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Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult

The Voodoo Religion of New Orleans

Zombie standing in a dark cornfield
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The roots of voodoo run deep with the sordid history of slavery in America, originating from the traditional West African religion of vodoun (also vodun), it further evolved once it reached Haiti and Louisiana. Louisiana voodoo—properly known as vodoun—the queens and priestesses hold the highest position within this matriarchal religion. Something that may surprise those unfamiliar with vodoun, is that it’s actually a monotheistic religion which centers around the supreme creator, Bondye (French Creole for “good god”) who controls life and destiny. Bondye manifests his will through the many loa (also lwa) present within this belief system.

Loa: Spirits of Vodoun

The loa are spirits who connect the followers of vodoun to their deity—through the use of vèvè, symbols which serve as visual representation of the loa during ritual, practitioners are able to call upon the loa for their assistance in personal matters. Despite many people not having any formal knowledge of loa or their role in the religious practices of vodoun, they would easily recognize the visage of popular spirits such as Papa Ghede and Papa Legba, if not just as cultural references that they associate with New Orleans in general.

Assortment of voodoo dolls
Photography by Wian Juanico

Misconceptions of Voodoo Dolls

Misrepresented time and time again, voodoo dolls have come to represent something far beyond the reach of what they were originally used for. Hollywood would have us convinced that they’re instruments of evil, used to control the actions of people, or otherwise wreak havoc, and destroy their lives. Except voodoo dolls are not traditionally used to cause people harm in any sense of the word. These dolls are indeed used as a physical representation of the person who is the focus of the ritual, but instead of harm, they are often used for among other things, love, success, and healing.

The Mystery of Zombification

A far cry from the stereotypical walking dead that has made the horror genre of international cinema so powerful, the origin of zombies is quite a bit more disturbing than we’re used to these days. When it comes to the origin of zombie lore, the fear isn’t derived from the idea of being the main course of a zombie feast—instead it’s the idea of being turned into a zombie. The short and sweet version? Zombies as derived from the Haitian vodun practice are actually living people, who have been chemically induced to have no free-will.

New Orleans Voodoo Display
Photography by Jane Hawkner

Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork: African American Folk Magic

Many people believe that hoodoo and voodoo are interchangeable—it’s not a tough concept to explain that while they’re similar, they’re not the same, but it still seems to be an ongoing issue of mistaken identity. Voodoo, as has been explained now, is actually a religion that utilizes the folk magic practice, whereas hoodoo is actually just a folk magic practice with no hard and fast religious affiliation, although most practitioners identify as Protestant Christians. To be clear, hoodoo is but one of the most common types of African American Folk Magic, with other practices such as conjure and rootwork being nearly interchangeable with minimal differences, other than the region in which they are practiced.

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

Santería: The Worship of Saints

Another religion that is commonly mistaken for voodoo, is Santería—a religion that also has West African origins, but was further developed in Cuba among West African descendants. One of Louisiana’s best kept religious secrets, this Yoruba based religion merged with Roman Catholicism and embraced the Catholic saints, referred to often as orishas who act as emissaries to God—Olodumare.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster

Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

A legend known in the Bayou is that of the Honey Island Swamp Monster—a bipedal cryptid that is likened to bigfoot, but described physically as being quite dissimilar other than its stature. This grey-haired, yellow (or red, depending on the source) eyed monster is said to be a creature that was born from chimpanzees that escaped from a circus train that wrecked on the tracks, and the local alligator population.

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Lifestyle

Santería, The Ones Who Worship Saints

Deteriorating skull in a tomb
Photography by Melanie Martin

Santería is another religion that is shrouded in secrecy and often regarded with fear—some deem the practice to be Satanic, but it’s really just Santería. Truth be told, there are a lot of aspects of this religion that may rub people the wrong way—animal sacrifice is not as high on the list as things such as the use of human bones or even dead fetuses during a ritual, but the latter two are considered a rarity among fringe practitioners. Suffice it to say, these practitioners would be less than forthcoming about their uses for ingredients that might label them as evil. Nevertheless, seeing as it’s associated with even a few of the practitioners it’s definitely worth mentioning here.

Another African-rooted religion, Santería is typically combined with Catholicism, as are many religions that made the journey from Africa to America during the days of slavery. Like voodoo and hoodoo, enslaved Africans were forced to convert to a western religion—in this case, Catholicism. Santeras saw the similarities of the Catholic saints to the Orishas which were the deities that they had worshipped before being taken from their own lands. Aside from the Catholic influences that are found within the religion, Santeras believe in only one god, Olodumare, but the Orishas are the deities that represent different aspects of nature, there are said to be over 400 orishas within the religion.

Much like voodoo, ancestor veneration is a huge facet of the religion, this is done to honor those who have passed on and recognize them as guides that can help influence their lives for the good or for the bad. During traditional rituals, there is an abundance of drumming, dancing, and interacting with spirits. Unlike traditional western religions, these rituals are not confined within the walls of a church or temple, they can occur nearly anywhere.

What’s with the Animal Sacrifice?

Rooster, potential animal sacrifice
Photography by Kazi Faiz Ahmed Jeem

Animal Sacrifice is actually a common theme within Santería, but it’s not just about killing for the sake of killing. Santeras use animal sacrifice as an offering to the Orishas during major ceremonies. The blood is considered an important offering to the Orishas, where the actual animal is eaten after the ritual—so while some may consider it awful, it actually serves a purpose to them in their religious activities. It’s definitely a sore subject for those who may not understand the practice and indeed caused quite a stir when a man in Texas decided to fight for his freedom to practice his religion without undue burden from the law.

Is Santería Dangerous?

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

It really depends on who you ask, as can be expected, Santeras would likely not agree which is fair. They’re a federally recognized religion as of 1993 after a case to ban animal sacrifice was overturned as it was said to specifically target Santeras and their religious practices. There are however some aspects of the religion that some may construe as dangerous—as well as other practices that are indeed dangerous to the health of those who partake. One of these dangerous aspects of Santería is that at one time it was considered a fairly common practice to use liquid Mercury in ritual, which as can be expected led to Mercury poisoning and has since become a less frequent ritual substance.

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Horror Mystery and Lore

Spirits Within Voodoo: Ancestors, and the Loa

Practitioners standing in Voodoo Alley
Artwork by Wesness

Voodoo in New Orleans is quite distinguishable from the practice in other parts of the world, it grew to be more inclusive of the spiritualism that sprang up within the nineteenth century. Within the voodoo religion, powerful spirits called loa—also called mystères, or the invisibles—unlike saints and angels that are housed within the Judeo-Christian religions, they are not prayed to, they are served. Contrary to popular belief, the loa are not deities. They are considered spiritual guides, who communicate with the one supreme creator, Bondye, in order to manifest the petitions for family, love, money, happiness, wealth, and of course revenge.  The loa preside over daily life, since Bondye doesn’t interfere with personal matters, and depending upon way in which they are called upon, the spirits can be sympathetic or impish.

The Role of Deceased Ancestors

Within the voodoo religion, it’s a common belief that those who have passed away remain on the earthly plane—this is because it is the responsibility of the living to care for their passed loved ones to help them shed the baggage of their life and get them closer to Bondye. In order to care for ancestors, vodouisants light a candle and leave offerings of food and drink—as thanks, ancestors bless their loved ones with health, wealth, and fortune.

The Loa: Contacting the Spirits

Voodoo Altar in New Orleans
Photography by Greg Willis

Conducting voodoo rituals don’t always require a practitioner to petition the loa, but it’s more frequent for them to be a part of the ritual than not. Contacting the spirits can be achieved through dance, music, singing, and the use of snakes—a symbol of Papa Legba, who is the conduit to contacting the rest. In organized practice, there are houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses), as well as bokors (sorcerers) and caplatas (witches) who lead the rituals, take requests, and receive offerings. These ritualists act as hosts to the possessing loa, which can be quite a violent sight, where the participant thrash and shake, then fall to the ground. Being a host to a loa requires those around to know how to sufficiently provide for the spirit, as they can become stubborn and demand more.

Vèvè: Symbolic Representations of the Loa

A vèvè is a religious symbol which serves to represent a loa during ritualistic practice, whereupon sacrifices and offerings are placed. Every loa has their own individual vèvè, which is typically drawn on the floor using a powder—the type of powder used depended on the type of ritual being performed.

Main Loa of the Voodoo Religion

The loa are a diverse group of spirits, too many to name without going too in depth, but these are a couple of the most well-known of the bunch.

Papa Legba: The Spirit of the Crossroads

Among one of the most important spirits within voodoo, in order for there to be any ritual regarding any other loa, Papa Legba must be contacted first. As the spirit of the crossroads, he is the origin of life, the old man who guards the crossroads, the contact between the realms of life and death—Legba must give his permission in order to communicate any other loa.

Veve, symbolic representations of Voodoo Spirits, the Loa

The poor soul who happens to offend Papa Legba will be virtually deprived of the protection of the spirit world. Guardian of voodoo temples, courtyards, plantations, and crossroads, he also protects the home—if a practitioner is planning on going traveling, they pray to Legba for protection and petition him to safely return them home. A small, crooked old man with a broken body covered in sores, he insists on walking barefoot so he has continuous contact with the earth below him—Legba is a polite and caring spirit, one that all practitioners consider to be lovable.

Papa Ghede and Baron Samedi

Papa Ghede, despite being the spirit of death, is not as forbidding as he may appear in popular imagery—he is dressed in black, with a top hat, with a cigar in his mouth, and controls the souls of those who have passed on. Although the other loa fear and avoid him, he is the one people petition when children are poor of health, as he very much loves children.

Veve, Symbolic representation of Voodoo Spirits, the Loa

There is conflicting information about the relationship between Papa Ghede and Baron Samedi—where some sources claim they are one in the same, where Papa Ghede is the lighter aspect concerning life and Baron Samedi is the dark aspect concerning death. Other sources speak of them being separate entities, where Papa Ghede does the bidding of Baron Samedi. When it comes to magic that deals with death, you can be sure whose power is actually behind it, especially since he has a special interest in those who meet their death as a result of magic.

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Horror Mystery and Lore

The Honey Island Swamp Monster of Louisiana

Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

Louisiana is rife with local folklore, particularly stemming from the untouched acres of the Honey Island Swamp just a short drive from New Orleans. These legends are of the pirates of the Bayou who were said to have hidden buried treasures, Native American ghosts, and the mysterious green lights that lure unsuspecting night travelers into the depths of the swamp, never to be seen again. These are just a few examples of all of the stories that are hidden in the unfathomable depths of the Louisiana swamps, which is home to the Honey Island Swamp Monster.

In August of 1963, Harlan Ford—a retired air traffic controller—was the first to catch sight of the bigfoot of the Bayou, having recently taken up wildlife photography. He described this seven-foot-tall, bipedal creature as being covered in grey hair, with yellow or red inhuman eyes set deep into its primatial face. The air hangs thick around this swamp monster, with an odor of rotting, decaying flesh—a smell so distinctive and disgusting that it would warn anyone of its presence.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster
Honey Island Swamp Monster

In 1974, the Honey Island Swamp Monster gained fame nationally, after Ford and his associate Billy Mills claimed to have found footprints that weren’t like any other creature in the area—these footprints according to myth, and a chance casting of a footprint found by these two men were at between ten to twelve inches long with three webbed toes, along with an opposable digit that was set much farther back than the others. Along with the luck of finding this footprint and casting it, they found the body of a wild board whose throat had been gashed open just a short way away. For the next six years, until his death in 1980, Ford continued to hunt for the creature—after his passing, a reel of Super 8 film was found among the belongings he had left behind, this film supposedly showed proof of the creature’s existence.

In the early twentieth century, before the first reported sighting of the Honey Island Swamp Monster by Ford, there was a legend of a traveling circus—traveling by train, a catastrophic wreck resulted in the escape of a group of chimpanzees. These chimpanzees were said to have gone deep into the swamps and interbred with the local alligator population. The Native Americans who called the area home, referred to the creature as the Letiche—they knew it as carnivorous, living both on land and in water—they believed this creature had originated as an abandoned child, raised by alligators in the darkest, most untouched regions of the swamp.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster caught on Super 8 Video footage

Researchers who have studied the lore of the Honey Island Swamp Monster, believe that it is related to Bigfoot—one reason that it is often referred to as the Bigfoot of the Bayou. While their description is similar, the tracks do not resemble those collected of Bigfoot from the Pacific North West. Despite the reputable nature of Ford and Mills, there have been a number of shows that have focused on hunting down the Honey Island Swamp Monster in order to prove the existence of this cryptid—all of them have come down on the side of the whole thing being a hoax, which isn’t entirely surprising.

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Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

Voodoo on the Bayou

Spiritual Speaker in the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana
Photography by Nico Bhlr

Anyone can practice voodoo in New Orleans—embraced by people no matter their race, creed, or origin—there are no standard worship practices, in this flexible and inclusive spiritual and religious practice. A religion so immersed in mystery, voodoo is often mistaken for something much more sinister. First introduced to the United States through the repugnant practice of slavery, it originated from the Fon people of West Africa and was then intermixed with European cultural influences, as well as Native American herbalism and spiritual practices.

In Denise Alvarado’s The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, it’s explained that voodoo and hoodoo are not the same, despite the how often they are confused for one another. Incredibly complementary in nature, voodoo and hoodoo in New Orleans are melded together in a practice endearingly referred to as voodoo hoodoo, something that is distinct to the region—elsewhere, voodoo is strictly a religion and hoodoo is strictly a folk magic practice. New Orleans is a mixing pot—multiple cultures converging together, the influences of voodoo are so incredibly diverse that it’s no wonder why those who aren’t involved in the religion would be confused about the whole thing.

The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook

Well, here is where the confusion clears—like it was mentioned before, voodoo is a religion, while hoodoo is a practice. Voodoo practitioners believe in a single supreme creator, known as Bondye, which in French Creole stands for “good god.” There is no mention of only good or only evil beings in the religion—instead it is a practice that embraces the good and bad in all situations, where spirits known as the loa act as messengers for Bondye. Despite there being a single god, the loa, also known as lwa, are the ones that practitioners communicate with. Frequently likened to the saints in Catholicism, there is a loa to contact in regards to nearly every aspect of normal life.

Popular media insists that New Orleans voodoo is an ominous, evil tradition—this is based on the demonization of the unique practices within the religion. During the reign of the infamous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, the use of voodoo dolls came into common use, like gris gris (gree-gree), as a form of talismanic magic. There is an odd tradition of depicting voodoo dolls are objects of revenge—ways for malevolent practitioners to send destruction and pain into the lives of their targets. The majority of Voodoo practitioners have been actively working against this negative media presence, showing that most voodoo dolls are centered on healing, finding true love, and obtaining spiritual guidance. Just like Marie Laveau, it seeks to help those in need—to feed the hungry, help the poor, and curing ailments such as anxiety, addictions, depression, and loneliness are mainstays of this religion.

Skulls deteriorating in the jungle
Photography by Christian Grecu

All in all, it seems that those who are a part of the voodoo religion actually prefer to keep their beliefs and practices to themselves, you won’t find any legitimate practitioners displaying their rituals in public, as this would be considered disrespectful to the spirits. This is fair, considering the amount of public bile that spills over into their culture whenever it is brought to light anywhere else in the United States. Privacy is often more pleasant than negativity when it comes to personal beliefs.