Marie Laveau (circa 1801-1881) was a New Orleans, LA, creole hairdresser who later become famous for being a 'Voodoo Queen'. There are so many legends and stories about Marie Laveau that it is difficult to get to the truth of who she was. In fact, her stories are so beloved by believers and followers that the truth is most likely not even desired.
Rise To Fame: As a hairdresser, Marie Laveau was most likely trusted with the secretes of her "gossipy" clients. Some believe she used these secrets to make people in town think she had special powers. The most famous legend concerning the rise of her power as a 'Voodoo Queen' involves her being given a gift of a home, referred to as 'Maison Blanche' (White House) due to the color. Legend states that a wealthy white client gave the home to Marie Laveau in exchange for using her powers to help his son, who was facing trial, imprisonment or possibly the death sentence depending on the story. Other stories claim that Marie Laveau had the Maison Blanche built from the wealth she had acquired from her clients.
The Controversy: Was Marie Laveau a practitioner of Voodoo? I believe she was not. Marie Laveau was skilled in Hoodoo, knowing the roots, herbs, and like for various conditions. This would imply that she was a Hoodoo Woman or Rootworker. The problem is that Marie Laveau did hold dances in Congo Square where men drummed and women danced with snakes, but is this Voodoo? I personally think not. The key thing to understand about Marie Laveau is that she was a great performer. Marie Laveau also preferred white clients, as she believed they payed more. It is my personal belief that the whole 'Voodoo Queen' aspect was an act, performed by Marie Laveau, in order to draw paying white clients. At that time, as well as today, most white people could not tell the difference between Hoodoo and Voodoo. Other evidence leaning toward the fact that Leveau practiced Hoodoo and not Voodoo was the fact that she was reportedly taught her skill by one 'Doctor John'. It is a well established tradition amongst Hoodoo Men to label themselves as 'Doctor', per the synonym for Hoodoo, Root Doctor. Even further proof that Marie Laveau was not an actual Voodoo practitioner is the fact that she is said to have worshipped an African God named Zombie, in the form of a pet snake. There is no African God named Zombie. The word Zombie can mean ghost, spirit, or the reanimated dead, but it is never a term for a God. There is a name, Nzambi, for the Congo creator God; however such is not associated with Voodou. In fact, there is no evidence Marie Laveau was ever initiated into any African religion.
Shady Business Practices: Most believers and followers fail to realize that Marie Laveau used 'mob tactics' against competitors in order to run them out of town. Laveau had a large number of followers to do her 'dirty work' when needed. This is truly how Marie Laveau came to rule New Orleans.
The Rumors: There are so many rumors surrounding Mare Laveau that it would be nearly impossible to list here. Some of the more spicy rumors are that Marie Laveau was a Madame on the side, running a brothel out of the Maison Blanche. There were rumors of wild parties with naked black women, all for the enjoyment of her white male clients. Other rumors suggest that Marie Laveau may have used her knowledge of herbs to sicken people so that they would come to her and pay money for the cure. Probably the most famous rumor of all surrounding Marie Laveau is that she lived to be over 200 years old. This rumor more than likely stems from the fact that Marie Laveau's daughter, of the same name, took up her mother's work when she retired.
The Painting: When most people visualize Marie Laveau, they usually think of this painting which you can view HERE. Unfortunately this painting is not of Marie Laveau, but is instead a painting of an unknown creole slave woman. Even to this day many people incorrectly believe that the painting is of Marie Laveau. There are other paintings that are said to be of Marie Laveau, though it is likely that none of them are truly of the original Marie Laveau, but are instead either of her daugher or of an imposter Hoodoo Woman or 'Voodoo Queen' using Laveau's name to draw fame to her own practice.
The Ritual: According to legend, there is a ritual by which one can have a wish granted by the spirit of Marie Laveau. The ritual involves traveling to Marie Laveau's mausoleum, marking three 'x's in red brick (Though people use markers these days), knocking three times on the mausoleum, and then making one's wish. When the wish is granted it is custom to travel back to the mausoleum and leave an offering of thanks to Laveau's spirit. Offerings of beads, flowers, liquor, cigars, and cigarettes are common. Interestingly, there are two mausoleums for Marie Laveau, possibly being that of the original Marie Laveau and that of her daughter of the same name.
Note: The woman in the above clip who claims that "it doesn't matter what ingredients go into a gris-gris, that only the intention counts", is wrong. The ingredients placed in a gris-gris, otherwise called 'mojo', are symbolic representations specific to the condition the gris-gris is being made for. For example, a gris-gri or mojo made for gambling, would contain roots, herbs, stones, and even animal parts considered to have a "lucky" reputation. More on gris-gris/mojo in a future blog.