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New Orleans Voodoo: Continuing to Capture American Imaginations

by Joshua Hennen

NEW ORLEANS Louisiana—Voodoo. The word conjures images of little dolls stuck with pins and magic potions. Being a genuine form of belief by many it has also become embedded in the American popular culture. But what is the truth behind this distinctly American religion as it stands today? To answer this and other questions I decided to go to the “Crescent City” of New Orleans, the center of Voodoo culture, to investigate this topic firsthand. But first, some background information may be helpful.

The Roots of Modern Voodoo

Over one hundred and thirty years have elapsed since Marie Laveau, a famed Voodoo Priestess of New Orleans passed away. She left behind a tourist industry that continues to thrive to this day.

A remarkable and astute businesswoman more than anything else, she made herself and her daughter quite powerful by convincing a mainly white clientele of her magical abilities. Of course, there were some that took her powers quite seriously, but it was undoubtedly her position as a hairdresser to many prominent families in New Orleans that was the key to her success. It was there that she learned the gossip and goings-on of the locals that was then used to great effect. Laveau supposedly complemented her knowledge with a network of informants that kept her abreast of any information that might be useful to the practice of her magical arts. In a few words, she knew her clientele.

Laveau, Voodoo, and her Legacy

Being of mixed descent, Laveau was born “a free woman of color,” a common expression at the time. She was also Creole, which meant that she had European heritage as well. This may have helped her as she gained recognition as a powerful woman of “Voodoo magic” amongst the various racial and national groups that lived in New Orleans and elsewhere. So much of her life was shrouded in mystery that this fact alone proved to be incredible fodder for fertile American imaginations.

Most of all, Laveau captured the imaginations of many, transcending racial barriers while bringing out of the shadows a slave’s religion. In the process, she also uncovered the seemingly insatiable American appetite for the mysterious customs and culture of a people originally brought to the New World to be used as no more than unwilling laborers and farmhands.

Voodoo, as practiced in Louisiana, was and is a fusion religion of West African Vodun and French Catholicism as a result of the African slave trade. It lays heavy emphasis upon Gris-gris (a small cloth bag worn upon the person that contains herbs, personal effects, etc… to bring good luck), the snake god Li Grand Zombi, and voodoo dolls.

“Voodoo” in New Orleans Today

A prominent part of the religious traditions of New Orleans continues to be a unique blend of Christianity, African, and Haitian folk beliefs (see February 2010 issue of Hennen’s Observer; the lead story “Black Church Fuses Christianity, African Folk Traditions with Spiritism” at hennensobserver.com).

But Voodoo has also been effectively promoted by local businesses in the French Quarter to the hordes of American and international tourists that go there annually. Shop after shop are filled with Marie Laveau memorabilia, voodoo dolls, and other magical items.

Of course, one can easily find the typical palm and tarot card readers there, just as he could anywhere else. But there is still one genuine Voodoo temple that still operates in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Voo Doo Spiritual Temple & Cultural Center.

The Tools of the Trade

Located on Rampart Street, the Voo Doo Spiritual Temple is little more than an old yellow duplex house facing the street with two doors and two windows, but only one of those doors was used as an entrance.

Walking under the small triangular sign that gave the name of the establishment that hung on the porch, I entered the Temple. As a matter of fact, that entrance only led to a small gift shop.

The room itself was long and narrow, being only one side of the duplex in any event. It was positively crammed with Gris-gris of all sorts, herbs, spices, voodoo dolls, books, idols, soaps, incense, candles, and anything else that could be used in the rituals of any number of fusion religions.

For the inexperienced, there were notes on the shelves as to the purposes behind the use of each of the objects. Certain colored candles brought different things or desires into the offerer’s life, whether they be purity, faith, money, or anything else.

I perused the shop. It was an old and well worn room that was suffused with the smell of cinnamon and undetermined spices. Some items had been placed in an organized fashion long ago, while others were set wherever space could be found.

It was very interesting to learn, through the accretion of so much paraphernalia, that practitioners of folk religions blend so many different traditions that one could probably spend a lifetime trying to learn  them all.

Each worshipper, I surmised, tailored his religious creed and practices to his personal needs. It was so ancient and tribal seeming to me. But at the same time it was thoroughly modern. I thought to myself, has not our postindustrial and consumer lifestyle encouraged the personalized fusing of incompatible religious and philosophical values? I had the sudden image in my mind of Catholic and Protestant women meditating in a Yoga class.

Scheduling a “Reading”

At the back of the gift shop behind a glass case and cash register sat a small,  gray-haired, Caucasian woman dressed in eclectic clothes and jewelry. She was being warmed by a space heater at her feet as it was blisteringly cold that February day. Every visitor to that place brought an Arctic blast when the door opened.

“How much for an African bone reading?” I asked her after winding my way there. I had already called ahead and knew how much it cost.
“$75.00,” she answered indifferently.
“That’s a lot. They’re only charging $35.00 for Tarot card readings around the corner.”
“Well, no one does a ‘bone reading.’ People come from all over the world to consult Priestess Miriam.”
While I doubted her last statement, she wouldn’t budge on the price. So I relented and scheduled an appointment for the following day. In the course of our conversation (that she didn’t seem keen on having), she told me that Priestess Miriam’s husband, Priest Oswan Chamani, had passed away some years ago. It was then that the indifferent cashier became involved with the Temple’s operations. She was the Priestess’ handler and marketer.

Priestess Miriam

On my arrival the next day, I swept into the same shop and saw at the back of the room an older African-American woman standing on the customer side of the glass case. Her assistant was, predictably, toasting comfortably at the space heater.

Walking straight to where they were and bringing the frigid outside air with me, I could tell from their demeanor that there was some apprehension about whether or not I would even arrive for the reading. It’s quite possible that her clients were mainly women and older ones at that, since a clientele tends to mirror the professional (at least demographically). This fact highlights the amazing personality of the original Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, whose following was unique.

Introducing myself, Priestess Miriam sized me up as I did her. She had closely cropped hair, wore plenty of jewelry, a dress of various colors, and a long sleeve top—nothing out of the ordinary for a woman of a religious station. As to what she thought of me; I didn’t ask.

First Impressions

After exchanging pleasantries, I started our religious and philosophical dialogue by asking a question. “I attended a service at a Christian spiritual church yesterday and noticed many of the African folk elements that were part of the service, like lighting candles of different colors after giving a donation of seven dollars. (See previously mentioned article in the February, 2010 Issue of Hennen’s Observer.) What is the significance of seven dollars?”

Whether is was that she did not wish to betray her ignorance or because she was amused by the thought of a nominally Christian church soliciting donations to light candles, she didn’t directly answer my question but flashed a contented grin.

She then gave a long and wandering answer about why people seek different things in their lives. Like a sage that speaks in airy terms without introducing the logic, she skipped from thought to thought, stressing the need to be centered spiritually, to recognize the need to connect with the universal life force, and to stop searching for fixes.

For the rest of my time with the Priestess, she spoke with the same self-assuredness and indirectness. Simple answers to questions were never given, but sometimes cryptic advice was offered. But the counsel given was as sound as it comes.

The Temple

Soon I was ushered by my spiritual guide through a doorway at the very back of the shop, down a hallway, and to the building’s back door. Exiting, we then entered the back door of the second half of the duplex (the front door of which was blocked off, as I recalled) and finally, into the temple area.

The sanctuary, like the shop, was long and narrow. It was cave-like with so many idols, candles, and objects having accumulated like stalagmites on the floor and along the walls.  Innumerable shelves and their contents crowded every bit of wall space and the windows were either blocked or shrouded. It definitely had the feel of a darkened cave.

And yet the contents of the temple showed the distinct nature of Voodoo in practice. Some areas had been fashioned into shrines to the Virgin Mary, while others to exotic African or Haitian gods. These artifacts coexisted easily and without any second thought on the part of the worshippers of the potential conflict amongst the religious beliefs.

Inspecting the temple’s permanent residents showed that untold numbers of visitors had been there before me. Those desiring to achieve certain outcomes in their lives or just good luck, had left offerings to the idols and presumably, the gods they represent.

Some of the articles dedicated were jewelry, coins, insignificant items of probable sentimental value, and incense. But mostly it was rolled paper money of different denominations. Anywhere and in any place that could be found these things were placed around the idols to let the gods know that the supplicants meant to back up their prayers with earthly things.

Reading Bones

It was now time to have my fortunes told. Priestess Miriam took me to the back of the temple where two brightly colored and carved high back chairs sat facing each other with a low table in between. It was all that I could do to sit in my chair and not stumble into something in such a densely packed area.

“How has your stay in New Orleans been?” she asked, not yet seated.
“I’ve had fun exploring the city.”
“Exploring or exploiting?” Her tone was playful but understandable when one considers the revelry for which New Orleans is known.
“Oh, exploring … I try not to exploit,” I answered with a chuckle. In between her spiritual musings the Priestess was lively and friendly. She pressed the point further.
“You don’t exploit?” Her question seems innocent when read, but her tone and the flow of the conversation was to lead the participant to question the surface of things.
“Well, if by explore you mean exploit … I guess,” was my answer. “To some people maybe they’re one and the same,” I continued. I ended with another chuckle.

I observed, laid on the table in front of me, an overly large and heavily used mat of green material with a painted red wheel and signs of the zodiac inside of it. The wheel was divided by yellow and red lines that emanated from a center point like spokes on a bicycle rim. It resembled a sliced  pie, with each piece having astrological signs.

She settled into her seat and quietly removed a set of what appeared to be chicken bones and various sized pebbles from a small wooden box shaped like a coffin. I judged from the bone’s dark, fossil-like appearance that they had had many years of use.

Holding them all in one hand, she took a bottle with a small nozzle on top and sprinkled some sort of ointment on the mat. Afterwards, she slowly rolled the bones and pebbles between her two outstretched hands for probably five or six minutes.

While doing this, she returned to my earlier question of the spiritual church and indicated to me (or at least as I interpreted it) that some people lack spiritual well-being and thus allow others to take advantage of them:

"There are a lot of things in life that I can see over the thousands and thousands of years, where people are drawn to certain theories of dialogue that may be enchanting to the soul but upon their enemies …. Oh no!  And they (the people, ed.) continue to enchant other people’s lines into them because they don’t have the ability to arrive at another station to feel well with themselves. They always leave some station set aside to always want to feel well. And there [is why, ed] you have wedding chapels along the road or you just go to Vegas."

Ending that gem of wisdom with a  laugh at the thought of men and women rushing into marriages to feel better about themselves, she returned to rolling the pebbles and bones.

Shortly Priestess Miriam grew more remote, lowered her head, and leaned forward over the green mat. Clutching the items and making circular motions with her left hand over the table and mat, she made it appear as though she were channeling some energy.

Many times she circled with her hand in a clockwise motion and a few times she stopped abruptly and then began rotating counterclockwise. The silence and her focus gave the distinct impression that she was being driven by a mystic force.

Finally she dropped the bones and pebbles on the mat with a thud and they, predictably, landed wherever they may. The following three or four minutes were spent scrutinizing the placement of the pieces.

Breaking the silence, she said, “I see you haven’t been married.”
“I’ve been married once.”
“And you’re divorced?”
“Yes.”
“And you’re thinking about getting married again?”
“At some future time.”
“Not right now?”
“Not specifically.”

There followed a brief pause as she contemplated. My thought at the time was that because I was a young man, she had concluded that marriage was in my near future. She continued:

“So according to your experiences, there are some things that you need to finalize legally, be they documents or a settlement.”
“That was just done.” I had decided to play along and besides, four month previous I had finalized my divorce.
“And you’re looking at moving forward and to different places ... or does traveling toward the Northwest make sense?”
“I could potentially be … though I hadn’t anticipated the Northwest. But traveling is more and more in my future.”
“And according to your work and the opportunities that are before you.…” She  stopped for a moment then asked,  “Are you dealing with a government situation?”
“I don’t think so.” At that point I was straining to make sense of the questions and even searching for some situation in my life that would fulfill her prognosticating.
“Because according to some decisions or program, things are going to connect with you at the end of this month [January, ed.] into February, and from February to June. Or if it were things that you were looking at from August of last year, these will take shape over the month of February and you will see how well they come together according to how things look when you finalize this legal situation. Is that where you are.”
“Um, well, maybe it was in August I started a literary publication. Um, where I publish short stories and poetry. And my first issue, or actually the third, was distributed in a different way in January.”
“Of this year?”
“Of this year. And right now I’m thinking about how to make it work financially and so I’m putting some ideas together.”
“So there is more to gather and if you want to travel to the northwest direction, for any meeting with peoples [sic] or to promote it, would it take one to the Northwest from where you are?”
“Now when you say northwest, do you mean the Northwest or the northwest direction?”
“Northwest direction. It’s all based on how things fall into place with your theories or what place you’ll be able to demonstrate your ideas the best.”

Conclusion

There was much more that we discussed in my “reading,” but the foregoing illustrated the experience nicely. To anybody that has been to a fortune teller, this dialogue is a fairly common occurrence. Priestess Miriam’s questions started out being very vague and broad, but as more information was shared with her, she became more specific. And yet the answers given were still sufficiently broad to warrant multiple interpretations.

The real value of this experience is not “learning the future” or seeing if someone is right or wrong when it come to predicting, but the experience itself. Priestess Miriam and others like her offer an interesting diversion for some and a true means of spiritual enlightenment for others.

Voodoo and other religions that are community and nature-based promote a sense of interconnectedness and universality that is needed in our world of rugged individualism. It does this while offering each participant the dignity to choose for himself how, when, and whom to worship.

Postmortem

So you may be wondering, did I ever have to travel in a northwest direction after decisions that were made in February or June? Well, it appears that at the time of this writing, that it is highly likely that I will be. But more on that later.

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Absolutely fascinating.

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