Converse with the Spirits at These Secret Voodoo Ceremonies in New Orleans

Voodoo gets a bad rap in New Orleans, Louisiana. Sure, it brings in tourist dollars with people squeezing into those crammed French Quarter gift shops searching for that perfect Voodoo doll. But if you want to see what Voodoo culture is really like in New Orleans, pack your bags and head to a ceremony, where the Voodoo spirits will rock your world.

Sallie Ann Glassman, soul to the spirits, is a long-time New Orleans priestess. Glassman is one of a few in the country initiated in the Haitian Kreyol tradition, called Vodou. She and the La Source Ancienne Ounfo (her local religious group) celebrate three Vodou ceremonies open to the public from late June to late July.

“The lwa spirits continue to communicate with the living through ceremonies, dreams, and possession trances where they actually borrow a person’s body temporarily and talk through it, do healings, and eat and dance, manifesting in the characters of that person.”

Vodou, the Haitian spelling, is a religion born from the West Coast of Africa that followed the slave trade to Haiti and New Orleans. They subscribe to a supreme God, the Bon Dieu, and similar to Catholicism and the Catholic Saints, the lwa spirits are lauded for their life’s work and devoted to a specific cause.

We’ve all tried talking to the dead, and most of the time it’s a one-sided conversation, but Glassman explains the spirits are anxious to communicate. She presides in ceremonies that call and coax the spirits, reclaiming their souls to communicate and guide. Drummers, dancers, singers, priests, and priestesses must master specific and complex rhythms, dances, songs, and ritual gestures to break through and reach the lwa spirit.

“Anybody participating will feel the effects of it,” says Glassman, referring to people who attend the ceremonies. “[The lwa] continue to communicate with the living through ceremonies, dreams, and possession trances where they actually borrow a person’s body temporarily and talk through it, do healings, and eat and dance, manifesting in the characters of that person.”

On three separate dates throughout the summer, the uninitiated can join the ceremony.

St. John’s Eve Vodou Downtown Ritual, June 22

A quick history lesson: the Feast of St. John the Baptist is celebrated by Catholics, and it coincides with the Summer Solstice, creating one of the holiest days for the Vodou faith. Two days before St. John’s Feast, New Orleans is home to an intimate Vodou experience that shares both kinds of spirits—the ones you drink and the ones that rise from the dead.

International House Hotel is not your everyday luxury hotel; it hosts seven local rituals throughout the year to share the true essence of this soulful city. Step inside the lobby and you’ll be transported to a Vodou ceremony, with dimmed lights, flowing white sheets, and the amber glow of candles setting the stage to bringing together the spiritual world and the physical world.

INSIDER TIPIf you can’t make the June 22 event, you can book personal Vodou blessings in the hotel by the priestess herself.

A self-proclaimed “spirit handler,” the hotel’s bartender, opens with an intro to his creative elixir. And what a fitting way to begin the journey, a cocktail made from medicinal herbs, jasmine, sweet olive, Spanish moss from the city’s mighty oaks, and of course, Haitian rum.

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 Courtesy International House Hotel; Photo by Eugenia Uhl, courtesy of International House Hotel

 

The drums and dancing invite the lwa spirits to join the living, and sometimes the spirits decide to hop in and take a ride.

St. John’s Eve Headwashing Ceremony, June 23

On St. John’s Eve, there is a Vodou baptismal, a centuries-old Haitian ritual held on Bayou St. John, named after the saint. So if you are really serious about the ultimate Vodou experience, it’s time for a Headwashing.

INSIDER TIPVisitors are asked to come dressed in pure white with white headdress or scarves and bring offerings for Marie Laveau. She’s particularly fond of barrettes, blue and white ribbons, along with rum and bourbon. Pack light clothing, and comfortable shoes—it’s an outdoor ceremony that lasts for several hours.

New Orleans nineteenth-century Vodou queen, Marie Laveau, brought the ritual to the same bayou where throngs of Vodou followers danced around flaming bonfires chanting prayers calling the lwa spirits.

Today, the legend continues along Bayou St. John with a larger-than-life statue of Marie Laveau, surrounded by rows of faithful followers. Glassman and her local religious group pay homage to Marie Laveau and beckon her spirit to join in the celebration.

Although you might not understand the Haitian Kreyol language, the movement and music tell the story. It’s a slow blur of faithful followers dressed in white and a collage of brightly colored tattoos. Visitors are asked to lay their gifts at the feet of the statue. At the baptism, anyone can receive the holy Headwashing.

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 Deborah Burst

As the ceremony continues, the spirits get stronger. The priestess crouches close to the ground with a container of cornmeal. She takes a pinch between her fingers and carefully drops it onto the floor, calling forth the power of the spirit, coaxing it to rise from the waters into a physical manifestation to answer the prayers.

As you watch the evening sun sinking into the bayou, the hypnotic sounds of drums and Vodou chants will send a shiver up your spine.

Hurricane Turnaround Ceremony, July 21

Next stop is the Bywater neighborhood; the belly of the city’s artistic culture shaded by banana leaves and palm trees, a liberated village and home to Glassman’s Vodou Creole Cottage and what locals call Vodou Alley. It is there on a long wooden fence you will find a collage of artwork with paintings of the lwa spirits.

Deborah Burst

The Hurricane Turnaround Ceremony takes place on the third Saturday of July. The Vodou clan calls upon Ezili Danto, one of the most fiercely protective lwa spirits, to avert the storms and hurricanes away from the city, to calm the winds and lower the intensity.

Inside Sallie Ann Glassman’s dimly lit Creole cottage, three alters line the walls, the lively white Rada, the red Petro, and the Gede, draped with black offerings. The room is drenched with dark shadows and soulful chants. Both the Vodou society and visitors stand in the shadows of the flickering candlelight. Adorned in white with red kerchiefs on their head, they sing in a beautiful harmony swaying to the rhythms of tambourines, spirit shakers, and Congo drums. The beat of the drums intensifies, the energy shifts, and a hypnotic trance consumes all that enter. Glassman and others dance around an altar filled with offerings of Danto’s favorites with rum, flowers, and Florida water.

 

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 Deborah Burst

 

To learn more about the Vodou religion and the schedules of the ceremonies, visit the New Orleans Healing Center. Not far from St. Roch Cemetery in the Bywater neighborhood is Glassman’s Vodou shop Island of Salvation Botanica, with Vodou candles, religious supplies, medicinal herbs, spiritual readings, along with the Haitian and local artwork.

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