“There is darkness inside all of us, though mine is more dangerous than most. Still, we all have it—that part of our soul that is irreparably damaged by the very trials and tribulations of life. We are what we are because of it, or perhaps in spite of it. Some use it as a shield to hide behind, others as an excuse to do unconscionable things. But, truly, the darkness is simply a piece of the whole, neither good nor evil unless you make it so. It took a witch, a war, and a voodoo queen to teach me that.”
― Jenna Maclaine, Bound By Sin
I have been working my way back through some older(er) photographs I have stashed away, intending to process and write something about eventually.
I’m a little disappointed because we had to cancel a vacation trip to New Orleans this October (we simply don’t have the money). I’ve been to the Big Easy many times – for work, for vacation, and because my son goes to college there. Of course, Mardi Gras is something for everyone’s bucket list, but otherwise, I think that Halloween is the best time to visit New Orleans. It’s a party, it’s pretty crazy, but you don’t have the logistical nightmare that Mardi Gras brings.
Last October we went for Tulane’s parent’s weekend and I’ve put up some blog entries from that trip.
In particular, I wrote about a tour we took of one of New Orlean’s famous cemeteries, St. Louis #1.
In that blog entry, however, I skipped the most interesting tomb in the place, that of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau.
From the plaque attached to her tomb:
This Greek revival tomb is reputed burial ground of notorious “Voodoo Queen” . A mystic cult, Voodooism, of African Origin, was brought to this city from Santo Domingo and flourished in 19th century. Marie Laveau was the most widely known of many practitioners of the cult.
I had heard of Marie Laveau, of course – the first time probably from the the old Redbone song, “Witch Queen of New Orleans” – but didn’t know of any details.
Back in Texas, I checked a book out from the library and found the whole story, the real story to be more complicated than the legend.
First, there were two women we now know as Marie Laveau – mother and daughter. The legends of each are mixed up with the other. New Orleans at that time was a dangerous, tough place to live, especially for a woman of mixed race. The book I read portrayed Marie Laveau as a beautiful, brilliant, ruthless woman that would do what it took to live and prosper in the swirl of difficult times. She cultivated her legend and used it to her advantage – both to rise as a leader in her own culture and as a path to reach, frighten, and dominate the upper crust of New Orleans Society.
She was a well-known hairdresser to all the wealthiest women in the city – and from that vantage point learned everybody’s secrets… and was not afraid to use that to her advantage.
Over the years, her story has grown… but even in the day it was something. From her Obituary in the 1881 New York Times (Read the whole thing):
THE DEAD VOODOO QUEEN
The New York Times
June 23, 1881
MARIE LAVEAU’S PLACE IN THE HISTORY OF NEW ORLEANS
The early life of the beautiful young Creole – the prominent men who sought her advice and society – her charitable work – how she became an object of mystery.
New-Orleans, Jun 21 – Marie Laveau, the “Queen of the Voudous” died last Wednesday at the advanced age of 98 years. To the superstitious Creoles Marie appeared as a dealer in the black arts and a person to be dreaded and avoided. Strange stories were told of the rites performed by the sect of which Marie was the acknowledged sovereign. Many old residents asserted that on St. John’s night, the 24th of June, the Voudou clan had been seen in deserted places joining in wild, weird dances, all the participants in which were perfectly nude. The Voudous were thought to be invested with supernatural powers, and men sought them to find means to be rid of their enemies, while others asked for love powders to instill affection into the bosoms of their unwilling or unsuspecting sweethearts. Whether there ever was any such sect, and whether Marie was ever its Queen, her life was one to render such a belief possible. Besides knowing the secret healing qualities of the various herbs that grow in abundance in the woods and fields, she was endowed with more than the usual share of common sense, and her advice was oft-times really valuable and her penetration remarkable. Adding to these qualities the gift of great beauty, no wonder that she possessed a large influence in her youth and attracted the attention of Louisiana’s greatest men and most distinguished visitors. She was the creature of that peculiar state of society in which there was no marrying or giving in marriage; yet they were not like the angels in heaven.
Marie Laveau, one of the most wonderful women who ever lived, passed peaceably away. Her daughter Mme. Philomel Legendre, the only survivor of all Capt. Glapion’s children, who possessed many of the characteristics of her mother, Mme. Legendre two pretty daughters, ministered to the old lady’s last wants. She died without a struggle, with a smile lighting up her shriveled features. She was interred in her family tomb, by the side of Capt. Glapion. In the old St. Louis Cemetery, and with her is buried the most thrilling portion of the unwritten records of Louisiana. Although Marie Laveau’s history has been very much sought after, it has never been published. Cable has endeavored to portray her in the character of Palmyre in his novel of the “Grandissimes.” The secrets of her life, however, could only be obtained from the old lady herself, but she would never tell the smallest part of what she knew, and now her lips are closed forever and, as she could neither read nor write, not a scrap is left to chronicle the events of her exciting life.
We were seeing her (purported) tomb on the day after Halloween, and it was obvious there had been many visitors the day before. Not only was the crypt freshly festooned with a thick collection of triple XXXs (if you scratch three Xs into the stone, your wish will be granted) but there was a healthy pile of offerings to the Voodoo Queen piled up at the foot of the crypt. Empty liquor bottles, Mardi Gras Beads, money, hotel key cards, cigarettes, candles, plastic skulls, flowers, apples, golf balls, lipsticks, travel sized shampoo, partially unwrapped (but unbit) candy bars… on and on.
It was such a motley assortment – I can only guess at the desperate desires of some of the people that left the stuff behind – what is it that they need? Or want?
I hope that the Voodoo Queen’s spirit has enough Mojo left to help at least some of them… at least a little bit.
“The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan