When you think voodoo, images of pin-pricked dollies, skeletons in top hats and skulls tied to sticks all float into your head. While voodoo (or voudou, voudoun, New Orleans/Louisiana voodoo) has been in practice since the the 1700s, there are a lot of cultural depictions, misconceptions and modern twists. There is, however, only one queen.
Marie Catherine Laveau was born in 1801 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, to a free woman of color named Marguerite Henry, and to a white politician named Charles Trudeau dit Laveau (Or Don Carlos Trudeau.) Though it’s unknown whether her mother was born a free woman or was freed from slavery, it is confirmed that her ancestry included Native American, French and West African lineage.
For all the myth and mysticism, voodoo is a genuine religion with its own figures, rituals, customs and tenants. It was a religion of need; practiced by slaves with little to no power of their own, it promised luck and freedom to its most faithful.
Like its high priestess, voodoo has a mixed heritage. Slaves brought in from West Africa, particularly the Fon people of modern-day Togo and Nigeria, were the genesis of the system. Fon religion is based in ancestor and spirit worship, with the central belief that souls either reincarnate upon death, or join the great spirit, Mawu (meaning ‘nothing greater than’) upon the death of the body.
Ceramic and wood statues would be created as offerings to the spirits, as well as charms, herbs, bones and other objects, known as gris gris. The word ‘voudon’ means ‘spirits’ or ‘many spirits’ in Fon tongue.
Lesser gods, such as the trickster Legba as well as deities of the sun, moon, earth and animals would be worshipped as well, with the belief that a god would grant favor to those who appeased them.
Colonization, French Catholic missionaries and the transatlantic slave trade in the 1700s did little to deter standing beliefs. Fon slaves, kidnapped from their homeland or captured in war, and forced to work on the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean islands and Louisiana by their French masters, continued to practice their beliefs.
Over time, it evolved, particularly with the influence of French Catholicism. Ancestral spirits and demigods became loa, voodoo gods with parallels to Catholic saints. The trickster Legba became the loa Legba, keeper of keys and crossroads, as well as a stand-in for Saint Peter. The different incarnations of Lady Erzulie promised love and maternal protection—and were often depicted holding a Jesus-like child. The symbol of the death loa, Baron Samedi, was a cross—easily explainable to a Catholic plantation owner searching the slave quarters for an excuse for a whipping.
Though it’s unknown exactly how Laveau, who herself was never enslaved, came into contact with voodoo, the city of New Orleans was rife with the practice, and she was most likely exposed to it from an early age.
When Marie was grown, her job as a hairdresser provided plenty of opportunity to meet new clients, and her appointments were punctuated with requests for charms, blessings and curses. Listening to her rich white Creole (Louisiana French) clients gossip about their philandering husbands and family trade deals probably helped maintain her status as a renowned divination expert, as she predicted events of the city.
Eventually, Marie rose through the ranks as a voodoo high priestess, an expert and orchestrator of voodoo and hoodoo (magic) rituals, as well as the voodoo community leader. Two successive husbands and 17-odd children did little to slow her down, as she starting practicing nursing and offered sacrifices to the loa on a regular basis, all while attending Catholic Mass every Sunday.
Her sphere of influence worried some and inspired others. Newspapers called her “a notorious hag” and claimed that she kept snakes and swamp creatures in her small cottage on St. Ann Street. Others recalled her kindness, as she visited the sick, destitute and prisoners in the New Orleans jails.
After she retired in 1875, her daughter (also Marie Laveau) took over, performing rituals and hosting lavish parties in the brothel/bar she owned on Bourbon Street. After her mother died in 1881, she started claiming that she was the reincarnation of Marie I. Though Marie II was more ostentatious than her Marie I, her fame came more from riding on her mother’s influence-- though certain recountments of Marie Laveau combine characteristics of both women.
Marie I was buried in the St. Louis Cemetery after her death, her funeral flocked by mourners and spectators alike. Her tomb is decorated with sage bundles, statues, saint candles and other offerings; though there is a popular myth that marking three white X’s on Marie’s final resting place will grant you a wish, it’s more hooey than hoodoo.
It’s also a crime, with a hefty fine attached for vandalism. So, unless you want to make an offering to Agassou (the loa of money), keep your markers at home. Stay safe this Halloween, folks—and stay weird.
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.