Voodoo: Dispelling the Myth

19:30 March 06, 2015

           Amidst the plethora of belief systems present in the dynamic city of New Orleans, there are certain traditions that reign true: spirituality, and resilience. These traits are what encapsulate New Orleans and it?s inhabitants, many who have found comfort in the Voodoo tradition. Voodoo, called Voudon, Houdon, or many other variations in Haiti where it originated is an interesting religion simultaneously independent and communal. Performed by a group, yet based on an individual?s experience. The reward is the ability to call on the spirits for guidance, support, and healing.

I became fascinated with this ancient Haitian tradition a few years ago while taking a Literary New Orleans course. ?Though it took place on a small island remote from the centers of power, the Haitian Revolution was the most radical revolution of a revolutionary era?A violent response to the slave-powered plantation system that dominated the New World economy?The fury unleashed lingers still. In Haiti today, vodouisants say that the spirits called up during that time were so powerful they haven?t yet been able to get rid of them.?

So what is it about Voodoo that makes it so empowering? It has to be something profound enough to motivate one of the most brutalized groups in world history to revolt ?and to win. Furthermore, if this tradition is responsible for such an inspiring movement, why does it have such a bad rap? The mere mention of Voodoo evokes images of a dark, scary, seductive religion built around spells, sex, and death.

Case in point; as I walk into a bookstore to work on this very article, there is a book in the walkway called, ?Vodoo; Strange and Fascinating Tales and Lore? edited by John Richard Stephens. I began flipping through the pages, admittedly suspicious about the inconspicuous title, which highlights my previous dilemma. I skimmed the chapter titles, and being a New Yorker I was drawn to the chapter ?THE NEW YORK TIMES: VOODOO AXE MURDERS.?

Here are a few highlights; ?NEW ORLEANS, LA., March 2, 1912. Additional terror has been heaped upon the frightened people of the Louisiana rice belt and Eastern Texas by the voodoo doctors, who are turning into profit the wholesale axe murders committed by the so-called ?Sacrifice Sect?It first became suspect that the voodoo doctors were busying themselves when Ira Baker, a mounted policeman, yesterday killed Erasmus Johnson, a faker, of Opelousas, while the quack was attempting to evade arrest. Johnson?s pockets were full of voodoo lore and charms, which he was selling under the pretense that these amulets would keep away visitations of the ?axe man? and other evils? ?The creed of the sect is a curious mixture of African Voodoo rites, superstitions of American Indians and of French, English and Spanish settlers, and strangest of all, a so-called religion based upon Holy Writ, deriving its power from the distorted and garbled interpretation of the Bible common to all the illiterate of the South.?

To be fair, there is a disclaimer at the top ?This article originally appeared in the March 3, 1912, issue of the New York Times. The level of accuracy is difficult to ascertain.? Difficult to ascertain? that?s an interesting way to put it. I was at a crossroads; I am not na?ve to the different ways that one religion can be portrayed, however what I had learned about in class and what I was reading had far too much space in-between. I needed to find out the truth under all of the fanatical garbage, and so I met George Ingram.

George walked into Satsuma Caf?, a DJ at WWOZ, cool and confident. His spiky hair and distinguished shoes went well with his laid back but extremely poised personality. We got right to it. Sallie Ann Glassman, a voodoo priestess, first introduced George to Voodoo when he visited New Orleans as an anthropologist working on a story. She was the first person he met in the city; a Voodoo Priestess. She invited him to his first ceremony and he attended on an academic basis only.

?I went in there with a notebook, and left with a rattle so to speak.?

His interest peaked on a personal level, seven years later.

?I was attracted to what I could get during the ceremonies; it?s a very dynamic and empowering tradition. It affected me on both an academic and spiritual level.?

He has been practicing for nine years.

What stuck me most prominently was that as George spoke, there was not a trace of condescension in his voice.

?The tradition is colorblind? Sallie Ann Glassman is Jewish. It?s not as simple as you think. When you think about the historical realities of voodoo it has to do with exile, being exiled from West Africa, the linage of Judaism is also exile. She has a deeper connection because of that.?

Slavery?and prejudice.

There is so much angst about the actual Voodoo ceremony, so much hatred that seems to be based on fear of the unknown rather than fact. Having been to Sally?s house and observed a ceremony, I now had a small inkling into what it was like, and needed the details.

A few preliminary observations; the room was dark, lit up by hundreds of candles that covered the perimeter. Paintings on the walls flickered in and out of focus as the candles seemed to play along with the movement of the service. There were eight participants swaying in a circle. They were dressed in white, with various colorful beads draped around them. George and the rest of the percussionists sat in the back as their drums served as the heartbeat of the ceremony. George described the d?cor as a long his tory of the human?s own tendency towards hunting and gathering. Over time the temple becomes whole; the candles, the bottles, the paintings. It was truly beautiful. There was not one moment when I felt afraid or scared. I was never pressured, or uncomfortable. You take away as much as you are willing to give.

The first highlight is the welcoming of the first four general spirits. This is done by welcoming the Veve, ?Veve, academically is described as the symbolic representation of the spirits. From within, they are living forces that are drawn to reflect the voices that are above and below.?

The symbols called upon each week, before the honored spirit, are as follows; first is Legba who is the gatekeeper, the cosmic bouncer, the one who opens the door into the spiritual world. Next is marassa, which represents the twins, the earliest ones, the children. The third is Loko who is the first priest (haungan) and the last is Ayizan who is the first priestess (manbo). After these spirits have been called, it is then time to call the main spirit of the week, the spirit being honored. A different spirit each week is chosen by a specific calendar date, a need for healing in the community, or a way to counter violence. Sallie then poured water on all of our hands not only for the purpose of cleansing but also because ?In Voodoo, water is very strong element, it has to do with where the ancestors go, when your people pass away, they go below the water. It represents emotion as well.?

Next the four pairs danced together, but moved opposite one another. George explained that this opposite synchronization was a ?representation of the visible and invisible world. Every action that you do in this world is reflected in the visible spirit world and the reverse. The movements themselves represent that.?

However, I did notice that at the center of the room, there was a place of quite eclectic offerings; fried chicken, candy, cigarettes.

George explained that after the preliminary symbols are called upon and drawn in cornmeal by Sallie, it is then time to call the spirit being honored. The offerings correlate with which spirit is being called that day. The task is to bring what the spirit likes.

Supposed Marie Laveau is being honored, one of the most famous Voodoo spirits in New Orleans. Marie was a hairdresser who loved creole tradition. Therefore, you might bring Marie the things she misses from the real world. Red beans and rice, a blow-dryer, or hair clips. What a practical and dare I say, kosher practice, right?


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