After slaves started a massive revolt in 1791 on the island of St. Domingue, where present-day Haiti is, the assortment of beliefs and practices brought over from different parts of Western Africa coalesced into New Orleans voodoo. Both white and black residents of St. Domingue, also colonized by the French, fled to New Orleans which was attractive to them for its similar French heritage. Residents of St. Domingue already followed developed voodoo practices (in fact, an intense, well-attended voodoo ceremony inspired the slave revolt), and the refugees brought these traditions with them.
The word “voodoo” is derived from the African word voudun, which means “deity” in Yoruba or “insight” in Fon (Bodin 1990).
Are you familiar with New Orleans knows the legend of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau? While Laveau’s own legacy is formidable, she was part of a much larger practice of spiritual folkways with roots that can be traced back to ancestral tribal rituals of the West Africans, predominantly the Fon people of Benin, who came to these shores via the slave trade.(1) The sheer number of enslaved Fon, who were also brought to the French Caribbean colonies, assured that many of their West African traditions survived the journey to the Americas.
One reason for the continued strength of West African tradition in Louisiana has to do with the predominance of French and Catholic influences on the slaveholders there. While in more northern regions of the American South where slavery was practiced it was common to mingle slaves from many places of origin, and also to break up families and sell off members to far-flung plantations, in Louisiana, slave families stood a much better chance of remaining at least somewhat intact, thus preserving their cultural practices. Another aspect of West African culture that heavily influenced the longevity and power of Louisiana Voodoo was the veneration of both elders and ancestors. A rich tradition of oral history ensured that voodoo practices were passed down from generation to generation.
The Gris-Gris Melting Pot
Voodoo as we know it today evolved as the slaves intermingled with French, Spanish, and Creole peoples of Louisiana. As the cultures merged in what has been called the “creolization” of the region, traditions from all of these cultures were incorporated into Louisiana Voodoo.(2) The practice of making and wearing charms and amulets for protection and healing–or with the purpose of causing harm to one’s enemies–merged tribal folk medicines with aspects of the Catholic church, such as the ceremonial use of holy water, candles, incense, and even crucifixes.
At the onset of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1894), New Orleans was flooded with escaped slaves, Creoles and “petit blancs” (whites of the merchant class) fleeing the conflict.(3) By 1809, the influx of refugees nearly doubled the city’s population, which served to strengthen Voodoo traditions even further.
Voodoo queens and kings, such as Marie Laveau and Doctor John (a.k.a. Bayou John or Prince John) held great sway over not only their own communities, but the entire citizenry of New Orleans. Women of African and Creole descent became some of the most dynamic influencers of their time. Their powers were both revered and feared in every strata of New Orleans society, from the poorest slaves to the wealthiest landowners and merchants.
The Tradition Continues
The ritual ceremonies of the Voodoo queens could draw crowds that numbered in the thousands. The most famous rite, which transpires each year on St. John’s Eve, enjoys continued popularity even now, and is considered the most important holy day in the Voodoo calendar.
June 23 is the eve of celebration before to the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist, who was said to have been born sixth months before Jesus, has a feast day that is one of only a few to commemorate the birth, rather than the death, of the saint being honored. The date also closely coincides with the June solstice, or Midsummer’s Eve, and as with Christmas Eve, is more closely tied in date to the pagan rather than the Christian calendar.
Ritual Voodoo baptisms have been performed annually on the banks of Bayou St. John on this night ever since Marie Laveau’s time, and each year on the Island of Salvation Botanica, a St. John’s Eve Head-Washing Ceremony is held in her honor. During the “lave tète,” participants clothed in white attire and wearing white headscarves are “baptized” in the Voodoo faith. They are also asked to bring baptismal offerings to honor Marie that are thought to ensure the promise of a healthy and prosperous year to come, and can range from anything from food to hair ornaments to flowers, candles, rosaries, and gris-gris bags.
Another Louisiana tradition that happens at this time of year is the making of “St. John the Baptist Water.” Custom holds that on the day of the feast, June 24, believers should fill a bottle with river water while reciting the Lord’s prayer (New Orleans natives swear by water from Bayou St. John), which is said to have the power to keep undesirable parties from crossing your threshold.
For the charm to work, the bottle must be laid on its side with the top pointing toward the front door. When unwanted visitors–like the law, your landlord or your nasty ex–show up, you’re to call aloud on the spirits of St. John and Marie Laveau to intercede on your behalf. As you make the incantation, you must roll the bottle with your foot in the direction of the door. Once your unbidden guests depart, roll it back to where it was (again using your foot). This bottle is said to hold its potency for an entire year, and need only be replenished at the following Saint John’s Eve feast day.
Voodoo has been working its magic for hundreds of years. Although it may have fallen out of favor for some adherents with the advent of the 20th Century, like a living thing, the faith continued to evolve and adapt to the changing cultural zeitgeist of the Deep South. Many of Voodoo’s traditions have resurfaced and regained popularity, once again finding an honored and special place in the spiritual fabric of Louisiana.