We just celebrated Mardi Gras a couple of days ago, which makes it the perfect time for me to talk about a topic that’s been dear to my heart for many years: the legends of New Orleans and in particular one of its most famous residents, Marie Laveau, also known as the Voodoo Queen. If you have never heard of her, let me tell you, she's one amazing mama jama!
But first, let me present to you the city of New Orleans. This is how I wrote about it in my one-sheet treatment of the TV show me and a friend have been working on for years:
“1852 New Orleans is a place like no other. It’s the city with the highest mortality rates, the deadliest epidemics, serial killers, murders, fires, floods, slavery, and widespread governmental corruption. A city where the perfumed glamor of the wealthy fuses effortlessly with the rank stench of urban poverty; where public executions draw Mardi Gras size crowds while white men with power play racial politics for keeps, and where the souls of the dead mingle freely with the bodies of the living. It is also a city of voodoo, a fervently practiced yet highly feared mystical religion brought over by the slaves of Africa and incarnated into New Orleans’ own brand of street-side justice. Its magical ways conjure whispers of hope and foreboding while priests and priestesses fix judgements in their courts of temples and altars. It is a volatile concoction of life and death, decadence and desperation. It is New Orleans.”
Sets up the scene, doesn’t it? And makes it the perfect setting for the bright jewel that was Marie Laveau.
A simple google search will show you it’s actually very hard to find reliable info about Marie Laveau. Not only did she surround herself with secrecy while she was alive, but her legend grew so big that everyone has since then put their own spin on her life and accomplishments, and today it’s just about impossible to know what to believe and what to doubt, starting with her birth date, which some people put in 1794 and others in 1801, both with the same unshakable confidence.
Something is undeniable though: in the mid-1800s, Marie Laveau grew to become the most powerful and respected voodoo priestess in New Orleans. She was known for her healing powers as well as her ability to put curses on those who crossed her. In fact, her reputation was so strong that people believed she could control the weather and even raise the dead!
She did have a little earthly help, though. While Marie senior was a fever nurse and sold her wares at the local apothecary, her daughter (who would in turn take up the title of Marie Laveau to practice voodoo, which is also why it’s so hard to find reliable information since both mother and daughter’s lives are intrinsically tangled) was a hair stylist to the rich and powerful ladies of New Orleans. Encouraging the gossiping of her clients and bribing their servants for extra info (either through money or voodoo services), Marie junior amassed a treasure trove of knowledge about the lives of the New Orleans’ upper crust, a knowledge which her mother deftly used whenever those same clients came to her for advice and guidance through voodoo rituals. People never really knew if Marie’s feats were thanks to her real world connections or to her spirit advisors but in any case, she always got the job done!
Getting the swanky nobles of the city to even want to dabble in voodoo, which had a notorious reputation with its rowdy ceremonies, sacrifices and possessions, wasn’t a walk in the park, but as we said, Marie was a clever woman, and she heavily leaned on the elements of Christianity that were already present in voodoo practices to make it more palatable to the upper crust, soothed by the presence of familiar symbols such as the Virgin Mary and praying beads.
You might have noticed by now that we are particularly fond of strong women - Marie was a shrewd businesswoman and also understood exactly how to build her own legend to become a figure both revered and feared throughout New Orleans and, soon enough, the entire country. We like to think of her as the Tony Soprano of the French Quarter!
Which brings us back to the Mardi Gras celebrations. Just like with most things in her life, it is unclear how much of an influence the Queen of Voodoo might have had on the Mardi Gras traditions, but she was alive when Mardi Gras became an official holiday in New Orleans, and it is obvious that the most renowned voodoo practitioner in the city, a woman who not only had influence as a mystical figure but also was deeply involved in the social and cultural life of the town, would have had a role to play in its biggest festival.
Even before it was made into an official holiday, Mardi Gras had been a big deal in New Orleans for centuries. Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," takes place on the day before Ash Wednesday, marking the start of the Christian season of Lent, a period of privation and prayer. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a city-wide festival that lasts for weeks, with parades, parties, and masked balls filling the streets. Krews, secret societies sometimes going back centuries, ride along the streets in elaborate floats, throwing gifts to the adoring crowds.
Talking about gifts, legend has it that Marie Laveau would throw beads to the crowds during the parades as a way of spreading good luck and positive energy. Colorful beads were and still are a staple of the voodoo tradition. And if anyone knows Mardi Gras, they know that beaded necklaces are the most common and most famous gift thrown to the crowd from the floats.
Marie Laveau's influence can also be seen in the use of masks and costumes during Mardi Gras. In voodoo culture, masks and costumes were used to represent different spirits and deities. Marie Laveau supposedly brought this tradition into the Mardi Gras celebrations, encouraging people to dress up in elaborate costumes and masks, which they still do today to the point where shops and businesses put up signs asking revelers to please take off their masks before entering.
This post is really barely scratching the surface of an extraordinary character and city. I’ve been in love with Marie Laveau and the city she lived in since 2006 and have been hard at work trying to bring her to life in one medium or another… which is why she’s now a member of our Cabinet of Curiosities! Our first group of connoisseurs got to meet her in the February session, and if you’re lucky, she might just be one of the Curiosities on display when you visit us!
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to practice my bead-throwing skills for next year's Mardi Gras. As they say in New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler!