NEW ORLEANS, October 9, 2013— There’s no denying the fact that New Orleans, the port city in southeastern Louisiana, is a patchwork of cultures, a melting pot of religions and traditions. To think of the city is to imagine the sultry tones of jazz music floating past the aged Spanish-style balconies with pedestrians strolling by, sedated in the Southern heat. Many also anticipate much darker encounters with Voodoo priestesses and witch doctors, eager to cast black magic or sell talismans to unsuspecting tourists.
In reality, Voodoo has been exaggerated and misconstrued by the media. The history behind it has its murky moments, but for curious visitors to the Big Easy, its past is essential in learning about the ways of the city itself.
Voodoo arrived in New Orleans around the 16th century with the slaves from West Africa. The influx of Haitians around the beginning of the 17th century only strengthened the faith. Contrary to common misunderstandings about the supposedly heathen beliefs, it is a religion that believes in one higher power. Even the root word, “Vodoun,” translates to “God.” Beneath the single God is a set of seven Loa, or Spirits, in charge of different aspects of life, similar to Saints in the Catholic Church. The spirits of ancestors are often asked for counsel in everyday affairs, so elders in the community are treated with the utmost respect.
Women are usually placed in positions of power as well, like the famous Marie Laveau. Several Voodoo queens and kings influenced New Orleans before and after her lifetime, but she alone brought real attention to the practice by enticing the general public to watch. She offered consultation to both Caucasian and African American clients. A devout Catholic, she merged a few of its practices with her style of Voodoo, which often involved her snake, Zombi, and many fascinating and fear inducing rituals.
The basis of Voodoo, however, is healing and serving others, in contrast to the evil intentions emphasized in movies. No Devil-worshipping occurs, simply because a “Devil” figure does not exist in the traditional religion, although evil spirits do.
Do not expect to walk down the streets of the French Quarter and stumble across dozens of dancing and drumming believers making a spectacle. Over the top rituals are often looked down upon and regarded as impolite to the spirits. Cleansing baths, readings, and prayer are frequently performed in private. Even dieting to improve spirituality is included in the lifestyle.
Gris gris, a source of Voodoo power maintained in New Orleans, are sometimes seen as small bags of different herbs, powders, stones, and blessed objects that provide four separate functions: to promote success in romantic affairs, undertakings in careers, good fortune in gambling, and reversing curses. The charms are very personal and always directed at the improvement of oneself, never the downfall of someone else.
Another example of gris gris are voodoo dolls, which were incorporated into the modern system as well. Not always for seemingly sinister purposes, many are used to bring protection or good health upon the person in possession of it. They can be stuck with pins to encourage fortune in one’s life, but can also enforce negative outcomes upon others, depending on the thoughts of the owner. However, the black magic thought of as typical in the religion is very out of place according to tradition, which identifies any dark mysticism as an entirely separate entity.
To be considered a Voodoo practice, the gris gris must be related to the spirits who act out the individual’s longings. Belief in the power of the objects themselves instead of the spirits is classified as Hoodoo, which deals with superstition instead of religion.
Originally, practitioners did not charge a fee for their many services. The numerous Voodoo shops dotting New Orleans are mostly for show. However, in modern times, an estimated 15% of the population still thrives as believers of Voodoo, so authentic stores and places of worship do prosper behind the tourist attractions.
Tourists should start their Voodoo escapades with visits to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on 739 Bourbon Street and Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop on 725 St. Peter Street. Both are more geared to entertain curious shoppers from out of town, so for a more historically accurate experience, the next stop should be The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum on 724 Dumaine Street. For a $7.00 admission fee, the collection of artifacts provides a detailed look at the practice and its relation to New Orleans.
Those brave enough to wish for a next level experience can drop by an actual place of worship, like the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple on 828 North Rampart Street. Not to be treated as a simple spot for tourist entertainment, the priestess provides blessings, curse removals, therapy, and bone readings for those interested. She is beyond friendly to curious first timers.
A trip to New Orleans wouldn’t be complete without paying tribute to the Voodoo Queen’s grave. Though the exact location of her body is under speculation, the publicly accepted resting place is in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on Basin Street. Though the local authorities disapprove of the tradition, many mark crosses onto her crypt to make a wish come true. Several different customs have been observed when asking her spirit for favors, but the typical gifts of rum, flowers, candles, or coins are always foolproof.
The city offers a plethora of hotel options, like the Hampton Inn and Suites on 226 Carondelet Street, which is within walking distance of everything the French Quarter provides for amusement. Additionally, the Hotel Monteleone on 214 Royal Street is not only a prime location for the sights, but extends four star service to guests.
Though voodoo is practiced from Brooklyn, New York, to Miami, Florida, the undoubtable hub of the religion in the United States is New Orleans. For a Halloween adventure among the distinct Creole magic and mysticism, a Voodoo vacation in the Big Easy will do more than entertain— it will open minds and hearts to a lasting spiritual experience.
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