New Orleans Voodoo
ORIGINS OF VOODOO IN NEW ORLEANS
Before Voodoo was Voodoo
Before arriving in New Orleans and adopting new influences, voodoo was very different—both by how it was spelled and what it actually was.
“Vodou,” which is the original version of the term, was a religion predominantly practiced in West Africa meaning “pure light.” Its exact origins are elusive, but it’s said to have evolved from a combination of ancient African spiritual beliefs. The term changed to “voodoo” over time through English translation so it rolled off the tongue more easily.
This West African religion centered on nature and purity. It recognized two divine creators—Mawu, which is the representation of the moon, and Lisa, the representation of the sun. You may hear Vodou described as an “earthy” religion, and Mawu and Lisa are the reason behind that.
During rituals and ceremonies, Vodou practitioners would communicate with deceased loved ones or higher beings with the help of “loa.” Loa, also known as voodoo spirits, acted as mediums for the physical realm to contact the spiritual realm.
Vodou found a new home when West Africans that practiced the religion came to New Orleans in the early 1700s. Even though Vodou characteristics and traditions were brought halfway across the world, the religion remained the same and didn’t encounter any interruptions for over 100 years. In fact, present-day Congo Square, located in Armstrong Park in New Orleans, was a prominent Vodou gathering place for West Africans.
They would go to Congo Square and worship their ancestors, dance, play music, and catch up with friends and family that they didn’t otherwise get to see very often. Visiting Congo Square created a sense of community for West Africans in New Orleans during the 1700s.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the religion took on a new version of itself.
VOODOO IN PRACTICE: CONGO SQUARE
Located in Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood, Congo Square served as a gathering place for enslaved Africans. It was a place reserved for African traditions and expression of culture, including Voodoo. Hundreds of people would gather to form drum circles and spiritual ceremonies. The area remains open today and continues to host cultural meetings.
FAMOUS VOODOO PERSONALITIES AND PRACTITIONERS
The most famous voodoo queen was Marie Laveau (1794-1881), a legendary practitioner buried in St. Louis Cemetery No.1. She was a devout Catholic and attended Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. She encouraged others to do so as well. She lived in the French Quarter on St. Ann Street, where many people stopped to ask for her help at all hours of the day and night. She was a free woman of color who adopted children, fed the hungry, and nursed the sick during the yellow fever epidemic. She was known to help enslaved servants and their escapees. It is said that politicians, lawyers, and businessmen consulted her before making any financial or business-related decisions.
Her home was adorned with candles, images of saints, altars, and items to protect the house from spirits. You can find nickels, paper flowers, and various offerings on her tomb today. Stay at the Inn on St. Ann in the Marie Laveau Annex, the Creole Cottage she actually owned.
Perhaps one of the most famous voodoo kings of New Orleans was Dr. John, also known as Bayou John. He was born in Senegal, where he was kidnapped as a slave and brought to Cuba. He eventually moved to New Orleans as a cotton-roller, where he became part of the local voodoo community. He bought property on Bayou Road and became known as an excellent healer in Voodoo and fortune teller. He was the teacher of Marie Laveau.
VOODOO CELEBRATIONS: ST. JOHN'S EVE
St. John's Eve is celebrated on June 23 around the world for the summer solstice. The holiday has a special celebration in New Orleans each year. The celebration began in the 1830s by Marie Laveau on Bayou St. John. A head-washing ritual was combined with a public party, a celebration that International House Hotel has since adopted. You can also return to Bayou St. John to participate in the ritual each year as well.
MODERN-DAY VOODOO IN NEW ORLEANS
Today, Voodoo remains in practice to serve others and influence life events in connection with ancestors and spirits. Rituals are usually held privately, but there are various places that will give you a reading or assist in a ritual. The Voodoo Spiritual Temple is New Orleans' only formally established voodoo temple, located across the street from Congo Square.
The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum is a great stop in the French Quarter to learn about the Voodoo history of New Orleans. Learn about rituals, voodoo altars, and artifacts from Africa, Haiti, and old New Orleans.
Several Voodoo shops can still be found around the city such as Voodoo Authentica, Island of Salvation Botanica, and of course, Marie Laveau House of Voodoo. Shop for products or get a personal reading.