Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo describes a set of spiritual beliefs and practices developed from the traditions of the African diaspora in Louisiana. It is sometimes referred to as Mississippi Valley Voodoo when referring to its historic popularity and development in the greater Mississippi Valley. It is a cultural form of the Afro-American religions developed by the West and Central African populations of the U.S. state of Louisiana. Voodoo is one of many incarnations of African-based spiritual folkways, rooted in West African Dahomeyan Vodun.
Voodoo’s liturgical language is Louisiana Creole, one of the two main heritage languages (the other being Louisiana French) of the Louisiana Creole people. It became syncretized with the Catholic and Francophone culture of New Orleans as a result of the African cultural oppression in the region as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with Haitian Vodou and Deep Southern Hoodoo, but, while related to these forms of the religion, is a belief system of its own. It differs from Haitian Vodou in its emphasis upon gris-gris, Voodoo queens, use of Hoodoo paraphernalia, and Li Grand Zombi. It was through Louisiana Voodoo that such terms as gris-gris (a Wolof term) and “Voodoo dolls”‘ were introduced into the American lexicon.
Original African influences
Voodoo was brought to French Louisiana during the colonial period by enslaved sub-Saharan Africans from West Africa. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives brought to, and enslaved in, Louisiana were Fon people from what is now Benin; other groups such as the Bambara, Mandinga, Wolof, Ewe, Fulbe, Fon (Dahomean),Yoruba (Nago), Chamba, Congo, Ibo, Ado, Hausa, and Sango (Hall) also brought their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. All of the groups contributed to the development of Louisiana Voodoo. Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo. Many Fon were also taken as slaves to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean Sea. Louisiana Voodoo has existed since the early 1700s.
The enslaved community quickly outnumbered white European colonists. The French colony was not a stable society when the enslaved sub-Saharan Africans arrived, and the newly arrived sub-Saharan Africans dominated the slave community. According to a census of 1731–1732, the ratio of enslaved sub-Saharan Africans to European settlers was more than two to one. A relatively small number of colonists were planters and slaveholders, owners of sugar plantations with work that required large labor forces. Because the Africans were held in large groups relatively isolated from interaction with whites, their preservation of African indigenous practices and culture was enabled. In the Upper South and other parts of British Colonial America, slave families were usually divided; large numbers of African slaves who were once closely related by family or community were sent to different plantations. However, in southern Louisiana, families, cultures, and languages were kept more intact than in the north. This allowed cultural traditions, languages, and religious practices of the slaves to continue there.
Under the French code and the influence of Catholicism, officials nominally recognized family groups, prohibiting the sale of slave children away from their families if younger than age fourteen. They promoted the man-made legend of wake tuko of the enslaved population. The high mortality of the slave trade brought its survivors together with a sense of solidarity and initiation. The absence of fragmentation in the enslaved community, along with the kinship system produced by the bond created by the difficulties of slavery, resulted in a “coherent, functional, well integrated, autonomous, and self-confident enslaved community.”
The practice of making and wearing charms and amulets for protection, healing, or the harm of others was a key aspect to early Louisiana Voodoo. The Ouanga, a charm used to poison an enemy, contained the toxic roots of the figuier maudit tree, brought from Africa and preserved in Louisiana. The ground-up root was combined with other elements, such as bones, nails, roots, holy water, holy candles, holy incense, holy bread, or crucifixes. The administrator of the ritual frequently evoked protection from Jehovah and Jesus Christ. This openness of African belief allowed for the adoption of Catholic practices into Louisiana Voodoo.
Another element brought from West Africa was the veneration of ancestors and the subsequent emphasis on respect for elders. For this reason, the rate of survival among elderly enslaved peoples was high, further “Africanizing Louisiana Creole culture.”
Popularity in the Mississippi Valley
Voodoo practices were not only present in Louisiana but across the general Mississippi Valley. Reports of popular voodoo ceremonies date as late as 1849 in Ohio and 1891 in northern Missouri. Despite general similarity some differences have been noted between the voodoo practiced in the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Upper Mississippi Valley. In the Upper Mississippi Valley a differing pantheon of gods seemed to have existed, this is inferred by evidence of worship to a god named “Samunga” which has never been present in Louisiana Voodoo.
Voodoo after the Haitian Revolution
Following the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the lives of Voodoo practitioners in the North American colonies became more difficult. Due to the revolution being started by slaves who were supposedly possessed by a deity during a Vodou ritual, the French colonists became aggressive in trying to suppress Voodoo rituals as a precaution against uprisings.
Unlike their Haitian counterparts, the slaves in Louisiana did not rebel in great numbers against their slave-masters. Instead, Voodoo followers used amulets and charms in their daily lives. The people used them mainly for healing, protection, guidance, and to keep a connection with their loved ones. Some charms were used to hurt enemies, and involved the deceptions of curses.
Famous Characters in Voodoo
Influence of voodoo leaders
Voodoo queens, powerful female practitioners of the religion were known to exercise great power in their communities, and had the role of leading many of the ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. These drew crowds of hundreds and thousands of people. They made a living through the selling and administering of amulets, or “gris-gris” charms, and magical powders, as well as spells and charms that guaranteed to “cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one’s enemies”.
Their power and influence were widespread and largely incontestable. It was recognized by journalists, judges, criminals, and citizens alike. These women of African and Creole descent emerged as powerful leaders in a society that upheld an oppressive slave regime and a dichotomy of freedom between blacks and whites. Their influence was felt in black and white circles alike, partly due to the early history of the city, in which “a shortage of white women resulted in a high number of interracial liaisons.”
As in other French colonial communities, a class of free people of color developed who were given specific rights and, in New Orleans, acquired property and education. Free women of color had a relatively high amount of influence, particularly those who were spiritual leaders. In addition, the religious traditions in West and Central Africa, from where many voodoo customs are derived, provided for women to exercise extraordinary power.
Among the fifteen “voodoo queens” in neighborhoods scattered around 19th-century New Orleans, Marie Laveau was known as “the Voodoo Queen”, the most eminent and powerful of them all. Her religious rite on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain on St. John’s Eve in 1874 attracted some 12,000 black and white New Orleanians.
It was said that politicians, lawyers, businessman, wealthy planters – all came to her to consult before making an important financial or business-related decision. She also saw the poor and enslaved.
Although her help seemed non-discriminatory, she may have favored enslaved servants: Her most “influential, affluent customers…runaway slaves…credited their successful escapes to Laveaux’s powerful charms”. Once the news of her powers spread, she dominated the other Voodoo leaders of New Orleans. Also a Catholic, Laveau encouraged her followers to attend Catholic Mass. Her influence contributed to the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system. Marie Laveau is remembered for her skill and compassion for the less fortunate.
Laveau also gained influence over her clientele by her day job as a hairdresser, which gave her intimate knowledge of the gossip in town. Her customers also came to her to buy voodoo dolls, potions, gris-gris bags, and the like. Her influence continues in the city. In the 21st century, her gravesite in the oldest cemetery is a major tourist attraction; believers of Voodoo offer gifts here and pray to her spirit.
Across the street from the cemetery where Laveau is buried, offerings of pound cake are left to the statue of Saint Expedite; these offerings are believed to expedite the favors asked of the Voodoo queen. Saint Expedite represents the spirit standing between life and death. The chapel where the statue stands was once used only for holding funerals. Marie Laveau continues to be a central figure of Louisiana Voodoo and of New Orleans culture. Gamblers shout her name when throwing dice, and multiple tales of sightings of the Voodoo queen have been told.
Doctor John, also known by many other names, such as Bayou John and Prince John, was born in Senegal and kidnapped as a slave before becoming a prominent Voodoo king in the late 19th-century in New Orleans. He brought the knowledge of the craft from his home country Senegal. He joined an already prominent voodoo community that existed in New Orleans since the early 1700s developed by African slave groups such as the Bambara, Mandinga, Wolof, Ewe, Fulbe, Nard, Mina, Fon (Dahomean), Yoruba (Nago), Chamba, Congo, Ibo, Ado, Hausa, and Sango (Hall). Previous natives of Senegal were already enslaved in New Orleans by 1720.
Through Doctor John’s work in the medicinal aspects of Voodoo, he gained a reputation for being an excellent healer. Some reports went as far to state that he had the ability to resuscitate patients on the verge of death through his rituals. This is one of the earliest Voodoo accounts of reanimation, leading to the myth of zombies in Louisiana.
However, it has been reported that Doctor John confessed to friends that his magic was a sham. “He had been known to laugh,” writes Robert Tallant in Voodoo in New Orleans (1946, 39), “when he told of selling a gullible white woman a small jar of starch and water for five dollars”
Born in 1937 in Haiti, Fred Staten, moved with family to New Orleans as an infant, where he was raised by his grandparents, also of Haitian descent. His grandfather was a practicing Baptist minister. When Fred was young, his grandparents told him that he was of royal African descent and had supernatural abilities. His true name was revealed to be Prince Ke’eyama. Papa John Bayou taught him the ways of Haitian Voodoo. As a young man, Staten made many trips to voodoo communities in Haiti and the United States to learn more of the art.
Staten, or Prince, became Papa Midnight and settled permanently in New Orleans in the 1970s. He developed his Chicken Man persona, performing nightclub acts expressing his strong spiritual connection with God and voodoo. His performance included dancing, magic, and biting the head off a live chicken and drinking its blood. He attracted thousands of followers, but some other voodoo practitioners saw him simply as a “showman”. He was worshipped as a Voodoo priest until his mysterious death in early 1998. His ashes were donated to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.
Beliefs and practices
Singing is among important rituals as part of voodoo worship. Songs have been passed down orally for hundreds of years. Songs would be accompanied by patting, clapping and foot stomping but not drum playing unless it was part of the weekly public ceremony in Congo Square in New Orleans during slavery times.
Songs are sung to give descriptions of personalities for the deities, such as their names, likes and dislikes, origin, responsibilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Sometimes the songs are sung in address to the deities, and sometimes as if the deities themselves were speaking (or singing). Many songs mirror tunes of the Catholic Church, as well as associate the Catholic saints with African deities.
There are only two ways a new song would be added to the voodoo repertoire. The first is if someone has heard the song in a dream, as this is believed to be the spirit’s revelation. A second instance is if a person is in a possessed trance and asks the people around them to sing it and memorize it, when it is considered to come straight from a spirit.
There are four phases to a voodoo ritual, all identifiable by the song being sung: preparation, invocation, possession, and farewell. The songs are used to open the gate between the deities and the human world and invite the spirits to possess someone.
Voodoo in society
During the 1930s, Voodoo went underground as New Orleans became an increasingly popular tourist destination. Voodoo was portrayed exotically in the 1932 feature film White Zombie. A popular misconception developed that the principal elements of Voodoo are hexing and sticking pins into dolls. At this time, some exploited the tradition, making a “business of superstitions” and selling fake potions, powders, and gris-gris.
In the early 21st century, Voodoo has become part of the tourist attractions in New Orleans; commercial interests have sought to capitalize on popular interest in the religion. Shops selling charms, gris-gris, candles, and powders cater to both tourists and practitioners.
A more recent example of commercializing New Orleans Voodoo is in the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog. The film’s villain, Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David) plays a bokor, a witch doctor. This is exemplified through his costume, his ominous presence and the talisman he carries around. Conversely, the film’s fairy godmother figure Mama Odie (voiced by Jenifer Lewis) is a Voodoo queen who only dresses in white. She has a familiar named Juju, a snake that serves as everything from a walking stick to a bridge, and lives in an abandoned ship in the Bayou.
The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum houses numerous artifacts and provides daily tours of the museum, the St. Louis Cemetery, and the French Quarter (New Orleans). The museum also provides spiritual services, including matrimony blessings, marriage ceremonies, consultations, and other rituals. In August 1995, voodoo practitioners held a ritual in Bywater to try to drive away crack cocaine abuse, burglaries, prostitution, and assaults.
Louisiana Voodoo in the Media
While media content exists that portrays Voodoo practices with accuracy, many popular novels (like Voodoo Season (2006) and Voodoo Dreams (1995) by Jowell Parker Rhodes), and horror movies (such as White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), Voodoo Dawn (1998) or Hoodoo for Voodoo (2006)), are misrepresentations of actual Voodoo traditions.
Voodoo is central to the plot of the James Bond film Live and Let Die. The villain, Dr Kananga, uses the fear of Voodoo to scare locals away from his poppy fields where he is cultivating opium (to convert into heroin) to be “given away free” on the streets of New Orleans. Various references to voodoo, as it has developed in popular culture, which include poisons used on darts, shrunken heads, etc. appear throughout the film. including the rising from the dead of the secondary villain Baron Samedi.
A more recent example of Voodoo being portrayed in popular media is in the well-known American TV-show, American Horror Story: Coven. The series focuses on witches in New Orleans, and presents a group of white witches alongside a group of black witches who practice Voodoo. However, there is one black woman among the ranks of the otherwise white witches known as Queenie. Her magical ability is that of a human Voodoo-doll; she can inflict pain on others by mutilating herself. As writer Amanda Kay LeBlanc writes in her article, (Re)centering whiteness in American Horror Story: Coven, “Coven disproportionately relies on violence against black bodies in order to provide horror to the audience.” The show uses portrayals of Voodoo to do this: it emphasizes Voodoo as a violent practice, as magic drawn from the pain of others— usually white people.
The show also portrays this violence as a large part of Voodoo as committed without empathy; Coven shows Queenie, the black Voodoo-witch, hurting people with her Voodoo magic without remorse: “Queenie uses her voodoo doll-like powers to violently attack a male customer who continuously insulted her at the fried chicken restaurant where she worked until she sticks her hand into the deep frying oil to burn the man. The camera lingers on Queenie’s smiling face: she is glad she hurt him. Queenie alone knows she caused this man’s horrific burns and, while we root for her, her smile is menacing and threatening”. The show connects voodoo to ruthless violence, contributing to unrealistic perceptions of the African religion.
A character named Marie Laveau, based on the real-life historical figure, also appears in American Horror Story: Coven as a Voodoo-practicing witch. Voodoo, for both her character and Queenie’s, is connected to both anger and dangerous sexuality in the show. “In Coven, the black women are portrayed as feminine, and certainly sexual, but unlike their white counterparts, femininity and sexuality become attached to their wild animalness”. For example, both of these women have sexual/romantic relations with a violent black minotaur. While the show portrays the white witches as having sexual relations as well, “throughout the season, Leveau and Queenie’s connection to the Minotaur is their only sexual and romantic relationship”.
Louisiana Voodoo also featured prominently and played as central role in the serial killing mystery in New Orleans for the 1993 video game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, with Marie Laveau and other historical figures of Louisiana Voodoo mentioned in the story line.
Louisiana Voodoo and Christianity
As a result of the fusion of Francophone culture and Voodoo in Louisiana, Creoles of color associated many Voodoo spirits with the Christian saints known to preside over the same domain. Although some doctrinaire leaders of each tradition believe Voodoo and Catholic practices are in conflict, in popular culture both saints and spirits are believed to act as mediators, with the Catholic priest or voodoo Legba presiding over specific respective activities. Early followers of Voodoo in the United States adopted the image of the Catholic saints to represent their spirits.
Louisiana Voodoo and racism
Discourse among the white community concerning Voodoo has often fed into negative stereotypes of black people. The religion became a viable area of discourse for white supremacists because of its subaltern existence, connections to African practices, anxieties about its connection to black conspiracy and slave rebellion, and its powerful women of color.
For example, in the 1800s, Louisiana newspapers typically portrayed Voodoo practices in a negative way, with articles such as “Voodous on the Rampage”. They described rumors of animal sacrifices, zombies, and spirits, sensationalizing stories of depraved acts Voodoo had driven black people to commit. This portrayal of Voodoo contributed to the concept of black people as superstitious primitives.
Narratives about Voodoo practices also were typically used to demonstrate the threat of black and female rebellion, and were thus used as rationale for the need to regulate communities of color. Voodoo narratives served as validation of rationalizations of white supremacy for white publics, by portraying the “wildness” and “barbarity” of people of African descent, and thus in contrast, the stableness and intelligence of white people. These views were used to emphasize the terrors of black voting rights, desegregation, and interracial mixing— especially since white supremacists viewed Voodoo as a symbol of the threat of “Negro domination”.
Narratives of Voodoo also helped to make black criminality an accepted social fact, and to create and solidify perceptions of black men as primitive, animalistic, and often as rapists, feeding into arguments for black men’s lack of suffrage and legal segregation, as well as excusing political violence in the South for years to come. However, even after black male enfranchisement was achieved, Voodoo narratives often emphasized the dangerous intermingling of white women and black men in ritual spaces, continuing to paint men of color as rapists. This perception was one of the central arguments provided for continued segregation and “repressive violence”. Later, this authentication of black criminality contributed to justifications for the “mass incarceration, labor exploitation, and regulation of female sexuality” that shaped the Jim Crow-era social order.
Many superstitions also related to the practice of Hoodoo, developed within the Voodoo tradition in Louisiana. While these superstitions are not central to the Voodoo faith, their emergence has been partly a result of Voodoo tradition in New Orleans and have since influenced it significantly.
In Hoodoo herbalism, the “cure-all” was very popular among followers. The cure-all was a Hoodoo mixture that could solve all problems. Hoodoo’s herbal healing system included a variety of ingredients for cure-alls; one recipe was to mix jimson weed with sulfur and honey. The mixture was placed in a glass, which was rubbed against a black cat, and then the mixture was slowly sipped.
The Hoodoo doll is a form of gris-gris and an example of sympathetic magic. Contrary to popular belief, Hoodoo dolls are usually used to bless and have no power to curse. According to Jerry Gandolfo, the purpose of sticking pins in the doll is not to cause pain in the associated person, but rather to pin a picture of a person or a name to the doll, which traditionally represents a spirit. The gris-gris is performed from one of four categories: love; power and domination; luck and finance; and uncrossing.
Hoodoo practitioners have used different tools throughout the history of the practice to solve their customer’s ailments. The generic name for the items is“gris-gris”—talismans, amulets, voodoo charms, spells, or incantations “believed capable of warding off evil and bringing good luck to oneself or of bringing misfortune to another” (as defined by the Mirriam Webster Dictionary). Examples include: Five Finger Grass, Dragon Blood Sticks, Dixie Love Perfume and Brimstone. Explanations in a 1946 book said that Five Finger Grass was a leaf split into five sections. The belief was that if hung in one’s house, it would ward off any evil. Dragon Blood Sticks were said to bring good luck in money, business, and love. Keeping a stick close on a person was said to bring luck. Dixie Love Perfume was noted for a fragrance to encourage romance. Brimstone is used to keep away evil spirits and counteract spells cast on households, and was burned in rooms needing to be deodorized. These were traditionally available in local shops.
The user often had to take additional steps in a process before using such items, such as washing their hands in “Two Jacks Extract.” Only hoodoo shops have been known to sell these supplies. Many voodoo practitioners were believed to be afraid of these hoodoo items.
In American South, hoodoo is mainly practiced by Protestant Christians.
Voodoo and Spiritualism
New Orleans Spiritualist churches honor the spirit of Black Hawk, a Sauk war chief who was influential in early 19th-century Illinois and Wisconsin. The New Orleans Spiritualist religion is a blend of Spiritualism, Vodun, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism. The Voodoo-influenced Spiritualist churches that survive in New Orleans are the result of syncretism of these and other spiritual practices.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia