On the margins of theology – VI

18 01 2010

The myth of Marie Laveau

“Voodoo” is a brand name in New Orleans. This past Halloween, right in front of the museum in City Park, there was a big “Voodoo” sign advertising a big concert at which performed such treasures of our American culture as Eminem. It also shows up, almost annoyingly, on many advertisements in the city. Tours of the French Quarter almost always end at St. Louis Cemetery no. 1, home of the tomb of famed “Voodoo Queen”, Marie Laveau, over which now looms one of the more crime-ridden housing projects in the city. (Really, don’t go to this cemetery by yourself, go in a group of at least five or six people. If you want to visit an authentic Louisiana cemetery without risking life and limb, go to St. Louis Cemetery no. 3 off of Esplanade in Mid-City, or to the cemeteries on Canal St.)

Unlike the Haitian variety, however, Voodoo here cannot be pinned to zombies or a pantheon of African deities. AG, a New Orleans native, once told me that her impression of Voodoo was not of something you believe in, but of something you do. You believe in Catholicism, you do Voodoo. In spite of the best efforts of outsiders, or well-meaning natives, to create a Voodoo more in sync with the elaborate metaphysics of the Haitian and African religions, the closest thing to a real “Voodoo religion” in New Orleans were the Spiritual Churches, and most of the remaining practitioners of that faith would be horrified at being associated with such a dark art.

A good if disappointing book on this subject is by Carolyn Morrow Long under the title of A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau. I say “disappointing” because the book seems more devoted to what Marie Laveau WASN’T. Through some very thorough and meticulous archival work, Ms. Long concludes that the vast majority of stories about Marie Laveau, her powers over the court system, her wealth, her wild orgies on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, are all tall tales. If we go just by the documentary evidence available at the time, we find that Marie Laveau’s legend did not really grow until well after she had already left the scene. Nor was there any evidence that she was well-known and the whole city feared and respected her. Basically, what we know of Marie Laveau is that:

1. She was reputed as a healer of some sort, sort of akin to the Mexican curandero or traiteur of rural Louisiana. She may or may not have had an altar with some questionable things on it (a snake?) common to what people here in the South would know as Hoodoo or rootwork.

2. She had some sort of “prison ministry” to help those who were imprisoned or condemned to die.

Other than that, Marie Laveau is a complete enigma. Ms. Long and other scholars have devoted their scholarly efforts to finding out why such stories surfaced in the first place. The first reason has to do with that ever-present and so American category of race. It almost became second nature for the “decent” white folk to invent stories of orgies and mystical African powers, for purposes of maintaining hegemony and out of sheer entertainment. The Voudou priestess, like the Creole “colored” woman in general, signified the allure and charms of mixed blood in the face of a society that conceived of women of white skin as bulwarks of the home and the means of continuing the pure bloodline of decent white folks. Indeed, one of the avatars assumed by Laveau was that of mixed blood “pimp mama”; offering loose Creole women to eager young white gentleman. Magic had to go part and parcel with this; Voodoo was the dark unconsciousness of polite white Creole society.

That of course could be said to be pure speculation. Where there is smoke, however, there is indeed fire. There is something different about New Orleans Catholicism, and to pretend that Catholics of south Louisiana are just like Catholics in other parts of Protestant America is not entirely accurate. One only need go to the old mortuary chapel on the edge of the French Quarter, now known as the International Shrine of St. Jude, or look at the old St. Anne Shrine on Ursulines (again, not in a good neighborhood), or even just observe the brightly colored Virgins placed on the random front lawn, to see that in many ways, we are dealing with a different animal, or at the very least, the remnants of one. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising for people to have a keener sense of the supernatural, to have fear of bottles being buried in order to perform a “bad work”. In other words, we are dealing with a society where Catholicism was the norm and not some exotic, suspicious creature as it has been viewed historically in other parts of this country.

In this light, Marie Laveau was probably at the very most a folk healer who had some knowledge of the cures and preternatural influences of her African heritage. She was very likely a good Catholic who, unlike us today, had enough “cognitive dissonance” to carry out some questionable rituals the nature of which are now unclear. The other exaggerations, the stories and tales of some “half-breed” menacing and entertaining Creole decent society, were probably just the product of white desire for superiority and titillation, not to mention the increased integration of Creole society into the American polity. Such exercises in historical creativity reached their apex in the time of Jim Crow in the questionable scholarship of such people as Robert Tallant, and, ironically enough, Zora Neale Hurtson. It was a scholarship that had long ago separated “superstition” from religion, and had long ago concluded that people who did “those kinds of things” could not possibly be “good Christians”, but rather secret pagans.

The other side of all of this is the invocation of Laveau by the “neo-pagans” and those people (often white) who would usurp the crown of the “Voodoo Queen” for themselves. The Voudou priestess Sallie Ann Glassman announced to the local paper that Marie Laveau is now the lwa of New Orleans, a veritable apotheosis of someone who was both the object of minor admiration in her own lifetime and the victim of yellow journalism in death. The real Marie Laveau, probably just an ordinary Catholic woman with a few tricks up her sleeve, would no doubt be a bit puzzled by such a title.



3 responses

19 01 2010
Matthew N. Petersen

I think we as “enlightened” Europeans have a tendency to dabble in the magic of our day–money and economics and medicine and other “scientific” magic–and then frown on those who dabble in non-scientific magic. It isn’t the Christian in us that does this, but the modern. It probably isn’t even the Protestant in us–though there is a strong debunking tendency in Protestantism.

18 01 2010
Donald L.

Very interesting post. I have been out in St. Louis No. 1 a couple of times with groups, and agree on your warnings. But, I have always heard that No. 2 and No. 3 were the realy dangerous ones. My wife and I went out to St. Roch’s one time before Katrina, and I did feel a little unsafe there, especially since we were alone. They are all beautiful in that way that only New Orleans can be.

18 01 2010

Did they ever clean up St. Roch’s cemetery after Katrina? I have a friend who’d like to photograph it sometime because he finds it picturesque, but he’s concerned about his safety.

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