New Orleans is a slow burn.
Ankhie returned from the Crescent City several days ago, but can’t shake the feeling that she is still there. Or at the very least, not quite here.
It was my first visit, although I’d been hearing about New Orleans my whole life. Wonderful things. Spooky things. So, being a Yankee exposed to hyperbole I starched up and went there not with great excitement, but with a make-do attitude and an eye for disappointment.
From the moment I stepped off the plane, everything shifted – ever so slightly, like the way things look and feel just before you come down with a raging fever. Now… Ankhie doesn’t travel well (and forgot her air sick meds) so that was a factor at the start. And the weather was much warmer and moister than Boston in winter, which makes for much strange perspiration. Then there was the food – fabulous, rich, and feasty – and the high-octane alcohol, all combined the unrelenting visual, aural and olfactory stimuli of the French Quarter. Just taken at face value this sounds like a recipe for delirium. But the really strange part was that none of it – not the glow-in-the-dark cocktails nor the black cloth doll nailed to the hollow of a cemetery tree – actually felt strange. It felt weirdly organic, and disarmingly… normal. I was expecting to be disappointed or overwhelmed or terrified. Instead I was totally at ease.
We’ve talked a lot here about the power of place. It’s a subject near and dear to the heart of anyone who works with natural energies. A city like New Orleans, where the lives of its inhabitants, past and present, are so inextricably bound to the environment, is likely to be a highly charged magical place. At the risk of sounding like a proselytizing tourist, I have to say that New Orleans is something more – something subtler, older, and more insidious. I’ve been to places that have awed me – even lived in a few of them – but I have never been anywhere that got under my skin so quickly and so thoroughly. And not just the European charm and shabbiness of the French Quarter. Thanks to a fabulous nighttime cemetery tour courtesy of Bloody Mary – we traveled through places in the city well off the tourist map – places that I wouldn’t recommend going without a knowledgeable guide – and even there, it all felt right. Not good or just, but as it was meant to be at that place and in this time. Yeah I know what y’all are thinking – Ankhie drank the kool-ade. Not quite, but I did leave a little something on an altar for Marie Laveau, and came home armed with a wee dolly and mucho gris gris.
My companions and I went well-prepared with mainstream maps and tour books, but found ourselves well-supplemented by Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook. It is decidedly not intended as a travel guide, but nonetheless it proved to be an invaluable companion to the mysteries of NOLA witchery.
Here is a sample from Chapter One, on the history of New Orleans Voodoo:
New Orleans Voodoo originated from the ancestral religions of the African Diaspora. It is one of the many incarnations of African-based religions rooted in the West African Dahomean and Central African Voodoo traditions. It became syncretized with the Catholic religion as a result of the massive forced migrations, displacements of the slave trade, and the Code Noir. Slave owners forbade the Africans from practicing Voodoo under penalty of death and, in areas controlled by the Catholics, forced many of them to convert to Catholicism. The result was a creolization of the names and aspects of the Voodoo spirits to those of the Christian saints that most closely resembled their particular areas of expertise or power. Under the guise of Catholicism, the religion of Voodoo survived…
The term Voodoo Hoodoo is commonly used by Louisiana locals to describe our unique brand of New Orleans Creole Voodoo. It refers to a blending of religious and magickal elements. Voodoo is widely believed by those outside of the New Orleans Voodoo tradition to be separate from hoodoo magick. However, separation of religion from magick did not occur in New Orleans as it did in other areas of the country. The magick is part of the religion; the charms are medicine and spiritual tools that hold the inherent healing mechanisms of the traditional religion and culture. Voodoo in New Orleans is a way of life for those who believe.
Still, there are those who separate Voodoo and hoodoo. Some hoodoo practitioners integrate elements of Voodoo, and some do not. Some incorporate elements of Catholicism or other Christian religious thought into their practice, while others do not. How much of the original religion a person decides to believe in and practice is left up to the individual. Some people don’t consider what they do religion at all, preferring to call it a spiritual tradition of African American folk magic. Throughout this book, I use the term Voodoo hoodoo in reference to the blend of the two aspects of the original religion as found in New Orleans Voodoo and as a way of life. A fellow New Orleans native and contemporary gris gris man Dr. John explains it this way:
“In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music, you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles each into the other – Catholic saint worship with gris gris spirits, evangelical tent meetings with spiritual church ceremonies – until nothing is purely itself but becomes part of one fonky gumbo. That is why it is important to understand that in New Orleans the idea of Voodoo – or as we call it gris gris – is less a distinct religion than a way of life.” (Dr. John, Rebennack & Rummel, 1994, p.159)
New Orleans Voodoo evolved to embrace aspects of the “fonky gumbo” of cultures in the nineteenth century and as a result, it is distinguishable from other forms of Voodoo and hoodoo found in other areas of the country. For example, there is a blend of Spiritualism, African Voodoo, Native American traditions, Santeria, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism. An additional hallmark of New Orleans Voodoo hoodoo is the borrowing of material from European and African folk magic, Kabbalistic influences, ancestor worship, and strong elements of Christian and Jewish mysticism, such as the use of various seals and sigils. In fact, for many practitioners, the Bible is considered a talisman in and of itself, as well as a primary source for magical lore. The psalms and the saints are aspects key to hoodoo practice for many practitioners, though not all.
New Orleans Voodoo is unique in its use of Spirit Guides in worship services and in the forms of ritual possession that its adherents practice. There is candle magick, and there used to be Voodoo seances. (I don’t know how prevalent these are among practitioners today). The Voodoo-influenced Spiritual Churches that survive in New Orleans are the result of a mingling of these and other spiritual practices. I should point out that Spiritualists will typically say that they have nothing to do with Voodoo or hoodoo. Still, some of the spiritual practices are extremely similar, whatever you call it.
A most important difference, however, is the retention of the various religious practices from the different African cultural groups that arrived on the Louisiana Coast. For example, there is gris gris from Senegambia; the “serpent cult” of Nzambi from Whydah, or Li Grande Zombi as it is known in New Orleans; the obvious influence of fetishism, the nkisis or “sacred medicine,” from the Congo basin of Central Africa; and the Bocio figurines from the Gulf of Guinea and the Congo Kingdom.
This is just the briefest excerpt from this excellent book. If you have any interest in Voodoo or hoodoo I highly recommend that you pick up a copy. The table of correspondences for Saints/Angels and Loas/Orishas is particularly helpful.
And if you find your lucky self in this fabulous city, check out these excellent occult retailers and services – all Ankhie visited and Ankhie approved!
Bloody Mary Tours - I can’t say enough good things about Bloody Mary, Mambo Gina, and their amazing tours. This is the New Orleans you came here to find.
Esoterica Occult Goods – Lady Mimi Lansou is the real deal, and this is one of the spookiest (in the best possible way) shops in the French Quarter (on Rue Dumaine). Don’t miss it!
Voodoo Authentica - just across the street from Esoterica is this awesome little shop and cultural center. An astonishing collection of dolls, altars, and art are just the beginning of the educational opportunities here.
Erzulies - this shop on Royal Street looks deceptively like a ladies boutique or perfumery from the outside (lots of pink in the decor – it’s all about the love!) but don’t be fooled – this is a serious shop of hoodoo run by folks who know their business. Ankhie found the woman on staff (whose name I regret to say I did not catch) extremely helpful and informative!
Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo - one of the few shops on Bourbon Street that sells serious hoodoo supplies, and it’s endorsed by Bloody Mary so that goes a long way with me. Take a break from the glow-in-the-dark cocktails (see above) and spill-over nudies shows on the tourist strip and step inside for some spookage.
HEX New Orleans – Christian Day is just getting settled in on Decatur Street (with the excellent and indispensable help of New England transplants Tim and Sharon) but like its Salem counterpart, HEX New Orleans is shaping up to be all that a hard-core occultist could hope for in a shop. Less Voodoo oriented that the others but chock full of Old World Magick. Ankhie personally recommends a reading with Sharon (who uses a well-worn Thoth deck) .
Coop’s Place – Not occult per say, but there is definitely something otherworldly going on here. I am still thinking about the jambalaya and spicy bloody mary I had at this amazing hole-in-the-wall eatery on Decatur Street. Had Christian not lead us there, we would have walked right by it. Tasty. Tasty. Tasty! Damn, now I’m hungry!
Special thanks to Doctors K.J. and E.E. for financing Ankhie’s trip and to Dr. K.J and Bad Kris for making it both memorable and a total blast. And thanks to Christian Day for giving us all the private tour.