Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by catherine yronwode
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This lengthy article has been subdivided into several sections:
HOODOO, CONJURE, ROOTWORK: Definition of Terms: How I Define Hoodoo
WHAT HOODOO IS: An African-American Folk-Magic Tradition
WHAT HOODOO IS NOT: Voodoo, Santeria, Palo, Brujeria, etc.
ADMIXTURES: European, Spiritist, and Kabbalist Influences on Hoodoo
ADMIXTURES: Asian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist Influences on Hoodoo
RESPECT: What It Is
Hoodoo, Conjure, Rootwork, and similar terms refer to the practice of African American folk magic.
Hoodoo is an American term, originating in the 19th century or earlier. One of its meanings refers to African-American folk magic. Here is how i define the word "hoodoo":
Hoodoo consists of a large body of African folkloric practices and beliefs with a considerable admixture of American Indian botanical knowledge and European folklore. Although most of its adherents are black, contrary to popular opinion, it has always been practiced by both whites and blacks in America. Other regionally popular names for hoodoo in the black community include "conjuration," "conjure," "witchcraft," "rootwork," "candle burning," and "tricking." The first three are simply English words; the fourth is a recognition of the pre-eminence that dried roots play in the making of charms and the casting of spells, and the fifth and sixth are special meanings for common English words.
Hoodoo is used as a noun to name both the system of magic ("He used hoodoo on her") and its practitioners ("Doctor Buzzard was a great hoodoo in his day"). In the 1930s, some practitioners used the noun "hoodooism" (analogous with "occultism") to describe their work, but that term has dropped out of common parlance. Hoodoo is also an adjective ("he layed a hoodoo trick for her") and a verb ("she hoodooed that man until he couldn't love no one but her"). The verb "to hoodoo" appears in collections of early pre-blues folk-songs. For instance, in Dorothy Scarborough's book "On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs," (Harvard University Press, 1925), a field-collected version of the old dance-song "Cotton-Eyed Joe" tells of a man who "hoodooed" a woman.
A professional consultant who practices hoodoo on behalf of clients may be referred to as a "hoodoo doctor" or "hoodoo man" if male and a "hoodoo woman" or "hoodoo lady" if female. A typical early reference occurs in Samuel C. Taylor's diary for 1891, in which he describes and illustrates meeting with a "Hoodoo Doctor" while on a train. Taylor, a white man, recounts that the word "hoodoo" was taught to him by the black Pullman porter on the train. The "doctor" he describes was both an herbalist and folk-magician.
A remarkable blues song in
which the word hoodoo is used as a noun, as an adjective,
AND as a verb is
"Hoodoo Lady Blues" by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup,
recorded in October 1947 for Victor Records. (The
transcription is by Gorgen Antonsson,
Alan Balfour, firstname.lastname@example.org):
"HOODOO LADY BLUES"
Unlike the word "conjure," the origin of the word "hoodoo" is not known with certainty. It has for the most part
been assumed to be African, and some have claimed that it derives from
a word in the Hausa language for bad luck. However, its earliest
usage in America is connected with Irish and Scottish sailors, not
African slaves. in the mid 19th century, ships that had suffered a
series of ill-fated voyages and mishaps were called hoodoo ships or
were said to have been hoodoo'd. In
some accounts the problems onboard these vessels
were attributed to an evil spirit or
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
Believe I'll drop down in Louisiana, just to see a dear old friend of mine
Believe I'll drop down in Louisiana, just to see a dear old friend of mine
You know, maybe she can help me, durn my hard, hard time.
You know they tell me in Louisiana, there's hoodoos all over there
You know they tell me in Louisiana, there's hoodoos all over there
You know they'll do anything for the money, man, in the world, I declare.
Spoken: Yeah, man, play it for me [followed by guitar solo]
"Now, Miss Hoodoo Lady, please give me a hoodoo hand;
"Now, Miss Hoodoo Lady, please give me a hoodoo hand;
"I wanna hoodoo this woman of mine, I believe she's got another man."
Now, she squabbles all night long, she won't let me sleep.
Lord, I wonder what in the world this woman done done to me.
"Now, Miss Hoodoo Lady, please give me a hoodoo hand;
"Now, Miss Hoodoo Lady, please give me a hoodoo hand;
"I wanna hoodoo this woman of mine, I believe she's got another man."
Those who attribute the word hoodoo to Irish or Scottish seamen say that is is a phonetic transliteration of the Gaelic words Uath Dubh (pronounced hooh dooh), which means dark phantom, evil entity, or spiky ghost. (It is "spiky" because Uath -- hooh -- is, additionally, the Gaelic name for the spiky Hawthorn or May tree.) A Gaelic origin for the word hoodoo would also explain why a certain type of eerie geological rock formation across the Americas is similarly called a hoodoo -- Irish trappers and traders saw these weird objects as personified demons.
A Gaelic origin for the word hoodoo does, believe it or not, make sense in terms of African American history, for a large percentage of American sailors during the 19th century, especially before the Civil War, were African Americans, and they mingled freely with Irish sailors in the Atlantic shipping trade and in seaports from New York to New Orleans.
In earlier times a "hoodoo ship" was a term applied to a "ghost ship," that is, one found drifting with no crew. From there it became a more general term meaning a cursed or bad-luck ship. T
In early 20th century agricultural supplies, "hoodoo powder" was a compound applied to tree stumps to cause them to decay more 'rapidly -- again a reference to ghosts -- in this case the ghosts of dead trees.
That's not how the word is used now, though. In contemporary Britain, hoodoo usually refers to a sports-jinx ("Tottenham Hotspurs banish Manchester United hoodoo"). In the African American community, the word hoodoo has, for the past 100 years at least, referred to a whole set of magical practices, of which curses and bad luck are only a small part.
Eoghan Ballard has made an interesting argument that the word hoodoo derives from the Spanish word for "Jewish." Although this sounds unlikely on the face of it, there is some precedent for the idea: Among Cuban practitioners of Central African Mkisi-worship -- which is called Palo ("Sticks") in Spanish, due to its use of woods, roots, and herbs -- there are two major groups, those who practice Palo Cristiano (Christian Palo) and those who practice Palo Judio (Jewish Palo). In this context, the word Judio (pronounced hoo-dyoh) does not refer to Judaism per se; it refers to the fact that the adherents of this subset of Palo are unconverted to Christianity -- they retain African symbolism in their practice and, like the Jews, they have refused to give themselves over to Christianity. It is Eoghan's theory that the word hoodoo may derive from the special sense in which this Afro-Caribbean Spanish term Judio is used in Palo -- and would thus refer to African slaves who refused to renounce African customs and practices.
Some writers have said that the word "hoodoo" is a corruption of the word "Voodoo," but that seems highly unlikely. In the first place, Voodoo is a West African religion that was transplanted to Haiti (see below) and hoodoo is a system of primarily Central African magical belief and practice. Furthermore, the word "hoodoo" appears everywhere in the black community, but the word "Voodoo" co-exists with the word "hoodoo" primarily in the state of Louisiana (where it was brought by Haitian immigrants in the early 19th century) -- and even there the two terms refer to different things entirely. Finally, in other parts of the South, the word "Voodoo" is not encountered at all except in the writings of uninformed white people, and the terms "hoodoo," "rootwork," "conjure" and "witchcraft" are variously applied to the system of African-American folk-magic.
A long discussion of the regional distribution of these terms can be found in Harry Middleton Hyatt's "Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork," a 5-volume, 4,766-page collection of material (consisting of 13,458 separate magic spells and folkloric beliefs) gathered by Hyatt from 1,600 informants in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia between 1936 and 1940. It is worth noting that in all the interviews Hyatt recorded, rootwork practitioners, even in New Orleans, spoke only of hoodoo, never of Voodoo. In fact, the only conspicuous use of the word Voodoo occurs in a typed letter sent to Hyatt by an educated black hoodoo doctor who encouraged him to make an appointment to interview him. This root worker was fully aware that he was writing to a white man and it is quite clear from the context of the letter that he was tailoring his speech to fit what he believed to be the white folklorist's preconceptions.
"Some ... some say voodoo. But we ...
it's known in New Orleans as hoodoo."
-- Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, 1938.
This oddity of locution -- black people calling their magical practice hoodoo and white people calling it Voodoo, as if by doing so they could convince black folks that rootwork is a West African or Haitian religion -- is clearly noted in Zora Neale Hurston's important book on the subject, "Mules and Men," published in 1935.
Hurston was an African American folklorist with a fine ear for dialect who also wrote a book on Haitian Voodoo ("Tell My Horse"), so she spoke with authority when she referred to her subject as "Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as it is pronounced by the whites."
Hurston indicated with one sly double-bodied verb that it is both a white error of dialect to "pronounce" the word hoodoo as Voodoo, and it is also a white error of academic authority to "pronounce" the practice of hoodoo to BE Voodoo.
Now, it could be argued that Hurston was from Florida and that she preferred the word hoodoo to Voodoo, even though the latter was the more common term in New Orleans -- but such an idea can definitely be countered by referring to an interview that Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, an African American Creole native of New Orleans (and a famous jazz musician in his own right) gave to the folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress in 1938.
Morton, who was quite conscious of the recording of the interview and its historical importance, went out of his way to explain many local idioms and turns of speech to Lomax, who was a white man basically ignorant of such matters. When Morton began describing to Lomax why a multiple murderer in New Orleans was never prosecuted, he interrupted the flow of his own words to explain his terminology to Lomax. He said:
"I guess the reason why he got out of trouble so much, it was often known that Madame Papaloos was the lady that ... always backed him when he got in trouble. I don't mean with funds, or anything like that. Money wasn't really in it. As I understand, she was a hoodoo woman. Some ... some say voodoo. But we ... it's known in New Orleans as hoodoo."Reading between the lines in Morton's polite and erudite speech pattern, it is easy to recognize that the "some ... some" are white people -- but he did not wish to offend Lomax by naming them as such -- and that the "we" are the black Creoles of New Orleans. (A lengthy extract from the interview is at the Southern Spirits web page titled "'Jelly Roll' Morton on Hoodoo in New Orleans."
My experience parallels that of Hyatt, Hurston, and Morton, for i too have found that in most cases where the words "hoodoo" and "Voodoo" appear to be used interchangeably, further research discloses that a rural black speaker used the word "hoodoo" and a white or urban black author, editor, or indexer either mistranscribed the word as "Voodoo" or erroneously "explained" the speaker's meaning by claiming that hoodoo actually is Voodoo. Examples of this error are too numerous to mention; they can be found everywhere in printed folklore studies and on the world wide web. For example: the book "Voodoo and Hoodoo" by Jim Haskins is not about Voodoo; it is about hoodoo -- and Haskins, who is black, knows it, too, and said so in the body of the text; but still he allowed his publisher to perpetuate the error in his title.
Furthermore, in collecting old African American songs about hoodoo, two things are quite apparent: First there are no recordings of songs by white Americans that mention hoodoo until long after the Second World War (and during this same time-period there are hundreds of recordings by black musicians from all around the country that name and / or describe hoodoo and its practices), and, second, none of those earlier songs by black nusicians refer to "Voodoo;" it is not until the post-War electric-urban rhythm and blues period that black singers took their cues from white record producers and began to call hoodoo Voodoo in recorded songs. For a clear example of this, see the lyrics transcriptions of two different recordings of "The Mojo Boogie" by J. B. Lenoir.
In African American communities along the Eastern seaboard, the word "witchcraft" is often used as a synonym for hoodoo. While the work described is more African than European in character, the terminology follows the old British sense of the word, wherein "witchcraft" is viewed as both a healing art and a harmful activity. However, whereas in mainstream English "witch" and "witchcraft" are purely nouns, in many black communities, "witchcraft" can be a verb when used in a negative context: Thus, a witch is said to "practice witchcraft" and his victim is said to have "been witchcrafted," rather than the mainstream English "been bewitched." Thus it would be proper to say, "She witchcrafted that old man until she just about run him crazy."
In some areas, people reserve the word "hoodoo" to refer to harmful magic and have another term, like "spiritual work," for beneficial magic, but in other regions, hoodoo is said to include everything from love spells to protection magic. Likewise, in the Carolinas, where the word "witchcraft" is more popular than the word "hoodoo," "witchcraft" generally means harmful (hoodoo) magic, and "helping yourself" means performing (hoodoo) spells that may increase your happiness, draw money, or enhance gambling luck.
"Conjure -- sometimes spelled "cunjure" to express old-fashioned dialect pronunciation -- is another regional term for hoodoo. It derives from the English "conjurer," but what is described is neither invocatory magic nor prestidigitation, which is what the words imply in standard English. In the African American community, a "conjurer," "conjure," "cunjure," or "cunjure doctor" is a hoodoo practitioner, and the work he does is "conjure," "cunjure," "conjure doctoring," "cunjure doctoring," "conjuration," or "cunjeration."
Generally speaking, "conjure" does not carry the negative or cursing connotation that "hoodoo" can -- and the old-fashioned figure of a "conjure man" or "conjure woman" is not quite as open to frightening associations as "hoodoo man" or "hoodoo woman."
The term "candle burning" as a generic descriptor for spell-casting of any kind became increasingly common in the wake of the 1942 publication of the popular instruction manual, "The Master Book of Candle Burning" by Henri Gamache, The phrase is taken from the book's title and it refers to the widesprad use of candle magic among those who frequent black occult shops in urban areas. These stores, which were once equally often known as "herb shops" or "drug stores," stock a wide variety of products, including medical herbs, minerals, and animal curios. Since the early 1940s, they have also been called "candle shops," and the form of spiritual work they propagate into the black community is now known to many as "candle burning." It should be noted, however, that "candle burning" does not refer exclusively to the lighting of candles for magical purposes; it is a generic term that encompasses the use of oils, powders, herbs, incense, and other preparations -- and thus, a person suspected of practicing magic of any kind aganst an enemy might be said to be "burning candles on her."
The word "trick" is not all that common among hoodoo practitioners, but is still used often enough to have generated subsidiary terms like "trick doctor," "trick bag," "laying down tricks," "tricking," and "tricky." A trick bag is a mojo bag. Being "tricky means "liable to use conjure when you least suspect it," and can be heard in context in the song "Hoodoo Lady" by Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas): "You better watch her -- she's tricky!"
Other terms for a professional hoodoo practitioner are "root doctor," "root worker," "two-head(ed) doctor," "two-head(ed) woman," and "two-head(ed) man." The first two refer to rootwork -- the use of herbs for medical and magical purposes; the latter three are African survivals, referring to the worker's contact with spirits who reside in the cunjure doctor's head and may guide him or her.
Descriptive verbs for performing harmful hoodoo spell work include to "hurt," "jinx" "trick," "cross", "put that stuff (or thing or jinx) on [someone]," "throw for [someone]" (when powders are utilized), and "poison" (which can refer to contacted as well as ingested substances). Curative magic to counteract these operations may be called "uncrossing", "jinx-breaking," "turning the trick" (sending it back to the sender), "reversing the jinx" (sending it back), or "taking off those crossed conditions."
The ambiguous verb "fix" can refer to either harmful or benign magical operations or conjure work. Generally speaking, when "fix" is applied to an inanimate object -- as in "fixing up a mojo," or "he makes fixed candles," or "she fixed some baths for him" -- the intention is helpful and the word is synonymous with "prepare," "anoint," or "dress." But when the verb "fix" is applied to a person rather than an object -- "she fixed him," "she got him fixed," or "I'm going to use Boss Fix powder on my supervisor," -- the subtextual implication is that the intention is to either manipulate or harm the client's enemies. The only exception to this is in the phrase "she fixed her pussy," where the woman dresses or prepares her own genital organs in such a way that any man coming into contact will be magically captured. In this case the intention is helpful to the woman who fixes her pussy, but manipulative to the man who thus finds that "she hoodood his nature."
If the hoodoo practitioner or conjure worker is also a clairvoyant or a psychic reader he or she may also be known as a "gifted reader," a "fortune teller," or a "Black Gypsy. The reader may divine your future by means of playing cards or tarot cards, palmistry or hand reading, tea cup reading, bone reading, with a pendulum or a spirit board, or by direct second sight or prophesy. Not all readers will "work" for you or practice hoodoo, but most workers will "read for you." Those gifted readers who practice hoodoo folk magic for their clients within a Christian religious context, especially (but not exclusively) within the Spiritualist Church, are sometimes called "spiritual doctors," "spiritual workers," or "spiritual ladies," and are said to perform only "spiritual work," by which it is meant that they will pray for a client and "help" him (magically), but they will not lay tricks or put on jinxes to hurt a client's enemies.
Folk magic is a world-wide phenomenon. The beliefs and customs brought to America by African slaves mingled here with the beliefs, customs, and botanical knowledge of Native Americans and with the Christian, Jewish, and pagan folklore of European immigrants. The result was hoodoo.
The hoodoo tradition places emphasis on personal magical power and thus it lacks strong links to any specific form of theology and can be adapted to any one of several forms of outward religious worship. Although an individual practitioner may take on students, hoodoo, conjure, and rootwork are not obviously hierarchical systems. Teachings and rituals are handed down from a one practitioner to another, but there are no priests or priestesses and no division between initiates and laity.
Root doctors and gifted readers are widely sought after by clients. Whereas in the typical White Protestant Christian social model, especially in its more right-wing form, where magic-workers are shunned or relegated to the outskirts of the community, African-American conjures may be pillars of their community and well-respected members of their churches and fraternal orders. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the best workers became nationally known and people travelled hundreds of miles to consult with them. Among such well known root workers were Doctor Buzzard of Beaufort, South Carolina; Doctor Jim Jordan of Murfreesboro, North Carolina; Aunt Caroline Dye of Newport, Arkansas (shown here); and the Seven Sisters of New Orleans, the latter two both celebrated in rural blues songs.
Of all the pantheon of African deities, one, variously known as Nbumba Nzila, Ellegua, Legba, or Eshu in Africa, is clearly recognizable in hoodoo: he is the "dark man" or "black man" or "devil" one can meet at the crossroads -- a direct iteration of his role in African theology. As a trickster and opener of the way, he is vaguely similar to the Teutonic pagan devil, and like that deity, he is often confused by Christians and Jews with the Biblical Satan, but he is not that entity, and many wise hoodooists know well that he is not.
Like the folk magic of many other cultures, hoodoo attributes magical properties to herbs, roots, minerals (especially the lodestone), animal parts, and the personal possessions and bodily effluvia of people. The African origins of hoodoo, rootwork, and conjure can clearly be seen in such magical customs as jinxing, hot footing, foot track magic, crossing, and crossroads magic, in which are embedded remnants of the folkloric beliefs of the Congo, Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe people (whose religions in African and the diaspora are variously known as Palo Mayombe, Santeria, Lucumi, Ocha, Umbanda, Kimina, Candomble, Orisha-worship, Loa-worship, Nkisi-worship, etc., but who do not practice hoodoo per se.) A generic term for this class of folk-magical operation is tricking or laying down tricks.
Foot track magic ascribes magical essence to a person's footprint. In practice, the conjurer may, for instance, bury the lifted footprint dirt of his or her victim in a bottle spell with other items or lay a trick by sprinkling a mineral-based powder such as Goofer Dust, an herb-and mineral formula such as Hot Foot Powder, or a scented sachet powder across the victim's foot track, where it will be stepped upon. Walking over the buried bottle spell or contact between the powder and the victim's foot results in magical "poisoning," an "unnatural illness," or a run of bad luck.
Hot Foot Powder is the name for a mineral and herb powder mix used in a sub-set of foot track magic called hot footing, drive away, or get away work. The Hot Foot Powder is typically sprinkled around the doorway or threshold of an enemy and will cause him or her to leave home and wander the world. It may be laid across a path leading to a home or sprinkled in a place of business, but the classical application is at the enemy's door.
Crossing is a sub-set of foot track magic in which the person's path is "crossed" with a mark drawn in the dust or laid out with herbs or powders. The "hurt" enters the victim through the feet when he or she walks over the mark or trick. Typical crossing marks include wavy lines, crosses, and X's (the latter two usually drawn within circles). They are sometimes spit into or upon to activate them. Crossing may also include setting out crossed needles, pins, nails, or brooms to work a spell.
Because it is an important retention of Central African folk magic traditions, by extension, the word crossing has also come to be a near-synonym for jinxing, a form of curse in which the practitioner throws herbs, powders, or prepared waters or oils into an enemy's yard or performs a candle-burning curse. The "crossed" or "jinxed" victim is said to suffer unexplained bad luck, often for years on end.
Antidotes for foot track magic include finding and destroying the buried bottle spell; setting out salt to kill the roots; performing a ritual bath, sweeping, and floor washing to remove the powders; and the wearing of protective amulets, such as a silver dime, or nine Devil's Shoe String twigs, in the shoes or around the ankles.
Antidotes for crossing and jinxing are called uncrossing and jinx-breaking respectively, and they may entail candle-burning, retaliatory curses, and the wearing of amulets.
Hoodoo -- especially in the form called "rootwork" -- makes use of Native American botanical folklore, but usually for magical rather than medical purposes. American plant species like the John the Conqueror Root (Ipomoea jalapa) shown here have taken on great significance in hoodoo --- a significance that precisely parallels their usage among Native herb doctors.
The influence that Natives had on rootwork is openly acknowledged, for the concept of the "powerful Indian" or "Indian Spirit" is endemic in conjure and crops up again and again in the names given to hoodoo herbal formulas and magical curios. Many of the most famous rootwork practitioners of the 19th and 20th centuries came from mixed-race families and proudly spoke of learning about herbs from an "Indian Grandma." More information about the Native American sources of hoodoo herbal and zoological curios can be found in my book "Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic."
Hoodoo also freely incorporates European botanical folklore -- e.g. the notion that carrying a buckeye nut will cure rheumatism, which is German and Dutch in origin. Furthermore, since at least the early 20th century, most hoodoo and conjure practitioners have familiarized themselves with European-derived books of magic and Kabbalism such as the "Albertus Magnus Egyptian Secrets" compilation, "Pow-Wows or The Long-Lost Friend," "Secrets of the Psalms," "The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses," and so forth.
The use of Moon phases in spell-casting, astrological signs of the Zodiac in magical symbolism, and Planetary days of the week for timing of magic spells and recitation of Psalms, and Prayers -- derived from Jewish and Christian magical sources -- are all to be found in conjure, and moreso among practitioners who are urban or who have had access to books on those subjects.
However, although many African-American root doctors work with information about herbs and astrological magic derived from Mediaeval and modern European folklore, the typical hoodoo practitioner or conjure doctor does not place as much emphasis on European systems of word-magic (gematria), number-magic (numerology), or astronomical magic (astrology) as European-American practitioners do. also, while maintaining an altar for candles and incense are almost invariably part of any hoodoo doctor's or conjure practitioner's set-up, hoodoo conjurations themselves require none of the typical neo-pagan accoutrements such as knives (athames), cauldrons, chalices, or wands.
When it comes to divination systems, a few urban hoodoo and conjure readers use astrology and some read tea-leaves, palms, or cards -- but they are as likely to use a deck of 52 playing cards as a tarot set -- and they may call what they do "Gypsy fortune telling," a term that came into wide use in the black community around World War Two. The oldest form of hoodoo divination, "casting the bones" or "reading the bones," is a direct survival of a West African system of divination with bones. The American version, rarely encountered in urban conjure or hoodoo practice today, uses a variety of chicken bones or possum bones and maintains much the same form it had in Africa. Another type of divination, in which a specially prepared mojo hand called a Jack-ball serves as a pendulum, is mainly consulted to determine whether one will have luck in gambling at a given time.
Divination from dreams is an important part of hoodoo, too. Practitioners consult "dream books," alphabetical listings in which each dream image is accompanied by a short interpretation and a set of lucky numbers to use in gambling. In former times, the most popular numbers game in the African American community was an illegal lottery called Policy, and some of the older dream books, such as the perennially popular "Aunt Sally's Policy Players Dream Book" still carry that name in their title, although now they are used by folks who play state lotteries. Also still popular are the many dream books by Professor Uriah Konje and Professor de Herbert (two pseudonyms of Herbert Gladstone Parris). The popularity of dream divination in the African-American community is testified to by the fact that in 1942, one major supplier, King Novelty Co., sold no less than 16 different competing dream books. Almost as many are still available today.
Probably the one thing that most distinguishes hoodoo from other systems of folk magic is the centrality of the mojo bag or mojo hand, also called a conjure bag. This item, also known as a conjure hand, toby, trick bag, jomo, or nation sack, frequently takes the form of a flannel bag filled with roots, herbs, minerals, and other "curios." The mojo bag is usually carried on the person, but it can also be hidden in the bedroom or at a place of business, or placed behind a doorway. There is a taboo against anyone who is not the owner touching it.
While numerous other cultures also utilize personal magical bags -- the so-called "fetish" bags of Native Americans and the red woolen bags used by "witches" in Tuscany -- the mojo hand is essentially African; its closest cultural relatives are the Afro-Caribbean wanga or oanga bag used in Obeah magic and the pacquet used in Voodoo. Variant forms of hand include the luck ball, wound of yarn or string around a hidden object; the black hen's egg, which is blown out and then refilled with magical powders; and the Jack ball mentioned above, a luck-ball-cum-pendulum consulted in divination.
Like European magic, hoodoo makes use of ritual candles, incense, conjure oils, and sachet powders -- to which are added, due to the African emphasis on footprint magic and spiritual cleansing, floor washes and spiritual baths. Unlike European-derived magic, however, the hoodoo formulas for these products have no high-flown Mediaeval or New Age names such as "Astral Powder" or "Oil of Jupiter" or "Serenity Incense." Instead, a hoodoo spell -- called a "job" -- consists of "fixing up" a mojo or prescribing a ritual for bringing in good luck or diagnosing metaphysical problems and then countering them. These metaphysical problems are called "conditions." The formulae for hoodoo oils, incense, sachet powders, floor washes, baths, and candles used to bring about luck and to "stop evil conditions" are named after the conditions themselves. Among these are such traditional and colourful titles as "Money Stay With Me", "Essence of Bend-Over", "Compelling", "Kiss Me Now", "Hot Foot", "Follow Me Boy", "Law Keep Away", "Fast Luck", "Court Case", and "Fiery Wall of Protection". These names have led many Caucasians trained in European herb-magic to think that hoodoo is "fake magic," but when the formulae themselves are examined, one will find remarkable similarities between, for example, neo-pagan "Oil of Venus" and hoodoo "Love Me Oil." This is not to say that all suppliers of hoodoo formulae deliver the herb-based products one hopes they will (any more than all manufacturers of neo-pagan formulae do), but hoodoo books on herb magic show that the knowledge base is comparable in scope and in seriousness of purpose.
Hoodoo is not the name of a religion nor a denomination of a religion, although it incorporates elements from African and European religions in terms of its core beliefs.
As you may guess by now, it is not at all correct to refer to African-American hoodoo as "Voodoo." Voodoo (also spelled "Vodoun" and always capitalized, as a religion's name should be) is a Haitian religion that is quite African (Dahomean, in this case) in character. Above all, it is a RELIGION. The word "Voodoo" derives from an African word meaning "spirit" or "God."
One reason for the confusion between hoodoo and Voodoo is that the study of African American rootwork with respect to African systems of belief has only recently risen above the level of mere speculation.
Older outsider-scholarly-academic accounts of hoodoo tended to emphasize West African linkages, in part because that area of Africa was heavily traversed during the 19th century by English speaking Christian missionaries who published books mentioning "native customs" -- which American slave-owners saw as similar to practices they observed among their slaves. This is why many 19th century accounts of hoodoo by white authors call it "Voodoo." However, by mid-20th century, with the publication of "Flash of the Spirit" by Robert Farris Thompson, scholarly focus shifted to the Congo as the source of most of what anthropologists would call "African retentions" in conjure -- beliefs, customs, sayings, or even complete rituals that have been recorded in Africa and that have survived in the United States through the many centuries that Africans have lived here.
As recent scholarship has uncovered, Congo African retentions more closely account for patterns of belief and practice found in American hoodoo than West African retentions do -- and this Congo emphasis also accords well with demographic reconstructions of the original homes of North American slaves.
Other African-diaspora religious syntheses sometimes confused with hoodoo include African-Cuban Santeria and Palo, African-Brazilian Candomble and Umbanda, and African-Jamaican Obeah. In most of these religions, as practiced in the Americas, African deities are masked with Spanish, French, or Portuguese Catholicism, and the Yoruban, Fon, and Congolese spirits (Orishas, Loas, and Nkisi) are nominally replaced by proxy Catholic saints, sometimes called the Seven African Powers.
Newcomers to hoodoo -- especially white folks with an interest in what they believe to be "exotic" or "other-cultural" experiences -- often tell themselves (and, if they are authors, their unfortunate public) that hoodoo is Voodoo and, further, the true and authentic source for all things hoodoo / Voodoo can be found only in Haiti and / or New Orleans. This is manifestly untrue, and can be demonstrated to be a fiction by anyone who cares to interview rootworkers outside of the Crescent City.
Until the 1970s, when there was a widespread American revival of interest in African religions, the only place Voodoo had been openly practiced in the United States was New Orleans, where Haitian slaves (and their refugee masters) had settled after the Haitian slave rebellion of 1803. However, these few boatloads of refugees from Haiti did not constitute the majority of African American slaves in New Orleans, many of whom had been transported directly from Africa, via Spanish-speaking Cuba, or were "sold down the river" from farther up the Mississippi Delta.
One hundred years after the Haitian slave rebellion, New Orleans did have a vibrant Creole culture, but -- and this is extremely important to understand -- by the 1930s, when scholarly folkloric attention turned to the religions of New Orleans, Voodoo had become so debased in memory that even the African American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston found no trace of it. Voodoo in New Orleans had lost any claim to being a true religion, insofar as a religion can be distinguished by the presence of a clergy and a laity, a manner of recognizing fellow congregants, a regular meeting place for worship, and a liturgical order of services in veneration of a supra-human entity. No congregation, peristyle, house, or community of worshippers in New Orleans was practicing Voodoo and whatever remained of Voodoo in New Orleans. There were no regular places of Voodoo worship, ordained or initiated clergy, or regular congregants.
Instead of Voodoo, New Orleans was home to another thriving
community of Christian folk-magic practitioners who called what they did
hoodoo, and their brand of hoodoo was infused with concepts gleaned from the new religion of
Spiritualism and the old religion of Catholicism. Spiritualism, a religion
founded in the 19th century, had become popular in black communities all around the
nation. There were -- and are -- black Spiritualist churches in Northern cities such as Chicago, New York,
Kansas City, and Detroit as well as in western cities like Oakland and Los Angeles.
During segregationist times, the black Spiritualist denominations began to refer to
themselves as part of the the Spiritual Church Movement, rather than Spiritualism,
and their churches were called Spiritual Churches rather than Spiritualist Churches,
to distinguish them from white-only or segregated Spiritualist Churches.
In recent years, contact between Americans and Haitians, an influx of Haitian immigrants to the USA, and the popularity of Voodoo among interested white practitioners with backgrounds in Paganism and/or Hermetic magic have led to the creation of a form of the ritualized practice hat goes under the name New Orleans Voodoo.
New Orleans Voodoo is a newly constructed faux-religion which has no cultural, family, liturgical, or social roots in traditional African, African-American, or Haitian religions, but traces back to literary sources instead. Since the mid 20th century it has evolved under the hands of four major promoters, none of whom had direct lineage transmission from the previous ones and each of whom accreted a small following which took no part in the major social life of New Orleans.
Each of these promoters was or is an author and/or the owner of a tourist venue or a store. Each of these promoters and their followers drew or draw upon a handful of 20th century anthropological and popular works describing Haitian Voodoo, which they use as source-books for their performances. These source-books include the works of authors such as Zora Neale Hurston (1938), Maya Deren (1953), Alfred Metraux (1958), Milo Rigaud (1969), and Wade Davis (1985). At best the fabrications of these promoters can be said to be historical fantasy recreations in the style of the Renaissance Faire venues in the USA, and at worst they have been a means to part sincere seekers from their money under the guise of offering exotic initiations or ecstatic worship services that are spurious at their root.
The four major promoters of the faux-religion of New Orleans Voodoo have been Robert Tallant (1940s), Charles Gandolfo (1960s-1990s), Sallie Ann Glassmann (1990s), and Denise Alvarado (2000s). Other, less well-known, promoters have included the author and publisher Raymond J. Martinez (1950s), the dancer Ava Kay Jones (1980s-1990s), the author and store owner Sharon Caulder (1990s), the store owner Miriam Chemani (1990s - present), the author John Shrieve, and the paranormal / haunted tour organizer "Bloody Mary."
New Orleans Voodoo has historically had no community membership base, in Louisiana other than as a source of employment for shop employees, dancers, authors, and publishers. These faux-religionists write books, compose music, sell Voodoo-themed goods in their shops, hold Voodoo-themed festivals and workshops, and put on Voodoo-themed dance and drumming performances for tourists. The latter events were especially popular under the direction of Charles Gandolfo and Ava Kay Jones.
New Orleans Voodoo has been promoted to the outside world by small independent coteries of less than ten or twenty core participants who charge money for their literature, workshops, museums, tours, and/or performances. Its wider range of participants are tourists and spiritual seekers; there is a notable and significant lack of community participation from the environs of New Orleans. None of its leaders or followers can demonstrate that its practices spring from a local community base.
Having been repeatedly accused of fakery, some of the promoters of New Orleans Voodoo have belatedly sought initiations in Africa or Haiti to add gravitas to their literary mining expeditions through well-known works describing Haitian Voodoo. Others have gone out of their way to acquire actual African artifacts to display in their museums, or to purchase Brazilian Quimbanda statuary to resell as spurious Voodoo goods. At least one made a point of importing Haitian art for sale -- some of which, it turned ut, was manufactured for her by a movie-prop maker in Hollywood California. And always among the expensive and exotic faux-Voodoo religious goods are salted a dizzying variety of small, cheap faux-Voodoo trinkets made in China, often decorated in Mardi Gras style, as if Mardi Gras were an alternative form of Voodoo. And, of course, when they wish to promote "magick" or "spell-casting", they turn to traditional African American hoodoo, which they re-brand as Voodoo.
Santeria is a Cuban derivation of a West African religion that was introduced to the U.S. as early as 1954, when the first African-Americans were initiated by Cuban-born priests of Lucumi in New York City. It experienced rapid growth during the 1970s when the Cultural Nationalist movement led many American-born blacks to investigate their African heritage and a sudden upswing of immigration from Cuba simultaneously brought an influx of Santeros to the United States. Santeria and Lucumi are now widespread and flourishing among immigrant and U.S.-born people of various races.
Santeria worship features drumming and songs of praise in honour of the diety and an array of supra-human spiritual entities called the orishas. The orishas of santeria have been likened to demi-gods, nature spirits, angels, archangels, or Catholic saints, depending on whom you ask (and it is not my intention here to determine the accuracy of those claims, merely to note them). In Santeria services, veneration is made and offerings are tendered to the orishas and to the ancestral dead, and participants may experience trance possession or "mounting" by the spirits. Santeria offerings include blood sacrifices, and ceremonies may feature the killing of small domestic animals such as chickens, goats, and ducks and the licking of their blood, as well as offerings of rum, cigar smoke, fruit, and other foods.
The veneer of Catholicism that Cuban Santeria acquired over the past few centuries is gradually being abandoned in the United States, especially by American Santeros who are actively interchanging information with Nigerians in an attempt to bridge the gap formed by years of diaspora.
Interestingly, one of the many Catholicized proxy images of Santeria --the so-called Seven African Powers, which consists of seven orishas disguised as Catholic saints -- did enter into hoodoo practice during the African Cultural Nationalist era of the late 1970s and can be found in the form of candles, powders, incense, and the like. Its use in hoodoo is emblematic, however, and not religious; it refers to the African ancestors, generally speaking, and not to the orishas or to specific tribal groups of African people. In a sense, the "exoticism" of this image in hoodoo is a parallel to the older (and stil contemporary) employment of "Lucky Buddha" or "Moses" or "Indian Spirit Guide" images in hoodoo; it borrows and draws upon powerful pre-existing religio-magical imagery, without committing the user to leave Christianity or to participate in a religion about which the practitioner has only a general knowledge.
Cuba, the same Caribbean island that gave rise to Santeria from the remnants of West African Lukumi, is also was the origination-point for a diasporic adaptation of the Central African or Congo religion. The Spanish name for this religion, which includes some Catholic imagery, is Palo, which means "stick" -- a reference to the use of herbs, barks, wood, and roots in the folk-magic of Africans and their descendants. There are various lineages of Palo in Cuba, and the best-known terms for them in America are Palo Monte and Palo Mayombe.
As with Cuban Santeria, Palo has its own deity and its own lengthy lists of supra-human spiritual entities, the kimpungulu or mpungus, to whom veneration is made and offerings are tendered at ceremonies that ' feature drumming and trance possession. These offerings include blood sacrifies, and ceremonies may feature the killing of small domestic animals such as chickens, goats, and ducks. Offerings of rum, cigar smoke, fruit and foods may be given as well.
Just as Voodoo developed among African slaves in Haiti and Santeria-Lukumi and Palo developed among African slaves in Cuba, so did a variety of other African diasporic religions develop among African slaves in other nations along the eastern coast of Central and South America. These religions -- Quimbanda, Umbanda, Candomble, 21 Divisiones -- feature trance possession by spirits and they developed independently of Voodoo, Santeria-Lukumi, or Palo in nations such as Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Belize, and Suriname. They each have their own deities, and their own range of supra-human spiritual entities to whom venerations, blood sacrifies and/or offerings of food, alcohol, and tobacco are made. Insofar as immigrants from these nations have settled in the United States and American citizens have traveled to these nations, sought initiations into these religions, and brought their practices back to the United States, there are small, distinct groups of adherents to these religions in the United States. None of these groups can be traced back farther than the 1950s (in New York City) and most arrived after the 1970s (in Florida and California).
None of these initiatic religions contributed to the development of hoodoo in the United States. However, as with the image of the Seven African Powers of Santeria, one specific image from these religions -- Santa Marta Dominadora / Lubana, an entity from the 21 Divisiones religion of the Dominican Republic (conflated by name, but not by appearance with the French Catholic Saint Martha the Dominator / Santa Marta of Tarascon) -- entered into hoodoo during the late 1990s in the form of statuary and printed labels. Lubana is an image of a powerful woman with snakes in her hands, and its use by hoodoo practitioners borrows from and draws upon pre-existing religio-magical imagery, without committing the user to abandon Christianity or to participate in a religion about which he or she has little knowledge.
This is not true. Contact between African Americans in the deep South and Scots-Irish Appalachians in the Mountain South were very limited. (Mostly, they met later in northern cities after the Great Northern Migration, in factory towns like Gary, Indiana.)
The mistake is that these johnny-come-latelies to African American culture think that Appalachian folk magic is a "root" source of hoodoo. It is not. It is, like hoodoo, actually a "branch." It is a branch of Scottish-Irish-English folk magic.
Hoodoo, which originated with African ways of working, also draws on Scottish-Irish traditions, but via contact with the descendants of English slave masters and their Scots-Irish bond servants in the South, not via contact with Appalachian farmers and fur trappers.
Furthermore, both were influenced by contact with Native Americans.
In other words, hoodoo has more sources and is more comingled than Appalachian folk magic, but although Appalachian folk magic and hoodoo share one source (Scots-Irish folk magic), hoodoo did not ever draw upon (much less "draw heavily") from Appalachian customs and traditions.
As for the idea that hoodoo "draws heavily" from French folk magic, that is simply a fantasy. Such an influence can be found in one limited region, rural Louisiana, where the traiteur tradition lingers -- but not French people settled into Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, or Texas to have made any impression at all upon the folk magic of black people in those regions.
The bulk of the African-American populace in the U.S. -- that is, those people who are primarily descended from African slaves and Anglo-American slave-owners -- practice the religion known as Protestant Christianity. The major denominations represented are Baptist, Methodist, and African Methodist Episcopalian. If, in addition to their regular Sunday worship they also engage in folk-magic, what they are doing would in all probability be the African-European-American conflation called hoodoo, conjure, or rootwork.
There are, of course, certain customs and beliefs which can be seen as more or less "Pan-African" (ancestor veneration comes to mind as an example) and these need not be linked to one African group or another -- for virtually every African captive would have shared these beliefs. Likewise, certain food customs and recipes have either been retained from Africa or have been fairly uniformly adapted into European-American cuisine in such a way that these foods are as recognizably black American as the African folkways that are noted by anthropologists
One thing i look out for when trying to determine the actuality of African retentions over the course of hundreds of years in the USA is their distribution pattern. African captives themselves were distributed widely throughout the Americas, both North and South, in the Northeastern urbanized region as well as in the better-documented rural Southern "slave states." In ALL of those places, you will find common African retentions, such as -- to name four of them off the top of my head:
These ideas, and other similar African magical customs, will be found everywhere that black folks live in America, from Sandusky, Ohio to Atlanta, Georgia. Not everyone will "believe" in them or use them, but they are a common heritage in the culture and will be encountered on a regular basis -- just the way you will see Irish Americans all over the USA talking about hanging horseshoes with the points up "or the luck will run out."
So when someone tells me that a common African American belief derives from "New Orleans Voodoo" i just smile. It is African, and it is EVERYWHERE. New Orleans is just a little part of everywhere.
The African aspects of hoodoo -- foot track magic, crossroads magic, laying down tricks, ritual sweeping and floor washing, and ritual bathing -- have been well documented by folklorists interested in exploring what are called "African survivals" in American black culture. What is less well recognized is the evidence that hoodoo practice during the 20th century (and arguably in the late 19th century as well), was greatly admixed with European folk-magic, Mediaeval conjuration, Jewish Kabbalism, Allan Kardecian Spiritism, and even a smattering of Hindu mysticism.
What is incorporated into hoodoo from European grimoires does not go "by the book." It does not look much like what one imagines Abramelin the Mage or Faust to have done, nor does it resemble ceremonial magick as practiced in European and American occult lodge systems since the 19th century. This is because hoodoo incorporations of European grimoire material fall into four categories:
1) Employment of botanical, mineral, and zoological curios according to the "wonder book" tradition of Anglo-Germanic Europe (e.g. "Albertus Magnus Egyptian Secrets" and John George Hohman's "Pow-Wows or The Long-Lost Friend.");
2) Recital of Psalms and selected Biblical verses for magical purposes according to Jewish (and later Christian) magical traditions as exemplified in , which was translated into German and thence into English under the title Godfrey Selig's "Secrets of the Psalms"; and
3) Recital or writing out of selected "power words" according to the pagan European and Jewish magical traditions, such as the SATOR square (ancient Roman), and SHADDAI (Jewish), which are found in such books or may have been acquired through direct contact with contemporary Jews.
4) The use of Moon phases and Moon signs in timing magic spells to "draw" or "repel" according to the Moon's waxing and waning and and understanding of Zodiacal and Planetary symbolism in spell-casting.
5) Employment of talismans, lucky charms, lucky coins, and seals and sigils made according to the Christian-Jewish Kabbalist meld that produced European grimoires such as "The Key of Solomon," and "The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses" -- but without the rites themselves, just the use of the seals; The creation of ritual circles, robes, and tools and other strictly ceremonialist material in the grimoires -- and it is important to note that not all grimoires of European origin even do contain ceremonialist instructions regarding circles, consecrated swords, and the like in the first place -- has been elided in hoodoo. What are used are the words (Psalms and Jewish kabbalist and pagan European power words) and the pictures (seals and sigils). In practical terms, the seals are made into paper talismans and placed in mojo bags or other packets.
Because the topic of European and Jewish inclusions in hoodoo is fraught with racial and social land-mines, especially when one takes into consideration the commercial contributions of Jewish chemists and suppliers of conjure goods -- and because this long history has been repeatedly glossed over or flatly disputed by those whose academic careers rest upon discovering African survivals in hoodoo to the exclusion of any European influences, i would like to present here a single case study dealing with one book of European magic and its profound influence on 20th century hoodoo. The book is John George Hohman's "Pow-Wows or The Long-Lost Friend."
If you are unfamiliar with this book, perhaps you should click on
its link and acquaint yourself with it before reading what
Because a certain incredulity surrounds claims that Hohman's quintessentially Germanic grimoire had considerable popularity among African-American root doctors in the South, i shall herewith supply evidence to back up this contention. To do this, i need to take you back to the period between World War One and World War Two, to the glory days of outfits like the King Novelty Co. and its sister-companies, Famous Products Distribution and Valmor Beauty Products, all three owned and operated by a Jewish chemist and hoodoo supplier named Morton Neumann, out of Chicago.
Valmor's top-selling products included Sweet Georgia Brown and, eventually, Madame Jones hair pomades, when the Madam Jones Co. line was folded into the Valmor line. King Novelty's line included typical hoodoo curios such as John the Conqueror roots and Black Cat incense. But in actuality, the Valmor and the King Novelty lines overlapped considerably. The same address was used for both companies and each one's catalogue carried many pages of ads for the other's line of goods. Neumann also mingled cosmetics with folk magic, resulting in beauty products packaged and marketed as quasi-spiritual supplies (e.g. Lucky Brown cosmetics and Lucky Mo-Jo Good Luck perfume).
Some major competitors to King/Valmor were the Lucky Heart Cosmetics Company< company of Memphis, owned by the Shapiro family of Jewish American chemists who likewise sold a mixed line of spiritual goods and cosmetics and still exists as a cosmetics company, the Hi-Hat Co. of Memphis (cosmetics, foods, curios, medicines); the Lucky Mon-Gol Co. of Memphis (spiritual supplies), also owned by the Shapiros; The Oracle Craftsmen of New York City, New York, owned by "The Mysterious Mr. Young," a Jewish American chemist and author; the R. C. Strong Company (spiritual supplies); the O & B Supply Co. of Chicago (cosmetics, candles, and spiritual supplies); Beatty's Products Co. of Minneola N.Y (spiritual supplies); Fulton Religious Supply of New York (books and spiritual goods; still in business); Religious Novelty Co. of New York City (spiritual supplies); Murray's Products of Chicago (cosmetics); Guidance House in New York City, New York (books and pamphlets on plus occult goods and spiritual supplies) owned by the Jewish American author Sydney J. R. Steiner, a.k.a. Mikhail Strabo ; La Clyde Co. (herb-based patent medicines and herb-based spiritual supplies); the Dorene Publishing Co. of Texas (occult books and pamphlets; still in business), owned by the Jewish American Kaye / Spitalnik family; and the The Clover Horn Company of Baltimore, Maryland, founded by the Jewish American chemist Marcus Menke (spiritual supplies, condiments, household cleaning products; still in business as a spiritual supplies company). This list of 1920s - 1960s manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers of spiritual supplies is only partial -- i could easily add another dozen companies. I have many catalogues from these companies dating from the 1920s - 1950s and with only one exception (R. C. Strong), the outfits that sold spiritual supplies such as herbs, candles, oils, powders herbs and minerals also sold books.
Most of the above companies were owned by
Ashkenazy (German) Jewish chemists
and all of the above companies -- with the exception of R. C. Strong and
Beatty's Products -- advertised at one time or another in the pages of
the Chicago Defender, a black-owned weekly newspaper with national
distribution. Morton Neumann probably placed more ads there than any other
manufacturer, often taking out three or four different King
and Valmor display ads per week during the mid 1940s.
Now, let me digress for a moment about this newspaper: Despite the place-name "Chicago" in the title, The Chicago Defender was in every sense of the term a national newspaper along the lines of USA Today. It carried regular weekly columns on the social doings in the black communities of Atlanta, New Orleans, Berkeley and Oakland, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Memphis, and other large cities. These columns told of church suppers, local philanthropies, and the visits of prominent African-American lecturers and entertainers to each town. In sum, then, advertisements in the Chicago Defender were NATIONAL ads, and they were definitely seen in the South.
In addition to placing retail ads in The Chicago Defender, the bigger
companies -- King/Valmor, Lucky Heart, Hi-Hat, and La Clyde -- also
placed large ads calling for people to become agents. A typical Chicago
Defender display ad from 1945 shows a happy man gathering in a
pile of bills, coins, and money bags. The copy reads in part:
"Can you use money? Let me show you how easy it is to get quick
money! Happy days ahead if you act quick! ...Men and Women wanted
everywhere to be AGENTS for Sweet Georgia Brown Hair Dressing
Pomade, Hair Helper, Skin Brightener, Bleach Cream, Face Powder,
Perfumes, Incense, Curios, etc." (This was a Valmor ad, so the
cosmetics came first. If it had been a King ad, the curios,
incense, and powders would have come first, followed by the
cosmetics.) A similar 1945 display ad from Hi-Hat reads in part:
"Get Happy. Get big money the Hi-Hat easy way. Thousands like you
are doing it, simply calling on friends and neighbors -- and
making NEW friends with wonderful Hi-Hat cosmetics, foods,
curios, medicines." And a Lucky Heart ad from the same year
depicts an opened display case with the headline "Be a
money-making Lucky Heart agent...Get this big case. Use it to
show Lucky Heart's big fast selling line..." Many of these ads
depict sample cases filled with a mixed array of cosmetics,
household necessities, and hoodoo curios, depending on the
clientele the agent hoped to work with.
According to my older African-American women friends who were raised in the South prior to World War Two, the agents who sold these items for manufacturer-distributors like Valmor-King, Lucky Heart, Hi-Hat and so forth were usually part-time beauticians and hoodoo root workers. They would come to your house to fix your hair (selling you the cosmetics and hair preparations they had bought wholesale) and they would also do psychic consultations and perform rootwork and conjuration, using the curios available from the same sources. They kept a stock of goods on hand, but they also carried their company's retail cosmetics catalogues and curio catalogues with them, and you could order both types of products through them and have the items drop-shipped directly to your home.
And, as i said at the outset, among the products in virtually all of
these catalogues were books on magic -- and among these books one
invariably finds John George Hohman's "Pow-Wows or The Long-Lost
have a copy of the King catalogue from 1942 and the books listed in it
are as follows (i have classified them for ease of reference):
Judeo-Christian Religion, Kabbalism, and Spiritism
Note that of all these books, only ONE -- the Black Herman
autobiography -- specifically mentions hoodoo of the sort that we
consider to be African-American or that contains African
folk-magic remnants -- and this in a catalogue FILLED with conjure bags and hoodoo supplies.
(Samples: "High John the
Conqueror Root Fixed in Bag with Van Van Oil and
Five Finger Grass," "Lodestone
Fixed in Bag with Lodestone
Powder and Magnetic
Sand," "Southern Style Herb Bag Dressed with
Southern-Style Van Van Oil").
Secrets of the Psalms by Godfrey Selig
European (Judeo-Christian) Magic and Divination
The Eighteen Absent Years of Jesus Christ by Lloyd Kenton Jones
The Holy Bible (3 different editions of the King James Version)
The 6th and 7th Books of Moses (anon.)
The Ten Lost Books of the Prophets by Lewis de Claremont
(10 separate booklets, sold as a set)
Can We Talk to Spirit Friends? by Swami Vishita
Pow-Wows or Long-Lost Friend by John George Hohman
Legends of Incense Herb & Oil Magic by Lewis de Claremont
The Seven Keys to Power by Lewis de Claremont
The Ancient's Book of Magic by Lewis de Claremont
Herrman's Book of Black Art by Herrman
The Book of Birthdays (Anon.) ( simple astrology for hoodoo use)
The Secrets of Numbers Revealed by Godfrey Spencer (numerology)
How to Make Love: The Secret of Love-Making Explained (Anon.)
Book of 1000 Ways to Get Rich: Book of Knowledge (Anon.)
Love Letters: How to Write Them (Anon.)
Lovers' Secrets or The Art of Wooing, Winning, and Wedding
by the Wehman Bros.
All Star Lucky H. I. T. Dream Book (Anon.)
Aunt Sally's Policy Players Dream Book by Aunt Sally
The Cuban B. O. Dream Book by Professor Konje
The Egyptian Witch Dream Book and Fortune Teller (Anon.)
The Five in One Dream Book by Madame Vangina Hamdda
Genuine Afro Dream Book (Anon.)
The Golden Dream Book (Anon.)
The Great Divine Dream Book (Anon.)
King Tut Policy Players Dream Book (Anon.)
Lucky Number Policy Players Dream Book
Including Napoleon's Oraculum (Anon.)
The Lucky Star Dream Book by Professor Konje
National Dream Book (Anon.)
Policy Pete's Mutuel Number Dream Book by Policy Pete
Prince Ali Lucky Five Star Dream Book by Prince Ali
The Success Dream Book by Professor De Herbert
The Witches Dream Book and Fortune Teller (Anon.)
The World's Greatest Magician: Black Herman by Black Herman
("4 books in one" -- combines the autobiography of an
African-American stage magician, instructions for simple
stage magic tricks, astrological interpretations, dream
interpretations, and a few hoodoo formulas)
Obviously King Novelty was targeting Southern hoodoo practitioners, but as late as 1942, the company had no written material on hoodoo to sell to them. The first spell-book that reflected contemporary urban African-American spiritist-Christian practices was Henri Gamache's "Master Book of Candle Burning," published in 1942. This treatise on the New Orleans style "Philosophy of Fire" appeared in King's catalogue for 1943; it was followed by other books by Gamache, such as The 8th, 9th, and 10th Books of Moses, that collected folklore from African-American, Afro-Caribbean, ancient Roman, Mediaeval European, and contemporary Hindu folk sources. Until Gamache came on the scene, distributors like King placed books on European folk-magic in the hoodoo pipeline instead.
Was this effective? Yes, it was. Did African-Americans in the South adopt the European folklore and Mediaeval Jewish Kabbalism found in these books in their own practices? Yes they did.
In Harry Middleton Hyatt's 5 volume compilation of hoodoo spells collected from 1600 hoodoo practitioners in the South during the 1930s, several informants tell Hyatt where to purchase herbs and oils for use in root working. The King Novelty Company of Chicago is specifically mentioned by name many times, although Hyatt fumbles the transcription, calling it the "King Narveille Company" ("Narveille" presumably conflates "novelty" with "reveille" to form the sound-pattern "nar-vell-ee").
Although most of Hyatt's informants describe how they lay down tricks according to the old, traditionally African-derived methods, a surprising number of them name specific books on European and Kabbalistic magic that they have found valuable in hoodoo work. For instance, interviewee no. 1534, a Louisiana-born black conjure doctor from Memphis, Tennessee, tells Hyatt that in order to perform a certain rite to regain a lost lover for a client, "Yo'd have to talk Hebrew-like. Yo' realize de Hebrew language -- some of dat's in de 'Six' and Seven' Books of Moses' and den de balance is [in] de 91 Psalms of David" [probably a reference to Godfrey Selig's "Secrets of the Psalms"]. Later in the interview, the same man tells Hyatt that he has read "The Black Art," by Hermann and "Albertus Magnus' Egyptian Secrets." The former is a 19th century treatise on necromancy, mesmerism, scrying, and other occult subjects; the latter is one of several 19th century collections of magical lore spuriously attributed to the German Saint Albertus Magnus (1193-1280).
This conjure worker is not unique; his familiarity with the catalogue offerings of King Novelty and its competitors is echoed everywhere in the Hyatt interviews. Another informant tells Hyatt to buy copies of certain books from the Dorene Publishing Company of Texas and even takes the time to spell out the company's name and address for him. Dorene has long published "Secrets of the Psalms" and Lewis de Claremont's "Seven Keys to Power," both listed in the 1942 King catalogue above. Still in business, the company continues to market its line through International Imports, The Lucky Mojo Curio Co., and other national distributors of such material. A competing publisher, Joe Kay's Fulton Religious Supply of Brooklyn, New York, supplied "Pow-Wows or The Long-Lost Friend" to King Novelty, and kept it in print well into the 1990s.
The King catalogue of 1942 refers to "Pow-Wows" as "one of our best sellers" and notes that it was "reissued at the request of a large number of people who are said to place complete faith in Hohman's writings." I cannot speak to the latter claim, but in my experience, the former statement is STILL true, fifty-five years after it appeared in the King catalogue, and long after King Novelty itself went out of business: "Pow-Wows" is one of the top two best-selling books carried by my own Lucky Mojo Curio Co. (The other is "Aunt Sally's Policy Players Dream Book," also listed in that 1942 King catalogue).
Obviously, it can be shown that one specific collection of German folk magic first published in Pennsylvania in 1820 became a staple source of knowledge among African-American root workers in the South during the early 20th century -- but i could repeat this documentation of European influences on hoodoo by giving similar details on the popularity of virtually every book listed in the 1942 King catalogue or advertised in the pages of The Chicago Defender during the 1940s. However, i shall not belabour the point, because i think the case is proved: Hoodoo is not strictly an "African survival" phenomenon. It is also not a religion per se. It consists of a strong core of African folk magic admixed with American Indian herb lore, European folk magic (much of which pre-dates Christianity), and Jewish Kabbalistic magic. It is, in short, as African -- and as American -- as the blues and jazz.
Illustrations of labels, packaging, catalogue pages, advertisements, and agents' flyers for Valmor, King Novelty, Lucky Brown, Lucky Heart. Clover Horn, and other cosmetics and spiritual supply companies of the pre-World-War-Two era, plus further text-based information on the interplay between occultism and hoodoo in the inter-war period, can be found on these "Hoodoo in Theory and Practice" pages by cat yronwode:
Although the results are less easily seen than the European admixtures to
hoodoo, African American
conjure doctoring traditions
have expanded to include quite a bit of Asian religious and
cultural imagery, including product names and even formulas derived from
Hindu sources. This trend began during the late 19th century and
was nationwide in scope by the mid 1920s. Among the popular
hoodoo spiritual supplies
with Asian roots are
Chinese Wash, Ling Nuts (called
Devil Pods or
and Laughing Buddha
products, and a line of
candles marketed under the name
"Lama Temple" -- a name that refers to the lamas or priests of
Having examined a number of admixtures to hoodoo, it is important to return to the core of the tradition. In other words, just because this African system of folk magic contains visible evidence of European Christian, Jewish, Native American, and even a few Asian admixtures, that does not mean that it a wide-open system of eclectic magic where "anything goes."
Hoodoo is African American folk magic, primarily the folk magic of African American Protestant Christians, with some inclusion of African American Catholics, African American Spiritualists, African American Muslims, etc. -- and is well documented as such. Anyone who misses that point is wasting their time.
Hoodoo has its own cultural repertoire of tools, spells, formulas, methods, techniques, and beliefs. Within that cultural repertoire, people make their own choices of how to conduct themselves and how to create a work of magical intent -- but they remain within the cultural repertoire as they do so. I generally explain this by using a cooking analogy:
If you are learning to cook Italian style food, you have the choice of many arrays of antipasto, many styles of pasta, many styles of sauces, many forms of dessert. There are regional variations and historical variations as well. BUT -- you know, when you see it, smell it, and taste it, if the food is "traditional Italian." WHY? because even with all the possible variations invoked by the cook, the list of ingredients, the methods of preparation, the chosen combinations of taste and texture all fit the cultural context of "food" as defined by generations of Italian people.
What seems to the outsider like "a matter of personal preference on the part of the cook" is actually a personal preference on the part of the cook WITHIN A CULTURAL TRADITION. No Italian cook would serve Yorkshire pudding as antipasto. No Italian cook would boil pasta in vinegar. No Italian cook would substitute Coffee liqueur for Olive oil. No Italian cook would serve marinara sauce on rice noodles. No Italian cook would prepare scampi with molasses in the sauce. WHY NOT, if it was their "preference" to do so? Because it would NOT be their preference to do so, because they are serving a generations-long tradition, called Italian cooking.
Thus it is with hoodoo: We do not use Mullein leaf for Graveyard Dirt. We do not give people untied mojo hands. We do not wear a headcap of bells and feathers and dance around naked under the full moon. We do not vibrate names of the archangels of the four quarters in Hebrew before we make up a honey jar. Our preferences admit of variation, but our variations fall within the generations-old tradition of conjure.
Hoodoo does not actively exclude belief, participation, or practice by White Protestant Americans, White Neo-Pagan Americans, Jewish Americans, White Catholic Americans, Hispanic Catholic Americans, Central Americans, Asian Americans, Asians, Europeans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Australian Aborigines, South Americans, or Native Americans, because it has no centrally hierarchical authority structure to do so. But the lack of a central power structure does not mean that any person or group can appropriate or redefine hoodoo, anymore than anyone can appropriate or redefine traditional Italian cookery.
Hoodoo remains as it always has been: African American folk magic, primarily the folk magic of African American Protestant Christians, with some inclusion of African American Catholics, African American Spiritualists, African American Muslims, etc. Hoodoo spells are more often than not performed with accompanying Biblical text, particularly from The Biblical Book of Psalms, and they are more often than not performed in Jesus' name
In my opinion, any practitioner of conjure who did not grow up within African American culture is either a guest and should have the good manners of a guest, or has joined into the culture in some way and to some extent and should therefore be ready to defend African American culture, including hoodoo, against the redefinitions, reworkings, and appropriations that outsiders continually seek to inflict upon it.
In other words, if you cannot respect hoodoo as it is and for what it is, then please, do not mess with it at all.
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