• Ellen Byron

A Real, Live Voodoo Priestess

Updated: Jul 28

Voodoo is an integral part of Louisiana culture, particularly in New Orleans. In fact, it's such a part of the zeitgeist that my ladylike sorority at Tulane University wooed potential members during Rush by singing a song about the legendary Voodoo queen, Marie Laveau.

But it wasn't until I attended Jazzfest a few years after graduating college that I discovered a genuine voodoo priestess, and one who took credit cards, no less - Priestess Ava Kay Jones.

The full name of Jazzfest is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Ms. Jones had a table in the Heritage section. Figuring I could use some mojo in my lackluster love life, I ordered a gris gris bag geared toward romance. (A gris gris bag is defined as "an amulet consisting of a flannel bag containing one or more magical items. It is a 'prayer in a bag', or a spell that can be carried with or on the host's body.") The priestess nodded solemnly, made my bag, blessed it, and then ran my Visa card. Being a humorist, paying for juju with a credit card was my favorite part of the whole experience.

After that trip, I paid a visit to Priestess Ava whenever I was fortunate enough to attend Jazzfest. She made me gris gris bags for career and for love (I needed a lot of those). After I married, she made me a bag for fertility. I haven't been back to Jazzfest since our daughter was born, so that bag is fifteen years old, but I still treasure it.

I've been fascinated by Ava Kay Jones ever since I met her, so I did a bit of research. She was born on Halloween - how perfect is that? - and is both a Voodoo practioner and devout Catholic. (This is not unusual in Louisiana. Here's a short explanation from Wikipedia: "Voodoo became syncretized with the Catholic and Francophone culture of south Louisiana as a result of creolization in the region resulting from the Atlantic slave trade. Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with—but is not completely separable from—Haitian Vodou and southern American Hoodoo.")

Ms. Jones was an attorney before becoming an ordained Voodoo priestess. She's also the founder and featured performer of the Voodoo Macumba Dance Ensemble, a performance group of drummers, dancers, fire-eaters, and sword and snake dancers.Talk about an eclectic background!

Did any of Priestess Ava's gris gris bags actually have an affect on my life? I know that I thought they might when I wore them, and if you believe that what we think has the power to create change, then the answer is yes. But this fascinating woman gave me a gift beyond the tiny bags stuffed with who-knows-what. Because of my experience with her, I've embued the predominately Catholic citizens of Pelican, Louisiana, the fictional village where Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery is set, with a belief in both spiritualism and the supernatural. There's even a village Voodoo Priestess, Helene Brevelle, whom we have yet to meet because she's on a cruise paid for with gris gris bags bought by sorority girls on the off chance that a little mojo might help them land a date to the formal.

I don't know when I'll see Priestess Ava again, but when I do, I want to thank her. Her fascinating path has made my own life - and my writing - much more interesting.


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Photography by Jamie Johnson

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