Ancestor Reverence in New Orleans

While the world held its breath to see what midnight on the Solstice held, I watched the bright constellations in the country sky, listened to the toads and the scuffle and scratching of chickens and turkeys in the yard. In mid-December my man and I moved from my beloved Pacific Northwest to the damp and alive southern Louisiana country, and after two weeks spent there, watching the Moon through the swaying Spanish moss (the traditional stuffing for voodoo dolls) draped from the southern live oaks, moved into our new home (but very old house) just outside the French Quarter in the old, creaking, colorful New Orleans.

Unfortunately, in the oppressively conservative, racist, homophobic, Christian, fearful, judgmental, hostile, and ignorant environment of the small rural Southern town in which we spent the Sabbat, Midwinter went unrecognized except for some meditation and prayers. Hostility and hatred were so deeply rooted into the culture there that it was difficult to believe that brown-skinned people had ever lived happily there (as a mixed race individual, I certainly didn’t), that humanity had ever lived harmoniously there, that spirits of place and old gods had ever been honored there, that the land had ever been revered there and not just treated as an enormous waste bin and giving tree (none of the inhabitants seemed conscious of the irony of having these two opinions simultaneously).

In total contrast, the French Quarter beams with positivity as bright as the colors of the buildings lining the 300-year-old cobblestone streets. Voodoo and herbalism are ways of life; the locals are as concerned with the development and thriving of their spirits as much as with their jobs or any other aspect of their modern lives; the culture welcomes and invites such self-development through religion and spirituality, art, music, food, and any other form of expression imaginable; and life here rolls with enough confidence and respect for the spirit that it avoids the bustle of most cities.

Once we had settled into our new shelter, had smudged and sained away what we could of the negativity of the suicidal alcoholic who was its last inhabitant (not enough, though; this room needs a thorough spiritual cleaning, on the menu for tonight’s Dark Moon), and had spent a week adventuring and looking for work, we took a stroll on a gray day that promised afternoon rain to Saint Louis Cemetery, the closest graveyard, only a ten-minute walk from our little hole-in-the-wall home, to honor the local dead, those who birthed and enjoyed the Cajun food and Cajun French, who heard the jazz-thump tunnel down the colorful streets before us, and whose bodies now rest in magnificent brick and marble vaults. The dead are buried above ground in New Orleans out of Spanish and French tradition, and because the water table is so high. New Orleans claims to be the most haunted city in the United States, and Saint Louis Cemetery is particularly renowned for being the graveyard where Marie Laveau’s tomb resides (and not in the Glapion family crypt, a rumor that began with the late Mayor Morial’s grandson, which is actually the tomb of a granddaughter who walked a left-hand path).

We Listeners all know the Dead speak, and they aren’t reserved about talking to those of us who are willing to hear them, either. I felt invigorated in this place where I could hear the Dead whispering from behind stone and wrought-iron and under beautifully eerie statues. But it is the Keepers of the Crossroads who help us gain the voice to return their whispers. Hekate walks before me down the dark cavernous tunnels into the Underworld, her torches casting long shadows down the bowels of the Otherworld. “I call Hekate of the Crossroads, lovely goddess where three roads meet.” Papa Legba invites those cunning enough to dance through the twists and turns of his crossroads tricks to walk le Gran Chemen, the Great Road, and find the gods, dead, and spirits along the path. “Little good Legba, open the door for me!” Old Raven and Mother Crow watch from above, peering down from old weathered trees scratching at the rain-cloud sky, and after they nibble on the seeds we toss on the dirt for them, invites us to don our own coat of feathers and fly to the other side with them. Manannán Mac Lir keeps watch over the wet entrances to that world, and when we’re ready, he’ll invite us aboard his boat of gold. These are my guides in the dark, the first names I call and the first ones I honor after the warm Earth and the web of the Universe. Win their favor and the gates are open.

I never enter a graveyard without gifts, and I never cross the hedge without having given them, either–the Universe depends upon a gift for a gift. The faceless graves in New Orleans are the ones secretly given the most reverence, the ones without headstones that most cemetery-wanderers don’t give a second look. Here in New Orleans, toys, flowers, food, water, liquor, make-up, keys, Mardi Gras beads, candles, gris gris bags, and hundreds of other little objects smother these unmarked graves, whose headstones have been stolen by voodoo practitioners who will beseech these predecessors of their tradition as messengers between them and God. They climb over the wrought-iron gates and crawl into the cemetery at midnight to perform sacrifice and mark the tombs with three crosses–Power, Spirit, and Unity, as well as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost–but I prefer to burn some myrrh, and leave a whisper in the wind: “Remember us as we remember you.”

For more pictures of New Orleans’ beautifully eerie cemeteries, check out my Flickr.

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3 comments

  1. Beautiful. You made my heart ache, Sionnach! I’ve always dreamed of visiting NOLA, and have never been, and yet my dreams, for as long as I remember, have taken me there. Your writing was sweet, vivid, and gave me a perfect vision of what it was like. Thank you for your window into this place. Oh, can’t thank you enough. Blessings to you!

    1. Aww, oh my goodness, what a beautiful reply, thank you! New Orleans is like a place outside of time and space, like its own magical country. I definitely encourage you to make it this way! But in the meantime I will continue to write about it in hope that you can continue to gain a little window into this timeless town; hopefully I manage to do this beautiful place justice. (: Blessings to you, too! Your writing is always sweet and vivid. You write plainly and with such honest vulnerability that I tend to get lost in your words, and your comments are always so kind, thoughtful, and inspiring. Thank you!

      1. Oh, wow, thank you! I try my writing best.

        Yes, please, do continue to write more about being in NOLA. I have a very close friend there at this time. Wish I could be there to see him, but, alas, tis not to be. He’s too busy of a lad. It makes the heart sore.

        Bid the Lwa beautiful blessings and love from me! (especially Papa Ghede, he’s my favorite, or is it I’m his? Never can quite tell… ;-) )

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