The Voodoo Queen of Southern Hearts

Today is Halloween! Celebration commences this evening with folks of all ages and backgrounds dressing up as ghouls, ghosts, goblins, and the monsters under your childhood bed. Some folks festoon their porches and doorways with grinning jack o’lanterns lit by candles and strings of lights glowing in orange or purple—a symbolic welcome to trick-or-treaters. Others will don their favorite costumes and head out with friends to a Halloween party, complete with candy corn shots and the Monster Mash. Most of us have watched a horror movie or television show since October 1st in anticipation for this day. One particular season of American Horror Story comes to mind as a specifically Southern favorite—“Coven.”

Coven takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana, tackling topics of racism and slavery with a cast of enchanting, mostly women characters in a bewitching setting draped with Spanish moss. Marie Laveau, played by the beloved actress Angela Bassett, is among the most memorable. The glowing Laveau’s stern countenance perched on a high-held head captivates the audience as she casts spells and magick circles for a combination of vengeance and justice. To put it bluntly, she was honestly goals for many Southern women. Women of color, in particular, found kinship with the character. Laveau, though she has a star-crossed romance, acts of her own volition, asks no man for permission, and holds knowledge and power that literally brings other witches to their knees. She is a representation of unapologetic feminism, flagrant witchcraft, and powers unseen.

But what about the real Mistress Marie Laveau, who keeps Southern folks spellbound in a twisted mixture of fact, fiction, and fable for so many generations after her death? The woman, who many wealthy New Orleans christened the “Queen of Voodoo,” had a patchwork quilt of an ancestry. She was of Creole descent—a combination of white colonial settlers, African slaves and freedman, and Native American tribes. According to the Women’s History Blog, she was born to a plantation owner named Charles Laveau and his mistress Marguerite. Marie Laveau was among a small percentage of women to receive an education. Her initial trade was in hairdressing, and her original religious beliefs were in Catholicism.

However, like many noteworthy Southern women, she redirected her lifestyle toward a strange counterculture. Once her husband died, she used her widow status to usher in a freedom of choice and autonomy that 19th century women rarely enjoyed. Laveau worked as a hairdresser by day, but performed rituals for the rich by night. She traded Catholicism for Voodoo, regardless of the ill-conceived notions of dark forces and evil pinned to the African-rooted religious practices. And, despite an irrational phobia of evil surrounding anything outside of the Christian norm so deeply ingrained in Southern culture, Laveau was described as compassionate, kind, and viewed as a living saint by some. The Women’s History Blog describes Laveau as a trusted confidant among rich women in the area—a keeper of secrets as well as a wielder of power.

After her death in 1881, the Laveau legacy lived on for a time through her daughter of the same. Although not as kind or welcoming as her mother, Marie II did strike fear in those who would challenge her practice. Police would neither question nor search Marie II’s brothel, afraid she might cast dark spells on them. Despite the polar differences in personality between them, mother and daughter were never fully distinguished as different from each other, further cementing the immortal legends surrounding them. However, Marie II would die mysteriously, putting the lid on the coffin of the Laveaus’ reign in New Orleans Voodoo.

After decades of obscurity, the ghost of the good witch Laveau would rise again to manifest in American Horror Story for “Coven”—another form of immortality. She represents to many the resilience and power of Southern women of color and others who don’t fit into the white-washed, Christian niche often purveyed in the South. Laveau is also a representation of folks’ ability to embrace all parts of their heritage and culture. Her combination of Catholic saints with African gods proves all facets of each individual represent an import facet on the diamond of Southern culture itself. The Queen of Voodoo was beloved by women, feared by men, and reigns supreme as an important heroine in Southern fables. She’s truly a unique but important story to tell in SFK’s ideal of “Y’all means all.”  

 

Image Credit: Flickr