TRACING THE ROOTS | Sharon Henry
If you think Voodoo in New Orleans is black magic for devil worshipping and evil curses you are not alone. However, I’ve just been told to disregard those beliefs fuelled by TV and movies because, “that’s far from the truth.” Here to set the record straight about Voodoo is James McWilliams, a New Orleans historian and tour guide, who begins by informing us, Voodoo is a religion (I did not know that) of which he is a practising follower.
We’re gathered on Rampart Street, opposite the Louis Armstrong Park, for a walking Voodoo tour with James. The air is already ‘soupy’ even though it’s just mid-morning; sweat is running off in beads.
There are 18 of us in the group, probably attracted by the same thinking; ‘you can’t be in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) and not talk Voodoo.’ In fact it would be difficult not to, Voodoo references are everywhere. The city milks its iconic reputation for the mystical to the max, Voodoo dolls and paraphernalia can be bought on any street corner.
NOLA has a population of 400,000 of which around 4,000 (1%) practice Voodoo.
Voodoo In New Orleans – Where It All Began
The origins of the religion began in the early 1700s, brought across the Atlantic through the West African Slave Trade from countries like Benin, Togo and Nigeria. It was originally called Vodun. James leads us into Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, the place where it all “took root.”
Back then the city was enclosed by a rampart, a wall (hence the street name) designed to protect its dwellers from bandits, pirates and Indians. Behind the wall (what is now Louis Armstrong Park) was nothing but wilderness, swamps and bayous.
NOLA was under French rule and the slave population were governed by Code Noir, the Black Code, a decree listing amongst other things that all slaves be Roman Catholic and attend church. Consequently it was illegal even for slaves to work on Sundays. Church services did not last all day and slaves naturally met afterwards for social gatherings.
Slaves far outnumbered whites and their large gatherings made the French uneasy. A ruling was introduced making it illegal for groups of three or more slaves to form inside the city limits. Outside was fine.
Spiritual Melting Pot
So it began. After church services slaves climbed the wall and on the outskirts of the city limits celebrated their fleeting moments of freedom, singing and dancing. A Congo Square sculpture captures the moment so vividly you can almost hear the drumbeat.
The spiritual practices and beliefs of those enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean blended. Voodoo became a fusion of their religions which also incorporated Catholicism.
A metal plate in the park marks the spot of an oak tree stump where Voodoo rituals took place, a pink rose rests on top.
Conscious we don’t melt we’re ushered under trees for relief, “it’s always 10 degrees cooler in the shade, like turning on the AC,” says James. It’s true, it works.
Voodoo is an oral religion, whereby there are no formal books or bibles because it stemmed from people who were illiterate. Instead customs and traditions have been verbally passed down over time. Perhaps this explains its mystery and vulnerability to exploitation.
James tells us that in Voodoo there is only one god, one Supreme Being who created the universe. This god elevated earthly beings to spirits known as the Lwa (pronounced lo-ah) to run the day to day affairs of the world. They took charge of nature and human nature. There is for instance lwas of the winds, love and fisherman.
Rituals are performed by the Voodoo Queen and Doctor and started by ‘calling the spirit down’ of Papa Legba; lwa of the crossroads between the spirit world and earth. Using handfuls of cornmeal a drawing of his veve, (pronounced vay-vay) a symbol would be sprinkled on the ground.
Gifts of rum, tobacco or sweets are then offered to the spirit.
Now this is where it gets hairy. Papa Legba samples the offerings via spiritual possession. James explains, spiritual possession is required to give the lwa a body. He reassures us, “It’s not the exorcist style possession, I’ve never seen anybody levitate, nobody’s head has spun around. And we say ‘ridden’ and not possessed.”
It Ain’t Like That
“I know on TV every time the Voodoo spirit shows up it’s always; I want immortality, I want you to curse my enemies, kill that person. Again, it’s just not the way it works. I can prove that as a historian,” says James.
“If we could have killed our enemies don’t you think slavery would have ended before 1865?” That’s a good point.
The tour then moves into the heart of The French Quarter and the legend of Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. She emerged in the mid 1800’s and singlehandedly, “popularised, legitimised and commercialised” the religion James tells us, and brought it out of the underground.
“I think she is the most fascinating woman in our history, she’s also one of the most mysterious and it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.”
When Marie Laveau died in 1881 she was elevated to lwa almost immediately, her spirit is the Great Mademoiselle Marie Laveau, the patron spirit of the city and the practitioners.
Towards the end of the tour we talk dolls, ‘gris gris’ bags and potions. As if to prove a point James finds a $10 bill lying on the pavement. “It works, this is Voodoo magic at work,” he laughs holding up his gris gris bag, a good luck charm he made to attract money. It contains bay leaves which symbolises money, lodestone, a natural magnet and a few strands of James’ hair.
Potions are similarly made, drinking them supposedly works instantly. They’re used to bestow prosperity, love, protection or healing.
We all agree Voodoo dolls are synonymous with Voodoo magic, they also go in hand with the belief that pins stabbed into one inflicts pain onto some unfortunate enemy. “That’s not true,” we’re flatly told.
Dolls are used for two reasons. One, they are representative of particular spirits for their influence ie love and guidance. Secondly, and this where people trip up, they are used for healing. Pin stabbing represents the particular spot on the body that needs to be healed and directs the lwa to that area.
The Real McCoy
We’re then invited to into ‘Voodoo Authentica,’ a ‘real’ Voodoo shop and temple run by modern day practitioners. It’s small inside, filled with curios and altars honouring lwas. There are spell formulas, dolls, potions, candles and amulets. A cordoned off area is a laboratory of sorts surrounded by jars of herbs and oils where potions and gris gris bags are made. It’s fascinating just reading labels stuck on some of the items.
I’d say James’ mission has been accomplished, with me at least; my ignorant view of Voodoo has been eradicated. I still see it as magical but now have a better understanding and respect for a primitive religion brought unwillingly to these shores 300 years ago.
We did Free Tours By Foot who offer a range of tours – for free. Well it says ‘free’ but its left to your discretion how much you’d like or are able to pay. A very good concept. They are well organised, an email was received the day before with details and the name and a pho to of our tour guide.