The raids often came in the middle of the night. Entire villages in Africa were instantly destroyed, and their residents were herded off in shackles.
Once aboard overcrowded ships headed for parts unknown to them, newly enslaved African peoples had little to hold on to, except their traditions, their customs and their religion. For many, that religion was based on a belief in something called Voudon, meaning "Creator" or "Great Spirit." The practice associated with Voudon came to be known as Voodoo.
Mention the word Voodoo to many people today, and you're likely to draw apprehensive stares and cautious curiosity. The many popular misconceptions about Voodoo have caused the very word to bring dread and horror to masses of people who mistakenly believe Voodoo is an inherently evil concept, involving pins stuck into dolls and curses.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Voodoo is really a system of religion and spiritualism that finds its roots in ancient Africa. In many ways it differs little from modern organized religion. Its followers believe in one God and the search for a better understanding of the spiritual aspects of life - a far cry from the many who associate Voodoo with devil worship or human sacrifices.
Voodoo existed for many years in Africa as a rich part of the cultural fabric. The hierarchy of Voodoo includes God first, followed by Loa (spirits) that oversee all that happens on earth. Each of the Loa has its own preferred fruit, vegetable, color, day of the week, number and other life elements. The reason the spirits are so well known is that Voodoo is a religious practice passed from generation to generation by Griots, or story tellers.
African slaves in the Caribbean islands during the 19th century were banned from practicing Voodoo, but it didn't take them long to realize the parallels between Voodoo and Catholicism. Soon, the names of Catholic saints and many Catholic rituals, including ceremonies and costuming, were mirrored by Voodoo practitioners.
In many ways it was Voodoo that sustained African slaves through the tribulations of being plucked from their homeland, forced into servitude and scattered across the globe against their will. Voodoo, in its own way, was the common thread of survival among slaves.
As a major slave trading post, it's no wonder that Voodoo made its way to New Orleans from Martinique, Haiti and the French West Indies. Established cultural blends of French, Spanish and Indian traditions made the city an ideal setting for the practice.
By the time Voodoo wove its way into New Orleans culture, the French Quarter was a thriving riverside city, believed by some to be mystical. In the streets of New Orleans, it was most common to hear people speaking Spanish or French.
One tall, statuesque woman of color, Marie Laveau, was an attractive mix of African, Indian and Caucasian blood, known as a Quadroon. A hairdresser by trade, Laveau knew when to talk and when to listen as she entered homes of some of the richest and most powerful women in the city. These women told her their great family secrets, stories of their husbands' dalliances with other women and tales of reinventing their family histories to delete references to questionable ancestry. If knowledge is power, Marie Laveau became a queen.
Her potential would be realized by 1830, by which time she would be considered the undisputed Queen of Voodoo in New Orleans. With the gift of showmanship, Laveau injected a healthy dose of mysticism and sensuality into Voodoo ceremonies, using snakes liberally as symbols. She borrowed heavily from Catholic tradition, including ritualistic elements such as incense, holy water and prayer.
Laveau was held in high esteem by many New Orleanians, particularly for her devout Catholic faith. She attended church daily, until she was granted permission to hold Voodoo rituals behind St. Louis Cathedral. Eventually, Laveau would practice her rituals in her own St. Ann street home in the French Quarter, placing and removing curses, telling futures, reading minds and generally serving as a spiritual guide for the masses. Part theatrical dramatist, part mystical agent and part spiritual leader, Laveau caused Voodoo to be incorporated into New Orleans' rich cultural tapestry for decades.
It is said there was a second Marie Laveau, one of Laveau's 15 children, who carried on her mother's legacy. It is a powerful legacy that moves many New Orleanians to honor the life and work of the original Laveau every June 23 on St. John's Eve, the night believers think the Voodoo Queen's spirit rises.
Marie Laveau's grave in St. Louis Cemetery #1 on Basin Street is visited and meticulously maintained by legions of followers, who still place offerings there, including food or various symbols of Voodoo.
You won't find much of a trace of Voodoo in its authentic form on the streets of New Orleans today. It is a quiet movement that owes much of its existence to its heritage and its history.
A good place to begin a look into the world of Voodoo is the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on North Rampart Street in the Quarter. Priestess Miriam has served the local community since 1990 in the only formally established temple in the city. With a focus on traditional West African and herbal healing practices, the Temple is a unique spiritual experience.
For a look at the evolution of Voodoo, stop in at Island of Salvation Botanica on St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater. Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman is one of the city's most visible Voodoo high priestesses, advocating for public peace and spiritual healing. The shop is a local favorite for spiritual supplies.
Conventional wisdom says Voodoo is more an object of curiosity, a part of New Orleans history, than it is a contemporary practice. However, Priestesses Miriam and Sallie Ann are leaders of a quiet but strong movement to preserve Voodoo's history and practices. While ceremonies and rituals are not public spectacles, they are very much a part of New Orleanians' spirituality.
Still, the aura of mysticism surrounding Voodoo pervades, perhaps because it fits right in with the fascination surrounding New Orleans culture. Voodoo, like jazz music, our multi-cultural cuisine, Mardi Gras and even the city's traditional Spanish architecture, is a part of this place. It belongs here among the aged streets and centuries old oak trees that make New Orleans the singularly distinctive place that it has always been.
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