Thursday, June 6, 2013

Marie Laveau and New Orleans Voodoo

Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen

Dear George,
Whenever we’re in the French Quarter, we stop in at Marie LaVeau’s House of Voodo on Bourbon St. near St. Ann.  Because of its tawdry location in the midst of stripper bars, etc., some might think of it as a tourist trap.  But, as a visitor to New Orleans from the Great Midwest, I regard it as mostly authentic  – a curious repository of a world that’s far removed from my knowledge and experience.  Marie LaVeau’s is full of otherworldly things – voodoo dolls, amulets, books galore, shrunken heads, good luck charms, tarot cards, candles, etc.  They offer Psychic Services on the spot, and you can arrange for a Voodoo Tour of the French Quarter.  After my most recent visit, I decided I need to get in better touch with the voodoo world.     

Voodoo was imported to New Orleans and Louisiana from Africa, as well as from Haiti following the revolution there.  In the early 1700's most African slaves came to Louisiana from what is now Benin in West Africa.  They brought with them their cultural practices, language, and religious beliefs.  Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo.  The ratio of African slaves to European settlers in Louisiana in the 1730's was two to one and the concentration of slave ownership in the hands of a relatively small number of white settlers facilitated the preservation of African culture.  Consequently, African rituals and spirituality did not die out, but instead thrived and merged with the local French Creole culture. 

Belief in spirits is central to Louisiana Voodoo.  Originally the spirits were called by their African names, but, once native languages were replaced by French Creole, the names of Catholic saints were given to the spirits.  African beliefs were very open, and adoption of Catholic practices became central to what is known today as New Orleans Voodoo.  This includes Hail Mary and the Lord's Prayer, baptism, and the sign of the cross.  Early Voodoo frequently involved making and wearing charms for protection, healing, or the harm of others, and rituals frequently invoked protection from Allah, the Christian God, and Jesus Christ.  Voodoo's core beliefs include the recognition of a single God who does not intervene in people's daily lives, combined with a collection of spirits that do preside over everyday events.  The spirits can be kind or they can be mischievous.  Connection with them can be achieved through music, singing, dance, and the use of snakes.  Unlike Judeo-Christian imagery, the serpent in Voodoo represents “healing knowledge and the connection between Heaven and Earth.”  One's deceased ancestors can also affect Voodoo followers’ lives.  

In the 19th century Voodoo queens became central to Louisiana Voodoo.  They presided over ceremonial meetings and ritual dances and earned income by administrating charms, amulets, and magical powers which were guaranteed to cure ailments, grant wishes, or destroy one's enemies.  In the 1830s the most famous of the Voodoo queens was Marie Laveau, who overthrew the other Voodoo queens of New Orleans.  Marie Laveau began as a hairdresser, then became a nurse during the Yellow Fever epidemics.  Consequently she was skilled in medical practice and knowledgeable about the healing properties of herbs.  Specializing in romance and finance, she conducted private rituals at her cottage on St. Ann St. in the French Quarter, performed exorcisms, and offered sacrifices to spirits.  As a devout Catholic, she encouraged her followers to attend Mass.  Even today, thousands of people visit Marie Laveau's tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to ask favors and leave offerings.  Her grave has more annual visitors than does Elvis Presley's, and there is a strong movement to have her canonized as a saint.

When New Orleans became a major tourist destination in the 1930s, Voodoo went underground.  So many tourists were asking favors of Voodoo practitioners that the latter withdrew from the public eye.  Others, however, took financial advantage of the situation, charging money, as true Voodoo followers never would, for fake potions, powders, and gris-gris.  Nowadays genuine Voodoo rituals are held behind closed doors and include readings, spiritual baths, special diets, prayer, and personal ceremony.  Voodoo is used to cure anxiety, loneliness, depression, addictions, and other distressing conditions.  Like Marie Laveau once did, Voodoo practitioners today seek to help the hungry, the poor, and the sick. 

There are many superstitions associated with Louisiana Voodoo.  A few of these are:
  • Having a woman visit you the first thing on Monday mornings means bad luck for the rest of the week.
  • If you sweep trash out of the house after dark, you will sweep away your luck.
  • If a woman wants her husband to stay away from other women, she should put a little of her blood in his coffee, and he will never leave her. 
  • You can give someone a headache by taking their picture and then turning the picture upside down. 
On my recent visit to the House of Voodoo I bought an authentic copy of Marie Laveau’s death certificate, dated June 16, 1881.  The President of the Board of Health, Joseph Jones, M.D. certifies that Marie Laveau (Maaries Glafasiasse born Laveau) died at age 98 at her home at 152 St. Ann St. on June 15, 1881, of diarrhea.  When I’m next in New Orleans I plan to find out some more and add to my collection. 

Sources:;; ("Louisiana Voodoo", "Gris-gris")

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