This week’s entry: Voodoo
What it’s about: Louisiana was unique among America’s slave states in the early 1700s, as nearly all of the enslaved Africans entering the territory were captured from the same region along the coast of West Africa. The French also had a law that prevented slave owners from breaking up families. The resulting combination of stability and cultural similarity meant the black population in Louisiana, and New Orleans and particular, had a vibrant culture even under slavery. Central to that culture was Voodoo, adopted from the West African religion Vodun. Like so much of New Orleans culture, Voodoo absorbed elements from other cultures and faiths to become something new.
Strangest fact: The elements of Voodoo best known to outsiders are, perhaps inevitably, not actually part of Voodoo. When tourists began to flock to New Orleans in the 1930s, most Voodoo practice went underground and its rituals became secretive. At the same time, souvenir shops began selling fake potions and gris-gris (amulets) to tourists. Hollywood helped spread lasting misconceptions about Voodoo with the 1932 horror film White Zombie. Among other things, the Bela Lugosi vehicle planted the idea that Voodoo involved sticking pins into dolls to curse people, a belief that stuck in the public consciousness and stayed there at least through the original run of Scooby-Doo. In fact, Voodoo dolls are used to bless people, and pins are stuck in them to attach a name or a picture of the person who is to be blessed with money, luck, or love.
Biggest controversy: Partly to broaden its appeal, and partly as a survival strategy, Voodoo incorporated some Catholic practices. In the 1830s, Marie Laveau became Voodoo Queen, a ceremonial leader of the faith, and as she was also a practicing Catholic, she encouraged her Voodoo followers to attend Mass, partly to avoid persecution. There is protracted debate on the talk page disputing the idea that Catholicism doesn’t object to its adherents also following Voodoo. In fact, official Church teachings call belief in the supernatural “contrary to the virtue of religion.” Nevertheless, many Voodoo spirits have been closely associated with Catholic saints, including Saint Expedite, and Laveau herself—numerous followers leave an offering to the saint before visiting the tomb of the Voodoo Queen, and the Louisiana Voodoo Wikipedia page claims her grave has more visitors than that of Elvis Presley.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Like most aspects of New Orleans culture, Louisiana Voodoo has drawn on and incorporated sources from every group of people to land in the Crescent City. Haiti has a separate but related Vodou tradition, and many practitioners and their beliefs came to New Orleans following the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 19th century. Besides Haitian Vodou and Catholicism, Louisiana Voodoo has also come to incorporate various Native American beliefs and hoodoo herbalism.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Despite its long cultural tradition, Voodoo may not actually exist. While New Orleans houses museums cataloging Voodoo’s history, there are also serious claims that Voodoo doesn’t actually endure as a legitimate faith. The talk page describes the efforts of author Zora Neale Hurston, who explored the history of Voodoo in New Orleans in the 1930s. She claimed she found many practitioners of hoodoo—a folk spirituality that began in the Mississippi Delta region and spread throughout the South—but no record of Voodoo being practiced anywhere. Those claiming that Voodoo’s history is not legitimate say that “New Orleans Voodoo” was created in the 1970s to appeal to tourists, and never existed as a legitimate tradition.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Voodoo’s entire history revolves around Louisiana, but the state’s single biggest moment in most history books is the Battle Of New Orleans, in which future U.S. president Andrew Jackson led American troops to the only decisive victory in the War Of 1812, only to find that a treaty had already been signed. Jackson had unlikely help from Jean Lafitte, a pirate who claimed he was born in France but may have actually been born in Haiti. Either way, he grew up to become a smuggler based out of Barataria Bay in Louisiana, and would often steal ships’ cargo or even the ships themselves. Although he spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law, Lafitte, fearing an invasion of Barataria by the British Navy, picked what he believed would be the winning side, supplying Jackson with smuggled weapons and naval support from an unlikely source. A plaque to Lafitte’s memory in New Orleans claims that, instead of facing a poorly equipped and undermanned American army, British troops sailed into “a maelstrom of pirates” en route to a sound defeat.
Further down the wormhole: While Louisiana Voodoo has had to live down the pin-filled voodoo doll, the faith’s Haitian branch has had to contend with an even more negative association: the zombie. While zombies are not officially part of Haitian Vodou, the association is strong, and the belief persists that Vodou priests can raise the dead and use them to do their bidding. We’ll look at these monsters-turned-literary-sensations next week.