What is Religion Anyway, and Who Gets to Define it? A Follow Up on New Orleans Voudou as a Legitimate Religion
A little over a year ago, I wrote an open letter to Catherine Yronwode about her accusations of New Orleans Voodoo being a faux religion perpetrated by fakers. My letter to her was in response to an article she posted on her website about Hoodoo history, in the section called Hoodoo is Not New Orleans Voodoo. You can read the original post for the background info...I won't waste time repeating it here.
While there was a bit of a flurry as a result of my blog post, it pretty much died down, though comments have continued to be posted by folks who discover it over the months since it was written.
It recently came up again when someone discovered the link and posted it to my Facebook group. More than one person asked what Yronwode's response was to my email to her. I have stated she responded after several days of being "busy." But the topic of discussion that came up was a very good one, and one that, unfortunately, she did not deem important enough to continue. In fact, she never even looked at my response from what I can tell in my FB email, though her husband Nagasiva did.
This was her response to my open letter, which was an email to her about the discovery of that slanderous, hugely inaccurate and lacking any scholarly citations to back it up, article that remains on her website to this day. I'm only posting an excerpt of her email which brings up the topic of this post:
Catherine Anna Yronwode
Denise, I have an opinion. It is based on my experiences in New Orleans during the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s. I have been there many times over four decades and i have seen lots of pseudo-Voodoo there, from all the sources i cited in that article, and others i did not bother to cite but will be glad to if requested...
I will continue to call New Orleans Voodoo a faux-religion until i see that it offers what what real religions offer -- homes for the elderly, care for the sick, funeral services, education for the young, houses of worship, a true congregation that meets regularly for worship services. I am strict and old time in my understanding of what a religion is. Even my small church, tiny as it is, has a vast prayer chain for our members, sets free lights for those in need, and gives out hundreds of pro bono spiritual consultations and hundreds of dollars in pro bono spiritual supplies every year.
A religion is not a festival or a work of performance art or a magazine.
The hoodoo i know is NOT "New Orleans Voodoo" or any kind of Voodoo. We practice Christian folk-magic, and i think that you, in honesty, should be PROUD AND HAPPY to say "New Orleans Voodoo is not hoodoo." Because it's not.
Finally, and i mean this most sincerely, if you can demonstrate that New Orleans Voodoo is a new religion (in the same way that responsible Pagans and Heathens have finally begun admitting that their religions are new religions, after forty years of spuriously calling upon "ancient European pagan religions" as the sources for some of their most egregiously pseudo-Hindu cosmologies) then i will call it such, gladly -- but only if it meets the criteria of being a religion.
You should not look to me to validate your confabulated blend of conjure and Voodoo. I am only interested in historical truth. This should not make us enemies, but if you feel that i oppose you so strongly as to appear unfriendly, then all you need do, as far as i am concerned, is either show me the historical continuity of true Voodoo in New Orleans, or admit openly, as a responsible person that you are willing to leave behind the grotesque impostures of the likes of Gandolfo, Glassmann, and Caulder, and that you are practicing a new religion, which draws upon certain aspects of other religions, including Voodoo, as part of its foundation myth.
What follows is my response to her, in which I thought I answered her questions rather succinctly. However, it appears she never even took the time to read it. Not reading it means she never responded. So, for folks who may also subscribe to her opinions about New Orleans Voudou and rather narrow view of religion in general, here is my response in its entirety:
I only have a couple of minutes as I've got a lot going on this week but wanted to let you now I have seen your response. A couple of things. First, the tone in your response is condescending and patronizing. I don't do well with those. That tone does match the offensive nature of the article however, where you have lumped me and others, in with one person who has been proven a fraud, and Gandolfo admittedly is guilty of pushing tourism Voodoo in a way I really wish he hadn't. Tallant is guilty for feeding into the sensationalism around Voodoo in New Orleans by describing rituals that did not occur, but they sure sound salacious. That is them, not me. To lump all of us together and judge a whole religion based on a few people is hardly reliable scientific methodology, not to mention, unfair and irresponsible. But BEHIND Gandalfo, as in associated with Gandalfo's museum, is Dr. Elmer Glover; around the corner behind Brandi Kelly, Mama Lola and Sunpie, to mention just a few legitimate practitioners who serve the community, as do Priestess Miriam and Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman.
Secondly, it is not a difference of opinion that I object to. Of course you have a right to your opinion, as I have stated previously. I do have an issue with the conclusions you have drawn as a result of your opinion, that lumps good people together as if we are all one entity and then write it on your page as gospel.
Your argument is coming from a place where you have defined religion for me and the rest of the world and if we do not subscribe to your definition, then we must be faux or fakers. Again, that is hardly a reliable, scholarly platform to take. Even in the discipline of anthropology, and the much broader field of the Social Sciences, there is no consensus as to the definition of religion. In fact, that has been an issue for a long time because who has the final word? The functionalists? Ethnologists? Reductionists? Biologists? Evolutionists? Culturalists? Analysts? In fact, it is interdisciplinary - there are many points of view and many angles from which to view and interpret religion. There needs to be a clear theory to back up your stance, not just naming a few authors who have nothing to do with religion in an academic field or from any formal religious or anthropological theory, with the exception of Hurston. In any one of the anthropological subdisciplines we can find differing theories of the meaning and function of religion. In fact the formal study of religion is relatively new (1800s - present), with most theories springing from the works of Tyler, Malinowski (functionalist), Boas, Frazer (functionalist), Pritchard, Geertz (interpretive), Radcliffe-Brown (social anthropology), Levi-Strauss and many others...each of whom built their theories on the basis of predecessors by either supporting and building upon previous theories or critically examining them and branching out into a different vein. Not one of these theorists subscribe to your definition of the necessity of having "homes for the elderly, care for the sick, funeral services, education for the young, houses of worship, a true congregation that meets regularly for worship services" - a definition that is prejudicial and biased in Western cosmology. Not one of these theorists would say that a particular religion is "faux" because it doesn't subscribe to their theory. Instead, they would look at the religion from their theoretical perspective and make sense of it in that way.
My personal theoretical foundation is from a cultural and multidisciplinary perspective (cultural anthropology and cultural psychology). I find the works of Frazer useful in particular with regards to his seminal work on the categorization of magic, science and religion. He basically stated that we have to step inside the culture and understand the systems of healing and illness and their function in order to understand how religion is expressed. His work has proved useful in the studies of indigenous religious systems for this very reason. Geertz posited that religion is interpreted and expressed on a very individual level as a set of symbols that are meaningful to practitioners in any number of ways.
The whole discussion of religion requires much more than a simple reductionist view as you have presented. I am not going to write a thesis on it, but you may find this primer article useful http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/religion.htm
Padgett himself is highly respected.
So, that is one huge issue in the present discussion. I'm afraid until you understand that your way is not the only way, and because New Orleans Voodoo as a religion does not fit your definition and therefore must be fake, any further discussion is going to be difficult, at best.
Onwards. New Orleans Voodoo has very African and Native American roots. We can trace its origins to the first slaves that set foot in New Orleans, the Bambarans (refer to Hall, 1992). The religiomagickal system of gris gris, which became an integral part of New Orleans Voodoo and remains so today, is a strong example of religious and cultural continuity. We can trace some of our practices to the Congo, Bamboula and Calinda tribes in Africa. The name for Congo square comes from the African tribes with roots in the Congo region and is where some of the traditional dances come from. The gatherings in Congo square began in the early 1700s with the congregation of Africans, but had been considered a sacred place by the Houma Indians long before.
I think one thing that may be hindering understanding is getting stuck on the term New Orleans Voodoo. In my opinion, a better description would be Louisiana or Creole Voodoo because it would take people out of New Orleans proper and out of the French Quarter tourism that seems to be the only thing you are hanging onto in defining it. I have been slowly moving in that direction for quite some time. Even Marie Laveaux, who is considered the Mother of New Orleans Voodoo, and Jean Montenee, who is considered the father of New Orleans Voodoo, did not hold their rituals in the Frenchquarter. They were held on the bayous and in the swamps in secret locations so as not to be disturbed and to be in close communion with the spirits there. Based on these two individuals and their important role in the perpetuation, maintenance and representation of New Orleans today (from a functional perspective as well as symbolic - both valid interpretations of religion in the social sciences with theories to back it up), as well as serpent worship, we can trace New Orleans Voodoo to go as far back as the late 1700s. Marie Laveaux's and Dr. John's particular expression of Voodoo, which incorporated the worship of the African spirits, gris gris, serpent worship, and commercialization of working roots - with the add on of Catholic influence and working with the saints by Marie Laveaux - is the tradition in which I am familiar and this is how I define New Orleans Voodoo. There is one Creator being, a recognizable pantheon of spirits, a recognizable African component (spirits, dances, specific drum rhythms, gris gris, ancestor reverence) and Native American component (spirits, working with herbs and plants, ancestor reverence), and recognizable Catholic component (saints, psalms, Marionism) giving it a life much longer than the onset of "commercial hoodoo" in the 1930s or so.
In addition, there is community. It began with community but social and political circumstances highly influenced its expression from communal to individual and back to communal. The Code Noir had a lot to do with that as well as the role of Catholicism in Voodoo. You can find the code in its entirety here: http://www.crossroads-university.com/the-louisiana-black-code.html. People were tortured and killed for practicing anything other than Catholicism, which gave rise to some very ingenious Africans and people of African descent to cloak the Voodoo religion with Catholic iconography. It changed and adapted in order to survive. The roots of Catholicism in the religion served a very specific function.
So this is a mere portion of the foundation of my "confabulated blend" of New Orleans Voodoo and conjure. There is historical evidence, both written and oral - primarily oral because most slaves and Indians were not literate from a Western standpoint. From the standpoint of their cultures, however, they were highly literate with their own means of recording history and transmitting knowledges (check out Gardner's 1983 work on the theory of Multiple Intelligences).
I can appreciate you have spent some time in New Orleans. But I grew up there. I have swamped in the swamps and I learned how to commune with the spirits from a very early age of 5 by my aunt literally along the bayou. How I learned and what I learned can never be learned from a book or a visitor. This gives me a perspective you will never have, although you could come to appreciate and benefit if you were to step outside of your current line of thinking and allow yourself to. I don't want, need or expect your validation; however, I merely offer up my life experience as another source of information, one that has contributed to my understanding of Voodoo in New Orleans.
I have always maintained that Hoodoo looks different in New Orleans based on the cultural diversity and other regional differences, than it does in other areas of the country. For me, like my Mother and Father, the Spirits of Voodoo work alongside the spirits of the Roots and the ancestors. There is not the same compartmentalization that has occurred for many outside of New Orleans. And as always, I have qualified this as my personal experience and my observations of other local practitioners. I personally had no interactions with protestant Hoodoo practitioners in New Orleans. I am sure there probably are some there, but the majority of folks are Catholic, and history explains why this is so. That doesn't mean I am going to say your form of Hoodoo doesn't exist or is faux. Of course it exists; to say other wise would be arrogant, ignorant, and irresponsible. My request is that you offer me the same consideration.
I really need to hop off the computer here as I have appointments to get to the rest of the day and tomorrow. But there is so much more to the discussion, and again, my reason for writing you in the first place was because I was offended by your description of the religion and offended that you lumped me in with a couple of unscrupulous individuals. I am sure that would be upsetting to you if the tables were turned. By principle, all academic stuff aside, it is just not right to disrespect a religion simply because you do not agree with its expression or understand it. The people believe in Voodoo, those that practice it, they believe in its healing energy, they believe in the Spirits, they believe in one common Creator being, they believe in the Power of the roots, the dances, the drum rhythms, the rituals, and first and foremost, the ancestors. And, our temples are many.
This is the rest of that story, and I hope it helps to answer some questions about how a discussion of what constitutes religion cannot be based on one individual's perspective. Whenever we attempt to base the entire world on our personal worldviews, we will never see all there is to see.
People often refer to Yronwode as "scholarly." I disagree based on this type of attitude which informs her writings. For once, I would like to see some real academic references on those thousands of pages on the LM website. Alas, she is not an academic and so there are very few and that will likely not change. Being the child of academics does not an academic make. Given this fact, it would be refreshing to have other, real scholars' perspectives sought out and explored, such as Yvonne Chireau and Katrina Hazzard, for example. Louis Martine has some fabulous books about New Orleans Voodoo and anyone who sincerely wants to learn about the tradition, in addition to referring to my own writings are encouraged to read these books and journals:
Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System
Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition
Dr. John Montanee: A Grimoire: The Path of a New Orleans Loa, Resurrection in Remembrance
A Priest's Head, A Drummer's Hands: New Orleans Voodoo: Order of Service
Talking to God With Food: Questioning Animal Sacrifice
Hoodoo and Conjure: New Orleans (Volume 1)
A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau
The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook
Hoodoo and Conjure New Orleans 2014
Conjure in African American Society
These are but a few books available that address in part or whole the subject of New Orleans Voodoo and conjure. Note that I do not agree with everything in each of these books, but I don't have to and that is not the point. The point is to provide alternate sources of reliable information. The above works are either scholarly works or (New Orleans Voudou) practitioner written. Meaning, they are not based simply on blues songs and King Novelty catalogs and the "literary mining" of the Hyatt volumes.
In addition, it is noteworthy that in the above email Yronwode refers to her practice and understanding of hoodoo as "Christian folk magic." I think it would be a great thing for folks who equate hoodoo with Christian folk magic to refer to their practice as exactly that: Christian folk magic. Once you read all of the books I have recommended above, you will see that hoodoo, conjure and rootwork does not fall so neatly into the category of Christian folk magic. And for those of you from the LM camp who will invariably want to regurgitate the same old argument that hoodoo is not hoodoo without the bible, please do not bother. Again, I refer you to the above list of books to read about New Orleans Voudou. Let's gain an understanding for what New Orleans Voudou is before branching out into tired, old perspectives that only describe a portion of conjure, and certainly does not adequately describe that conjure which is an inherent part of New Orleans Voudou.
For an alternate read on the topic of hoodoo, conjure and rootwork, check out the website ConjureDoctors.com and the article What is Hoodoo, Conjure and Rootwork? There is also a rather extensive reference section with many links to full articles about hoodoo and conjure in general for those who are sincere in their desire to learn about southern conjure traditions. Check out the page: Conjure Doctor Articles.
The website is a work in progress, but has some great information with more being added all the time.