Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo, describes a set of spiritual folkways that developed from the traditions of the African diaspora. It is a cultural form of the Afro-American religions developed by enslaved West Africans and the French, Spanish, and Creole populations of the U.S. state of Louisiana. Voodoo is one of many incarnations of African-based spiritual folkways rooted in West African Dahomeyan Vodun. Its liturgical language is Louisiana Creole French, the language of the Louisiana Creole people.
Voodoo became syncretized with the Catholic and Francophone culture of south Louisiana as a result of creolization in the region resulting from the Atlantic slave trade. Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with—but is not completely separable from—Haitian Vodou and southern American Hoodoo. It differs from Vodou in its emphasis upon gris-gris, Voodoo queens, use of Hoodoo paraphernalia, and Li Grand Zombi. It was through Louisiana Voodoo that such terms as gris-gris (a Wolof term) and "Voodoo dolls"' were introduced into the American lexicon.
Voodoo was brought to French Louisiana during the colonial period by workers and from slaves from West Africa. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives brought as slaves to Louisiana were Fon people from what is now Benin; other groups such as the Bambara, Mandinga, Wolof, Ewe, Fulbe, Nard, Minajjhhhjjii, Fon (Dahomean),Yoruba (Nago), Chamba, Congo, Ibo, Ado, Hausa, and Sango (Hall) also brought their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. All of the groups were responsible for the development of Louisiana vodoo.Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo. Many Fon were also taken as slaves to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean Sea. Louisiana vodoo has existed since the early 1700s.
The enslaved community quickly outnumbered white colonists. The French colony was not a stable society when the enslaved Africans arrived, and the newly arrived Africans dominated the slave community. According to a census of 1731-1732, the ratio of enslaved Africans to European settlers was more than two to one. As a relatively small number of colonists were planters and slaveholders, the Africans were held in large groups, which enabled their preservation of African practices and culture. Unlike in the Upper South, where different groups were brought together and slave families were frequently divided among different plantations, in southern Louisiana families, cultures and languages were kept more intact.
Under the French code and the influence of Catholicism, officials nominally recognized family groups, prohibiting the sale of slave children away from their families if younger than age fourteen. They promoted the man-made legend of wake tuko of the enslaved population. The high mortality of the slave trade brought its survivors together with a sense of solidarity and initiation. The absence of fragmentation in the enslaved community, along with the kinship system produced by the bond created by the difficulties of slavery, resulted in a “coherent, functional, well integrated, autonomous, and self-confident enslaved community.”
The practice of making and wearing charms and amulets for protection, healing, or the harm of others was a key aspect to early Louisiana Voodoo. The Ouanga, a charm used to poison an enemy, contained the toxic roots of the figuier maudit tree, brought from Africa and preserved in Louisiana. The ground-up root was combined with other elements, such as bones, nails, roots, holy water, holy candles, holy incense, holy bread, or crucifixes. The administrator of the ritual frequently evoked protection from Jehovah and Jesus Christ. This openness of African belief allowed for the adoption of Catholic practices into Louisiana Voodoo.
Another component of Louisiana Voodoo brought from West Africa was the veneration of ancestors and the subsequent emphasis on respect for elders. For this reason, the rate of survival among elderly enslaved peoples was high, further "Africanizing Louisiana Creole culture."
The U.S. Embargo Act of 1808 ended all importation of African slaves to the United States. Voodoo queens were known to exercise great power in their communities, and had the role of leading many of the ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. These drew crowds of hundreds and thousands of people. They were considered practitioners who made a living through the selling and administering of amulets, or “gris-gris”, charms, and magical powders, as well as spells and charms that guaranteed to “cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one’s enemies”. Their power and influence were widespread and largely incontestable, recognized by journalists, judges, criminals, and citizens alike. These females of African and Creole descent emerged as powerful leaders in a society that upheld an oppressive slave regime and a dichotomy of freedom between blacks and whites. Their influence was also related to the early history of the city, in which “a shortage of white women resulted in a high number of interracial liaisons.” As in other French colonial communities, a class of free people of color developed who were given specific rights and, in New Orleans, acquired property and education. Free women of color had a relatively high amount of influence, particularly those who were spiritual leaders. In addition, the religious traditions in West and central Africa, from where many of voodoo customs are derived, provided for women to exercise extraordinary power.
Among the fifteen “voodoo queens” in neighborhoods scattered around 19th-century New Orleans, Marie Laveau was known as "the" Voodoo Queen, the most eminent and powerful of them all. Her religious rite on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain on St. John’s Eve in 1874 attracted some 12,000 black and white New Orleanians. It was said that politicians, lawyers, businessman, wealthy planters - all came to her to consult before making an important financial or business-related decision. She also saw the poor and enslaved. Although her help seemed non-discriminatory, she may have favored the enslaved servants of her “influential, affluent customers”, as many “runaway slaves...credited their successful escapes to Laveaux’s powerful charms”. Once the news of her powers spread, she dominated the other Voodoo leaders of New Orleans. Also a Catholic, Laveau encouraged her followers to attend Catholic Mass as a strategic way to protect their true beliefs. Her influence contributed to the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system. Marie Laveau is remembered for her skill and compassion for the less fortunate.
Laveau also gained influence over her clientele by her work as a hairdresser, which gave her intimate knowledge of the gossip in town. Her customers also came to her to buy voodoo dolls, potions, gris-gris bags, and the like. Her influence continues in the city. In the 21st century, her gravesite in the oldest cemetery is a major tourist attraction; believers of Voodoo offer gifts here and pray to her spirit. Across the street from the cemetery where Laveau is buried, offerings of pound cake are left to the statue of Saint Expedite; these offerings are believed to expedite the favors asked of the Voodoo queen. Saint Expedite represents the spirit standing between life and death. The chapel where the statue stands was once used only for holding funerals. Marie Laveau continues to be a central figure of Louisiana Voodoo and of New Orleans culture. Gamblers shout her name when throwing dice, and multiple tales of sightings of the Voodoo queen have been told.
Doctor John, also known as Bayou John and Prince John, born in Senegal and kidnapped as a slave, became a prominent Voodoo king in late 19th-century (1800's) New Orleans. He brought the knowledge of the craft from his home country Senegal. He joined an already prominent voodoo community that existed in New Orleans since the early 1700s developed by African slave groups such as the Bambara, Mandinga, Wolof, Ewe, Fulbe, Nard, Mina, Fon (Dahomean), Yoruba (Nago), Chamba, Congo, Ibo, Ado, Hausa, and Sango (Hall). Previous natives of Senegal were already enslaved in New Orleans by 1720.
Born in 1937 in Haiti, Frank Staten, moved with family to New Orleans as an infant, where he was raised by his grandparents, also of Haitian descent. His grandfather was a practicing Baptist minister. When Frank was young, his grandparents told him that he was of royal African descent and had supernatural abilities. His true name was revealed to be Prince Ke'eyama. Papa John Bayou taught him the ways of Haitian Voodoo. As a young man, Staten made many trips to voodoo communities in Haiti and the United States to learn more of the art.
Staten, or Prince, became Papa Midnight and settled permanently in New Orleans in the 1970s. He developed his Chicken Man persona, performing nightclub acts expressing his strong spiritual connection with God and voodoo. His performance included dancing, magic, and biting the head off a live chicken and drinking its blood. He attracted thousands of followers, but some other voodoo practitioners saw him simply as a "showman". He was worshipped as a Voodoo priest until his mysterious death in early 1976. His ashes were donated to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.
During the 1930s, Voodoo went underground as New Orleans became an increasingly popular tourist destination. Voodoo was portrayed exotically in the 1932 feature film White Zombie. A popular misconception developed that the principal elements of Voodoo are hexing and sticking pins into dolls. Voodoo became an underground religion. At this time, some exploited the tradition, making a “business of superstitions” and selling fake potions, powders, and gris-gris.
In the early 21st century, Voodoo has become part of the tourist attractions in New Orleans; commercial interests have sought to capitalize on popular interest in the religion. Shops selling charms, gris-gris, candles, and powders cater to both tourists and practitioners.
A more recent example of commercializing New Orleans Voodoo is in the 2009 Disney movie Princess and the Frog. The film's villain, Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David) plays a boker, a witch doctor. This is exemplified through his costume, his ominous presence and the talisman he carries around.
The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum houses numerous artifacts and provides daily tours of the museum, the St. Louis Cemetery, and the French Quarter (New Orleans). The museum also provides spiritual services, including matrimony blessings, marriage ceremonies, consultations, and other rituals. In August 1995, voodoo practitioners held a ritual in Bywater to try to drive away crack cocaine abuse, burglaries, prostitution, and assaults.
Louisiana Voodoo and Christianity
As a result of the fusion of Francophone culture and Voodoo in Louisiana, Creole African Americans associated many Voodoo spirits with the Christian saints known to preside over the same domain. Although some doctrinaire leaders of each tradition believe Voodoo and Catholic practices are in conflict, in popular culture both saints and spirits are believed to act as mediators, with the Catholic priest or voodoo Legba presiding over specific respective activities. Early followers of Voodoo in the United States adopted the image of the Catholic saints to represent their spirits.
Many superstitions also related to the practice of Hoodoo, developed within the Voodoo tradition in Louisiana. While these superstitions are not central to the Voodoo faith, their emergence has been partly a result of Voodoo tradition in New Orleans and have since influenced it significantly.
In Hoodoo herbalism, the "cure-all" was very popular among followers. The cure-all was a Hoodoo mixture that could solve all problems. Hoodoo's herbal healing system included a variety of ingredients for cure-alls; one recipe was to mix jimson weed with sulfur and honey. The mixture was placed in a glass, which was rubbed against a black cat, and then the mixture was slowly sipped.
The Hoodoo doll is a form of gris-gris and an example of sympathetic magic. Contrary to popular belief, Hoodoo dolls are usually used to bless and have no power to curse. According to Jerry Gandolfo, the purpose of sticking pins in the doll is not to cause pain in the associated person, but rather to pin a picture of a person or a name to the doll, which traditionally represents a spirit. The gris-gris is performed from one of four categories: love; power and domination; luck and finance; and uncrossing.
Hoodoo practitioners have used different tools throughout the history of the practice to solve their customer’s ailments. The specific name for the items is gris-gris. Examples include: Five Finger Grass, Dragon Blood Sticks, Dixie Love Perfume and Brimstone. Explanations in a 1946 book said that Five Finger Grass was a leaf split into five sections. The belief was that if hung in one’s house, it would ward off any evil. Dragon Blood Sticks were said to bring good luck in money, business, and love. Keeping a stick close on a person was said to bring luck. Dixie Love Perfume was noted for a fragrance to encourage romance. Brimstone is used to keep away evil spirits and counteract spells cast on households, and was burned in rooms needing to be deodorized. These were traditionally available in local shops.
The user often had to take additional steps in a process before using such items, such as washing their hands in “Two Jacks Extract.” Only hoodoo shops have been known to sell these supplies. Many voodoo practitioners were believed to be afraid of these hoodoo items.
Voodoo and Spiritualism
New Orleans Spiritualist churches honor the spirit of Black Hawk, a Sauk war chief who was influential in early 19th-century Illinois and Wisconsin. The New Orleans Spiritualist religion is a blend of Spiritualism, Vodun, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism. The Voodoo-influenced Spiritualist churches that survive in New Orleans are the result of syncretism of these and other spiritual practices.
Singing is among important rituals as part of voodoo worship. Songs have been passed down orally for hundreds of years. Songs would be accompanied by patting, clapping and foot stomping, but not drum playing, unless it was part of the weekly public ceremony in Congo Square in New Orleans during slavery times.
Songs are sung to give descriptions of personalities for the deities, such as their names, likes and dislikes, origin, responsibilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Sometimes the songs are sung in address to the deities, and sometimes as if the deities were speaking (or singing). Many songs mirror tunes of the Catholic Church, as well as associate the Catholic saints with African deities.
There are only two ways a new song would be added to the voodoo repertoire. The first is if someone has heard the song in a dream, as this is believed to be the spirit's revelation. A second instance is if a person is in a possessed trance and asks the people around them to sing it and memorize it, when it is considered to come straight from a spirit.
There are four phases to a voodoo ritual, all identifiable by the song being sung; preparation, invocation, possession and farewell. The songs are used to open the gate between the deities and the human world and invite the spirits to possess someone.
Voodoo and racism
With no understanding of African religions of Voodoo practices, in the 1800s Louisiana white newspapers typically portrayed Voodoo practices in a demeaning way compared to Christian practises. They described rumors of animal sacrifices, zombies, and spirits, sensationalizing stories of depraved acts Voodoo had purportedly driven black people to commit. Voodoo contributed to the portrayal of blacks as superstitious primitives. In the 1900s, Hollywood studios and writers, from similar ignorance, presented Voodoo in stereotypically racist ways.
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