveau I is reportedly buried here, “The vault does not bear her name.” However, I was struck by the fact that the initial two lines of the inscription on the Laveau-Glapion tomb read, “Famille Vve. Paris / née Laveau.” Obviously, “Vve.” is an abbreviation for Veuve, “Widow”; therefore the phrase translates, “Family of the Widow Paris, born Laveau”-namely Marie Laveau I. I take this as evidence that here is indeed the “family tomb.” Robert Tallant (1946, 127) suggests: “Probably there was once an inscription marking the vault in which the first Marie was buried, but it has been changed for one marking a later burial. The bones of the Widow Paris must lie in the receiving vault below.”
The Laveau-Glapion tomb is a focal point for commercial voodoo tours. Some visitors leave small gifts at the site-coins, Mardi Gras beads, candles, etc.-in the tradition of voodoo offerings. Many follow a custom of making a wish at the tomb. The necessary ritual for this has been variously described. The earliest version I have found (Tallant 1946, 127) says that people would “knock three times on the slab and ask a favor,” noting: “There are always penciled crosses on the slab. The sexton washes the crosses away, but they always reappear.” A more recent source advises combining the ritual with an offering placed in the attached cup: “Draw the X, place your hand over it, rub your foot three times against the bottom, throw some silver coins into the cup, and make your wish” (Haskins 1990). Yet again we are told that petitioners are to “leave offerings of food, money and flowers, then ask for Marie’s help after turning around three times and marking a cross with red brick on the stone” (Guiley 2000, 216).
Although some of the markings are done in black (as from charcoal), most are rendered in a rusty red from bits of crumbling brick. One New Orleans guidebook says of the wishing tomb: “The family who own it have asked that this bogus, destructive tradition should stop, not least because people are taking chunks of brick from other tombs to make the crosses. Voodoo practitioners-responsible for the candles, plastic flowers, beads, and rum bottles surrounding the plot-deplore the practice, too, regarding it as a desecration that chases Laveau’s spirit away” (Cook 1999). Echoing that view, another guidebook advises: “On the St. Louis tour, please don’t scratch Xs on the graves; no matter what you’ve heard, it is not a real voodoo practice and is destroying fragile tombs” (Herczog 2000).