Though we have no evidence to inform us how and when Marie Laveau started practicing Voudou, it is suspected she began her career as a Voudou Queen sometime in the 1820s. According to oral history, she was mentored by the already established Voudou Priestesses at the time, Sanite Dede and Marie Saloppe. It is also shared cultural knowledge that she worked at least for a period of time with Doctor John Montenee learning the art of gris gris.
Doctor John, also known as Bayou John,did very well for himself and made quite a bit of money as an herbalist and fortune teller. He owned several properties and is said to have run a brothel. He couldn’t read or write, though he did learn to sign his name, thanks to an alleged friend who taught him. One day, the friend showed Doctor John a piece of paper and had him sign his name on the paper. Unknowingly, he signed away the deeds to his properties. He had been hoodwinked and lost everything.
Even as he had a reputation for being an effective “Indian doctor”—a term used at the time to identify herbal healers as medicine men whether or not they were actually Native American—Doctor John was also a player. He had several wives and is said to have disliked all but African women. “He was negro to the core, in color, origin and principle” writes Henry Castellanos for the Times Democrat in 1894. “A mulatto was his special aversion. ‘Too black to be white,’ he was wont to say, ‘and too white to be black, the fellow is a hybrid and a mule.’” Knowing the kind of woman Marie Laveau was, I can imagine she got tired of his shenanigans and parted ways to build her own following and congregation. It should be noted that there is no written evidence showing any ties between Doctor John and Marie Laveau, yet it is a significant piece of oral history.
As the most influential Voudou Queen in New Orleans’ history, there is no doubt that Marie Laveau was a driving force in the formation of New Orleans Voudou in four distinct ways. First, she incorporated Catholic elements into her practice such as saints, Psalms, and candle magick. She used swaths of incense in her rituals and included Mary in her pantheon. She practiced the works of mercy with her charitable works and prison ministry. She combined standard Catholic liturgical prayers with Voudou songs and prayers in her rites and held annual Voudou fetes on St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Night. And, she treated her gris gris like holy relics, blessed by the gods and possessed with magickal properties of removing evil influences and bringing about positive or negative change.
Evidence of Marie Laveau’s blending of Catholic elements alongside Voudou was noted throughout her lifetime. “Side by side in the room of the Voudou Queen,” writes one reporter, “on the same table as the serpent, was the cross of the crucified Savior, the image of Virgin Mary, and various symbols of saints and angels” (Times Daily Picayune 1890, 10). Reports of the recital of the Apostles’ Creed, Hail Mary, and Ave Marie Stella at the beginning of Voudou ceremonies were also observed, a practice that continues today as a New Orleans Voudou Order of Service.
The second way in which Marie Laveau as Voudou Queen had a lasting affect on Voudou in Louisiana involves her ritual space. Marie’s activities centered around specific places in and around New Orleans and as a result, these places have become significant points on the sacred geography of New Orleans. Congo Square, Bayou St. John, and Lake Pontchartrain are some of the places that she is associated with for performing public dances and ceremonies. W. W. Newell reported, “The festivals of the ‘Vaudous’ were supposed to be annual, and to take place at a lonely spot near Lake Pontchartrain, on St. John’s Eve” (W.W. Newell, “Reports of Voodoo Worship in Hayti and New Louisiana” Journal of American Folklore, Vol 2., No. 4, 1889). In 1937, the Daily Independent wrote, “Marie Laveau and her followers went into the swamps and performed their mystic rites.” And, in 1898 the Sun wrote, “At one time Marie Laveau was the Queen of the famous Voudoos, who held their strange rites and dances in Congo Square.”Clearly, the most popular of all the public Voudou celebrations was the annual celebration of St. John’s Eve, the Holy Day of New Orleans Voudou. It is one of the only feast days in Catholicism that celebrates the birth of a saint: St. John the Baptist. The only other two whose births are celebrated are Jesus and Mary. Usually, feast days celebrate the deaths of saints. In New Orleans, St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Day are now the days for celebrating the Mother and Father of New Orleans Voudou, Marie Laveau and Doctor John Montenee.
Bayou St. John was one of the spots where Marie Laveau held her annual St. John’s Eve ceremony; but, that’s not the only thing it is known for. One belief tied to the Laveau legend holds that if a person has been crossed, they can remove the conjure by submerging themselves in the spot where Marie Laveau II reportedly drowned. Another bit of lore is the Wishing Spot located on the lakeside of Bayou St. John at the intersection of DeSaix Blvd. There was a hollow tree trunk that functioned like a wishing well where people tossed coins and dollar bills and burned candles in the hopes their wishes would be answered. In another hallowed-out tree in Congo Square referred to as the Wishing Tree, Marie was known for leaving plates of jambalaya and money for the needy after her public dances held there.
The third way Marie Laveau influenced Voudou in New Orleans was by making a business out of her practice. Indeed, “She had the brains of an Executive of Big Business in planning, organizing, directing” (St. Louis Post Dispatch 1933). People of all races went to her for help with matters of daily living. Court cases, relationship issues, money problems, and employment were among the common areas of life that she was known to be of assistance. Women of high society paid good sums for her amulets designed to bring good luck, while “politicians and candidates for office were known to purchase their ‘mascots’ at her fortune shop” and “sporting men would wear, attached to their watch chains, pieces of bone or wood, fantastically carved” (Times Democrat 1894). She had people working for her as well, and between her networking, contacts, and positions as hairdresser, healer, and priestess, she was able to understand what her clients needed:
“So large a number voluntarily came and confided in her that she
became mistress of the secrets of many families—for the most
influential families will have secrets, the discovery of which they
own dread. This knowledge and her own shrewdness were the
mystery of her power, just as they are of the power of others who
lay claim to supernatural influence. As was to be expected in such
a woman, she was discreet. Her secrets died with her. What she
knew was the unwritten history of New Orleans—more interesting
and far more startling than any which has been told” (Times Picayune 1886).
Of course, not everyone was a fan of Marie’s. It is said that some were hellbent on exposing her evil deeds but dared not because it was believed that should anyone cross her in that way, “she would publish a list of names of everybody who went to her.” (Hazel Breaux, “Life History, Memories of Marie Laveau,” 1939)
Lastly, Marie Laveau embraced the Temple snakes in her service. According to Martinie, the Temple snakes, Damballah and Ayida Wedo, “are central to the liturgies of the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple” (Louis Martinie, “A Priest’s Head, a Drummer’s Hand” 2010, 78). Li Grand Zombi was both the name of her personal temple snake, as well as the term referencing all of the temple snakes in her tradition. The etymology of the word Zombi derives from the Kongo Bantu word Nzambi, meaning God in the Kikongo language (Fandrich, “Yoruba Influences on Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo,” Journal of Black Studies, Vol.37, no. 5, 2007, 786). Thus, Li Grand Zombi signifies a direct connection to the serpent religious traditions of West Africa and the African creator deity Nzambi.
Adapted, and reprinted with permission from Weiser Books, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, The Magic of Marie Laveau by Denise Alvarado is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at www.redwheelweiser.com or 800-423-7087