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NEW ORLEANS SUPERSTITIONS
by
Lafcadio Hearn


New Orleans Superstitions, by Lafcadio Hearn

Published: Harper's Weekly, December 25, 1886

 

                                     I

 

   The question "What is Voudooism?" could scarcely be answered to-day by

any resident of New Orleans unfamiliar with the life of the African west

coast, or the superstitions of Hayti, either through study or personal

observation. The old generation of planters in whose day Voudooism had a

recognized existence--so dangerous as a motive power for black

insurrection that severe measures were adopted against it--has passed

away; and the only person I ever met who had, as a child in his colored

nurse's care, the rare experience of witnessing a Voudoo ceremonial, died

some three years ago, at the advanced age of seventy-six. As a religion--

an imported faith--Voudooism in Louisiana is really dead; the rites of its

serpent worship are forgotten; the meaning of its strange and frenzied

chants, whereof some fragments linger as refrains in negro song, is not

now known even to those who remember the words; and the story of its

former existence is only revealed to the folklorists by the multitudinous

débris of African superstition which it has left behind it. These only I

propose to consider now; 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. What could be more mediæval,

for instance, than molding a waxen heart, and sticking pins in it, or

melting it slowly before a fire, while charms are being repeated with the

hope that as the waxen heart melts or breaks, the life of some enemy will

depart? What, again, could remind us more of thirteenth-century

superstition than the burning of a certain number of tapers to compel some

absent person's return, with the idea that before the last taper is

consumed a mysterious mesmerism will force the wanderer to cross rivers

and mountains if necessary on his or her way back?

 

   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. The pure Africanism of this practice

needs no comment. Any exact idea concerning the use of each particular

kind of charm I have not been able to discover; and I doubt whether those

who practise such fetichism know the original African beliefs connected

with it. 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 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 negro 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 colored 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. The negroes believe 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 negro 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.)

 

   Another strange belief connected with these practices was well

illustrated by a gift made to my friend Professor William Henry by a negro

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.

 

   The naughty little negress at whom the salt was thrown seemed to fear

the salt more than the broom pointed at her. But she was not yet fully

educated, I suspect, in regard to superstitions. The negro'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. "What especially irritates the negro," he wrote, "is to

have a broom passed over any part of his body. He asks at once whether the

person imagined that he was dead, and remains convinced that the act

shortens his 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, among

the colored people, and among many of the uneducated of other races, the

victim of muscular atrophy is believed to be the victim of Voudooism. A

notion is prevalent that negro witches possess knowledge of a secret

poison which may terminate life instantly or cause a slow "withering

away," according as the dose is administered. A Frenchman under treatment

for paralysis informed me that his misfortune was certainly the work of

Voudoos, and that his wife and child had died through the secret agency of

negro wizards. Mental aberration is also said to be caused by the

administration of poisons whereof some few negroes 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. During the last decade there have been a few convictions

of blacks for the crime of poisoning, but there was nothing at all

mysterious or peculiar about these cases, and the toxic agent was

invariably the most vulgar of all--arsenic, or some arsenious preparation

in the shape of rat poison.

 

 

                                    II

 

   The story of the frizzly hen brings me to the subject of superstitions

regarding animals. 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

negro 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, I think, of

European origin.

 

   It is 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 I have

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 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!)

 

   I will conclude this little paper with selections from a list of

superstitions which I find 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

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 me in this note by

a friend: "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 an noon,

of joy; a spider seen in the evening, of hope).

 

   Even from this very brief sketch of New Orleans superstitions the

reader may perceive that the subject is peculiar enough to merit the

attention of experienced folklorists. It might be divided by a competent

classifier under three heads: I. Negro superstitions confined to the black

and colored. population; II. Negro superstitions which have proved

contagious, and have spread among the uneducated classes of whites; III.

Superstitions of Latin origin imported from France, Spain, and Italy. I

have not touched much upon superstitions inherited from English, Irish, or

Scotch sources, inasmuch as they have nothing especially local in their

character here. It must be remembered that the refined classes have no

share in these beliefs, and that, with a few really rational exceptions,

the practices of creole medicine are ignored by educated persons. The

study of creole superstitions has only an ethnological value, and that of

creole medicine only a botanical one, in so far as it is related to

empiricism.

 

   All this represents an under side of New Orleans life; and if anything

of it manages to push up to the surface, the curious growth makes itself

visible only by some really pretty blossoms of feminine superstition in

regard to weddings or betrothal rings, or by some dainty sprigs of child-

lore, cultivated by those colored nurses who tell us that the little

chickens throw up their heads while they drink to thank the good God for

giving them water.

New Orleans Superstitions - The End