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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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…
Nancie Lee of Aperture Of My Soul