Saturday, February 11, 2012

History of New Orleans Voodoo

History of New Orleans Voodoo

by Denise Alvarado

"We are Neg Guinee, the people of Africa"

Password to Voodooist Ceremony

Wade Davis, 1986, The Serpent and the Rainbow, p. 244

New Orleans Voodoo is a hybrid voodoo, reflective of the eclectic culture that is uniquely New Orleans. The history of voodoo in New Orleans dates back two Centuries, to a time when West African slaves arrived in New Orleans, bringing with them the ancient religion that originated some 7,000 years ago.

The word voodoo means “spirit" or "mystery." Voodoo believers accept the existence of one god, below which are the powerful spirits often referred to as Loa. These powerful spirits are responsible for the daily matters in life in the areas of family, love, money, happiness, wealth, and revenge.

If New Orleans had an icon for it's brand of Voodoo, it would bear the image of Marie Laveau. Marie Laveau is somewhat of a poster child for the mixed races that emerge from New Orleans as she is said to have been a free person of color and part Choctaw. Mam'zelle Laveau was born to a wealthy French planter Charles Laveau, and a mother who may have been a mulatto slave, a Caribbean Voodoo practitioner, or a quadroon mistress.

A Brief History of Voodoo

Vodun is sometimes called Voodoo, Vodoun, or Vodou. Religions related to Vodun are: Candomble, Lucumi, Macumba, and Yoruba). New Orleans Voodoo is a conglomeration of cultural and spiritual belief systems strongly influenced by the ancient Voodoo religion of Africa, the Vodou religion of Haiti, the healing arts of Native American people, the folk magic of Europe, and Catholicism. Voodoo is culture, heritage, philosophy, art, dance, language, medicine, music, justice, power, storytelling & ritual. Voodoo is a way of looking at and dealing with life. It heals and destroys, is both good and bad, and is simple in concept and complex in practice. Voodoo reflects the duality of the nature of the rattlesnake; its poison is toxic but its poison is needed to heal the same toxin. Voodoo is open to all yet holds many secrets & mysteries to those who are uninitiated.

Voodoo has its roots in the trauma of many people. It originated from the African ancestors who were brought to the Caribbean in bondage. Christopher Columbus set the stage in 1492 for the development of Voodoo when countless Tainos were murdered in an attempt to enslave them during the colonization of Hispaniola. With a lack of indigenous people to function as slaves, and the cost of European servants prohibitive, the slave trade between West and Central Africa began (Long, 2000).

In 1697 the French acquired one third of Hispaniola and worked the slaves literally to death. The average survival rate of slaves at that time was only about 10 years. This made the slave population ripe for continual replenishment, and the slave population grew from several thousand to half a million. The slave population was extremely diverse with many different tribes representing many religions, languages, and belief systems. It is during this time of the French occupation that the basic structure of Voodoo as we know it today developed.

The colonizers believed that by separating families and individual nations, the slave population would not unite as one people. On the contrary, the Africans found commonalities in their belief systems and religions and began invoking their own spirits and practicing each other’s religious rites. In addition, the surviving Taino Indians exerted some influence over the practice of Voodoo, especially in the area of the healing arts. As well, the indentured servants of Europe brought their folk magic, which was incorporated into the Voodoo religion. The Roman Catholic Church, ever finding ways to convert people to the church, and the entity to which the French answered, insisted on treating the slaves better and had them baptized and instructed in the practice of Catholicism (Hanger, 1997). The slave population soon began to mask their rituals and beliefs in Catholicism. It is the conglomeration and syncretism of these diverse cultural belief systems that comprised the first Creole religion and makes Voodoo what it is today.

To make a very long story short, the slaves eventually rebelled and drove out the French and the Catholic Church. Years of oppression and persecution followed, with the Voodoo considered Satanism by the Catholic church and evangelical Protestants. This caused Voodoo to go underground and flourish. The Catholic church eventually made peace with the Voodoo and it is now accepted as an established religion.

Traditional Voodooist Incantation to Legba,

Gatekeeper to the Spirit World

Papa Legba ouvri baye-a pou mwen

Pou mwen pase

Le ma tounen, ma salyie lwa yo.

(Papa Legba, open the gate for me,

So I can go through,

When I return, I will honor the loa.)

New Orleans Voodoo

The history of voodoo in New Orleans dates back two Centuries, to a time when West African slaves arrived in New Orleans, bringing with them the ancient religion Voodoo that originated some 7,000 years ago. In the 1830s, Marie Laveau became the first commercial Voodoo Queen, declaring herself Pope of Voodoo. Laveau was a devout Catholic who is said to have attended mass every day, and was allowed to hold voodoo rituals behind St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans' French Quarter. Ceremonies were also held along Bayou St. John near the present-day City Park, and along Lake Pontchartrain. These ceremonies outside of Congo Square, performed by free black Creoles faithful to the history of voodoo, are believed to have been more ritualistic and exotic than those performed in Congo Square, which were more a celebration of African heritage than true voodoo ceremonies.

Following the Civil War, voodoo practitioners were largely forced underground. However, even today the myth, imagery and practices of this ancient religion survive and flourish in New Orleans.

Many musicians, particularly Dr. John (who took his stage name from John "Dr. John" Montenet, an African Voodoo priest who practiced in Congo Square in the 1800s), include references to gris-gris (one of the "magic" charms of voodoo), voodoo priestesses and practices. Many folkloric remedies common in the Mississippi Delta are based on traditional voodoo, and were popularized and immortalized in blues songs -- take John the Conqueror Root for success in any endeavor, sprinkle Goofer dust in the path of enemies, or carry a black cat bone for good fortune.

Gris-gris bags, small pouches filled with a combination of herbs mixed in a proportion that is thought to bring about a desired result for the carrier, are not at all an uncommon sight on the belts of New Orleanians.

While many people dismiss voodoo as a cult or superstition, an equal number of residents truly believe in its powers and warn non-believers not to take voodoo lightly, or suffer the consequences. Ceremonies are still held in New Orleans, and various shops sell powders, oils, candles and voodoo dolls. But despite the apparent commercialization of these ancient practices, time and modernization have done nothing to diminish their power.

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