Voodoo Queens: The Sirens of City Park

00:00 October 09, 2012
By: Kristal Blue

This year's fest boasts a number of musically-inclined Voodoo queens who have stepped in to add a little flavor and magic to a traditionally male-dominated lineup.

Local ladies include Irma Thomas, Ingrid Lucia, Marcia Ball, DJ Beverly Skillz, Nora Patterson of Royal Teeth, Amanda Wuerstlin and Meg Roussel of Big History, St. Cecilia's Asylum Chorus and the Fleur de Tease burlesque dancers. They'll support a few lady-led national acts: Die Antwoord, The Vettes, Silversun Pickups, Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, Stephia & the White Sox and Nervo, among other possible late additions.

While these femmes festivales will take center stage in City Park this year, there are other Voodoo queens who will be celebrating as well. They will continue the rich historical traditions of the Vodou religion, some of which centered on the banks of Bayou St. John, just a stone's thrown from the festival grounds.

History has it that one of the earliest Vodou queens—a religion based in matriarchal lineage—was Sanité Dede. Dede, a free woman of color, reigned at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in the late 18th and early 19th century.

A food peddler, she sold her wares near the St. Louis Cathedral and in Place d'Armes. She performed her Vodou services a few blocks away in her courtyard at Dumaine and Chartres—including distinct drumming rituals that could be heard even during the Cathedral's masses.

Dede is said to be a Vodou teacher of Marie Laveau, who would eventually surpass her mentor to become the most influential and well-known New Orleans Vodou queen.

Raised a devout Catholic, Laveau contributed to the merging of Vodou and Catholic practices, such as using candles and holy water in rituals and noting similarities between the Vodou loas and the Catholic saints.

[Courtesy of Jonathan Bachman]

She was feared by many, and considered by many others to be a great humanitarian. Besides studying the herbs and secret rituals of the Vodou religion, Laveau also administered care to the sick during the yellow fever epidemics and to prisoners on death row.

She bore three daughters, one of whom was also named Marie. This daughter was said to have been possessed by her mother's spirit during Vodou rituals, which helped to foster the rumor that Marie Laveau was still living and practicing Vodou long after her death.

Laveau's spirit still lives on today, and her grave at St. Louis cemetery #1 is still a popular Vodou visitation site. She is called on regularly by the currently reigning Queen Bianca as well as Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman and La Source Ancienne Ounfo, a private Vodou community that exists within Mambo Sallie Ann's home. They have performed weekly ceremonies since 1980.

Mambos, or female high priests, lead many of these ritualistic traditions still today:

• Hurricane Protection Ritual (July)

• Blessing of the Mississippi River (May)

• Crime Protection Ritual (held once a year, or more if needed)

• Blessing of the Mardi Gras (midnight of Lundi Gras)

• Voodoo Wedding Ceremonies

Two of these rituals, held just after Voodoo Fest croons its last tune, coincide with the Catholic observance of All Souls and All Saints Days, or Halloween.

Held one or two days prior to this holy day, the ritual honors Gede, the great loa—or Vodou spirit—of death and regeneration, who has the ability to see in the worlds of both the living and the dead, and his wife Manman Brigit. Participants commemorate the deceased by partaking in the Day of the Dead and a ritual "Dumb Supper" led by the mambo.

After the Day of the Dead celebrations, the Blessing of the Cemeteries is meant to invoke the Loas Manman Brigit and Oya, who protects the cemetery entrance and dances around the tombs and graves. Led by the mambo, participants process through the graveyard and leave offerings at significant crossways and tombs to ensure the sanctity and safety of the dead's final resting place.

[Courtesy of Mary Keating Bruton/Alligator Records]

Many of these ritual offerings are similar for many Vodou traditions, such as Creole dishes and desserts, rum, whiskey, and cigars. Others are more specific to the rituals and Loas themselves.

For example, the Hurricane Protection ritual calls for spicy candies like Red Hots and Hot Tamales as well as storm and Florida water. For the blessing of the Mississippi, offerings such as sea shells, red wine and fresh fruit like mangoes and pomegranates are "fed" to the river in hopes of another year of good health and success. This ritual honors the Rada—which signifies the older, more beneficial spirits—Loa Yemaya (or Yemoja), the Loa of the ocean, motherhood, and the protection of children.

Perhaps the most popular celebrated ritual was Marie Laveau's annual baptism or head washing ceremony. Celebrants brought offerings appropriate for Laveau, a hairdresser, including white candles, white scented fl owers, rosaries, gris gris bags and hairdressing items such as combs, brushes, ribbons and clips, in addition to other traditional offerings.

Also referred to as bamboulas, this ceremony is held on the banks of Bayou St. John every year on June 23, St. John's Eve, and celebrates the summer solstice, a season of richness and plenty.

The ritual invokes the ashe, or energy, of Marie Laveau—now considered by many a powerful Loa in her own right. Both devotees and the public are invited to share in this ashe, which is passed on to them through the mambo.

These head washing ceremonies were held at the Wishing Spot, a 19th century spot associated with Marie Laveau on the lake side of the bayou, around present-day DeSaix Blvd., where a hollow tree trunk acted as a wishing well.

Along the bayou, the ritual lasted from dusk till dawn, with wild drumming and dancing late into the night. Acts considered shocking by much of the public included half-naked dancing women and orgies, animal sacrifice, the drinking of the blood of a rooster and the worshiping of Zombi, Laveau's giant snake.

Even in the time of Reconstruction, both whites and blacks from all walks of life attended these ceremonies, which reached a high point in the 1850s. They have been more for show than strictly religious rituals, but they are still celebrated annually even today.

After this year's Voodoo Fest queens have made their mark on one of the city's largest and most popular festivals, Vodou will continue in its own right. Keep an eye out for the rest of the Vodou queens, who will continue to perpetuate their unique religious trad itions this Halloween season and for long after.

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