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THE NEW ORLEANS THAT WAS

“STORIES OF OLD NEW ORLEANS”

New Orleans is a city where memories of powerful ancestors endure generation after generation. One such ancestor who has left a potent and enduring mark on the old city is the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveaux.

There are literally hundreds of legends about this great woman of mystery and all have become part of her legacy.

Presented here is an account written while many who could recall living memories of the real woman were still alive to testify about her. It is reproduced with relevance to the subject, as the author wrote it.


From Stories of New Orleans, by Andre Cajun, “Sage of the Bayous” © 1957,
submitted by A. Pustanio.

“Marie Le Veau”

“…One of the most famous great open Voodoo ceremonies of the Western world was staged by Marie le Veau.

Upon a throne of living reptiles, Mare le Veau’s amber-skinned body, arrayed in a short skirt of fig leaves, swayed like the hanging reptiles draping her make-shift throne. Her round, firm breast, cause of many a duel – rose and fell in slow, even, tantalizing rhythm. Her arms were limp and gently swaying. Her dainty feet rested upon the back of a huge alligator with mouth propped open and suffering the tortures of Hades.

With head bent back Marie le Veau gazed, her large brown eyes just beyond the striking reptiles, whose poisonous fangs came within inches of her enchanting face.

The hour was late. Neither moon or stars were shining. Large gourds cut to resemble grotesque faces cast their pale yellow light upon the thousand or more Negroes gathered before her throne in Congo Square. As they kneeled, bowed and perspired, their weird, mournful chant echoed and re-echoed against the swamp on the west and the river on the east, filling the white citizenry of New Orleans with an uncanny feeling.

Somewhere in the Old French Quarter, a clock tolled the hour of midnight. The Negroes came to their feet in time to see the spirit of Marie le Veau, in the form of a white bird take wing into the distant ocean of darkness for its rendezvous with the great Zombi. Her spirit had barely departed when Marie began to groan in a terrible pain. The Negroes believing an evil spirit was attempting to possess the heart of their queen, waved their arms, jumped and shouted until Marie raised her right hand and the turmoil ceased as if by magic.

Overhead the Negroes, heard a wild rushing noise. Looking up they beheld three great black birds with yellow tipped wings circling madly above their heads, then rising to disappear into the black depth of the night.

It was in the Nineteenth Century in Congo Square in New Orleans that observers heard the beat of the bamboulas, the wail of the banzas and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years. This square located across Rampart Street on the back side of the French Quarter was in use as a gathering place for the residents of New Orleans almost since the city began. It had been an area outside of the fortified walls of the original city where Native Americans and later slaves had sold their wares in an open market by the Bayou St. John, the major avenue for transportation of goods into the city.



As the Negroes held their breath, between Marie’s right arm and body there came a nine foot African python. Its gorgeous colored skin, recently oiled, radiated the flickering yellow light like an immense cluster of diamonds, as it moved rather uncertainly forward.

Unnoticed, Marie directed the reptile’s course around her trim waist until its large, flat, cold and ugly head lay snugly between her warm breasts. The long forked tongue caressed her chin a time or two and then relaxed, allowing its coil to rest upon her beautifully formed hips. Marie gave vent to a long sigh and gain the Negroes shouted and jumped with joy, for their queen protected by the giant reptile could not now be possessed by an evil spirit.

Before her throne of dry, cypress tree limbs, coated with powdered white shell, decorated with dead moss and palm fronds, stood the altar. Twelve feet in length, three feet wide. It was floored with poles tied together of strips of willow tree bark, topped with grass and dirt. Facing east in the center of the altar was a medium sized stuffed alligator with mouth propped open. Into the open jaws the Negroes trembling with fear cast their free will offerings. To the right of the alligator was a stuffed snake. To the left a small plant, the Tree of Life. Beneath the plant was a small doll like image of a woman representing the weakness of man. A shelf a foot high and equally as wide extended the full length of the altar. In the center of the shelf stood the ancient mystic Abyssinian number FIVE. Along the shelf, left to right were five flat mud cakes piled one upon the other representing the five continents; five dry gourds of water representing the five oceans; five piles of dirt representing the five soils; five mud cups representing the five original poisons, and the square and compass the two tools the great Zombi used in dividing the earth from the waters and with which he used to extract the rib from man to create woman and to make each life true to its specie.

Along the altar the Negroes placed their gifts; sacks of corn, sides of meat, onions, potatoes, fowls – live and cooked – preserves, cakes, pies, jars of honey, boiled crayfish, thistle salad, praline candy, fresh fruit and many other delicacies. The altar piled high and no more in sight. Marie clapped her hands and the Negroes looked up and saw her with five birds in her left hand, four blue-hays and a red bird. The red bird she sent to the land of evil spirits to tell the Devil that his services for the night were not needed. He might, however, for a short while send a spirit to sell his wicked charms to the people. The four jays she sent to the four corners of the earth to warn the keepers of these corners an evil spirit would be abroad in the land for some time during the night. The jays had no more than departed when from somewhere in the dismal swamp, west of Congo Square came the rat-a-ta-tat of an African drum. A nerve racking noise which chilled and rechilled the white citizen’s blood…

To this hellish sound all New Orleans listened. The Negroes understanding its meaning, also listened with eagerness. It told them they were to be visited by an evil spirit who would offer for sale the devil’s finest and quick acting charms.

The drum beats ceased as abruptly as they began. The Negroes relaxed and beheld before the altar, a tall, slim cowled figure arrayed in black. “An evil spirit” they whispered, as their blood chilled and rechilled. Marie raised an arm and the Negroes’ heathen blood came back to normal.

The cowled figure looked up at Marie. She smiled and it turned towards the Negroes. In a voice sounding like low, distant thunder it said, “Listen! The Deb’l, he say fo’ me to tell yo’ dis. All yo’ what got muder, hate, envy, arson, stealing, lying, rape, jealousy, distrust, vanity or any other kind ob pisen in yo’ hearts, meet me on de St. Ann street side of de square and get fo yo’self the kind of charm yo’ needs to do de work yo’ wonts done. Kase de time am short. ‘Av yo money ready. De Deb’l, he don’t do nuffen but de barrel head business.”

Again the drum beats split the night cutting short whatever else the cowled figure might have said. As the Negroes listened in stupefied wonder, their blood chilling, the cowled figure ducked under the altar, grabbing a half-filled grain sack, swung it over his shoulder and departed for the forementioned side of the Square. Quickly, a previously placed barrel was rolled out, stood on end, over which was cast a black goat hide, and there the figure stood, waiting for the drum to end its hated beat. No more than it did, the Negroes rushed over and for thirty minutes this evil spirit did a black market business…

The rat-a-tat-tat of the far distant drum ended the evil spirit’s business and the Negroes like frightened sheep ran to the throne of Marie, who with the old familiar wave of the hand ended the horrible noise and the Negroes spread out some more.

In good English, Marie announced: “The spirit of the great Zombi will soon be with us. And to please him, the girls are going to do his favorite dance – the Congo or Bamboula!”


…The dance imitated the movements of the African python both on the ground and among the trees for some twenty minutes. The dancers with one eye on the crowd and the other upon Marie, saw her soft hands come together and they broke through the circle the Negroes had formed to make a get-a-way, or be caught by some fleet-footed male. The spectators jumped and shouted with joy and the white citizens again felt their blood chill. Marie let them shout until they fell from sheer exhaustion.

…Marie dismissed them with the reminder never to forget the 19th day of June and to celebrate it with a Voodoo ceremony…”

 

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