Although I do not actively practice Vodun – nor would I want to without substantial training, given the obvious perils of a white Midwesterner trying to pick up religious practices from the African diaspora – I have kept this skull on my altar for many years. Today it sits on the bottom shelf of my shrine to various gods, in my conception the base from which the rest grows. It reminds me of death and history, and most of all, it reminds me of the place from which it came to me: the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in New Orleans.
Only two religious buildings have really excited a sense of the sublime in me. Neither belongs to a religion I practice, which maybe isn’t so surprising. One is the church on the grounds of the castle in Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral, which, like all the great Gothic masterpieces, overwhelms the viewer with its size and grandiose detail. The Voodoo Spiritual Temple, by contrast, has none of that obvious grandeur: from the outside it looks like just another storefront in the French Quarter, a squat, pale building with dark shingles and two gabled windows. But step inside, past the shop from whence my painted skull came. Follow the hallway down to an open door that looks out on a garden, and turn around: walk past shelves crammed with books on religion and history. The hallway opens up, and there before us rests the room that has held my imagination for a decade.On a floor plan, I doubt the altar rooms seem much bigger than an average living room, but the space becomes so much bigger in person. Except for a few places where human feet can stand, icons and offerings fill every centimeter of those rooms. Tapestries and statues and votive candles, furniture and altars and drums. And everywhere offerings: sweets for the twins, the Marassa Jumeuax, cigarettes for the Ghede, dollar bills slipped into every available crevice. The light comes in through the windows, or the starry radiance of Christmas bulbs. In a meshed-in basket along the wall, the sacred serpent lies sleeping. Not otherworldly, but superworldly, a surfeit of human devotion. Was this planned? I hope not; the magick lies in the accumulation, the continual layering of object and sacrifice, a wave that builds until it crashes into the senses and drowns them.
Since that first visit, I have thought that the Voodoo Spiritual Temple represented the finest way to approach the Divine in a physical space. In my dreams I think sometimes of starting my own storefront shrine, not a copy of the Temple but kin to it. A religious space should welcome both the spirits and the flesh; too many invoke one but have no time for the other. The Temple, to my mind, melded the two more perfectly than any other church I had known.
The news last week that an electrical fire had broken out in the temple, bringing with it not only the obvious danger of the flames but the more insidious troubles of water and mold, represents more than just the condemnation of the building that housed the Temple. The Rampart Street address – across from Congo Square, itself a place of weighty significance for African-Americans in New Orleans – means much, but the Temple has not always been housed there. “The most sacred and pertinent items of the temple were spared fire,” says Witchdoctor Utu, a student of the Temple, invoking the watchful eye of its original priest, Oswan Chamani, to explain this good fortune. But I worry that this means many of the smaller items – those placed with less intention, perhaps, used less often in ritual, but still of significance, have been lost. A mosaic consists only of its many stones: pry enough away, and the picture itself loses form.
I have no doubt that Priestess Miriam and her companions will rebuild, hopefully in the same location and with many of the same accouterments. Aiyda, the sacred python, made it out alive, providing reason enough to celebrate. But it should remind us of the tenuous nature of so much of what goes into our lives. We all lack insurance over the specific configuration of our existence, our history, our magick. A chance spark can be enough to turn the whole thing upside down.
So now I lay in bed, looking at the skull on my altar, remembering this place and all its mystery. I close my eyes and trace the lines of the corridors, the pathways through the holy clutter, and look again on the gifts to the loa, now perhaps turned to burnt offerings. The lines of memory rise from the surface of the floor. With my ghostly feet, I trace the vévé of time.
Rise again, Temple. Rise again on the crest of your history, and begin the process of accumulating magick again.
The Voodoo Spiritual Temple still seeks donations for their recovery fund.