Sallie Ann Glassman's Vodou temple is tucked away in New Orleans' up-and-coming Bywater neighborhood, hidden in an alley behind recently repainted homes, their decorative flowerbeds just beginning to bloom in the windowsills. The dirt and gravel path is guarded by a large, scrap metal sculpture of a gede, a spirit representative of sex, death, and regeneration. The walkway takes you past looming fences plastered with depictions of a whole menagerie of the Vodou spiritual pantheon—skeletal gedes, barons, and lwa. It's quiet, and standing alone with no one but the Technicolor spirits keeping you company can make you feel even more the outsider. There's a distant jangling chime of metal-on-metal, partnered with the heavy, panting breath of something both imposingly large and quickly approaching. The whole point of this was to help debunk the stereotypical Vodou image, not to prop it up.
"Sorry I'm late," Glassman says, rounding the corner with a very thick, very furry dog in tow.
She and I shake hands, the collection of bracelets and charms sliding down her wrist. Glassman introduces her dog, Ayida, named after the lwa rainbow serpent. She unlocks the temple door, ritually knocking three times before entering the temple she built from the ground up. Except for the three massive altars, each taking up their own wall, you would think the tenants were in the process of moving out or renovating a large studio apartment; the floor is stripped to its concrete foundation, chairs stacked against the walls next to a barren kitchen. The altars, to the uneducated outsider, are a carefully constructed chaos of votive candles, liquor bottles, offering bowls, and iconographic images. It's hard not to let your mind free-associate to some set piece from a sexy Voodoo horror flick—a naked Lisa Bonet rolling around in blood, or a zombified Bill Pullman clutching at villagers' shirt hems, begging, "Don't let them bury me, I'm not dead."
There's a splashing sound behind me. Ayida has tipped over her water dish, and is now staring at the puddle accusingly.
"She hasn't quite figured out the bowl situation," Glassman says.
When she's not leading fellow Vodouisants—or Vodou practitioners—in communal worship, Glassman has spent the past couple of decades educating a public solely exposed to her faith's pop culture bastardization, breaking through the stereotypical, often xenophobic and racist assumptions to depict Vodou as it really is—a vibrant, dense, and ever-evolving worldview.
"Voodoo is the sort of commercial, Hollywood, tourist version. Vodou is a religion," she clarifies.
Glassman, born in Maine to Ukranian-heritage Jews, doesn't exactly fit the traditional image of a mambo Asogwe, a Vodouhigh priestess. One can find themselves suspicious of the 60-year-old, tanned and vegan white woman explaining the slave origins of Haitian faith while sitting in the heart of the Voodoo tourist trap that is New Orleans. As she begins to explain her past, however, it slowly becomes clear that if this were an exploitative cash grab, she's certainly taken the long route to get here.
"I was really involved in the Ordo Templi Orientalis [the magickal fraternal order founded by Aleister Crowley]," she explains, refilling the water bowl for Ayida. "For a while I was the second-in-command; some title or another. I realized I just wasn't interested in getting power for myself."
Glassman moved to New Orleans and discovered traditional Vodou culture in 1976 through patrons at a bar she tended. By 1980, she was leading ceremonies in her home for the locals. Surprisingly, it's not race or nationality that separated Glassman from the Vodouisant traditionalists—it's her veganism. While exaggerated by films like Angel Heart and The Serpent and the Rainbow, not to mention Pat Robertson's 700 Club, ritual animal sacrifice does still play an important part in Vodou ritual. As Glassman began observing these ceremonies, she realized that her dietary ethics would need to be reconciled with her community.
"It's said that the animals sort of offer themselves up…but my experience is [that] it's pretty horrific. It's really bloody. Quite gruesome," she says.
Anthony Karen, a photographer who has spent a great deal of time living with remote Haitian Vodou communities, agrees with Glassman's take.
"The ritual of sacrifice tends to be more extreme in the remote areas of the countryside. I won't get into details, but as an animal lover it can be quite difficult to watch…That said, the majority of sacrifices I've been witness to are fairly humane," Karen writes in an email.
"[Animal sacrifice] means feeding the spiritual bodies and entities through the angels of the earth [sic]. It is like recycling and regrouping the various energies to strengthen the body and the soul to assist in living this human experience."
Both Glassman and Karen stress the communal importance and significance of ritual Vodou animal slaughter. Once the ceremonies are complete, the meat from the offered animal is almost always distributed among the community to eat. In areas where supermarkets are a foreign concept, this is, quite literally, life-giving. But it still doesn't seem to make sense how a vegan from New England gravitated toward the one faith that's arguably the most associated with modern sacrificial animal offerings. To Glassman, living in America changes things.
"Is this for us, or is it for the spirit?" she asks regarding slaughter. "The lwa themselves were once human beings. [They've] died and…have new perspectives, and are able to guide and advise us. I have to think that this is about an ongoing evolution. At one time everyone was sacrificing humans to make the corn grow. We're appalled to think of that now."
Around the time Glassman began leading ritual ceremonies, a friend—who just so happened to be a Vodou temple president in Port-au-Prince—invited her to a Fet Gede/Day of the Dead ceremony in Haiti. As they discussed the possibility of the trip, the phone rang.
"It was [a friend of the temple president] in Haiti saying they had thrown [cast divination] for me, and why didn't I just come down and initiate instead of view a ceremony? I said, 'OK…sure, I'll do that,'" she recalls, laughing.
The trip changed everything for Glassman. There she met Edgard Jean Louis, a highly regarded Vodou priest, who assuaged her fears of being such an outsider in what is traditionally a tight-knit and private community.
"He just entered into my universe and became a very important influence towards me. He was really extraordinary…this white, Jewish girl from New England, vegan…his attitude was that if the lwa picked this person, who was he to say no? He called me his daughter; I called him papa."
Vodou, she explains, has always been about change and survival, originating during the slave trade as traditional African spirituality merged with Catholicism, Native American faiths, and even Masonry.
"Vodou is very beautiful and life-sustaining. It gave people the ability to endure that which was absolutely unendurable," Glassman continues.
A faith that is, by its very nature, fluid and creative means traditions will always be augmented with time. She's not alone in thinking this, either. An increasing number of Vodouisants are adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, believing it more harmonious for the universe and its spiritual inhabitants. Like any faith, there are still the Vodou hardliners who violently disagree with Glassman's vegan interpretations.
"My life has been threatened by it. Americans," she adds. "Always Americans."
It's easier, if not still a little strained, abroad. Glassman remembers an occasion in which she was asked to participate in a ritual slaughter alongside papa Edgard's wife in Haiti.
"She was a billion years old, and I'd never met her before. She was terrifying. She was so fierce. We were supposed to [sacrifice a chicken]. I just couldn't do it. The woman was looking at me like, 'This is what they give me to work with? What is the matter with you?' She did it for me, but she was absolutely like, 'Wimp.'" Glassman laughs. "But [Haitian Vodouisants] never made a big deal about it, and they never made me eat meat."
Most importantly, Glassman swears she's never had any problems summoning the lwa during her ceremonies, and that they've always been appreciative of her and her fellow Vodouisants' offerings—even when lacking an animal sacrifice.
"I honor and respect the traditions. We're doing all the elements of the ceremony in the right order, and yet we do work creatively within that…The world changes, and Vodou changes and responds. It's living and responsive to the world."
Is she worried about the hardliners who've threatened her in the past?
"I think a lot of the anger that gets projected onto me is the anger at the lwa for not kicking my butt." Glassman looks around at her temple, at the ornate altars, at Ayida as she finishes the last of the water. "But my life is pretty good."