In honor of Halloween month I figured we dive into a subject that I personally know nothing about yet find fascinating: Voodoo. When I think of Voodoo I immediately think of spells, pin-dolls and American Horror Story: Coven. I know this is pure ignorance on my part so I was happy when the owner of one of the most recognized voodoo stores in New Orleans agreed to chat. Brandi Kelley has been the owner of Voodoo Authenica since 1996 and it is considered the expert shop on Voodoo. The store has a collection ranging from dolls and candles to spells and spiritual consultations. If anyone can help me navigate this spiritual world it would be her.
Voodoo fascinates me and I know that there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Hollywood has made it look almost Satanic and I know there isn’t truth to that. How did you get introduced to the Religion and how do you describe it to people whom aren’t educated on it?
Brandi: I’m from New Orleans, born and raised. I felt the call of Spirit at an early age. There’s something here in the air, the energy, the water, the very essence of New Orleans. If it wants you and you don’t answer - you won’t have peace until you do. I was formally initiated into Haitian Vodou by my Godmother, Mama Lola, about 20 years ago and am currently a Mambo/Vodou Priestess. I am a Baptized Catholic and practice both New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou. I work with the Angels, Ancestors, Haitian Lwa, African Orisha, Catholic Saints and other benevolent Spirit Forces. When people ask me about Voodoo/Vodou/Vodun, the way I respond depends on them, the questions asked and how they’re asked. In general though, I let them know first and foremost that this is Religion/Spiritual Path (depending on the tradition) - not a cult, etc. That it’s primarily (and ideally) about healing and service - service to God, Spirit and Community - not a great path for people who are on a power trip.
From what I read, there is some Catholicism influence with Voodoo. Can you explain that a little further?
Brandi: When African Slaves were forcibly taken to the New World, they brought their Spiritual beliefs with them. In areas where Catholicism was prevalent, like New Orleans, the Slaves were forced to adopt that religion. They masked their indigenous Spiritual beliefs using Catholicism. They used the Catholic icons & images of the Saints to represent their own Deities - the Haitian Lwa and the African Orisha. Example: The Catholic image of Mater Dolorosa was (and still is) used to represent the Haitian Lwa Erzulie Freda - a Spirit who brings love, prosperity and abundance.
Is there a difference in the Religion within the different continents? For example, do the practitioners in Haiti have different rituals and beliefs than the people in New Orleans?
Brandi:Yes, New Orleans Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, African Vodun and all the other traditions in the Diaspora are their own individual traditions with their own identities. They do share many similarities. Example: Papa Legba is a Haitian Lwa. Ellegua is an African Orisha. They are both Guardians of the Crossroads and called on to open the door to ceremony and communication. If you are initiated in/educated about one tradition, you’ll notice the differences in the ceremonies when attending other tradition’s ceremonies but if you pay attention, you’ll still know generally what’s going on. The extent of that “knowledge of what’s going on” depends in large part on experience.
Do people use spells in Voodoo or is that a myth? Are the pin-dolls also a misconception?
Brandi: Spells and Rituals are used in Voodoo. It’s more common to hear “Ritual” and “Doing Spiritual Work” or just “Doing some Work” than it is to hear the word “spell”. Different traditions use different tools but all do some form of Ritual/Spiritual Work to help themselves and others achieve a variety of goals. In New Orleans Voodoo, we use, Dolls, Candles, Oils, Gris Gris Bags - many things. While dolls are used, they are not typically used in the negative way presented in the media (stick a pin in a doll and break a person’s leg, etc.). The use of dolls is a form of sympathetic magick - like attracts like. We use them and other tools to assist ourselves and others in achieving positive goals and healing. The pin is simply a focusing tool to focus the energy where we want it to go. Example: Someone has had their proverbial heart broken - pin is placed in the heart of a doll representing that person to bring healing energy. That being said - all tools can be used to heal or harm. We choose to use them to heal. Black Magick is its own practice. It is not a religion. Most Voodoo Practitioners adhere to the law of karma and do not engage in Black Magick but it is a practice available to anyone of any religion and those who are not in one. It’s available to all people. The cost is high and it’s not recommended.
With Catholicism we can look at something like an exorcism as something evil within the Religion. Does Voodoo have anything that would be considered an “evil” side to it?
Brandi: I don’t look at Exorcism as an evil side to Catholicism. It is needed. When you include a devil in your theology, a devil that can possess humans - you need a way to fight back. As long as the devil is included in Catholic theology, exorcism will also need to be officially included. Voodoo is about balance rather than extremes. There is no extreme good and extreme evil, just a constant striving for balance.
What are the benefits of practicing Voodoo? What spiritual elements do people develop when they decide to become fully enriched with it?
Brandi: The benefits of practicing Voodoo are as different as the people who practice it. Everyone is on their own path and has their own goals. The ideal goal is service, connection and balance. Service and Connection to God, Spirit and Community and balance with Self, God, Spirit and Community. Like those practicing any other faith, some people come to Voodoo seeking less high minded things.
You have an incredible store which is in the heart of NOLA. I am sure you get tourist all the time. I suspect most are not as educated on Voodoo as yourself and your employees. What is something you recommend they purchase that can give them benefits without having to be a true expert?
Brandi: First of all, thank you for the compliment! I highly recommend reading Jambalaya by Luisah Teish, Mama Lola by Karen McCarthy Brown & The Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren for those seeking to learn more about Voodoo. They’re excellent starting points which give “outsiders” a lot of info and perspective.
Is there any relationship between Voodoo with astrology or Tarot Cards?
Brandi: Many Voodoo Practitioners use tools for divining. I know Voodoo Priests and Priestesses who use playing cards, tarot cards, bones, cowrie shells, coconut shells, crystal ball, palmistry, etc. Depends on the person, their path, their tradition & their preference.
People often think of using Voodoo to hurt someone or get some sort of revenge. What is the truth behind that, if any?
Brandi: Please see Answer #4. Additionally, although Voodoo Practitioners do not typically initiate work to harm others, most will engage in self defense magick with no problem. Example: Someone engages in Black Magick to harm you or someone you care about. You did not initiate the negative magick. You “hold up a mirror” and simply do a “return to sender” on that working. So, the person just receives back the negativity they attempted to send out.
Living in New Orleans seems like it would be amazing and spiritual. Since its Halloween time, have you ever had any spooky encounters with the supernatural?
Brandi: New Orleans definitely is a wonderful place to be born and raised. So much tradition, culture and fun! Every year, on Halloween Oct 31st, we do our free festival, “VOODOOFEST” at Voodoo Authentica 612 rue Dumaine. This will be our 21st year! You can check out the details at voodoofest.com - we conclude the festival with an Ancestral Healing Ceremony and usually have a number of Ghede (Haitian Lwa of Sex, Death & Resurrection) possessing initiated Vodou Priests who are present at the Fest. This may look “spooky” to an outsider but it’s a very positive and often healing experience for those involved. Honestly, my definition of spooky may not be a good gauge lol. Have I experienced ghosts, Spirit possession, communication with the Other Side? Yes. Just too frequently for me to consider those experiences unusual or “spooky”. I have had to deal with some “negative spiritual energies” from time to time that didn’t want to leave a space I was cleansing and, until they’re ultimately banished, that comes very close to spooky for me!
Voodoo Authentica is a must stop if you are in New Orleans. For those who can't visit in person, the online shop offers just about everything you could want. The employees in the store are extremely helpful so if you have questions, don't hesitate to call them! Thank You so much to Brandi! All photos are items available online and in store.
Voodoo Authentica is located:
612 rue Dumaine
New Orleans, La. 70116