Louisiana Voodoo

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Not to be confused with Hoodoo (folk magic) or Haitian Vodou.

Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo, describes a set of spiritual folkways that originated 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.

History[edit]

African influences[edit]

Gris-gris by Charles Gandolfo

Voodoo was brought to French Louisiana during the colonial period by workers and slaves from West Africa and then by slaves and free people of color who were among the refugees from the Haitian revolution. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives brought as slaves to Louisiana were Fon people from what is now Benin; they brought their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. 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.[1] Many Fon were also taken as slaves to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean Sea.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

The U.S. Embargo Act of 1808 ended all importation of African slaves to Louisiana.[2] 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[clarification needed] of the enslaved population.[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8] The Ouanga, a charm used to poison an enemy, contained the toxic roots of the figuier maudit tree, brought from Africa and preserved in the Caribbean. 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.[9]

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."[10]

Voodoo queens[edit]

Voodoo priestesses, more often called Voodoo queens, rose to prominence in the wake of nineteenth century America. This can be attributed to the “1809 influx of Haitian refugees that nearly doubled the size of [New Orleans]” and helped “reinforce the city’s religious culture”.[11] 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, many of which drew crowds of hundreds and thousands of people.[12] They were considered practitioners that 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”.[13] 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. This is due in part to the early history of the city, in which “a shortage of white women resulted in a high number of interracial liaisons”, thus allowing them to have a relatively high amount of influence.[14] It can also be explained by the religious traditions in West and central Africa, where many of voodoo customs are derived, that allowed women to exercise extraordinary power.

Tomb of Marie Laveau

Among the fifteen “voodoo queens” in neighborhoods scattered around nineteenth-century New Orleans, Marie Laveau was known as the Voodoo Queen, the most eminent and powerful of them all. She was a woman whose 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 purported that politicians, lawyers, businessman, wealthy planters all came to her to seek consult before making an important financial or business-related decision. Everyone, whether rich or poor, enslaved or free, black and white, went to her for help. Although her help seemed non-discriminatory, it seemed as though she favored the enslaved servants of her “influential, affluent customers”, as many “runaway slaves...credited their successful escapes to Laveaux’s powerful charms”.[15] Once the news of her powers spread, she overthrew 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. The influence of her Catholic strategy facilitated the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system.[16] Marie Laveau is remembered for her skill and compassion for the less fortunate, and her spirit is considered one of the central figures of Louisiana Voodoo, but not the only one.[2]

Laveau’s influence and sway over her clientele can be attributed to her job as a hairdresser, which enabled her to know all the gossip in town. Eventually her customers came to her to buy voodoo dolls, potions, gris-gris bags and the like.[17] Her influence over the city still endures--her grave, seen in the oldest cemetery of the city, is now a major tourist attraction and place for believers of Voodoo to offer gifts and pray to her spirit.[18] 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.[2] 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.[2]

Voodoo kings[edit]

Doctor John, also known as Bayou John and Prince John, was one of the most prominent Voodoo kings in New Orleans. He was the student of Sanite Dede, a spiritual leader in the city prior to the period of refugee immigration from the Haitian revolution. He was said to be the mentor, instructor, and, as some say, "power behind the throne" of Marie Laveau herself.

Born in 1937, Frank Staten, commonly known as the Chicken Man, was brought to New Orleans from Haiti during his infancy. He was raised by his grandfather, a practicing Baptist Minister, and grandmother. At a young age, his grandparents revealed to him his supernatural abilities and the fact that he came from royal descent. His true name was revealed to be Prince Ke'eyama. Prince's grandmother taught him the ways of Haitian Voodoo, and he made many trips there and across the United States as a young man. He settled permanently in New Orleans in the 1970's among the ravaging drug problem there. This is when his Chicken Man persona developed. He performed nightclub acts showing his strong spiritual connection with God and voodoo that including dancing, magic, and most shocking of all, biting the head off of a live chicken and drinking its blood. His excursions attracted thousands of followers, but some other voodoo practitioners merely saw him as a "showman".[19] He was worshipped as a powerful Voodoo priest until his death in December 1998. His ashes were donated to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.[20]

Commercialization[edit]

During the 1930s, true Voodoo went underground as New Orleans became an increasingly popular tourist destination. Voodoo acquired an exotic, Hollywood image in the 1932 film White Zombie. A misconception that the principal elements of Voodoo are hexing and sticking pins into dolls developed. Exhausted by fame, 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.[citation needed]

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

In the early 21st century, Voodoo has become a major tourist attraction 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.[21] The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum houses numerous artifacts and provides daily tours of the museum, the St. Louis Cemetery, and the New Orleans French Quarter.[22] The museum also provides spiritual services, including matrimony blessings, marriage ceremonies, consultations, and other rituals. Since the late 20th century, Voodoo ceremonies have been held to offset contemporary problems in New Orleans, such as crack cocaine abuse, burglaries, prostitution and assaults.[23]

Louisiana Voodoo and Christianity[edit]

As a result of the fusion of Francophone culture and Voodoo in Louisiana, many Voodoo spirits became associated with the Christian saints known to preside over the same domain. Although Voodoo and Catholic practices are in conflict, both saints and spirits are believed to act as mediators, with the priest or Legba presiding over specific activities. Early followers of Voodoo in the United States adopted the image of the Catholic saints to their spirits.[24]

Other Catholic practices adopted into Louisiana Voodoo include reciting the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer.[16]

Hoodoo[edit]

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.[25]

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. The purpose of sticking pins in the doll is not to cause pain in the person the doll is associated with, 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.[26]

Hoodoo practitioners have used different tools all throughout the history of the practice to solve their customer’s ailments. The specific name for the items is gris-gris. Examples of this include: Five Finger Grass, Dragon Blood Sticks, Dixie Love Perfume and Brimstone. 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 have been said to bring good luck when it comes to terms of money, business, and love. If someone kept this close on their person they claimed luck found its way to them. Dixie Love Perfume is a fragrance that has been known to create a fire in men and encourage love and romance. Brimstone is used to keep away evil spirits and counteract spells that have been casted on customers’ households. It is also burned within rooms that need to be deodorized. All of these items could be found at your local hoodoo shops and each cost twenty-five cents. The shop owners will not claim that any of these things will actually occur if you buy their products, it is up to the customer’s interpretation.[27]

Many of the items found in these shops also required the user to go through a process before they used the item, 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.[28]

Voodoo and Spiritualism[edit]

The hallmark of the New Orleans Spiritualist churches is honoring of the Native American spirit Black Hawk, who lived in Illinois and Wisconsin.[29]

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.[30]

Singing, among other rituals, is key to voodoo worship and songs have been passed down orally from one generation to the next for hundreds of years. Songs would be accompanied by patting, clapping and foot stomping, but never actual drums, unless it was part of the weekly public ceremony in Congo Square.

Songs are sung to give descriptions of personalities for the deities such as their names, likes and dislikes, origin, responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses among others. Sometimes they are sung to address the deists and sometimes they are sung as if it were the deists speaking. Many songs mirror tunes of the Catholic Church as well as associate the Catholic Saints with African deists.

There are only two ways a new song would be added to the voodoo repertoire. The first being if someone heard it in a dream, because it is thought of as being a spirit’s revelation and the second was being if a person is in a possessed trance and asks the people around them to sing it and memorize it, coming 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 deists and the human world and invite the spirits to possess someone. [31]

Voodoo and racism[edit]

In 1800s Louisiana white newspapers would intentionally distort and pervert Voodoo practices in order to create a demeaning picture of Africans. Rumors of animal sacrifices, zombies, and spirits were circulated. They would create sensationalized stories of depraved acts Voodoo had driven black people to commit. In general Voodoo was used to paint a picture of black people as superstitious primitives. White people would exploit these distorted images of Voodoo to make it appear black people were not capable of voting or holding office. 'White' Christianity was viewed as superior to 'black' Voodoo and used to support the argument for segregation. Even in the 1900s Hollywood has presented Voodoo in the context of racist stereotypes.[32]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Louisiana State University Press. p. 58. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Ravitz, Jessica (Nov 24, 2008). "Unveiling New Orleans Voodoo". The Salt Lake Tribune. 
  3. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 160. 
  4. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 162. 
  5. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 159. 
  6. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 168. 
  7. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 159. 
  8. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 163. 
  9. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 165. 
  10. ^ Hall (1995). Africans in Colonial Louisiana. p. 186. 
  11. ^ Bell, Caryn Cossé Bell. Rev. of “The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Mary Laveau: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans” by Ina Johanna Fandrich. Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 61 (Spring 2008) Print.
  12. ^ Webb, Julie Yvonne (1971). "Louisiana Voodoo and Superstitions Related to Health". Association of Schools of Public Health.
  13. ^ Bell, Caryn Cossé Bell. Rev. of “The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Mary Laveau: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans” by Ina Johanna Fandrich. Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 61 (Spring 2008) Print.
  14. ^ Bell, Caryn Cossé Bell. Rev. of “The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Mary Laveau: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans” by Ina Johanna Fandrich. Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 61 (Spring 2008) Print.
  15. ^ Fandrich, J. Ina. “The Birth of New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen: A Long-Held Mystery Resolved. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 2005) Print.
  16. ^ a b Nickell, Joe (2006). "Voodoo in New Orleans". The Skeptical Inquirer. 
  17. ^ Nickell, Joe (2006). "Voodoo in New Orleans". The Skeptical Inquirer
  18. ^ Fandrich, J. Ina. “The Birth of New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen: A Long-Held Mystery Resolved. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 2005) Print.
  19. ^ "Chickenman, the Voodoo King of New Orleans." Haunted America Tours. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.
  20. ^ "Chicken Man Voodoo". Haunted America Tours. Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  21. ^ "Katrina Disperses New Orleans' Voodoo Community", NPR, 2005
  22. ^ - New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum
  23. ^ Rick Bragg (18 August 1995). "New Orleans Conjures Old Spirits Against Modern Woes". The New York Times. 
  24. ^ Jacobs, Claude F., and Andrew J. Kaslow (2001). The Spiritual Churches of New Orleans: Origins, Beliefs, and Rituals of an African-American Religion. University of Tennessee Press. 
  25. ^ Alvarado, Denise (2008). "Voodoo Hoodoo Lore". The Mystic Voodoo. 
  26. ^ Gandolfo, Jerry (2008). "Personal Correspondence". 
  27. ^ Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1946).
  28. ^ Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans.
  29. ^ The Spirit of Blackhawk: a Mystery of Africans and Indians. University Press of Mississippi. 1995. 
  30. ^ Jacobs, Claude F.; Kaslow, Andrew J. (1991). The Spiritual Churches of New Orleans: Origins, Beliefs, and Rituals of an African-American Religion. The University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 1-57233-148-8. 
  31. ^ Holloway, Joseph E. "The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans." In Africanisms in American Culture, 123-129. 1st ed. Vol. 2. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990.
  32. ^ Gordon, Michelle. ""Midnight Scenes and Orgies": Public Narratives of Voodoo in New Orleans and Nineteenth-Century Discourses of White Supremacy." American Quarterly 64, no. 4 (2012): 767-86. Accessed April 1, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4231284.

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