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HOW TO USE ASHES

IN THE HOODOO ROOTWORK TRADITION

by catherine yronwode

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There are a number of traditional spiritual uses for ashes in hoodoo, including name-paper ashes, prayer and scriptural verse ashes, and remnant incense ashes from the altar. Their uses are many and varied, and i hope that this sampling of the territory will give you a feel for how you can incorporate and work with ashes in your own practice of conjure.

NAME-PAPER ASH, WITH OR WITHOUT QUASSIA BARK

It is a well-known and often practiced way of working to triple-refine a name or "concentrate" it by burning it, folding the ash into a second name paper, burning that, and folding the ash into a third name paper. This is used when no personal concerns can be had, as a way of concentrating the name.

It is common to fold Quassia Bark chips into the name-papers when burning them, that is, to burn the Quassia Bark with the name-paper each time and to mix the name-paper ash and Quassia Bark ash. Quassia Bark is the only herb i know that is routinely used in this way.

Back in the day when people wrote with fountain pens, sprinkling the ash of a name-paper on the second and third written iterations was also practiced because the ash actually stuck to the liquid ink as it dried.

PRAYER OR SCRIPTURAL VERSE ASH

Hand-writing a prayer, either in your own words, or using scriptural texts from the Bible, produces a heightened form of the prayer or text. When you take the time to write out a Psalm, a verse, or a chapter from the Bible, or to compose your own prayer, you are making a connection from your head to heart to hand. The prayer carries its own Jewish and Christian religious connotations and weight, but added to it is the thought you have spent composing the material or reciting it in your mind as you wrote out the paper, and the time your hands have spent conveying those conceptions to the paper.

A prayer paper of this sort can be soaked in water and the water drunk to cleanse the body, but another common way of working is to burn the paper to ashes and blend the ashes into the materials used in another spiritual job.

You may burn the paper to ashes in the flame of a candle and let it float upward, but a useful method for those who want to concentrate their efforts is to burn the paper on a bed of incense, either resin incense on charcoal or self-lighting powder incense, or a mixture of the two.

HOW TO BURN NAME-PAPERS AND PRAYER PAPERS ON INCENSE

Burning a name-paper, prayer-paper, or a written verse of scripture on incense means that the name or prayer becomes part of the incense, and the ash from the incense contains the prayers or the name. Incense ash is uniform in texture compared to plain paper ash, and such ash can be mixed with

Then, depending upon what the ash was mixed with and what you are working on, or what you intend the outcome of your work to be, the resulting ash mixture can be

SPIRITUAL SPELLS THAT MAKE USE OF ASH

Fiery-Wall-of-Protection-Magic-Ritual-Hoodoo-Rootwork-Conjure-Incense Powders-at-Lucky-Mojo-Curio-Company

I will give you two brief examples of how ashes may be used. These are by no means the only methods for working with ashes found in traditional or old-school conjure, but they will open your awareness to the subject of how we work with ashes in our spiritual practices:

ASHES FOR PROTECTION OF PROPERTY

Get the graveyard dirt of a policeman by purchasing it with nine copper pennies. Write out Psalms 91 by hand on a sheet of paper. Write the policeman's name at the bottom of the paper, as if he were the author of the Psalm. Buy a packet of Fiery Wall of Protection Incense and burn it to ash. (To speed the burning, you may burn it on a charcoal tablet.) As it burns, set the prayer and name paper alight in the incense, and make sure it is consumed utterly to ashes.

Mix the ashes of the incense and the paper together with the graveyard dirt of the policeman and walk around the perimeter of your property, calling his name and asking him to protect you and your home as you sprinkle the dirt on the ground. Many old-timers, myself included, would tell you to walk backwards as you do this, casting the dirt to your front, with a very slight side to side motion, as if you were broadcasting seeds in a field. When you have circled the entire property and sprinkled out all of the ash and dirt mixture, stop and recite the entirety of Psalms 91 one more time, and close with "Amen."

ASHES FOR LINING INCENSE BURNERS

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When preparing new incense burners for use, no matter what they are made from, they must be lined with some sort of insulating material to keep them from overheating. (Even metal incense burners will burn through if kept unlined.) The two most common linings are clean sand and clean ash. The following method combines these two liners with prayer.

Write out the portion of Exodus 30:1 that consists of the line, And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon over and over on a small sheet of paper, one line after the other, on both sides of the piece of paper. The paper should be wide enough to contain the line of text without it flowing over to the next line, just as if you were being asked to copy a piece of text on a chalk board at school, each line the same as the one above. The number of times you write this line is not important, just write it over and over from top to bottom until the paper is filled, then turn the paper over and fill the other side the same way, with the same text from top to bottom.

Set the paper on fire in your new incense brazier and it will burn up quickly to black carbon ash. Slowly add some of your clean sand and rub or crush it into the prayer-paper ashes, until they are blended into the sand. Rub around the entire inside of the incense burner, then shake it to settle the sand and ashes, and it is ready to use.

ASH DEPOSITS FOR EVENTUAL INTERMENT, SCATTERING, OR OTHER DISPOSAL

If you provide your altar with a brass bowl, especially one with a cover or lid (you can use an extra incense burner if you like), you can use the container to collect ash during the course of many days of work on the same general goal.

For instance:

However you catch the ash, whether by specific timing (one year), by job (until the work is finished) or by the container (until the vessel is filled), when the time is right, you can then dispose of the ash in a ritually appropriate manner (interment, scattering, sprinkling, etc.), according to the kind of work the ash came from and the goals that are held in mind for that work -- for which directions, please read my "Hoodoo in Theory and Practice" web page "Laying Tricks and Disposing of Ritual Remains."

AN ASH QUESTION ANSWERED

In 2013, as hordes of internet readers descended upon hoodoo as if it were a collaborative game of Let's Pretend," a series of questions were asked at the Lucky Mojo Forum about incense ash, and this led to someone i will refer to as "G" asking about ashes in in general. G wrote:

I am looking for the use of ashes in hoodoo. Wood ash is the residue powder left after the combustion of wood, such as burning wood in a home fireplace. Which makes me think this might be one way to implode a situation by "combustion" or the by-product of fire.

After being told that this was not a practice or belief in traditional folk magic, the querent asked another question:

What about using fireplace ash or cigarette ashes as a ingredient for like a vinegar bottle or war water jar. I would think that might put a dirty burned-up spin on things perhaps.

My reply, although not confined strictly to the subject of ashes, is relevant to the subject at hand, and may be of help to others with similar queries. I wrote:

Dear G,

You seem to want to create your own little system of personal symbolism, based on your own imagination, and then to have us all accept it as a valid way of working. To me, your posts sound as if you were a kid, first saying, "Let's pretend that fireplace ashes can be used 'to implode a situation'" and, when that didn't go over so well, saying, "Okay, then let's pretend that fireplace ashes can be used to 'put a dirty burned-up spin on things,' okay?" -- and hoping that the other kids will say, "Okay."

A more formal description of this way of thinking is called working by unverified personal gnosis.

Gnosis means "knowledge" -- and unverified personal gnosis is an academic way of saying, "You made that up and while you may believe it, there is no evidence that anyone else in the actual historically-known tradition you are describing ever believed it or did what you are describing that way. Sorry."

You see, unverified person gnosis is not how folk magic works, exactly.

Sure, all of the symbolic concepts in hoodoo came from someone's inventive mind, in that they are culturally-based, human-transmitted concepts, and not observable natural law in the way that math or physics are natural laws. In fact, the inventive cultural basis of every one of the world's many systems of folk magic is obvious, when you compare one region's folk-magic to another's and see how they differ, both in materia magica and in "ways of working."

However, in addition to the socio-cultural novelty inherent in each system of folk magic, there is also a long-running thread of stability in folk-magic, of conformity to the basic principles inherent in the system. Thus, when new technologies enter a culture -- photography, or audio recording devices, or candles, or packaged granulated sugar, to name four obvious examples -- they are, slowly or in a burst of popular enthusiasm, adopted into the magical culture, often within a few decades of their introduction.

For example, paraffin candles became commercially available after the U.S. Civil War, and were available in varied colours by the early 1920s, but it was not until 1936 that anyone observed hoodoo root doctors identifying certain colours of candles with certain spirits and certain mental, emotional, or spiritual conditions, and it was not until 1941 that the first book to deal with the topic extensively was published. Yet by the next year -- 1942 -- when a second, and then a third book that listed the meanings of candle colours were published in national distribution, the entire black culture of root doctors and their clients accepted this new methodology -- and it has remained a stable part of hoodoo ever since.

Now let's go back to your fireplace ashes. Fireplaces are not new technology, and ashes have been used in hoodoo since its far African origins -- but NOT in the way you have devised. It is highly unlikely at this late date, with fireplaces already on the decline as a technology, that your novel concept of their meaning will suddenly take African American conjure culture by storm, the way the concept of candle colour meanings did between 1936 and 1942.

So, since ashes already have a use in hoodoo, let's look at that use ... and let's start with African traditions, the basis of so much of the "ways of working" in hoodoo (as opposed to the "what is worked with," which are often natural curios and goods of Native American and European lore and legend).

In Africa, it is a commonplace among many tribes to use ashes as a form of concentrated spiritual marker (a "personal concern" or a "magical link" in the broadest senses of those terms) which conveys the essence of a plant, a place, a thing, or a person into a spell, rite, trick, or spiritual supply. You can read about this African usage of ashes in magic in any of the many anthropological books dealing with African sorcery and witchcraft of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as (to name a favourite one right off the top of my head, without going to my library) "Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande" by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (Oxford, 1937). Also you can see the use of ashes in the mooyoo or magical "load" in the nkisi ndoki figures of Gabon and adjacent regions. (See the AIRR Page on nkisi ndoki for details.)

As expected, these African ways of working with ashes have survived in hoodoo in America -- for instance, during the 1930s the folklorist Harry Hyatt recorded a spell from an African American informant in which the name of a person was burned to ashes and used to represent the person in making a compound to be laid on the ground for foot track magic. During the 1960 - 1970s i too learned many such ways of working with the ashes of names, including a way to triple-refine a name by repeatedly burning it with Quassia bark as a sort of last-ditch or desperate substitute for an actual personal bodily concern. (See my book "Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic" for details.)

So, in conclusion, ashes have a long history of use in hoodoo -- but they have never been given the meaning or use which you have made up for them -- and since this is a long-standing and wide-based tradition, i believe that your best position with respect to it is to learn from others and become a part of the culture rather than spin out your own novel ideas and expect people to suddenly jump on your train of thought. They are already riding other trains of thought, and my advice to you is, in the words of Jesse Fuller, "Get your ticket at the station, best get on board."

Good luck.

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