April 20th is the birthday of activist and Priestess of Oshun Luisha Teish. Her book Jambalaya was the first title I ever bought hard cover because I was too excited for the cheaper paper back to be released. I had studied what little was available on Haitian Vodou because my mother was there in the 1986 revolution. Teish made me aware of other African Diaspora Religions including the Orisha and Marie LaVeau. She’s also the only person I have ever paid to attend a spiritual workshop. Happy Birthday, Great One!
There’s a lot of African traditional religious practices that didn’t carry over into the modern neo-Yoruban religions like Lucumi. However, here’s one that is found in Marie LaVeau’s Congo Square dances. First a little African religious history for context.
“According to myth, there were no voduns in Dahomey until Agaja demanded that they be brought into the kingdom. Until that time, women of Dahomey gave birth to goats, and goats gave birth to humans. In order to alleviate this imbalance in nature, eleven voduns were carried en masse from the Fon heartland in Adja to Abomey. Among these were Hevioso, Gu, Dã, Fa, and Legba. Only upon summoning the voduns and showing them devotion were natural reproductive capacities restored, humans giving birth to humans, goats to goats. Thus, regional history was rewritten, attributing the birth and regeneration of a new people to Agaja’s embrace of a pan-Dahomean cast of divinities. Contrary to the myth, the term “vodun” was in wide circulation in the region from as early as 1658, when Capuchin missionaries in Allada equated “vodun” with “god.” Hevioso, the vodun of thunder, originated in the small village of Hevie, halfway between Abomey and Ouidah. Other voduns had originated in Yorubaland before spreading across the region, some even to Abomey.
“Until the rise of the empire of Dahomey, there was no formal, centralized acknowledgment of the deities diffused throughout the region. Only when Dahomeans began co-opting the local deities of the peoples they conquered did the official pantheon of vodun actually emerge. Reproduction and regeneration were at stake as the nascent empire teetered. In response, Agaja instituted a policy of appropriating the deities of conquered peoples, importing their shrines and priests to Abomey, where they were integrated into the official royal pantheon.”
– Domingos Álvares, African healing, and the intellectual history of the Atlantic world James H. Sweet. 2011 The University of North Carolina Press
However, in the roots of Voodoo and Hoodoo, enslaved Africans shared what they could of their various religions.
“The primary African components from which Hoodoo would be constituted were drawn from a range of different African ethnic cultures that stretched from the area now known as Senegal down the West African coast to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Because it concerned the transformation of a variety of traditional African religions into one spiritual tradition, Hoodoo must have involved a major confrontation of spiritual forces. The early disintegration process included a great reduction in ability not only to ritualize across the life cycle, but also to engage openly in significant events, which would help to stabilize and enrich the psychocultural continuity in the slave community. The most sacred of Christian symbols, the cross, resonated both with African notions of the crossroads as a supernatural site and with the sacred cross of the Kongo Yowa cosmogram. The symbol represents the Bakongo people’s view of the universe and the place of humankind in that universe. Among other qualities, it symbolizes the movement from the otherworld of the ancestors as they travel in a dynamic cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
“Southwest Hoodoo region, was centered in the Gulf Coast/New Orleans/Mobile area; this area would include the western Florida panhandle, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi and extend westward into eastern Texas and northward to Missouri and Tennessee. In this region, the Senegambian, Mande speakers, particularly the Bambara in Louisiana, would leave a fortified cultural legacy that recognizably contributed directly to Hoodoo development. The Bambara in particular were concentrated in such numbers there, that a Bambara interpreter was installed in the New Orleans court system. Their best-known and documented contribution to Hoodoo may be in the fabrication of protective amulets known by a variety of Mande labels, including gerregery (gris-gris), wanga, and zinzin. Other groups in area one include those from the Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe cultural complex as well as from Central West Africa or the Kongo-Angola-Zaire area.”
– Mojo Workin’: the old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald, University of Illinois 2013
I share these to provide historical context of how a 19th century Yoruban Ogun tradition may have had a similar practice in 19th century New Orleans. Here’s the Yoruban history:
“For an instance of female devotion to Ogun, there was the female butcher noted by E. M. Lijadu far away at Ondo in 1892. As she went into her stall in the market, she gathered up her iron implements, split kola and threw the pieces several times over them, and offered some incantations. To Lijadu’s question, she said she was “consulting Aje the goddess of money through Ogun the god of iron [and that] Aje promises to send me many customers with much money to carry home after the market.” This Ogun–Aje linkage is attested from elsewhere; and as a woman’s ritual directed at personal wealth, it may perhaps be seen as practically analogous to the cult of Ori, which was popular among wealthy women in central and southwestern Yorubaland but apparently absent from the East. As described here by Lijadu, such elements of the ritual as breaking kola over iron tools seem identical to those practiced by male workers with iron.
“But the main way in which Ogun appears in the CMS journals as an object of women’s worship is quite different: not as iron but as a snake. It was not exclusively a women’s cult, though women were most active in it (as indeed in most forms of orisha worship). The most dramatic account of the cult of Ogun as snake comes from Ijaye in 1855: “It was the annual Ifa festival of the Ar Kurunmi, despotic ruler of the town, and large crowds had gathered before the gate of his compound. Most of them were said to be “worshippers of the orisa called Ogun or snake,” for Kurunmi’s late mother had been one of its principal devotees, and this was in remembrance of her. Lots of snakes of different sizes from different parts of the town were brought to “play” with Kurunmi, but he wouldn’t allow them inside his house since (says the African catechist Charles Phillips) he was afraid of them.” The cult was most publicly manifest when its members went about the town with their Ogun snakes, offering blessings in the god’s name and receiving gifts (in essence, sacrices) of cowries in return. A traveling Methodist missionary was visited by a female “snake charmer” at Oyo in the early 1890s. Our last glimpse of the cult is again in lbadan, when a European woman missionary encounters “sitting by the roadside an old woman, an Ogun worshipper with a huge snake coiled round the body, and she asking alms of the people. ”
From Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction by J. D. Y. Peel, available for FREE here at University of California, Luminosoa.
On to Marie LaVeau!
“The drummer started a slow beat; a trumpet made from an animal’s horn sounded four long notes. The gathering had begun. As Marie Laveau crossed Rampart Street and neared Congo Square, the multi-leveled roofs of the French Quarter and the spires of St. Louis Cathedral rose behind her. At the entrance to the dance plaza, she passed market women selling their wares—pecan pies, spruce beer, Louisiana rum, and pralines filled with peanuts, coconut, or popcorn. Marie had left the corsets, petticoats, and heavy undergarments she wore to church that Sunday morning at home. In their stead, she chose a loose, low-necked cotton dress that permitted easy movement in the subtropical humidity and allowed the Great Serpent Spirit to enter and use her body. Her gold earrings and bracelets flashed in the sun, and her tignon—a vividly colored madras handkerchief wound as a turban—stood high in seven points. The policemen stationed at each of the four gates to Congo Square watched the crowd part as Marie Laveau passed. They were waiting for her.
“When Marie Laveau’s magical spells, commanding presence, or strategic bribery had taken hold, the police relented and joined the crowds to watch her perform. Marie slipped off her shoes and walked to the center where magical lines from the four corners and the four gates intersected. As was her custom, she knelt on the ground and rapped three times. The crowd loved the one-two-three rhythm and shouted it with her—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Faith, Hope, and Charity. Then from a box near her feet, she lifted a fat snake. The earth-toned creature—probably a Louisiana Coluber—was not poisonous, but it stretched twelve to twenty feet and entwined itself in undulating coils about the body of the priestess.
“Marie signaled the band and began to move with slow, sinuous grace. Bare soles flat on the packed earth of Congo Square, she shifted her weight from one ankle to another, then to her knees, thighs, hips, torso, and up to her shoulders. Her feet never lifted from the ground; she swayed in waves like the movement of snakes. Other women joined her and danced within their own tight circles or rings, some no larger than ten feet in diameter. Many waved white handkerchiefs “extended by the corners in their hands.” Men with bracelets of bells on their calves danced in circles around the women. Sometimes they balanced bottles of rum or other spirits on their heads. They mimicked fighting and leaped into the air in displays of gymnastic ferocity.
“On the Sunday afternoons when Marie Laveau herself danced, Congo Square was spirit theater. Marie devoured drumbeat, song, and motion. They drove her from her body, out of her social identity, and into the climax of spirit possession. As the snake curled about her, she called to its soul in song—“Come Great Serpent Spirit. Join us, Le Grand Zombi.” The serpent spirit entered her, became who she was; they whirled as one in ecstasy and awe. “He comes, the Great Serpent. Comes to make things happen. Comes to face down death.”
“Marguerite Darcantel, mother to the first queen and grandmother to the second, was—the gumbo ya-ya says—a fever nurse, hoodoo doctor, and Voodoo practitioner. People said she was a descendant of a Christian slave from the Kingdom of Kongo, a long line of Native American herbalists and healers, and several French and Spanish aristocrats. The gumbo ya-ya says that Marie’s mother’s mother came directly to Louisiana from the Central African kingdom and passed on spiritual customs to her daughter and granddaughter that resemble those of the ngangas or mediums, priestesses, or shamans of widespread religious movements in Kongo.”
– Voodoo Queen: the spirited lives of Marie Laveau Martha Ward. University Press of Mississippi (2004)
Who is Le Grand Zombi?
“Marie Laveau drew upon the teachings and practices of Saint-Domingue and Africa for her work. In naming her famous snake “Li Grand Zombi,” Laveau paid homage not to shambling animated corpses but to a powerful spirit—the Kongo creator Nzambi. According to Kongo legend, Nzambi created the heavens, the earth, and the animals. Then, after creating man and woman, he taught them how to survive in his world and how to harness the magical power of his creation. By using those teachings they could break the blazing droughts and bring down the summer rain; they could heal sickness and ensure fertile crops. They could also communicate with the mpungas, deceased ancestors and nature spirits who assisted Nzambi in maintaining his creation.
“In Haiti, Vodouisants honor the Simbi family of lwa. Like the basimbi, snake spirits living in the rivers and streams of southern Africa, the Simbis are known to be shy but powerful magicians. Those who approach them with due patience and respect and gain their trust find they are powerful allies who can act as intermediaries between the worlds of flesh and spirit and life and death. Within New Orleans, believers and practitioners considered Li Grand Zombi a benevolent protector and wise teacher. In New Orleans the snake served simultaneously to advertise to one’s clientele and to set them apart as outsiders. This is similar to Simbi’s liminal position in Haiti. As a traveler between worlds, Simbi is tough to pin down. One of the most popular Simbis, Simbi Andezo, literally resides “in two waters” (an de zo), occupying the space where freshwater meets the salty ocean. Li Grand Zombi is similarly placed between public Voodoo rituals for tourists and private devotions, between religion and entertainment, between African roots and American money-making spectacles. In this, he is a fitting patron for the city of New Orleans and its religion.”
– The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook by Kenaz Filan. Destiny Books (2011)
I know that Hoodoo and conjure are popular topics for Witches. If you are really committed to understanding the various African Diaspora Religions, read more than spells and dig into the fascinating history of West and Central Africa, horrors of European style slavery of Africans, and the spiritual legacy the two created. Things will make sense on many levels of interconnectedness. Try these books!