Illustration by Nicholas Ivins

Voodoo: Mystery, Magic, and Majesty

By Meg Eppel | Feb - March 2006

Many people were praying to God after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but many others were also thinking of Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen.” Laveau is described as a healer and spiritualist by Voodoo believers, but many others consider her a charlatan.

Laveau’s disciples visit her grave near the French Quarter in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, believing her spirit to have healing powers. Laveau’s crypt is one of the most visited grave sites in the United States. Two years ago it was estimated approximately a quarter million people visited her grave each year.

Born in the late eighteenth century, Marie Laveau was the illegitimate daughter of a Creole plantation owner, Charles Laveaux, and his African/Native American mistress, Marguerite. Laveau’s life would cause many rumors, and her afterlife would spawn many more.

She had fifteen children with her common law husband, but was often referred to as the “Widow Paris;” a name she gave herself after the death of her first husband. By the time Laveau was in her 40’s she dominated all Voodoo culture in New Orleans. She led rituals, sold gris-gris (Voodoo potions), told fortunes, healed the ill, saved men from the gallows, and was said to remain perpetually youthful.

Her official occupation was as a hairdresser. This job allowed her into the homes of many wealthy citizens, keeping her updated on all the town gossip, helping her achieve accuracy in her fortune telling.

There is no solid evidence of Laveau saving lives, but stories flourished and legends persisted. Her daughter, Marie Laveau II, bore a striking resemblance to her mother. She also followed in her mother’s footsteps, learning Voodoo beliefs and practices at an early age.

Marie Laveau II became more visible when her mother died in the late nineteenth century. Believers thought she was the original Voodoo Queen reincarnated to heal the people of New Orleans.

The grave at St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery is considered the final resting spot of the Voodoo Queen, but some believe she is actually buried elsewhere. Many visit the tomb to make a wish. The earliest accounts of wish-making were documented in 1946; followers would knock three times on the crypt to ask a favor.

Over the past century many people have claimed to have seen her ghost, sparking rumors that the Voodoo Queen never died.

The number of Voodoo practitioners has increased in the last 15 years, reaching into the high tens of thousands. In 2003, Voodoo was named as the official religion of Haiti, an important fact when taking into account that Haitian culture is strongly tied to their Voodoo beliefs.

Elizabeth McAlister, author of “Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora” is an Associate Professor at Vassar University. She claims that in Haiti, “religion permeates every aspect of the culture.”

Voodoo is a combination of various traditional African and Native American religions mixed with Christianity. The belief system began in the African country of Benin and its surrounding regions, eventually spreading to the West Indies and Haiti.

At first, Africans forced into slavery had little or no contact with each other. They practiced their religious beliefs separately. However, over time slavery begot extended families and communities, andvarious belief systems were combined.

The word “Voodoo” comes from an African word meaning god, spirit, or sacred object. Voodoo is practiced primarily in Haiti, but practitioners can also be found in other Caribbean areas, including Brazil, Benin, and several West African countries. The religion is also alive and well in the United States, primarily in the Southern regions.

Followers believe there is one Supreme Being, in addition to multiple strong and weak spirits. Each person has a spirit that rewards them with wealth or punishes them with illness. When a Voodoo practitioner dies they go to “Nan Guinin,” meaning “Africa located under the sea.”

There are also Voodoo temples, each headed by a Voodoo “Ongan” (priest) or “Manbo” (priestess) who performs ceremonies. Some temples are part of a network of temples whose purpose is to protect the “Pitit Kay” (congregation) against the abuses and exploitation of non-believers.

As is the case with many religions, exploitation is also part of Voodoo culture. For the layman Voodoo brings to mind images of Voodoo dolls, curses, and zombies. Typing “Voodoo” into a Google search brings back 9,580,000 hits. Sites range from “Angelina Jolie Used Voodoo to Charm Brad Pitt?” to where to purchase authentic Voodoo dolls.

Finding legitimate information amounts to looking for a needle in a haystack. Marie Laveau has had her fair share of skeptics, believing her nothing more than a fictitious subject of gossip.

Temples in New Orleans have public rites that include dancing, singing, drumming and chanting. These rites are combined with the use of oils, candles, herbs, cards, leaves, bones, and sometimes charms believed to contain special supernatural powers. This may seem like magical flights of fancy to many Westerners’ minds, but it hasn’t quelled the new flock of believers here in the United States.

Sallie Anne Glassman, author of “Vodou Visions: An Encounter with the Divine,” says “people aren’t looking for hexes or charms to make someone’s nose fall off. It’s much more basic. They turn to Vodou because there’s an increasing desperation in our culture for spiritual meaning and direction.”

The Voodoo Queen is very much alive in Voodoo culture. Prior to Katrina many people traveled to New Orleans to seek her spirit. Many claim she is in their thoughts. Some say they’ve spoken with her spirit. Other believers say they have seen her, or had visions or dreams about her presence.

Marie Laveau was known for helping her people through difficult times, and perhaps right now that is exactly what the city of New Orleans needs.

Real Zombies

We would be remiss in reporting on the Voodoo without at least touching on the subject of zombies.

Zombies are mythical creatures that were once human, who died and then were brought back to life as mindless slaves by powerful Voodoo shamans.

Or are they?

Many readers may be surprised to learn this mythical scenario has its origin in fact.

The terrifying and awful truth is —zombies do exist. Though they don’t actually return from the dead, they do however, for all intents and purposes go through the motions.

At least once a decade or so well documented cases of zombies filter in from Africa.

The zombie phenomenon is used as a deterrent in certain regions of rural Africa for breaking social norms. If a member of a community makes a significant enough offence, they run the risk of incurring the wrath of a Voodoo priest or priestess.

It is believed that zombie-ism victims are poisoned with a potent neurotoxin found in the blood of puffer fish, or “Fugu” as they are known to the more adventurous Japanese sushi connoisseurs.

A tiny amount of this toxin can easily kill a person, however in extremely minute doses it can induce a catatonic state characterized by paralysis, a slow, weak pulse, and retarded respiration. The toxin need not be ingested by a victim as it can be absorbed through the skin. A cruel practitioner with this dark knowledge need only apply the poison to a surface he or she knows the victim will touch.

In countries with primitive medical facilities and no embalming practices, it is easy for an individual poisoned with this toxin to be declared dead and hastily planted in the ground after a short wake.

The poisoner will rob the grave of their victim within the first several hours of burial. The victims often suffer brain damage from asphyxia while buried, if they survive. The kidnapped victim is then sold into slavery to work the fields in a different town —where they become a strong reminder to the locals of the consequences of breaking social norms.

Every so often one of these zombies escapes and finds his or her way back home a little worse for wear, to the astonishment and delight of their friends and families.

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