In the last few months the world was reminded once again how the arrogance of humankind is destroying families, communities and Mother Earth.
We now know Hurricane Katrina was not the reason for the demise of New Orleans. It was the failure of humans to preserve or restore the wetlands that act as a natural buffer for the cities that lie beyond. It was the greed of over-development in areas never intended to sustain housing. It was the incompetence of the Corps of Engineers who built substandard levees to protect people and the city. And it was and is the short-sightedness and ineptitude of callous and corrupt government and elected officials who have forgotten they serve the people. Post Katrina, it is business as usual on these same fronts, only the light has been shed on where to place some of the blame. And two years later, the carpet baggers are once again set loose upon the city whose spirit could once be summed up in the phrase, joie de vivre, or the joy of life.
This comedy of errors, arrogance and neglect only punctuates the effects of a government and society absent a set of ideals Goddess Advocates would call principles of the Sacred Feminine:
- Reverence and respect for Mother Nature
- Recognizing the Divine in all things
- Compassion for human suffering
- Responsibility, wisdom and accountability
- Creation of partnerships and a more level playing field so no one is lost at the bottom of any heap.
Yet in spite of everything, the Vieux Carre, itself that jewel that so aptly personifies New Orleans, literally stands on high ground and has managed to survive the devastation that surrounds it. Not unlike the Sacred Feminine herself, surviving in a world gone mad, a world destroying itself for the sake of greed, with leaders intent on wielding power and control over others, the Vieux Carre maintains a presence. This oldest section of the city endures, like a beacon, for the people and a city hoping for a future that reflects these ideals of the Sacred Feminine.
The Vieux Carre, recognized as a sacred site of Goddess because of the many faces of the Divine Feminine represented in this melting pot of diverse peoples and traditions, and for the city’s spirit that exudes the nature of Goddess, stands at a precipice like the Divine Feminine herself. Do we believe enough in what she stands for to make the necessary investment for real change toward a direction of sustainability for all? Or will it continue to be business as usual, with society continuing to suffer at the hands of those who value power, control and wealth above all else?
While growing up in New Orleans, I did not have the awareness to see her sacredness. It took moving away and glimpsing her from a distance to recognize her beauty, grace and that joie de vie that makes her a sacred site of Goddess. Today she is a city in mourning. She grieves for her children scattered and cast upon the winds. For those trapped in toxic FEMA trailers, victims of social injustice who are suffering all the more. She weeps for her empty streets and for the times past that gave New Orleans it’s mantra, Le bonne temps roule, or let the good times roll. Needless to say I miss her. And I wonder if her tattered dignity will ever be properly restored.
That being said, I would like to introduce you to the Vieux Carre of New Orleans and invite you to see this great city through the lens of the Sacred Feminine.
The Vieux Carre of New Orleans, Louisiana
A Sacred Site of the Divine Feminine
The essence of the Goddess, as a celebration of life, holds sway in New Orleans within the core of the people. Life here moves at a slower pace and New Orleanians see no reason to catch up. It is a city proud of its diverse cultural and ethnic heritage, where people look for just about any excuse to indulge in the pleasures of life. There is a sense of life being a bit more in-sync with natural rhythms and life’s simple pleasures. Despite the influence of the Catholic Church, the lifestyle in New Orleans is hardly dogmatic or puritanical. In the Big Easy, as the city is often called, the spirit of the Feminine is also reflected in the Old World charm of the architecture of the Vieux Carre, in celebrations such as Mardi Gras with its pagan roots dating back to the rituals of the Lupercalia, Cybele and Attis, and in the worship of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and various goddesses in the Yoruban pantheon.
Goddess lives in the steamy heat of the city whose motto is “let the good times roll,” and where Stella’s raw sexuality in A Streetcar Named Desire exploded onto the screen. Goddess is alive in the women who gather at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the fringe of the Vieux Carre (or French Quarter) to say their rosary and pray the novena for their families. Her spirit lives in the flora and fauna of the dense bayous, the groves of oak trees with their Spanish moss, and in the luscious and heady scent of the exquisite flowers of the magnolia tree. It might even be said she lives in the strength and determination at the center of the Southern Woman who might sit ladylike in her finery on the verandah sipping a Mint Julep one day or found wearing her old blue jeans to pull up crab traps the next.
Goddess lives in the rituals of the Catholic Church which assimilated what it could not stamp out. She is an embodiment of life’s earthy pleasures, and nowhere in the United States does she manifest her robust essence with such fun and flair as in her many faces that peak from behind her carnival masque in the Vieux Carre of New Orleans. Author Samuel Kinser cites carnival origins starting in an urban and country reaction to strict Lenten rules and a groundswell of interest in a variety of social and agricultural practices in pre-Christian Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and Roman sun, wind, and water worship.
On the other hand, Henri Schindler, a local author in New Orleans and an expert on Mardi Gras, believes the carnival season in New Orleans has its origins in Spring rites of the Greek and Latin world, namely the two celebrations of the Lupercalia and those of the Goddess Cybele and her consort, Attis. The ecstatic festival of the Lupercalia, held on February 15th, was associated with Romulus and Remus, said to be the founders of Rome, who had been suckled by a She Wolf (a metaphor for Mother Nature) when they were infants. During the Roman festival dogs and goats were sacrificed in a cave at the foot of Palatine Hill and the meat consumed. Some of the animal’s skin was turned into whips, and its blood used to ritually paint the priests and two youths who were then wiped with wool dipped in milk, the nourishing fluid from the Mother. During the celebration priests chased naked men and women around the Palatine Hill of Rome and through the streets of other towns where the celebration was held, lashing out with their whips, with the intention, according to Schindler, of forgiving them of their sins. We are reminded of self-flagellation as a penance for sin.
Other sources say women sought out the priests, thinking a touch from their bloody thong would cure them of barrenness, in a form of fertility magic. Schindler states the sacramental strips of the whip were called Februa, so it might be a good time to mention Mardi Gras, like Lupercalia, is usually held in February! When there were not enough priests to perform the rituals, laypersons took over the duties and flayed themselves until they felt purified. It is no coincidence Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the culmination of the carnival season, followed the next day by Ash Wednesday and the beginning of 40 days of Lent, when Catholics fast and pray and ask forgiveness of their sins. Lent then ends with the celebration of Easter, which marks the resurrection of Jesus, who Christians believe died and arose for the sins of humankind. It was at Lupercalia, that Antony, the consul at Lupercus, offered a royal diadem to Caesar in 44 BCE. The festival of Lupercalia survived until at least 494 CE when the Bishop of Rome banned the rite and absorbed it into the Feast of Purification for the Virgin.
As one might imagine, the Church was not happy with these celebrations, but they could not quash the traditions. In the 5th century some control was managed when they adapted the celebration and veiled it in Christian significance, renaming it Carnelevamen, a “consolation of the flesh,” which came to be called carnival. In 600 CE, Pope Gregory officially set the often fluctuating date for Easter (which celebrates the resurrection of Christ) at the first Sunday following the Vernal Equinox. Thus the Christian celebration of Easter would for all time overlay the spring rites of Cybele and Attis, Ishtar and Tammuz, and the Druids. Also it must be remembered that this time was set aside for the more ancient Goddess Aostara rituals. Eventually the ancient rituals to appease the gods and goddesses and ask their forgiveness on a seasonal basis gave way to daily services on altars often without personal interaction by the masses. As Shindler puts it, mirth became taboo.
Long story short, carnival came to New Orleans with the French. New Orleans was founded in 1718 and the first Mardi Gras parade was held in 1837. The parade and masqued ball was a theatre-like performance meant for entertaining the members of the carnival club and was usually based on a particular theme drawn from mythology or history. The very first theme in North America portrayed Demon Actors from Milton’s Paradise Lost with Persephone, the Fates, Furies, Gorgons, and Isis all making their acting debut in the New World. Subsequent parade themes such as Egyptian Theology have produced floats representing ideas of temples, tombs, palaces, pleasure, sacred animals, and resurrection. Since then, masked groups, called “krewes,” wearing very androgynous looking costumes, have looked to the Feminine for inspiration as their organizations have taken the names of Pandora, Aphrodite, Diana, Isis, Rhea, Diana, Ishtar, Juno, Hestia, Nemesis, Hebe, Hera, Helena, Oshun, and Cleopatra. Obviously one of the carnival krewes of Mardi Gras did their homework because the Krewe of Babylon has as its Captain, King Sargon, the namesake of Ishtar’s royal father.
Oddly enough, New Orleans may even have some Egyptian connections – and we certainly know Egypt influenced Greece and Rome! According to scholar, R. E. Witt, “the carnival of medieval and modern times is the obvious successor of the Navigium Isidis,” an ancient festival that began in Egypt, but in time with the spread of Isis’ worship, began to be practiced throughout the Greco Roman world. In this festival, which included cross dressing, processions, and all manner of hilarity, music, and revelry, a ship laden with gifts being offered to the Goddess Isis was launched upon the waters in exchange for her blessings for anyone dependent on the waters and sailing season. It should be noted in the fishing villages south of New Orleans an annual Blessing of the Fleets is performed by Christian clergy for safety and abundance of the fisherman and their ships. This is an obvious remnant of the Isidis Navigium festival of ancient times.
Witt also cites the Christian Feast of Lights or Epiphany with roots in the rituals of the priests of Isis. Interestingly, the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6th is also known as Kings Day in New Orleans and it is the kick-off of the carnival season in “the city that care forgot.” Beginning on Kings Day, New Orleanians begin a series of King Cake parties. Within the cake is a plastic doll. The person getting the piece of cake with the doll hidden inside is obligated to host the next party, thus the party season continues up until Mardi Gras.
Neo-pagans have taken to the idea of reclaiming the tradition of the King Cake and associating it with the ancient custom of cakes, bread, or the preparation thereof, as being sacred to the Goddess or the Queen of Heaven. And in one last association between Goddess and January 6th, a date with so much special meaning in New Orleans, Witt cites that within Gnosticism, this is the date Aeon/Horus was born to the Goddess Isis.
Like her sister cities of New York and Miami, the Goddess is also within the New Orleans View Carre in the guise of the worship of the Yoruban goddesses of Voodoo spirituality. Religion scholars who track such things cite the Yoruban deities being worshipped more in the New World than in the Old whence they came. While some believe shops selling voodoo dolls are just for the tourists (some are!) there is a thriving community here that seriously worships the Goddesses Yemaya, Oshun, and Oya. The Voodoo Temple run by Priestess Miriam on North Rampart Street, along the fringe of the Vieux Carre, is one such example of the authentic practice of this spirituality.
With New Orleans and the Vieux Carre located along the crescent of the Mississippi River, the aforementioned river goddesses are right at home and their serious practitioners make an attempt to dispel misconceptions and teach those interested in their faith. There is an annual Voodoo Fest in New Orleans where visitors can get up close and personal with the reality of Voodoo in New ‘Awlins where practitioners are involved in a hybrid version of syncretised Christian and Yoruban traditions. (Side Note: In New Orleans, the name of this religion is still spelled Voodoo.)
The aforementioned Neo-Pagan community is actively involved in Goddess Spirituality here in New Orleans, while others venerate the Feminine Divine in the guise of the Virgin and Our Lady of Guadalupe, the latter having a church honoring her on the outskirts of the Vieux Carre.
When coming to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the most expensive time to visit for airfare and hotels, remember the parades begin about seven days prior to Fat Tuesday, culminating with Rex and Comos, the oldest clubs, hitting the streets on Mardi Gras day and night. The larger, more elaborate parades are the weekend prior to Fat Tuesday. Scoring an invitation to a masqued ball is quite difficult unless you have some local connections. And remember, when that dubloon comes your way from the masqued rider on that float, let it drop to the ground, step on it, and when the crush of the crowd eases off, then bend over and pick it up! Don’t forget to yell to those masked revelers on the passing floats, “Throw Me Somethin’ Mister” because Mardi Gras is not about waving to the pretty girls sitting on the back of convertibles. It is about how much loot you can grab, then going to Bourbon Street, having a drink and eating a good meal. Aahh - sacred pleasures! Just don’t forget your mask!
©Rev. Karen TateAuthor of Sacred Places of Goddess: 108 Destinations