Marie Laveau is one of the most legendary African figures of the 19th and 20th centuries. As Vodu queen of New Orleans, her reign of power extended throughout the southern region of the United States. As a matriarch, Laveau's powers included healing the sick, extending altruistic gifts to the poor, and overseeing spiritual rites. Marie Laveau was respected and feared by both black and white alike. Even after her death, her legendary powers persisted through her daughter, also named Marie Laveau. Her grave is the second most visited grave site in the United States. In St. Louis Cemetery No. 14, one can find the burial ground of Marie Laveau. Each year, thousands of visitors flock to her burial site and adorn her plot with spiritual regalia, candles, money, flowers, and assorted personal items. This entry looks at her early life, the Vodu/Vodu context in which she was raised, her rise to leadership, and her eventual demise.
Life in New Orleans
Born in 1800 to an African woman named Marguerite Decantale and the son of a white planter, Marie Laveau experienced a life more privileged than her enslaved brothers and sisters. Her father, Charles Laveau, made certain that she and her mother were provided for financially, although he often neglected Marie emotionally. Her father purchased an Igbo child named Louison from West Africa in 1814, who was close in age to Marie. It is possible that Marie acquired some of her knowledge of African ritual from Louison. Igbos were well known for the rituals and knowledge of herbs and medicine.
Marie was married to a Creole man, also the son of a white enslaver, from Santo Domingo, named Jacques Paris. Jacques reportedly disappeared and was reported dead 5 years later. Upon his disappearance, Marie began referring to herself as the “Widow Paris.” After the reported death of her husband, Marie started a relationship with Jean Christophe Duminy Glapion. Because they were not allowed to marry in a church, Marie performed their matrimony ceremony herself. Together, they had 15 children, some of whom were victims of the various yellow fever outbreaks that plagued New Orleans due to the city's poor drainage system. Although Marie was a committed mother and wife, much of her priority in caretaking was extended to her spiritual children and the general community.
Marie became a hairdresser to create economic stability for herself and her family. Through interaction with her black clients who were house servants, she was exposed to personal information about her wealthy white clients, who often sought her counsel. Marie used this information to give informed counsel to the people who sought advice from her concerning their personal affairs. Many wealthy and politically affluent individuals, both white and black, paid Marie for personal advice, intervention in some situation, and protection against any evil energy that might have been placed against them.
Vodu Vodu in New Orleans
Since the establishment of early African civilizations, religion has sustained the well-being of Africans and remained a central theme in their lives. To understand the complex nature of African religious traits and how they developed and were preserved in Haiti and Louisiana, one must first examine the traditional religions of West Africa that were originally practiced by enslaved Africans in America. The culture surrounding African societies was spiritual and holistic, focusing on the connection of mind, body, and spirit, which contradicts the individualist, competitive nature of European society. Although there existed some variances between communities based on specific ethnic particularities, most African religions share the same basic beliefs and practices. Some of these beliefs include the acknowledgment of one Supreme God/ Creator, tribute paid to a pantheon of deities, ancestor reverence, and nature nurturance.
Vodu Vodu, as a religious system, derives from Dahomey, the old kingdom of Benin. VoduVodu is actually a Fon word that means “spirit” or “deity.” The religious system is based on a hierarchy that is centered on a Supreme Creator, Nana Buluku; a pantheon of deities that are associated with various elements of nature, Loa; and the ancestral spirits of the Dahomean people, the tovodou. VoduVodu was transported to the United States during the European Trade of Enslaved Africans. In particular, Africans who were brought to Haiti by way of Dahomey interacted with other groups, including the Yoruba and the Congolese. This interaction allowed for the continuance of VoduVodu traditions.
African religion was brought to New Orleans, first by the initial group of enslaved Africans from the Senegambia territories. After the African revolution of Santo Domingo, another wave of African people brought their religion to New Orleans. The Vodu tradition was strengthened and reinforced by the free and enslaved African community of New Orleans. It is important to note that the practice of Vodu in New Orleans is not the purest manifestation of Vodu as it was known in Dahomey. Also, it is not the same religious system that is observed in Haiti.
Vodu in New Orleans is a mixture of Dahomean religion, Congolese traditions, and some parts of Native American spirituality. New Orleans Vodu lacks some of the gods and traditions that existed in Haiti. New Orleans Vodu operates under a matriarchal system that is governed by Vodu queens known as vodoiennes. Also, Marie underwent the tutelage of Dr. John Bayou, a well-known Senegalese conjurer (root worker). Once Marie rose to power, she commenced the coalescence of scattered Vodu communities.
Vodu in New Orleans also consisted of root work and gris-gris or ju-ju. People would seek out “conjurers” or other spiritualists for spiritual intervention or protection in their daily affairs. These favors ranged from those concerning love to political influence. Although most workers used their powers for positive forces, there were some who did not. It was probably the work of this small percentage of people that was sensationalized by people outside of the religion. This aspect of the religion became known as hoodoo and is often the basis for misconceptions that public society has about Vodu.
The Vodu Queen
The Widow Paris, as Marie Laveau was infamously called after her first husband's disappearance, was a woman whose reputation has made her one of the most infamous figures of the 19th century. Some of the stories that have been passed down about her are true, although many of them are not. As the granddaughter of a powerful priestess in Santo Domingo, Marie had a familial background in African spirituality. She was drawn to religion after the death of her mother, and she did not take long to dominate the culture and society of Vodu in New Orleans. As a queen for several decades, Marie Laveau was mother to many. People sought her advice for marital affairs, domestic disputes, judicial issues, childbearing, finances, health, and good luck. Marie would in turn counsel her practitioners by supplying them with advice, often generated within the homes she served as hairdresser, or by supplying them with protective spiritual objects such as candles, powder, and an assortment of other items mixed together to create a gris-gris.
Although there were some similarities, Vodu in New Orleans differed from the Vodou of Haiti. Because of the successful revolution of Saint Domingue, the island was isolated, and religious and cultural practices were maintained and sustained. However, New Orleans had to adhere to strict European laws, codes, and oppression associated with enslavement. Vodu was often under scrutiny by public officials and the law. Nevertheless, Vodu held a strong presence in New Orleans throughout the centuries. The two most significant figures were Le Zombie, which was the physical manifestation of Danballah, and Elegba or Papa Legba. Special attention was also given to Bon Dieu, the supreme God. These spiritual beings were worshipped through song, dance, ritual, and sacrifice. Vodu ceremonies and activities took place at various sites around the city. As queen, Marie Laveau predominately orchestrated rituals at three main sites: her home on St. Ann Street, Congo Square, and Lake Pontchatrain. At her home on Saint Ann Street, Marie Laveau would converse with clients who would meet with her regarding any issues they were having. In her backyard, she would also have ceremonies that conjure the spirit of the Great Zombie, the deity Damballah who would manifest through a snake. The second major ritualistic space, Congo Square, was a public square that was set aside by city officials as a gathering space for both enslaved and free African people. This was the only place in the city where drumming and dancing was allowed. Marie Laveau would gather her followers here on Sundays to dance and worship. No major ceremonies would take place here, but it was a place of spiritual gathering and rejuvenation for Africans who experienced major oppression and hardships both on the plantation and as free citizens. The last place of significance that was presided over by Marie Laveau was Bayou St. John's, which was located on the shore of Lake Pontchatrain. It was here that major ceremonies took place among the initiated in the religion. Marie would often be accompanied by her “king” or a second-ranking male officiate. Singing, dancing, drumming, and spirit possession would occur in these gatherings. Curious white people would often sneak into the woods to witness these ceremonies. For sensationalism, they would often report extreme tales of what they witnessed.
In a religious system of hierarchy, with a matriarch prominently situated at the top, there were often rivalries over who should rule the Vodu system in New Orleans. Before Marie took reign, there were two women who preceded her as queen. The first was Sanite Dede, who was a Congolese woman who ruled for several years before she was usurped by Marie Saloppe. Marie Saloppe was a Creole woman from Santo Domingo who was familiar with Marie's grandmother. She introduced Marie to the intricacies of the religion and provided her with her fundamental tutelage.
After taking a prominent stance as Vodu queen, Marie reigned unchallenged until 1850, when another Creole woman named Rosalie attempted to challenge Marie's position. To create an aura of fear and awe, Rosalie placed a huge life-sized wooden doll in her yard that was said to have been imported from Africa. The statue was covered with beads and intricate carvings. When people in the Vodu community began expressing fear and respect for Rosalie because of the doll, Marie stole the statue. She was taken to court by Rosalie, but used her persuasive powers and influence to have the doll permanently removed. There were several other root workers and Voduists who gathered mild attention during Marie's reign.
Survival of Vodu
During the latter years of her life, Marie Laveau had to move her practices across the Mississippi River to the area of New Orleans known as Algiers. Algiers was the first point of arrival of enslaved African people in New Orleans and also the birthplace of Vodu in New Orleans. Although Marie discouraged her daughters from becoming involved in her religious practices, her seven daughters continued the Vodu tradition and became known as “the Seven Sisters.”
After the death of Marie Laveau in 1881, which occurred simultaneously with the integration of black people into society, Vodu in New Orleans lost a great deal of its adherents. As more people began assimilating economically and socially, the need to depend on the ancient rites and traditions of the old-time religion decreased. Vodu began taking on new forms, becoming incorporated into other religions.
A woman by the name of Leaf Anderson, commonly called Mother Anderson, a spiritualist from Chicago, arrived in New Orleans in 1920. She claimed that she had a connection with the spirit of a Native American chief named Black Hawk. Her parents, who were black and Mohawk, passed down to her a multicultural and multispiritual background. Although she was not a Vodu priestess and her churches lacked some of Vodu's rites and rituals, the spiritualism she preached attracted many of Marie Laveau's followers, other religious black people, and poor whites. The spiritual churches of New Orleans became a product of the combination of Vodu, Catholicism, and Pentacostalism. Through New Orleans spiritual churches and ritualistic practices in the general culture, the spirit of Marie Laveau lives.
- marie laveau
- New Orleans
- African people
- Fandrich, I. J. (2004). The Mysterious Vodu Vodu Queen, Marie Laveaux: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans. New York: Routledge.
- Prose, F (1977). Marie Laveau. New York: Berkley Publishing.