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Millennia ago, throughout southwestern and north-central Nigeria along with southern and central Benin, a religion was born from the ancestor worship and animism of the previous generations of the Yoruba people. Their beliefs became part of Itan, the total complex of memes that make up that society. This includes the songs they sing and the rhythms they play and even the gods they serve. The kind of polytheism they employ honors a Supreme Being along with many lesser deities. God is a trinity in the Yoruba religion, consisting of Eledumere, Olorun, and Olofi. Then there are the orishas, which are the souls of the dead that reflect divinity. This includes beings like Obaluaye, Logunede, Ara, Osumare, and Iroko, to name but a few. The point is that the longstanding spiritual tradition has been handed down for generations and has transformed over time.
In the 15th century, the transatlantic slave trade began after the Portuguese started exploring the coast of West Africa. Around 1650, the development of plantations on the newly colonized Caribbean islands and North American mainland brought groups of subjugated people that carried their unshakable faith with them. In places like Saint-Domingue, which is now Haiti, the Roman Catholic missionaries forced the Yoruba people to convert, which then caused them to blend their old beliefs with their new ones. This gave rise to creolized Haitian Voudou in the 17th century, and went on to become Louisiana Voodoo in the 18th century in the wake of the Haitian slave revolt. In this way the orishas became the loas, and the loas were syncretized with the saints. These deities are not really prayed to like Jesus or Mary, which is still part of what Voodoo practitioners do, instead each loa has a distinct sacred rhythm, song, dance, and mode of service. Moreover, these beings are called upon so that possession can take place through invocation.
At the beginning of the 19th century in French occupied Louisiana a Creole man named Charles Laveau and his mulatto lover Marguerite conceived a child with tremendous supernatural abilities. She was destined to become a great priestess in life and even a full-blown goddess in death, although no one really knew it at the time. Then, on Thursday September 10th of 1801, Marie Catherine Laveau was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Being of European, African, and Native American descent, and living at the time that she did, Marie was raised to primarily honor the saints and the loas. She also either called God Jehovah or Bondye, depending on the occasion. It was all the same to the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans though. Fortunately, religious oppression lessened a bit with American rule, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. So, Marie was more or less free to believe what she wanted growing up.
Like her mother, Madame Laveau had Choctaw, Creole, and Catholic beliefs. Her spirituality included Native American shamanism, African inspired Yoruba-based Caribbean-style Voodoo, as well as European-influenced Christianity. It’s important to understand that Marie practiced Voodoo and not Hoodoo. The differences between them are numerous. Voodoo is far more influenced by Yoruba and is devoutly practiced by polytheistic theurgists, whereas Hoodoo is more influenced by Christianity and rather loosely practiced by monotheistic thaumaturgists. Enslaved people in New Orleans retained many of the practices of their West African ancestors with Voodoo. Meanwhile in the Mississippi Delta where the concentration of enslaved Africans was really dense, Hoodoo was practiced under much greater cover of secrecy. The extent to which Hoodoo could be practiced varied from one slave owner to the next, although it was never really tolerated at all, meanwhile as a free woman Marie was able to openly practice Voodoo in public.
Living in the Big Easy and having a tremendous connection with the spirit world Marie Laveau was drawn to the most powerful priests in town. In no time at all she became well acquainted with the local clergy. On Sundays Marie practiced her eclectic beliefs all day long. She would go to mass at the St Louis Cathedral in the morning and then to Congo Square for Voodoo ceremonies in the afternoon. She became very close with the pastor of St Louis Cathedral, a man named Pere Antoine. He was a devout Spanish friar who served as the leading religious authority of the Catholic Church in Louisiana. Elsewhere, the legendary Voodoo priest Bayou John taught Marie how to do things like prepare a powerful charm known as a gris-gris bag. This talisman might contain various herbs, roots, oils, metal filings, bone chunks, and many other things that are all ground into a potion that is placed into a pouch to offer prosperity or protection, for instance.
In many ways Madame Laveau was also groomed to become well acquainted with Southern aristocrats who had a great deal of political and economic clout. For a while she was only able to earn a living as a hairdresser for the wealthy, but this still got her fairly well connected in New Orleans. It was a bustling city with lots of celebration, but also a great deal of crime. Canal Street in the French Quarter became the heart of New Orleans nightlife. The thing is that the city had the highest mortality rate in the country at that time, and in the 1830's Marie Laveau was confronted by a client who had a son who was accused of murder but actually innocent. It turned out that the wealthy man was willing to offer her a brand new home in exchange for gaining his son an acquittal in court. The house was a big beautiful white house in the ten hundreds block of St Ann Street and Marie just couldn’t resist claiming it as her own.
Madame Laveau always went to great lengths to get what she wanted, and she was willing to do almost anything to get it. She spent a week praying at St Louis Church generating the spiritual power she would need to set the man free. Then, as a means of self sacrifice, at dawn on the day of the trial the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans put three Guinea peppers in her mouth and held them there for hours. This caused her to endure tremendous pain. So, after a long while, the loas and saints eventually took pity on her great misery and piety. Marie had devoutly suffered on behalf of her intention and they heard her call. Then, she went to the courthouse and placed the enchanted peppers under the judge’s chair. In spite of all the overwhelming evidence against the defendant, lo and behold the verdict came back not guilty.
After she moved into her new home, word quickly began to spread among the people of New Orleans about her abilities to influence the justice system with mysterious spells. In no time at all, she became legendary as the one true Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Her intervention in the legal proceeding of a local courtroom gave Marie Laveau great acclaim in the city, even among the dozen or so other Voodoo queens of the time. Hundreds of followers, from every walk of life and many different ethnicities, met in private rituals and public ceremonies. Along with selling charms and potions in Congo Square and casting spells out of her home Marie and then later her daughter Marie Laveau II even held rituals at Lake Pontchartrain. By municipal decree from 1817 slaves were only permitted to dance publicly in Congo Square, but Marie was a free woman who staged elaborate bonfires, naked dancing, and animal sacrifices in the bayou. Every year around the time of the summer solstice, from dusk on the 23rd of June to dawn of the 24th, increasingly larger crowds of people would gather in honor of St John the Baptist to worship God and all the exalted souls of the dead in the spirit world.
The influence of deceased relatives on the living is of the utmost importance in Voodoo. Those that came before have continual and beneficent interest in the affairs of the living from the land of the dead. This became all the more important to Marie on June 15th of 1881 when she died and her body was buried in St Louis Cemetery. Since then her ghost has been known to haunt the Big Easy on countless occasions. People even used to visit her grave as part of a pilgrimage to come and call upon the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Then after their wish had been granted people returned to her mausoleum and drew three X’s upon it to commemorate the occasion. In this way, the more people that came to see her the more appeased her soul would become. Unfortunately, in an effort to reduce vandalism, the mausoleum is off limits as of March 2015 by order of the Archdiocese. So, I guess we just have to call upon her in other ways now.
Praise be to Marie Laveau!!!