Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been devoted to Voodoo and its legend, when viewed from afar, often takes a decidedly spooky twist. But what separates fact from fiction? Is Voodoo really what we’ve seen and heard, or is there more to this spiritualistic religion than what meets the eye?
While Voodoo may be a cash cow for the city, finding actual and authentic priests and authorities on the subject isn’t as easy as one may think. Even if you know where to look, many Voodooists are very secretive and wary of reporters. After hundreds of years of bad press, who can blame them? Luckily, after reaching out to Jerry Gandolfo, curator and historian of the New Orleans Cultural Voodoo Museum (724 Dumaine St.), I began to find my way.
“I don’t practice Voodoo, I don’t postulate it and I don’t pretend to do it; unlike other people here,” Jerry says to me as we sit in the back courtyard behind the decades old museum opened in 1974 by his late brother Charles Gandolfo. Jerry warned me to keep a wary eye out for authenticity.
“Those who claim to practice do it for ego, they do it for money. The real people who practice it are never public; the people who practice it in public are never real.”
Jerry is a variable who’s who of Voodoo culture in New Orleans. Along with curating the museum, he also gives tours around the French Quarter and nearby cemeteries, pointing places in the city where Voodoo can be see if we’re trained to look.
“Like I explain to tourists,” he says, still sizing me up, “everyone here in New Orleans practices Voodoo because it’s indigenous. It’s something that they grow up with and sometimes they don’t want to even deal with it. I have several friends who people would call a Voodoo Priestess or a Voodoo Queen, yet they wouldn’t want to be called that. They find it too comic-bookish. They all tell me the same thing, that you don’t pick Voodoo, Voodoo picks you.”
However, Gandolfo did alert me to two priestesses currently publically operating in the city and I set about finding them.
Sallie Ann Glassman is perhaps the most recognizable face of Voodoo in New Orleans at the moment. While she and Jerry are friends, their opinions about Voodoo vary widely as she is a transplant practicing Haitian Voodoo and Jerry remains a proponent of indigenous traditions.
“New Orleans has its own Voodoo; it comes directly from Africa. It doesn’t come from Haiti,” Jerry maintains. “Voodoo believes in God, but believes he’s retired. However, they interact daily with his spirits. They believe nothing happens by chance, it all happens because of the spirits. It is not superstition, it’s not a cult, and it’s not witchcraft.” On the last point at least, Glassman agrees.
“I can almost say 99% of what people think is about Voodoo has nothing to do with it,” she explains. “It’s not like witchcraft. Instead of trying to take power over another person, it’s all about empowering yourself and finding the sacred within oneself. I think people find it hard to believe that Voodoo is about healing.“
Glassman, a pixie-sized woman with empathetic eyes, was initiated into Voodoo via Port Au Prince, Haiti in 1995. She is the owner of the Island of Salvation Botanica (2372 St Claude) and is also founding co-chair on the board of the New Orleans Healing Center. She has been featured in many articles, television shows and documentaries featuring Voodoo in New Orleans and does her best to further humanize the religion to the uninformed.
“It’s really hard to get rid of that knee-jerk reaction of, ‘this is evil, and I’m risking my soul when I do this,’” she says, leaning back, almost disappearing behind the counter of her shop. “For me the challenge is, how do you get past trying to argue with people about things that have nothing to do with reality? You can’t defend against something that isn’t true. So instead I do a lot of public ceremony. I hold ceremonies every Saturday night and throughout the year I have major events. People are welcome.”
Priestess Miriam, also a well-respected Voodoo Priestess and friend of Gandolfo, takes a similar stance as one of the few other priestesses with a public persona and a physical space, The Voodoo Spiritual Temple (828 N. Rampart St). A septuagenarian full of life and a wealth of knowledge, she’s very uncanny; you’d never know her age just by looking at her.
“However God leads you to become a conduit to people’s souls and solve problems, there’s many tables to serve from,” she says. “Every race of person has known God before we ever thought up words to describe him. Before there was language, there was the consciousness of God.”
Although she is now most commonly known as a Voodoo Priestess, Miriam grew up in a Baptist church, is also an ordained minister and a spiritualist from the Blackhawk movement. An all-around spiritual conduit, Miriam enjoys speaking in circles until she can get her wits about you. But if you’re willing to decipher her messages, she’s very profound.
“African people born into this world were able to empower themselves and create ways to improve and organize towards prosperity through the most ill predicaments through Voodoo during the most infuriating time in history,” she says, showing me around the temple. “Take this herb, a whole mixture of them and decide that it will do this or do that. Today we have medical institutions and science we hadn’t even dreamed of back then when people were having problems with death and disease.”
She points out that Voodoo is as much about preserving the body and psyche as it is the spirit.
“The African knowledge of plants and herbs helped save a lot of people, and they weren’t thinking or caring whether it was Voodoo. It was the science of their minds and discipline they took with them from Africa to help them feel better. Why lose yourself because you’re now in the new world. If your beliefs were with you in Africa, why wouldn’t they follow you here?”
Priestess Miriam specializes in counseling, insight on how to organize health, and she also teaches students who come on academic missions to do reports on spirituality. She connects the dots many do not in Voodoo in that the supernatural elements need not be physically proven; only psychologically trusted.
“Voodoo is less about power and more about confidence. The true power lies within. People were powered through the confidence, if they had confidence they could continue to maintain in slavery and the worst conditions. A man without confidence and trust in himself can’t accomplish anything.”
Those who come to New Orleans to hear ghost stories and knock on the tomb of Marie Laveau may find the deeper aspects of Voodoo explored in this article less exciting. But the truth is often less sensational than fiction, but it is also more empowering. Once you’re humanized to Voodoo via Glassman’s public rituals or empowered through Miriam’s counseling, Voodoo loses it trademark spookiness and becomes something almost warm and fuzzy. I left the presence of both of these women with a stunning smile on my face and no worries of becoming a zombie or having my likeness made into a Voodoo doll. But many who truly understand New Orleans’ relationship with Voodoo understand that’s the point. People wouldn’t have maintained voodoo for so long if it didn’t empower them and make them feel good. Negativity doesn’t do that and people still looking for Voodoo at the foot of Marie Laveau’s tomb while getting a small, focused perspective of voodoo, are missing out on the beautiful evolution of Creole culture and the strong African roots displayed all around and embraced by all in the city and beyond.
Gandolfo explains it best: “Voodoo is everywhere in New Orleans and hides in plain sight. Things like Jazz Funerals, secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, all of these things have elements of Voodoo in them not easily recognized by contemporary cultures. Ask a lot of locals why they carry on certain New Orleans traditions and they won’t say its Voodoo. They may not even know but the answer is still the same, ‘It’s just what we do.’”