With the “New Orleans Voodoo Handbook” Kenaz Filan gives readers a guide not only to Voodoo as it is practiced in the city, but also the culture and history that has shaped it. Someone looking for a simple cookbook of spells and formulas will be sorely disappointed. The author being an initiate of Haitian Voudon knows that the way the religion is truly taught is through its stories, and this book has plenty of them. Part 1 of the book uses the first six chapters to cover the colorful history of Louisiana, and New Orleans. Beginning with La Salles Expedition, and covering topics such as the beginning of the industrial revolution, Jim Crow laws, and Hurricane Katrina along the way. This section also details the works of writers that have contributed to the study and preservation of local Voodoo lore, like Zora Neal Hurston with her seminal work “ Of Mules and Men”, and Robert Tallant author of “Voodoo in New Orleans”, and the novelization of Marie Laveau’s life, “Voodoo Queen”. The author manages to pack a lot of information into the first 56 pages of this book, and gives the reader a real feel for the roots of Voodoo in the Crescent City.
Part 2 of the handbook covers the various colorful traditions of New Orleans. There is a great primer on Mardi Gras, the party that the city has become famous (or infamous) for. You’ll learn not only the Roman and pagan history of the festival, but also how the celebration as we know it today has come to be. From there, Filan moves on to music with great stories about Dixie Land Jazz, Delta Blues, and Zydeco. Of course no book about New Orleans, Voodoo or otherwise would complete without discussing the cuisine that is made there. Covering local fare such as Pralines, Crawfish, Coffee with Chicory, and my personal favorite Gumbo, you really get a taste (bad pun intended) for the local flavor. The food many not seem to have much to do with Voodoo on the surface, but dig a little deeper and there is a correlation. Much like the rootwork that took shape in the city, the food of Louisiana took whatever they had available and made magic not only for the individual, but for the community as well. To this day, even though I learned some of my conjure formulas from my mother she is still more proud of, and secretive about her Gumbo recipe. That should tell you something right there. This part of the book also acts a guide to many of the local businesses and institutions that help preserve the local Voodoo customs and add character to the city. Included are places such as The Voodoo Spiritual Temple, Island of Salvation Botanica,and Boutique du Vampyre (if you look in the background of a documentary on “Real-life Vampires shot by ABC in 2009 you will see a certain conjurer standing in the background out front of the boutique). Part 2 ends with a section about “Priests, Priestesses, Houngans, Mambos, and Chicken Men” that have graced the city over the years. This includes the Legendary Dr. John, the Seven Sisters, and Fred “Chicken Man” Staten. I found the part about the Seven Sisters to be one of the best parts in this section as there is very little information on these legendary sisters that is readily available.
Parts 3 and 4 of this book cover the Spirits and practices of New Orleans respectively. While I was surprised at the omission of certain Lwa and spirits such as Ghede, I understand that this a book on Voodoo and it’s spirits that are unique to that region and not those that are also traditionally given service in Haiti. The Spirits sections give lore and details for petitioning and developing relationships with figures such as the Virgin Mary, Li Grand Zombi, Papa Labas, Black Hawk, and folk Saints like St. Expedite, and St. Marron. There is plenty of prayers, and information on offerings to get you started working with these powerful spirits. I already plan on making petitions to some of these spirits real soon myself. Even though the Ghede may have not been talked about, Importance of the dead, and the city’s cemeteries is covered. The practices section also briefly covers the use of oils, candles, creation of mojo/gris gris, and spirit dolls. The novice will find some useful recipes for oils and basic info on using candles but there isn’t much here for the experienced practitioner. Even still the information on the roots of these practices is as important to know as the how so I appreciated that aspect of this chapter. There is also a brief look at divination but with very little instruction. The book ends with a guide for those visiting the city, and stories of citizens of note that have called the city home. There are great tips for dining for those of expensive taste and others on a budget. Of course Music venues and the legendary cemeteries are covered for tourist as well.
Make no mistake about Kenaz Filan’s , ”The New Orleans Handbook” is the book that many have been waiting on in regards to the subject. It is a must have for anyone interested in New Orleans Voodoo either as a solitary practitioner or folklorist. I personally don’t think it quite hits the mark as a “handbook” but it is a great primer that his given a lot to go on, and more places to visit when I make my way to “N’awlins” this November for the Folk Magic Festival.