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Louisiana Voodoo

A trip down to the warm South

by Dave Gibson

In 1719 the French sailing vessels Duc du Maine and Aurora arrived near the newly founded city of New Orleans laden with live cargo. The slave ships held up to 600 individuals whom had endured appalling conditions during a three month, nearly insufferable journey from West Africa. Uprooted from their homes, stripped of their freedom and all that they’d ever known, the only thing that couldn’t be taken away from them was their beliefs.

European expansionism had only just taken hold in the bayou and most slaves were in the hands of a small number of owners. Working the plantations, family units were left essentially intact allowing for the continuation of oral traditions and African folkways including Vodun. Along with Haitian Vodou, it eventually merged into Louisiana Voodoo which centered on spirits that acted as intermediaries to an unknowable god.

By the beginning of the 19th century, voodoo priests, also known as doctors, and priestesses, were fairly common in New Orleans. Dr. John – in fact a hoodoo (a variation of Vodun) priest – was one of the more colorful said to be heavily tattooed and have operated out of a brothel. A Senegalese prince and free man of color, he had 15 wives and sired 50 children. Specializing in healing of the body and mind, he offered magical potions and powders in addition to performing ceremonies meant to evoke better luck. Human and animal skulls, snakes, and embalmed scorpions comprised the macabre backdrop of his office.

The most important and influential person in Louisiana Voodoo history is of course French Quarter’s own voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Born of a Creole planter and woman of color, she may have learned her craft from a voodoo king of New Orleans, Monsieur Dupre. At first working as a hairdresser for the privileged, Marie’s influence extended across race lines to local politicians who sought her guidance in secular and spiritual matters. Presiding at weekly Sunday voodoo rituals and trance-inducing dances at Congo Square, she was at the height of her unrivaled power. Behind her cottage on St. Anne St. she was known to perform exorcisms, animal sacrifices, and private rituals for the rich and poor alike. Much of her time was devoted to predicting the future and affaires d’amour. A devout Catholic, Marie Laveau is credited for voodoo’s adoption of some Christian practices, like the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, while melding voodoo spirits and Roman Catholic saints. After her death, Marie’s eldest daughter and voodoo queen Marie Laveau II furthered voodoo’s popularity, once giving rites by Lake Pontchartrain before 12,000 attendees on St. John’s Eve.

Mainly a Hollywood fabrication, the popular image of a voodoo doll, first perpetuated by 1932’s “White Zombie,” starring Bela Lugosi, is mostly false. Voodoo dolls exist, but are in the form of gris-gris, which refers to the doll itself and the resulting magic it conjures. The infamous pins stuck in the dolls are often attached to a piece of paper upon which is written the category of request or the person’s name asking the favor from a spirit. Gris-gris dolls, as well other gris-gris such as amulets and chicken feet, can be worn to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune, wealth, power, passion, and healing. The desired favors elicited through gris-gris can include misfortune wished upon others or the uncrossing of spell.

Authentic New Orleans Voodoo went underground in the 1930s when the city became a tourist destination. True practitioners in the United States number only a few today, but countless believers and nonbelievers still make pilgrimages to Saint Louis Cemetery No.1, paying respects and making offerings at the tomb of Marie Laveau. As it survived throughout its American evolution, Louisiana Voodoo, with its informality and lack of written doctrine, has morphed into the fabric of New Orleans Spiritual Churches that combine Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Spiritualism, and Voodoo.

Superstitions associated with voodoo:

1) You can give someone a headache by turning their picture upside down.

2) A lock of a girl’s hair will bring good luck.

3) Burning part of the tress of a person’s hair and throwing the rest away will cause them ill-fortune.

4) Sweeping trash from your house at night brings bad luck.

5) Laying a broom across the door of your house at night will keep witches away.

6) A woman can keep her husband from ever fooling around by putting some of her blood in his coffee.

7) It is bad luck to borrow or lend salt.

8) Don’t shake a tablecloth outside at night or someone in your family will die.

9) Having a woman visit you first thing on Monday morning will bring bad luck the rest of the week.

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