Voodoo gets a bad rap. That’s because people don’t really
understand what it’s all about. They rely on images and
information provided through mainstream media and movies
that misrepresent the religion (yes, it’s a religion)
inaccurately for effect.
In the United States, if you want to find out about Voodoo,
there is only one place that will allow you to be informed and
have fun along the way: New Orleans. Yes, they do have
goofy tours (and I have gone on ‘em), but they also know
what they are talking about. In addition, the “Voodoo
Queen” herself, Marie Laveau, is buried in an above-ground
cemetery in New Orleans.
The Origins of Voodoo
It is believed that Voodoo originated in the 1700s in West
Africa (also referred to as “Vodun” (Africa – means “spirits”)
or “Vodu” (Haiti)). The West Africans were animist;
meaning, they believed in the separation of the physical body
and soul and the presence of one's spirit. Death was merely
the continuation of life. Since the West Africans believed
that each person had a “spirit double”, they often called
upon their ancestors in times of need, and some called upon
evil spirits to do harm.
In the late 1700s, slaves from West Africa (as well as other
parts of Africa) were transported to Haiti to tend the French
plantations. It was during this time that the Vodu religion
was transported to the New World. In the early 1800s, a
large number of Haitian planters who had refugeed in Cuba
during the Haitian revolution were expelled from Cuba, and
with their slaves, made their way to New Orleans. Many of
these slaves were devotees of Vodu.
The Louisiana environment, being a culture much different
from that of Africa or Haiti, gave rise to a unique brand of
Voodoo. This new style of Voodoo was less organized than
the Haitian model and more influenced by Catholicism.
Without the means by which to defend themselves or
retaliate against their owners, slaves in Louisiana began to
practice Voodoo in order to bring solidarity against their
common enemy. Following the Civil War, and the
emancipation of the slaves, Voodoo entered a period of
more organized practice.
Voodoo In Practice
Kings, Queens, and the Ceremony
With the increasing organization and formality of Voodoo
practice, the meetings were also more formally structured.
An elected Queen (the dominant figure) and her King (most
often her husband) presided over the Ceremony. The
Ceremony began with placing a snake before the Queen and
King in a cage or on an altar. At this time, individual
members would approach the Queen and King and implore
the Voodoo god, asking for blessings on loved ones and
curses on their enemies. Following an offering, an initiation
dance was performed for new members. Following the
taking of an oath, the new members joined the rest of those
assembled to take place in a ritualistic dance, where the
snake was passed from person to person.
Practitioners of Voodoo traditionally use the same materials.
Herbs, candles, various scents, offering of animals, elements
of nature, and items of the intended recipient of spells are
commonly used. One of the most important and widely used
items in Voodoo is the gris-gris bag. A gris-gris is a small
cloth bag containing herbs, oils, stones, small bones, hair and
nails, graveyard dust, and/or other personal items. A gris-
gris bag is typically used for protection – as a good luck
amulet. And of course, the popular Voodoo doll is sometime
used for good luck or for placing a curse on an unwary
The common elements of a small voodoo set-
up are: a voodoo doll, gris-gris dust, a candle, live spanish moss
(gathered from moss-laden Cypress and Oak trees in and
around the bayous and swamps of Louisiana and other parts
of the South), voodoo pins (red - love; black - hate; green -
money; and blue - luck).
The “Queen of Voodoo”: Marie Laveau
As far as New Orleans Voodoo practice is concerned, the
undisputed Queen of Voodoo is Marie Laveau. Laveau was
born in 1783, with African, Indian and white heritage. Her
father was a wealthy plantation owner and her mother was
a slave brought from Haiti. Laveau was credited with
integrating the Catholic saints and the African and Haitian
gods into Voodoo practice, and this enabled her to place her
own unique “stamp” on the religion. Laveau herself was
Catholic. Her husband vanished a short time after they were
married and was presumed dead. She became a hairdresser
to support herself. While it is unclear how or why Laveau
became involved in Voodoo, her personal charisma, her
business sense, and the fact that she was privy to the
personal lives and secrets of her customers lead her to the
practice in a position of power. Laveau was often hired to
make gris-gris bags, remove curses, and tell fortunes. She
used Voodoo as a platform to give her personal power in a
period of racism and sexism. She retired wealthy,
respected, and even feared, in 1875, and passed down her
Voodoo practice to her daughter Marie the Second (one of
Marie's 15 children said to have been born from the same
lover). She died in 1881 at the age of 98, and by the time of
her death, was a legend in the United States. Her grave, in
St. Louis Cemetary Number 1, Crypt Number 3, is visited to
this day (and I visited it in 1994 myself!) by natives and
tourists, who leave offerings to her, pay their respects, and
often, make a wish.
After Marie Laveau, the Voodoo organization became less
open, and was characterized by the use of spells, trickery,
witchcraft, and seances. By the 1920s, it was hard to find
evidence of the once-thriving, tightly-knit Voodoo society in
New Orleans. Over the years, the commercialization of
Voodoo has discredited the religion. Voodoo as it is known
today can be considered a watered-down version of what
was once a thriving religion that brought people together,
and whose power was venerated and often feared.
The next time you are in New Orleans, I encourage you to
stop by Marie Laveau's Tomb, Marie Laveau's House of
Voodoo or the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.
Plaque at Marie Laveau's Tomb in New Orleans
I discovered Kokopelli at the Grand Canyon.
After the first day's exploration, I wandered
into one of many gift shops on the South Rim.
On one of the displays, I saw a happy dancing
figure made of metal, in vivid colors, with a stone
base. I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew I
had to buy it.
From then on, I was hooked. I started buying
Kokopelli everything – switchplates, a sand art
clock, pictures, salt and pepper shakers, stuffed
toy Kokopellis, Kokopelli jewelry... I furnished a
whole room in our house with this stuff. I
bought countless items at the Grand Canyon and
continued my obsession via Ebay. My Ebay ID
did, and still does, contain the word Kokopelli.
Over the years since I first fell in love with him,
he has further permeated gift shops around the
country – not just the Southwest. So, here's the
story of the origin of Kokopelli and the different
viewpoints as to what he/she/it was.
The Legend of Kokopelli
There are many theories about who Kokopelli
was. Some believe he did not exist, some think
of him as a deity, and others believe that he was
a real person who walked the earth. The name
Kokopelli is thought to be of Zuni/Hopi origin and
may be translated as “kachina hump”. The Hopi
“kachina” is associated with fertility and rain,
has a hump and a long snout, and was originally
thought of as phallic. Kachinas are supernatural
beings who serve as intermediaries between the
gods and man to bring rain, fertility, and good
Pictographs and Petroglyphs
Kokopelli was found on pictographs (paintings
on stone) and petroglyphs (etchings in stone) in
Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico as far
back as 200 A.D. The drawings and carvings
were primarily done by the Anasazi, Mogollon,
Sinagua, and Hohokam peoples. Today,
Kokopelli still appears in Hopi and Zuni rituals.
Common Themes/Representations of Kokopelli
- humpbacked flute player
- fertility God
- human being who was a "player"
- good luck charm
- music man
Whatever he may have actually been, or not
been, he is the symbol of fun and prosperity for
me. I can't help but smile when I see his image,
and think of my visits to the beautiful Southwest.
day of the dead
My interest in the Day of the Dead was sparked
by my love for Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the
renowned Mexican artist. When I began to
explore her world, I became interested in
certain facets of the Mexican culture.
Frida self-portrait, with her husband, popular
revolutionary artist Diego Rivera, depicted as
"always being on her mind", and pictured with
her pet monkeys.
Day of the Dead art rendering of Frida, with a
few of her beloved birds.
What I find fascinating about the Mexican
culture is that, unlike the U.S., death is not seen
as a tragic thing to be morosely focused on and
feared. On the contrary, Mexicans embrace
death and consider it a continuation of the cycle
of life. To wit:
"The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about
it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it: it is
one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast
- Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
Even children in Mexico become familiar with
death at a young age by playing with folklore
toys. Among these toys are skulls mobiles,
skeleton stick-puppets, miniature coffins, and
the like. “Skeleton people” are crafted from
various materials doing everyday things to add
to this cultural philosophy. The Mexicans laugh
at death; they honor their dead and celebrate
Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, has its
roots in a mix of pre-Hispanic indigenous
Mexican beliefs and post-Conquest Spanish
In the Aztec culture, religion and art were
closely tied together. The Aztecs had two major
fiestas: The Little Feast of the Dead, held in the
9th month, which honored children; and The
Great Feast of the Dead, held in the 10th month,
which honored adults.
After the Spanish Conquest of 1521, the Aztec
and Catholic feast days for the dead were
merged to create the celebrations which are
known today. October 31st is recognized as the
day to honor those children who have died,
November 1st is All Soul's Day, which honors all
the departed, and November 2nd is All Saint's
Day, which honors all Christian saints & martyrs.
Celebrations – Fiestas!
The specifics of fiestas throughout Mexico vary
slightly from region to region, but the theme is
the same: celebrating and honoring the lives of
the departed. Colorful and festive materials are
used to create amazing objects. Candy makers
craft sugar skulls (to say “I honor your sweet
spirit, living or dead”), candles are made, and
fields of marigolds are gathered in preparation.
The most personal, and most significant, rite of
the Day of the Dead celebrations is the
preparation of altars in order to honor the
departed and call their souls back to earth for a
visit. Tables are set up in the main room of the
house and are covered with cloth or decorative
paper. Tiers are formed which hold offered
items. A holy image is placed at the center of
the altar. A photo of the departed or a sugar
skull with the name of the deceased on it is
placed near this image. The family and friends
of the departed gather the favorite possessions
of the deceased or purchase new items in their
honor. Food and beverages are placed on the
altar as an offering, and then are later
consumed by the celebrants. Skeleton figures
may be crafted to represent the interests of the
deceased. Marigold blossoms, colorful paper cut
in a myriad of shapes, and numerous candles are
placed on and around the altar. The soft and
comforting light of the candles present a warm
welcome for the dead. Incense is burned. A
small plate of salt represents the spice of life,
and a glass of pure water is set out to refresh
the soul after its long journey. The altars for
children have simpler, less spicy food, and more
sweets. Images of angels and doves are
included as a part of a child's altar. Goods from
the home altar are transported to the cemetery
for graveside offerings. The most extravagant
decorations are for gravesites of the recently
dead. Night vigils at graveside, punctuated at
times with song and dance, serve as family
reunions with the dead. So, if your family made
an altar in your memory, what items would they
Day of the Dead Art
Day of the Dead art has become increasingly
popular. José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913),
a Mexican engraver, provided inspiration for
contemporary artists with his popular images.
The picture in this frame is of one of Posada's
popular images of a festive skeleton dance.
This piece has been damaged through a couple
of moves, so one of the skeletons has lost his
face, but I wanted to show you Posada's widely
popular image of La Catrina.
Another Posada depiction. Who can say no to a
The ubiquitous skeleton figurines doing everyday
activities are also very popular. I have quite a
few of these myself.
Speaking of which, my favorite contemporary
Mexican artist is Bryant “Eduardo” Holman of
Fausto's Art Gallery in Ojinaga, Chihuahua,
Mexico. He is the self-proclaimed “King of Taco
Deco”, because he uses the wood from taco
crates in his pieces. While I enjoy the skeleton
figurines, Holman's art - with its unique style and
hand-crafted elements - is my favorite. Click
here to go to my collection of his pieces.
Carmichael, Elizabeth and Sayer, Chloë. The
Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in
Mexico. Austin, TX: British Museum Press and
University of Texas Press, 1991.