Maybe what we all need these days is a big dose of Voodoo. If so, this Tuesday, June 23, is St. John’s Eve. That’s a high holy day in the Voodoo world.
New Orleans, as far as I know, is the only city in the continent that has an active, non-touristy voodoo scene.
Voodoo, which is a new world blend of West African slave traditions and Roman Catholicism, developed primarily in Haiti with influences on nearby islands such as Jamaica. Known in Haiti as “Vodou” the religion was a cultural curiosity that came with the early 19th century Haitian migration into New Orleans.
Most intriguing among Voodoo observers was Marie Laveau (1801-1881), a practitioner, healer and herbalist. There are so many legends about her and her family one would need the guiding hand of the spirits to sort through them. What is certain though is that a spot in St. Louis Cemetery #1 has been known as her burial location. For many years intruders would paint a circled X on the tomb, supposedly as a sign of a favor granted. Now the grave is blocked and accessible only with a guide. Even Marie Laveau needed protection.
These days the local leader is Sallie Ann Glassman, a no-nonsense student of the religion who studied in Haiti where she was ordained. Glassman, who jokes about being a Jew from Maine Vodou priestess, was a founder of the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue, a multi activity art and health product center. She also owns Island of Salvation Botanica, a sort of voodootique for getting religious items, herbs and supplies.
Her group, La Source Ancienne Hounfo, stages an event each June 23 (St. John’s Eve) along Bayou St. John near the bridge. Just look for Voodooers dressed in white. A local float builder, Ricardo Pustanio, has added a life-sized papier mâché sculpture of Laveau to the spectacle. There are drummers (set six feet apart), chants, prayers and this year, something new – social distancing.
Those who attend are urged to wear white with a white scarf or cloth on the head. They are also asked to bring an offering of flowers or fruit in honor of Laveau.
Back in Voodoo’s early days Bayou St. John was the site of many of its ceremonies. Originally known as Bayou Choupique, the French called it St. John (technically St. Jean) after a fort they built at the lake-end of the waterway.
There is a fascination in French culture with John the Baptist, whose Feast Day is June 24, but which by tradition is celebrated the day before, June 23. That the local Voodoo celebration happens along a bayou named after John just adds to the mystique. (June 24 is also six months before Christmas Eve.)
Several years ago, I was at the ceremony when I noticed an object in the air coming down the path of the bayou and then stopping to hover over it. Then it made circles; hovered again and flew away. Given the context of the moment the sight could have been the holy spirit at play. Turns out this was in the early days of drones. A film crew operating from a van down the bayou was recording the event.
Once more the chants of Voodoo were being heard in high places.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.