From a western perspective, there’s something dark and mystical about voodoo. It evokes certain imagery in our minds: witch doctors, pincushion dolls, hexes, amulets and other bizarre practices.

Let us just say right off the bat that most — if not all — of these portrayals are flat-out wrong. While voodoo seems like a superstitious and foreign concept to many of us, it’s actually a well-established system of religious beliefs and cultural practices that have grown across time.

What is voodoo?

Voodoo is a rich tradition that runs deep in both American culture and cultures around the world. It might seem natural to imagine voodoo practitioners as occultists or sorcerers, but these misguided notions don’t pay voodoo the respect it deserves.

Voodoo is a set of cultural beliefs, spiritual folkways and religious practices based off old African indigenous tradition. While regional varieties of voodoo have sprung up over the years, many of them share similar beliefs and practices:

-Respect for ancestors and veneration of the dead

-Regular communing with spirits

-Spiritual/physical healing through herbalism and ritual

-Use of charms, talismans and amulets to invoke the supernatural

-Belief that humanity should harmonize with nature

Of course, to summarize voodoo with a description like this would be the same as summarizing Christianity as a mere belief in God. The modern voodoo religion is complex, taking elements from African, Native American, European and Caribbean cultures and melding them into a style of religious practice unlike any other in the world.

Voodoo’s origin

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Voodoo has a long history in traditional African culture, but it really picked up steam during the 18th century when enslaved Africans were brought to French Louisiana.

As they integrated into the colony (today known as New Orleans), the slaves’ traditional African beliefs began to merge with the Catholic traditions of the local colonial populations. These slaves actually outnumbered the colonists by a significant number, allowing the indigenous African traditions to thrive without oppression.

The voodoo practice was bolstered further by the 1791 Haiti slave revolt that brought swaths of freed Haitian slaves to New Orleans’ shores. Haiti had its own form of voodoo (Voudou) that was integrated into the New Orleans melting pot, and as these cultural traditions built on one another, a complex system of religious practice and interconnected beliefs began to appear.

This foundation forms the basis of New Orleans voodoo as it exists today.

New Orleans voodoo today

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Those interested in getting a taste for voodoo needn’t look any farther than New Orleans. While the city may have fewer voodoo practitioners today than it did two hundred years ago, there’s no denying that New Orleans is still North America’s “hub” of voodoo culture. In fact, if there’s one thing New Orleans is famous for (aside from Mardi Gras), it has to be voodoo.

Today, you can find voodoo shops, practitioners and spiritualists throughout New Orleans. Although some pragmatists view the practices in the same vein as fortune-telling or tarot reading, active practitioners take it seriously. It’s not just some oddity or hobby. It’s as serious a religious belief today as it was in the 18th century.

If you’re in the area, you should take the opportunity to learn more about this truly unique practice. You don’t even need to leave Bourbon Street to see these locales for yourself. We recommend checking out the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum for a great place to start. Of course, you’d do well to go beyond the French Quarter if you really want to get a feel for local voodoo culture.