I got back last week from a trip to the grimoires conference that also took me through Austin and New Orleans. At the latter, I picked up a copy of Carolyn Long’s biography A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau. That reminded me that I hadn’t finished reading The Spellbook of Marie Laveau: The Petit Albert recently released by Hadean Press, so I finished up both.
When the Spellbook was announced, I was skeptical of the claims that this book had any real ties to Marie Laveau. Having read it now, I can say that was completely justified. It is true that the Petit Albert has turned up in discussions of the New Orleans occult scene, but the book provides little proof of any connection to Marie Laveau or New Orleans Voudou. (If it’s any indication of the attitude in the Crescent City itself, I didn’t see a single copy of this book anywhere, from the Librairie to Esoterica to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.) Sadly, the title likely tells us more about the current growth of interest in Afro-Caribbean faiths and its effects on marketing spiritual goods than the book’s history or influence.
Nonetheless, this should not distract us from the most influential and reprinted manual of magic in the French-speaking world. Likely titled itself to capitalize on the Liber aggregationis, or Book of Secrets attributed to the thirteenth century magician Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great), the Petit Albert (“Little Albert”) is a compilation of short recipes intended to create love, heal various ills, turn lead into gold, gain success in both hunting and the household, and a wide variety of other purposes. The formulae tend toward natural magic, in which various substances are collected and used without a ritual component. Nonetheless, we also have a lengthy section on planetary talismans attributed to Paracelsus, and a few items for resisting torture, forging a ring of invisibility, and, most famous of the book’s procedures, creating the Hand of Glory.
Potential buyers should be aware of two caveats. First, the book features only a few notes and no index, so those who like such critical apparati will be disappointed. Second, if you see this in a bookstore, you might want to check the binding before purchasing; my copy was separating from the spine when I bought it. Nonetheless, if you want an English translation of a famous book of magic, this is it.
On the other hand, I can recommend Long’s biography of Marie Laveau without reservation. Laveau has been a figure of mystery and legend for over a century, portrayed in various manners in folklore, fiction, music, and all manner of other media. Long returns to the original sources on the woman: newspaper accounts, deeds, legal documents, parish registers, and first-hand accounts collected by Works Progress Administration interviewers in the Thirties. Although some of these records have been unavailable to previous authors, she nonetheless notes that others chose to ignore them. When these records fall short, the book gives us lengthy sections on the history of New Orleans itself and Laveau’s folkloric and literary legacy.
What emerges from these documents is a figure who both falls short of the legend but nonetheless is fascinating in her own right. For example, we learn that Marie Laveau was neither as wealthy or influential as believed, and that instead of freeing slaves, she herself owned them. The question of her successor, ‘Marie Laveau II,’ also is raised; although Long does not come out and make an argument for it, it appears that her daughter did employ that name, although she rejected much of her mother’s spirituality. Nonetheless, the book does confirm the most basic facts: Laveau was a prominent woman who was a vital spiritual influence in the city and was known for helping the less fortunate. If you are intrigued by Marie Laveau at all, I would recommend this book highly; once I started it, I could barely put it down.