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Origins of Voodoo in New Orleans
Voodoo in New Orleans
Voodoo in New Orleans can trace its origins to ancient religions of Africa, although they migrated through the colonial outpost of Haiti. The religion today is thought to be a mixture of many preceding religions.
Some say it’s a pagan religion tinged with a mingling of Roman Catholic Christian beliefs because both venerate a supreme being and believe in the existence of the invisible and an afterlife. The cultural values of Voodoo center on honor and respect. Respect to God, the spirits, family and society. This popular religion currently has over 50 million followers worldwide.
Haitian Vodou, also written as Vodun, is most often rendered in English as Voodoo and originated in Haiti. The religion is a mixture of beliefs and practices of West Africans , mainly the Fon and Ewe. Vodou was created by African slaves brought to Haiti in the 16th century who still held their traditional African beliefs, but were forced to convert to their masters’ religion. Practitioners were commonly called Vodouisants.
The majority of Africans brought as slaves to Haiti were native to Western and Central Africa. Practitioners enslaved in the United States primarily descend from the Ewe, Anlo-Ewe, and other West African groups. Although some of their traditions have changed over time, some have even taken on a form of Catholic worship. Two important factors, however, differentiate the uniqueness of Haitian Vodou compared to African Vodun. The Africans of Haiti, comparable to those of Cuba and Brazil, were forced to disguise their “Loa,” or spirits, as Catholic saints.
Roman Catholicism was integrated in order to hide the pagan aspects of their religion from their masters, who had forbidden them to practice it. As a result Haitian Vodou is intertwined with several West African religions and Amerindian influences while remaining essentially non-Christian.
The slave trade undeniably ties New Orleans to Haiti. Voodoo intermingled with other cultures there. It was the controversial Christopher Columbus who first tried colonizing the new world. He began with the island of Hispaniola "Little Spain," located in the Caribbean. Hispaniola is the native land of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Columbus’s attempts to enslave the populace failed. So instead, he began a slave trade between central Africa and the region in 1517.
By 1697, the French had begun to colonize portions of the island. As always, profit was the motivating factor. They planned to build a plantation economy, based on growing and exporting sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo. Conditions for slaves on plantations were cruel, harsh and brutal. As a result, the slave population grew disproportionately. With numerous peoples and religions from various parts of Africa being thrown together it was inevitable for their cultures not to be a melting pot. Thus, the institution of slavery created a strong bond of unity between these peoples. The practice of their religions became the key to their survival.
Invariably, the enslaved peoples of Haiti blended facets of various religions. The slave population found strength not only in their own religion, but also those of Africa. Voodoo additionally became entwined with the Roman Catholic faith of their French colonizers. African deities were worshiped alongside Catholic saints. Voodoo practitioners also blended strains of various other religions and folk medicine.
At the time, there were strong ties between the Caribbean islands and Louisiana. New Orleans was therefore fated to play an important role in Voodoo religion. When African slaves arrived there over 200 years ago, they brought their religion with them.
In 1799, a slave uprising in Haiti brought the Voodoo religion to New Orleans. These people believed they would be able to worship freely. The first Voodoo Queen in New Orleans was Sanite' DeDe. She would later become a mentor to the city’s most famous Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. Laveau, a devout Catholic, held rituals in the city's French Quarter. Anyone who had a problem in love or in fear of their enemies would consult her for help.
Voodoo with its’ pagan rites and catholic practices has long stood in bad repute. In Brazil and Cuba, voodoo thrived under the names of candomble - macymba - chango - santeria or naniguismo. Variations are also practiced in Trinidad and Jamaica in addition to New Orleans, where black and white magic is still referred to as Hoodoo.
In comparison to evil magic being practiced elsewhere, it paled beside Voodoo. Back in 1944, when author Robert Tallant wrote about Voodoo in New Orleans, it was not uncommon for crosses of death, tiny coffins, mysterious potions or voodoo dolls to be found at dawn on doorsteps of New Orleanean residents. Perhaps, there would be a black candle or a black crepe wreath. It was an era of superstition and fear. Residents often sought protection from Voodoo curses.
A common practice was to scrub the front stoop of a house with brick dust for protection from evil curses. Many purchased Gris-Gris bags as good luck charms and would wear them or place them in the home. In a 1924 newspaper article, doctors at Charity hospital told of patients wearing these bags and refusing to part with them. Gris-Gras bags were usually made of a variety of herbs or animal parts. The most powerful animal to use in Voodoo was the cat…particularly a black one.
In practice, the Voodoo Doll is an important tool representing the spirit of a specific person. Practitioners speak directly to the doll as if communicating directly to them. Instructions can be given to change attitudes or behaviors. They are used primarily to obtain positive reactions, however they can also be used to inflict acts of revenge. If the wish is to invite the love of another, stick a pin into the heart of the doll. Additionally, practitioners can request the voodoo doll to call upon powerful forces known as Loa.
Also connected to Voodoo rituals and worship, is dancing. Beating drums become symbols of voodoo. The drummer, being at the heart of every ceremony, play music throughout the night with frenzied passion. Voodoo worshipers consider a drum the vessel of a deity. Drums are worshipped and the beat controls movements of worshipping dancers. They are also utilized in invoking numerous Voodoo gods since dancing is a ritualistic act.
Many incidents throughout New Orleans’ history considered as Voodoo crimes, according to police reports, were not actually crimes, but merely belief a curse had been had been perpetuated.
On the other hand, Voodoo was the reason behind many actual crimes. For example, on November 2, 1950, neighbors called police to an apartment building where they had heard screaming children. When the police arrived, they found Rosita Zerruda in a crazed frenzy, frantically trying to burn the building down by dousing it with kerosene. Fortunately, she was apprehended before igniting it. The woman had deep self inflicted gashes on her arms. The officers tracked a trail of fresh blood to a bedroom where her four children lay in pools of blood with gashes down their forearms. The children were rushed to Charity hospital and treated for their injuries. They were eventually released into the custody of a relative.
When questioned, Mrs. Zerruda hysterically explained her neighbor had cursed her.Zerrudas claimed it happened while being hypnotized. She informed police upon awakening that morning she found blood smeared on her doorstep, along with a black wreath. Police were unable to obtain any other information out of Mrs. Zerruda because her body began to twitch and her pulse weakened. The police watched terrified as doctors attempted to treat her for shock. Mrs. Zerruda slipped into a coma. Never awakening she remained a vegetable and was committed to a mental ward.
Endless stories of Voodoo murders have also been a part of the city’s history. In October of 1951, near the New Orleans lakefront, a woman shot and wounded her husband for burning salt and incense on their front door. Fearing her husband was putting a hex on her she tried to kill him. Fortunately, police stopped her before she could pull the trigger and commit suicide. She was committed to the Charity Hospital's Mental Ward.
It’s virtually impossible to grow up in New Orleans without encountering Voodoo practice. In the case of Charles Massicot Gandolfo, the museum’s founder, this was proven by tales his grandmother related about her great-grandfather being raised in New Orleans by a Voodoo Queen. An artist, with an obsession for history of New Orleans, he created the Voodoo Museum to share this fascination.
The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum has been hailed as one of the most unique, and interesting, small museums in the country. It tantalizingly reveals the mysteries, secrets, folklore and history of rituals, zombies, gris-gris and Voodoo Queens by putting it all in one place in the heart of the New Orleans’ French Quarter. The museum preserves New Orleans’ legacy of Voodoo history and culture. The Voodoo Museum has been a fixture in New Orleans since 1972.