Voodoo gets a bad rap. That’s because people don’t really
understand what it’s all about. They rely on images and
information provided through mainstream media and movies
that misrepresent the religion (yes, it’s a religion)
inaccurately for effect.
In the United States, if you want to find out about Voodoo,
there is only one place that will allow you to be informed and
have fun along the way: New Orleans. Yes, they do have
goofy tours (and I have gone on ‘em), but they also know
what they are talking about. In addition, the “Voodoo
Queen” herself, Marie Laveau, is buried in an above-ground
cemetery in New Orleans.
The Origins of Voodoo
It is believed that Voodoo originated in the 1700s in West
Africa (also referred to as “Vodun” (Africa – means “spirits”)
or “Vodu” (Haiti)). The West Africans were animist;
meaning, they believed in the separation of the physical body
and soul and the presence of one's spirit. Death was merely
the continuation of life. Since the West Africans believed
that each person had a “spirit double”, they often called
upon their ancestors in times of need, and some called upon
evil spirits to do harm.
In the late 1700s, slaves from West Africa (as well as other
parts of Africa) were transported to Haiti to tend the French
plantations. It was during this time that the Vodu religion
was transported to the New World. In the early 1800s, a
large number of Haitian planters who had refugeed in Cuba
during the Haitian revolution were expelled from Cuba, and
with their slaves, made their way to New Orleans. Many of
these slaves were devotees of Vodu.
The Louisiana environment, being a culture much different
from that of Africa or Haiti, gave rise to a unique brand of
Voodoo. This new style of Voodoo was less organized than
the Haitian model and more influenced by Catholicism.
Without the means by which to defend themselves or
retaliate against their owners, slaves in Louisiana began to
practice Voodoo in order to bring solidarity against their
common enemy. Following the Civil War, and the
emancipation of the slaves, Voodoo entered a period of
more organized practice.
Voodoo In Practice
Kings, Queens, and the Ceremony
With the increasing organization and formality of Voodoo
practice, the meetings were also more formally structured.
An elected Queen (the dominant figure) and her King (most
often her husband) presided over the Ceremony. The
Ceremony began with placing a snake before the Queen and
King in a cage or on an altar. At this time, individual
members would approach the Queen and King and implore
the Voodoo god, asking for blessings on loved ones and
curses on their enemies. Following an offering, an initiation
dance was performed for new members. Following the
taking of an oath, the new members joined the rest of those
assembled to take place in a ritualistic dance, where the
snake was passed from person to person.
Practitioners of Voodoo traditionally use the same materials.
Herbs, candles, various scents, offering of animals, elements
of nature, and items of the intended recipient of spells are
commonly used. One of the most important and widely used
items in Voodoo is the gris-gris bag. A gris-gris is a small
cloth bag containing herbs, oils, stones, small bones, hair and
nails, graveyard dust, and/or other personal items. A gris-
gris bag is typically used for protection – as a good luck
amulet. And of course, the popular Voodoo doll is sometime
used for good luck or for placing a curse on an unwary
The above isn't the best picture, but it is a small "casket"
which incorporates common elements of a small voodoo set-
up: a voodoo doll, gris-gris dust, a candle, live spanish moss
(gathered from moss-laden Cypress and Oak trees in and
around the bayous and swamps of Louisiana and other parts
of the South), voodoo pins (red - love; black - hate; green -
money; and blue - luck).
The “Queen of Voodoo”: Marie Laveau
As far as New Orleans Voodoo practice is concerned, the
undisputed Queen of Voodoo is Marie Laveau. Laveau was
born in 1783, with African, Indian and white heritage. Her
father was a wealthy plantation owner and her mother was
a slave brought from Haiti. Laveau was credited with
integrating the Catholic saints and the African and Haitian
gods into Voodoo practice, and this enabled her to place her
own unique “stamp” on the religion. Laveau herself was
Catholic. Her husband vanished a short time after they were
married and was presumed dead. She became a hairdresser
to support herself. While it is unclear how or why Laveau
became involved in Voodoo, her personal charisma, her
business sense, and the fact that she was privy to the
personal lives and secrets of her customers lead her to the
practice in a position of power. Laveau was often hired to
make gris-gris bags, remove curses, and tell fortunes. She
used Voodoo as a platform to give her personal power in a
period of racism and sexism. She retired wealthy,
respected, and even feared, in 1875, and passed down her
Voodoo practice to her daughter Marie the Second (one of
Marie's 15 children said to have been born from the same
lover). She died in 1881 at the age of 98, and by the time of
her death, was a legend in the United States. Her grave, in
St. Louis Cemetary Number 1, Crypt Number 3, is visited to
this day (and I visited it in 1994 myself!) by natives and
tourists, who leave offerings to her, pay their respects, and
often, make a wish.
After Marie Laveau, the Voodoo organization became less
open, and was characterized by the use of spells, trickery,
witchcraft, and seances. By the 1920s, it was hard to find
evidence of the once-thriving, tightly-knit Voodoo society in
New Orleans. Over the years, the commercialization of
Voodoo has discredited the religion. Voodoo as it is known
today can be considered a watered-down version of what
was once a thriving religion that brought people together,
and whose power was venerated and often feared.
The next time you are in New Orleans, I encourage you to
stop by Marie Laveau's Tomb, Marie Laveau's House of
Voodoo or the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.
Plaque at Marie Laveau's Tomb in New Orleans
Marie Laveau's Tomb, St. Louis Cemetary, New Orleans.
Someone I knew who had lived in New Orleans took this
picture of a sign for the “Marie Laveau Apartments”.
Wicked looking doll.
"Ancestral Protection Doll. Ancestral worship is a very
important part of the voodoo religion. Use this doll to
represent, honor and remember your ancestors. Place it on
your altar or in a private space in your home and use as a
focusing tool when seeking the guidance and protection of
those who have come before. Blessed be!"