In West Africa, in what is today the Republic of Benin, among a people called the Fon, their word for spirits is Vodoun. The 1720’s marked the highpoint of the Trans-Atlanta African slave trade during which time Benin was near the center of what was called the Slave Coast. In 1719 the first slave arrived in Louisiana from Africa. Most of the people on board were Fon.
Today, no place in the United States is as closely associated with Voodoo, if at all, as New Orleans. Geography, time and cultural integration have all changed from what is was originally, but still it remains the belief in spirits that interact in all affairs of day to day life.
There are as many definitions and versions of Voodoo as there are people to tell them. Therefore, the following is an attempt at a consensus and simple explanation.
Voodoo is basically a three tiered spiritual system based on God, spirits and ancestors. A single omnipotent God and creator is very much a part of Voodoo, but God is mostly detached from every day life. Rather, a host of spirits, voodoo, interact with humans in all matters of fate and fortune. Finally, deceased ancestors remain a force in contemporary life, becoming de facto spirits.
One story from West African folklore helps explain the relations between God, the spirits and mortals. It seems that a very long time ago, God actually lived her on earth and was very interactive with mortals. He had a nice place with a vegetable garden and lived with a servant, a spirit, named Legba. Legba was also a trickster, or practical joker. God had a problem because every night someone was stealing vegetables from his garden. Resolved to catch the guilty party and put an end to it, God came up a plan. He would make it pour down raining that night so the thief would leave footprints in the garden and have muddy sandals the next morning. That night it poured and the next morning, not only had the thief been there, but the entire garden was wiped out. God went into a rage. In the midst of his rant, Legba appeared showing off a pair of muddy sandals, clearly the guilty person’s shoes. AS God moved closer to see the shoes Legba could not hold back his amusement. They were God’s own sandals and Legba was suggesting that God must walk in his sleep and was his own hungry thief. God, however, knowing that Legba was a trickster, immediately detected that it was Legba who had stolen his sandals, then robbed the garden, just so he could have this joke. God was not amused, but angered and resolved to solve the problem by moving away. Leaving earth and its mortals behind forever, God moved to the heavens. Still angry with Legba, he would not let him come along. Instead, at the entrance to heaven he stopped Legba and gave him the task to be the gatekeeper between the spiritual world and the mortal world. Henceforth, the tasks of spiritual interaction with mortals would fall upon Legba who would stand at the gate between all the spirits and mankind, between God and humans, between life and death. Thus the spirits, the Voodoo, would be the faith and fates of mankind.
THE VOODOO SNAKE SPIRIT:
When God moved to heaven and left Legba behind he made Legba into a rainbow because the rainbow is the bridge between earth and the heavens. This worked out very well for God, but for the people, rainbows were not available just for the asking. Instead, they sought out something they could find to represent the rainbow, something long, and thin and colorful. The snake, (with its tail in its mouth forming a circle traditionally also represented infinity), became the reflection of Legba, the rainbow. In the diverse tribal and linguistic composition of West Africa, this snake god took on many names; Legba, Ellegua, Danballah and others. Clearly, Voodoo came to the America with the African slave trade. When it did so, Africans from the Benin (Dahomean) region intermixed with others from nearby Nigeria, upper areas such as Senegal and Mali, and lower area such as Angola and the Congo. In the Congo, their term for their main spirit is “nbzambi.” By the time Voodoo is being recognized in New Orleans, this great spirit, the snake, is called either, “Li Grand Zombi” or “Ouncongo.” Later as the African languages began to merge with Louisiana French, the spirit is remembered as Papa Labas or St. Peter. In New Orleans, the tradition and use of the snake spirit in Voodoo remains very important.
VOODOO IN NEW ORLEANS:
Voodoo came to New Orleans directly from Africa. From that beginning to today there are three distinct historical phases to Voodoo in New Orleans; African, Creole and American.
African Phase: from 1719, with the arrival of the first African captives, to around 1830. During this phase the people who practiced Voodoo, and related African traditions, in New Orleans were from Africa. Their language was African, their dances African and their practices African. With the exception of merging and mixing with other African cultures, Voodoo would have been very much as it was in Africa. In 1808 a United States law forbade the import of slaves from outside the United States which eventually, a generation later, cut off the direct influence of African ways.
Creole Phase: from about 1830 to around 1930, this was the golden era of Voodoo in New Orleans. Creoles are person born in Louisiana and native to the Louisiana culture. During this phase, the African languages gave way to Louisiana French and dominance of gris-gris and Voodoo Queens began to appear. This was the era in which the Voodoo dances and rituals began to develop unique techniques and sounds that would eventually lead to jazz. This also was the period in which Voodoo began to merge with other celebrations like Mardi Gras started to become an attraction. The Voodoo ritual became displaced by the Voodoo procession and merged so intimately with contemporary culture that it often went unrecognized. This is also the phase in which the African Spirits and the Catholic Saints became fused together.
American Phase: From around 1930 to the present. After the 1932 movie, “White Zombie” starting Bela Lugosi, Voodoo became a popular subject for books, movies and tourist. The old Voodooist, uncomfortable with the twisted images and attention began to recede into privacy. Never the less, the demand, especially among the curious and superstitious grew and grew. Filling the void, Voodoo became a business, called Hoodoo. Shops and stores opened, fortune tellers co-opeted and were co-opted into Voodoo, Hollywood continued to make Voodoo a horror movie genre, and more and more while the popularity of the gris-gris potions grew, the memories of the spirits faded.
gris-gris are both the objects used in Voodoo to provoke magic and the act itself. The word is African, coming from the areas closer to Senegal and Mali than Benin. New Orleans, perhaps because Africans from this upper region were prefered in the earlest days, has always carried a stronger emphasize on the practice of gris-gris than in other places associated with Voodoo. There are an infinite number and type of gris-gris, however they can be broken into four categories:
Love and Romance: which is by far the most common form of gris-gris. These are objects and acts to attract a lover, keep a lover, force a breakup between others and similar such acts of the heart.
Power and Domination: which is used to gain an advantage over a competitor. It is popular with politicians and athletes, but its primary adherents are attorneys who fear the capriciousness of judges and juries.
Luck and Finance: which may be used in very general ways but is most closely associated with gamblers. It is also used by persons looking for work or trying to get a raise.
Uncrossing: which is the act of undoing something else which has been done. Most frequently it is used to undo a hex, or gris-gris, someone else ha targeted toward you. This may also be associated with healing.