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New Orleans Voodoo Explained

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This article will explain what voodoo is, how it came about, and how to make it a part of your visit to New Orleans.


WHAT IS VOODOO?

Voodoo is a religion with its roots in West Africa. When France and Spain ruled New Orleans, Catholicism was the only legally permitted religion.

But enslaved people had their own religions, which they wanted to preserve and pass on to their children. So they found ways to hide their real beliefs.

Voodoo is the result: a mix of West African religions infused with deep secrecy and elements of Catholicism.

New Orleans Voodoo Tour

(You may also see the name of the religion spelled “vodou” or “voudou” – Creole or French spellings – or “vodun” – what the word probably sounded like in the unknown West African language it first came from.)

Many people are surprised to learn that voodoo is a religion, and even in New Orleans, it can be hard to tell.

For as long as it’s existed, voodoo has been portrayed as devil worship or black magic, and because of the tradition of secrecy, few members of the religion speak up against that perception.

Of course, in today’s French Quarter, the idea of magic, black or otherwise, is very much in demand.

So on a walk through the neighborhood, you’re likely to spot the word “voodoo” on all kinds of things – from genuine religious establishments to shops selling horror-themed souvenirs to slightly spicy bags of chips – and as often as not, the word is just being used to deliver a sense of mystique and local flavor.


HISTORY

For many centuries up to the present, people in West Africa have practiced a group of related religions.

While their stories vary, they share belief in a single god who communicates with mortals through spirits.

They also share ceremonies that invite the spirits, through drumming, dancing, prayer, and sacrifice, to borrow the body of a priestess or priest and speak through them, providing messages and guidance.

The slave trade forced members of these religions into places where open practice of their beliefs was dangerous.

One key to survival was recognizing the similarity between the spirits and Catholic saints.

By matching each spirit with a similar saint, voodooists could pray to a spirit or build an altar to them, as long as they used the name or the image of the corresponding saint. In this way, they hid their religion in code.

Voodooists in New Orleans also took advantage of a thing few enslaved people had: a small amount of free time.

Voodoo Museum Altar

The same laws that mandated baptism for enslaved people also required that they be allowed to take a day of rest on Sundays.

Mornings were generally spent at mass, but Sunday afternoon was discretionary time.

The law also restricted large gatherings of Africans and their descendants to a single place, just outside the city walls, called Place Congo or Congo Square.

So Sunday afternoons at Congo Square came to be the main setting for voodoo ceremonies – along with others conducted secretly.

Remarkably, these ceremonies were public knowledge, but they were never suppressed completely. This is probably because outside observers didn’t recognize the religious intent behind them.

The outdoor setting, the physical intensity of the drumming and dancing, and leadership by groups of women all made the ceremonies such a far cry from a Catholic mass that they seem to have passed for secular, athletic events – a way to blow off steam on the weekend.

Outside of ceremonies, voodoo priestesses and priests also became essential as day-to-day advisers and medics.

It was in these roles that they created gris-gris bags, herbal treatments, voodoo dolls, potions, and other items that combine elements of science and prayer.

Life in New Orleans was difficult enough that these services were in demand even among people who weren’t part of the religion, and so the idea of magic – often condemned but sometimes needed – became voodoo’s public face.

(Learn about the day-to-day work of a voodoo priest with Free Tours by Foot guide Robi here:

While voodoo is popularly associated with New Orleans, it’s by no means the only place where this story happened. Similar hybrids came about wherever West African religions coexisted with Catholicism.

In Brazil, the result is called candomblé; in the Spanish colonies, santeria. In some places, indigenous people and their religions took on significant roles.

Some variations use Catholic imagery strictly as camouflage, while others incorporate earnest Catholic beliefs.

Versions in rural Louisiana have replaced Catholic elements with Protestant ones.

And different strains have also influenced each other: at the turn of the 19th century, thousands of Haitians arrived in New Orleans, fleeing the Haitian Revolution and bringing their version of voodoo to mix with the local one.

In New Orleans today, the evolution is ongoing. You might meet born-and-raised voodooists in the city, living examples of an unbroken familial tradition, and you might also meet people who chose to be initiated later in life.

You may also meet Catholics who observe a few African-rooted traditions, like jumping a broom at a wedding or using brick dust to protect a front door.

Among the initiated, the tenet of secrecy is contentious, with some feeling it is still a critical way of paying respect to ancestors, while others see going public as a necessary way to correct perceptions and attract new adherents.

One thing is for sure: interest isn’t going away.

You can see Free Tours by Foot guide Robi, who was born and raised in the religion, share its history in Congo Square here:


MARIE LAVEAU

By far the most famous name in New Orleans voodoo is Marie Laveau.

She’s as much a subject of folklore as of fact, and the latest installment in her ongoing legend comes from Angela Bassett’s performance of her in American Horror Story: Coven.

Marie was born in 1801, on the eve of the Louisiana Purchase, and she would have grown up amid fast change as Haitians and Protestant Anglo-Americans flocked to New Orleans.

house-of-voodoo

Her era would have called her a quadroon – meaning she was of one-quarter African descent.

She was born free, married a mixed-race man who died or disappeared, had a long relationship with a white man she couldn’t marry, and gave birth to children, one of whom would go on to pass for white in her adult life.

And somehow, by the time she died at the age of 80, she had become famous enough to have obituaries in every local newspaper, plus the New York Times – all without ever leaving her hometown or learning to read.

And what earned her all that fame? The answers seem to have been mostly legend even when she was alive – all those obituaries barely agree on a single detail.

We have an article that shares what’s known for sure – read on: Marie Laveau Voodoo Queen of New Orleans

Watch a video of Free Tours by Foot guides Robi and Sandy exploring Marie Laveau’s history:


HOW TO SEE VOODOO IN NEW ORLEANS TODAY

Take a Tour

Free Tours by Foot is proud to offer a pay-what-you-like tour focused entirely on the voodoo religion – its history, its ceremonies, and its life in Louisiana today.

When you peruse our calendar (Book New Orleans Tours), look for the Voodoo Tour at 3pm Thursday through Monday or Priest Robi’s Voodoo Tour at 10am Thursday through Monday. New Orleans Voodoo Tour

Sample Robi’s tour here:

Many other tour companies in town also offer tours with the word “voodoo” in the title.

In some cases, this means the tour will focus on the religion, while in others, you can expect supernatural horror stories.

We’re all about sharing those stories, too, but you’ll find them on our ghost tour (New Orleans Ghost Tour) – get a video sample here:


Visit Congo Square

It’s still possible to see the site of all those 18th- and 19th-century voodoo rituals by visiting Louis Armstrong Park, just outside the French Quarter.

Armstrong Park commemorates New Orleans’ musical legacy, and Congo Square, the United States’ strongest connection with African music, is just a few steps from the main gate.

The cobblestoned, landscaped area you’ll see today doesn’t bear much resemblance to the dancing grounds of old, but the modern embellishments include helpful historical markers and monuments.

And while the original performance tradition there seems to have died out soon after the Civil War, in recent years it’s seen a revival, and today you can again count on hearing drums and seeing dancers almost every Sunday afternoon of the year.

Depending on the week, you may also see a market – another callback to Congo Square’s earliest functions – or possibly a full-on music festival.

Apart from a few festival days, Armstrong Park and Congo Square are free to enter. The gates are generally open 8am to 6pm.


Visit St. Louis Cemetery #1

New Orleans’s oldest cemetery is located just outside the French Quarter.

It’s a Catholic cemetery, but since it was the city’s main burial site, and since receiving Catholic sacraments was part of voodooists’ exercise of secrecy, it’s safe to say that many are buried inside these walls.

Marie Laveau owned a family tomb that still stands just inside the cemetery’s front gate.

The tomb is covered in the names of her family members, and church records say she is buried there as well, while lore among the voodoo community has her buried elsewhere.

Wherever she is, interested visitors still flock to St. Louis #1, where her tomb is the main attraction.

However, the church has recently opted to close the cemetery to public access and allow entry only through one tour company, and discussion of voodoo is generally minimal.

Check out our article on reasons to visit St. Louis #1: 10 Reasons to Visit St. Louis Cemetery


Readings

In their role as spiritual advisors, voodoo priests can perform readings for members and non-members of the religion alike.

What this looks like depends on the tradition a priest belongs to.

Some have adopted tarot, playing cards, or other widely used tools of fortune-telling, while others use methods particular to voodoo.

In contrast with many readings, voodoo priests will often ask you to come with a particular question or problem in mind to focus on.

And fun fact – while New Orleans law prohibits putting a price on fortune telling, there’s an exception when it’s a religious service.

So while most fortune tellers operate on a pay-what-you-like basis, voodoo priests can ask a specific price.

Most voodoo shops offer readings or can connect you with someone who does – see the section on voodoo shops below for more information.


Voodoo Shops

The French Quarter is full of shops that use “voodoo” in their names, and their contents range from religious spaces to African art to souvenirs.

It can be hard to know what to expect from these places – which is why we have a whole article on the subject, including recommended shops, their locations and hours, and the services each one offers.

5 Top Voodoo Shops in New Orleans


Visit the Voodoo Museum

The French Quarter is also home to the Historic Voodoo Museum. Their small collection of artifacts delivers heavy ambiance and light storytelling.

They also offer readings and tours. See our full article on the subject here:

The Voodoo Museum in New Orleans

About The Author

Stephen Pickhardt

Stephen is the CEO of Free Tours by Foot and has overseen the transformation of a local walking tour company into a global tour community and traveler’s advice platform. He has personally led thousands of group tours in the US and Europe, and is an expert in trip planning and sightseeing, with a focus on budget travelers. Stephen has been published and featured in dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Yahoo, Washington.org, and more.
Updated: September 6th, 2022
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