The tri-racial cultural influences that shaped louisiana voodoo
By THELONIA SAUNDERS
|Voodoo gets a bad rap in media. Pretty much any representation of the practice on the big screen or small is in the form of quasi-satanic curses, pin dolls, or that dying star of the Hollywood horror scene: the zombie. But Voodoo is more than a half-hearted attempt to kill off more dumb white people in the latest slasher flick—it’s a practice rooted in at least three separate continents and multiple distinct cultures. These varied origins all converge in Louisiana, creating New Orleans Voodoo, whose Voodoo image is the one most Americans are familiar with today. This image of Voodoo is primarily based on long-held rumors that irrevocably intertwine the practice with various evil and nefarious doings. While this makes some sense—especially given the aspects of Voodoo that have become rampant in popular culture—it is a blatant fallacy that undermines the deep cultural and religious background of the practice of Voodoo.|
The first instances of “Voodoo” as we know it appeared in the West Indies, specifically in Haiti, where the relatively remote nature of the island allowed it to grow mostly undisturbed by outside influences. Haitian slaves brought their West African tribal religions with them to the New World, thus creating the foundation of Voodoo. These religions, as well as an older form of Voodoo, Vodun, can be traced back to the Dahomey region (now known as modern day Benin) on the coastline of West Africa. Though these slaves came from different religious backgrounds and tribes across West Africa, they all held similar core beliefs that allowed them to identify as a single religion. In Haiti, these religions came into contact with Catholicism, the firmly enforced colonial religion on both the French and Spanish sides of the island, as well as the beliefs of the Taino Indians, native to the island. Since they could not openly worship their own deities, the slaves looked to the Catholic icons and re-appropriated their images, which came to represent the African Loa, so they could continue to worship, if only via subterfuge. A fun switch, if only for the irony, is that of the Loa Erzulie Freda, goddess of love and sex, whose image is still associated with that of the Virgin Mary. There were other links between the two religions that helped ease the transition of one into another, forming Haitian Vodou.
Voodoo, like Catholicism, is a monotheistic religion with one all-powerful god, “Bondye” (Bon-Dieu or “Good God”), who does not care much for interfering in mere human’s affairs, and other lesser deities (or “Loas”) that take the role of surrounding spirit forces, somewhat resembling angels, in function at least, with very different specific purposes and evocations. These deities are a mixture of Petra Loa (deities connected to the New World and generally considered more aggressive), Rada Loa (connected to traditional African deities, usually more calm in demeanor), Guédé Loa, gods of death, and the Nago Loa and Kongo Loa, deities originating in Nigeria and the Congo respectively. Any of these deities can be evoked in ceremonies if you have a conduit, in the form of a priest (Hougan), priestess (Mambo), magician (Bokor) or sorcerer (Loup-Garou). This person will then draw a Vévé, a symbol representing a specific deity to evoke them in a specific ritual, usually using some sort of powder, such as flour, wood ash, or cornmeal. Sometimes in older practices, these rituals involve animal sacrifice, but that’s something that seems to have been going out of style in the younger regions that still practice Voodoo.
Haitian Vodou then led to the formation of the most recent iteration of Voodoo: Louisiana Voodoo. New Orleans was host not only to slaves brought directly from Africa, but also Louisiana-born Creole and Haitian Creole who arrived after their exile following the Haitian Revolution of 1791. This population not only included white plantation owners and free people of color, but also the plantation owners’ slaves, whose presence caused unease to the Southern slave owners who were worried they would incite a new revolution, this time in the States. This slave community grew and prospered in Louisiana. While Voodoo had been quietly practiced since the slave trade first started in the region in the early 18th century, it was this new high concentration of slaves, both from Haiti and from the American Slave trade, that brought new popularity to the religion and led to newfound interest from the general population. Fearing another slave uprising and worried by the meetings held mostly by slaves to practice Voodoo, the Government decided to control the practice by formally legalizing it, but under the condition there be some sort of supervision. This was the only legal way for slaves to gather, which eventually meant that the entire practice was totally outlawed again. This only served to heighten its popularity.
Amounting to somewhere between 65 and 80 percent of all practitioners in Louisiana, women were the biggest participants in Voodoo. These women ranged virtually across all class levels, from slave women to free women of color to Creole women. This widespread influence and presence of women in the movement led to a highly matriarchal structure emerging in the Voodoo scene, from which, starting in the 19th century, emerged high-ranking women in Voodoo (known as “Voodoo Queens”). These Queens held massive amounts of influence in the movement and came to represent the Voodoo religion in general to those not involved in the practice itself. The most famous Voodoo Queen by far is the renowned Marie Laveau, whose heyday in the 1830s generated massive popularity even to this day. Though she started off as a hairdresser, she was taken under the wing of Voodoo Witch Doctor, Doctor John, who taught her much about the practice. When news of her powers spread amongst Voodoo circles, she quickly overthrew the other Voodoo Queens of New Orleans and became the single Voodoo Queen of her time (something which continued even after her death). Thanks to some medical training as well as her Voodoo training, she was well versed in healing practices, but eventually came to specialize in matters concerning love and money. Above all, Marie Laveau was a shrewd businesswoman who managed to commercialize the practice of Voodoo in order to maximize her success and power. When she died, she was succeeded in her practice by the youngest of her 15 children, a daughter who had the same name as her, leading perhaps to more rumors of her immortality and long life. However, while you may be hard pressed to find the real Marie Laveau (even the body in her tomb is rumored to be that of another Voodoo Queen) it is believed that one can still ask for favors of Marie Laveau if money, white rum, candy, or cigars are left as offerings on her tombstone in the St. Louis Cemetery (which has more visitors than Elvis’ grave).
There are a few things that formally separate Louisiana Voodoo from its closest counterpart, Haitian Vodou. These elements include the emphasis on “gris-gris” (a magic talisman, usually a pouch, used to protect the carrier or bring them good luck), a component of Vodun practices, and various occult paraphernalia originating from “Southern Folk Magic” (which itself related to old European magic beliefs), the importance of the Voodoo Queens, and the presence of Li Grand Zombi (a snake deity based on the deity Nzambi from Whydah in Africa), whose name is taken directly from the snake owned by Marie Laveau, as a spirit guide for ceremonies.
Far from being the malicious practice it is often painted as, first by a population that condemned it out of ignorance, then by the media of the next few centuries, Voodoo was actually a huge force for good in Louisiana. The knowledge of medicine and magic held by believers of Voodoo greatly helped those who turned to it for healing and even increased life expectancy in the slave population. Voodoo also encouraged the practice of ancestor worship and the subsequent respect of elders. For all its positive influences however, it was rumor and panic on the side of those who knew nothing of it, which formed the image of Voodoo most present in media today.
If you’ve watched the latest season of American Horror Story (titled Coven), then you are already slightly acquainted with the figure of Papa Legba, guardian of the underworld and passages and thus, arguably, the most important Loa. He is often likened to the figures of St. Peter or St. Michael, who hold equivalent positions in Christian lore. It has to be noted however that unlike his American Horror Story counterpart, the figure of Papa Legba, while considered generally mischievous, is not actually out for baby’s blood. His depiction in the show is also inaccurate in that it basically clothed him in the typical “Voodoo” costume: the top hat, broken sunglasses and old tux that are a staple of the Voodoo mythos in media. This can sometimes be embellished with cotton stuffed up one’s nostrils and white face paint to resemble a corpse prepared for burial, but is an image that has been replicated time and time again in the name of Hoodoo in films—from Doctor Facilier in The Princess and the Frog to villain Baron Samedi in the oft-forgotten Bond film Live and Let Die. Their physical traits are in keeping with the image of the Barons, high-ranking Loa of Death and members of the Guédé Loa, who have strong links to magic, ancestor worship, and death. These Loa are generally considered to be quite vulgar, and have been known to scare the living and taunt them by eating shards of glass or raw chilies.
Since 1932, with the release of the Bela Legosi movie “White Zombie,” there has been a re-invigorated mainstream interest in the religion of Voodoo, as well as an onslaught of representations, often completely missing the mark and based more on rumor and superstition than any actual facts. As time passes, however, portrayals of Voodoo have slowly become a little more accurate (although still generally pretty far from the truth).
This recreation and manipulation of image does not only concern the practice of Voodoo, but also the city it is inseparable from. Indeed, the city of New Orleans, same as its Voodoo culture, has been recreated time and time again, with varying degrees of accuracy. These “artistic” interpretations vary from a thriving hip and artsy community, usually with the entirety of the city composed solely of the French Quarter (looking at you again, American Horror Story), to a city comprised almost entirely of the Bayou, populated by a plethora of horror creatures. Anne Rice, of Interview with a Vampire fame, is one of the earliest writers to use the city to create the Southern Gothic aesthetic that’s oh-so-popular nowadays. But its rich cultural history amounts to more than a few Voodoo dolls stabbed through with pins and two dime curses. And while interest grows in the practice, the actual interest in the spirits themselves fades, Voodoo becoming more and more pageantry, rather than a traditionally spiritual practice with deep roots that reflect an American cultural history.