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Non-fiction in Review— Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau

Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau
Martha Ward
University of Mississippi Press, 2004

"Marie Laveau was a Virgo. So first she'd clean her house, scrub her steps with intention, set her altars, do her conjure dance, and then go out and kick butt." Caroline Casey

I heard Martha Ward, the author of this book, interviewed on Caroline Casey's Visionary Activism radio show before Katrina devastated New Orleans. This fascinating book, now poignant in the aftermath of the hurricane, tells a story of Goddess religion in a time and place that surprised me by being neither ancient nor far from home. Most of us have heard of Marie Laveau, about whom much disinformation exists, and Ward's painstakingly researched book retells the story honestly. She also explains the much maligned Voodoo religion as the life-affirming practice it is.

The book tells of the "lives" because two Marie Laveaus — mother and daughter — were influential voodoo priestesses in New Orleans. The Laveaus were free women of color, property owners with much freedom and many of the rights of Anglos. They were prominent, French-speaking, Catholic Creoles. Ward, professor of anthropology at New Orleans, traces the roots of Creoles descended from Africans brought to Louisiana, most of them sailing directly from Africa without stopping in the Caribbean first. They brought a rich and sustainable culture with them, and became a mixture of races and cultures — French, African, Native American, and Spanish.

The first Marie, who lived from 1801 to 1881, was a fever nurse who ministered to men on death row and worked in a prison setting. She stopped public executions, helped slaves escape, and attended to many of the earthy and mundane concerns of her community. Marie was a member in high standing at St. Louis Cathedral. Baptized and married at its altar, she continued to worship there: the priests there had made their peace with her. "The Creole church in the heart of the city was only a few blocks from St. Louis Cemetery and from Congo Square. Congo Square was at the crossroads, the pivot for people of color, and the epicenter of their mystical geography and directly associated with the soul of American dance and the roots of jazz. No other place in America where black people gathered is as well documented (89)."

The first Marie used her Catholic connections and Voodoo magic to influence the legal system and protect members of the community from its grasp. "Not everyone, however, was impressed with the quality of Marie's devotion to her church (23)," as she would take the palms from Palm Sunday and then walk "out into the sunlight of the parade ground in front of the cathedral to the square (22)," to dance with snakes and commune with divinity.

Marie's spiritual life centered on Maria the Madonna, Sainte Mary, the Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary, the Good Mother, the Great Goddess of chance, and the Great One, child of Mother Earth. This woman-a goddess, a female spirit-has many names, many tasks, many faces. In African traditions, she is Oshun, goddess of love; Oya, goddess of lightning and wind; or Yemaya, goddess of the ocean. She is also the Holy Spirit the Grace of God, Isis of the South. She is Our Lady of Prompt Succor who protected New Orleans from British invasion in 1815, and who bestows a special quality of mercy-quick and sudden comfort. She is Notre Dame-Our Lady, or just 'the Lady,' who still makes appearances to the citizens of New Orleans (29).

In the three decades before the Civil War, New Orleans was the leading slave market in the United States — the reason that the phrase "sold down the river" signifies the ultimate betrayal. Voodoo was a way to shift power relationships. "When danger peaked and power was most limited, magic played its greatest role (82)." Ward emphasizes that New Orleans Voodoo differs from Haitian Voodoo:

New Orleans Voodoo, as the Laveaus practiced it, is one of many women's religions on the planet. It belongs with the American Shakers, Christian Science, the nineteenth-century Spiritualism Movement, and the twentieth-century Feminist Spirituality Movement — to name a few. In Latin America and the Caribbean, women-centered religions sprang up wherever the African Diaspora crossed paths with the pageantry of the Catholic Church. Women's religions are not set apart from the world's larger and better-known religions; they are an organic parallel, a female counterpart, a way to acknowledge women's experiences and losses (99).

Ward stresses that protection was "the first spiritual imperative of New Orleans Voodoo, the core value of both Maries' ministries (77)." Both Maries maintained extensive social networks throughout New Orleans, and through connections and cleverness they circumvented many of the existing laws. In addition to continual family matters, the priestesses took leadership roles in the woman-centered Voodoo community. Marie the First belonged to a number of social, aid, and benevolent societies. In the absence of effective city government, groups like the Masonic brotherhoods, the growing Voodoo orders, social and pleasure clubs, semisecret associations, burial societies, or various religious groups provided the majority of social service in New Orleans (61), such as helping the sick and dying, providing funerals and burials, offering pensions for disabilities, and caring for orphaned children.

Traditions like Voodoo are passed down through the females of a family line. In women-led religions like New Orleans Voodoo, a priestess is a ritual leader who invites the spirits and saints into her body and her altar. She is a "root doctor and healer with knowledge of both the medicinal and the magical qualities of numerous herbs" and "spiritual guide and teacher who accompanies and commemorates the major life passage of her extended family: birth, marriage, death of loved ones (61)."

Marie the Second, born in 1827, never intended to join her mother's spiritual craft, never aspired to be a priestess of Voodoo. She liked parties, dancing in the square on Sunday, and living the social life of New Orleans. At one point, however, young Marie experienced an "opening," as the Voodoo of New Orleans called the experience, and she was subsequently initiated into Voodoo practice and continued her mother's social justice work. Marie the Second became, by the standard of later times, a counselor, therapist, and social worker. She also became a bridge between the Catholic Church, her mother's brand of French Creole Voodoo, and the Hoodoo that southern blacks brought to New Orleans (113).

At night people saw Marie the Second on a secluded road on the outskirts of the city carrying a huge plate of food and placing it with coins and something to drink under a tree. "It was better that those in charge believed she was engaged in 'primitive ritual and fetish worship' than in defying their runaway slave laws (84)."

By 1850, New Orleans was the wealthiest city in the United States, with a rich culture of theater and opera that drew people who came south for the easy winters. These times brought harassment, raids, and legal restrictions that forced the Voodoo women to search for safer and more distant place to hold their meetings.

After the Civil War, New Orleans' newspapers began to associate the women of Voodoo and their midsummer rituals with the intense racial conflicts of Reconstruction. The years after the Civil War were grim for New Orleans Creoles, as "Creole racial flexibility gave way to Anglo-American apartheid. Although people in the South newly freed from slavery looked to Reconstruction as a time of opportunity, for Creoles who had been free and prosperous before the war and who dreamed of cultural leadership in a multiracial and multicultural society after the war, postwar life was hell (160)." Marie the Second's life unraveled and she ultimately disappeared. Ward could not find a trace of her after 1874.

The spiritual and ceremonial world of New Orleans changed further after the Marie Laveaus died and a new racial order in the United States began. For decades after Marie the Second's disappearance, the politicians of New Orleans feared that she was still alive or that her spirit had outlived her body and returned to inspire other women to sway the outcome of love, luck, and the law in their favor (174). After Reconstruction ended in 1877, the press and police escalated their attacks on the women of Voodoo. When they could no longer arrest them for heresy or illegal assembly, they harassed them for telling fortunes and using their psychic gifts to make money (175). As the authorities in the late nineteenth century forced women of color to hide their spiritual lives, black men replaced black women as ritual leaders in the public dances (179).

This book reads like a detective story and is a fascinating account of nineteenth century women's religion in America. Ward used sources never before explored and weaves them into a compelling story of Goddess worship, history, and culture.

"Marie Laveau did not create cultural movements, but a woman of her substance understood what was at stake. She saw a role to be played and played it to the hilt, helping to coalesce a scattered and oppressed people into a dynamic culture. It was a moment of cultural ecstasy." Caroline Casey

Graphics Credits

  • Marie Laveau, oil on canvas by Franck Schneider (1921) after George Catlin.
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