The Misunderstood History Of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau
In the minds of most modern people, there’s a pretty clear image that’s conjured up by the mention of voodoo. It’s not exactly a positive association, led by years of it most often being linked to dolls made of hair skewered through with needles, or headless chickens. Almost invariably, in media it’s a practice of revenge, carried out by vengeful lovers or recruited occultists to terrorize a victim in question. Voodoo as portrayed in fiction is all chalk circles and bowls full of blood, witchy powders and animal pieces, resulting in a variety of curses ranging from the painful to the extremely inconvenient. Even the most common spelling is now considered inaccurate, versus “Vodou”.
In the practice of Vodou, there might be no better known real figure than Marie Laveau, often referred to as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, a city known for its connections to the practice in its own right. She wasn’t a shady alley dweller, either, but a central and influential figure in the city’s goings-on, serving the rich and powerful as well as the downtrodden, and holding well-attended ceremonies and celebrations. Without knowledge, one might assume someone holding such a title would be a hermit of sorts, living in a shack full of frog legs and sulfur clouds. Instead, she was a prominent community leader.
This was especially true of the city’s Black population, which was very likely the reason for the sensationalism and rumors spread about her and about Vodou in general. This is continued by modern TV and movies’ penchant for presenting her as an antagonistic force. Even with her recent appearance in American Horror Story: Coven, in which they do seem to pay some attention to real details of her history and context, they can’t quite resist showing her spray goat blood all over a protagonist.
First, let’s take a more rounded look at the practice of Vodou itself. For more context and further reading, I recommend this article by Saumya Arya Haas in Huffington Post, covering some of the history and baggage that would be impossible to go into without a considerable detour. Relevant to the goat blood mention above, though, is what she writes about animal sacrifice, one of the details often used to paint Vodou as a grisly religion. In reality, these “sacrifices” were often part of a ceremonial meal. In a horror movie, a pig or goat bleating as their throat is cut is supposed to be a climactic moment, despite the fact that the killing of these animals is the same thing that lines the cheery shelves of your local Trader Joe’s. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but I’m also not disavowed of the reality of meat consumption.
An overly cherry-picked perspective on Vodou practices is also something that bleeds through to its popular association with curses and malevolent spells. Though these do exist, known within the practice as “hoodoo,” the primary practice was much more focused on protection. Vodou developed from the religion of the African kingdom of Dahomey, and it’s an unsurprising need for religion to fill among a population as decimated and tortured as that of African slaves brought to America against their will or born into violent servitude. It covered spiritual protection called gris-gris or the more commonly familiar term ju-ju, but also included traditional natural medicine practices known as rootwork. This was much of what Laveau provided, as well as general counsel, from her home in New Orleans. She was in particular known for treating those suffering from yellow fever.
Again, misrepresented lore would have you think her home was somewhere visited only under the cover of nightfall, and perhaps a hood to hide the identity of whoever was in need of services. Instead, you were just as likely to walk into a party at her house and run into people of considerable power, discussing the state of the city and current events. Despite a couple mentions of unconfirmed rituals, her obituary in the New York Times speaks to this. It’s a fascinating timely account of the woman, and worth a read in full, but here are some highlights:
“...she was endowed with more than the usual share of common sense, and her advice was oft-times really valuable and her penetration remarkable.”
“Lawyers, legislators, planters, merchants, all came to pay their respects to her and seek her offices, and the narrow room heard as much wit and scandal as any of the historical salons of Paris. There were business men who would not send a ship to sea before consulting her on the probabilities of the voyage Marie soon possessed a larger clientele than the most astute and far-seeing legal counselor.”
Laveau also hosted gatherings in places such as Congo square, where the Black community could gather and celebrate, including one that was attended by roughly 12,000 people. Unsurprisingly, she quickly became a threatening figure to some in the area, who quickly took to making up happenings at such gatherings wholesale, with tales of nude orgies and devil worship. Unfortunately, as is common in history, the recordings often bear the signature of the powerful at the time, helped along by the fact that the image of a witch doctor in caricature held a lot more morbid interest than a community figure with beliefs in alternative medicine.
If you need any evidence on the twisting of her legacy, take one detail that almost never makes it into discussions of Laveau: she was a devout Catholic. Often, people would like to present Vodou as an invasive, terrifying threat in the backstreets of New Orleans, but its most prominent practitioner was a church-goer and a baptized Christian.
So the next time you see her painted as a cackling queen sitting among clacking chicken bones, give her the credit she deserves, as a central part of New Orleans’ identity and development in the 1800s.
Top Image: Public Domain/Giacomo Volpe