Paganism, spiritualism, witchcraft – call it what you may, there’s no denying that the occult is ever-present. In Vancouver, one is particularly accustomed to the crystal shops and new age book stores hiding around each corner – a walk along West 4th in Kitsilano attests to that. With melting pot populations, cities tend to host unconventional ‘schools of thought’; and at the turn of the eighteenth century, two cities, New Orleans and Beijing (formerly Peking) became hubs for the supernatural. Though different in many ways, the similarities of New Orleans Voodoo and Manchu Shamanism are striking.
In this essay, I will compare and contrast many aspects of the occult in each city. Specifically, how did it arrive in each city? How was it received by the general population? Did the city change the religion in any way?
Both forms of the occult were brought by outsiders – the Yorùbá slave people of West Africa, and the Manchu people of Northeastern Asia. As the paranormal practices lay their foundation, the “local” people, the French Settlers and the Han Chinese, began to fear the bizarre customs of the foreigners. Ultimately, in order to appease the general population, the Voodooists adjusted their faith to realign with the majority religion, yet the Shamanists made no such change. The main divergence, however, is how the beliefs were viewed by the general population in these two cities. Whereas the French colonizers considered Voodoo a barbaric pseudo-religion brought by ruthless Africans, the colonized Han Chinese, though they never practiced Manchu Shamanism, still respected the beliefs of the foreign people.
Each form of the occult arrived from a foreign land; one by forced, and the other by voluntary, displacement. The first black slaves in the French colony of Louisiana (and the whole of what is now the United States) were brought from West Africa in the early eighteenth century1, predominantly the Yorùbá tribe of Southwestern Nigeria. Though empty handed, they still brought something – the name of their god, “Vodu”2. Eventually corrupted to what we now know as “Voodoo”, the purest form of the religion revolved around a supreme, yet unknowable God. Below this almighty God, spirits, or “loa” ruled over the world’s affairs in matters from family and love to the harvest and the hunt. Offerings were made to the appropriate loa to ensure success in those areas, and some Voodooists even invited these loa to spiritually possess them to building a better connection3. A deeply spiritual people, despite their circumstances, “the resilient Yorùbá spirit grew strong roots in the new environment”4, and by continuing to gather for rituals, New Orleans Voodoo began to flourish in the culture. However, the French colonists did not see it this way. The Marquis de Vaudreuil soon ruled that, “any slave owner allowing his Negroes to assemble for any purpose at all with other Negroes upon his property would be forced to ‘pay one hundred crowns to the treasury of the Church'”5. So began the religious discrimination of the weak by the