In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Voodoo, Its Roots, and Its Relatives

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Works that Defined Stereotypes
  • Works on Art and Literature
  • Memoirs and Biographies
  • Other Specialized Topics

African American Studies Voodoo, Its Roots, and Its Relatives
Jeffrey E. Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0133


Voodoo, also known as Voudou, is an African diasporic religion that developed in the Mississippi River Valley. While it was most prominent in New Orleans, reports also describe its practice in St. Louis and St. Joseph, Missouri. It may well have existed elsewhere in the Mississippi Valley and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Influenced by the traditional faiths of multiple African regions, including Senegambia, the Bight of Benin, and West Central Africa, its most direct ancestor was the Vodun religion of the Fon and related Gbe-speaking peoples of what are now Benin and Togo. Practitioners of these faiths, who arrived in the French Louisiana colony via the slave trade, interacted with each other as well as Native Americans and white Catholics beginning in the 18th century. Following the United States’ purchase of Louisiana, massive waves of Anglo-Americans began to arrive, outnumbering the Creole inhabitants of the area within a few decades. They brought with them their own enslaved workers who practiced a form of supernaturalism most commonly known as conjure. Another major arrival were refugees from the Haitian Revolution whose migration peaked in 1809–1810 when their numbers approximately doubled the population of New Orleans. With them came the religion of Vodou, which had helped spark the Haitian Revolution and would contribute strongly to the development of Voodoo in the Mississippi River Valley. By the mid-1800s, Voodoo had developed an initiatory religion, members of which served a variety of deities, including a serpent spirit known as Blanc Dani and the guardian of entrances called Papa Lébat. Believers held that these divinities corresponded to specific Catholic saints. Dani, for instance, was St. Michael, while Lébat was St. Peter. The spirits of the dead were likewise important to the faith, especially as the sources of power behind the magical aspect of the religion, known as hoodoo. Practitioners performed most of the religion’s rituals with some degree of secrecy, but a notable exception was the St. John’s Eve ceremony that happened each June 23. By the mid-19th century, these commonly took place on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and involved the arrival by barge of a presiding queen, followed by dancing and feasting. These annual events not only attracted worshippers but sometimes drew substantial numbers of tourists. Following extensive persecution under the guise of preventing illegal slave assembly, putting a stop to fraudulent promises of supernatural aid, or even halting ceremonies designed to help the Confederacy win the Civil War, the religion’s adherents dwindled in numbers until the faith probably disappeared as a living tradition in the mid-20th century. Even today, many view Voodoo as little more than malevolent magic. In recent decades, however, attempts to revive the historical religion have flourished in New Orleans, inspired in part by the positive depiction of the faith pioneered by Zora Neale Hurston and her admirers. Most adherents base their practice on a form of Haitian Vodou modified to match what is known of 19th-century Voodoo.

General Overviews

There are a wide range of general overviews of the religion. Beginners to the study of New Orleans Voodoo can benefit from the short works Bodin 1990, Haskins 1990, and Schmitt and O’Neill 2019. The most literary treatment of the religion is Hurston 1935, which is itself based on the scholarly Hurston 1931. The most exhaustive work on the subject, however, is Dillon 1937–1941, which remains unpublished. Anderson 2024 aims to provide a complete account of the religion’s theology, ritual, and ministers. Roberts 2015 is an interesting scholarly examination that argues Voodoo survives in the ostensibly Christian Spiritual churches. Works on Voodoo outside New Orleans are sparse, but two scholarly 19th-century essays, Owen 1892 and Owen 1898, have preserved at least the outlines of the faith in Missouri.

  • Anderson, Jeffrey E. Voodoo: An African American Religion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2024.

    This work aims to be the most complete history of Voodoo in the Mississippi River Valley. In addition to tracing its development, it also includes a compilation of all extant chants and songs from Voodoo ceremonies of the area.

  • Bodin, Ron. Voodoo: Past and Present. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1990.

    This brief work sketches the history of Voodoo in New Orleans and provides a selection of primary sources of value to researchers.

  • Dillon, Catherine. “Voodoo, 1937–1941.” Louisiana Writers’ Project, folders 118, 317, and 319. Northwestern State University of Louisiana, Watson Memorial Library, Cammie G. Henry Research Center, Federal Writers’ Project.

    Prepared by a Louisiana Writers’ Project worker during the pre–World War II era, it is the most comprehensive examination of New Orleans Voodoo. It has remained unpublished, largely because of its overt racism.

  • Haskins, James. Voodoo and Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft as Revealed by Actual Practitioners. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1990.

    This general overview of the religion as well as African American supernaturalism in general focuses on the working of magic. Though written for a popular audience, its author was a scholar of Black history.

  • Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore 44 (1931): 317–417.

    DOI: 10.2307/535394

    This lengthy essay was the product of Hurston’s first foray into the study of Voodoo, which she calls hoodoo. Scholars have noted it is marred by plagiarism and fabrication. It remains a valuable source both for the information it contains and because it is an early example of a positive interpretation of the religion.

  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1935.

    Hurston’s best-known book, it incorporates much of her earlier article alongside Black folktales.

  • Owen, Mary Alicia. “Among the Voodoos.” In The International Folk-lore Congress 1891: Papers and Transactions. Edited by Joseph Jacobs and Alfred Trüber Nutt, 230–248. London: David Nutt, 1892.

    The work of a Missouri folklorist is one of only two scholarly studies of Mississippi Valley Voodoo in Missouri.

  • Owen, Mary Alicia. “Voodooism.” In The International Folk-lore Congress of the World’s Columbian Exposition, July 1893. Archives of the International Folk-Lore Association, Vol. 1. Edited by Helen Wheeler Bassett and Frederick Starr, 313–326. Chicago: Charles H. Sergel, 1898.

    Owen’s second article on Voodoo is another rare study of Missouri Voodoo.

  • Roberts, Kodi A. Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881–1940. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015.

    Robert’s history of Voodoo in New Orleans emphasizes what he sees as its survival under the guise of the Spiritual churches, a concept introduced by Zora Neal Hurtson. He also disputes scholarship depicting Voodoo as a Black religion, arguing that it welcomed the disadvantaged of all races.

  • Schmitt, Rory O’Neill, and Rosary Hartel O’Neill. New Orleans Voodoo: A Cultural History. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2019.

    Though published by a popular press, this work provides an accessible introduction to the religion as well as its impact on New Orleans culture.

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