Editor’s Note: The following series “Via Voodoo Vie: an Exploration of Voodoo in NOLA” is a week-long series curated by Emily O’Connell as a part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.
The history and tradition of Louisiana Voodoo has become a unique part of the culture of New Orleans. However, it goes deeper than the Voodoo that has been popularized by the media and tourist attractions. With origins in West Africa and Haiti, brought to Louisiana by enslaved and freed people of color, Voodoo has a rich and often overlooked history, so let’s explore how Voodoo has made its mark on the city and how the city has, in turn, influenced the perception of Voodoo. Cassie Pruyn presents the historical context of the practice and perception of Voodoo, surrounding ideas about race of the time and the fascinating and mysterious figure, Marie Laveau. Originally published on June 16, 2016.
According to historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, voodoo came to New Orleans not only as a result of the Haitian Revolution—when droves of refugees, both white and black, flocked to New Orleans in the early 1800s bringing the primary popular religion of Haiti with them—but far earlier in the city’s history with the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 1700s.
New Orleans’ elites in the early years of the 19th century were terrified a similar uprising might happen here. In 1817, City Council forbid blacks from congregating in large groups except in specified places at specified times. Therefore, voodoo rituals of the day had to hide from view, which meant—in the days before the city’s vast cypress forests were drained and developed—they moved into the swamps.
According to Bayou St. John historian Edna Freiberg, these policies explain why the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau is said to have held her annual St. John’s Eve rituals along the banks of our swampy bayou. And yet, she seems to have invited everyone to come out and see it anyway!
I’m fascinated by Marie Laveau, along with, like, everyone ever, specifically because I want to know more about her success in bringing voodoo into the public (i.e. white) eye—one of the many things she is known for. What was the purpose of this? What was the benefit? I have much more reading to do on the subject, but as we near June 23rd, St. John’s Eve, I wanted to provide you with an interesting (and dated, and hugely offensive) Times-Picayune article of yesteryear describing this annual event. Part of the reason why we can read about the event now is precisely because it was open to white voyeurs, for reasons I still can’t figure out.
Was Laveau simply cashing in on whites’ need to witness what they termed a “barbaric spectacle,” to remind themselves, once again, of their ultimate superiority? Was it all a ploy, a “decoy,” while the “real” ritual unfolded place elsewhere?
In 1924, this Times-Picayune reporter wrote on the supposed history of this annual event: “This cabala of St. John’s Eve was for years a topic of discussion in New Orleans and even attracted national attention. In barbaric color and African hideousness, nothing has ever surpassed it. Thousands of curiosity-seekers, journalists, and freelance writers, who chanced to be in New Orleans at the time of this jubilee, would go out in the swamp lands after nightfall and walk through the rough paths, eager to glimpse the orgy. It is generally known that Marie LaVeau [sic] welcomed whites as this particular saturnalia, and it is often remarked that it was the decoy, the real worship of the voodoo taking place at other times in remote regions of the swamp, near the shanty which has been styled the ‘summer home’ of Marie LaVeau.” 
For the modern-day St. John’s Eve head-washing ceremony (decidedly less fraught), head out to Magnolia Bridge on June 23rd!
[…] the 19th century, Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau practiced rituals for an audience of thousands alongside the banks of the bayou, and in the early 20th century, […]