One of the things for which New Orleans is known best is the religion of voodoo. Voodoo has been popularized and commercialized in the past century, but still, voodoo’s roots in New Orleans are deep, and voodoo priests and priestesses still practice the religion as it came to the city from Africa and the islands. In celebration of the most important “feast day” of voodoo, St. John’s Eve on June 23, let’s explore voodoo’s influence on New Orleans.
Vodon, Vodoun, Voudou, Voodoo, are catch-all names for the native religions of West Africa. Voodoo is a nature/earth religion, based on a divine creator, usually known as Mawu. Like many earth-based religions, Voodoo recognizes a dual-cosomology, with the moon represented as a female spirit, also named Mawu, and the sun represented as Lisa, the male aspect of the deity. The theology of voodoo was refined by Africans enslaved in Haiti. They believed that the creator was essentially unreachable by humans, so they worshiped lesser spirits they called loa. Vodou believers would hold all-night rituals to petition their loa, asking for favors and power. If one followed all the proper forms, sang the hymns, and gave the proper offerings, the priest or priestess would declare the ritual a success.
Most forms of the religion include a deep respect and intense worship of ancestors. Maintaining a close bond to family that came before them is important. In Haiti, practitioners believe spirits of the dead are trapped on earth for a year-and-a-day. They pray for their departed loved ones, and have ceremonies marking the end of that time period, when they can live again.
Outside Africa, Christian/Catholic imagery and rituals blend with voudon. Practitioners masked their real worship by displaying outward signs of Christianity, such as invocations to Jesus, and developing correspondences between loa and Catholic saints. For example, slaves would use St. John the Baptist to represent the deity, Agonme Tonne; Ogou Feray became “Saint Moses,” and Eruzile Dantor was St. Elizabeth. The Europeans saw icons, candles, and statues with images/personalities familiar to them and left the slaves to their devotions.
Origins of Voodoo in New Orleans
Voodoo came to the French colony of New Orleans as Vodun, one of the many traditional religions brought to North America by African slaves. Since most of the slaves that came to colonial New Orleans were from what is now the West African country of Benin, Vodun came with them. The French planters were not as adamant about forcing their slaves to convert to Christianity as their English and Spanish counterparts. Slaves drastically outnumbered the Europeans in South Louisiana, so one of the easiest ways to pacify the slaves was to let them have basic privileges, such as freedom of worship, and free time on Sunday afternoons. During and after the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), French colonists living on that island left Haiti, many of them coming to New Orleans, bringing their slaves with them. West African Vodun had been extensively modified and refined in Haiti. The Haitian strain of the religion had a strong impact on the practices in the city, particularly because the syncretism developed between African and Catholic practices helped slaves stay under the radar of the Spanish, who controlled the colony at the end of the 18th century.
One of the main aspects of Louisiana voodoo that makes it unique from other strains of the religion is the reliance on “priests” and “priestesses,” who were regarded as heads of the community by the families practicing voodoo. The most well-known New Orleans voodoo personality was Marie Laveau. Marie is believed to have been born in 1801 (although many sources place her birth as early as 1784). She died in 1881, having spent most of her adult life as the “Voodoo Queen” of New Orleans, the most influential priestess of the religion in the city. These priestesses would be engaged by families to lead voodoo rituals for them, facilitating their connection to the gods. The priestesses, and priests, as there were males in this role as well, would offer their services for a fee, either cash or in-kind goods, such as food or housing.
Marie’s social position as a free woman of color, and also as the wife of a Frenchman, helped protect the community from the influence of the Europeans. This status, combined with an extensive information network within the black community of New Orleans, enabled Marie to be a dominant personality. For those who believe she did practice voodoo, the stories of rituals held along the banks of Bayou St. John became the stuff of legend. The voodoo priestesses would go out north of the city, past the northern end of the Carondelet Canal, to the more-isolated area of the bayou itself. There, Marie (or other priestesses/priests) would lead the faithful in singing voodoo hymns, making offerings to the gods, and dancing through the night to show respect for the deities.
Like many earth religions, voodoo aligned itself with the Christian calendar for large-scale observances and celebrations. Voodoo’s most important time was at the Summer Solstice, known popularly as “midsummer,” since that day was the longest of the year. The Catholic calendar marked June 24 as the Feast of St. John. Voodoo priestesses and priests would conduct ceremonies on St. John’s Eve, the night before the saint’s feast day. These feasts would often feature bonfires and all-night dancing and singing.
As time went on, the amalgamation of African vodun and Haitian vodou that was practiced in New Orleans became something totally unique. To mark this difference, the strain of the religion here in New Orleans is usually called “voodoo,” and “vodou” in Haiti. As New Orleans became more and more a tourist destination in the 20th century, voodoo became part of the tourist culture, with families in the black community opening up shops that sold charms, “gris gris” bags, candles, dolls, and other magical implements. Your humble author has been known to take engineers and geophysicists who worked in the oil and gas industry to “voodoo shops” so they could buy “gris gris” to help them get good luck when drilling wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
Those who practiced voodoo seriously did so outside the public view. Over time, however, some of those “authentic” practitioners assumed a more-public role in the community. Others who study and practice Haitian and African strains of the religion came to the city, melding their own beliefs into the gumbo that was already here. A number of these priests (honguns) and priestesses (mambos) conduct public ceremonies, encouraging participation and education.
Locals and visitors alike can learn more about voodoo at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, located at 724 Dumaine Street in the French Quarter.
Whether one has a casual interest in voodoo, or a serious desire to practice the religion, New Orleans is the place to be.
Thanks to Carolyn Morrow Long, for her book, “A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau,” and to Lisa Graves, for her book “History’s Witches,” which were source material for this article.
Edward Branleyis the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).