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Not-so-secret voodoo ceremonies: Bayou St. John

According to historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, voodoo came to New Orleans not only as a result of the Haitian Revolution—when droves of refugees, both white and black, flocked to New Orleans in the early 1800s bringing the primary popular religion of Haiti with them—but far earlier in the city’s history with the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 1700s.

New Orleans' elites in the early years of the 19th century were terrified a similar uprising might happen here. In 1817, City Council forbid blacks from congregating in large groups except in specified places at specified times. Therefore, voodoo rituals of the day had to hide from view, which meant—in the days before the city’s vast cypress forests were drained and developed—they moved into the swamps.

According to Bayou St. John historian Edna Freiberg, these policies explain why the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau is said to have held her annual St. John’s Eve rituals along the banks of our swampy bayou. And yet, she seems to have invited everyone to come out and see it anyway!

I’m fascinated by Marie Laveau, along with, like, everyone ever, specifically because I want to know more about her success in bringing voodoo into the public (i.e. white) eye—one of the many things she is known for. What was the purpose of this? What was the benefit? I have much more reading to do on the subject, but as we near June 23rd, St. John’s Eve, I wanted to provide you with an interesting (and dated, and hugely offensive) Times-Picayune article of yesteryear describing this annual event. Part of the reason why we can read about the event now is precisely because it was open to white voyeurs, for reasons I still can’t figure out.

Was Laveau simply cashing in on whites’ need to witness what they termed a “barbaric spectacle,” to remind themselves, once again, of their ultimate superiority? Was it all a ploy, a “decoy,” while the “real” ritual unfolded place elsewhere?

In 1924, this Times-Picayune reporter wrote on the supposed history of this annual event: “This cabala of St. John’s Eve was for years a topic of discussion in New Orleans and even attracted national attention. In barbaric color and African hideousness, nothing has ever surpassed it. Thousands of curiosity-seekers, journalists, and freelance writers, who chanced to be in New Orleans at the time of this jubilee, would go out in the swamp lands after nightfall and walk through the rough paths, eager to glimpse the orgy. It is generally known that Marie LaVeau [sic] welcomed whites as this particular saturnalia, and it is often remarked that it was the decoy, the real worship of the voodoo taking place at other times in remote regions of the swamp, near the shanty which has been styled the 'summer home' of Marie LaVeau.” [1]

For the modern-day St. John's Eve head-washing ceremony (decidedly less fraught), head out to Magnolia Bridge on June 23rd!

 

  1. Times-Picayune 16 Mar. 1924: 71. NewsBank. Web. 14 Jun. 2016.

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.