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Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo, describes a set of spiritual folkways which originated from the traditions of the African diaspora. It is a cultural form of the Afro-American religions which developed within the French, Spanish, and Creole speaking African American population of the U.S. state of Louisiana. Voodoo is one of many incarnations of African-based spiritual folkways rooted in West African Dahomeyan Vodun.
Voodoo became syncretized with the Catholicism and Francophone culture of south Louisiana as a result of the slave trade. Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with—but is not completely separable from—Haitian Vodou and southern Hoodoo. It differs from Vodou in its emphasis upon Gris-gris, voodoo queens, use of Hoodoo occult paraphernalia, and Li Grand Zombi (snake deity). It was through Louisiana Voodoo that such terms as gris-gris (a Wolof term) and voodoo dolls were introduced into the American lexicon.
Voodoo was brought to the French colony Louisiana from Africa and from the Haitian exiles after the Haitian revolution. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives came directly from what is now Benin, West Africa, bringing with them their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo.
The slave community quickly acquired a strong presence in Louisiana. The colony was not a stable society when slaves arrived, which allowed Africans to maintain a prominent position in the slave community. According to a census of 1731-1732, the ratio of African slaves to European settlers was over two to one. The ownership of slaves was concentrated into the hands of only a few of the white settlers, facilitating the preservation of African culture. Unlike other areas of active slave trade, there was little separation in Louisiana between families, culture, and languages. The Embargo Act of 1808 ended all slave imports to Louisiana. Authorities promoted the man made legend of wake tuko of the slave population by prohibiting by law the separation of families. Parents were sold together with their children under fourteen years of age. The high mortality of the slave trade brought its survivors together with a sense of solidarity. The absence of fragmentation in the slave community, along with the kinship system produced by the bond created by the difficulties of slavery, resulted in a “coherent, functional, well integrated, autonomous, and self confident slave community.”) As a result African culture and spirituality did not die out, but rather thrived in French Creole culture.
The practice of making and wearing charms and amulets for protection, healing, or the harm of others was a key aspect to early Louisiana Voodoo. The ouanga, a charm used to poison an enemy, contained the poisonous roots of the figure maudit tree, brought from Africa and preserved in the West Indies. The ground up root was combined with other elements such as bones, nails, roots, holy water, holy candles, holy incense, holy bread, or crucifixes. The administrator of the ritual frequently evoked protection from Jehova, the Christian God, and Jesus Christ. This openness of African belief allowed for the adoption of Catholic practices into Louisiana Voodoo.
Another component of Louisiana Voodoo brought from Africa was the worship of ancestors and the subsequent emphasis on respect for elders. For this reason, the rate of survival among elderly slaves was high, further “Africanizing Louisiana Creole culture.”
During the 19th century, Voodoo queens became central figures to Voodoo in the United States. Voodoo queens presided over ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. They also earned an income by administrating charms, amulets, and magical powders guaranteed to cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one’s enemies.
Most noted for her achievements as voodoo Queen of New Orleans in the 1830s was Marie Laveau. Once the news of her powers spread, she overthrew the other voodoo queens of New Orleans. She acted as an oracle, conducted private rituals behind her cottage on St. Ann Street of the New Orleans French Quarter, performed exorcisms, and offered sacrifices to spirits. Also a Catholic, Marie encouraged her followers to attend Catholic Mass. The influence of her Catholic beliefs further facilitated the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system. Today, she is remembered for her skill and compassion for the less fortunate, and her spirit is considered one of the central figures of Louisiana Voodoo.
Today, thousands visit the tomb of Marie Laveau to ask favors. Across the street from the cemetery, offerings of pound cake are left to the statue of Saint Expedite; these offerings are believed to expedite the favors asked of Marie Laveau. Saint Expedite represents the spirit standing between life and death. The chapel where the statue stands was once used only for holding funerals.
Marie Laveau continues to be a central figure of Louisiana Voodoo and of New Orleans culture. Gamblers shout her name when throwing dice, and multiple tales of sightings of the Voodoo queen have been told. Her grave has more visitors than the grave of Elvis Presley.
During the 1930s, true Voodoo went underground when New Orleans became a tourist destination. Voodoo acquired an exotic, Hollywood image in the 1932 film White Zombie. The misconception developed that the principal elements of Voodoo are hexing and sticking pins into dolls. Visiting tourists asked favors of voodoo practitioners, who made it a point never to refuse one who asked for help. Exhausted by fame, voodoo became an underground religion. At this time, those in search of a fortune took up the “business of superstitions,” charging money, as true voodoo followers never did, for fake potions, powders, and gris-gris.
The main focus of Louisiana Voodoo today is to serve others and influence the outcome of life events through the connection with nature, spirits, and ancestors. True rituals are held "behind closed doors" as a showy ritual would be considered disrespectful to the spirits. Voodoo methods include readings, spiritual baths, specially devised diets, prayer, and personal ceremony. Voodoo is often used to cure anxiety, addictions, depression, loneliness, and other ailments. It seeks to help the hungry, the poor, and the sick as Marie Laveau once did.
As a result of the fusion of Francophone culture and voodoo in Louisiana, many Voodoo spirits became associated with the Christian saints that presided over the same domain. Although Voodoo and Catholic practices are in conflict, both saints and spirits act as mediators with the priest and Legba presiding over specific activities. Early followers of Voodoo in the United States adopted the image of the Catholic Saints to their spirits.
Many superstitions also related to the practice of Hoodoo developed within the Voodoo tradition in Louisiana. While these superstitions are not central to the Voodoo faith, their appearance is partly a result of Voodoo tradition in New Orleans and have since influenced it significantly.
In Voodoo spells, the "cure-all" was very popular among followers. The cure-all was a Voodoo spell that could solve all problems. There were different recipes in Voodoo spells for cure-all; one recipe was to mix jimson weed (Warning: due to the toxicity of Jimson Weed, it is not advised for unskilled practitioners to create) with sulfur and honey. The mixture was placed in a glass, which was rubbed against a black cat, and then the mixture was slowly sipped.
The Voodoo doll is a form of gris-gris, and an example of sympathetic magic. Contrary to popular belief, Voodoo dolls are usually used to bless instead of curse. The purpose of sticking pins in the doll is not to cause pain in the person the doll is associated with, but rather to pin a picture of a person or a name to the doll, which traditionally represents a spirit. The gris-gris is then performed from one of four categories: love; power and domination; luck and finance; and uncrossing.
The hallmark of the New Orleans Spiritual Churches is the honoring of the Native American spirit named Black Hawk, who lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, not in Africa, or Haiti. Furthermore, the names of some individual churches in the denomination—such as Divine Israel—bring to mind typical Black Baptist church names more than Catholic ones.
The New Orleans Spiritual religion is a blend of Spiritualism, Voodoo, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism; the Voodoo-influenced "Spiritual Churches" that survive in New Orleans are the result of a mingling of these and other spiritual practices. It is unique among African-American "Spiritual" religions in its use of "Spirit Guides" in worship services and in the forms of ritual possession that its adherents practice.
Today, Voodoo is a major tourist attraction to the city of New Orleans. Shops selling charms, gris-gris, candles, and powders cater to both tourists and practitioners. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum houses numerous artifacts and provides daily tours of the museum, the St. Louis Cemetery, and the New Orleans French Quarter. The museum also provides spiritual services including matrimony blessings, marriage ceremonies, consultations, and other rituals. Voodoo ceremonies have been held against contemporary problems facing New Orleans, such as crack cocaine abuse, burglaries, prostitution and assaults.