You are on page 1of 3

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

The New York Times

November 30, 2003, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

HEADLINE: Interest Surges in Voodoo, and Its Queen

BYLINE: By STEPHEN KINZER

DATELINE: NEW ORLEANS

Last year, doctors told a 41-year-old New York woman who had been bedridden with meningitis and
other ailments that she should prepare for the worst. Rather than resign herself to her fate, she boarded a
train to New Orleans - her illness does not permit her to fly -- and made an offering at the tomb of Marie
Laveau, the "voodoo queen" who died in 1881 but has re-emerged as the center of a far-reaching
religious movement.

After what she called a nearly complete recovery, the woman, who asked to be identified only as
Jackie, recently made another trip to Laveau's tomb "to close the circle."

"If you believe there are spiritual forces with great power," she said, "this is definitely a place to
come."

New Orleans is the center of what scholars and others say is a surging revival of interest in voodoo, a
centuries-old belief system rooted in Africa. Laveau, who was hugely influential here in her lifetime but
then passed into a long period of obscurity, is its key figure.

Laveau has often been featured in novels, folklore and songs, but in a reflection of how much more
seriously she is now being taken, two scholars have recently completed separate academic biographies
that portray her as a major cultural and social figure. Her image hangs in many shops here where voodoo
charms and amulets are sold.

Tour guides say Laveau's grave at St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery near the French Quarter has become one
of the most visited graves in the United States. Chris Grant, office manager for New Orleans Spirit
Tours, said his company took about 12,000 people to the grave each year.

"Multiply that by a dozen companies, and then at least double that total to include people who go on
their own, and you've got a quarter of a million people per year," he said.

Mr. Grant estimated that the number of visitors to Laveau's grave had doubled over the last decade.
That coincides with the assessment of many experts that the current wave of fascination with voodoo
began in the early 1990's. It appears to have intensified over the last few years.

Bus and walking tours, including many that focus on voodoo and include visits to Laveau's tomb, are
so popular that in July, the New Orleans City Council placed all tours under restrictions, including a 10
p.m. curfew and a requirement that each tour be limited to 28 people.
2

The growing tourist interest in voodoo is motivated largely by the same curiosity that draws travelers
to anything exotic. But scholars say it has been accompanied by another, more profound phenomenon: a
marked growth in the number of people who embrace voodoo beliefs.

Voodoo priests and priestesses take a variety of approaches in their rituals. Many of their public rites
involve singing, dancing, chanting and drumming. When working with individuals, some use oils,
candles and herbs. Others prepare small bags or charms that are said to have special powers. Still others
read cards, leaves or bones.

In interviews here, voodoo priests and priestesses said demand for their services had greatly increased.

"It's nonstop 24 hours a day," said Sallie Anne Glassman, who studied voodoo in Haiti in the 1990's
and later published a book about it. "I get people from all walks of life, from street people to professors
to psychiatrists to political leaders. They aren't looking for hexes or charms to make someone's nose fall
off. It's something much more basic. They turn to voodoo because there's an increasing desperation in
our culture for spiritual meaning and direction."

No one knows how many people believe in voodoo. People who monitor religious belief in the New
Orleans area, however, put the number of voodoo practitioners here well into the tens of thousands or
beyond.

"Something very real is happening," said Martha Ward, a professor of anthropology at the University
of New Orleans who wrote one of the forthcoming books about Laveau. "Americans today are hungry
for spiritual fulfillment, and voodoo offers a direct experience with the sacred that appeals to more and
more people.

"This is especially visible in New Orleans, which has always been a center of these beliefs," Ms. Ward
said. "Marie Laveau rules the imagination of this city. People think about her, see her, have visions of
her, dream about her, talk to her. I know, because these people are showing up on my doorstep almost
every day."

The author of the other Laveau biography, Ina J. Fandrich, a professor of religion at Louisiana State
University, called the growth in voodoo beliefs "enormous."

"Especially since 9/11, people have been grasping for meaning and guidance," Ms. Fandrich said. "An
amazing number of people are finding it in voodoo. That attracts them to New Orleans and then straight
to Marie Laveau."

For much of the 20th century, small circles of believers practiced voodoo quietly here. Many
Americans consider it mysterious or even ridiculous, and some 20th-century chroniclers of New Orleans
history portrayed Laveau as a charlatan and a depraved sensualist.

Modern historians are forging a very different view of Laveau, a free woman of African, American
Indian and European blood who thrived at a time when New Orleans was one of the most racially
integrated cities in the United States. They describe her as a healer and spiritualist who cultivated an
3

unparalleled network of informants among slaves and servants, and seemed to know every secret in
town.

Slaves brought voodoo to the Americas from West Africa. It thrived in Haiti and Louisiana, and over
the years it absorbed influences from French and Spanish Catholicism, American Indian spiritual
practices and even Masonic tradition. Many believers consider themselves Catholic and see no
contradiction between Christianity and their belief in protective spirits and other tenets of voodoo.

The appeal of voodoo now cuts across racial and national lines. Some specialists say that in the United
States, and particularly in New Orleans, many of those who now gravitate toward it are white.

One priestess, Miriam Chamani, performs rites at an elaborate altar behind her shop. A large portrait
of Laveau hangs nearby.

"Voodoo is about finding ways to survive conflict and trouble," Ms. Chamani said. "As long as you're
doing the work of helping people get through difficult times, you're doing the work that Marie Laveau
was all about."

Farther away from the tourist-oriented French Quarter, Elmer Glover, a voodoo priest, said even
clergymen came to him for help. "Voodoo has many enemies in public, but in private it has many
friends," he said.

Mr. Glover has traveled to Haiti, Belize, Brazil and Africa to immerse himself in voodoo and related
animist belief systems like macumba, santeria and condomble. In more than 20 years as a shaman, he
said he had performed countless ceremonies aimed at helping people overcome problems. In an
interview, however, he declined to make extravagant claims for the power of voodoo.

"It generally works out, but I don't know how," he said. "Have you heard of the placebo effect? If you
have faith, if you truly believe that supernatural powers can intervene in your life, this can help you."

http://www.nytimes.com

GRAPHIC: Photos: Midge Jones shows tourists in New Orleans the grave of the
"voodoo queen," Marie Laveau, above; it is one of the most visited in the United
States. At right, a New Orleans voodoo priestess, Miriam Chamani. (Photographs
by David Rae Morris for The New York Times)