Voodoo came to New Orleans via Haiti, thanks to the spectacularly successful slave insurrection now known as the Haitian Revolution. In Louisiana, voodoo put down roots and became an established religion, led primarily by powerful women: “voodoo queens.” But, like voodoo itself, over time and with the help of plenty of racist propaganda and misrepresentation in popular culture, the role of the voodoo queens has been distorted and degraded in the public eye. Rather than respected religious leaders, Voodoo queens have been depicted as witches and satanists, carrying out barbaric, violent rituals. Why and how did this distorted reality become ingrained in the popular imagination? And what is the true history of New Orleans’ voodoo queens?
The Myth of the Voodoo Queen In Popular Imagination
Popular culture and media depictions have painted a decidedly unflattering picture of voodoo queens and their mysterious rites. Those unfamiliar with the idea of a voodoo queen might see a beautiful yet menacing woman in their mind’s eye, most likely with a “café au lait” complexion, bedecked in exotic jewelry and sensuous West Indian clothing. The beguiling woman stereotypically would be guiding her congregation in an al fresco ritual, where, as the witching hour approaches and the clock ticks closer to midnight, the swampy bayou air throbs with the sounds of pounding feet, drums, and chanting voices.
The scent of the bonfire, spicy gumbo, and bourbon lingers in the humid air, made still muggier by the boiling cauldron and swelling passions that permeate the ceremony. Shadowy forms sway in time to the hypnotic beat, and as the eerie music rises, the dimly-lit bodies begin to undulate more wildly; dark silhouettes leap over the flames.
Once the atmosphere has risen to a fever pitch, the presiding voodoo queen–the very essence of power and mystery–rises from her throne. She strides over to the belching cauldron and calls for the potion’s final ingredients to be fetched to her; a black rooster perhaps, or a white goat, or a small child, even. Whatever the particular occasion calls for, the victim’s throat is cut, the spirits are beckoned, and oaths are sworn in the sacrifice’s warm blood.
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Some diabolical voodoo spirit is called forth, and the gory brew is consumed to imbue the congregation with its terrible powers. After each has had their taste, the shouting and writhing begin anew at a frantic pace. Some of the congregation, feverish with ecstasy, begin foaming at the mouth; others perform frenzied dances or fall to the ground, unconscious.
Finally, as the clock strikes midnight, the voodooists enter a state of full, reckless abandon- stripping off and running to the water for a dip or into the bushes to pursue further grotesque orgiastic pursuits. These heathen rites will last until sunrise.
This is many people’s frame of reference when it comes to voodoo. Voodooists, their rituals, and, above all, the enigmatic archetype of the voodoo queen have been subjected to a ruthless smear campaign for over two hundred years.
But who and what were the voodoo queens of New Orleans really? And why have they been so misrepresented?
What Is a Voodoo Queen?
Voodoo was brought to New Orleans by Haitian transplants to Louisiana over the duration of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). Therefore, Louisianan voodoo’s religious and social structure bears a considerable resemblance to Haiti. New Orleans’ voodoo queens, much like Haitian mambos (priestesses) and hougans (priests), serve as spiritual authorities in their congregations. They perform rituals, lead prayers, and are thought to have the ability to call upon spirits (or lwa) for guidance and to open up the gates between the physical and supernatural worlds.
Mambos and hougans are chosen by the spirits, usually through a dream or revelation brought forth by lwa possession. The candidate is then given a spiritual education that can last several weeks, months, or even years, in some cases. In this time, they must learn how to perform complex rituals, learn about the world of the spirits, how to communicate with the lwa, and develop their konesans (supernatural gifts or psychic abilities). Those who are called to the role of priestess or priest will rarely refuse for fear of offending the spirits and inviting their wrath.
There are, however, some traditions of priestess-hood particular to Louisiana voodoo. Often the role of voodoo queen is hereditary, passed down from mother to daughter. This was the case for New Orleans’ most notorious voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Both Laveau’s mother and grandmother had been powerful practitioners of voodoo. When she herself died in 1881, she passed on her title of voodoo queen to her daughter, Marie Laveau II.
Moreover, spiritual leadership is generally more female-dominated in Louisianan voodoo than in Haiti, where leadership seems to be more equally divided between the genders (though male-led congregations are more common in rural areas, while female leadership is more commonplace in urban centers of Haiti). But in Louisiana, it was (and still is) the voodoo queens that ruled. The role of the voodoo queen, though it requires many of the same duties, is and was somewhat different from the Haitian mambo. Voodoo queens’ functions were a little more complex because their position was sometimes more social and even more commercial than their Haitian counterparts.
Yes, they too led their followers in prayers and rituals and provided spiritual guidance, but they also served as community figureheads. They had an economic function: making a living through the sale of gris-gris (or “charms”) in the form of amulets, powders, ointments, potions, herbs, incense, and other manner of spells that promised to “cure ailments, grant desires, and confound or destroy one’s enemies.
Though not always entirely innocuous (depending on how often they were helping folk to “destroy their enemies”), the voodoo queens of New Orleans seem by and large to have been much more benevolent than the sensationalistic reports would have us believe. They were simply spiritual leaders, serving their communities. So why all the bad press?
Why Were Voodoo Queens So Vilified?
Voodoo queens were unpopular with the American authorities for much the same reason voodoo itself was feared and reviled. Many Americans considered voodoo, and by extension, voodoo queens and their followers, to be the very embodiment of evil and a prime example of so-called African “savagery.” In order to excuse their subjugation of Black people, the white authorities sought an excuse, some “proof” of Black folks’ supposed inferiority and otherness. In Louisiana, this extended to the undermining and mockery of the culture and religion of the new African transplants who had come from Haiti. Voodoo was used as evidence of Black “barbarity,” with voodoo queens being prime targets at which the racist propaganda could be hurled.
American fear and abhorrence of voodoo and its queens were only further amplified by the reports of the successful slave insurrection in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (which, of course, would later become Haiti). Excited whispers carried across the seas to Louisiana, telling of how the rebels fought with such astonishing bravery and ferocity thanks to the protection of their voodoo spirits and the encouragement of a powerful voodoo priestess known as Cécile Fatiman.
Most refugees forced out by the Haitian Revolution found their way to New Orleans, over two-thirds of whom were Africans or people of African descent. Meanwhile, the white citizens of New Orleans were very much aware of the role that voodoo had played in the Haitian Revolution. Now, it seemed, voodooists were in Louisiana, posing a genuine threat to Americans’ fiercely-guarded social order and racial hierarchy. Attempted slave uprisings in Louisiana and across the South, in addition to pressure from Northern Abolitionists, all combined to make authorities very anxious about gatherings of mixed groups; slave and free, white and black.
Voodoo, therefore, was regarded as a very dangerous activity: a potential breeding ground for rebellion and interracial fraternization, not to mention a “horrifying brew of sorcery, devil worship and sexual license.”
Though many of the white citizens of New Orleans gave the outward appearance of scoffing at voodoo, dismissing it as foolish and barbaric superstition of “inferior” people, there did seem to be a very real fear of voodoo and voodoo queens among the white authorities of New Orleans. The practice of voodoo was never formally outlawed. Though followers of voodoo were regularly targeted during raids of their gatherings and arrested for “unlawful assembly,” voodoo queens were often left alone. Perhaps a direct challenge to the voodoo queens was a step too far for the frightened authorities?
Voodoo Queens, Gender, & Race Relations In Louisiana
New Orleans’ voodoo queens presented such a “problem” because they symbolized everything the white authorities hated about this “problem state.” Voodoo queens were highly influential, powerful women who were looked up to as leaders within their communities. More often than not, these women of influence were women of color, with Afro-Caribbean roots, intermingled with white creole and sometimes indigenous American backgrounds. Marie Laveau, for instance, believed herself to be roughly one-third white, one-third black, and one-third indigenous American. And much like her background, her congregation was mixed; some contemporaneous reports even suggest that her congregation was made up of more white folks than black.
Deeply racist and patriarchal Antebellum values did not usually allow women–let alone women of color–to hold such power in their communities. Voodoo queens presented a dual problem: not only did they challenge the racial and gendered hierarchical system, but their influence also extended into white Louisianan society, encouraging white folk (and particularly white women) to break with the status quo.
Following and supporting voodoo queens was how Louisianan women across all classes and races could defy the restrictive demands of patriarchal American society. This exchange lasted throughout the nineteenth century, but the influence of voodoo and its spiritual leaders waned after the turn of the twentieth century.
Modern Voodoo Queens
By 1900, all of the most influential and charismatic voodoo queens had died, and no new leaders were there to take their place. Voodoo, at least as an organized religion, had been effectively crushed by the joint forces of the state authorities, negative public opinion, and the much more powerful (and much more established) Christian churches.
Educators and religious figureheads in the African American community discouraged their people from continuing the practice of voodoo. Meanwhile, as the twentieth century drew on, Black folk of educated, wealthy, and privileged classes who sought to solidify their respectable social standing passionately distanced themselves from any association with voodoo.
There can be no doubt that the voodoo queens’ heyday is behind us. But though they may not have the same power and influence as did their predecessors, priestesses, mambos, and “modern voodoo queens” of New Orleans such as Kalindah Laveaux, Sallie Ann Glassman, and Miriam Chamari carry on the important work of serving the voodoo community, in addition to educating the curious public. Priestess Miriam, for example, founded the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in 1990, aiming to provide education and spiritual guidance to followers of voodoo and the broader New Orleans community.
There has been a considerable upsurge in interest in voodoo across the United States, particularly in Louisiana. Today’s priestesses and priests serve a growing community of devoted students of all races and classes. New Orleans’ modern priests and priestesses carry on their proud traditions and keep the religious heritage of voodoo alive. Perhaps voodoo and its queens, then, could be back on the rise.