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View from the USA: Voodoo in New Orleans

Voodoo in New Orleans is still very much a thing, and is where the Voodoo Queen used her dark arts as a force for social justice and freedom

View from the USA: Voodoo in New Orleans
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Marie Laveau was the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. It was the 19th century, the city was rife with slavery; fear and superstition drifted like Mississippi River fog across every cobbled street. A free woman of colour, Marie’s mastery of the dark arts was legendary. It’s said she could inflict disease upon her enemies, see into the future, be in two places at once and even escape death itself.

Marie’s ghost is everywhere. Walk the streets of the Big Easy and you can feel her presence: the house on St Ann Street, in the French Quarter, where she’d hold séances; her tomb, in the St Louis Cemetery, adorned with offerings of beads, coins and roses, left by her followers, who still bargain for favours to this day. Voodoo is a part of New Orleans’ soul — flowers and skulls, the devil and debauchery, on every corner. But it’s more than dolls and tricks. I wanted the real thing.

Which is how I ended up down a dark alley, knocking on the door of an authentic voodoo temple, or hounfour. It didn’t start well. Agreeing to attend a voodoo ceremony in a bad part of town is a bit like asking Ted Bundy for a wet shave. The hairs bristled on the back of my neck, shadows loomed from every corner. A lifetime watching horror movies, I kept telling myself, and you fall for this.

But inside, it was beautiful. The congregation — about a dozen people — were dressed in white, barefoot, with white bandanas wrapped around their heads. Altars laden with offerings of wine, sweets, rum and money were stacked against every wall. We stood in a circle as candles were carried to each of the cardinal directions, creating a crossroads, a symbol of the gateway between this world and that of the loa, the ancestral spirits voodoo practitioners believe watch over our lives.

Then the singing began — high melancholy notes in Haitian French, sung by the hounjenikon, the choir leader, then sung back, psalm-like by the congregation. Soon the room was swaying, the sacred ason rattle shaking beside me like snakes, voices chanting into the blood-red light of the flames. My eyes closed. I heard my voice repeating the phrases, my body rolling, clapping, stepping with the beat of the drums.

At this point in the service, it’s common for dancers to induce trance-like states. I was told stories of loa spirits who’d come down and take possession of members of the temple, transforming their voice, thoughts and mannerisms. But with an outsider in the hounfour that night, they chose not to. Instead, the hounjenikon stood before the central post of the temple — the focal point of their worship — and, bent double, using only pinches of cornmeal, painstakingly drew out a veve, a sacred symbol representing one of the loa, on the floor. We waited in silence, minute after minute, as the image gradually appeared, like a tapestry of dust.

I find myself utterly absorbed in the service — perhaps because this religion expresses itself through artistry and song, just like New Orleans itself. But it’s far from frivolous. “Our religion involves slavery; it involves blood,” Robi Gilmore, a Haitian voodoo priest, tells me the next day. The religion originated, he explains, as a blend of indigenous African beliefs — brought over on slave ships — and the Catholicism the slaves confronted in the Deep South. Instead of saints they revere spirits; instead of prayers, possession; rum for sacrament, cornmeal drawings for ornaments of gold. It was about identity. Far from the devil worshipping of Hollywood, true voodoo was simply a way for those slaves to keep a part of their religion alive. “It was a piece the plantation owner could never take from us,” Robi says. “It was survival.”

And as for Marie Laveau, there’s another version of that history too. As the head of the local Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses to aid escaped slaves, she needed a way to go about her business undetected. So she used those rumours of her mastery of the dark arts to make people afraid of her. “She played on people’s fears of voodoo so she could be left alone and send slaves to their freedom,” Robi explains. In the end, the great Voodoo Queen of New Orleans was really just a disguise — and far from a devil, she was more of a saint.

Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)