How do legends begin? Is it a piece of a real event that is told so many times, each with a bit more pizzazz than before, to the point where we can’t separate truth from fiction? Or is it possible that the more a story is repeated, the more we are willing to believe in things our mind claims as illogical? Perhaps it’s our love for the macabre, or even the influence of film and television portrayals of historical characters, that turns the facts into complicated information. We want to believe in the fantastical so we hold on to the retellings rather than focus on the factual. Our contemporary society praises itself as being logical and scientific. But in truth, we share more in common with our ancestors and their belief in the supernatural, than we’d like to admit.
Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ nineteenth century Voodoo Queen, has become a popular character of modern culture. Part of this can be traced to the depiction of her in the third season of American Horror Story. But even without the fictionalized tale, Laveau was already a force to be reckoned with. When we think of the time she was born in, there’s no denying the fact that she, as a woman of color, was able to position herself in such a strong place within her society through her intelligence and compassion.
Marie was trained as a hairdresser, and it’s believed that this is how she found most of her clientele for her more mysterious profession. She was sought out by many for her personalized gris-gris, voodoo protection amulets, which she’d tailor to each of her clients’ needs. Despite the folklore that has snowballed into urban legends regarding what the Voodoo priestess did, most of her work was a combination of traditional medicine and spiritual practices. It’s likely that her concoctions and potions were remedies based on plant and herbs, not unlike the $20 under-the-tongue drops we find at our local organic grocery store now.
I remember a conversation I had with a clinical psychologist some time ago. We were talking about healers and the place they’ve held in societies throughout history. The health professional concluded with a comment about how there was not much difference between what healers did and what she currently had to do every day. This in terms of having to think holistically in order to better help the patient. Perhaps in our current context we might perceive Marie Laveau’s work to be dark and scary. Yet there’s a chance that in her time, it would’ve been seen as more humane than the other medical options. Remember that this was when science and medicine tended towards the utterly terrifying.
But when we read the letters written in the local papers after her death, we can see how Marie was seen as a spiritual mother for many people. She visited incarcerated men who were condemned. Her client base was made up of rich white folk, as well as marginalized communities who also required of her special abilities. To this day, people from all over the world flock to her grave site and write X’s on the headstone, despite the locals continuously trying to avoid it. Marie’s influence can be seen in the way the contemporary New Orleans’ Voodoo is about helping those who need it the most. For all the legends and representations this Voodoo Queen has had, her greatest legacy is one of compassion and care.
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