Serpent Worship and Li Grande Zombi
Li Grande Zombi (also called Damballah Wedo) is the major serpent spirit of worship among New Orleans Voodooists. In New Orleans Voodoo, snakes are not seen as symbols of evil as in the story of Adam and Eve. Snakes are considered to be the holders of intuitive knowledge—knowing that which cannot be spoken. Women often dance with serpents to represent the spiritual balance between the genders. Voodoo rituals in New Orleans almost always include a snake dance to celebrate the link to the ancient knowledge. The origin of Li Grande Zombi can be traced to the serpent deity Nzambi from Whydah in Africa. According to the Bantu Creation story, Nzambi is the Creator God:
Nzambi exists in everything and controls the universe through his appointed Spirits. In the beginning only Nzambi existed. When he was ready to create, millions and millions of pieces of matter swirled around him counterclockwise until Ngombe was born. Ngombe is the universe, the planets, the stars and all physical matter. Nzambi then created movement, and the matter that he had created began to change and drift apart. So, he decided to create a being that could traverse the universe and mediate between matter and space. Nzambi focused on a fixed point and gave life to a being who was simultaneously man and woman, a manifestation of the nature of Nzambi, called Exú-Aluvaiá.(20)
Another description of Li Grande Zombi is provided by Louis Martiné, priest, spiritual doctor, and elder of the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple:
The Grande Zombie is the Temple Snake, a defining element of New Orleans Voodoo and a loa of great stature. The Grande Zombie of New Orleans Voodoo is best not confused with the Zombie of Haitian Voodoo which has been described as a ritually animated corpse. The Temple Snake bears little physical or spiritual resemblance to such a being. The Grande Zombie can fill many roles and perform many ritual functions. In the context of this Order of Service the Temple Snake is the umbilical cord, the connection between the Mother and the child.(21)
Some people prefer to honor Li Grande Zombi by purchasing a live boa constrictor or python, but this is not recommended unless you know how to take care of one and have the appropriate enclosure and willingness to feed it the live food it requires. Even though these creatures can become accustomed to eating frozen mice, rats, or rabbits, it is not the optimal choice. Remember, these serpents grow to be very large, and they can be dangerous.
So how does one use a large snake in Voodoo ceremony without being bitten? Well, one way is to be sure that the snake has been fed prior to the ceremony. The other issue is how familiar the snake is with people and activity. Snakes should be conditioned through exposure to tolerate such stimuli; a well-trained eye for snake behavior is required to maintain safety for the serpent and the people present. Still, there are always the risks of startling the animal or overstimulating it, not feeding it enough, or allowing an inexperienced person handle it. With so many things to consider, it is best to use a snake fetish or doll instead of a live animal, and to rely upon the experience of the Voodoo Queen to bring out her snake when called for in a ritual. Individual practitioners have no real need to acquire one of these creatures.
The use of the powers of Li Grande Zombi and snakes in general is commonly found in hoodoo, especially the use of snake sheds in the preparation of gris gris, conjure powders, and oils. Strength, power, retribution, and renewal are among the qualities associated with snake sheds in conjureSnake imagery is also seen in the phenomenon called “live things in you.” This is a condition in which a person believes they have been hoodooed and as a result there are live things, oftentimes snakes, living inside the body. The afflicted person will report being able to feel the snakes crawling around under their skin or in their bellies.
Snake conjure can also involve drawing a person to you. One way this is done is by taking hairs from your head and naming them for the one you desire. The hairs are then placed in a bottle during a gentle rain and the bottle is allowed to fill up with rain water. The bottle is then sealed and kept near the front door of the home. Within a few days, the hairs are said to swell up and turn to into snakes. The power of the snake is believed to be so strong that the one desired will be unable to withstand the urge to come to your home.
The old-timers will say that in order to become skilled at conjuring, you have to get the gift and/or permission from the snake. One way this was done in the past was by eating the brains of a snake so that the wisdom of the serpent would be transferred to the eater. Conjurers were also expected to lie down in the woods and call upon the snakes to come and crawl all over their bodies. If they were unable to calmly look at the serpents in the eyes without flinching, they were believed to be fit to be a conjurer.
*Excerpted from the Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, pp. 11-13.
(20) Alvarado, 2010, p. 19.
(21) The Order of Service that Martiné refers to is a departure from the usual litany of Catholic prayers that open a typical Voodoo service. Catholicism was not a part of the original African religion, and so it is not always done this way by practitioners, particularly those for whom Catholicism doesn’t “fit.” The order of service provided by Martiné in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple reflects an evolving and adaptable religion, one that reflects the universal tradition that embraces faiths outside