On the trail of voodoo

Religion of spirits and the supernatural runs deep in New Orleans

The small room is dark and stuffy. The air is pungent with the dusty scent of old things. Against one wall is an altar filled with plaster saints, saint cards, white tapers and red votive candles. In the center is a large figurine of Mary and behind her is a thick wooden pole. The tableau is set against a wall draped with a scarlet cloth. Photographs of loved ones appear to have been hastily stuck into the jumble of objects.

Across the room a smaller altar is covered with coins and cigarettes, beads and bottles of nail polish, flowers and a straw hat. Staring down at the altars from various posts in the room are large wooden sculptures of hideous looking faces with long protruding tongues.

This is the altar room of the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, where spirits are conjured and implored with earthly requests. I later learned that the pole behind Mary’s altar serves as a runway of sorts when spirits descend to earth, and the carved heads are Jujus, which mock evil spirits and scare them away by sticking out their tongues.

Voodoo is a religion based on the belief in supernatural powers and human possession by spirits, and it has a long and vivid history in New Orleans. The practice came over from Africa with the arrival of slaves in the early 1700s. Because they were required by law to observe Catholicism, slaves merged the two religions so that the spirit of Papa Legba, who is the gatekeeper to all the other spirits, was identified as St. Peter, and Erzulie, the spirit of love, was identified as Mary, and so on.

Voodoo shops can be found throughout the French Quarter. Some like Rev. Zombie’s House of Voodoo appear to be merely merchants selling tchotchkes, such as voodoo dolls and gris-gris, which are small, cloth amulets containing herbs, twigs, feathers and bones that purport to deliver love, health or wealth to the believer. But other shops, such as Voodoo Authentica, are practicing voodoo centers where oils and potions can be bought, and rituals and readings are held.

A voodoo pilgrimage to New Orleans should include a visit to the gravesite of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, who died in 1881. Her Greek revival tomb in the Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 often can be found littered with gifts of fruit, flowers or candy. Just be sure to visit during the daytime, as more earthly dangers are known to loiter there at night.

Several outfits offer voodoo tours in the French Quarter. Stops include the voodoo museum, a voodoo shop, the spot on St. Ann Street where Marie Laveau’s house once stood and the entrance to Congo Square, the only place slaves were allowed to congregate and the site where the Voodoo Queen conducted ceremonies.

Visitors who want a more personal experience with voodoo can book a room at the International House hotel and order up a Love Ceremony from Voodoo Priestess Sally Ann Glassmann that features an altar of petit fours and champagne, and a ritual that involves drawing a heart on the floor with cornmeal.

All of which raises the question: Is voodoo actually still observed in New Orleans or is it just a tourist attraction?

According to Ernest Sylvester, a guide for Haunted History’s voodoo tour, visitors to New Orleans think nothing of popping into the many voodoo shops in the French Quarter.

“But people who live here?” he said. “They won’t go near them. They’re afraid.”


If you go

Tourist Information


Things to Do

-- New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Three rooms of exhibits, a gift shop and occasional tarot readings. $5. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. or later daily. 724 rue Dumaine, New Orleans. 504-680-0128. www.voodoomuseum.com

-- Haunted History Tours. Voodoo, vampire, ghost and cemetery tours offered day and night. 504-861-2727, www. hauntedhistorytours.com

-- Voodoo Authentica. Potions, oils, dolls and gris-gris are sold; rituals and tarot readings are held. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. 612 rue Dumaine. 504-522-211, www.voodooshop.com

Where to Eat

-- Mother’s Restaurant. Serving po boys, gumbo and ham-centric breakfasts since 1938. Entrees $11-$25. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. 401 Poydras St., 504-523-9656. www.mothers restaurant.net

-- Louisiana Bistro. Elegant simplicity in the French Quarter. Specialties include local Puppy Drum topped with blue crab and poached duck confit called the Dirty Bird in honor of the BP oil spill. Entrees $24-$28. 337 rue Dauphine, 6-10 p.m. daily. 504-525-3335, louisianabistro.net

Where to Stay

International House. Boutique hotel, both hip and comfortable. Loa, the lobby bar, is a local hotspot for creative cocktails. $169-$249. Two night minimum required on weekends. 221 Camp St. 504-553-9550. ihhotel.com