Voodoo, Paganism and Religion New Orleans-StyleMarch 16, 2011 No Comments
New Orleans’ Jackson Square is a study in contrasts. Tourists surge through on their way to dinner reservations at Muriel’s on the Square as homeless kids known as gutter punks huddle in a doorway. Balloon artists delight children with intricate balloon animals as a young man painted silver stands motionless on a milk crate, a sign asking for tips in front of him. But perhaps no contrast is more striking than the juxtaposition of a row of tarot readers and fortune tellers set up with camp chairs and folding tables in front of the elegant St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the United States.
The Role of Voodoo
Perhaps nowhere else on Earth are the religions of voodoo and a form of ”so-called” Catholicism are as interconnected as they are in New Orleans. Many so-called practicing Catholics often visit the city’s voodoo shops, while some of the most legendary voodoo priests and priestesses have been regular attendees at Mass. In places where both religions exist side by side, people have been shaped and changed by their exposure to them, creating a highly tolerant if a somewhat mixed-up culture.
The History of Religion in New Orleans
In order to understand the complex relationship between various religions in New Orleans today, it is necessary to understand the city’s religious roots. New Orleans was founded by French Catholics. Much of the early population consisted of pirates, prostitutes and other criminals, who were granted early release from French prisons in exchange for building a city in a swamp in the New World. Control was ceded to Spain in 1763 and then back to France in 1801. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase gave New Orleans to the United States.
Slavery was very much alive in the 1700s and 1800s and, as a major port town, New Orleans quickly developed the largest slave market in the United States. The Haitian Revolts of 1791 and 1804 brought a flood of both whites and free people of color, most of whom brought slaves with them. Haitian slaves and free people of color brought their native religion of voodoo with them.
In most antebellum cities, slaves were forbidden to gather. New Orleans, however, is to this day governed by a civil code that is largely based on 1800s Napoleonic Code (the only modern U.S. city to do so). In addition, the city’s black population was at the time governed by the Code Noir which, while setting strict limits, also mandated that slaves have Sundays and holidays off work. They were permitted to gather in Congo Square, across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. Slaves established an open-air market and joined together in song and dance. This allowed the slaves the opportunity to practice their native voodoo religion.
Meanwhile, most slave masters chose to baptize their slaves in the Catholic Church. Slaves and free people of color were permitted to attend Sunday services, and many did so quite faithfully. It was common for them to attend Mass and then gather in Congo Square for voodoo rituals.
Many of the white settlers in New Orleans were fascinated by the voodoo culture and it actually became a trend, similar to some of the New Age practices of today. But it took a highly shrewd African-American woman to jumble Catholicism and voodoo in New Orleans.
Marie Laveau was the daughter of a white planter and a free woman of color, born in the French Quarter around 1794. She married Haitian immigrant and free black man Jacques Paris in 1814 and, following his death in 1820, entered a common-law marriage with Christophe Glapion. The couple had 15 children.
After the death of her first husband, Laveau took a job as a hairdresser catering to wealthy white women. According to reports she mixed Catholicism with other religious African concepts. But Laveau was best known as a voodoo priestess. Today, some say that she was merely an excellent listener and clever businesswoman, able to put together bits and pieces that she overheard along with creative deduction to tell people what they wanted to hear. Others claim that she was the most powerful voodoo queen ever. She was also said to have defeated the aging process, although now most feel that her eldest daughter quietly took over the Laveau role when the mother grew older.
Regardless of the truth behind Marie Laveau, she became a near-mythic figure to her contemporaries at all levels of society. Wealthy society women and poor slaves alike went to her for potions, spells, and words of comfort. In later years, Marie Laveau (either mother or daughter) invited curiosity seekers to view elaborate voodoo rituals in Bayou St. John on St. John’s Eve. Voodoo became deeply rooted in the culture of New Orleans, practiced by those of every dubious religious background and every standing in society.
With voodoo and paganism inextricably linked to New Orleans, the door was open for religions of all stripes to flourish in 20th century here. New immigrants brought their own traditions, from Protestantism to Judaism. Although Catholicism remains dominant, virtually every religion imaginable can be found in modern-day New Orleans, peacefully coexisting and sharing many crossover traditions.
Known as the Place d’Armes until 1814, when it was renamed in honor of the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson Square has always been a hub of New Orleans life. The Cathedral is flanked by the Presbytere, once a residence for the city’s Catholic priests, and the Cabildo, originally City Hall. Yet the center of the Square was also the site of public hangings, where disobedient slaves were executed and dismembered, then used to decorate the city gates.
Since its earliest days, New Orleans has drawn those who want to disappear, create a new life or simply reinvent themselves. It is said that legendary pirate Jean Lafitte owned a blacksmith shop on Bourbon Street (today a bar that has changed little since the 1700s) and ran a black market beside the Cathedral in what is now known as Pirate’s Alley.
With so much history, it was only natural for free spirits, hippies and travelers to find themselves in Jackson Square. By the 1920s, the Square was a haven for artists from professionals to students. The 1960s and 1970s saw the beginnings of the Square as a place of business for pagans and New Age devotees telling fortunes and reading palms and tarot cards.
One of the most influential early tarot readers was Jerik Danerson. Born in California in 1946, Jerik developed a strong early interest in ancient religions, particularly the Norse traditions. He became immersed in modern paganism in the 1960s and made his way to New Orleans. Setting up a tarot and palm-reading stand in Jackson Square, Jerik went on to found a new path of Wicca known as Southshire, which in turn influenced countless additional paths.
While most travelers float into New Orleans and back out again, Jerik put down roots. He practiced his trade on the corner of St. Ann Street for more than 30 years until his death in 2009. Jerik was also a stable influence, friend and surrogate father for street kids and gutter punks, homeless teens and young adults who found themselves alone in New Orleans. Food, clothing and even shelter were theirs for the asking, and he was happy to train them as palmists and tarot readers and let them work alongside him on the Square. Jerik was one of my first friends when I moved to New Orleans, and I was proud to call him my adopted uncle. Sadly, my photos of Jerik were lost in Hurricane Katrina.
Touring New Orleans’ Religious History
Today it is easy to take a walk through the religious history of New Orleans without ever leaving the French Quarter. St. Louis Cathedral, located on Jackson Square, is open to the public. Voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1, on Basin Street between St. Louis and Conti. Her grave is easy to find thanks to the red X’s and voodoo markings that decorate the vault. It is best to visit the cemetery with a tour group, as there are sometimes pickpockets and petty criminals.
Stop by the Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street to learn more about the religion’s history, at Rev. Zombie’s Voodoo Shop at St. Peter and Bourbon Street. Then, if you are so inclined, stroll through Jackson Square and have your fortune told. Whether you believe in fortune telling or not, the readers are highly entertaining and work strictly for tips. $10 to $20 is average, though you may give more or less.
New Orleans is one-of-a-kind in many ways, and perhaps none more so than its complicated web of religious traditions. Whatever your belief system may be, take some time out to explore. In many ways, the history of New Orleans’ religions is the history of its unique culture.