The Real Vodou Behind Voodoo
Oct 14 2020

The Real Vodou Behind Voodoo

By: Burke Bischoff

Ask someone, local or not, what "Voodoo" is, and you might get mumblings of dolls, gris-gris, magic, and herbs. While those are popular images of what most people think of as Louisiana Voodoo, there is so much more to the story of how a version of these traditions came to the Big Easy. What started as West African Vodun in what is today Benin and Togo, modern Louisiana Voodoo owes more to the religion of Vodou, which was formed in French-controlled Haiti.

Sallie Ann Glassman, co-chair of the New Orleans Healing Center and owner of the Island of Salvation Botanica on St. Claude Avenue, is an initiated mambo asogwe, or high priestess, of Haitian Vodou. Born into an ethnically Ukrainian-Jewish family, Glassman showed a desire for spirituality since she was young and didn't discover what was right for her until she went to Haiti.

"I started doing tarot and created my own cards when I was at least 14," Glassman said. "I started studying yoga and Eastern religions and got involved with a Western occult ceremonial magic order. That didn't really appeal to me that much. But through that order, I discovered the work of Maya Deren, who was an experimental filmmaker and a dancer. She had made a documentary of footage she had taken in Haiti called Divine Horsemen, and I was just enamored with her work. And I found myself being involved with Vodou and ultimately doing a tarot deck, the New Orleans VooDoo Tarot, and that kind of opened up the door for me to go to Haiti and initiate, which I did."

Glassman explained that the Vodou ceremonies that she and other priests/priestesses in the Haitian religion perform are not at all what is portrayed in movies and popular culture. Mainly through the act of drumming, singing, and dancing, the focal point in each ceremony is the arrival of spirits, referred to as loa, that essentially take over the ceremony, talk to the congregation, and offer advice and healing.

"I think everything in a Vodou ritual is about the technology for opening the doors between the invisible and visible worlds and allowing the two to exchange and influence one another," Glassman said. "And to an outsider, it might seem like something supernatural is going on, but Vodou is extremely natural. Through the effect of the drumming and the singing and the dancing, which is very precise and very complex, a doorway is opened, and another frequency is established. It allows a particular power or intelligent energy to come through that we think of as a type of spirit."

According to Glassman, during the transfer of the religion from West Africa to Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) and then to New Orleans, a mixing of traditions took place that helped Vodou to take root in the Catholic-dominant city. During Haiti's French colonial period, the practice of Vodou was outlawed, and the French would give slaves lithograph images of Catholic saints to try to convert them.

"In those images, they saw symbols that they recognized from the spirits that they observed in their homeland," Glassman said. "And initially, these images were used as a mask or a blind to cover the spirit that they were actually serving. One example is when they would honor St. Patrick, who was known for driving the snakes out of Ireland, but in fact, they were recognizing Damballa, who is a serpent spirit, and honoring him. Over time, the boundaries between these images became blurred."

Vodou, while taking on elements from Catholicism, did end up developing a presence in New Orleans when more slaves were brought over from Saint-Domingue.

"We had Congo Square, where the slaves were allowed to congregate on Sundays, and they were allowed to have what we call dances," Glassman said. "Well, all of the knowledge of Vodou was included within the songs and the dances. It's unclear whether or not these were actual ceremonies, but it does seem to be the case that having this ability to congregate and perform this music allowed Vodou to stay alive in Louisiana."

The Catholic influence on Vodou is further cemented with the presence of a singular absolute god and celebrations of particular loa, coinciding with the feast days of the Catholic saint they are often paired with.

"We should say that in spite of having all of these various spirits in Vodou, there is a recognition of a supreme deity, a god called Bondyé," Glassman said. "God is seen as so abstract and so absolute that we simply cannot comprehend God with our human limitations, so these loa are integral and intermediary and are patrons of various natural elements. So, like the saints, they each carry certain vibrations and elements of the divine, but they are also forces of nature that surround us. We bathe in their waters and walk on their earth and breathe their air."

Glassman described that while Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo may have some similarities, such as using herbs for healing and enlightenment, they are two completely different entities. She said that what most people know as "Voodoo" is often confused with Hoodoo, which involves more spell-crafting and conjuring, but has a more Hollywoodized and tourist-oriented image.

"There are aspects that might seem supernatural or magical in the Vodou religion, but again, it's within this context of religion," Glassman said. "Vodou itself is extremely ceremonial. It's always about serving the spirits and serving the loa and going to them for guidance and asking for their moral judgment and asking them to guide us in their own way. A lot of people are disappointed that I won't do spells to punish their ex-boyfriend or whatever. And they'll say, 'Well, you're a priestess.' And I say, 'Yeah, to serve the spirits and the community. I can talk to them to better your life, but I'm not going to do that kind of work for you.'"

From what Glassman has noticed, there's been a movement in New Orleans to incorporate a greater and deeper understanding of the actual religion. Holding ceremonies at a temple called a peristyle about 10 blocks away from her botanica, Glassman said that her weekly ceremonies usually bring in 15 to 25 people, but she also has about 75 people involved in her congregation who are from out of town. However, since the spread of COVID-19, things have changed.

"One of the most dangerous things to do now is to get together and sing," Glassman said. "So, we have been doing stay-at-home ceremonies and meeting up, quote-unquote astrally in the temple afterwards without physically being there. And now, with some of the restrictions removed, we're doing some outdoor ceremonies in the backyard that are socially distanced—wearing masks and very limited ceremonies, not the full-on deal. It's actually been very beautiful. And we wait two weeks in between to make sure nobody got sick, and then we do it again."

While COVID-19 has introduced challenges with practicing Vodou, Glassman explained that there have been some benefits as well. She's been hosting Zoom choir practices that have helped to connect her out-of-town congregation more easily, and she's noticed that new people are starting to find their way to her temple.

"I think people are really, really hungry for some spiritual foundation because everything else feels so unstable, and rightfully so," Glassman said. "I'm finding more and more people are turning to spiritual practice to help them through this and help them stabilize, despite all of the turbulence around them. And that has led to the house actually growing."

Glassman recognized that while Voodoo is known more by its touristy persona, she is grateful that the religion and its traditions have continually been passed down to each generation with the help of prominent people like Marie Laveau and Dr. John, a Senegalese priest who served as the persona inspiration for Mac Rebennack.

"On the one hand, I find it very affronting that 'Voodoo' has been very touristed and sensationalized in that way, but on the other hand, it's kept the tradition alive," Glassman said. "It's legal; it's funded. I can go do ceremonies in the middle of the street, and I won't get arrested. The police will show up just to make sure I'm safe."

Glassman said that the religion is important for New Orleans's image because it not only cements the city as the Vodou capital of the United States, but it also serves as a reminder of those original Africans who were brought here and were able to keep their traditions going for hundreds of years.

"I do think it's really important that people realize that there is a recognition of God, of the divine, and that these spirits are not in opposition of the divine," Glassman said. "They're in service to the divine and to our communities. But also, I would like to say that there have been people practicing Vodou and passing it down to their families for centuries here."

"People will say that New Orleans seems like a European city, and to me, it dances to an Afro-Caribbean beat," Glassman said.

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