During a wander in the French Quarter of New Orleans, I overheard a tour guide on the street telling his group that “Voodoo is just an offshoot of Catholicism”. I was seriously annoyed, especially with the dismissive tone. But since it was not my tour, I moved on. It really is obnoxious, when the media and tour guides continue to willfully perpetuate myths about Voodoo. It was for this reason (i.e. learn what Voodoo is in reality vs the myth) that I visited the Historic Voodoo Museum. Was it worth the visit? Did I learn anything? Read on to find out!
What is Voodoo?
First off, what we popularly know as Voodoo is basically a distorted view of Voudon, an Afro-Caribbean religion that developed in Haiti. Secondly, Voudon/Voodoo is complicated so my explanation is very superficial. Thirdly, for simplicity’s sake (because even I was getting confused writing this blog post), I will stick to the term “Voodoo” (in New Orleans, it actually is the appropriate term).
Basically, the religion is an amalgamation of traditions brought from West Africa by enslaved peoples as well as the Roman Catholicism traditions they were forced to adopt. In 1685, it became illegal for African religions to be practiced and it was by law that the enslaved peoples were converted to Christianity. And so, thus began the mixing of traditions. Because, really, would you give up your beliefs by force? No, most of us would find ways to hold on to our traditions, even if it meant hiding amongst new ones.
Voodoo has a supreme being, a creator god. So does Catholicism. Voodoo also has many types of spirits, known as loa; a person would give offerings to a specific one depending on what it is they’re seeking. Catholicism has the saints and Catholics pray to a specific one depending on what they want. While there are many similarities between Catholicism and Voodoo, one way that the two differ is that Voodoo believers consider possession by loa to be a good thing, a spiritual experience. Catholicism, on the other hand, considers spirit possession to be something evil. Something else I found interesting was that Voodoo has a snake imagery like Catholicism does. However, the latter sees the snake as evil and the former sees it as a provider of healing knowledge.
Okay, but what about the zombies? The animal sacrifices? Didn’t the media get that right?
Actually, no. The media would have you believe that zombies and animal sacrifices are rampant in Voodoo. They aren’t. The concept of a zombie is actually a sad one. Essentially, it’s a dead body without a soul, one that is generally controlled by magical means. The soul itself was trapped by the person who wanted to control the body in question. The body can be made to perform labour, either “living” a slave-like existence or doing good. It all depends on who is controlling the body. Either way, one is not supposed to fear zombies themselves, but rather fear becoming a zombie against one’s will.
But think about this. You’ve been taken from your home, you’ve survived a horrific journey, and you have been enslaved in a new world where escape is brutally prevented. Death would actually be something to which you’d look forward. And if that is your mindset, it would not be surprising that the thought of death resembling life would be a scary thought indeed.
As for animal sacrifices, not all Voodoo believers do it. From what I understand, it is not actually popular within New Orleans Voodoo. But essentially, the sacrifices are an offering to the spirits and is part of normal life (i.e. the animal is eaten). So really, not any different from a rural or farm existence – it just also has a spiritual element in addition to the food aspect. It’s weird to us city folk because we’re far removed from having to kill our food. We’re used picking it up in plastic wrap at the store!
Voodoo in New Orleans
The religion came to Louisiana in the early 1700s with the slave trade. It spread within the French, Spanish, and Creole African-American populations. Like any religion, there are a few different branches of Voodoo and each branch (like in any other religion) is a bit different. So Voodoo in New Orleans vs Vodou in Haiti, for example, is somewhat different. One main difference is that Voodoo in New Orleans has more emphasis on the occult (i.e. gris-gris, voodoo dolls, etc) than Vodou.
Is the Voodoo Museum worth visiting?
Well, yes. It does an interesting job in straddling the truth behind the religion while maintaining an air of the fantastical. The small museum has been around since 1972 and its goal seems to be to “educate and entertain”. And it definitely does both.
When I arrived, I was greeted by Madame Cinnamon Black, a Voodoo practitioner. She had her hands full with other tourists who all popped in at the same time. We were given a laminated pamphlet to read, one that explained the history of Voodoo. I was particularly intrigued to read that Voodoo apparently comes from the country of Benin. It was interesting to me because I have relatives who practice Obeah, and according to Madame Cinnamon Black, they are similar religions from Benin, just practiced “on the other side of the river”.
The museum is essentially a cramped hallway and two rooms jammed packed with stuff: masks, dolls, offerings, photos, items from West Africa, items used by Voodoo priests/priestesses, etc. It was dimly lit (a photographer’s nightmare) and loud rhythmic music played from a stereo overhead. Definitely points for atmosphere!
There was a lot to see here. While there were periodic signs explaining various aspects of Voodoo, it was still very easy to get caught up in the superficial media idea of the religion! Especially when I saw a blowfish staring at me from above and I had previously read that blowfish toxin is also called Zombie Powder…
So yes, go see the Historic Voodoo Museum on your visit to New Orleans. It will only take about a half hour to an hour of your time. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the gift shop!