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NOLA Lore: The Makings of American Voodoo



Each week, J.A. Lloyd will take readers through the secret and unexamined legends, myths, and folklore of New Orleans past. This week, learn about the origins of Voodoo in America.

 

It came from the West Indies. Haiti, to be more specific. Its birth was structured upon West African tribal religions with a long tradition in the belief of the immortal spirit. It developed freely of its own accord due to the isolation of its native country. Its name means 'god' or 'spirit'. Traditionally, it's a religion known as Vodu. Here in New Orleans we call it Voodoo. Its practice is widely fantasied in the realm of books and movies and the fiction of it all only serves to propel the mysterious and exotic nature that surrounds the religion. As mysterious as it may seem, giving rise to voodoo dolls and zombies, make no mistake: Voodoo is a legally recognized faith and the world, as a whole, has well over 50,000,000 followers of the religion.
 

The Voodoo religion began during the French Colonial Period with its foundations brought to Haiti on the backs of slaves from the Dahomey kingdom. While the religion was in its infancy, Haitian slaves borrowed from their West African captors, using many of their spiritual beliefs to lay the groundwork for what would later become Voodoo. Many West African tribes practiced religious rituals that revolved around music, particularly dancing, drumming, and singing and these practices would eventually become a staple in the newly developing religion. Another core concept in West African religious practices involved the worship of ancestral spirits and the belief in the ability to be possessed by immortal spirits.
 

With the combination of tribal influence, shared beliefs, and interests deeply rooted in tradition, the population of Haitian slaves gave rise to their new religion as a way to cope with the hardship and suffering the human spirit faced while bound to enslavement. Eventually, the religion gained popularity and began to move out of Haiti as more and more slaves converted to the Vodu beliefs.
 

Though it took some time, the religion did finally reach the shores of America. Voodoo arrived in New Orleans some 250 years ago via slaves brought directly into the city from the likes of Africa. During the early years of slavery, slave owners rigorously attempted to convert their slaves to Catholicism which eventually lead to some adopted Catholic practices within Voodoo as the religion progressed within the United States. While Catholic hymns and saints were taken into consideration as additions to the Voodoo faith, slaves weren’t so easily swayed into conforming to their masters’ singular Christian beliefs. The enslaved held strong and true to their original traditions and religious practices, even if it meant continuing their practices under the simple guise of song and dance gatherings. Additionally, due to New Orleans being a place that supported free people of color, the Voodoo religion started making its way from the shadows in to the light by way of public practice. After all, the free person could exercise whatever religion he or she so wished.
 

A slave revolt on the island of St. Domingue in 1791 would eventually bring scores of refugees from the region to New Orleans. New Orleans being especially attractive to the fleeing slaves because of the French influence shared with their home country. With the influx of refugees came a strengthening of the Voodoo religion in Louisiana. Since the religion was already a full-fledged and well developed practice in the refugees’ homeland of Haiti their arrival only served to spread and reinforce the traditions evolving in New Orleans at the time.
 

While Voodoo was being practiced throughout Louisiana its notoriety in New Orleans specifically would not become a force to be reckoned with until the introduction of an infamous woman by the name of Marie Laveau. Laveau said to be born to a Creole woman and a white planter was lucky enough to live outside the clutches of slavery spending her entire life as a free woman. Marie Laveau's roots were traditionally Catholic, yet many believe that her origin in Voodoo was matrilineal thus learning the traditions from her grandmother and mother who both practiced the religion and refused to convert to Catholicism.
 

Marie got her start in the community as a hairdresser who served the upper-class white individuals of New Orleans. Serving the elite gave her a valuable insider’s angle on the gossips continuously circling within the French Quarter. Such insights into the workings of the city gave Laveau an invaluable upper-hand in the community she would ultimately claim as her own.
 

With such in-depth knowledge of the city’s happenings and its people, Laveau quickly gained a monopoly over the local voodoo religion and spread its traditions to slaves and socialites alike. All walks of life came to her for assistance in their personal matters for she had the power to both heal and curse with chants, potions, spells and power. Simply put, the woman was magic. It was because of this magic that she became the most powerful and well known Voodoo Priestess in American history.
 

Due to her wide and reaching grasp, Marie Laveau single handedly influenced the progression of Voodoo moment within the US. She called to the religion knowledge and popularity like no other before her. Although she never abandoned her Catholic roots, it was the Voodoo Priestess Laveau who set the course for American Voodoo as we’ve come to know it today.

 

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor

Alexis Manrodt

Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

B. E. Mintz

Editor Emeritus

Stephen Babcock

Published Daily