The raids often came in the middle of the night. Entire villages in Africa were instantly destroyed and their residents herded off in shackles.
Once aboard overcrowded ships headed for parts unknown to them, the African people had little to hold on to, except their traditions, their customs, and their religion.
Mention the word Voodoo to many people today, and you’re likely to draw apprehensive stares and cautious curiosity. The many popular misconceptions about Voodoo have caused the very word to bring dread and horror to masses of people who mistakenly believe Voodoo is an inherently evil concept. Images of pins being stuck into grotesque dolls are often conjured with the mention of Voodoo.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Voodoo is really a system of religion and spiritualism that finds its roots in ancient Africa. In many ways it differs little from modern organized religion. Its followers believe in one God and the search for a better understanding of the spiritual aspects of life.
That’s a far cry from the many who associate Voodoo with devil worship or human sacrifices.
Voodoo existed for many years in Africa as a rich part of the cultural fabric. The hierarchy of Voodoo includes God first, followed by Loa, or spirits that oversee all that happens on earth. Each of the Loa has its own preferred fruit, vegetable, color, day of the week, number, and other life elements. The reason the spirits are so well known is that Voodoo is a religious practice passed from generation to generation by Griots.
African slaves in the Caribbean islands during the 19th century were banned from practicing Voodoo. It didn’t take the African slaves long to realize the parallels between Voodoo and Catholicism. Soon, some of the names of Catholic saints, and much of the ritual in the Catholic church was mirrored by the Africans, including ceremonies and costuming.
Voodoo probably found its way to New Orleans because with its established cultural blend of French, Spanish and Indian traditions, the City was an ideal setting for a practice that had made its way through Martinique, Haiti, and the French West Indies.
In many ways it was Voodoo that sustained the African slaves through their tribulations of being plucked from their homeland, forced into servitude and scattered throughout the world against their will. Voodoo, in its own way, was the common thread of survival among the slaves.
By the time Voodoo wove its way into New Orleans culture, the French Quarter was a thriving riverside city that some of its inhabitants believed had a mystical quality about it. In the streets of New Orleans, it was most common to hear people speaking Spanish or French.
One tall, statuesque woman of color, Marie Laveau, was an attractive mix of African, Indian and Caucasian blood, known as a Quadroon. A hairdresser by trade, Laveau knew when to talk, and when to listen, as she entered homes of some of the richest and most powerful women in the city. They would tell her their great family secrets, stories of their husbands’ dalliances with other women, and tales of reinventing their family histories to delete references to questionable ancestry. If knowledge is power, Marie Laveau had all the makings of a great and powerful figure in the City.
Her potential would be realized by 1830 when she was the undisputed Queen of Voodoo in New Orleans. She had the gift of showmanship, and into Voodoo ceremonies she injected a healthy dose of mysticism and sensuality, using snakes liberally as symbols in ceremonies. She borrowed heavily from Catholic tradition, including ritualistic elements such as incense, holy water and prayer.
Laveau was held in high esteem by many New Orleanians, particularly for her devout Catholic faith. She attended church daily, until she was granted permission to hold Voodoo rituals behind St. Louis Cathedral.
Over the years, Laveau would practice her rituals in her own St. Ann street home in the French Quarter, placing and removing curses, telling futures, reading minds and generally serving as a spiritual guide for the masses. Part theatrical dramatist, part mystical agent and part spiritual leader, Laveau caused Voodoo to be incorporated into New Orleans’ rich cultural tapestry for decades.
It is said there was a second Marie Laveau, one of Laveau’s 15 children, who carried on her mother’s legacy.
It is a powerful legacy that moves many New Orleanians to honor the original Laveau life and work every June 23, on St. John’s Eve, the night believers think the Voodoo Queen’s spirit rises.
Marie Laveau’s grave in St. Louis Cemetery #1 on Basin Street is visited and meticulously maintained by legions of followers, who still place offerings there, including food or various symbols of Voodoo. One ritual that still lives on is the marking of her tomb with chalk in the shape of a cross or an X.
You won’t find much of a trace of Voodoo in its authentic form on the streets of New Orleans today. It is a quiet movement that owes much of its existence to its heritage and its history.
A good place to begin a look into the world of Voodoo is the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street in the heart of the Quarter. Blue candles burn there continually in honor of Marie Laveau, in halls surrounded by pictures of ancient and modern Voodoo rituals and several metal Ve-ve’s, which are magical drawings used to summon the spirits.
The Occult Room of the Museum is a place visitors can make offerings of rum, cigars or money to Exu, one of the Voodoo spirits. Various objects of Voodoo practice from different parts of the world are displayed in the Occult Room, as are artifacts from other religions that include elements of Voodoo.
The Voodoo Museum has been praised for its attention to detail and its commitment to authenticity, as it relates to Voodoo.
Is it magic? Probably not. Is it religion? Generations have believed it is.
The conventional wisdom says Voodoo is more an object of curiosity, a part of New Orleans history, than it is a contemporary practice. But no one really knows for sure, because Voodoo practitioners traditionally do not make a public spectacle of their ceremonies or rituals.
Still, the aura of mysticism surrounding Voodoo fits right in with the fascination found in the local culture of New Orleans. Voodoo, like jazz music, our multi-cultural cuisine, the Mardi Gras, and even the city’s traditional Spanish architecture, is a part of this place. It belongs here among the aged streets and centuries old oak trees that make New Orleans the singularly distinctive place that it has always been.