TRACING THE ROOTS | Sharon Henry
If you think Voodoo in New Orleans is black magic for devil worshipping, Voodoo doll stabbing 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.”
We’re off on a free walking tour in the French Quarter to learn about the Papa Legba ritual, gris gris bags, money spells that work and other Voodoo magic.
What is Voodoo?
Here to set the record straight about our Voodoo misperceptions is James McWilliams, a New Orleans historian and tour guide. James begins by informing us, Voodoo is a religion (I did not know that), and he is a practising follower.
We’re gathered on Rampart Street, opposite the Louis Armstrong Park for a Free Tours By Foot Voodoo tour with James. The air is already ‘soupy’ even though it’s just mid-morning; sweat is running off in beads.
In New Orleans Voodoo Dolls Are Everywhere
Voodoo in New Orleans is a huge part of the city’s culture and there are Voodoo references everywhere. The city embraces its iconic reputation for the mystical, 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.
The origins of the Voodoo 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.
The Place Where Voodoo In New Orleans Began
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.
Slave Meetings In Congo Square
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. The Voodoo religion became a fusion of all their religions which also incorporated Catholicism.
Voodoo Spells And Practices
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 Voodoo practices and traditions have been verbally passed down over time. Perhaps this explains its mystery and vulnerability to exploitation.
Voodoo Rituals and The Lwa
James tells us that in the Voodoo religion 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.
The Papa Legba Ritual
Voodoo rituals are performed by the Voodoo Queen and Voodoo 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 Papa Legba’s veve, (pronounced vay-vay) a symbol would be sprinkled on the ground.
Gifts of rum, tobacco or sweets are then offered to the spirit of Papa Legba.
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.”
Voodoo Magic – 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.
Our free walking 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 Voodoo religion James tells us, and brought it out of the underground.
Marie Laveau House
Marie Laveau was the illegitimate child of a mixed raced mother and a white plantation owner. She became a sought after hairdresser and trained as a Voodoo priestess in Congo Square. Madam Laveau lived at 1020/1022 Rue St Ann although her actual house has been demolished. As an uncannily accurate fortune teller and Voodoo Queen she became one of the most influential figures in Louisiana.
“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,” says James.
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.
Hoodoo Voodoo And Working Money Spells
Towards the end of the walking tour we talk Voodoo dolls, gris gris bags and potions. As if to prove a point James finds a $10 bill lying on the pavement. “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. Money spells is something we’re all interested in.
The Real Reason To Stab Voodoo Dolls
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 Voodoo dolls represents the particular spot on the body that needs to be healed and directs the lwa to that area.
Best Voodoo Shop New Orleans – The Real McCoy
We’re then invited 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.
Free Tours By Foot 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 photo of our tour guide. Whatever, you decide to pay will be well worth it.