Photo courtesy of New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple
The spectre of voodoo hangs heavily over the Crescent City, its presence felt from within garish tourist traps and fading antebellum drawing rooms to the tiny burning altars kept hidden from prying eyes. Much like the sprawling, confounding, bewitching city it calls home, New Orleans voodoo itself is a unique and very porous entity, made up of a multitude of different beliefs and strengthened by the extreme hardships many of its original practitioners were forced to undergo. It’s thanks to this strain that voodoo dolls, voodoo queens, and gris-gris first entered the American lexicon and eventually its pop culture, and it remains a huge cultural attraction in New Orleans—though nowadays, most voodoo dolls you’ll come across were made in China. Hell, the city's even got a football team named for it. Voodoo is about as mainstream as it gets in NOLA, which is all the stranger given its bloody and convoluted history.
The spiritual belief called voodoo originated in Africa, born of the West African traditional religion known as vodun or vodoun. Followers believe in the existence of one supreme god, who is attended by various spirits (loa), often manifested by the elements and each of whom has its preferred sign (color, fruit, number, etc) and sacred element. Animal sacrifice of goats and chickens is common in certain rituals, performed by elders in order to harness the power of the spirit world. Thanks to Catholic influence, some loa later became synonymous with certain saints. Ancestors are invoked for their wisdom and protection, and Louisiana voodoo seems to have been a matriarchal entity, with voodoo queens and priestesses holding absolute power. The religion has its roots in coastal West Africa from Ghana to Nigeria, but is still especially prevalent in the Republic of Benin. A majority of Beninese belong to the Fon ethnic and linguistic group, and “vodoun” is the Fon word for “spirits” or “gods.” During the transatlantic slave trade, Benin found itself near the epicenter of the Slave Coast, and a huge percentage of newly-arrived slaves that set foot in the French colony of Louisiana were of Fon origin. The roots of voodoo came with them.
Photo of gris-gris via Instagram
These captives brought their languages, healing practices, and religious beliefs (including the ancestor worship and elder veneration that figure prominently in modern voodoo) with them, and since French slaveowners often kept families together, these traditions were preserved to a great extent. At that point in time, the settlement was still in its infancy, with rigid colonial laws still developing. The ratio of African to European settlers hovered around two to one, and New Orleans society permitted the existence of gens de couleur libres (free people of color), some of whom went on to become voodoo’s most important figures. During this period, African culture—and spirituality—thrived in French Louisiana, and became an integral part of the multicultural framework upon which New Orleans was built. By the time the United States outlawed the import of foreign slaves in 1808, Louisiana’s African community was already firmly established, roots firmly planted in the spongy soil. Voodoo had grown into a crucial spiritual force, incorporating new traditions like the Le Grand Zombi snake and the wearing of amulets or small charm bags known as gris-gris that were intended to heal, help, or harm (the sale of which helped many early voodoo queens turn quite a tidy profit).
No longer solely the comfort and spiritual succor of enslaved Africans, the religion now known as voodoo was poised to take one hell of a star turn. Marie Laveau was waiting in the wings…
We touched briefly on voodoo’s influence over the city’s metal community in our NOLA documentary when discussing the passing of Joey LaCaze, a much loved and unendingly prolific drummer who was best known for his work behind the kit for the legendary Eyehategod as well as Outlaw Order and the Mystick Krewe of Clearlight. When he wasn’t pounding out molten sludge grooves or moonlighting in various solo electronics projects, LaCaze also performed ceremonial voodoo drumming, and when it came time to lay his soul to rest, his family chose to hold the funeral at New Orleans’ revered Voodoo Spiritual Temple. LaCaze’s longtime friend Phil Anselmo mentioned the ceremony in an interview, recalling “when the high priestess was giving her sermon, they passed out tambourines and percussive instruments to all these people that loved him, adding, “Mike IX Williams [Eyehategod vocalist] stood next to me, and little did I know, but I was getting sprinkles of blood on my head because he was beating this tambourine with such intensity. He had bloodied up his knuckles and pretty much ruined this tambourine… but we all took it later, wrote messages and buried it with his ashes.”
The Voodoo Spiritual Temple was established in 1990 by Priestess Miriam and Priest Oswan Chamani, and stands as the city’s only formally established voodoo temple, auspiciously located in the French Quarter across the street from historic Congo Square and directly connected to the square’s voodoo’s legacy. During the Spanish and French colonial era, the colonists' Code Noir dictated that African slaves traditionally had Sundays off. On those days, the captives would go to the square to spend their free time visiting, dancing, and playing music together until harsher American slaveholders ended the practice in the mid-19th century. A short walk from Congo Square will land you at St. Louis Cathedral, where famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau held public rituals after, it was said, attending Catholic mass at the cathedral. Born a Louisiana Creole of mixed race, Laveau is one of New Orleans’ most elusive and iconic spiritual figures; at this point, there’s more legend than fact surrounding the self-proclaimed “Pope of Voodoo,” but we do know that she overthrew the existing New Orleans voodoo queens and came to power during voodoo’s most prominent period between the 1820s-1860s. She began life as the beautiful, headstrong illegitimate daughter of a rich Creole plantation owner, Charles Laveaux, and his Haitian slave mistress, marrying first free man of color Jacques Paris and then entering a common law marriage (or plaçage) with Christophe de Glapion, another free man of color with whom she had fifteen children (including daughter Marie Laveau II, who grew up to practice voodoo alongside her mother and eventually succeed her).
She is thought to have studied under the heavily tattooed fortune-telling “voodoo king” Dr. John (also known as Bayou John and Prince John), a student of free Santo Dominican spiritual leader Sanite Dede, who is regarded as NOLA’s very first voodoo queen and reigned supreme from 1822-1830 before Laveau usurped her position. The calculating Laveau also apprenticed under the Congolese hex-breaker Marie Saloppe, working alongside the more experienced voodooienne at important Midsummer St. John’s Eve ceremonies until, hungry for power, Laveau allegedly hexed Saloppe and drove the older woman insane. During her training Laveau had supported herself by working as a hairdresser for the city’s social elite, developing a dedicated clientele who valued her arcane knowledge as well as her hairstyling prowess; now, free to take control of the other women’s clients as well, Laveau rose to prominence by 1830, lining her pockets by selling gris-gris and perpetuating her own legend as she went. She became famous for her elaborate public voodoo rituals, and was thought to hold a frightening amount of sway over the city’s elite.
Painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider
A devout Catholic, Laveau’s influence also further aided in the incorporation of Catholicism into a voodoo belief system that had already began much earlier. Thanks to its early Francophone influence and despite the inherent conflict between the two religions, Louisiana voodoo in particular shares the veneration of many major saints and prayers within the Catholic wheelhouse. In Laveau’s later years, she’s said to have dedicated herself completely to Catholicism, a move that, in a way, foreshadowed voodoo’s own fall from grace in New Orleans. While an estimated fifteen percent of New Orleans natives still allegedly practice voodoo, the religion has been largely absorbed into modern Catholicism, and further diluted by outside influences from Wicca, pagan, and other occult beliefs. It’s become part of the city’s mystical fabric, but is in danger of becoming just another tourist attraction.
Luckily for the curious and the faithful alike, several public institutions are doing their best to keep that magical legacy alive and avoid being caught up entirely in the brambles of tourism and technology. Laveau’s ghost is kept alive by her permanent place in New Orleans’ voodoo history, and more tangibly, in the popular Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo shop on Bourbon Street that caters to curious tourists and offers supplies for genuine practitioners. An altar to Baphomet looms over the back room, where charms are sold and incense burns, while the front offers more kitschy wares and the odd dried alligator head. Many smaller shops like Erzulie’s Authentic Voodoo Shop sell similar potions, kits, and curios.The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street provides a more in-depth experience within its halls lined with photos of voodoo rituals and extensive historical offerings, and of course, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple is happy to accept visitors…living or dead.
When not delving into the dark corners of history, Kim Kelly is busy sacrificing goats to Quorthon on Twitter - @grimkim.