Photo by Greg Rhoades
Modern Voodoo is multi-ethnic, and widespread, though you have to go a bit off the tourist track to encounter it.
Some years ago I was in the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. An elderly black man appeared in the doorway. Dressed in tailored vest and three-piece chalk-stripe suit, spats, wristwatch across his knuckles, sunglasses (at night) and a fine hat—he leaned on his walking stick, surveyed the crowd. Finally, he entered, tapping his feet. The band played trad jazz from the 1920s. He found a young woman partner. Dancing slowly at first, the May-December couple had the attention of all, natives and tourists alike. When he lost a step and seemed to stumble, we gasped, and applauded when he caught up. A few bars later, he went down to the floor, seemed to collapse. Surely he wouldn’t recover now, we thought, but at the last minute he leapt up, threw down his cane and picked up the pace—faster, and faster. We went wild. He’d tricked us into thinking he was at death’s door, when he was really—well what was he really?
Turns out, he wasn’t hovering at that dreaded gate, but he played someone who does in the old language of the Voodoo loas, intermediary gods or spirits. In every aspect, including the sunglasses, the strange position of the watch, the impeccable haberdashery—he quoted the persona of “Papa Guede,” a figure who takes you into the underworld. And brings you back out. Which is what his resurrection dance did for all of us that night.
In what we call “the real world” the old man was musician and ambassador-of-all-things-New-Orleanian, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste. He recently died; his wake, the stuff of legend. Embalmed and propped up outside his coffin, his nattily dressed corpse made the centerpiece photo in The Times-Picayune. A great throng including city dignitaries attended his remarkable funeral at the Municipal Auditorium during a torrential downpour in July.
Was Uncle Lionel the real thing, was he Voodoo?
It wasn’t mentioned.
“No one lives of the flesh. The spirits of Voodoo are the limbs of god.” (Haitian Voodoo Priest and visual artist, Andre Pierre.)
Every tourist in New Orleans hears about Voodoo—some are curious enough to take a tour, see Marie Laveau’s grave, go to one of the “authentic shops” or museums in the Quarter. In the popular mind, the religion is exotic, barbaric, dark magic. Many false stories and fantastical movies have exaggerated its evil. For over a century, it was persecuted. Still, its legendary power attracts. The other day, on Bourbon Street, I overheard a tanned Floridian asking the cashier at a popular shop for a “real consultation.”
The place was lined with niches behind glass, with “Do not Photograph” signs, in respect for the Voodoo altars inside. But the cashier readily admitted the “real deal” was elsewhere. His shop was for tourists. A true mambo (priestess) lives in the Bywater. Sallie Ann Glassman—white, born in Maine—owns the Island of Salvation Botanica on St. Claude. “She was initiated in Haiti,” the cashier said, with awe.
There are many mambos in the city. They will perform rituals, give readings. They maintain websites and botanicas—shops for ritual herbs and candles. The New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple on Rampart near St. Ann has open-to-the public ceremonies. This accessible, modern Voodoo is multi-ethnic, and widespread, though you have to go a bit off the tourist track to encounter it.
There is another “real thing” though—in a way, hidden.
Voodoo is a very old religion derived from the beliefs of several African tribes—the Fon, the Kongo, and the Yoruba. In nineteenth-century New Orleans, slaves from those groups had time off to celebrate their traditional dances and rituals in Congo Square. Free persons of color joined in. With the influx in the early 1800s of Haitians, Voodoo set down serious roots in this city.
Dancing, drumming, and incantation, to Europeans, was entertainment. The earliest organizers of minstrel shows, in fact, came to Congo Square to sketch the moves of the dances, and annotate the rhythms. They recreated these with white performers in black face. The spiritual underpinnings were not communicated, of course, or understood, in Early American music halls.
But, as historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall writes, “in Africa there is no music without magic.” Congo Square’s music was often the means to another end—transcendence of the mundane, group trance, going higher.
Voodoo loas, invisible entities, “the limbs of god,” exist between heaven and earth. Through ritual and devotion, we can interact with these energies and at times absorb their gifts and strengths. They literally can “ride us” to help us create changes in our world and commune with the universe.
It is an attractive, practical religion: White Americans were not content to be observers forever.
In the 1850s The Times-Picayune described a scene: women of all races, “were in the habit of frequenting a house back in the woods near the St. Bernard Canal...to go through a great variety of superstitious rites in a…meager style… of dress.” When the police raided, “A large quantity of nonsensical paraphernalia” was confiscated—“banners, wands, enchanted rods.”
The celebrants were furious over having their rituals called lewd, or silly, their simple white clothing derided. Mambo Betsy Toledano protested in court. She and her followers were being persecuted for practicing the religion “Of her motherland.”
After the Civil War, gatherings attracted all races and both sexes to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain on St. John’s Eve in June. The great Voodoo queen Marie Laveau presided. Hundreds danced all night at Milneburg, a town on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain that no longer exists. Newspapers describe participants “moving to fast rhythms” and “spinning like a top,” “shaking up and shaking down.” Men of Rhett Butler’s generation were doing the twist, the stomp, the shimmy. Celebrants danced until they fell onto the floor—as if “possessed.” Then, newly enthused (or inhabited) they came back to life—the way Uncle Lionel did.
The white press denounced the “dangers” of whites mixing with persons of color, and the “scandalous” rhythms. The editorials read exactly like 1950s attacks on rock and roll as threatening to morals, only they came eighty years earlier. Who says Louisiana is behind the times?
Voodoo was a source of influence, and power for blacks, and an object of fascination, exaggeration, and threat, to whites. City Fathers persecuted more and more as the century wore on. Raids picked up and so did the systematic arrest of practitioners who gave readings, or made herbal cures. The charges were mail fraud or practicing medicine without a license.
Voodoo went underground. When African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote of her initiation in New Orleans, in the 1920s, she didn’t use the real names of the teachers—they could be arrested.
Believers had to create new paths for the traditions. One was to “hide in plain sight”—in new religions or societies.
The Mardi Gras Indians were one—first appearing in 1885, their sequined banners, rhythms and style of dance are permutations of the pageantry on the shore of the lake and at St. Bernard Canal years before. WPA oral histories taken from old timers in the 1930s point out the similarities. Though the Indians used costumes with some Native American design, their organization, initiation system, and mode of parading have African and Haitian antecedents and parallels.
A New Orleans Spiritualist church induction ceremony today can look a lot like a Haitian voodoo gathering—white attire, head wraps, veils, rhythmic music, spirit-summoning chant, dancers in a trance state. The establishment of these congregations coincides with persecution of Voodoo rites at the turn of the century. This denomination is evangelical, and Christian, but it has unique beliefs—spirit figures can be summoned, brought down.
Second-line parade groups and social aid and pleasure clubs reconstitute elements of the original Voodoo congregations—though these have a secular connotation in contemporary New Orleans.
In 2011, I went to a St. John’s Eve ritual organized by Mambo Glassman. All were invited, believers and skeptics—everyone was just asked to wear white. Hundreds came. Chanting began around six p.m., in a light rain, on Cabrini Bridge over Bayou St. John. In the center of the crowd, a cloth had been spread on the concrete. Large and small candles were lit, bound herbs, stones, and precious talismans laid down in a specific pattern. The exact same array appears in nineteenth-century St. John’s Eve descriptions. Men played sticks or drums, mostly high pitched, some tinkling. The pace was mesmerizing. The only light other than the many candles was the fiery band of crimson from the setting sun. Below, on the banks, some were wading into the water fully clothed—like solitary evening baptisms. The unchanging percussion created a tangible calm—a collective slowing of our pulses. Onlookers became participants—all went into slow motion, folding back into another realm, the night’s very physicality, enhanced, then dropping away. It seemed that if we waited long enough, we would all be one with the beat, not so much in the flesh as elevated, in the collective trance.
“Vo” means introspection, “Do” means, “into the unknown.”
These principles and practices have a long history and many lives in New Orleans. They have attracted the uninitiated, and they have created groups of celebrants. Persecution is over: Audiences aware, and unaware, of the underlying meanings find themselves entranced. If we follow the dance, the beat, the rituals, if we believe—even if we don’t—the loas are likely to arrive and ride us, change us, whether on Cabrini Bridge listening to the drums, or outside a Chief’s House on Mardi Gras Day, listening to the same drums, or of an evening at the Spotted Cat. Every one who visits New Orleans feels the presence of this older, more ancient time—one that we enter through rhythm.
This city fascinates because it is a crossroads. In a European context, an older African worldview managed to live. Though misunderstood, once persecuted and therefore altered, it is still vibrant, multi-faceted, omni-present.
Only real magic could be so persistent.
Carolyn Morrow Long, A Voodoo Priestess in New Orleans: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau. UNIVERSITY PRESS OF FLORIDA, 2007
Richard Brent Turner, Jazz Religion, Second Line, and Black New Orleans. INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2009
Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo. Translated from the French by Robert B. Cross. CITY LIGHTS BOOKS, SAN FRANCISCO, 1969.
Freddi Williams Evans, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans. UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA AT LAFAYETTE PRESS, 2011.
Moira Crone is the author of five books of fiction including the recent speculative novel The Not Yet, set in New Orleans in the year 2121. Her stories have appeared in over forty journals, including The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, The Oxford American, The Southern Review, and a dozen anthologies. In 2009, the Southern Fellowship of Writers gave her the Robert Penn Warren Award for the body of her work. She taught at LSU for many years, and directed the MFA in Creative Writing there. She lives in New Orleans and is married to writer, poet, and therapist Rodger Kamenetz.