by Sharon Henry
If you think Voodoo in New Orleans is black magic spells 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 And Is Voodoo Real?
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 practicing Voodoo follower.
We’re gathered on Rampart Street, opposite the Louis Armstrong Park for a Free Tours By Foot New Orleans Voodoo tour with James a Voodoo practitioner. 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. There are New Orleans Voodoo shops everywhere.
NOLA has a population of 400,000 of which around 4,000 (1%) practice Voodoo.
New Orleans Voodoo tours are popular as demonstrated by our 18-strong walking group, possibly present with the same thinking; ‘you can’t be in New Orleans (NOLA) and not talk Voodoo.’
Where Voodoo In New Orleans Began
The origins of the Louisiana 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 the Vodun religion.
Voodoo practitioner, 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.
New Orleans Voodoo History In The Making
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.
Where Does Voodoo Come From?
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. It gave the African slave population in New Orleans the opportunity other colonies in the US didn’t have; to hold on to their culture as best they could. And practice their religion in secret. A Congo Square sculpture captures the moment so vividly you can almost hear the drumbeat.
The spiritual practices and Voodoo beliefs of those enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean blended. So African Voodoo, Benin Voodoo in particular and Haitian Voodoo, became a fusion that also incorporated Catholicism.
Voodoo Spells And Voodoo NOLA 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.
Louisiana Voodoo is an oral religion, whereby there are no formal Voodoo 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 or Loa Voodoo
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 Voodoo spirits known as the Lwa or Loa (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 loa of the winds, love and fisherman.
The Papa Legba Ritual Summoning The Spirit
Voodoo rituals are performed by the Voodoo Queen and Voodoo Doctor and started by ‘calling the spirit down’ of Papa Legba; loa of the crossroads between the spirit world and earth. Using handfuls of cornmeal a drawing of Papa Legba’s veve, (pronounced vay-vay), one of the Voodoo symbols 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.
“It’s usually a Voodoo priestess or doctor who are possessed,” says James. “The spirit needs that body for two reasons. Number one it allows them to enjoy those material offerings and number two it gives them a voice.”
The spirit of Papa Legba samples then offerings via spiritual possession. He tends to be an old man with a walking stick. That walking stick has a bag tied at the top of it which is said to contain the fate and destiny of ever mortal soul on the planet.
James 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.”
The Power Of Voodoo Magic
“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, the New Orleans Voodoo Queen. She emerged in the mid 1800’s and single-handedly, “popularised, legitimised and commercialised” the Voodoo religion James tells us, and brought it out of the underground.
Famous Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau
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.
Born between 1794 and 1801 as a free woman, Marie was the illegitimate child of a mixed raced mother and a white plantation owner. She became a sought after hairdresser and through this, picked up gossip and information, “at the highest level of New Orleans society.” She set up a spy network with slaves and prostitutes who were also privy to personal details of their owners and customers. At the same time, she was training as a Voodoo priestess in Congo Square.
Marie eventually revealed her identity as a Voodoo Queen and offered her services as a fortune teller. Because she’d gathered intimate information on the community her fortunes were uncannily accurate and she became one of the most influential figures in Louisiana.
When Marie Laveau died in 1881 she was elevated to loa almost immediately, her spirit is the Great Mademoiselle Marie Laveau, the patron spirit of the city and the practitioners.
Marie Laveau’s remains are buried in the St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and her tomb is a popular attraction. All visitors to St Louis Cemetery No. 1 must be accompanied by a licensed tour guide and admission is $20 per person.
Click here for a great account of a St Louis Cemetery No. 1 walking tour.
Money Spells That Work
Towards the end of the walking tour we talk about real 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 Voodoo spells is something we’re all interested in!
Voodoo Healing – The Real Reason To Stab Voodoo Dolls
Potions are similarly made, drinking them supposedly works instantly. They’re used to bestow prosperity, protection, healing, and most popular are Voodoo love spells.
We all agree Voodoo dolls are synonymous with Voodoo black 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 not used to cast a Voodoo curse. They are 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 spiritual healing.
Pin stabbing a Voodoo doll 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 store and temple run by modern day practitioners. It’s small inside, filled with curios and altars honouring loas. There are spell formulas, potions, Voodoo candles, amulets and real Voodoo dolls for sale.
A cordoned off area is a laboratory of sorts surrounded by jars of herbs and oils where love 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 now have a better understanding and respect for a primitive religion brought unwillingly to these shores 300 years ago. It was humbling and enlightening to learn about the origins and history of New Orleans Voodoo.
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.