Who has not heard, in connection with the local history of New Orleans, of that mysterious and religious sect of fanatics, imported from the jungles of Africa and implanted in our midst, so well known under the appellation of Voudous? St. John's Day - the 24th of June - is the day consecrated by them to their peculiar idolatry. Drifting into this country and the West India Islands with the constant influx of the Slave Trade, this disgusting organization or order, with its stupid creed and bestial rites, made considerable progress among the low and ignorant of our population in the early period of the present century, and extended its ramifications among the servile classes through most of our Creole parishes.
Their dances are original, partaking somewhat of the character of thQ "Calinda." and "Bamboula," now made world-famous by the genius of our fellow-townsman, Edward Gottschalk, who has set them to most exquisite music. But it is not for these dances alone that the study of Voudouism deserves to be considered, but for the further reason that they are accompanied by circumstances so odd, strange, and, I may say, atrocious, as to deserve particular notice.
According to the Africans of the Arada nation, who claim to have preserved unsullied the faith and ceremonies of their religion, the word "Vondou" signifies an all-powerful and supernatural Being, from whom all events derive their origin. And what or who is that Being? A serpent, a harmless snake, under whose auspices these religionists gather. The attributes of prescience and knowledge of the past are ascribed to it, and these he manifests through the medium of a High Priest selected by the sect, and most frequently through the lips of the black wench, whom the love of the former has elevated to the post of a consort.
These two ministers of the God-Serpent, claiming to act under its inspiration, assume the pompous names of King and Queen; at other times the despotic titles of Master and Mistress, and sometimes those of a more affectionate nature, Papa and Mamma. They hold office by a life tenure, and exact unbounded confidence from their adepts. They communicate the will of the Serpent in all matters appertaining to the admission or rejection of candidates. They prescribe the duties and obligations incumbent upon them. They receive the gifts and presents, which the God expects as a tribute to his power. To disobey or resist means offence to the Deity, and subjects the recalcitrant to great penalties.
As soon as this system of domination, on the one hand, and of blind submission on the other, has been well established, they hold meetings at stated periods, at which the King and Queen preside, in accordance with traditions borrowed from Africa, and varied at times by creole customs and others of European origin, as, for instance, in matters of dress and ornament. These reunions, whenever they are conducted in their primitive purity, are always strictly secret, are held in the night time, and in a place so secluded as to escape the gaze of any profane eye. There, every memher, after divesting himself of his usual raiment, puts on a pair of sandals and girds his loins with a number of red handkerchiefs. The Voudou King is distinguished from his subjects by a greater number, and of a finer quality, of those coverings, always using some crimson stuff, wrapped around his kinky head, in lieu of a diadem. A cord, usually blue, encircles his waist. The Queen is dressed with more simplicity, affects red garments and adorus her person with a sash of the same hue.
The King and Queen take their positions at one end of the room, near a species of altar, on which is placed a box, wherein the serpent is imprisoned, and where the affiliated can view it outside the bars. As soon as a strict inspection assures them that no intruder is within hearing or sight, the ceremony begins by the adoration of his Snakeship, by protestations of fidelity to his cult, and of submission to his behests. They renew into the hands of the King and Queen the oath of secrecy, which is the corner stone of their order, and, while this part of the ritual is being accomplished, horrible and delirious scenes follow.
The worshippers being thus prepared to receive the impressions which the Sovereigns seem to infuse into thein, the latter, assuming the benign tones of a fond father and mother, extol the happiness which is in store for every faithful Voudou, exhort them to confidence, and urge them to always seek their advice, whatever the emergency may be.
The group then breaks up, and each one, according to his wants or right of precedence, comes forward to implore the Voudou God. As the majority were slaves, they would ask for the gift of domination over the minds of their masters. One would solicit money, another success in love, while a third would crave the return of some faithless swain, or a speedy cure or the blessings of a long life. While a withered hag would be conjuring the God for a youthful admirer, a young one would hurl maledictions upon a successful rival. There is not a passion, to which human nature may be prone, that is not incarnated or typified in these motley assemblies, while crime itself is frequently invoked by those carried away by malice.
To every one of these petitions or invocations, the Voudou King lends a heedful ear. The spirit begins to move him. He suddenly seizes the precious box, lays it on the floor, and places the Queen upon the lid. No sooner has her foot touched the sacred receptacle, than she becomes possessed, like a new Pythoness. Her frame quivers, her whole body is convulsed, and the oracle pronounces its edicts through her inspired lips. On some she bestows flattery and promises of success, at others she thunders forth bitter invectives. Following the trend either of her own wishes, of her personal interest, or of her capricious mood, she dictates irrevocable laws, in the name of the serpent, to a set of idiots, who gulp down every absurdity with stupendous credulity, and whose rule is blind obedience to every mandate.
As soon as the oracle has answered every question propounded, a circle is formed and the serpent is put back upon the unholy fane. Then each one presents his offering, and places it in a hat impervious to prying curiosity. These tributes, the King and Queen assure them, are acceptable to their Divine protector. From these oblations a fund is raised which enables them to defray the expenses of the meetings, to provide help for the needy, and to reward those from whom the society expects some important service. Plans are next proposed, and lines of action prescribed under the direction, as the Queen always affirms, of the God, "Voudou." Of these many are contrary to morality and to the maintenance of law and order. An oath is again administered, which binds not only every one to secrecy, but to assist in carrying out the work agreed upon. Sometimes, a bowl, dripping with the still warm blood of a kid, seals upon the lips of the assistants the promise to suffer death rather than reveal the secret, and even to murder a traitor to this obligation. And now the Voudou dance begins. If there be a candidate present, his initiation inaugurates this part of the ceremony. The Voudou King traces a large circle in the centre of the room with a piece of charcoal, and places within it the sable neophite. He now thrusts into his hand a package of herbs, horse hair, rancid tallow, waxen effigies, broken bits of horn, and other substances equally nauseating. Then lightly striking him on the head with a small wooden paddle, he launches forth into the following African chaunt!
"Eh! eh! Bomba, hen, hen!
Canga bafio te,
Canga moune de le,
Canga do ki la
As these words are repeated in chorus by the onlookers, the candidate begins to "squirm" and to dance. This is called " monter voudou." If, unfortunately, he should in the excess of his frenzy, happen to step out of the line enclosing the mystic circle, the song ceases at once, and the King and Queen turn their backs upon him, in order to neutralize the bad omen.
When the dancer recovers his self-possession, he re-enters the ring, becomes convulsed again, drinks some stimulant aud relapses into a hysteric fit. To put a stop to these symptoms, the King sometimes hits him smartly with his wooden paddle, and, if needs be, uses a cowhide. He is then led to the altar to take the oath, and from that moment he is a full-fledged member of the Order.
On the termination of the ceremony, the King places his hand or foot on the box where the snake is ensconced, and experiences a shock. He communicates by contact this impulsion to his Queen, and through her the commotion is conveyed to every one in the circle. Every one then begins to experience convulsions through the upper portion of the body, the head and shoulders. A work of dislocation of the bones seems to be going on, The Queen particularly appears to be most violently affected. She goes from time to time to the voudou serpent, to gather a new supply of magnetic influence. She shakes the box, and the tinkling bells, that are usually suspended from its sides, increase the general delirium. Add to this copious draughts of spirituous liquors. Then is pandemonium let loose. Fainting fits and choking spells succeed one another. A nervous tremor possesses everybody. No one escapes its power. They spin around with incredible velocity, whilst some, in the midst of these bacchanalian orgies, tear their vestments, and even lacerate their flesh with their gnashing teeth. Others, entirely deprived of reason, fall down to the ground from sheer lassitude, and are carried, still panting and gyrating into the open air.
What is undoubtedly true and is a remarkable phenomenon among these people, is the existence of that species of electric fluid which urges these people to dance, until bereft of sense through complete exhaustion. They are not unlike the Shakers in this respect.
These singular details are gleaned from a work entitled "Souvenirs d'Amirique," written by a talented Creole lady of New Orleans, who seems to have made a special study of the subject.
The greater portion of these people came to Louisiana at the period of the St. Domingo Revolution, when thousands of whites and blacks repaired to our shores in quest of an asylum from impending massacre. They brought with them the peculiar dialect of their unfortunate and doomed island home, and, among other customs which their slaves introduced, they domesticated in our midst the lascivious saturnalia, the horrid orgies and the dangerous, and, in many cases, criminal practices that constitute the ritual of this African institution.
A brief historical sketch o£ their existence and leaders in New Orleans may prove of interest to the general reader.
In the foreground of the Kings and Queens who wielded here their sceptres with despotic power, was a fellow, named John, better known as "Dr John," who lived out on the Bayou Road, near its intersection with Esplanade street. He was a negro of the purest African type. His ebony face was horribly tattoed, in conformity with the usages of the Congo tribe. He was glib of tongue, neat in his apparel, always wore a frilled shirt front and claimed miraculous powers for the cure of diseases. His room or office was packed with all sorts of herbs, lizards, toads and phials of strange compounds. Thousands visited him. As an Indian doctor, he was a great success.
In addition to this industry, he cumulated the functions of an astrologer, a mind-reader and professed cartomancy and divination also by means of pebbles and shells. His control over the credulous and superstitious element of society was incredible. He pretended ability to read the past, to know the present and to forecast the future. Charms and amulets were special objects of traffic in his shop, and realized very high prices. One would stand aghast were he to be told the names of the high city dames, who were wont to drive in their own carriages, with thickly veiled faces, to this sooty black Cagliostro's abode, to consult him upon domestic affairs. As he was well informed of many family secrets, through the connivance of the hundreds of negro servants attached to the cause of Voudouism, his powers of vaticination cease to be a subject of wonder.
He exercised the functions of voudou royalty for upward of forty years, and was most strict in the observance of the African ritual. He was a negro to the core - in color, origin and principle. A mulatto was his special aversion. "Too black to be white," he was wont to say," and too white to be black, he is nothing but a mule." He was well off, having accumulated some property. He died shortly after the war, at a very advanced age, but such were his vitality and powers of endurance that his body ever remained erect and his hair jet black.
Not unlike "Doctor John" in many respects, Marie Laveau, deserves mention. In her yonth, she was a woman of fine physique and a noted procuress. Introducing herself into families as a hair dresser, she would assist in the clandestine correspondent of sweethearts, and aid youthful lovers - and old coquettes as well - in their amours. She was an essentially bad woman. Though queen of the Voudous, she excised the ritual of the original creed, so as to make it conform to the worship of the Virgin and of other saints. To idolatry she added blasphemy. She was the first to popularize - I should say, vulgarize - voudouism in New Orleans. She would invite the reporters of the press, the magnates of the police force, the swells of the sporting fraternity to their public dances and drinking bouts, where a snake in a box, a beheaded white rooster and other emblems of their religious belief were conspicuously exposed. These festivals occurred yearly on St. John's eve, at some convenient spot not far from the bayou which bears that name. But this was a mere device to hoodwink the unwary. Her secret conclaves were usually held in a retired spot upon the lake shore known as the "figuiers" - once a big orchard, - beyond which she had constructed a frame cabin, that she used as a summer resort.
Her house, situated on St. Anne street, between Rampart and Burgundy, is said to be one of the most ancient frame residences of the city. It is a rickety concern today, and is retired from the street.
She also dealt in charms against malefices, and pretended to cure many ailments, particularly those produced by "gris-gris" and other criminal devices. Such was the superstition of our people in her palmy days, that her apartments were often thronged with visitors from every class and section, in search of aid from her supposed supernatural powers. Ladies of high social position would frequently pay her high prices for amulets supposed to bring good luck. Politicians and candidates for office were known to purchase what we would call "mascots" today at her shop of Fortune, and sports would wear, attached to their watch chains, pieces of bone or wood dug from the graveyard. Some of these were curiously and fantastically carved. Is it needless to say that she was an arrant fraud? Yet, A fellow by the name of Dr. Alexander succeeded her in this profession of dupery. He had for sometime a large following in the suburbs, but frequent arrests by the police hampered his business. He died a few years ago, I believe.
The prince of the occult science, styling himself Don Pedro is now the recognized head of the sect, and his adepts, I am told, are legion. The police have, however, nearly broken up his business, having compelled him to go in hiding. He is heard of sometimes through the medium of the press, as he advertises occasionally as a healing medium. As long as charlatans are not put down by the strong arm of the law, there will ever be a host of believers.
The organization of the voudous, as an organization, has been suppressed in a great measure by the efforts of our municipal authorities. I remember a raid, made by Captain Mazerat, of the Third District, some forty years ago, which was accompanied by circumstances of such a startling nature, as to give the association a deadly blow. Many of the old residents remember the " Racket Green," along the St. Bernard Canal, where thousands were in the habit of congregating to witness the battles of the "Bayous" with the "La Villes," in the games of Raquettes. The field was an immense one, extending from Claiborne as far back as Broad. In the centre stood an old pottery, apparently untenanted. While the game was progressing, the Captain aided by a strong corps, advanced unobserved upon the dilapidated tenement and arrested the whole concern - Voudous and paraphernalia - while engaged in one of the wildest orgies which the most prurient imagination can conceive. The women, having cast off their every day apparel, had put on white camisoles - called today "mother hubbards" - and were all found clad in this uniform attire. Blacks and whites were circling round promiscously, writhing in muscular contractions, panting, raving and frothing at the mouth. But the most degrading and infamous feature of this scene was the presence of a very large number of ladies(?), moving in the highest walks of society, rich and hitherto supposed respectable, that were caught in the drag net. Two of them, through consideration for the feelings of their relatives and connections, so unexpectedly brought to shame, were permitted to escape, while the husband of a third, unable to survive the disgrace of his wife, deliberately took his life on the following day. These facts are beyond controversy, and the scandal, attested by thousands, was made the subject of town gossip for many a year.
Besides the potent incantations which they claim the power to perform, it is an admitted fact that they use philters, drugs and poisonous substances in their wicked operations. These they call "gris-gris." One of the favorite ingredients used is a decoction of the "concombre zombi" - Jamestown weed - which they mix in coffee. It is the plant from which that rank toxicant, known as stramonium, is extracted. They use dirt taken from graveyards. They employ certain powders, which they scatter around such places as they suppose their victims are apt to touch with their hands or feet, and the effect of these powders is to produce inflamation, pain and fever. Even feather pillows are impregnated with deleterious substances, in the guise of poisoned crosses, coffins, images etc., but how they contrive to introduce these objects therein without detection, is as yet an unsolved mystery. Perhaps, some one may answer; "By the black servants, of course." But I and hundreds of others have heard of various well authenticated cases in families where no menials were engaged, and every household duty was performed by the inmates themselves, I am no believer in supernaturalism, but I am free to confess that the mystery appears at this present day as far from explanation as ever.
The tribe of Voudous, as a tribe or a class, deserves to be stamped out of existence, and with the advances of our superior civilization it is to be hoped that the hour is not far distant when the last vestige of its degrading and dangerous influence will be forever wiped out of existence.
EPISODES OF LOUISIANA LIFE
By Henry C Castellanos, 1905