The last time Don Glossop saw his customers, they were ritually burning green candles, hoping Voodoo would pierce the federal bureaucracy and hasten the arrival of desperately needed relief cheques. Glossop’s shop, New Orleans Mistic, has been closed since Hurricane Katrina swamped the city, and most of his clients, who practise a local variant of the Voodoo religion, have scattered across the country. He fears that Katrina, which laid waste to entire neighbourhoods and claimed hundreds of lives here, may take another casualty: New Orleans’ status as the country’s Voodoo capital.
As of today I would say it’s pretty dead,” Glossop says. “Even the tourist shops are in jeopardy. There is a chance for a huge loss here.”
Voodoo has long been entrenched in New Orleans, quietly practised in homes with altars, candles and incense to solve problems of the heart and wallet. Before the storm tore through, about 15% of the city’s population actively practised, according to Lisa Fannon, a tour guide, though estimates vary widely.
Voodoo is part of the vernacular here, showing up in jazz and conversation. Some residents still sprinkle red brick dust on their doorway steps to ward off evil spirits. It is an economic draw as well, enticing curious tourists and their wallets into stores such as Glossop’s. While plans went ahead for an annual Voodoo fest, organiser Brandi Kelley says the event was much smaller this year because many drummers and dancers were forced to relocate. The ceremony at her shop focused mainly on healing the city.
We have got to call on the ancestors for help and get real serious about it,” Kelley says. “The spirit is in the city. It’s the spirit of this city that is going to rise from the ashes.”
If only she had found her snake for the closing ceremony, but it was not to be.
“They say he’s somewhere in this room full of debris,” Kelley says, her voice trailing off.
It was not supposed to be this way. The ‘go away’ hurricane ritual was performed in July, just as it always is at the start of the hurricane season.
“It didn’t quite work out so well,” says Giselle Moller, manager of Marie Laveau House of Voodoo. But, she adds, it may have helped a bit. “Imagine if the hurricane would have hit us straight on. There would have been no French Quarter.”
Even before Katrina, some thought Voodoo was fading in New Orleans because the younger generation was less interested in the complicated practice, which involves substantial memorisation of rituals and songs. But New Orleans is not giving up on Voodoo, notwithstanding evangelist Franklin Graham’s recent comments that the city’s Mardi Gras revelry and ties to Voodoo were adverse to Christian beliefs. Defenders say Voodoo is a legitimate African-based religion that has been unfairly maligned in movies and popular culture.
“Voodoo is not some kind of black magic cult,” says Wade Davis, a Washington-based National Geographic explorer-in-residence who has studied the religion extensively in Haiti. “It’s the distillation of very profound religious ideas that came over during the tragic era of slavery.”
In New Orleans, much of what is practised these days is a system of folk magic. Some also practise Haitian Voodoo. As the city revives, proponents hope Voodoo will make a comeback, too, because it’s part of the intrigue that draws visitors.
“I think it’s going to be a very strong part of what will get people back here,” says Jameson King, who works in one of the Voodoo shops in the French Quarter. “We’re here for more than drinking.””