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.
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. Many Fon were also taken as slaves to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean Sea.
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.
The U.S. Embargo Act of 1808 ended all importation of African slaves to Louisiana. 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. 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 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.
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."
During the 19th century, Voodoo queens became central figures to Voodoo in the United States. Voodoo queens presided over many of the ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. They also earned an income by administering charms, amulets, and magical powders guaranteed to cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one's enemies.
Most noted for her achievements as the Voodoo queen of New Orleans in the 1830s was Marie Laveau, a mulatto woman. 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. 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.
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, 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.
Frank Staten was born in 1937 to a family of Haitian descent and lived his entire life in the city of New Orleans. He called himself Prince Ke'eyama. His success as a Voodoo prince gained him fame in New Orleans. He was practically worshipped as a powerful Voodoo priest until his death in December 1998. His ashes were donated to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Louisiana Voodoo and Christianity
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.
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 Voodoo herbalism, the "cure-all" was very popular among followers. The cure-all was a Voodoo mixture that could solve all problems. Voodoo'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 Voodoo doll is a form of gris-gris and an example of sympathetic magic. Contrary to popular belief, Voodoo 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.
Hoodoo practitioners have used different tools all throughout the history of the practice to solve their customer’s ailments. They often sold these in their very own hoodoo shops throughout the quarter. 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.
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.
Voodoo and Spiritualism
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.
Voodoo and racism
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.
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