Monday, February 23, 2009

Mardi Gras and Mysteries Fill New Orleans

It's that time of the year again: Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, as the French say. Also known as Shrove Tuesday (for we of Irish and British descent - pancakes, anyone?), this holiday marks the last day before the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday. It is a time, traditionally, to be a glutton and clean out one’s food stores in preparation for the fasts of Lent.

During the preceding Mardi Gras or Carnival season (as it is observed in other countries, especially in Latin America), boisterous parades, filled with the crush of party-goers, shine brightly in hues of green, purple and gold. Elaborate costumes, floats, and masked marchers on stilts are common images we call to mind when we hear Mardi Gras.

In the United States, we think of New Orleans most, that bastion of French Creole culture. However, beneath the din and beyond the bead-tossing, breast-baring antics of college girls "gone wild," we can still hear the beating heart of this mysteriopolis - this city of mysteries.

As much as Louisiana's most famous city is known for the debauchery of its revelers, it is equally known for its darker side. The ghosts of pirates long dead who troll claustrophobic alleys, Voodoo queens who still reign over their minions long after passing, and strange creatures said to inhabit the bayous.

Nestled between the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral lies the darkened passage known as "Pirate's Alley". The Big Easy's most notorious pirate was inarguably Jean Lefitte. This rogue and his raucous compatriots often cut a swath of drunken mischief through the old city. Some say his presence lingers in the alley still, and at "Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop," though many question any real connection to the famed pirate exists at either location.

Marie Laveau, famed mamba of New Orleans, makes her presence known still, according to some. At St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, founded in 1789, her tomb is a nexus for Laveau devotees who flock to this necropolis to leave offerings and ask for favors. Some say she can be seen walking among the tombs, or appear in the guise of animals.

Nearby Honey Island Swamp is said to be the home of a large, two-legged swamp ape - something like Bigfoot. Those who have had the rare privilege to witness the creature describe it as 7 feet tall, 350 pounds, and covered in long, reddish hair. Some contend Honey Island Swamp is too small to be considered adequate range for such a creature, when considering it is flanked by urban spaces. Nonetheless, the legend persists and the swamp tours continue.

If you find yourself heading to Louisiana - especially New Orleans - check out any number of websites or books to learn more about the numerous myths, legends, and oddities that flood this dark delta with a rich culture of supernatural folklore.

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