As you’ve probably picked up by now, I live in New Orleans.
I’ve always been fascinated by this city. Its history, culture and color have continually drawn me to it over the years. When I had just graduated from college, I tried for the first time to come here but circumstances did not allow it. I tried many times over the intervening years to get here and it just seemed like it was never meant to be, until that fateful festival where I met my significant other. At that festival, he managed to convince my best friend and her boyfriend to allow him to go and stay with them while he performed at the Ohio Renaissance Fair. While he stayed with them, he gave them an open invitation to visit him in New Orleans as a way of saying thank you. They took him up on it and brought me with them. And in many ways, even though I went back and forth from New Orleans to Ohio for a while before actually moving here, as of that visit I never really left.
There are many things I love about the city, one of which is how openly Pagan this city is. We have a huge Voodoo community here (as you might expect) and a vibrant Pagan community. No one looks askance at the pentacle necklace that I wear. I had a girl come to the door the other day who was doing surveys. She asked me right away if I was Wiccan and exclaimed “How cool!”. People openly have shrines and altars for various deities all over the place (and this goes for the Christians as well…). When I go to the cemeteries, I see spells drawn into the ground and offerings left behind. I do my best not to disturb these workings. You pass many businesses and residences that just have little bits and pieces here and there that speak to me of magic and ritual. I don’t care whether you believe in magic or not, there is magic in New Orleans.
This past year, The New Orleans Healing Center opened up on St. Claude. This is a beautiful building that holds so many things: local artists are prominently displayed, there is a community theater, a book store, a little middle eastern restaurant, a yoga studio, a food co-op, a Botanica, , an interfaith meeting room, a police station and many other wonderful things. They hold community gatherings and fund raisers. It is a place for the community, by the community.
Last week I received an email through our local Pagan meetup about a public voodoo ritual that was going to be held out in front of the Healing Center. I was excited; I had never actually seen a real Voodoo ritual before and this one was going to be about helping to protect the community, which in that neighborhood especially, is definitely needed. Every little bit can help. The ritual was going to call on Ogou Achade to help fight crime in our beautiful city.
Sallie Ann Glassman, a well known Mambo here in New Orleans, and her house La Source Ancienne Ounfo, were running the ritual. Sallie Ann runs the Island of Salvation Botanica in the healing center and is a major contributor to the center as well. I’ve only ever heard good things about her and every time I went into the Botanica, I always found good vibes. I don’t know how else to describe it. While most Voodou practitioners set my teeth on edge (they carry a wildly different magical energy than any tradition that I’m familiar with), the Botanica always struck me as a welcoming sort of place.
One of the requirements of being a dedicant in Blue Star is that you go and see at least three other tradition’s rituals. This is to make sure that students of Blue Star are aware that there are other paths out there, to make sure that Blue Star wasn’t the first thing they found and that they think they are stuck with it. I’ve gotten off pretty easily on this; I’ve been Pagan long enough that I’ve had the opportunity to see many different rituals in many different settings. But some of our other dedicants haven’t. So this was going to be their first non-Wiccan ritual.
I had no idea what to expect. The invitation told us to wear all white and have a red head covering. It also told us to bring an offering and listed some things that would be acceptable. Not surprising most of them had to do with fire, metal and warriors.
We showed up early to find the ritual area being prepared. Sallie Ann was the first person we saw and she was immediately welcoming. Sallie Ann is an extremely frail seeming woman, but by the end of it all, I was seriously impressed with both her presence and with the work that she did. The ritual was done in French, so I really can’t tell you much of what was actually said. And again, I’m not familiar with Voodoo ritual, so this is what it seemed like to me:
They began by doing something similar to what we do in Wicca. It seems like they called the quarters and swept the circle. A male member (the priest/houngan?) drew the quarters from the altar (which was simply items placed in the middle of the space on the ground) with a machete and then several other female members danced behind him, presenting fire and water (it seemed like water, it was a liquid in a bottle, I assume that it had been blessed or was a mixture of other things). But they did this by song and dance as well. Sallie Ann did not sing the ritual, another member of the house did. This woman had a lovely voice, though it had more power to it than eloquence. The members of the house called back to her at specific moments. Next they presented offerings, again, dancing them through the quarters, presenting them to all the directions. After the house finished with their offerings, they let everyone else participating present theirs. Some were able to present their offerings in the way the Voodoo house had done it and others, like me, (knowing that there was no way I could do anything that complicated without much practice), simply walked up, presented their offerings respectfully and bowed. After presenting their offerings, each participant took a pinch of gunpowder and threw it on a lit charcoal. After everyone had finished, apparently something wanted a little more oomph, because seemingly for no reason that we could see, the whole little bottle of gunpowder exploded.
After this, everyone seemed to settle down into the actual ritual. Sallie Ann and her priest had a mock fight. He carried the machete, she carried a shaking gourd. At the end of this fight, he submitted to her and they presented to each other. After this, Sallie Ann began to draw four veves around the central altar. This was an amazing thing to watch. I’ve seen veves before, sacred drawings in Voodoo worship, but I’ve never seen someone draw them in ritual with the traditional cornmeal. She did this quickly and precisely, though it still took her a significant amount of time. I assume that each veve had a different meaning for each direction. They were fairly large and intricate. Sallie Ann didn’t falter once. After she drew them, she and girl who had been singing the ritual, went to each veve and seemed to do another blessing with both fire (candles) and the water that was used before. When this was completed, I assume that the space had been adequately prepared to call to Ogou Achade. (From the brief explanation that she gave before the ceremony, they had to create the poles from above and below to call to the Lwa. I’m sure I’m mangling these terms, but it seemed like they needed to create a pole to draw the spirit in). She drew another large veve in the East that seems to have been the call to Ogou Achade himself.
First Sallie Ann and her priest went around the group and did energy work with each of us. They each had a shaker gourd (and after asking permission of each person), did a small working with each person. They worked their way up a person’s back, shook the gourd over their head several times and then worked back down again. This experience alone was enough to nearly knock me over. I have never felt energy work hit me that much before. And watching my fellow dedicants and our neophyte, who had come with me, they had a similar experience. Then Sallie Ann and her priest went around the circle and blessed everyone with the cornmeal of the last and central veve.
After this, Sallie Ann actually called Ogou Achade into her. I’ve never before seen someone who is ridden, but it was more than a little scary. There is no question in my mind that that seemingly frail little woman carried the warrior Lwa within her. Ogou Achade also worked his way around the circle and blessed everyone by spitting rum over us. This was an extremely intense experience. I’ve been a part of invocations before. Confronting a God is not new to me, but this was much scarier than the gods that I am familiar with. Ogou Achade carried the machete with him and the look in his eyes was not necessarily friendly. He was obviously a warrior that is willing to fight for the community, as we were asking him to. At the end, Sallie Ann had to lie on the ground and recover.
Through all of this the singing and dancing continued. The energy that was gradually built up was absolutely palpable. There were drummers who played through the whole thing as well. I’m sure that I’ve forgotten a lot of the details and mixed the order of everything around. This was one of the most powerful rituals that I have ever been a part of.
This also ended up being one of the most public rituals that I have ever been a part of. St. Claude is a very busy street. Traffic flew past us the whole time and many people who were walking by did more than simply stop and go around us. We ended up with a lot of people who were simply walking past, who stopped and stayed on the outside of the ring for the whole two hour long ritual.
And one of the most significant things that I took from this ceremony was the joy that everyone who was there brought to it. Even the strangers who were passing by on the street stopped and either watched or jumped in to participate. No one stopped and accused us of worshiping the devil or of doing something bad. They were openly happy to see us doing this sort of work. Would that happen anywhere else in this country?
As one of my friends said, “It’s funny, but I always think of Vodou as New Orleans’ indigenous religion–I don’t practice it but I do like to visit & pay homage periodically”. I agree with this statement entirely. While Voodoo is not a practice that I will pursue for myself, I was amazed and grateful for being able to be a part of this ritual. I also think that it’s another amazing part of this vibrant and wonderful city and all I can do is reflect, once again, how lucky I am to get to live here and be a part of this. I would definitely encourage anyone to experience something similar!
(For another perspective, go and read my friend’s blog post “Ashe” from her blog, LA to LA).