Journey into the Spiritual World of Voodoo in New Orleans

Curses, voodoo dolls, women dancing hypnotically with snakes are what we identify with the word – Voodoo.  All of these images have a basis in fact, but they also have been “sensationalized” by films.  Many people shy away from looking too closely into this unfamiliar world. Others look in curiosity, with the desire for experiencing it’s more exaggerated practices.  Journeying down the path to learn more about this mysterious practice, Voodoo in New Orleans revealed a rich history, culture and devotion to a spiritual life.

New Orleans Voodoo 2

Li Grande Zombi – by Charles Gandolfo

The Origins of Voodoo in New Orleans

Originating in the West African country of Benin, the spiritual life of Voodoo came to New Orleans with the slave trade.  The name “Voodoo” evolved from the Fon word Voudon, meaning “spirit” or “deity”.  Voodoo has three spiritual levels – God, spirits and ancestors.  Folklore says that God was angered by a trickster spirit named Legba. When God left the earth, he left Legba behind in the form of a rainbow.  A rainbow is the bridge between heaven and earth. Because followers weren’t able to get access to a rainbow when they needed, they chose the snake as a substitute because it was long and thin like a rainbow. The great snake spirit became known in New Orleans, by the name “Li Grand Zombi” or “Ouncongo.”  Later its name changed to “Papa Labas” or “St. Peter.”

Voodoo believes that God is retired and He relies on spirits to intervene in the lives of people.  New Orleans Voodoo calls upon ancestral spirits for help in life matters.  The slaves practiced some Voodoo rituals openly in Congo Square, an area just outside the city of New Orleans. Slaves would gather, sing, and dance on Sundays.  When the slave trade was outlawed, the African influence became lost in a generation.  This gave transition from the African Phase to the Creole Phase of voodoo.

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Congo Square Memorial

New Orleans Voodoo 12

Congo Square

New Orleans Voodoo 12

Congo Square looking into French Quarter

New Orleans Voodoo 12

Tree standing in Congo Square

Marie Laveau the Voodoo Queen

During the Creole Phase, Marie Laveau was a voodoo queen in New Orleans in the 1830’s.  She was a free person of color. She spent most of her adult life in a plaçage relationship with Louis Christophe Dominick Duminy de Galpion. Common with European men and free women of color, a plaçage relationship was not a legally recognized marriage.  But instead, referred to as a left-handed marriage.  

Folklore says she was beautiful and rich from selling gris-gris. She participated in the Sunday rituals at Congo Square, here she became known as the Queen Marie.  Marie Laveau remained the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans for at least 40 years. She practiced her spiritual rituals with a snake behind her home and for St John’s Day, June 23rd, at Bayou St John. She intimidated police and could change the outcomes of court cases. It was not certain if all her abilities were magical or from blackmail and coercion.  Her beauty and presence brought a popular face to voodoo.

Marie Laveau iftsleftsmall New Orleans Voodoo

Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau

Marie Laveau practiced Creole Catholicism with Voodoo.  Influenced by Catholic traditions, both entreat the help from spirits. Voodoo spirits were alternately given the names of Saints in the Catholic church.  She always encouraged thanking God and the spirits for their help and not Marie herself.  Marie was known for her hospitality and compassion.  She was instrumental in helping the sick during the Yellow Fever epidemic.  She helped all those who came to her door on St. Ann Street with a sincere requests.  It is thought, her daughter, Marie Laveau II, stepped into her mother’s place later in life.

Her legend is still the face of New Orleans voodoo.  Tourists and locals visit Marie’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No.1 to leave gifts and ask for her help in their life matters. Marking her tomb with XXX was a visitors signature that they came to make a request. Today, you present your gift and knock 3 times on the tomb and make your request. Looking thru the gifts left at the tomb, those less noticeable or flashy gifts, like lipstick or a key are more likely from true followers of voodoo making a request. Legend says that once a request is made of Marie, offering a piece of pound cake to the statue of St. Expedite at St. Jude’s church across the street, will bring you a speedy answer.  St. Expedite is the spirit thought to stand between life and death.

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Marie Laveau tomb visitors

Marie Laveau giftsleftsmall New Orleans Voodoo

Marie Laveau tomb gifts

New Orleans Voodoo 8

Marie Laveau visitor leaves gift

New Orleans Voodoo 8

St. Expedite in St. Jude’s church

Places of Interest

You can’t come to New Orleans in search of voodoo without visiting the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.  Jerry Gandolfo runs the museum his brother Charles started in 1972.  Jerry is a historian in all things New Orleans voodoo and gives an extremely insightful walking tour thru the French Quarter area. From its beginnings in Congo Square to a present day Spiritual Temple, Jerry brings the history and culture of voodoo to life.  Mr. Gandolfo calls this time in voodoo the American Phase.

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Museum altars

New Orleans Voodoo shrine 8

Museum altar

New Orleans has many practicing Voodoo priestesses today.  Each has their calling and practice of spiritual lifestyle. Priestesses offer readings, prayers, specially prepared gris-gris to seekers looking for help in their life.  Some devotees follow the Haitian practices and not the Benin practices that shaped early New Orleans voodoo. Although voodoo is much more accepted today, true worshipers gather in secret to perform their ceremonies.

I chose to visit with Priestess Miriam of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.  For the past 24 years, she has followed the West African spiritual and healing practices of voodoo in the Temple.  She conducts personal readings, removal of curses, blessings, weddings, lectures, empowerment consultations and many other services. The snake spirit is still integral to current Voodoo services. Priestess Miriam conducts 4 special services a year which include her use of a snake.  Her wish is to excel in ‘truth’.

Voodoo alter in New Orleans

Voodoo Spiritual Temple altar

Sitting in the altar-filled Temple, I learn Priestess Miriam creates these altars as she is led by the Loas (Voudon diety), Saints and Spirits. Priestess Miriam reacted to my words, “I don’t know much about voodoo,”  with a head shake and explaining that she’s heard those words for the past 24 years.  I listened as she explained that “voodoo” is just a word and you can’t know a word.  “You have to know the people.”  She explained how the African slaves arrived here and had to learn a new language and culture.  They brought with them the culture and spiritual practices that they knew.  They had to adapt and survive and their spiritual practices were one way they did.

Being respectful and not looking for sensationalism, we talked more about human nature and the conditions of a person’s heart, than about the “details of voodoo.”  I listened intently allowing Priestess Miriam to share what she felt led to share. Before I left, Priestess Miriam allowed me to take photos in the Temple. Catholicism is clearly an influence in her spiritual practice.

Voodoo Alter in new Orleans

Voodoo Spiritual Temple altar

Voodoo Altar in New Orleans

More Voodoo alter items

About the Voodoo Altar

Bringing herbs and poisons with them from West Africa, the use of charms and amulets were common for self-protection or for harm to others. These items are still available, but in New Orleans, “Gris-Gris” (gree-gree) are more commonly used. Gris-Gris are a voodoo object used to provoke magic and describes the act itself.  Romance and love gris-gris attract or keep a lover, breakup lovers and other matters of the heart.  Power and domination gris-gris bring competitors an advantage. Politicians, athletes and attorneys use these objects in their dealings.  Luck and finance gris-gris aid in work conditions, like finding a job or getting a raise.  Gamblers also carry these gris-gris  The last category, uncrossing gris-gris undoes something that has been done.  Removing a hex, gris-gris, or something another has targeted you with are often undone with an uncrossing gris-gris.

From its West African roots to the current American phase, New Orleans voodoo has held steadfast to its beliefs and cultural traditions of spiritual practice. Focused on helping people improve their lives; voodoo priests, priestesses and devotees call upon the Saints and spirits for blessings, help and guidance.  When you visit New Orleans, you can pick up a gris-gris, potion or have a personal consultation.  Or you can stop by St. Louis Cemetery No.1 and ask Marie Laveau for her help.  Just don’t forget to leave a gift…

Marie Laveau Gifts

Marie Laveau gifts

Nancie Lee of Aperture Of My Soul

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About Nancie Clark

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Nancie Lee is a freelance photographer and inspired writer with an insatiable desire to explore the world. Her website, Aperture Of My Soul combines her love for photography with her love of travel. Engaging others to pursue their greatest authentic life, she inspires them to "adventure boldly on their journey". Visit Nancie's other social media sites: Aperture Of My Soul Twitter Facebook Google+ Instagram Pinterest

21 Comments on this post

  1. Nancie, I love New Orleans! It is one of the most exotic cities in the U.S., mostly because of its voodoo. Thanks for telling us places to go.

    Corinne / Reply
  2. Wow! I wish we had done such a tour when we visited New Orleans! Sadly (well not sadly, it was really good!) we had lunch in a jazz bar and ended up staying there enjoying the music for the rest of our day we had there!

    Emma / Reply
    • Now you know for next time!!! This is a fun jaunt xox

    • Listening to jazz in New Orleans, still a fitting way to spend the day. Here’s a tidbit I learned… Jazz started in the brothel area called Storyville. Storyville was located right next to Congo Square. The brothels would charge larger fees if they had live music. Louis Armstrong used to sneak in and sit under the windows and listen to the music. So amazing!!

  3. This is such a fascinating cultural aspect of New Orleans. I’m hoping to get down there soon to experience the historical richness in person. Nicely researched and photographed piece, too!

    Dave Cole / Reply
    • Thank you very much Dave! I’ve lived in Louisiana 10 years and really knew nothing about that portion of New Orleans’ history. I hope you have the opportunity to experience ‘Nawls soon! 😉

  4. Oh my gosh, NOLA is one of my all-time favorite cities! I really wanted to make it to Marie Laveau’s grave the last time I was there but I didn’t get to. Next time, for sure! Really interesting read – I learned a lot. 🙂

    Mandie @ RamblingMandie / Reply
  5. […] weekly blog party, co-hosted by some awesome bloggers. You can link your travel posts here or here or you can join the party by following #SundayTraveler on Social […]

  6. We saw just a tiny bit of this when we were in New Orleans, now I wished we had looked into it so much more!

    SJ @ Chasing the Donkey / Reply
  7. I am a huge fan of New Orleans, making this an extra interesting read. I love learning about the way history shapes a city, and reading this sure taught me a lot!

  8. I love this and everytime I’m in New Orleans I say ‘hello’ to Priestess Miriam! She is wonderful. Where my mother is from Voo-Doo is not seen as evil and I grew up learning its history. While I am not religious, I appreciate the rituals and beliefs. This was a great post and I loved that you got into the history!

  9. What an interesting history you wrote about – I feel like I learned a lot here! 🙂 On our recent trip to Quebec City, we visited a museum with art from Haiti and lots of it was inspired by Haitian voodoo. It was super interesting. I love the places you visited, very enchanting and intriguing!ht

    Lauren / Reply
  10. Great article!! Favourite haunt of mine, New Orleans. It was in the dark magic of this place that Ezekial Bone was born, many moons ago. Great wok, Fairytale 🙂

    Ezekial Bone / Reply
  11. […] weekly blog party, co-hosted by some awesome bloggers. You can link your travel posts here or here or you can join the party by following #SundayTraveler on Social […]

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