The Lexicon of Marie Laveau’s Voodoo

Beatriz Varela

University of New Orleans

Before analyzing my main topic, the vocabulary, let me say a few words about Marie Laveau and voodoo. Born in 1794, Marie Laveau was a free colored woman, an illegitimate child of mixed heritage, namely one fourth black and one fourth Indian from her mother and one fourth French and one fourth Spanish from her father’s side. The records of vital statistics show that in 1819 Marie Laveau married Jacques Paris, a free mulatto and carpenter from Saint Domingue (Haiti after 1804), at St. Louis Cathedral. For unknown reasons, the marriage did not last long. Although the death of Jacques Paris in 1822 did not occur in New Orleans and is not documented, Marie Laveau took unto herself the title of "veuve Paris" (or widow Paris), which is noted in the inscription on her tomb at the St. Louis Cemetery #1 (Martínez, 1956,8).

Soon after Jacques Paris’ death, Marie established a liaison with Captain Christopher Glapion, who had served in the war of 1812 and at the battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815. She never married Glapion, but bore him fifteen children and lost seven of them during a yellow fever epidemic. Glapion died in 1866, and Marie in 1881 at age 87. They both passed away in Marie’s cottage on St. Ann Street. The cottage had been given to her by the father of a young man whom Marie had saved with one of her gris gris from being found guilty of a crime.

It is difficult to separate fact and fiction in Marie Laveau’s life. Some consider her a witch who consorted with Satan, a thief and a procuress. To many others she was a kind, charitable woman, who nursed a great many victims during the yellow fever epidemics and who visited for decades the prisoners in the parish jail, bringing them food and clothing as well as voodoo charms. The whole truth about her life is thus difficult to pin down. Marie Laveau was an uneducated woman. If she could read and write, that was the extent of her schooling. Yet her talent as a hairdresser to the rich French and American ladies of her time, and her ability to become a wealthy voodoo queen transformed her into a well-known figure of New Orleans history and folklore.

There is no doubt that voodoo is a living religion, not only in the Southern United States, but also in Brazil and the West Indies. It was brought by the slaves from western Africa and has different names according to the country where it is practiced. The spelling is also very irregular: hoodoo, houdou, vaudoo, vodou, vodu, voodoo, voudou, voudoux. The forms preferred today in the United States are voodoo and hoodoo. There are several derived words like the verb voodooed or hoodoed, the nouns voodooienne or hoodooienne, voodooist or hoodooist; voodooism or hoodooism and the adjectives voodooistic or hoodooistic. In French it is spelled vaudou (Petit Larousse, 1964, 1090) and in Spanish vodú or vudú (DRAE, 1992, 1492).

Several categories of words are to be studied: words typical of Louisiana, used in Marie Laveau’s biographies and in voodoo books of this state; names of voodoo places and festivities, voodoo priests and deities, voodoo dances and instruments, voodoo magic charms, and voodoo drinks and shops.

One of my greatest rewards in reading about Marie Laveau was encountering many words which are now part of my vocabulary, but which were totally unknown to me before I became acculturated or–-as it is said in Louisiana–-before I "creolized". Therefore, it is with the pride of a true New Orleanian, that I introduce the following Louisiana terms. Food is an essential part of the culture of this state, so crawfish, shrimp, congri, gumbo, cala, papabote, are frequently mentioned in Marie Laveau’s biographies. Crawfish derives from the French écrevisse and Marie Laveau served it boiled or etouffé. Years ago, one of our reporters from another region announced on his television newscast a crayfish festival. A few minutes later, due to the many complaint calls he had received, the newsman corrected his mistake and properly called it the crawfish festival. Incidentally, the plural of shrimp in Louisiana is always shrimp.

Congri, gumbo and cala are words of African origin. The first one is a dish of rice and cowpeas or rice and black-eyed peas. Nineteenth century voodoo rituals preferred rice and black-eyed peas. Voodooists placed the plate of congris (spelled with or without -s) under a tree, surrounded it with silver coins, and danced around it all night long. This dancing around the plate of congri could act as a lucky or an evil charm depending on the voodoo priest’s intention. On the other hand, The Picayune of June 25, 1873 (Martinez, 1956, 31), reported that Marie Laveau had tossed a live chicken, feathers and all, into a pot with other ingredients which formed a sort of stew. When drunk by the faithful, it kept them from the evil eye for a year. Although Marie prepared this stew during the three yellow fever epidemics that hit New Orleans, the lucky charm did not work in her family -- she lost seven of her children to yellow fever. The word congri is very common in Cuba. Throughout the eastern provinces of the island, it refers to red or black beans cooked together with rice. Cowpeas and rice as well as black-eyed peas and rice were also popular in eastern Cuba, but they were not called congri.

Gumbo is a thick soup having okra, another African word, as its principal ingredient. Marie Laveau often served gumbo to her family, to parish prisoners, and during voodoo rites held at Bayou St. John. Cala is a rice fritter which Creole negro women formerly sold in the French quarter. Although it is no longer as popular, Louisianians do remember the word and what it stood for. The last food item is papabote, an onomatopeic term imitating the cries of a tiny bird which Marie Laveau enjoyed eating. The word is unknown today, and Read (Louisiana French, 1963, 55) calls the small bird plover or bartramian sandpiper.

Banquette, meaning sidewalk, derives from Spanish banqueta and is pronounced banket in Louisiana. It may be worth noting that the Dictionary of American Regional English (1985, 149) erroneously states that banquette is of French origin. Armoire, a large, often ornate wardrobe, is another Louisiana word found in various Laveau’s biographies, whose authors point out that she dressed like a gypsy. Marie was said to wear a blue skirt that whirled as she walked, and a shawl brought to her from Africa, and believed to have belonged to the emperor of China. On her head she wore a brilliant tignon, a colored kerchief required by the Spanish governor Miro for all women of color, whether free or not (Tallant, The Voodoo Queen, 1956, 67). Secured about her waist was the symbol of her office–-the bluebird. Marie always wore gold bracelets and gold earrings. In her later years the colored bandana changed to white or sometimes red, the colors preferred by the black mammies during the Civil War. You remember the commercial for Aunt Jemima pancakes. Marie Laveau’s tignon was not tied on the forehead, the ends hung free.

It has been mentioned that Marie Laveau was a free mulatto, or first generation offspring of a negro and a white. Doctor John, a voodoo priest with many aliases, hated mulattoes because "they were neither black nor white, they’re mules" (Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 1983, 35). In Louisiana, the mulattoes with nice hair and of light skin color were known as "high yellow". Marie Laveau was also called a quadroon, meaning one fourth black. The endings of this term and of octoroon were adopted from the Spanish cuarterón and ochavón through the French language (quarteron and octavon).

Laveau’s biographers use euphemisms to refer to persons suspected of having colored ancestry: a touch of café au lait in her or his veins or a touch of tar brush (Tallant, The Voodoo Queen, 1956, 68), a skeleton in the closet. Tallant describes very dark negroes as coal-black or ace-black (Voodoo in New Orleans, 1983, 18). For voodooists, dark and negro are synonyms, whereas colored is lighter.

Bosal, sometimes spelled with a double s (E.L. Tinker, 1928, 305), is a recently imported African slave. The term, no longer popular, has expanded its meaning in Cuba to refer also to the dialect spoken by blacks who mixed Spanish with their native Yoruba language.

During the nineteenth century, voodooists celebrated two important festivities, which are still observed in Louisiana today. The 23rd of June, the eve of St. John the Baptist, is the most important date on the voodoo calendar. It was customary to meet at Bayou St. John by the lake, at a big altar. There were many snakes, lots of food and tafia, a special homemade drink of rum, sugarcane molasses, and anisette. When the drums started playing, the voodoo queen would start the Creole dances, with a boa constrictor across her shoulders. The different steps were performed by all attending the ritual, which went on till the early hours of the morning, and according to reporters, always ended in orgies. Congo Square, today renamed Beauregard Square, and situated on North Rampart Street, was the negroes’ place of recreation. Even though it was closed to them during the beginning of the nineteenth century, the fashionable quadroon balls were held there before and after the closure. It is said that white gentlemen attended. Today, at Congo Square, a priestess invokes the spirit of the loa and speaks of the renewal of the soul. There is dancing and food at this rite, which replaces the quadroon balls and generally occurs on the 24th of June, St. John’s feast day.

In western Africa, the major ethnic groups brought to Louisiana were Ashanti, Bambara, Dahomey, Ewe and Ibo. Several of them, like Brer Dahomey, appear in state folktales. Others, like Ewe and Ibo, have become deities. Hounfort is the voodoo temple and its surroundings (Zora Neale Hurston, 1938, 192-193). In Haiti they call the hounfort, spelled ounfo, reposwa.

Earlier, the word loa was used. It seems to refer to an intermediary who carries messages to God and to others–-a kind of voodoo saint without an image. In 1999, at the St. John’s celebration, the priestess or mambo (also spelled manbo) declared that Marie Laveau was about to ascend to the level of loa. There would be no rigorous canonization process as in the Catholic Church, according to the mambos. Instead, Laveau would simply make her presence known to the deities and to voodoo practitioners naturally (The Times Picayune, June 30, 1999). The word loa is not listed in Webster’s dictionary, but it is found in voodoo glossaries and studies.

Mambo, as probably loa, is of African origin, and its only recorded meaning is that of ‘a rhythmic musical form of Cuban negro origin’ (Webster’s Dictionary, 1972, 1092). Since voodoo is a religion in which women play a leading role, mambos are generally priestesses. Bocor is the devil’s priest, and the houngan, also spelled oungan, operates in the hounfort. In accordance with Zora Neal Hurston (Tell My Horse, 1938, 198) it is not always easy to tell just who is a houngan and who is a bocor. Often the two offices are held by the same man at different times. In Haiti, but not in Louisiana or at least not in Marie Laveau’s time, there is another voodoo priest called hounci or canzo (Zora Neaqle Hurston, Tell My Horse, 1938, 162). Voodoo practitioners are called mamaloi if they are female, and papaloi if they are male.

In the voodoo pantheon, Damballa-Queddo (also -Wedo or Oedo) is the god of gods, the great serpent god. He is a descendant of the old gods of Dahomey, in West Africa, and has achieved an easy syncretism with the iconography of the Catholic saints. Damballa has been identified with St. Patrick who, according to legend rid Ireland of snakes. In African mythology Damballa has been linked to Moses, because of the bronze serpent staff that Moses used to protect the Israelites from the poisonous snakes as described in the Old Testament. Damballa’s mistress was Erzuli, the voodoo Venus. Some anthropologists believe that Jamballa is the feminine spirit of the god Damballa, and that it could very well be the origin of the famous Louisiana rice jambalaya. This etymology deserves further study.

Baron Samedi, the god of death and sexuality, is a surrogate of the devil. Changó, Shangó or Shangot, the god of thunder and war, is well-known not only to voodooism, but also to the candomblé of Brazil and the santería of the Caribbean. The symbol of Shangó is a meteorite stone or a stone full of power. Even though, as has already been noted, there is syncretism between the Catholic religion and voodoo, it is no less true that voodoo does not invoke as many saints as santería. There are many joint identifications: Shangó is Saint Barbara, Yemanyá is the Virgen of Charity. However, in the voodoo religion, Papa Limba or Papa Legba and Dani are the counterparts of St. Peter and Papa La Bas stands for the devil. Voodooism mixed Catholicism with snake worship, so that Marie Laveau at her home on St. Ann street, had an altar with the Virgin Mary but also with "le grand zombi", the serpent that Marie kept in an alabaster cage and danced with,wrapping it around her shoulders, at all her religious rites. The word zombi, also spelled zombie, deserves a brief comment. For Marie Laveau, "the great zombi" was her large snake. In Haiti it is a ghost, a spirit, a supernaturally resuscitated dead body; in West African voodoo cults, it is the python deity--and in slang, a dull, stupid, unattractive person. The term was subsequently applied to a strong alcoholic drink that reduced the consumer to a zombie-like state (Webster’s Dictionary, 1972, 2126).

The vocabulary of voodoo dances is interesting. The name of one of them, bamboula, also spelled banboula, comes from the fact that the drums used to provide the music for the dance were made from a huge joint of bamboo over the end of which was stretched a goat’s skin. The dance is of African origin and very popular in Louisiana, where even popular folk characters like Compair Bouki danced it. Today bamboula, like fait do-do among the Acadians, has expanded its meaning to ‘party, fête, soirée’. There is also an association (Bamboula: An Anthology of The Congo Square Writer’s Workshop), which is based in New Orleans and has been in existence for two years. Its purpose is to offer the "Southern Writer" a venue for publication of their works.

Bamboche, also spelled bambache and bomboches, is a promiscuous ritual dance. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (1985, 143), it is a social gathering at which there is considerable drinking. Calinda and canga were negro dances of a relatively mild character. The second one was more rapid in movement than the first one. During these dances, the voodoo priests and priestesses would fall to the ground as if possessed, in a trance similar to the effects that the expression darle el santo produces in santería. Fernando Ortiz (Nuevo catauro de cubanismos, 1985, 127-28) points out that the word calinda, with the same meaning of ‘dance’, is known in Cuba as caringa. He explains the change as the rhotacism between the r and the l common in Caribbean phonetics, or an imitation of the name Caringa, an ancient region and a river of the Congo, or of the gentile noun Caribe. While I do not agree with all of Ortiz’s etymological explanations, the fact is that the term for calinda in Cuba was caringa. Several informants remembered the idiom bailar la caringa as synonymous with doing something very difficult, practically impossible like "pasar el Niágara en bicicleta" ‘crossing Niagara Falls on a bicycle’.

The most important musical instrument in voodoo dances is the drum. All rituals, all festivities and all dances are especially strong on drumming. In the Americas, several types of carnival music are accompanied by drums, such as the sambas of Rio de Janeiro, the comparsas of Santiago de Cuba and Havana, and the Mardi Gras "Indians" of New Orleans. Drums come in different shapes,--cylindrical or shallow, round and different sizes, and they are always played with the heels or the fingers of both hands.

Stringed instruments and rattles were also used. An instrument known in Cuba as the güiro, fashioned from a calabash and having two strings was plucked with the fingers or a plectrum. Later on it became the banjo, which has a semi-circular body covered at the top with a tightly stretched skin. A Louisiana gourd a foot and a half long and filled with pebbles, called chekeré in Cuba, was twirled vigorously during the different dances. Sometimes negro dancers would wear rattles on their ankles to make more noise.

One frequently used Louisiana word is gris-gris. It is a charm to ward off good or evil, and may derive from the French word for gray, gris. Marie Laveau used to sell these small bags which were worn for protection or good luck. Made of cloth, they contained such articles as bits of bone, colored pebbles, goofer dust (dirt from a graveyard), some salt, some ground red pepper, and strands of animal or human hair. There are many synonyms for gris-gris in voodoo. Conjo or conju, conjure, conjur bag or conjure ball, all mean a magic charm made up of an assortment of things and often placed under a doorstep to gain some control over an intended victim.

The word mojo refers to such good-luck charms as "rabbit feet, conqueror root or Indian medals, which are used to conjure up and to protect persons and objects in voodoo cultures..." (Cosentino, Vodou Things, 1998, 27). Ron Bodin (Voodoo. Past and Present, 1990, 47) says that for ten to fifty dollars–-generally called a "donation", a visitor can get a mojo or gris gris bag, filled with a herb concoction intended to fix whatever ails him or her, and blessed on the spot by a voodoo doctor. The bag is generally worn under the clothing or hung in the home". More recently the word mojo has been appropriated by the film Austin Powers (1999) to mean lucky charm. There is also Wanga, a voodoo charm in the form of an altar doll.

New Orleans houses several voodoo museums, among them one named after Marie Laveau. They sell luck bags, gris-gris, candles, oils, incense, and books about Marie Laveau and the voodoo religion. Also there is a botánica, a santería and a voodoo shop selling love potions, herbs, charms and plaster statuettes of deities and saints. Voodoo museums and botánicas were unknown during Marie Laveau’s life. They come into existence in the second half of the twentieth century.

Researching and writing this paper has been a challenge. I have analyzed with respect and deference the significance of voodoo, as a living expression of African heritage, and the life of its most famous queen. My hope is that it will be as fascinating to you as it has been to me.

Books Consulted

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Cosentino, Donald J. Vodou Things. The Art of Pierrot Barra and Marie Cassaise. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1998.

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