Origins of Voodoo in New Orleans
- Lilith Dorsey
The word Voodoo comes from Dahomey and means "spirit" or "deity'. There is no official record of the introduction of Voodoo in North America. Scholars, however, believe that it originated in New Orleans .
The history of Voodoo in New Orleans is an interesting one. It is peppered with exotic characters with names like Sanite Dede, Bayou John , Marie Laveau, Leafy Anderson and others. Voodoo made its way to New Orleans from a variety of different places. Large numbers of slaves were imported to Louisiana directly from Africa. There were also slaves imported from the French colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Santo Domingo. Many of the Haitian planters, as well as Voodoo leaders, emigrated during the slave revolution of 1791. It is estimated that between 1805 and 1810, approximately 10,000 Caribbean refugees arrived in the Crescent City of New Orleans.
The most dominant African survival as a result of the diaspora has been the religious traditions, referred to collectively as Voodoo. They have proved to be most prevalent in areas where the stronghold of Catholicism is present, such as New Orleans and Cuba.
Unlike Cuban Santeria , however, the New Orleans type of Voodoo has a unique and interesting flavor , just like the city itself. Voodoo in New Orleans is marked by many different influences. There has been from the beginning a variety of different ethnic groups present in New Orleans: Spanish, English, French, Germans, Filipinos, and others have all been known to call New Orleans home. This ethnic diversity is responsible for a variety of beliefs and practices becoming part of the Voodoo pantheon . Also a number of truly unique practices began to spring up in the Crescent City.
Foremost among these practices and unique to the group of displaced African religious traditions is the presence of a matriarchal structure. The most powerful and influential figures in the religion from the very beginning have been the Voodoo Queens.
Voodooism seems to have been a matriarchy almost from its first days in Louisiana. The King was always a minor figure Papa didn't count. Mama was the entire show. The only men of importance were the witch doctors. The King was probably changed from year to year and was actually the current lover of the queen. Women seem, too, to have made upat least eighty percent of the cultists, and it was always the female of the white race who entered the sect. (Tallant)
The earliest recorded Voodoo Priestess in New Orleans was Sanite Dede, a free quadroon from Santo Domingo. She is reported as operating an interracial Voodoo cult as early as 1822. A detailed account of one of her ceremonies was published in the sensational magazine Century. This account is questionable, however, as the source was a teenage boy who claims to have been led to the ritual by one of his father's slaves. It gives an account of the traditional Voodoo items being used ( a snake, a black doll, and a calabash) , and a revelry of dancing, singing, drumming, and possession.
The major male figure present in the New Orleans Voodoo scene was Bayou John, or Doctor John. He was a freed African who had travelled the world with his master. He demonstrated a command of the drums (and is regarded as the first master drummer of the crescent city. Descriptions depict him as a towering figure with a face tattooed with red and blue snakes, the tribal markings of the Senegalese royal family. He was widely sought by blacks and whites alike for his herbal medicines and fortune telling.
The greatest and most widely recognized Voodoo queen was the famous Marie Laveau. She reigned as queen for over forty years, and there are those that say even today that we are waiting for her successor to arrive. There are many conflicting stories about Madame Marie, whose life seems to shrouded in mystery. Some accounts say she was born in 1794, others 1827. Some of the confusion may have arisen as her daughter also bore the same name. She is reputed to have returned the African custom of snake worship to New Orleans, despite earlier accounts . Her met tet, or head spirit as referred to in Voodoo, was Damballa, the great snake creator of Voodoo mythology.
Marie is reported to have used a variety of talents to establish herself as the reigning Voodoo queen. There are reports of her beating rivals as she came across them on the street and demanding that they relinquish their claims of superiority to Marie. Much of her power, however, can probably be attributed to her great business sense. She had started out as a hairdresser and gained the respect and confidence of the New Orleans elite. From there she used her knowledge of the secrets of the elite to carry out her public rituals undisturbed.
Suspended in Dusk