Saturday, March 2, 2019

That ole’ Black Magic down in New Orleans

Once again, the tekgnostic High Holy Day of Fat Tuesday is upon us. This year, it is being observed on Tuesday, March 5th. Even as we speak,  the American bayou version of Mardi Gras is in full swing and being celebrated by our creole brothers and sisters, with all the pageantry and debauchery that our Krewes can muster. In celebration of these festivities, we have uncovered and present to you, the discerning heretics of the digital age, an obscure history of New Orleans Voodoo, adapted from the writings of Alison Brouillette... Please enjoy, and as we have said many times before...

 Laissez les bons temps rouler!

And now, on to the writings of Alison Brouillette...

In recent years, that infamous old Creole city of New Orleans has become more Americanized than ever. At the risk of complete homogenization with the rest of the nation, there are some things the Crescent City tenaciously holds on to as its own. Cuisine, music, lifestyle, and especially its irreplaceable take on the ancient festival: Carnival. Carnival is a Western Christian and Greek Orthodox festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. 

The main events typically occur during February or early March, during the period historically known as Shrovetide (Pre-Lent). Carnival typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments, combining some elements of a circus. Elaborate costumes and masks allow people to set aside their everyday individuality and experience a heightened sense of social debauchery. As can be expected, participants often indulge in excessive consumption of alcohol, meat, and other foods that will be forgone during upcoming Lent.

Some of the more macabre New Orleans institutions, however, have flourished in the Big Easy’s dark underbelly. As its esoteric history is more deeply examined, New Orleans has brewed its own flavor of the occult. Voodoo, the spiritual folkways developed from the traditions of the African diaspora, was a volatile force throughout most of the city's long history. Such a thing is hard to imagine in this digitized age of ours… but there is no doubt among those obscure circles who still practice Voodoo… as well as those who have been brought up under its influences.

For almost two centuries, the lives of most Louisianans were influenced by the activities of a myriad of Voodoo cults. The arrival of slaves from the West Indies in New Orleans in the 1700’s was the beginning of voodoo in Louisiana. These were ancestor-worshipping tribes who had been captured during the raids on the African coast. The word "voodoo" is a derivative of their polytheistic religion's name, "Vodu." By the last decade of the century, the religion had degenerated into numerous small sects and the word had been corrupted to "hoodoo."

Although voodoo had existed in Louisiana since the arrival of the first slaves in the early 1700s, it first appeared in colonial annals in 1773 in a strange litigation known as the "Gris-Gris" Case. The word "gris-gris" refers to the placement of an evil spell upon someone through-charms and incantations. For the matter to be thus entitled suggests that this must have been a familiar term in colonial Louisiana. The matter involved a Guinean slave named Carlos, owned by a planter on the German coast, who was tried along with two other slaves for plotting to kill their overseer. Carlos was accused of having concocted the gris-gris to magically achieve this. The mixture in question had been discovered and reported by another slave and was believed to be the cause of an illness which had afflicted the overseer for some months. Specialists examining the gris-gris concluded that, although nauseating, it was doubtful that it was life-threatening and the charges against the three were dropped.

With the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the establishment of American authority, the superstitious attitude toward voodoo, became less severe. This growing liberality created a climate in which voodoo flourished and the sect gained a significant number of converts. An abandoned brickyard on Dumaine Street is purported to have been the first voodoo gathering place, from which the worshippers were soon driven by the police. They moved further from the city and began the notorious celebrations along Bayou St. John and the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

However, with the rise of Louisiana voodoo, there was a growing concern among whites that such meetings were used to target black magic against them, if not to plot an eventual revolution. For this reason, the city issued a municipal ordinance in 1817 which forbade the gathering of slaves for dancing or any other purpose except on Sundays and then only in places designated by the mayor. Congo Square, located on North Rampart Street in the heart of the city (presently the site of the Municipal Auditorium) was one such designated area. Here were held the "legitimate" voodoo dances, the ones which were frequently and indulgently observed by white society. 

The more authentic voodoo rites were still conducted in secret along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John. The erotic dances typical of these ceremonies were replaced at Congo Square by the more innocuous Calinda or Bamboula.  The voodoo queen, the most elaborate and uninhibited figurehead of these proceedings was invariably a free black woman. An active participant, she alone could display a veritable wantonness as she was subject to none of the restrictions then applicable to slaves. The dancing was supposed to end at dusk, but seldom did. At nine o'clock a cannon in the center of the Square was fired and any black found on the streets after that hour without his master or a permit was thrown into prison. Eventually, the Congo Square dances were banned because of their overt sensuality which was offensive to some prudish whites. Unless they had followed the group out to the lakefront some St. John's Eve, however, they didn't know what they were missing.

Despite the cultists' efforts at secrecy, many whites were drawn to the voodoo sect. This had been true almost since its arrival in the city. By 1846 nearly a third of the sect's membership was reportedly white. The cultists of New Orleans had caught the interest of their white overlords and by the early 1870s it was not uncommon for the aristocratic Creoles to form search parties desiring to witness the St. John Eve celebrations. Roads leading to Lake Pontchartrain and along the bayou were frequently lined with carriages.

Marie Laveau, the legendary yellow woman, was a subject of wonder and terror for many generations, and remains to this day the embodiment of all that is New Orleans voodoo. Known to most during the period of the 1820s to the 1880s as the Widow Paris, Laveau dominated the voodoo world. Molding it to her advantage, she created the perfect panorama in which she could shine. The Marie Laveau story is a complex legend, almost as encompassing a subject as the religion of which she was the hallmark.

"In her youth, she was a woman of fine physique," writes Henri Castellanos in his book: “New Orleans As It Was.” It is not clear whether he is here referring to Marie, the mother or Marie, the daughter, for there were two Marie Laveaus. Archives at the St. Louis Cathedral reveal that Marie Laveau was married to Jacques Paris in 1819 by Pere Antoine. Paris disappeared shortly after the wedding and Marie began calling herself the Widow Paris. There is no verification of his death, however, until some five years following his marriage to Marie.

There is little evidence to suggest that Marie was interested in voodoo at this time; she was employed as a hairdresser, a common occupation for a free black woman. The voodoo cult lacked organization and none of the reigning queens had proven to be a unifying force. By her intelligence and shrewdness, Marie recognized the opportunity which had presented itself. By the 1830s she had assumed her historic role, due in large part to the application of her business and showmanship talents. She was the first to establish black magic as a saleable commodity.

She retained the mysticism and sensuality of the cult as well as the spectacle. There were still the snake, the black cat, the rooster, the blood-drinking and the sex, yet she established her own brand of voodoo, through the syncretism of Catholic and Francophone culture, lacing voodoo with Roman Catholic influences, introducing statues of saints, prayer, and holy water into the ceremonies. This was an interesting transition for a sect which had its origins in (perceived) devil worship. Marie denied such a connection, insisting her followers were devoted Christians.

To the St. John's Eve affairs held at the lake or along the bayou she would invite numerous guests, perhaps in an attempt to prove she had nothing to hide. These included the police, the press and any interested party willing to donate a small admission fee. There were, of course, other secretive meetings open only to the serious Zombi worshippers. Here was most likely revealed that facet of the Laveau character which she would have hidden from the public, but of which there remains much conjecture.

Marie's most legendary work was perpetrated from her modest but famous cottage on St. Ann Street. Acquired about 1830, records specify that this was payment for the working of some gris-gris which prevented the son of a wealthy and prominent family from going to jail for a crime which he appeared quite likely to have committed.

Modern (commercial) Gris-Gris pouches

One of the dualities of the Laveau character is a "wicked witch/angel of mercy" contrast. Her association with voodoo gained her the reputation of an evil old conjuring woman, while others were impressed by her works of kindness. In the 1850s she began to visit prisoners on a regular basis, and she had also nursed victims of an earlier yellow fever epidemic.

A further duality of character lies in the fact that there were indeed two Marie Laveaus. As previously noted, the Widow Paris had a daughter by one Christophe Glapion, with whom she had many children. This second Marie was born on February 2, 1827, and many people have confused the two. The actual date the daughter assumed the role held by the mother is not known, as the transition seems to have been a gradual one. One might infer that such a change began around the 1850s because of references to Marie Laveau's youth and beauty at a time when the widow would have been in the autumn of her years.

This second Marie was more widely feared than the first. While much of her reputation was based on her mother's exploits, her personality still appears to have been more severe, according to Robert Tallant. None of the warmhearted-ness demonstrated by the elder Marie, who visited prisoners and nursed the sick, seems to have been passed on to her daughter. Like her mother, she was a shrewd businesswoman and maintained a lucrative practice, although she would not usually charge a client more than he could afford to pay. She distributed business cards on which were printed her name, address, and profession, not as voodooienne, but as "healer." 

Curiously, there is no further mention of the second Marie in any legal document following her mother's death. It must incidentally be mentioned that the Widow Paris underwent a startling conversion prior to her death in 1881. She returned to Catholicism, rejecting Zombi and all his associations and denying any involvement with the cult. The circumstances surrounding her daughter's fade from public view are largely speculative. The generally accepted theory is that another daughter of the Widow, one Madame Legendre. So abhorred the family association with voodooism that she booted her sister into the street, the quicker to set about removing the taint from the family tree.

Expulsion from St. Ann Street spelled trouble for the younger Marie Laveau. It proved debilitating to her career, as the cottage had so long been a veritable voodoo store, almost as legendary as the Laveaus themselves. No one knew where to find the voodoo queen; if they went to the cottage, her sister would shut the door in their faces. From the 1880s reports begin to grow fewer and farther between until Marie Laveau finally faded into history. Authorities do not agree on the date or circumstances surrounding her death as no records of the kind exist. From the glory of her early years she drifted into obscurity. But long after her death she is still remembered and often with keen interest. To her people and to most New Orleanians, besides being the Voodoo Queen, she was the very identity of the cult in New Orleans.

Improbable as it is today that anyone would find such a thing in the newspapers, there were often small paragraphs in the early 20th century newspapers which confirm that voodoo had not disappeared with Marie Laveau. Such accounts were sparse during the World War I because of the more critical issues to be reported. But in years following the war, reports of charms, curses and an occasional murder associated with the cult found its way into the news. The latter usually caused quite a stir.

Patients claiming to have been victims of gris-gris were not uncommon at Charity Hospital during the 1940s. These often had combative gris-gris of their own to work against that which they believed had been used on them. Many carried it with them even as they were put to bed. Among such paraphernalia found by hospital employees would be metal pieces shaped like devils' souls; metal pieces with "luck" signs upon them; plain metal pieces, coins, colored and knotted strings; straps with fish scales; bags filled with mystic stones and teeth; bones and mosquito bar rings. 

Although rumors abound much to the contrary, it is unlikely that the celebrations along Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John continued more than a few years after the demise of the Widow Paris. Nearly all such ceremonies have since been conducted indoors; either in homes, churches, or temples disguised as housing for more orthodox religions. Twentieth-century New Orleans voodoo consists primarily of the use of gris-gris, placing and lifting curses and homeopathic magic. Gone are the orgiastic rituals of old.

For some reason, voodoo has always inspired more fear than European black magic and witchcraft. As Robert Tallant expresses it, "Voodoo is of ancient lineage, dark and strange and complex even to those who practice it." Much of the cult's impetus, however, is simply the power of suggestion, or Mind Magick. Half the potency of the gris-gris lies in the fear that it will be used against you. There are several ways in which Orleanians have traditionally warded off gris-gris. The old habit of scrubbing the front steps with brick dust is most common. To hang a horseshoe over the door is another… Roman Catholics often tack holy pictures above their doors. The most earnest in their efforts to ward off an evil spell, of course, will invariably seek the nearest voodoo dealer, from whom he will purchase a counter gris-gris charm or amulet. This he will wear either on his person or keep in his home.

Even if it has not always been so, mention of voodoo in this day and age will probably inspire more amusement than foreboding. However, it would be erroneous to assume it is a forgotten practice. Voodoo persists as a living force in Haiti where one may still witness the same practices which arrived here almost two centuries ago with the Santo Domingo blacks. But voodoo in America, at least in New Orleans, has not disappeared but appears to be enjoying a revival.

- adapted from the writings of Alison Brouillette


Rye said...

Very informative. Disturbing to think white Americans were that disturbed by them. Salem-like even.

Jack Heart said...

I think that level of fear is with us today... just below the surface.

illuminati official said...
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