19th Century New Orleans Superstitions
This article is based on extracts from a historically interesting article on New Orleans Vodou beliefs, published by Lafcadio Hearn in the Harper’s weekly of December 25th, 1886 and republished in An American miscellany, vol. II, (1924). It was entitled: NEW ORLEANS SUPERSTITIONS. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, was a Japanese writer, born on in Greece (Lefkada). His mother was born to a Greek mother and Irish father and is best remembered for his books about Japanese culture, especially his collections of legends and ghost stories, such as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. In the United States, he is also known for his writings about New Orleans, based on his decade-long stay there. It must be said that the original text does not make a clear difference between Hoodoo and and Voduo or ‘Voudoo’ as it was spelled, while these are different systems. Vodou is basically a nature religion, while Hoodoo is mainly a body that encompasses sorcery and African rooted folklore and rootwork.
The confusion – especially within the Louisiana Vodou tradition – comes mostly from the fact that in both Hoodoo and Vodou magic, rootwork and folklore there is a lot of overlap. However the author reveals an interesting view on the subject as in his observation the New Orleans ‘Voudoo’ of the late 19th century was not the snake worship based religion, but a collection of magical practises and beliefs practised by people who had little understanding of the original African religious rites. Lafcadio Hearn writes “As a religion–an imported faith–Voudooism in Louisiana is really dead; the rites of its serpent worship are forgotten..” and “..for what is to-day called voudooism in New Orleans means, not an African cultus, but a curious class of negro practices, some possibly derived from it, and others which bear resemblance to the magic of the Middle Ages.”
Hearn, however wrote as an outsider and almost one and a half century later, it is difficult to judge whether his conclusion was too fast and too radically stated or not. An important fact Hearn may have overlooked is the use of the Catholic faith by Vodou practisioners as a camouflage, shielding of their social existence from white man’s racist brutalities.
Unlike their Haitian counterparts, the slaves in Louisiana did not rebel in great numbers against their slave-masters. Instead, Vodou followers used amulets and charms in their daily lives. The people used them mainly for healing, protection, guidance, and to keep a connection with their loved ones. Some charms were used to hurt enemies, and involved the deceptions of curses. The slaves would cover up their Vodou practices by being very involved in the Catholic Church and making many of the Vodou spirits compatible with Catholic Saints.
Whatever his ideas about the subject of Vodou in New Orleans, Hearn – more famous for his publications on Japan and the supernatural – had a talent for collecting stuf belonging to the unusual, strange or paranormal, while delving into folkloristic habits and traditions. As a conservator he pinned down some interesting data during his stay in New Orleans:
The fear of what are styled “Voudoo charms” is much more widely spread in Louisiana than any one who had conversed only with educated residents might suppose; and the most familiar superstition of this class is the belief in what I might call pillow magic, which is the supposed art of causing wasting sicknesses or even death by putting certain objects into the pillow of the bed in which the hated person sleeps. Feather pillows are supposed to be particularly well adapted to this kind of witchcraft. It is believed that by secret spells a “Voudoo” can cause some monstrous kind of bird or nondescript animal to shape itself into being out of the pillow feathers–like the tupilek of the Esquimau iliseenek (witchcraft.) It grows very slowly, and by night only; but when completely formed, the person who has been using the pillow dies.
Another practice of pillow witchcraft consists in tearing a living bird asunder–usually a cock–and putting portions of the wings into the pillow. A third form of the black-art is confined to putting certain charms or fetiches–consisting of bones, hair, feathers, rags, strings, or some fantastic combination of these and other trifling objects–into any sort of a pillow used by the party whom it is desired to injure.
Some say that putting grains of corn into a child’s pillow “prevents it from growing any more”; others declare that a bit of cloth in a grown person’s pillow will cause wasting sickness; but different parties questioned by me gave each a different signification to the use of similar charms. Putting an open pair of scissors under the pillow before going to bed is supposed to insure a pleasant sleep in spite of fetiches; but the surest way to provide against being “hoodooed,” as American residents call it, is to open one’s pillow from time to time. If any charms are found, they must be first sprinkled with salt, then burned.
A Spanish resident told me, writes Hearn, that her eldest daughter had been unable to sleep for weeks, owing to a fetich that had been put into her pillow by a spiteful colored domestic. After the object had been duly exorcised and burned, all the young lady’s restlessness departed. A friend of mine living in one of the country parishes once found a tow string in his pillow, into the fibers of which a great number of feather stems had either been introduced or had introduced themselves. He wished to retain it as a curiosity, but no sooner did he exhibit it to some acquaintance than it was denounced as a Voudoo “trick,” and my friend was actually compelled to burn it in the presence of witnesses. Everybody knows or ought to know that feathers in pillows have a natural tendency to cling and form clots or lumps of more or less curious form, but the discovery of these in some New Orleans households is enough to create a panic. They are viewed as incipient Voudoo tupileks. The sign of the cross is made over them by Catholics, and they are promptly committed to the flames.
Pillow magic alone, however, is far from being the only recognized form of maleficent witchcraft. Placing charms before the entrance of a house or room, or throwing them over a wall into a yard, is believed to be a deadly practice. When a charm is laid before a room door or hall door, oil is often poured on the floor or pavement in front of the threshold. It is supposed that whoever crosses an oil line falls into the power of the Voudoos. To break the oil charm, sand or salt should be strewn upon it. Only a few days before writing this article a very intelligent Spaniard told me that shortly after having discharged a dishonest servant he found before his bedroom door one evening a pool of oil with a charm lying in the middle of it, and a candle burning near it. The charm contained some bones, feathers, hairs, and rags–all wrapped together with a string–and a dime. No superstitious person would have dared to use that dime; but my friend, not being superstitious, forthwith put it into his pocket.
The presence of that coin I can only attempt to explain by calling attention to another very interesting superstition connected with New Orleans fetichism. It is believed that in order to make an evil charm operate it is necessary to sacrifice something. Wine and cake are left occasionally in dark rooms, or candies are scattered over the sidewalk, by those who want to make their fetich hurt somebody. If food or sweetmeats are thus thrown away, they must be abandoned without a parting glance; the witch or wizard must not look back while engaged in the sacrifice.
Scattering dirt before a door, or making certain figures on the wall of a house with chalk, or crumbling dry leaves with the fingers and scattering the fragments before a residence, are also forms of a maleficent conjuring which sometimes cause serious annoyance. Happily the conjurers are almost as afraid of the counter-charms as the most superstitious persons are of the conjuring. An incident which occurred recently in one of the streets of the old quarter known as “Spanish Town” afforded me ocular proof of the fact.
Through malice or thoughtlessness, or possibly in obedience to secret orders, a young black girl had been tearing up some leaves and scattering them on the sidewalk in front of a cottage occupied by a French family. Just as she had dropped the last leaf the irate French woman rushed out with a broom and a handful of salt, and began to sweep away the leaves, after having flung salt both upon them and upon the little negress. The latter actually screamed with fright, and cried out, “Oh, pas jeté plis disel après moin, madame! pas bisoin jeté disel après moin; mo pas pé vini icite encore” (Oh, madam, don’t throw any more salt after me; you needn’t throw any more salt after me; I won’t come here any more.)
The Frizzle hen
Another strange belief connected with these practices was well illustrated by a gift made to my friend Professor William Henry by a servant for whom he had done some trifling favor. The gift consisted of a “frizzly hen”–one of those funny little fowls whose feathers all seem to curl. “Mars’r Henry, you keep dat frizzly hen, an’ ef eny niggers frow eny conjure in your yard, dat frizzly hen will eat de conjure.” Some say, however, that one is not safe unless he keeps two frizzly hens.
Salt and brooms
Salt was greatly feared if it was thrown at you. In addition to throwing salt, the incantatory use of a broom was also feared. The black man’s terror of a broom is of very ancient date-it may have an African origin. It was commented upon by Moreau de Saint-Méry in his work on San Domingo, published in 1196. He wrote that it in particular irritated the African to have a broom passed over any part of his body. It was believed that that the act shortend ones life.
Very similar ideas concerning the broom linger in New Orleans. To point either end of a broom at a person is deemed bad luck; and many an ignorant man would instantly knock down or violently abuse the party who should point a broom at him.
Moreover, the broom is supposed to have mysterious power as a means of getting rid of people. “If you are pestered by visitors whom you would wish never to see again, sprinkle salt on the floor after they go, and sweep it out by the same door through which they have gone, and they will never come back.” To use a broom in the evening is bad luck: balayer le soir, on balaye sa fortune (to sweep in the evening is to sweep your good luck away), remains a well-quoted proverb.
I do not know of a more mysterious disease than muscular atrophy in certain forms, yet it is by no means uncommon either in New Orleans or in the other leading cities of the United States. But in New Orleans, the victim of muscular atrophy is often believed to be the victim of Voudooism. A notion is prevalent that black witches possess knowledge of a secret poison which may terminate life instantly or cause a slow “withering away,” according as the dose is administered.
Mental aberration is also said to be caused by the administration of poisons whereof a few specialists are alleged to possess the secret. In short, some very superstitious persons of both races live in perpetual dread of imaginary Voudoos, and fancy that the least ailment from which they suffer is the work of sorcery. It is very doubtful whether any knowledge of those animal or vegetable poisons which leave no trace of their presence in the blood, and which may have been known to some slaves of African birth, still lingers in Louisiana, wide-spread as is the belief to the contrary.
Something of the African, or at least of the San Domingan, worship of the cock seems to have been transplanted hither by the blacks, and to linger in New Orleans under various metamorphoses. A charm to retain the affections of a lover consists in tying up the legs of the bird to the head, and plunging the creature alive into a vessel of gin or other spirits. Tearing the live bird asunder is another cruel charm, by which some negroes believe that a sweetheart may become magically fettered to the man who performs the quartering. Here, as in other parts of the world, the crowing hen is killed, the hooting of the owl presages death or bad luck, and the crowing of the cock by day presages the arrival of company. The wren (roitelet) must not be killed: c’est zozeau bon Dié (it is the good God’s bird)–a belief, probably of European origin.
It is believed dangerous to throw hair-combings away instead of burning them, because birds may weave them into their nests and while the nest remains the person to whom the hair belonged will have a continual headache. It is bad luck to move a cat from one house to another; seven years’ bad luck to kill a cat; and the girl who steps, accidentally or otherwise, on a cat’s tail need not expect to be married the same year. The apparition of a white butterfly means good news. The neighing of a horse before one’s door is bad luck. When a fly bothers one very persistently, one may expect to meet an acquaintance who has been absent many years.
There are many superstitions about marriage, which seem to have a European origin, but are not less interesting on that account. “Twice a bridesmaid, never a bride,” is a proverb which needs no comment. The bride must not keep the pins which fastened her wedding dress. The husband must never take off his wedding ring: to take it off will insure him bad luck of some kind. If a girl who is engaged accidentally lets a knife fall, it is a sign that her lover is coming. Fair or foul weather upon her marriage day augurs a happy or unhappy married life.
The superstitions connected with death may be all imported, but, Hearst writes that he has never been able to find a foreign origin for some of them. It is bad luck to whistle or hum the air that a band plays at a funeral. If a funeral stops before your house, it means that the dead wants company. It is bad luck to cross a funeral procession, or to count the number of carriages in it; if you do count them, you may expect to die after the expiration of as many weeks as there were carriages at the funeral. If at the cemetery there be any unusual delay in burying the dead, caused by any unlooked for circumstances, such as the tomb proving too small to admit the coffin, it is a sign that the deceased is selecting a companion from among those present, and one of the mourners must soon die. It is bad luck to carry a spade through a house. A bed should never be placed with its foot pointing toward the street door, for corpses leave the house feet foremost. It is bad luck to travel with a priest; this idea, says Hearn, seems to me of Spanish importation; and I am inclined to attribute a similar origin to the strange tropical superstition about the banana, which I obtained, nevertheless, from an Italian. You must not cut a banana, but simply break it with the fingers, because in cutting it you cut the cross. It does not require a very powerful imagination to discern in a severed section of the fruit the ghostly suggestion of a crucifixion.
Some other Creole superstitions are equally characterized by naïve beauty. Never put out with your finger the little red spark that tries to linger on the wick of a blown-out candle: just so long as it burns, some soul in purgatory enjoys rest from torment. Shooting-stars are souls escaping from purgatory: if you can make a good wish three times before the star disappears, the wish will be granted. When there is sunshine and rain together, a colored nurse will tell the children, “Gadé! djabe apé batte so femme.” (Look! the devil’s beating his wife!)
Mixed superstition of possibly Creole or other origines
Hearn concludes his essay with selections from a list of superstitions which he finds widely spread, not citing them as of indubitable creole origin, but simply calling attention to their prevalence in New Orleans, and leaving the comparative study of them to more specialized folklorists.
Turning the foot suddenly in walking means bad or good luck. If the right foot turns, it is bad luck; if the left, good. This superstition seems African, according to a statement made by Moreau de Saint-Méry. Some reverse the conditions, making the turning of the left foot bad luck. It is also bad luck to walk about the house with one shoe on and one shoe off. or as a creole acquaintance explained it to me “c’est appeler sa mère ou son père dans le tombeau” (It is calling one’s mother or one’s father into the grave). An itching in the right palm means coming gain; in the left, coming loss.
Never leave a house by a different door from that by which you entered it; it is “carrying away the good luck of the place.” Never live in a house you build before it has been rented for at least a year. When an aged person repairs his or her house, he or she is soon to die. Never pass a child through a window; it stops his growth. Stepping over a child does the same; therefore, whoever takes such a step inadvertently must step back again to break the evil spell.
Never tilt a rocking-chair when it is empty. Never tell a bad dream before breakfast, unless you want it “to come true”; and never pare the nails on Monday morning before taking a cup of coffee. A funny superstition about windows is given Hearn in this note by a friend of him: “Il ne faut pas faire passer un enfant par la fenêtre, car avant un an il y en aura un autre” (A child must not be passed through a window, for if so passed you will have another child before the lapse of a year.) This proverb, of course, interests only those who desire small families, and as a general rule Creoles are proud of large families, and show extraordinary affection toward their children.
If two marriages are celebrated simultaneously, one of the husbands will die. Marry at the time of the moon’s waning and your good luck will wane also. If two persons think and express the same thought at the same time, one of them will die before the year passes. To chop up food in a pot with a knife means a dispute in the house. If you have a ringing in your ears, some person is speaking badly of you; call out the names of all whom you suspect and when the ringing stops at the utterance of a certain name, you know who the party is. If two young girls are combing the hair of a third at the same time, it may be taken for granted that the youngest of the three will soon die. If you want to make it stop raining, plant a cross in the middle of the yard and sprinkle it with salt. The red-fish has the print of St. Peter’s fingers on its tail. If water won’t boil in the kettle, there may be a toad or a toad’s egg in it. Never kill a spider in the afternoon or evening, but always kill the spider unlucky enough to show himself early in the morning, for the old French proverb says:
Araignée du matin–chagrin;
Araignée du midi–plaisir;
Araignée du soir–espoir
(A spider seen in the morning is a sign of grief; a spider seen at noon, of joy; a spider seen in the evening, of hope).
You may also like to read: