The most powerful of the 19th century Voodoo Queens of Louisiana - Marie Laveau

10 September 1794, Marie Laveau, the most powerful of  the 19th century Voodoo Queens of Louisiana, was born in New Orleans.

“There is more to it than just you prosper, your enemies fail," said Mama Zouzou. Many of the words of the ceremonies, words she knew once, words her brother had also known, these words had fled from her memory. She told pretty Marie Laveau that the words did not matter, only the tunes and the beats, and there, singing and tapping in the blacksnakes, in the swamp, she has an odd vision. She sees the beats of the songs, the Calinda beat, the Bamboula beat, all the rhythms of equatorial Africa spreading slowly across this midnight land until the whole country shivers and swings to the beats of the old gods whose realms she had left. And even that, she understands somehow, in the swamp, even that will not be enough.“ (Neil Gaiman, “American Gods”)

Frank Schneider’s portrait of Marie Laveau, 
based on a lost 1835 painting by George Catlin.

Most slaves that reached the southern part of what is today the United States were abducted from West Africa and the victims of this forced migration could at least try to keep something – their beliefs and traditions. The Dahomeyan culture circle from present-day Benin and the spiritual folkways were the base of the special manifestation of Voodoo in Louisiana that evolved during the 18th century. A special set of laws from the early 1800s prohibiting the pulling apart of enslaved families encouraged the preservation of an own cultural identity and the slow blending with the believes of the whites in terms of language, custom and religion. A unique culture and religion sprang into existence, combining the voodoo deities, the Loas, spirits of the ancestors with Catholic saints and introduced gris-gris talismans and voodoo dolls in a process to africanise Louisiana Creole culture.

Jacques Amans (1801 - 1888): "Creole in a Red Turban" (1840)

The Voodooienne Marie Laveau was born a “free person of color” and was, first and foremost, an excellent businesswoman. Working as a hairdresser visiting the rich white ladies in their homes, she possessed a wide-ranging network of both information and contacts. And she knew how to manipulate people’s fears and expectations, all in all the best preconditions for becoming a popular oracle, healer and magician. By 1874, allegedly 12.000 followers swarmed to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to attend her ceremonies on St John’s Eve, another variant of Midsummer festivities that are still upheld in New Orleans. Marie Laveau had become the charismatic leader of the locals and not only the Creole part, as well as the thousands of immigrants that flooded into Louisiana from Haiti during the bloody revolution early in the 19th century, well acquainted with their own form of voodoo.

Marie Laveau's tomb at St. Louis Cemetery No 1 in New Orleans

Marie Laveau might be responsible for adding more Catholic elements into the publicly displayed voodoo practices to deceive the Church, still a force to be reckoned with during the early 19th century in Louisiana and her considerable influence made her indeed the most powerful of the Voodoo Queens of New Orleans – and she positively knew how to stage a good show – we have almost no records of how the actual rites and practices for the true followers of the religion and not the folklore aspect were conducted. Whatever the case may be, she became a trans-regional celebrity already during her lifetimes and her funeral in 1881 was again attended by thousands and reported even in the New York Times. Today, her grave at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the family crypt of her second husband Christophe Glapion in New Orleans still receives more annual visitors than the grave of Elvis.