By Kate Vannini
“Everything contains a spirit. Everything. There is nothing that happens in the natural world that hasn’t happened in the spiritual world first.”
Tourists think they know “Voodoo”. Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo sits on Bourbon Street, Reverend Zombie’s House of Voodoo just a few doors down. The Voodoo Bone Lady Bone Shop stands one block from Bourbon Street. Bloody Mary’s Voodoo Shop is within walking distance of the most famous street in New Orleans. Resting in the most popular tourist destination in Louisiana, these shop owners lean into and sell the inaccurate portrayals of Vodou, while neglecting the true spirit of the religion.
“It’s a liberation and loosening of the bind that our egos have over ourselves. Passing through the invisible door, putting your ego aside, and what you perceive is your identity aside for a minute so something bigger than yourself can come through, and that I think is a more real power in the world. We limit ourselves,” Priestess Sallie Glassman says, describing Vodou. The Haitian spelling, Vodou, signifies the integration of Vudun with Catholicism once the religion reached Haiti with slaves brought from present-day Benin, Africa.
Christina Barré is a member of Priestess Sallie’s house and Island of Salvation Botanica, Priestess Sallie’s shop. “[Vodou] made me understand life better. I apply Vodou to my career, my relationships, my friendships, my family. It’s so easy because it’s just doing the right thing, it’s righteous. Before I walked my path, I was very angry and overcome with baggage and I didn’t know how to release myself. You know, an emotion shouldn’t make you do anything. But I learned major self control and I learned more about myself. I went on a path of self discovery, and the more I learned about myself the more the loa showed themselves to me. And the more I realized the loas have always been with me, and I’ve always been on the path and didn’t realize it. It helps you to connect dots,” she says.
Vodou practice entails a connection with the loas, or spirits, that shape the physical and spiritual world. Vodou worships the negative and positive forces molding our world, and the individual connection one has with them. Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman is one of few white, American Vodou High Priestesses.
“My parents were very liberal… My mother decided to be radical at one point and so we had Black Panther Party fundraisers at my home.” With Black Panther parties and an introduction to yoga at sixteen years old, Sallie was raised with arms and eyes wide open. However, it is her innate and profound spirituality that led her to initiation as a Vodou mambo, or High Priestess. “I was always spiritually inclined and mystically inclined… I think I was just born that way. I saw the world as not very solid, and it still looks that way to me. Sort of mirror images on the surface of water, or energy flows… it took me a very long time to understand that not everybody saw it that way,” Sallie says.
Priestess Sallie’s innate spirituality can be seen through her story of initiation to Haitian Vodou in 1995. While she sat in the kitchen of a neighbor, a president of a Haitian Vodou temple, discussing the possibility of experiencing a ceremony, the phone rang with a Haitian practitioner on the other side of the line. A loa had come to him that day, telling him to initiate Sallie and bring her into the Vodou practice. Although she didn’t know much about Vodou, Sallie accepted the offer and became one of a few American women to be properly initiated into Vodou; her profound and innate spirituality was recognized by the loas of Vodou.
Priestess Sallie’s journey to Vodou led her to see a side of Vodou misunderstanding perpetrated by what she believes is capitalistic agendas and greed. “I’d run into other spiritual leaders and they were all really disappointing in the end and compromising in the end,” Sallie says. Practitioners using the disguise of Vodou to fulfill monetary goals, especially in New Orleans as tourism traps, spread misinformation of the meaning and practices of Vodou, further burying Vodou into a hole of malignance and evil.
“So many people are making money off of Vodou. And most aren’t doing the real thing and it sucks. When people talk their s–t, some of it is valid, but other things aren’t. There are a lot of shops that are not Vodou, but have ‘voodoo’ on their signage. Even the Archdiocese of New Orleans, they have been making money from Marie Laveau for some years now. Where she is buried, they charge people to see the grave, but they don’t publicly acknowledge Vodou… The tours don’t tell people the real s–t,” Christina says on the culture of Vodou tourism.
Tourism serves as a yin and yang for Vodou, keeping the religion in the public eye while simultaneously spreading misinformation. “Marie Laveau started [the public spectacle of Vodou], she started the whole personality cult… it did start the commercialization of Vodou and the tourism aspect of it. And now Vodou is legal here, I can practice on the street. So [tourism] has put Vodou in the public imagination… so it has kept [Vodou] funded and in the public awareness, even erroneously,” says Sallie.
“It is a double edged sword. What I do like is that they are putting it out there for people to see. So being adults and being people, they can now choose to go and do research [on Vodou],” Christina says. However, reasoning for vodou misinterpretations span far beyond the impact tourism has.
Monetary gain has not been the only driving factor in practitioners’ misrepresentation of Vodou. “They can often be really compromising, especially for females, you know if it’s a male leader, and lots of compromising stuff that is really inappropriate, and can really damage a person and their own [Vodou] practice,” Sallie says. She notes a difference between sensuality and sexuality, where Vodou is sensual because of the connectedness to one’s own body. Practitioners acting on the Victorian, hyper-sexual portrayal of Vodou continues to exacerbate the popular view of the religion, one of evil.
Misrepresenting and oppressing Vodou began purposeful tactic performed during the Spanish Inquisition, the Haitian Revolution, and the Victorian era in order to control and dehumanize slaves. “Vodou is actually a technology for opening the door between the visible and the invisible world, inviting invisible power and working directly with that power. So, for slaves, that was impowering and for slave owners that was terrifying. And so, there was an active negative PR campaign that started,” Sallie says about why views of Vodou were made negative.
“They had to mask what they were doing, if not [slaves] would be killed. If [slave owners] heard them speak in their traditional language, they would kill them. If they heard them beating a drum, they were killed. And not just kill them, but kill them in front of their peers and their family to send out of message,” Christina says detailing the European reaction to slaves practicing their native religions.
“We adapted and adjusted in faith, we would pray to be free in cotton fields. We taught our children to watch for horses, and we would kneel and pray in the cotton fields. Children brought water, and learned to give signs of the master so we would continue to pick cotton. We knew that if we could get spirits to move, something better would happen for us,” says Denise Augustine, another member of Priestess Sallie’s house.
“They’re serving Satan, and they’re sacrificing babies…people tearing at their bodies, being naked in ceremonial orgies,” says Sallie as she details the extent of misinformation still in our orbit today. Victorian stories and views of Vodou have shaped the general public’s view of the religion since arriving in the Western Hemisphere during the African Diaspora. These views, used as a mode of control over slaves, have made their way into popular culture today.
“Hollywood has been doing it for a long time, really distorting the images because sensationalizing this stuff sells more tickets and gives them higher ratings,” Sallie says. Movies, television, and media continue to shroud Vodou in barbarism and violence, while in actuality Vodou is a peaceful and respectful religion. The success of these portrayals, however, continue the cyclical nature of people gaining a misunderstanding of Vodou and in turn demand the same violent simulation historically presented.
American Horror Story, a popular television series, played into Vodou tropes in their third season released in 2013. Focusing on New Orleans, witchcraft, and Vodou, the religion was portrayed through the stereotyped lense of Marie Laveau and Papa Legba, a prominent Vodou loa. Marie Laveau was presented as vengeful and powerfully evil, while Papa Legba snatched the souls of infants and snorted cocaine off of his long pinky nail. “Papa Legba, I initiated with him, so I find it really offensive. Papa Legba loves children, but he doesn’t want to take yours,” Christina says about the series’ portrayal of the loa. Popular series, such as American Horror Story, continue to feed inaccurate portrayals of Vodou, contributing to the overall view that Vodou is evil.
Vodou is the spirits which guide the natural world and the behaviors within it. One cannot call Vodou evil, but instead understand the loa as the driving force that shapes the world we live in. Practice of Vodou seeks to balance the loas in an individual and create harmony, instead of letting one loa overpower others and create the chaos seen in humanity today. “Some of these aren’t so good. There are spirits that cause rape and child abuse. There is a spirit that is taken on when people become obsessed with money. You can see spirit in obsession and dysfunction, or you can see spirits in good, like a child wanting to help their community,” Denise mentions when explaining the roles of loa. “Everything contains a spirit. Everything. There is nothing that happens in the natural world that hasn’t happened in the spiritual world first,” Denise says. Loa are the spirit counterparts to our human qualities, and Vodou practice seeks to strike an equilibrium between them.
“I have always been a confident person. But before my path I was conceited. I always had that energy, but now when people see it they aren’t afraid because before, I held so much anger,” Christina details as she explains how balancing her fiery loas helped change her perspectives and how she approached the world.
“People are feeling the need to go to something deeper and older, and something that feels more fulfilling… What we’re trying to do is get back in touch with our power and to live our truth and our reality… People are happier and more empowered. They have more of a sense of, instead of worrying what is going on with everything else, they’re looking at themselves and asking how they are standing in the way of the light,” Sallie says on the changes people make once finding Vodou.
Vodou endured and continues to endure extreme public distortion from white, historical viewpoints and current modes of information distribution, such as the media. However, Vodou, similar to its early practitioners, African slaves, continues to endure and remain alive despite the oppression it faces. “They [Haitian practitioners] managed to not only endure slavery, but they transformed their suffering to strength and create a freedom.”