African voodoo influences
Voodoo was brought to French Louisiana during the colonial period by workers and slaves from West Africa. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives brought as slaves to Louisiana were Fon people from what is now Benin; other groups such as the Bambara, Mandinga, Wolof, Ewe, Fulbe, Nard, Mina, Fon (Dahomean),Yoruba (Nago), Chamba, Congo, Ibo, Ado, Hausa, and Sango (Hall) also brought their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. All of the groups were responsible for the development of Louisiana vodoo.Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo.
Many Fon were also taken as slaves to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean Sea.Louisiana vodoo has existed since the early 1700s.
The enslaved community quickly outnumbered white colonists. The French colony was not a stable society when the enslaved Africans arrived, and the newly arrived Africans dominated the slave community. According to a census of 1731-1732, the ratio of enslaved Africans to European settlers was more than two to one. As a relatively small number of colonists were planters and slaveholders, the Africans were held in large groups, which enabled their preservation of African practices and culture. Unlike in the Upper South, where different groups were brought together and slave families were frequently divided among different plantations, in southern Louisiana families, cultures and languages were kept more intact.
Under the French code and the influence of Catholicism, officials nominally recognized family groups, prohibiting the sale of slave children away from their families if younger than age fourteen. They promoted the man-made legend of wake tuko[clarification needed] of the enslaved population.
The high mortality of the slave trade brought its survivors together with a sense of solidarity and initiation. The absence of fragmentation in the enslaved community, along with the kinship system produced by the bond created by the difficulties of slavery, resulted in a “coherent, functional, well integrated, autonomous, and self-confident enslaved community.”
The practice of making and wearing charms and amulets for protection, healing, or the harm of others was a key aspect to early Louisiana Voodoo. The Ouanga, a charm used to poison an enemy, contained the toxic roots of the figuier maudit tree, brought from Africa and preserved in the Louisiana. The ground-up root was combined with other elements, such as bones, nails, roots, holy water, holy candles, holy incense, holy bread, or crucifixes. The administrator of the ritual frequently evoked protection from Jehovah and Jesus Christ. This openness of African belief allowed for the adoption of Catholic practices into Louisiana Voodoo.
Another component of Louisiana Voodoo brought from West Africa was the veneration of ancestors and the subsequent emphasis on respect for elders. For this reason, the rate of survival among elderly enslaved peoples was high, further “Africanizing Louisiana Creole culture.”
The U.S. Embargo Act of 1808 ended all importation of African slaves to the United States.
Voodoo queens were known to exercise great power in their communities, and had the role of leading many of the ceremonial meetings and ritual dances. These drew crowds of hundreds and thousands of people. They were considered practitioners who made a living through the selling and administering of amulets, or “gris-gris”, charms, and magical powders, as well as spells and charms that guaranteed to “cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one’s enemies”. Their power and influence were widespread and largely incontestable, recognized by journalists, judges, criminals, and citizens alike. These females of African and Creole descent emerged as powerful leaders in a society that upheld an oppressive slave regime and a dichotomy of freedom between blacks and whites. Their influence was also related to the early history of the city, in which “a shortage of white women resulted in a high number of interracial liaisons.” As in other French colonial communities, a class of free people of color developed who were given specific rights and, in New Orleans, acquired property and education. Free women of color had a relatively high amount of influence, particularly those who were spiritual leaders. In addition, the religious traditions in West and central Africa, from where many of voodoo customs are derived, provided for women to exercise extraordinary power.
Tomb of Marie Laveau
Among the fifteen “voodoo queens” in neighborhoods scattered around 19th-century New Orleans, Marie Laveau was known as “the” Voodoo Queen, the most eminent and powerful of them all. Her religious rite on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain on St. John’s Eve in 1874 attracted some 12,000 black and white New Orleanians. It was said that politicians, lawyers, businessman, wealthy planters – all came to her to consult before making an important financial or business-related decision. She also saw the poor and enslaved. Although her help seemed non-discriminatory, she may have favored the enslaved servants of her “influential, affluent customers”, as many “runaway slaves…credited their successful escapes to Laveaux’s powerful charms”. Once the news of her powers spread, she dominated the other Voodoo leaders of New Orleans. Also a Catholic, Laveau encouraged her followers to attend Catholic Mass as a strategic way to protect their true beliefs. Her influence contributed to the adoption of Catholic practices into the Voodoo belief system. Marie Laveau is remembered for her skill and compassion for the less fortunate.
Laveau also gained influence over her clientele by her work as a hairdresser, which gave her intimate knowledge of the gossip in town. Her customers also came to her to buy voodoo dolls, potions, gris-gris bags, and the like. Her influence continues in the city. In the 21st century, her gravesite in the oldest cemetery is a major tourist attraction; believers of Voodoo offer gifts here and pray to her spirit. Across the street from the cemetery where Laveau is buried, offerings of pound cake are left to the statue of Saint Expedite; these offerings are believed to expedite the favors asked of the Voodoo queen. Saint Expedite represents the spirit standing between life and death. The chapel where the statue stands was once used only for holding funerals. Marie Laveau continues to be a central figure of Louisiana Voodoo and of New Orleans culture. Gamblers shout her name when throwing dice, and multiple tales of sightings of the Voodoo queen have been told.
Doctor John, also known as Bayou John and Prince John, born in Senegal and kidnapped as a slave, became a prominent Voodoo king in early 19th-century (1800’s) New Orleans. He brought the knowledge of the craft from his home country Senegal. He joined an already prominent voodoo community that existed in New Orleans since the early 1700s developed by African slave groups such as the Bambara, Mandinga, Wolof, Ewe, Fulbe, Nard, Mina, Fon (Dahomean), Yoruba (Nago), Chamba, Congo, Ibo, Ado, Hausa, and Sango (Hall). Previous natives of Senegal were already enslaved in New Orleans by 1720.
Born in 1937 in Haiti, Frank Staten, moved with family to New Orleans as an infant, where he was raised by his grandparents, also of Haitian descent. His grandfather was a practicing Baptist minister. When Frank was young, his grandparents told him that he was of royal African descent and had supernatural abilities. His true name was revealed to be Prince Ke’eyama. Prince’s grandmother taught him the ways of Haitian Voodoo. As a young man, Staten made many trips to voodoo communities in Haiti and the United States to learn more of the art.
Staten, or Prince, settled permanently in New Orleans in the 1970s. He developed his Chicken Man persona, performing nightclub acts expressing his strong spiritual connection with God and voodoo. His performance included dancing, magic, and biting the head off a live chicken and drinking its blood. He attracted thousands of followers, but some other voodoo practitioners saw him simply as a “showman”. He was worshipped as a Voodoo priest until his death in December 1998. His ashes were donated to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.