Voodoo in New Orleans & History of Louisiana Voodoo ~ A Glimpse into the History of Voodoo in New Orleans
Voodoo in New Orleans and the Roots of Louisiana Voodoo by Erzulie’s Voodoo in New Orleans. In honor of Erzulie’s flagship store in the French Quarter, we are proud bring you this introduction to Voodoo as it is practiced in New Orleans. Note the spelling of the word Voodoo in this section versus our articles on Haitian Vodou. This is to reflect the American influence on Voodoo in New Orleans.
This overview of New Orleans Voodoo is not intended to recount the vast history of New Orleans, such history would fill volumes. Instead, we wanted to provide an educational overview on with the roots, myths, magic, and legendary practitioners who influenced the distinct New Orleans Voodoo tradition, which is still practiced today. To learn more about the Vodou Religion, Vodou Beliefs and History of New Orleans Voodoo, browse our vast collection of educational Voodoo articles prepared by caring, initiated Vodou practitioners at Erzulie’s. Learn what a Psychic Reading and Spiritual Consultation with an initiated Voodoo practitioner can bring into your spiritual session with this helpful article on what those spiritual services can do for you. Alafia from all of us at Erzulie’s in New Orleans!
Voodoo curses, snake dancing, secret cults, and bayou rituals are all part of the mystique of the “City of the Dead.” Voodoo, as practiced in New Orleans, is derived from the same traditions as the Vodou practiced elsewhere, but also has its own distinct myths, magic and folklore.
Like much of New Orleans culture, New Orleans Voodoo is a blend. It is the result of African spiritual beliefs, handed down through oral tradition, mixing with virtually every other culture found in South Louisiana. Voodoo arrived in New Orleans through the West African slave trade during the 1700s.
As these native Africans came in contact with New World cultures, their beliefs and practices evolved, and you will find influences in New Orleans Voodoo from Native American mystical traditions and Catholicism, as well as French, Spanish, Creole, and American secular cultures.
Some of the differences between New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou can be attributed to the heavy influence in New Orleans by the Congo traditions. Congo practitioners often made fetishes with nails and tools, to depict the spirits or for use in magical rituals. Voodoo dolls and Gris-Gris bags are essentially smaller, more easily transported versions of these native Congo fetishes. So it is not only the Native American magic and the European religious influence which makes New Orleans Voodoo distinct, but the influence of the specific practices from the Congo region of Africa.
In New Orleans, the focus of Voodoo is more on conjure and the magical than on the orthodoxy of any one African traditional religion. New Orleans Voodoo practitioners help their people navigate the challenges of life, similar to the Manbo or Hougan of Haitian Vodou.
Spiritual “work” for the New Orleans Voodoo Practitioner consists of burning candles, herbal and root medicine, petitioning of spirits including Saints, Orisha, and Lwa, and making Voodoo dolls and Gris-Gris (talismans, fetishes, or charm bags).
New Orleans Voodoo is perhaps most famous for these Gris-Gris. However, like much in the Voodoo, the origin of the word gris-gris is commonly misunderstood. Gris-gris does not come from the French word gris for gray, as many claim. The common misunderstanding is that “gray-gray” describes magic that isn’t “black magic” or “white magic,” but is somehow in-between – in a “gray area,” morally speaking.
In the Voodoo, however, magic is magic. Believe it or not, this “French-sounding” word actually has African origins. Gris-gris stems from the Mandé tribe’s word greegree or grigri, which means “magician or fetish priest.” The etymology of gris-gris has nothing to do with the French word for the color gray. The similar sound is simply a coincidence which led to the common misunderstanding.
History of New Orleans Voodoo:
There is some dispute about the origins of New Orleans Voodoo, so in your quest for more information you will find conflicting views. Our research indicates that New Orleans has been deeply influenced by African traditions since the first slaves came to the French territory of Louisiana beginning in or around 1719. According to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, New Orleans slave culture, in contrast to the rest of the continent, was thoroughly Africanized. She writes about the reasons for the strong African influence:
“The chaotic conditions prevailing in the colony, the knowledge and skills of the African population, the size and importance of the Indian population throughout the eighteenth century, and the geography of lower Louisiana, which allowed for easy mobility along its waterways as well as escape and survival in the nearby, pervasive swamps, all contributed to an unusually cohesive and heavily Africanized culture in lower Louisiana: clearly, the most Africanized slave culture in the United States.”
It is clear that the religious practices of these Africans survived, in part, for the above reasons but also evolved differently as they encountered the spiritual traditions of the region. Whereas in Haiti the Revolution afforded that culture an opportunity to flourish relatively undisturbed, the slaves of North America never had this freedom to fully reconstruct their religious practices. The constant watch of government and Catholic Church officials made it more challenging for New Orleans Africans to hold onto their religious traditions, particularly after the Americans purchased the Territory of Louisiana in 1803. Hence, the organized and outward practice of the religions tended to fall by the wayside in favor of the “work,” which could be done individually and in private without arousing the suspicions of the authorities.
During the French colonial period, New Orleans was under both the Napoleonic Law and the “Code Noir” of 1724. In this devoutly Catholic city, these laws meant that slaves were prohibited from working on Sundays. Slaves were therefore allowed to “assemble” among themselves and go to market on Sunday but were forbidden generally to worship of outside the Catholic faith. City officials earmarked a parcel of land just outside of the French Quarter, in the “back of town,” to provide a gathering place for slaves, known as Place Congo, or Congo Square. Today, Congo Square is part of Louis Armstrong Park.
Ritual drumming, dancing, and music were all part of the festivities when the slaves gathered at Congo Square. These public displays of tribal activities drew many spectators, especially white on-lookers. While white society believed these gatherings were mainly performances, it is believed that Sundays at Congo Square were true Voodoo rituals in the minds and hearts of the participants. When more privacy was required, slaves also held gatherings in other parts of the city including Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain.
Shortly after the Americans took control of New Orleans, news of the Haitian Revolution of 1804 began to spread, sparking in New Orleans white society a panicked fear about slave uprisings. Adding to the hysteria were the tales of serpent worship, wild orgies, and barbaric, blood-thirsty rituals reported in the newspapers. As a result, Voodoo was further suppressed in 1811 when city officials banned slave gatherings, except in designated areas such as Congo Square. This allowed for close monitoring and control of the growing African population.
New Orleans Voodoo & Catholic Saints:
Despite the best efforts of city officials and plantation owners, slaves continued to practice Voodoo publicly and privately by syncretizing their African spirits to those of the Catholic Saints. In New Orleans it is quite common to see traditional Voodoo altars for the Lwa or Orisha decorated with Catholic
statuary and candles. Many people today have the erroneous perception that Voodoo is based upon Catholicism. This is incorrect. The African traditional religions pre-date Christianity by thousands of years. The slave trade forced Africans in New Orleans to incorporate Catholic traditions into their existing, and ancient, religious beliefs. (Insert crucifix image)
Some of the most well-known Vodou spirits were united with the Catholic Saints as follows:
- Danballah — St. Patrick
- Papa Legba — St. Peter or St. Anthony
- Erzulie-Freda — The Virgin Mary
- Ogoun — St. James, St. George or St. Michael
- Erzulie-Dantor — Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Czestochowa
- Bawon Samedi — St. Expedite
We have an entire section dedicated to Voodoo spirits and their Catholic counterparts in the Meet the Lwa section of our Vodou app on iTunes & Google Play. To learn more about Voodoo Spells, New Orleans Voodoo History and the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, click here to read more historical articles written by native, New Orleans Voodoo Practitioners at Erzulie’s Voodoo.
We truly hoped you enjoyed this primer on Voodoo in New Orleans and Louisiana Voodoo We invite you to learn more about Haitian Vodou, Vodou Rituals and Sacred Vodou Words by browsing more fascinating articles on the Vodou Religion in our Voodoo Articles archives by Erzulie’s Voodoo of New Orleans.