- Cierra Chenier
My Queens Do Voodoo: The Legacy of Marie Laveau
Marie Laveau is a notorious figure in the city of New Orleans. Crowned as the Queen of Voodoo, her life and story exemplifies what it meant to be a free, Black Creole woman in 19th century New Orleans.
Laveau was born in New Orleans as a free woman of color. She is said to have lived on St. Ann street (between Rampart and Burgundy) and spoke broken English and fluent French.
One important aspect about Laveau was her alliance with the Catholic Church. Not only was she a devout Catholic, she referenced God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints in her practices. This strategy is one of the many instances that display Marie Laveau's cleverness. The practice of African religions was forbidden under Code Noir and only Catholicism was to be practiced in Louisiana. By Laveau aligning herself with the Catholic Church, she was able to practice her religion, while still maintaining voodoo's West African roots.
Marie Laveau was slick. She knew that many Black people could not afford her services, but she helped them anyway, even housing enslaved people and Native Americans in her home on St. Ann.
One time, a man visited her home stressing because he did not have any money. Laveau, who was 'bout making money herself, stretched the man out across her sofa, covered him with a sheet, and placed lit candles near his head and feet. Then, she went outside, sat on her porch, and burst into tears in front of whoever walked by. When asked what was wrong, she said that her friend just passed away inside and she needed money to cover the costs. The onlookers would go inside the house, see the "body" covered on the sofa, and fill her bowl up with coins. Once everyone left, she told the man to get up, and they split the money in half.
Community elders of the area have shared numerous stories on what they remember about Marie Laveau. Many negative stereotypes surrounded her name -- she has been referred to as everything from a witch, a cannibal, to a murderer. Black people that refused to align themselves with voodoo didn't even like speaking of Laveau. To some, she was just that "crazy voodoo lady" in the city whose house you should never pass by.
Many Europeans of the era were intrigued by Laveau. The white men were fascinated by her style of dress, curly hair, and "Creole" ambiguity. The white women were equally as fascinated, even becoming loyal clients of Laveau in hopes that her rituals could mend their broken marriages. When gossip rang through the Quarter about so and so's husband cheating, or about so and so's wife doing this and that, Laveau paid close attention. Instead of informing the men about their wives or the wives about their husbands, she let them come to her. Now you have both the men and the women paying Laveau to perform rituals to mend the mess with their spouses.
It is said that Laveau's rituals were performed along Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John. She and her followers would stand knee-deep in the waters and sing and dance in a big circle. Every year, she would host a ritual on the Eve of St. Johns. No one would see Laveau for nine days before the feast. When she was called upon at the ritual, she would rise out of the waters and carry candles in both hands. She is said to have danced with a serpent around her neck and having consumed the blood of a rooster. Since authentic rituals were generally practiced in private, many say that Laveau used this ceremony as a dramatic decoy to trick the white spectators, when the real voodoo rituals were actually done in the swamps.
Both Black and white women flocked to Laveau for her services. With voodoo consisting of 80% women, it's safe to say that Laveau served as a leader to her female followers.
She was powerful, independent, and economically empowered. She found a way to benefit off her religion and get paid by the same people that were oppressing her, which was unheard of by a woman of color of that era. As a Black woman, she was not equal to whites in the eyes of the law, but she made due by having them pay her rather than her work for them. She used her Creole identity to her advantage by allowing whites to obsess over her ambiguity, while cleverly using them to help the enslaved and free Black community.
Death and the Afterlife
Near death, Marie Laveau fell back off her voodoo rituals, and focused primarily on Catholicism. She attended mass daily before dying in June of 1881.
Voodoo beliefs include significance of the afterlife. Voodoo practitioners believe that although the body has perished, the soul still lingers here on Earth. With that being said, I am not surprised at the many stories of alleged encounters with Marie Laveau's spirit. People claim to have seen her strolling near her old home on St. Ann, dancing on Bayou St. John, and even at her gravesite at St. Louis Cemetery #1.
In a city where the lost souls still linger, it's safe to say that Queen Laveau still has the city of New Orleans wrapped around her finger.