Long before the city of New Orleans was a French or Spanish or American possession it was a bustling “big village” where the cosmologies and spiritual traditions of many peoples intersected, blended and were reborn in new unique form. This energy and history is best embodied by the life and legacy of one of its most famous citizens, Marie Catherine Laveau.
Born a New Orleanian
She was born in New Orleans on September 10, 1794 to Marguerite Henry D’Arcantel and the Haitian- born Charles Laveaux, both free people of color. Marie was profoundly influenced by older female teachers in the divine mysteries and the women who preceded and followed in her ancestral line. Marie’s maternal grandmother was born in Africa, coming to the Americas as a young girl. Her paternal grandmother was also named Marie, as was the daughter who would succeed her, Marie Heloise, or Marie II.
Though famous in both life and death, much of Marie’s life remains in dispute. Everything from her paternity to how many children she bore, to her religious beliefs, to what she actually looked like (no official portrait of Marie exists) and where she is buried, is surrounded shrouded in mystery. Fitting, as the very word “vodou” translates to “introspection into the unknown.”
The birth of voodoo
Vodun is one of the world’s most ancient faiths, yet it remains one of the most misunderstood. Maligned for centuries by the people who enslaved its practitioners, Voodoo, as it came to be called in the “new world,” remains one of the African diaspora’s most amazing feats of adaptation, intellectual, and spiritual invention. A complex philosophical and intellectual study of the ordering of the world and the laws of creation, displaced Africans of many nations (Dahomeans, Fons, Yorubas, Mandes, Aradas, Congos, Nagos, Ewe, Ibos, Bambara among others) all contributed their deities, rituals, and art (in combination with their encounter with Catholicism) to the development of this faith.
Today the varying manifestations of this tradition can be found across the Caribbean and in various parts of North and South America. In New Orleans this process of adaptation would continue as African descended people, enslaved and free, Louisiana, African, and Haitian-born congregated in secret and in public spaces like Congo Square. Congo Square being the site of many of Marie’s most famous public ceremonies.
New Orleans Voodoo is its own particular school of thought within this larger faith and within it Marie Laveau occupies a place that extends far beyond famous “voodoo queen.” Marie is revered as loa. The loa or “mysteres” are the invisible intermediaries between God and humanity. These invisibles are manifested in the visible world as plants, animals, waters, ancestors etc.
Marie sits at the tradition’s head as guardian and protectress of the city of New Orleans and, in particular, its women.
For black women born in New Orleans, she is considered our spiritual Mother – the proof of survival of our line across large waters. She is blood ancestor -some accounts have her bearing as many as fifteen to seventeen children over the course of her lifetime and two recorded marriages. She intercesses and manifests for us in unique ways. Marie was a devout Catholic and practitioner of indigenous African spirituality. If this combination confuses you, consult the Old Testament story of Moses and Jethro.
Jethro was the father of Moses’ Cushite wife Zipporah and according to oral tradition, Moses’ teacher and initiator into the “mysteries.” Marie is a living testament to this ancient relationship between Africa and the Abrahamic faiths. Her life and legacy embodies the tension between tradition and innovation and the creative resolution to complex problems and intersections still personified by Black New Orleanian women today.
Proto-womanist and activist, she was a woman of her own means. Marie Laveau tended to both the spiritual and the practical realms, working as both a nurse and also a hairdresser to many of the city’s elite. Later in her life she visited prisoners awaiting execution.
A legacy that lives on
Marie Laveau’s official gravesite is in the family crypt of her long term partner Christophe Glapion at St. Louis Cemetery 1. There are stories of other alternative possibilities, which exist in writing and in earned stories of local lore. In any case, the site at St. Louis 1 is the second most visited grave in the United States. Indicating her wisdom, magnetic charisma and spiritual power calls out still to the people of the world.
Marie Laveau was my first teacher – the archetype that showed me the power of the possible. Marie is also indicative of what all Black women in New Orleans have the potential to accomplish. Supreme influencers, we can and will change the trajectory of history – again and again.
Rules Regarding Marie
- Respect her name.
- Respect her city.
- Respect her legacy.
- Respect her kin.
Editor’s Note: For More information on Marie Laveau, see these resources: New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. 724 Dumaine St. New Orleans, LA 70116; Priestess Miriam Voodoo Spiritual Temple, 1428 N. Rampart St. New Orleans, 70116, Barbara Trevigne, Marie Laveau’s official biographer; Kalindah Laveau, Lady Laveaux