American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Voodoo in the Crescent City, Part 2
In yesterday's blog post, I offered you a taste of the voodoo tradition in New Orleans by explaining the difference between voodoo and hoodoo, suggesting a few enlightening books, and listing several of the city's most popular voodoo emporiums. While such places are inevitably magnets for tourists, they still provide helpful books and paraphernalia for those eager to learn more about the voodoo religion. After all, though it might be true that, in the Crescent City, voodoo experienced its heyday during the 19th century, there's no doubt that local voodoo practitioners still exist today.
Popular culture – particularly mainstream movies, TV shows, and music – has certainly helped to disseminate misconceptions about voodoo, a faith that's based on the worship of spirits (known as “Loa”) and a belief system that stresses spirituality, compassion, and kindness. At its core, voodoo is a positive religion, focused on auspicious goals like overcoming obstacles, ensuring fertility, finding love, and granting prosperity, good health, and the like. Nevertheless, followers are allowed to perform rites, such as burning black candles or piercing miniature effigies with sharp pins, that are intended to bring calamity upon their enemies.
As I noted in my previous post, voodoo rituals here are based on various African religious traditions, which were brought to the United States by West African slaves. In 18th-century New Orleans, however, where slaves were kept by French and Spanish residents, voodoo began to incorporate some of the beliefs and rituals of Catholicism.
Of course, the person most associated with southern Louisiana's rich voodoo tradition was Marie Laveau (circa 1794-1881), an alluring woman of French, African, and Native American descent. When she was younger, Laveau worked as a hair stylist, a career choice that gave her the chance to work inside some of the city's most prominent homes, where she absorbed the local gossip, dispensed practical and spiritual advice, and ultimately earned the confidence of the city's most influential women. Not surprisingly, word of her abilities as a voodoo priestess spread like wildfire, and soon, she began staging voodoo ceremonies in the courtyard of her home on St. Ann Street. Allegedly, she also hosted a much larger, annual ceremony in a swamp cabin beside Bayou St. John on St. John's Eve (the night before the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist in late June).
From the 1830s until her death, Laveau was considered the Crescent City's high priestess of voodoo, blending the compassionate ear of a therapist with the fervent showmanship of a preacher. Known as the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” Laveau is still the most famous of the city's voodoo practitioners, though there have been many well-known priests and priestesses since her death. In fact, at least one of her daughters continued to practice voodoo long after Laveau's passing, which helped to perpetuate the belief that Laveau lived into the early 20th century.
Today, many New Orleanians still celebrate St. John's Eve, build altars in honor of Marie Laveau, and make regular pilgrimages to her supposed tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (Basin and St. Louis Sts., 504/482-5065, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-noon Sun., free), established in 1789 and considered the oldest, most famous of New Orleans' so-called “cities of the dead.” According to legend, believers can invoke her powers by marking her tomb with three Xs (a gris-gris, or charm), scratching the ground three times with their feet, knocking three times on the grave, and leaving a small offering (such as beads, coins, flowers, and lipstick) before making a wish.
Given its location in the sketchy Faubourg Tremé neighborhood, however, it's not advisable to wander through the cemetery on your own, even during the day. Luckily, though, many daily walking tours include an in-depth visit to the cemetery and, naturally, a narrated stop by Marie Laveau's tomb. One option is Save Our Cemeteries (504/525-3377 or 888/721-7493, 10 a.m. Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Fri.-Sat., $20 adults, children under 12 free), which leads hourlong excursions through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The tours, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis, depart from the lobby of the nearby Basin St. Station (501 Basin St., 504/293-2600, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily). Other cemetery and voodoo tour options include:
Bloody Mary's New Orleans Tours
In addition to ghost hunts, voodoo rituals, and psychic readings, the woman known as Bloody Mary also offers a variety of walking tours. The “Tour of the Undead” (8 p.m. Fri.-Sun., $30 pp), for instance, focuses on the city's famous hauntings, vampire lore, and voodoo culture; it usually departs from the supposedly haunted Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar at 941 Bourbon Street. Besides an evening graveyard walking tour, you can also opt for one of three different van excursions to the city's varied cemeteries.
Gray Line Tours
504/569-1401 or 800/233-2628
One of the best general tour companies in New Orleans, the ubiquitous Gray Line Tours has been guiding visitors around the region since 1924. Today, Gray Line provides an assortment of excursions, including a cocktail stroll, plantation tours, and a boat ride through Barataria Preserve. Of course, one of the most curious is the two-hour cemetery and gris-gris walking tour (9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mon.-Sat., $26 adults, $15 children), which naturally includes a stroll through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, a lesson about voodoo lore and aboveground cemeteries, not to mention your own souvenir gris-gris bag. The tour normally leaves from the Gray Line lighthouse ticket office at the river end of Toulouse Street.
Haunted History Tours
504/861-2727 or 888/644-6787, $20 adults, $17 seniors and students
If, like many visitors to New Orleans, you're hoping to hear a few creepy stories during your trip, consider taking one of the entertaining excursions offered by Haunted History Tours, one of the city's oldest walking-tour companies. Among the options on offer, you can take a guided, two-hour stroll through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (10 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m. Sun.) or a 1.5-hour, voodoo-related tour (7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sun.), both of which depart from Reverend Zombie's House of Voodoo at 725 St. Peter Street.
Historic New Orleans Tours
504/947-2120, $20 adults, $15 seniors and students, $7 children 6-12, children under 6 free
Photogenic New Orleans boasts a slew of guided tour companies, including Historic New Orleans Tours, considered by many to be one of the most authentic. Among the assortment of guided walking tours available, one focuses on St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m. Sun.), which includes a stop by Marie Laveau's tomb and a history lesson about voodoo lore; you'll even get the chance to see Laveau's former home on St. Ann Street. Tickets can be purchased through Zerve (800/979-3370), and tours typically depart from Cafe Beignet at 334-B Royal Street.
504/588-9693, $20 adults, $17 seniors and students
For those who prefer tours with a little less camp and a little more historical accuracy, Magic Tours offers several different excursions, including a guided, two-hour walking tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m. Sun.) and a narrated, two-hour stroll focused on ghost stories, vampire tales, and voodoo legends (8 p.m. daily). Both tours depart from the corner of Royal and St. Louis Streets in the French Quarter.
Spirit Tours New Orleans
504/314-0806, $20 adults, $18 seniors and students, $10 children 6-12, children under 6 free
Some visitors come to New Orleans specifically because it's considered one of the most haunted cities in America. If that describes you, or if you're just a wee bit curious about the more mysterious aspects of the city, consider taking one of the walking tours led by Spirit Tours New Orleans. Unlike many other tour companies, this one focuses exclusively on the city's ghosts, cemeteries, voodoo legends, and vampire lore. For example, the cemetery and voodoo tour (10:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10:30 a.m. Sun.), which departs from the Royal Blend Coffee & Tea House at 621 Royal Street, includes a visit to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and an actual voodoo temple.
Of course, as mentioned in my upcoming Moon New Orleans guidebook, one of the best ways to learn about New Orleans-style voodoo is to visit the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum (724 Dumaine St., 504/680-0128, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, $7 adults, $5.50 seniors, $4.50 students, $3.50 children under 12). Established in 1972, this small, somewhat cramped museum offers a decent, respectful overview of a practice still shrouded in mystery yet taken very seriously by its practitioners. Displays include a variety of masks, ritual art, and artifacts from Africa and Haiti, where the city's distinctive brand of voodoo practice originated. The exhibits, though ominous, aren't gory in nature, so kids often find them appealing. Of course, the focus here is on Marie Laveau, the anointed voodoo priestess who lived in New Orleans from the 1790s until her death in 1881. Though you can arrange private consultations and healing seminars with museum staff, the true highlight is the historian-led walking tour ($19 adults, $10 children under 12), which includes a visit to Congo Square, a stroll through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, an encounter with a contemporary voodoo priestess at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on Rampart Street, and plenty of engrossing stories about voodoo, zombies, jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians, and other curious aspects of the city's colorful history.
For all of these tours, reservations are often required – or at least strongly encouraged – and most only accept cash and travelers' checks. Note, too, that you can often save money by purchasing your tickets in advance or through the individual websites. No matter which tour you choose, though, don't forget to tip your guide!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of Marie Laveau's tomb / Text © 2012 Laura Martone