The days are long past when it was fairly commonplace, under the light of a full moon, for large and varied masses of people to chant strange hypnotic chants and prance about in various stages of undress on the commands of an ebony priestess, darkly illumined by the flickering glow of a cauldron fire. Into the steaming vat had been placed mysterious objects, herbs, and perhaps a snake or even a live, bound chicken, while former slaves, ordinary black and white people, as well as society folk and sometimes an occasional debutante, chanted and danced in rhapsodic abandon. These ceremonies were usually held along Bayou St. John, which must have been a more exciting neighborhood in those days.
Presiding over it all was Marie Laveau, the most powerful women of 19th Century New Orleans. She was a loved, feared and celebrated fixture of city life, and through her influence a great many people were saved, cured or acquitted, as well as the reverse of these. It was largely through her influence that New Orleans became known as the voodoo capital of America, celebrated in publications worldwide.
Today, one hundred years after her reign, the legend remains. Yet the vista as one enters the city via the Interstate – gleaming granite shafts, those monolithic totems of corporate capitalism glistening in the vaporous mists of the business district – proclaim a wholly different sense of place. One wonders, to what extent does the world of Marie Laveau still live? Does an unseen hand still shape local destiny? Do zombies wander the corridors of the Shell building?
While no longer a highly visible local presence, the influence of voodoo, Santeria and witchcraft has long been more felt than seen in New Orleans, and currently seems to be increasing. Historically more prevalent in the black community, the belief in these occult forces has not been limited to anyone group. And one never knows who among us is actually involved in these secret societies. For instance, one junior executive for the West Bank branch of a national medical corporation is in his private life training for priesthood in a local santeria cult. Naturally, he prefers to remain anonymous, but the crisp, almost hi-tech manner in which he articulates the phenomena of santeria would doubtless shock those who dismiss the occult as merely the illusion of the ignorant.
Further evidence of the pervasiveness of the occult may be found at the retail level. Occult shops filled with jars of herbs, mysterious substances with names like “dragon’s blood,” statues of saints and other entities, candles of various shapes and sorts, incense and essential oils, objects ranging from the ordinary to the arcane offer the initiate a wide variety of wares.
Almost every New Orleanian is aware of voodoo, witchcraft and occult spiritualist beliefs, to some extent, yet few can specifically define them or their origins. That voodoo and related phenomena are central to New Orleans’s identity has been made evident in films and books about this place. Hollywood knows that voodoo adds a dash of drama under the Spanish moss. But what is it?
Voodoo originated on the West Coast of Africa, among the Dahomey tribal people, who worshipped spirit deities that correspond to the forces of the natural world. When the French bought slaves to the new world colonies of Haiti, Martinique and Louisiana, an effort was made to convert these Africans to Catholicism. While they had some obvious success, many of the slaves adopted the trappings of Catholicism while retaining the fundamental faith of Dahomey spirit worship. These spirits were called upon in times of need, and their influences were amplified by the use of associated herbs, candles, rituals and meditation.
Since the Catholics had their own spirits invoked for such purposes, called “saints,” as well as their own rituals, prayer meditations and food observances, the slaves naturally assumed that this was the white man’s version of the same thing. This combination of African and European religious beliefs in the original French colonies became known as “voodoo” – the practice of Marie Laveau and Poppa Doc Duvalier (in Haiti).
Voodoo is somewhat more elaborate, due to the influence of French Catholicism, than the folk magic or “hoodoo” of the rural areas of the South.
Voodoo is essentially about power – harnessing the unseen spirits and occult (literally meaning “hidden”) forces to the service of the human will. While enlightened voodoo adepts have adopted a belief in the golden rule – that what you put out comes back to you with interest – voodoo is like technology in its ethical neutrality. It may be used for white or black magic, for creative or merely foolishly destructive efforts. Its main appeal is a means for the individual to gain some control over his or her own destiny, usually in prosaic affairs such as health, money, sex, court cases, lotteries and the like.
The history of santeria is similar to that of voodoo, only involving Spanish ‘Catholicism and its influence on slaves from the Yoruba tribes of the Nigerian coast of Africa. Today santeria flourishes in the Caribbean region including the Caribbean coastal nations of Latin America, where it is a major force in all areas of life.
Although the encounter with Catholicism came about in a manner similar to voodoo, there are significant differences deriving from both the Spanish and Yoruba influences. Historians of santeria maintain that the Yoruba faith in spirit deities was highly evolved and strikingly similar to the pantheon of the Olympian deities of ancient Greece (both the Greeks and the Yorubas practice “nature” religions, the basis of all witchcraft). The Yoruba gods, known as “orishas,” have distinctly human-seeming personalities, each identified with a particular Catholic saint, but actually linked with some force of nature. Thus Saint Barbara is actually the orisha Chango, god of fire, thunder and lightning, whose human form is said to be as a huge black man with striking features and an infectious smile. Santeria appears somewhat more .humanistic than voodoo, and its gods, like the Greeks, are sometimes capricious and capable of a good time. In Brazil, santeria is known as “macumba.”
Our West Bank source assures us that santeria is formally structured in a manner similar to the Catholic church, with hierarchies of priests for various purposes. The faithful are called “santeros” and during a ceremony it is not unusual for spirit possession to take place as a particular orisha enters the body of a devotee. While a santero does not necessarily often visit a Catholic church (unless to borrow holy water), accounts of the lives of Jesus, Mary and the saints are regarded as great sources of information on the orishas.
Most santeria cults are involved with white magic only, although this may include a negative force if it is an act of protection and reflects intentions of “divine justice.”
What we usually call witchcraft refers to the old pre-Christian nature religions of Europe (although during the last two centuries ancient Egyptian lore has exerted influences, both in Europe and America).
The historians of witchcraft trace the cult back to the prehistoric epoch that preceded the bronze age. According to the legends of the wicca (witchcraft) faith, in those early days there were tribes that sought to tame the forces of nature, just as they had learned to tame animals and raise crops. Their magic was said to be concerned with the subtle art of bending these forces of nature, perceived as energy fields surrounding all life, and shaping them to serve the human will. This original witchcraft worshipped the various manifestations of a goddess – the totality or all of nature, and a god – the “horned one” represented by Pan, the goat, lord of the flocks, the herds and the hunt. The goddess was often symbolized by a crescent moon.
These tribes that worshipped nature in the form of the bountiful goddess of the fields, the seas and the sky, and of the animal god Pan, were eventually conquered by the warrior tribes. While these too usually practiced magic, this was said to be sorcery for the purpose of conquest rather than creation. So witchcraft had to go underground. However, some conquering tribes such as the Celts of Britain, and the ancient Greeks, incorporated much of the Old Religion into their own legends, thus preserving what we know of it today. It is because of the prominent element of a bountiful “Mother Nature” goddess in the Old Religion that witchcraft and witches are often associated with women. It was a kind of original feminism.
Today, persons who are witches may be of the enlightened variety, but they might also be of the variety devoted to sorcery – black magic for the purpose of conquest. Our language does not differentiate, and the matter was further confused by a very old smear campaign directed against the animal god Pan, which attempted to link him with the legend of satan, the underworld fallen angel derived from the Hebrew Talmud. There is no tradition of satanism in original witchcraft.
In the countryside of French Louisiana, voodoo, European witchcraft and American Indian magic have been synthesized into a local craft, sometimes practiced by the tradition Cajun trateur or herb doctor. A new book describing Louisiana folk magic, by a practicing adept, entitled Charms, Spells and Formulas is now available. Written by Ray Malbrough, it was published by Llewellyn Publications, from whom it may be ordered if your bookstore does not stock it.
Here in New Orleans, voodoo has long been preeminent among both blacks and whites, although European and Egyptian witchcraft has long been an underground presence, and santeria appears to be gaining ground. While traditionally tainted by perceived associations with ignorance and paranoia, the study of the occult may be gaining new credibility due to a new awareness concerning the effects of meditation, as well as the ever-increasing knowledge of the physics and chemistry of humanity. In any event, it is an interesting counterpoint to present-day attitudes. And anything that could alleviate the boredom of the money-obsessed America of yuppies, of business as a kind of religion, and of religion as a kind of mass market business – can’t be all bad.
BOTANICAS AND OCCULT SHOPS
Voodoo and occult spiritualist beliefs are a built-in part of traditional New Orleans customs. For instance, the practice of scrubbing down the front stoop with red brick dust, common until fairly recently, might sound less efficient than Formula 409. But actually, the red brick dust scrub-down was for protection against evil spirits entering the home, a factor not covered in most spray detergent product warranties.
Most occult shops provide the herbs, candles and other paraphernalia for invoking spirits or spells not ordinarily found at the Winn-Dixie. (although often available at Schwegmann’s, New Orleans’ first “superstore.”) Since the tools of the trade are closely related, as are the actual techniques of voodoo, witchcraft and santeria, most occult shops have similarities of inventory regardless of their actual orientation. Here are a few of the better known ones:
Divine Light, at 3318 Magazine St., 899-6617. This place is described by its proprietor as a general spiritualist supply shop, not affiliated with anyone branch of the occult, “although some clients practice voodoo or santeria – mostly light stuff aimed at getting evil spirits out of the house.” Consultations and tarot readings are also offered and appear to be in strong demand.
F&F Botanica, 801 N. Broad, 482-9142. Hours: 8:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. A “Botanica” is what shops such as these are designated in Spanish, a reference to the wide stock or herbs they carry. F&Fis the Schwegmann’s of occult supply stores, with a huge selection of herbs, candles, oil, and a vast array of saint statuary. Obviously catering to the santeria sects, it also offers a large stock of occult books and consultants in the rear.
The Helping Hand, 1732Tulane Ave, 523-5089. Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. A colorful, established place near Charity Hospital, the Helping Hand is closely associated with the beliefs of the black community. An advisor is available.
The Witchcraft Shop, 521 St. Philip St., 586-0449.Hours: 12:00noon – 8:00 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Founded some years ago and long associated with the legendary local witch, Mary Oneida Toups, the shop is affiliated with the Religious Order of Witchcraft of Louisiana. As to where they are oriented among the many forms of witchcraft, the proprietor declined to comment. The atmosphere of dark theatricality is colorful and appropriate to the French Quarter location. They manufacture their own oils and tarot readings are available.