It’s almost impossible to visit New Orleans without seeing references to voodoo. Dolls, shrines, shops, and shows revolve around a hidden religion. The culture has become part of the American story making appearances in movies, television, and popular novels.
Of course, Hollywood doesn’t always get it right. Real Voodoo is different from dolls and stick pins. There’s a much richer and darker story behind it.
Let’s peer into the history and culture behind the stories and see if they really do still practice it in Louisiana.
What is Voodoo?
The story of behind the religion is linked directly with the international trade of enslaved people to Haiti by the French. To understand the origins, we first have to define the term syncretism. This is the process by which one culture merges other beliefs with its own.
In the case of voodoo, enslaved people from Dahomey (Benin) in Haiti merged their beliefs with the Catholic church. French sugar plantation owners banned native religions on the island. But the mix of practices helped enslaved people honor their traditions under severe oppression.
Voodoo, as still practiced, is a religion closely connected to Catholicism. They believe in Bondye (good god) and lwa (spirits), which are comparable to the Christian god and saints. Lwa are much more involved in everyday life than Bondye, so most of the rituals appeal to them.
If believers provide the lwa with food and offerings, the spirits will act on their behalf. During worship, they possess vodouisants (worshipers) and interact with the living.
Lwa exist in Vilokan, a submerged island that’s also home to the dead. When they pass through during rituals, they may affect the living world.
Contemporary worshipers hold onto several different stories about the spirits. In rituals called veves, symbols drawn in cornmeal represent the lwa they want to attract. Sometimes, animal sacrifice serves as spiritual food for the lwa.
Why Is New Orleans Known for Voodoo?
While the religion began in Haiti, the French brought enslaved Africans to Louisana. Through the 18th century, their brutal rule kept voudouisants from gathering and practicing their beliefs. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 changed things for enslaved people in the territory.
Because of the many different ways people practiced, the religion took various forms. In New Orleans, believers focused on gris-gris (novelties), and Voodoo Queens like Marie Laveau made their living selling them. Unlike Christianity, the leaders were primarily women.
The rest of America was wrapped up in a puritanical wave They saw the traditions as satanic. New Orleans’ association with the religion meant outsiders believed the wild stories of Voodoo Queens. Stories of orgies, human sacrifice, and wild rituals were accepted without question.
Visitors saw things that didn’t exist elsewhere in America, and New Orleans’ reputation grew. Today, shops around the city sell gris-gris as souvenirs. Especially in the French Quarter, people feel the presence of voodoo as much as they see it.
Do People Practice Voodoo in Louisiana Today?
By the early 20th century, the public practice of voodoo had all but disappeared. An interest in folk stories by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sent interviewers to document the religion. But that interest only went so far. Arrests of hoodoo doctors increased, and authorities pushed the faith to the edges of society.
In 1990 the Voodoo Spiritual Temple opened in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which also includes santería. La Source Ancienne, another temple, opened in the Bywater neighborhood shortly after. And notable priestess Ava Kay Jones recently led a revival in the city.
Rather than continuing the traditions practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, current forms have a different flavor. While it’s more related to santería and contemporary Haitian voudou, voudouisants still worship the Bondye.
Best Places to Experience Voodoo in Louisiana
Primarily practiced in private, there are still places in New Orleans to experience real voodoo. Let’s look at the best places to learn about the religion’s historical and current traditions.
New Orleans Historic VooDoo Museum
In the heart of the French Quarter, the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum celebrates the religion in the city. You can find it between Bourbon Street and Royal. They have a fantastic collection of memorabilia from centuries of practice.
They also lead tours around the Quarter visiting essential locations in the history of the religion in the city. You’ll pass through Congo Square, Marie Laveau’s house, and other key places. You can also contact the museum, and they’ll put you in touch with folks for psychic readings and rituals.
If your interests are more academic in nature, the museum will also help with research. Doctoral students, filmmakers, documentarians, and writers use the museum as a source.
Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students, seniors, and military.
Voodoo Spiritual Temple
Founded in 1990 by Priestess Miriam Chimani and her husband, Priest Oswan Chimani. VST is the only temple in New Orleans to promote West African healing and herbal practices. With links to Africa and Russia, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple fosters an understanding of modern beliefs.
Priestess Miriam continues her mission by practicing bone readings, spiritual healings, weddings, and other rituals. Her method is rooted in Catholicism, voodoo, and hoodoo. She hand blends herbs and oils for sale on her website, and Priestess Miriam encourages visitors.
Hours are odd, but you can visit in person if you call the temple.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
The oldest cemetery in the city, St. Louis Cemetary No. 1, is in the heart of the French Quarter. It holds the remains of Marie Leveau. Open since the 18th century, the cemetery is a sight to behold. Above-ground tombs house the remains of thousands of New Orleanians.
The Dioceses of New Orleans administer the cemetery. Visitors must have a tour guide. You’ll appreciate the historical significance and architectural variety of the cemetery. And being up close and personal with Marie Laveau is a bonus.
Tours are available on Saturdays from 9:45 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.
Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo
Former home of Marie Laveau II in the French Quarter, this site is a favorite among tourists. This museum and store house many voodoo-related items, an altar, and souvenirs to document your time here.
In the back room, folks can participate in tarot readings and spiritual readings and pay for spells. And Marie Laveau II is still around. People say her spirit still haunts the place.
Open Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., make sure to stop in.
Island of Salvation Botanica
Sallie Ann Glassman opened the Island of Salvation Botanica to share the power of Haitian voodoo. As an initiated priestess, Glassman sells healing ingrediants, books, and other supplies in her shop. Half a mile from the French Quarter, the shop is part of the New Orleans Healing Center.
You can book readings and rituals with Priestess Glassman for $75 to $150. She’ll even perform one over the phone if a trip to New Orleans is too far.
Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., you can also order gris-gris online.
Experience the Complex History of the Pelican State
From the brutal sugar plantations of Haiti to the kitschy streets of the French Quarter, voodoo has come full circle. What gave enslaved Africans a sense of peace now offers tourists a whiff of the exotic.
But it isn’t all a tourist trap. Current practitioners ensure that the lwa are still worshipped in New Orleans. Now and forever, voodoo is part of the fabric of the city.
When you visit, take a moment and remember the cultures that helped make New Orleans unique. And tell Marie Laveau we said hello.
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