Ok that’s the extent of my Creole Patois – but I definitely believe one must respect this ancient practice which is as old as Africa itself. I have been to New Orleans a few times – and must say I found it to be fun but also one of the most spooky, scary and unsettling places I have ever visited. Of course you have the typical tourist attractions – The French Quarter, The Garden District, Cafe Du Monde (they have delicious beignets and chicory coffee) riverboat cruises, streetcars (never found one named Desire) and of course great blues bars like The Old Absinthe House (you can order the drink but it isn’t like the original hallucinogenic beverage made with wormwood). Let’s not forget, however that the city is built below sea level and so the air is always heavy with moisture and spirits.
Since Mardi Gras concluded last week I though it was apropos to post about this American city that feels decidedly exotic with a definitely unique culture. And when Mardi Gras comes to town – watch out. So before we get to the voodoo, let’s take a look at this annual carnival.
What exactly is Mardi Gras and where did it come from? Mardi Gras finds its roots in the pagan celebrations of spring and fertility dating back thousands of years. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders cleverly decided to incorporate these popular local traditions, no doubt thinking that these familiar celebrations would help the new faith gain followers. Mardi Gras season thus became a raucous, debauched prelude to Lent, the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. As Christianity spread, Mardi Gras followed along from Rome to other countries in Europe and abroad. The practice of bingeing on foodstuffs in the home that would need to be removed for the Lenten days of fasting and eating only fish gave this time of excess its appropriate name: “Fat Tuesday.”
Trivia Fact: The word “carnival,” which is also associated with this event, comes from the Medieval Latin word carnelevarium which means “remove meat.”
Mardi Gras wended its way onto American soil at the very end of the 17th Century when French explorers landed in what is now Louisiana. At the end of a festival celebrating their discovery, they named the landing spot “Pont du Mardi Gras.” There was a period of carnival abstinence when the very conservative Spaniards took over New Orleans, but the intensely over the top festival returned once Louisiana became a state in 1812. Over the ensuing years, the festivities took the form we know today, with colorful costumes and wild dancing, etc etc. The first recorded official Mardi Gras parade took place in 1837, and a few years later, a secret businessmen’s “club” called the Mistic Krewe of Comus put on finishing touches with marching bands and colorful floats that we see today. Rex, one of the oldest Mardi Gras Krewes established purple, gold and green as the official Mardi Gras colors and with other Krewes started the custom of throwing beads which were originally made out of glass – that must have hurt! Today the beads and other trinkets are made of colorful plastic:
Some trinkets, despite their inexpensive construction are considered so valuable that people, especially women will perform some very strange antics in order to secure them. One such bauble is the much coveted hand painted coconut (originally a gold painted walnut called the “golden nugget) thrown by the Zulu Krewe:
Today there are many krewes – even Harry Connick Jr has one (Orpheus) and each has its own special insignia:
In 1884 medallions representing the Krewes’ insignia were added to the trinkets being thrown and today they are the most prized “gets.”
Trivia Fact: Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday
Mardi Gras is an event unto itself, but what truly sets New Orleans apart for me is the following of voodoo, an underground religious practice with roots that go back to the early 1700’s when African slaves were brought to Louisiana when it was a French colony. It differs from the Haitian voodoo practices as it emphasizes gris gris, an amulet or incantation thought to protect against evil (incantations also known as juju). These West Africans that were brought to Louisiana by slave traders had a profound knowledge of herbs and poisons and they incorporated this into the rituals of creating charms, amulets and voodoo dolls.
I have read that voodoo dolls are part of the culture’s “sympathetic magic,” which uses spells, incantations and special concoctions to influence love, power luck and finance. In other words these dolls are used to bless and influence change but not to curse or hurt. The pins associated with voodoo dolls are not supposed to cause pain, but rather used to pin things onto the doll – like a picture or a name of a particular person as a spiritual representation.
However when I visited Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo – named after the 19th Century Queen of Voodoo I found a “Revenge, Hurt, Force, Curse voodoo doll:
Going with the flow, I had some spells cast onto paper to pin to its chest – ostensibly to “punish” a torturous client that I was working with at the time. I put it in my suitcase and went back to our hotel to change for dinner in one of the best New Orleans restaurants, The Captain’s Table. Much food, drink, laughter, drink, drink, drink ensued and the next morning, somewhat worse for wear – I traveled back home.
That client I mentioned? Soon after my New Orleans jaunt, he disappeared under very mysterious circumstances, never to be seen again.