When the New Orleans Saints organization sought a name for its arena football team in 2002, an online poll of residents came up with “New Orleans VooDoo.” The choice isn’t surprising; Voodoo, a religion brought to the city by African slaves hundreds of years ago, has so permeated the city that references to it have become a part of life.
Some New Orleanians practice the religion regularly, attending festivals, performing rituals and calling upon the spirits to guide them. For many others, though, voodoo exists on the fringes – they may be faithful Catholics, Protestants or Jews, but they think nothing of wearing Voodoo charms, talking about a “gris-gris” or visiting the tomb of Marie Laveau.
Brandi Kelley, owner of the Voodoo Authentica Cultural Center and Collection on Dumaine Street and an initiated Voodoo practitioner, says Voodoo has a connection to New Orleans that’s both spiritual and commercial. When people use the word Voodoo to name a boat, a restaurant or a sports team, she says, they’re counting on that connection to call up a certain picture in the mind of the consumer: exotic, exciting, spicy, unique to Louisiana. It wouldn’t make much sense to have a team called the Ohio VooDoo, she says.
Similarly, the name of the Voodoo Music Experience, scheduled this year for Halloween weekend at City Park, plays off the connection Voodoo has to New Orleans music. Generations ago, slaves played their music in Congo Square, says producer Stephen Rehage.
The Voodoo influence shows up in New Orleans music in all kinds of ways, says George Ingmire, a disk jockey at WWOZ. The drum rhythms, the Caribbean beat, the spiritualist influence, even early rock’n’roll owe a debt to Voodoo, he says. Today, drumming, singing and dancing remain a prominent part of Voodoo rituals, Ingmire says. Musician Mac Rebennack has gained worldwide fame in his adopted persona of Dr. John, complete with Voodoo charms. He and many others have covered the hit by Papa Celestin, “Marie Laveau,” known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
The word “Voodoo” and other terms related to the belief are so commonly used in New Orleans that it’s easy to get confused about what’s real and what’s folklore. Songs like “Love Potion No. 9” and movies like Angel Heart, Skeleton Key and The Serpent and the Rainbow have led most people to believe that Voodoo entails evil spells, cackling witch queens, zombies and lots and lots of blood.
“It’s all just nonsense,” says Vodou Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, owner of Island of Salvation Botanica. In fact, Glassman says people who come to her Voodoo ceremonies may go away disappointed in how different they are from the popular vision.
To make matters more complicated, aspects of Voodoo and Catholicism have become intertwined. Slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism and forbidden the practice of Voodoo, says Dr. John, a Voodoo priest with his own temple in the French Quarter. So in many cases they combined the two. For example, Christians for centuries have celebrated St. John’s Eve (June 23), the day before the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Voodoo, too, marks this holiday as a celebration of the growing season, Dr. John says. At local temples, in private homes and at Bayou St. John, New Orleanians gather to celebrate with singing, dancing and food.
And most locals are familiar with the legend of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a title given to the Virgin Mary when she protected the city of New Orleans against fire and battle. During hurricane season, Catholics frequently pray to Our Lady of Prompt Succor to spare the city. A Voodoo counterpart of sorts is Erzulie Danto, sometimes referred to as the black virgin. Anthropology professor Martha Ward says Danto is seen as “a fierce woman who protects” by many voodoo believers in the Caribbean.
In New Orleans, Glassman and others perform voodoo ceremonies to Erzulie Danto during hurricane season, seeking to ward off hurricanes. Glassman says many Voodoo celebrations and rituals have their roots in common problems. Life for slaves wasn’t easy, she points out, and Voodoo would have to offer practical help to be meaningful.
What about those Voodoo dolls sold all over the French Quarter – are they an authentic part of Voodoo rituals? Yes and now, Kelley says. Voodoo practitioners may put a pin in a part of a doll to concentrate the energy onto that part of the body – to heal a sore leg, for example. It is not part of real Voodoo to use the doll and pins to cause harm to others, she says. “The effigy represents reality.”
Similarly, souvenir gris-gris bags are sold in many shops, advertised as powerful charms to attract love, good health or money. According to Dr. John, gris-gris comes from the French word gris, which means gray. It is a small bag containing herbs and other elements, and its power is “95 percent good, 5 percent bad” because the bad makes one recognize the good in life. The bags can be custom-made to fit an individual’s circumstances.
Kelley believes that today people are more interested in learning the truth behind many of Voodoo’s legends. When the movie Angel Heart was re-released on DVD a few years ago, for example, she appeared in the special features talking about Voodoo. When Skeleton Key was filmed, star of the film, actress Kate Hudson, visited Voodoo Authentica to ask questions about Voodoo, and the DVD release of the movie included a special feature that explained the facts behind some of the rituals that were sensationalized in the film.
Kelley invites those who want to learn more about Voodoo to attend Voodoo Authentica’s free Halloween festival. The daylong event begins at noon in the 600 block of Dumaine Street and includes food, music by artists like Coco Robicheaux and SunPie Barnes, and instruction about voodoo’s many contributions to local culture. It culminates in a 7 p.m. ancestral healing ceremony.