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What Is Louisiana Voodoo Really All About Anyway?

Voodoo has been a very misunderstood religion thanks to countless movies, folklore and propaganda. The truth is that it’s not about Voodoo dolls, zombies, magic spells and love potions like many seem to believe. Though those practices are related to the folklore of New Orleans Voodoo and were utilized to some extent but they belong more to the practice of Hoodoo, which is non-religious, more modern practice, and is something I’ll get to later in this article. First though, let’s visit the truth about Voodoo and its connection in New Orleans.

Louisiana Voodoo

Photo by Globe Trotter Girls

Photo by Globe Trotter Girls

Voodoo’s Roots in Louisiana 

The roots of Voodoo actually go back to West Africa and was brought over during the French colonial period in Louisiana. The same tribes that practiced this ancient religion were also relocated to Haiti, which shares a lot of similarities to Voodoo in New Orleans, but let’s just focus on our dear own majestic city for now.

Voodoo in Louisiana has its beginnings in the early 1700’s. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives brought as slaves to Louisiana were Fon people from what is now Benin; other groups such as the Bambara, Mandinga, Wolof, Ewe, Fulbe, Nard, Mina, Fon (Dahomean),Yoruba (Nago), Chamba, Congo, Ibo, Ado, Hausa, and Sango (Hall) also brought their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. All of the groups were responsible for the development of Louisiana vodoo.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.

Thanks to the French Code and Catholicism, it was illegal for children of slaves to be sold and separated from their families, and with so many African natives populating the city and keeping close ties, they managed to keep a lot of their old world traditions and culture alive. 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 Louisiana. The ground-up root was combined with other elements, such as bones, nails, roots, holy water, holy candles, holy incense, holy bread, or crucifixes. 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. This allowed the older slaves live much longer, which helped to embark wisdom and cultural history upon the people.

Famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau

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. They were considered practitioners who made a living through the selling and administering of amulets, charms, and magical powders, as well as spells. Among the fifteen “voodoo queens” in neighborhoods scattered around 19th-century New Orleans, Marie Laveau was known as “the” Voodoo Queen, the most eminent and powerful of them all. Her religious rite on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain on St. John’s Eve in 1874 attracted some 12,000 black and white New Orleanians. Once the news of her powers spread, she dominated 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. Her influence contributed to the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system. Marie Laveau is remembered for her skill and compassion for the less fortunate. You might remember her portrayed by Angela Basset on season 3 of American Horror Story Coven.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 06: A voodoo priestess leads a ceremony to fortify New Orleans' levees, New Orleans, Louisiana (Photo by Tyrone Turner/National Geographic/Getty Images)

Modern practice

Singing is among important rituals as part of voodoo worship. Songs have been passed down orally for hundreds of years. Songs would be accompanied by patting, clapping and foot stomping, but not drum playing, unless it was part of the weekly public ceremony in Congo Square in New Orleans during slavery times.

Songs are sung to give descriptions of personalities for the deities, such as their names, likes and dislikes, origin, responsibilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Sometimes the songs are sung in address to the deities, and sometimes as if the deities were speaking (or singing). Many songs mirror tunes of the Catholic Church, as well as associate the Catholic saints with African deities.

There are only two ways a new song would be added to the voodoo repertoire. The first is if someone has heard the song in a dream, as this is believed to be the spirit’s revelation. A second instance is if a person is in a possessed trance and asks the people around them to sing it and memorize it, when it is considered to come 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 deities and the human world and invite the spirits to possess someone.

Hoodoo

Hoodoo Candles

Hoodoo is influenced by Voodoo folklore and practices but is not the same thing. Though rooted in Voodoo, it is quite different in many ways and utilizes more Christian beliefs than Voodoo mixed with West African religions. Hoodoo unfortunately is often what most people imagine to be Voodoo. Hoodoo shows evident links to the practices and beliefs of Fon and Ewe spiritual folkways. The purpose of hoodoo was to allow African Americans access to supernatural forces to improve their lives. Hoodoo is purported to help people attain power or success in many areas of life including money, love, health, and employment. As in many other spiritual and medical folk practices, extensive use is made of herbs, minerals, parts of animals’ bodies, an individual’s possessions and bodily fluids, especially menstrual blood, urine, saliva, and semen.

Contact with ancestors or other spirits of the dead is an important practice within the conjure tradition, and the recitation of Psalms from the Bible is also considered spiritually influential in hoodoo. Due to hoodoo’s great emphasis on an individual’s spiritual power to effect desired change in the course of events, hoodoo’s principles are believed to be accessible for use by any individual of faith. Hoodoo practice does not require a formally designated minister.

 

The Voodoo Doll

Voodoo Doll

This might come as a bit of a disappointment to many, but the Voodoo Doll practice of inflicting pain on others by creating a doll in their image and pushing pins into it, is greatly based on propaganda and scary storytelling. The truth is, the Voodoo Doll truly is nothing more than a novelty gift shop item sold to tourists and isn’t used in either Voodoo or Hoodoo practices.

Hoodoo

Hoodoo in Entertainment

Voodoo Shops In New Orleans

Voodoo shops abound throughout The French Quarter area of New Orleans. Anyone wishing to visit New Orleans owes it to themselves to visit at least one of these great shops. Often a Priestess is available for spiritual guidance and you can find plenty of talismans for sale, as well as historical and religious books on Voodoo. It is an experience like no other!

Madame Nola

 

John Ghost

John Ghost is a professional academic at Arizona State University working on his English (Writing, Rhetorics, and Literacies) degree. His path leads to becoming an English professor. He writes weird fiction for fun and enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter. He lives in the Valley of the Sun.

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