New Orleans Voodoo – Two contrasting videos

7 05 2009

One wonders how accurate this video is. I have yet to read a serious biography of Marie Laveau, mainly because I can’t afford it (sigh). Should we believe that the head of the New Orleans clergy and the chief Voudou priestess worked together in many ways? (Congo Square is about six blocks behind St. Louis Cathedral, almost in its shadow.) Perhaps our own ideas of acceptability when it comes to syncretism are different from those of “good Catholics” from back then. One thing is for sure: Marie Laveau was a fixture at the cathedral throughout her life, and no one tried to throw her out.

Of course, I picked this video because there is not a black person in it. I was recently at the St. Jude Shrine in New Orleans, which has a number of African-American parishioners. There was a woman who was doing something very interesting around the statue of St. Jude, probably something she made up, but it would look like “Voodoo” to anyone else looking on. The one thing about syncretic systems is that they are most authentic when people use them in the style of a bricoleur, that is, not self-consciously, systematically separating the “pagan” from the “Christian” elements. Indeed, it is middle class whites who often exploit syncretic systems, Indian shamanism, etc., in their own anti-Christian, neo-pagan quests for “real spirituality”. Marie Laveau or El Niño Fidencio would have never thought themselves anything but good Catholics when executing their “pagan” rituals. When outsiders arrive to take up their mantle, they more often than not miss that very important point.



9 responses

9 05 2009

“How did Europeans square their dislike of African paganism with their toleration of the Greco-Roman pantheon in the academic canon?”

Probably because they studied and admired the Greek and Roman civilizations, and considered the Africans to be savages. Same with the native peoples of the Americas. It wasn’t until Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell came along that the idea of religious symbols as universal archetypes took hold, and probably not until the late sixties or seventies that the notion of indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices being equivalent to Christianity (or better, as all the white folks getting weepy over Chief Seattle’s address and sitting in sweat lodges, or going in for Voodoo or Santeria). Attitudes have changed- religion is now a matter of personal choice, and no one is allowed to suggest that any are better than another. When I was in High School, my anthropology teacher told us over and over that “you cannot judge a culture from the perspective of your own.” I used to think that was a really profound statement; now I realize it is simply a slogan for cultural relativism.

8 05 2009


Good point about the role of Greco-Roman paganism in the West. It does seem hypocritical to cast Zeus et. al as being somehow classier than, say Eshu-Eleggua. How did Europeans square their dislike of African paganism with their toleration of the Greco-Roman pantheon in the academic canon?


Your comments get at what I’m trying to figure out with regards to these sycretism, which is to what extent are they folk religious practices or separate religions. The answer seems to be, “It depends.” A couple of weeks ago, I saw a short video about capoeira and candomble practitioners in Brazil, and they seemed pretty adamant in saying that the latter was distinct from Catholicism even in the 19th century and that followers were knowingly using Catholic practices as a cover for African worship. Then again, these people also seemed to be filtering candomble through a modern black liberation framework, so its unclear whether their claims are true or not. It seems like many of these syncretist religions have taken on a political/ideological element in the past 40 or so years.

8 05 2009
Leyla Jagiella

There is an interesting thesis available online, mentioning some of the differences between traditional New Orleans Voodoo and modern commercialized New Orleans Voodoo.
See here:

Click to access Crocker_thesis.pdf

8 05 2009
Leyla Jagiella

Today belief systems like Santeria, Candomble and Voodoo/Vodou certainly work in many ways like systems quite separate from Catholicism.
There certainly is a dichotomy now.

But Arturo is very right in pointing out that this dichotomy mostly appears in the context of modern Catholicism, not in the context of traditional Catholic folk practices.

I would like to ad to this that we also deal with modern Santeria, Candomble and Vodou and not with religious entities unchanged since the days of slavery.

Some communities of Santeria and Candomble practitioners deliberately re-africanized their beliefs and practices in recent decades.
There has been a deliberate de-synchretization going on in some temples of Candomble, Santeria and Haitian Vodou and temples in Cuba, Haiti and Brazil fostered new connections with communities in West Africa.

The anthropological discovery of Afro-American religions has had a big part in this, by the way, as had formerly Protestant converts to the faiths from both black and white communities in the US.
In Cuba, Castro`s politics had certainly had some influence in this as well, stressing African connections and deemphasizing the Catholic element.

New Orleans Voodoo, again, used to be quite different in the old days. It has been re-africanized and haitianized in recent years, largely by people (many of them white middleclass or formerly protestant black) who do not come from the traditional New Orleans Voodoo milieu.

Traditional New Orleans Voodoo is much less concerned with “spirituality” and with elaborate African pantheons and much more with solving practical problems of everyday life.
It originally ony had few similarities with Haitian Vodou.
It has been characterized as a variant of Southern Afroamerican Hoodoo practice within a Catholic milieu (and related to the Cajun traiteurs)

8 05 2009


8 05 2009

Christian henotheism? Is there any religion that doesn’t had a pantheon at one time or another? Sanctioned or not? Redacted or not?

8 05 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I should add as a mandatory aside that Candomble, Voudou, and the rest are not considered to be purely harmless expressions of religiosity. In any magical culture, people suspect any type of practioner of playing “both sides of the fence”. One of the accusations against curanderos in Mexico, one that is echoed into the early modern period in Europe against supposed “witches”, is that such practioners put spells on people only so that they can charge people to remove them. In Brazil, candomble practioners get so competitive that they cast spells against each other, and lots of innocent people get caught in the crossfire. That is why many people end up Pentecostal in Brazil: they want to break the cycle of cursing and having curses removed. Of course, the Pentecostals are no Boy Scouts either: people look for miracles there, and often the people behind them are a bunch of frauds. Nevertheless, particularly in Mexican curanderismo, there are curanderos who are merely lay exorcists who cure the evil eye and other preternatural conditions. As in all things, discernement is needed, but I see no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

8 05 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think that a lot of First World Catholics’ aversion to syncretism is somewhat like the pot telling the kettle it’s black. The fact is, regular old Catholics didn’t need African or indigenous paganism to believe strange things: our entire religion is syncretic to some extent. Heck, we have a saint (St. Josaphat) who is probably just a Christianized version of the Buddha story. Dionyisus the Areopagite is just the cleaned-up pagan ontological hierarchies of Proclus. The cult of the martyrs in many places was explicitly introduced to take the place of the cult of the gods, sacred wells in pagan Ireland remained sacred in Christian Ireland, and so on and so forth.

Fast forward to the Renaissance, and we see Christian divines casting horoscopes and using the names of pagan gods to describe natural and supernatural phenomena. Indeed, it is a good question if these intellectuals merely dismissed the figures of Hermes and Apollo as purely mythical; they probably didn’t. Just as Jupiter or Theuth could represent real principles at the heart of the universe in Ficino, why can’t Ogum or Obatala represent these principles to divines now? As I wrote in a previous essay, some of the first mestizo Jesuits wanted to bestow the name “Viracocha” on Christ, since in Inca thought, Viracocha was the name of the Word Incarnate. That idea was dismissed as syncretism. If we can have the bust of Pallas overseeing our students at even Christian institutions of higher learning, when will we begin casting busts of Erzulie or Yemanja? Or is African paganism automatically demonic, but ancient European paganism relatively benign? I don’t think so.

8 05 2009

I’ve heard five explanations for syncretism in Catholic cultures:

1. These people are pagans. Any similarities between their beliefs and practices to Christianity of any sort is purely coincidental.

2. These people are well-intentioned but confused, no doubt due to poor education in general and non-existent catechesis in particular. Improve the quality of the secular and religious education and they’ll give up syncretism.

3. Syncretism is a legitimate folk religious practice.

4. Syncretist faiths enabled enslaved Africans to keep their ancestral religions and cultures in a hostile environment and Catholicism was simply used as a front so the authorities wouldn’t know what they were really up to. Hence, these religions should be seen as an entirely separate from Catholicism.

I find explanations 1 and 2 to be too simplistic, but it does seem like belief systems like santeria and candomble seem to be entirely separate belief systems than Catholicism. This would explain why the secular and religious authorities in Brazil were trying to root out the practice of the latter in the 19th century. I don’t know as much about Voodoo, so I can’t comment on that. Where exactly do the Spiritual churches fit into all of this, since they seem to mix a little something from everyone?

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