Much like the city it calls home to, New Orleans Voodoo has an extremely fascinating background and has been ingrained in Louisiana culture for over three centuries.
Don’t let some Hollywood depictions fool you, though—voodoo has never involved sorcerers, potions, dark magic, or a doll being poked with a sewing needle. Voodoo is an authentic religion that is still practiced today around the world, and is much more complex than you may think.
Let’s take a deep dive into what New Orleans Voodoo actually is and explore key historical moments that shaped it into what it is today.
Before Voodoo was Voodoo
Before arriving in New Orleans and adopting new influences, voodoo was very different—both by how it was spelled and what it actually was.
“Vodou,” which is the original version of the term, was a religion predominantly practiced in West Africa meaning “pure light.” Its exact origins are elusive, but it’s said to have evolved from a combination of ancient African spiritual beliefs. The term changed to “voodoo” over time through English translation so it rolled off the tongue more easily.
This West African religion centered on nature and purity. It recognized two divine creators—Mawu, which is the representation of the moon, and Lisa, the representation of the sun. You may hear Vodou described as an “earthy” religion, and Mawu and Lisa are the reason behind that.
During rituals and ceremonies, Vodou practitioners would communicate with deceased loved ones or higher beings with the help of “loa.” Loa, also known as voodoo spirits, acted as mediums for the physical realm to contact the spiritual realm.
Vodou found a new home when West Africans that practiced the religion came to New Orleans in the early 1700s. Even though Vodou characteristics and traditions were brought halfway across the world, the religion remained the same and didn’t encounter any interruptions for over 100 years. In fact, present-day Congo Square, located in Armstrong Park in New Orleans, was a prominent Vodou gathering place for West Africans.
They would go to Congo Square and worship their ancestors, dance, play music, and catch up with friends and family that they didn’t otherwise get to see very often. Visiting Congo Square created a sense of community for West Africans in New Orleans during the 1700s.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the religion took on a new version of itself.
New Orleans Voodoo is Born
Before being acquired by the United States in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase, the New Orleans colony was under both French and Spanish control. Those of French and Spanish descent came from Catholic backgrounds, incorporating Catholicism as the predominant religion in New Orleans.
As time went on, West African, Spanish, and French people in New Orleans began to adopt various cultural tendencies from one another—faith being one of them. About 50 years after Vodou and Catholicism characteristics began to mesh, New Orleans Voodoo was born.
Prominent voodoo practitioners became known as “priests” and “priestesses,” loa became synonymous with Catholic saints, and Sunday worship ceremonies took on the name of “mass.”
Many accounts say that the sole reason voodoo became popularized in New Orleans and established as a legitimate religion was Marie Laveau. Laveau, a devout Catholic, practiced Catholicism and voodoo simultaneously. Feeding the hungry, counseling high-ranking businessmen, and nursing the sick back to health are attributed to Marie Laveau’s rise to prominence, giving her the title of Louisiana’s Voodoo Queen.
As Laveau’s legacy left a mark on so many New Orleans residents in the 1800s, the spirit of New Orleans Voodoo lived on.
Commercialization and New Orleans Voodoo Today
Voodoo as a communal religion became less and less prevalent in the early 1900s as it started to be seen in a negative light. Those who practiced voodoo were thought to have “dark powers” and supernatural abilities, causing laws to be placed which prohibited voodoo practices.
It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1900s that voodoo became a phenomenon in pop culture. Today, New Orleans Voodoo is the subject of numerous New Orleans tourist attractions, movies, TV shows, music festivals, beer, potato chips, restaurants, convenience stores, and so much more.
There are even guided voodoo tours you can take in New Orleans to experience firsthand the various voodoo practices and significant sites.
While it’s less common in New Orleans than it was in the 1700 and 1800s, the New Orleans Voodoo religion remains in practice by residents across the Crescent City. The Voodoo Spiritual Temple, located across from Congo Square, serves as a place where people can go for voodoo consultations, rituals, lectures, and more.
Due to its historical significance and commercialization, voodoo is cemented as a pillar in Louisiana culture and New Orleans will continue to be the epicenter of this religion with origins as far back to ancient Africa.
Have you heard of New Orleans Voodoo or have any stories that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!
Louisiana State University alumnus (Geaux Tigers), fanatic of all things sports, pugs, and Star Wars, and teller of the occasional dad joke. Retired Avenger, current NFL free agent.