In a city with a culture rich with ties to the occult, it’s no surprise that there’s a TV series about witches.
From Ryan Murphy’s renowned American Horror Story franchise is its third season subtitled Coven, which follows a secret institution of young witches who are descendants of those persecuted during the Salem witch trials in the late 1600s.
The girls are learning to harness and strengthen their powers at a boarding school run by witch Cordelia Foxx.
However, that also means they’re all contending to become the next Supreme, the most powerful witch, while battling external threats from voodoo practitioners as well as interior threats.
The Geechee culture is a remnant from what was once a society of black slaves. The area they call home stretches from Savannah southward to an area just below the Ogeechee River, from which they draw their name. Often times this culture is mistakenly called ‘Gullah’, but in actuality the Gullah people exist in an area to the north of Savannah, between Daufuskie Island and Charleston, South Carolina. The two peoples are similar, but not interchangeable: both are rooted in slavery, but the Geechee people have a history and tradition all their own.
Freed after the Civil War, these Island people would often group near the coast where both fishing and farming was plentiful. The community developed their own dialect. In addition to what amounted to their own language (also called ‘Geechee’), this culture also had an elaborate belief system through their African descent. These beliefs are centered on a deep spirituality, believing in both ghosts and in a type of magic cast by charms, potions and amulets.
This magical ability to cast spells is called ‘conjuring’, or ‘casting roots’. A magic spell itself is called a ‘conjure’. The spell is often cast by burying a bag or bundle on the property of the unsuspecting victim. There are also ways of conjuring involving secret potions to drink, powders, nail clippings, and that most powerful of talismans—graveyard dirt. Someone skilled in the art of casting spells is called a root doctor, or a witch doctor. They can be employed if you feel that magic is being used against you.
A witch doctor is very different from a witch, which is often called a ‘boo-hag’. Not to be confused with the Hollywood version, witches in this tradition look no different from regular people. Witches are more akin to vampires, because the belief is that they steal the breath and life-force or essence of the victim. To have your essence stolen by a witch is known as ‘being rid’ or ‘ridden’. If someone looks poor or sickly, the assumption is that a boo-hag stole that person’s energy in the middle of the night; they are being “rid by a witch.”
Mami Wata is a water-spirit, sometimes described as a mermaid figure, who can found throughout the western coastal regions and into central Africa. Mami Wata is described as having long dark hair, very fair skin and compelling eyes. Although she may appear to her devotees (in dreams and visions) as a beautiful mermaid, complete with tail, she is also said to walk the streets of modern African cities in the guise of a gorgeous but elusive woman. She is interested in all things contemporary: some of her favorite offerings include sweet, imported perfumes, sunglasses and Coca-Cola. Nonetheless, the spirit appears to be related to other water spirits who have a much longer history on the continent. Mami Wata’s colors are red and white. Those she afflicts with visions and temptations, and who experience her as an obsession or an illness, may wear the red of sickness and dangerous heat. Others who have a more positive orientation towards the spirit may show their blessings by wearing white. Most devotees wear a combination of red and white clothing.
Mami Wata is also said to have a number of avatars on earth–mortal women who have the same look as the deity and who act as her “daughters.” Mami Wata may give wealth to her devotees, her “daughters” or to her (male) spouses, but she is never known to give fertility. Some Igbo stories suggest that the fish under the waters are her children, and that she uses them as firewood. Mami Wata is sometimes seen as a metaphor for modern African conditions — having the knowledge of global wealth and the desire for large-scale consumption, but lacking the actual wealth or access to the world’s wealth that would enable Africans to participate in that system. A number of Africanist art historians have written about Mami Wata, notably Henry Drewal, as have anthropologists like myself. She is the subject of local poetry, song, paintings, carvings and now film.
Mami Wata is depicted as a mermaid, with a woman’s torso and the legs of either a fish or serpent. Sometimes Mami Wata is depicted as a whole woman carrying a large snake or snakes wrapped around her body. While she is often depicted as a mermaid or half woman–half snake, Mami Wata actually represents a whole pantheon of spirits and deities in West Africa. Mami Wata is the African ambassador to all the spirits of the waters: La Sirene, the Haitian Vodou loa who is similarly depicted as a mermaid; Yemoja, the Yoruban Mother of the Seven Seas; and Yemayá in Santeria and Ifá. Mami Wata remains an important spirit in the New Orleans Voudou pantheon.
Legba, a god of West Africa and Voodooism, is the child of the Sky Pantheon. He is allied with destiny, but has no particular domain. Legba is very intelligent and cunning, despite the fact that he is a trickster. Although Legba appears as a weak poorly dressed old man, he is really very strong. He understands all languages of humans and of the gods. In Voodoo ceremonies, Legba is always the first to be invoked. No Loa, a spirit of the dead, is allowed to enter into the worshippers unless he has Legba’s permission. This is because he holds the key to the gate separating the humans’ world and the world of the gods.
Papa Limba, or Labas, is who we refer to as Papa Legba today; and St. Peter is the Catholic saint syncretized with him. Papa Legba is the gatekeeper to the spirit world and is represented by keys, among other things, while St. Peter holds the keys to the gates of heaven. Beyond this similarity, however, the two have little in common.
In New Orleans Voudou, syncretism manifests as Catholic icons representing African deities. The introduction of Catholic saints is a direct result of the implementation of the Louisiana Black Code, which made the practice of any religion other than Catholicism illegal. Substituting images of Catholic saints that shared similar characteristics as the Voudou spirits allowed slaves to continue with their religions in a veiled manner. Over time, the saints became incorporated into New Orleans Voudou as separate entities unto themselves, not substitutions. In Louisiana, it was easy to blend Voudou and Catholicism because of the many similarities between the two traditions. Both believe in a supreme being, include symbolic or actual rituals of sacrifice, and both use altars as focal points of devotion.
Li Grande Zombi is the major serpent spirit of worship among New Orleans Voodooists. In New Orleans Voodoo, snakes are not seen as symbols of evil as in the story of Adam and Eve. Snakes are considered to be the holders of intuitive knowledge—knowing that which cannot be spoken. Women often dance with serpents to represent the spiritual balance between the genders. Voodoo rituals in New Orleans almost always include a snake dance to celebrate the link to the ancient knowledge. The origin of Li Grande Zombi can be traced to the serpent deity Nzambi from Whydah in Africa. According to the Bantu Creation story, Nzambi is the Creator God:
Nzambi exists in everything and controls the universe through his appointed Spirits. In the beginning only Nzambi existed. When he was ready to create, millions and millions of pieces of matter swirled around him counterclockwise until Ngombe was born. Ngombe is the universe, the planets, the stars and all physical matter. Nzambi then created movement, and the matter that he had created began to change and drift apart. So, he decided to create a being that could traverse the universe and mediate between matter and space. Nzambi focused on a fixed point and gave life to a being who was simultaneously man and woman, a manifestation of the nature of Nzambi, called Exú-Aluvaiá.
The term Voodoo hoodoo is commonly used by Louisiana locals to describe our unique brand of New Orleans Creole Voodoo. It refers to a blending of religious and magickal elements. Voodoo is widely believed by those outside of the New Orleans Voodoo tradition to be separate from hoodoo magick. However, the separation of religion from magick did not occur in New Orleans as it did in other areas of the country. The magick is part of the religion; the charms are medicine and spiritual tools that hold the inherent healing mechanisms of the traditional religion and culture. Voodoo in New Orleans is a way of life for those who believe.
Still, there are those who separate Voodoo and hoodoo. Some hoodoo practitioners integrate elements of Voodoo, and some do not. Some incorporate elements of Catholicism or other Christian religious thought into their practice, while others do not. How much of the original religion a person decides to believe in and practice is left up to the individual. Some people don’t consider what they do religion at all, preferring to call it a spiritual tradition or African American folk magic. The term Voodoo hoodoo is in reference to the blend of the two aspects of the original religion as found in New Orleans Voodoo and as a way of life. A fellow New Orleans native and contemporary gris gris man Dr. John explains it this way:
In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music, you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles each into the other—Catholic saint worship with gris gris spirits, evangelical tent meetings with spiritual church ceremonies—until nothing is purely itself but becomes part of one fonky gumbo. That is why it is important to understand that in New Orleans the idea of Voodoo—or as we call it gris gris—is less a distinct religion than a way of life.