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POW-WOWS or THE LONG-LOST FRIEND

AN EMBLEMATIC EXAMPLE
OF THE EUROPEAN INFLUENCE ON HOODOO

Social conditions in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries were such that books for, by, or about members of the African-American community were very rare. During this time period hoodoo itself was quite popular, but although a great deal of commercial activity surrounded the manufacture and distribution of so-called "spiritual supplies," few attempts were made to collect or describe hoodoo practices.

The small-time Ashkenazi Jewish chemists who manufactured cosmetics and household cleaning products for the black community in the early 20th century were more than willing to branch out into the hoodoo curio market by adding magical perfumes, candles, and incenses to their mail order catalogues. Because such occult items sold well, the suppliers, most of whom were Ashkenazi German-Jewish, soon introduced readily available Jewish religious goods to their product lines. In very short order, the syncretic African-American folk magicians of the era had incorporated culturally "exotic" items like menorahs, altar candlesaltar, and even kosher soap and mezuzahs into their work, valuing them for their genuine "Old Testament" spiritual properties.

When it came to filling the need for instruction books on hoodoo practices, the Jewish entrepreneurs who were pioneering this market turned to outside suppliers from whom they could obtain cheap pamphlets that reprinted public domain works on magic. The fact that most such booklets came from Jewish and German-Christian sources seems to have been of no consequence to either the sellers or the buyers, and as a result, American hoodoo magic, like African diaspora religions in other nations, was greatly influenced by the culture of its oppressors. But while Afro-Cubans created the syncretic religion of Santeria Lukumi by combining Yoruba divinities with Catholic saints, American conjure women and root doctors amplified their magical repertoire by consulting booklets like John George Hohman's "Pow-wows or the Long Lost Friend," seen here in an early 20th century reprint edition.

"The Long Lost Friend" is an English-language edition of "Der Lange Verborgene Freund," a magical receipt-book written in German by Johann Georg Hohman, and published first in Pennsylvania in 1820. Its original title would be better translated at "The Long Hidden Vade-Mecum," but since 1846, it has been known in English as "The Long Lost Friend" and the author is now "John George" Hohman to his English-language readers.

The title "Pow-Wows" -- added to the third English-language edition -- brings to mind the 19th century American spiritualist movement, a religious revival in which trance mediums consulted the ghosts of American Indians and deceased relatives for advice. Originally an Anglo-Saxon offshoot of Protestant Christianity, spiritualism found ready acceptance among African-American slaves because it accorded with African religious beliefs regarding the spirits of the dead -- called the Eggun in Yoruba -- who were honoured with food and drink at ritual ceremonies and called upon for aid. The use of "Indian Spirit Guide" imagery continues in hoodoo products to this day, and can be seen in such brand names as "Powerful Indian" products, "Old Indian Stop Evil Condition" liquid soap from Sonny Boy Products, "Indian Spirit Guide" 7-day candles from The Lama Temple, and the E. Davis Company's "Money House Blessing" room spray with "Indian Fruit Oil," "Nine Indian Fruit[s]" and "Indian Spirit." But the added title aside, there is nothing Native American about the contents of "Pow-Wows" -- every veterinary recipe and magical formula in the booklet derives from a German source, as the author himself makes clear in the text.

The subtitle of the booklet hints at the breadth of its contents. It is nothing less than

A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as well as Animals with many proofs of their virtue and efficacy in healing diseases, etc., the greater part of which was never published until they appeared in print for the first time in the United States in the year 1820.
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Some of the early German-language editions of "The Long Lost Friend" ascribe Hohman's receipts to Saint Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and other editions claim that the remedies were collected from "the Arabic writings of the wise alchemist Omar Arey, Emir Chemir Tschasmir." Both of these attributions are missing from the English-language editions of the book. But Hohman was no stranger to occultism: If the contents of three anonymous books generally credited to him are in fact his, then in addition to compiling recipes for dye-stuffs, instructions on midwifery, and veterinary medicines, he also wrote about Christian legends and "the wonders of sympathy and animal magnetism," the latter a blend of occultism and quasi-scientific theory quite popular among mid-19th century sex-magicians, including the notorious Paschal Beverly Randolph.

Hohman's "Long Lost Friend" was what in music would be called a "cross-over hit." First published in German for Pennsylvania Dutch hex-meisters, after the translation of 1846 it had a tremendous influence on the Anglo-Saxon folk magicians of the Appalachians. (For an accurate description of its use by backwoods European-American herbalists -- albeit in a fictional context -- see the "Silver John" fantasy stories of Manley Wade Wellman, who was quite a folklorist in his own right.) The 1930s edition shown here -- containing the 1828 supplement by the author -- was printed on low-grade newsprint from very worn old printing plates. It is still in print, on white paper these days, and is as valuable a reference source as it ever has been. For documentation on how this book was marketed to African-Americans during the 20th century, see the page on hoodoo.

"Pow-Wows" is by no means the only compilation of European folk magic that crossed the colour line in America. During the 1940s, cheap newsprint editions of "The Black Pullet," "The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses," and the so-called "spurious" magical writings of Albertus Magnus were typically offered through the catalogues of Jewish-owned curio companies like King Novelty and Clover Horn, right alongside an assortment of policy players' dream books and pamphlets on "The Art of Kissing" and "How to Make Love."

In "The Long Lost Friend," the general theme of Hohman's occultism was Christianity-as-magic. Again and again the practitioner is called upon to recite a psalm or cross himself at the end of an invocation. Some of the spells are given in simple rhyme, and by back-translation, it can be seen that even more of them rhymed in the original German. The booklet includes practical formulae for herbal dyestuffs and wound dressings as well as magical preventives for robbery, death by firearms, and persistent toothaches.

Among the many charms and talismans Hohman prescribes, these will serve as examples:


  • How to Obtain Things Which Are Desired
    If you call upon another to ask for a favor, take care to carry a little of the five-finger grass with you and you shall certainly obtain that which you desired.

    (Five-finger grass is a common ingredient in mojo bags, especially those for gambling luck.)

  • How to Walk and Step Securely in All Places
    Jesus walketh with (name). He is my head; I am his limb. Therefore walketh Jesus with (name).

    (An African slave reading this book in the mid-1800s would find the idea of putting Jesus in her head very familiar, to say the least. Yoruba and Fon religions and their diaspora equivalents such as Santeria, Vodoun, and Candomble, all speak of divine spirits -- Orisha or Loa -- residing in or ruling the head of the devotee.)

  • To Extinguish Fire Without Water
    Write the following words on each side of a plate and throw it into the fire, and it will be extinguished forthwith:
                    S  A  T  O  R
                    A  R  E  P  O
                    T  E  N  E  T
                    O  P  E  R  A
                    R  O  T  A  S

    (The SATOR square is ancient, dating back to the late Roman era at least. I have seen this same charm in an old German book myself, but there is was said that the plate should be made of silver; a silver coin can also be used. Hohman also gives a second use for the SATOR square, as follows.)

  • To Be Given To Cattle Against Witchcraft
                    S  A  T  O  R
                    A  R  E  P  O
                    T  E  N  E  T
                    O  P  E  R  A
                    R  O  T  A  S

    This must be written on paper and the cattle made to swallow it in their feed.

  • To Win at Every Game One Engages In
    Tie the heart of a bat with a red silken string to the right arm, and you will win every game at cards you play.

    (This advice was adapted freely by black root doctors: old accounts of what is found in mojo bags frequently list bat hearts, bat wings, or whole mummified bats. Even today, modern conjure bags for fast luck or gambler's luck may contain a small plastic toy bat with the same intent. In fact, here is virtually the same spell, as collectged from an unnamed African American informant by Harry Middleton Hyatt in March, 1939:

    ARM - UNDER RIGHT - HEART OF LIVE BAT
    CARRIED - TIED IN RED FLANNEL - LUCKY
    
    10551. An' you' could take a leather-wing bat an' kill 'im, yo' know.
    While he's live, take his heart out befo' he die good. An' tie it up in
    a red piece of flannen an' tie it undah yore right arm. An' yo'll be
    lucky in anything yo' wanta do. Yo'll be successful in it.
    
    [Waycross, G., (1134), 1841:3.]
    
    The only difference here is that the Georgia root doctor (probably a woman, given the context of other spells she related) has substitued the common red flannel of a mojo hand for the red silken string of Hohman.)

  • Because it is so rich in magical lore, "Pow-Wows or The Long Lost Friend" is in itself a magical item. The very last page of the pamphlet presents the reader with this advisory:

    Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all his enemies, visible or invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drowned in any water, nor burn up in any fire, nor can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me. + + + [make the sign of the cross three times]"

    I hope that reading this page will serve you equally well!


    Bibliographic Addendum:

    I would like to offer my thanks to the antiquarian book dealer Ron Lieberman for substantial help with the following list of John George Hohman's works. Ron specializes in selling early Pennsylvania material at his book store, The Family Album (http://www.auldbooks.com/biblio/clients/lieberman.html). Thanks also to John Mullins" (bux4books@worldnet.att.net) for the loan of both the 1846 and 1856 English-language editions. Translations of the German titles were made by Lilo Glozer (eglozer@mcn.org).

    Three anonymous collections of spells and receipts are also attributed to Hohman. They are:

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