Marie Laveau, the legendary Voodoo Queen of New Orleans (most recently portrayed by Angela Bassett in American Horror Story: Coven), died more than a hundred years ago, but the Greek Revival tomb that holds her earthly remains still bears evidence of regular visitors. Its base is cluttered with candles, trinkets and offerings, including bottles of rum and plastic Mardi Gras beads. And its walls, despite the pleas of preservationists and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, are marked with layers of X’s, some written in red brick dust and some carved into the actual brick and plaster itself.
The pilgrims leaving tribute want some magic to rub off on them. The X’s are wishes and the bright odds and ends are offerings to the legendary priestess, whose name is synonymous with voodoo or voudou. The spiritual practice — spelled differently depending on whether it refers to the Haitian religion (its New Orleans descendant or as Vodun, the West African religion that both are rooted in) — is probably among the top concepts outsiders associate with the Gulf Coast city. But like jazz, beads or bars that stay open 24/7, most visitors have a broadly sprawling curve of understanding as to what voudou really is.
George Ingmire, a radio documentarian and DJ in New Orleans, was initiated into voudou practice in Haiti in the early 2000s. He’d moved to New Orleans in the ’90s and, in the course of writing about it as an anthropologist, became intrigued on a personal level after meeting Sallie Ann Glassman—a ’70s transplant to New Orleans and the owner of the Isle of Salvation Botanica—one of the practice’s most visible local representatives.
Elements of voudou are everywhere you look in New Orleans, Ingmire says. Its presence is visible in the veves (religious voudou symbols) worked into New Orleans’ iconic wrought iron gates and balcony railings and the cathartic, joyous dancing that’s common at second lines.
“The second line is a place where [the West African and Caribbean influence] really comes to life,” he says. “Some of the dancing is very similar to what you’ll see at a ceremony in Haiti, although there it’s more intense, the gesture, the movement in the hips.” The elements of voudou are so folded into the life and culture of New Orleans that it’s hard, says Ingmire, “to tease it out of what is just New Orleans. In New Orleans, if your neighbor sees you burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard, they won’t think anything of it.” It might seem strange to outsiders, but submerging a statue is said to help sell a home.
Glassman, a small, elfin woman (who looks much younger than her 60-odd years), is the bridge and guiding hand between the devout New Orleans voudou practitioners that Ingmire describes and the casually curious that come through the city on a daily basis. She sells candles, powders, sprays and bath salts and oils at her Bywater botanica. These seemingly common household items are labeled with intentions like “Pay Me” or “Road Opening” or “Break Up” or “Come To Me” and still offer a tangible anchor for seekers to focus their intent and connect to a spiritual agency.
“We have to take each individual case separately and uniquely, and figure out the best means for empowering people individually. When you light a candle, I think it lights the way for a spirit to see you, in the way that a spirit sees,” she says. “And it helps a person focus their mind in a positive, light-filled way.” The objects and the ceremony around them are tools to awaken a different way of seeing things, she thought, and to take control. Some people are drawn to candles, others to powders and others to baths. The elements at play are significant, she says.
“Fire and water are both really spiritual elements,” says Glassman, “and deeply important to voudou, even if you don’t know much about the practices. Fire purifies and burns away the old. Water is the realm of the spirits, a way of getting in touch with them. All that stuff is very magical.”
That kind of mysticism and magic is what most people think of when they think of New Orleans voudou, which is inseparable from the history of New Orleans itself as well as the horrific legacy of American slavery. The elements of West African religion that form voudou’s bedrock were first brought to Louisiana by enslaved people during French colonial rule, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. That population was joined in the early 19th century by both enslaved and free Haitians of African descent, whose traditions blended with the already present African practices and French Louisiana Catholicism.
Just as the varied spiritual beliefs of New Orleans blended to create voudou, the imagery of hoodoo and voudou has also worked its way into the city’s popular culture beyond the religion.
In the late ’60s, Rock and Roll hall of famer Dr. John paid homage to his voudou heritage through his “Night Tripper” character. Hung with scarves, beads and bones while singing about gris-gris and St. John the Conquerer root, the blues and jazz legend channeled a 19th century voodoo priest with the same name. While Dr. John’s tribute to voudou was unique to himself, “The Big Shot,” an iconic character in the historic African-American Mardi Gras Krewe of Zulu, takes much of his look from the voudou loa (deity) Baron Samedi, who wears dark glasses with a missing lens — for one eye to see the land of the living and one to stay trained on the land of the dead. This rich history and connection only enhances the experience of seeing The Big Shot, complete with top hat and cigar, depicted in giant papier-mâché on a Carnival float.
The visitors who leave their wishes and tributes with Marie Laveau in St. Louis No. 1 may not know the full depth and breadth of her practice and its legacy, just as second line spectators might not identify the hints of spiritual catharsis in the dance moves at a second line.
It’s still not uncommon for a New Orleanian to bury a saint in the yard of a house they hope to sell, to light a candle in hopes that new opportunities will appear or wash the floor with an herb mixture from the botanica to bring good vibes to a new home. And Ingmire’s seen plenty of contemporary touches work their way into voudou practice patchwork more frequently by learned practitioners—including an altar that used a Darth Vader toy to represent the dark and formidable Baron Samedi. In the end the dabbling with candles and powders by casual users isn’t unwelcome, Glassman said — if there’s respect and genuine intent, they can get plenty out of it.
“It’s a way to take yourself out of your head set and realize that you’re a spiritual being,” said Glassman. “I think we’re all going through ritual all the time, but just sort of sleepwalking through it. This is about waking up.”