Voodoo’s mystical presence is one of the most common New Orleans motifs—though it is mostly reduced to a tourist gimmick. With kitschy dolls for sale and exaggerated mythology surrounding Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, a very real, culturally important religion with a serious past gets lost amid all that camp.
Voodoo’s roots can be traced in part back to the religion of West Africa’s Yoruba people, which incorporates the worship of several different spiritual forces that include a supreme being, a pantheon of deities, and the spirits of ancestors. When Africans were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to Brazil, Haiti, and, ultimately, Louisiana, they brought their religion with them.
Later, other African religions met and melded, and when slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism, they found it easy to merge and practice both religions and rituals. Rites involved dancing and singing to intricate drum rhythms. Some participants might even fall into a trancelike state, during which a loa (a spirit and/or lower-level deity intermediary between humans and gods) would take possession of them.
Voodoo was banned in Louisiana until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The next year, the Haitian slaves overthrew their government, and new immigrants came to New Orleans, bringing along a fresh infusion of Voodoo.
Napoleonic law (which still holds sway in Louisiana) forced slave owners to give their slaves Sundays off and to provide them with a gathering place: Congo Square on Rampart Street, part of what is now Louis Armstrong Park. Voodoo practice there, including dancing and drumming rituals, gave slaves a way to have their own community and a certain amount of freedom. These gatherings naturally attracted white onlookers, as did the rituals held (often by free people of color) along St. John’s Bayou. The local papers of the 1800s are full of lurid accounts of Voodoo “orgies” and of spirits possessing both whites and blacks. The Congo Square gatherings became more like performance pieces rather than religious rituals, and legend has it that nearby madams would come down to the Sunday gatherings and hire some of the performers to entertain at their houses.
During the 1800s, the famous Voodoo priestesses came to some prominence. Mostly free women of color, they were devout religious practitioners, very good businesswomen with a steady clientele of whites who secretly came to them for help in love or money matters. During the 1900s, Voodoo largely went back underground.
It is estimated that today as much as 15 percent of the population of New Orleans practices Voodoo, though the public perception—casting spells or sticking pins in Voodoo dolls—is largely Hollywood nonsense.
Most of the stores and places in New Orleans that advertise Voodoo are set up strictly for tourism. This is not to say that some facts can’t be found there or that you shouldn’t buy a mass-produced souvenir. For an introduction to Voodoo, check out the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum or Voodoo Authentica. For true Voodoo, however, seek out real Voodoo temples or practitioners. You can find them at the temples listed below or by calling Ava Kay Jones (www.yorubapriestess.tripod.com; [tel] 504/484-6499), who creates custom gris-gris bags (packets of meaning-infused herbs, stones, and other such bits), potions, candles and dolls by appointment only. If you happen into one of these temples and find no one about, come back or wait quietly; they are probably conducting a reading in a side room. And be sure to check out Robert Tallant’s book Voodoo in New Orleans (Pelican Pocket, 1983).
The city has three authentic Voodoo temples and botanicas selling everything you might need for potions, spells, and ritual implements for altars. The public is welcome, and employees are happy to educate the honestly inquisitive.
The Island of Salvation Botanica in the New Orleans Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Ave. in the Marigny (www.islandofsalvationbotanica.com; [tel] 504/948-9961) is run by Voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman. The botanica is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday 11am to 6pm, but call first to make sure they are not closed for readings (or to schedule a reading).
Priestess Miriam, who practices at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, 1428 N. Rampart St. (www.voodoospiritualtemple.org; [tel] 504/943-9795), is the real McCoy, a serene spirit and practitioner in the traditions of the West African ancestors. No pins and dolls here, folks, but healings, prayers, blessings, spiritual consultations, and training are available. The temple (new in 2016 following a fire at her years-old location) is just off Esplande Ave., easily accessed from the French Quarter or via the Rampart streetcar. Interested, respectful tourists are welcome. Call for appointment. Primarily a store, Voodoo Authentica, 612 Dumaine St. (www.voodooshop.com; [tel] 504/522-2111), also has working altars and often a practitioner in attendance, reading cards and performing cleansings. It's open Monday to Sunday 11am to 7pm.
Visiting Marie Laveau
Marie Laveau is the most famous New Orleans Voodoo queen. Though she was a real woman, her life has been so mythologized that it is nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction. But who really wants to?
Certainly it’s known that she was born a free woman of color in 1794. A hairdresser by trade, Marie became known for her psychic abilities and powerful gris-gris. Her day job allowed her into the best houses, where she heard all the good gossip and could apply it to her other clientele. In one famous story, a young woman about to be forced into a marriage with a much older, wealthy man approached Marie. She wanted to marry her young lover instead. Marie counseled patience. The marriage went forward, and the happy groom died from a heart attack while dancing with his bride at the reception. After a respectable time, the wealthy widow was free to marry her lover.
Marie wholeheartedly believed in Voodoo—and business. Her home at what is now 1020 St. Ann St. was purportedly a gift from a grateful client. A devout Catholic, Marie attended daily Mass and was well known for her charity work.
Her death in 1881 was noted by the Times-Picayune. Her look-alike daughter, Marie II, took over her work, leading some to believe (mistakenly) that Marie I lived a very long time, looking quite well indeed—which only added to her legend. But Marie II allegedly worked more for the darker side than her mother. Her eventual reward, the story goes, was death by poison (delivered by whom is unknown). Today, visitors bring Marie tokens (candles, Mardi Gras beads, change) and ask her for favors—she’s buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. (The misguided or outright disrespectful mar the tomb with X's. Despite what you may hear, this does nothing except dishonor her and damage her resting place. It's a horrifying, illegal fail. Don't do it.)
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