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The Kabbalist Influence on Hoodoo

Of the many traditions that enter into hoodoo folk-magic, one of the least-understood is Jewish mysticism, particularly that which comes out of the medival Kabbalist tradition of belief in the magical efficacy of the words of scripture. The usual question one hears when one mentions the Kabbalah and hoodoo in the same sentence -- and which must be disposed of immediately -- is some variant on, "How could African-American slaves or their descendents have access to esoteric European tracts and grimoires?" The answer is stunningly simple: they bought them by mail order and read them.

In Harry Middleton Hyatt's 5 volume compilation of hoodoo spells, collected from 1600 practitioners in the South during the 1930s, several informants name specific books on European folklore 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."

"The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses" (as well as "The Lost 8th, 9th, and 10th Books of Moses") are compilations of mediveal European and Middle-Eastern magic attributed to the author of the first five books of the Bible. Along with "de 91 Psalms of David" (Godfrey Selig's "Secrets of the Psalms") they were -- and are -- the stock-in-trade of the many mail-order spiritual supply companies that have served the hoodoo market from the 1920s to the present.

"Secrets of the Psalms" is by no means the only compilation of European magic that crossed the colour line in America. During the 1940s, cheap newsprint editions of "Pow-Wows or the Long Lost Friend," and "The Black Pullet" 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." Hyatt's interviewee no. 1534, cited above, also said that he had read "The Black Art," by Hermann and "Albertus Magnus," the latter presumeably one of several collections of magical receipts spuriously attributed to the sainted German cleric Albert the Great (1193-1280).

After acknowledging that black conjure doctors in Memphis did read and make use of Godfrey Selig's "Secrets of the Psalms," we are still left to wonder who Godfrey Selig was and what he claimed were the magical "Secrets" in the Biblical Book of Psalms. Well, for one thing, the author's name was not Godfrey Selig.

Eoghan Ballard ( of the University of Pennsylvania explains:

Johannes Gottfried Seelig arrived in America from the Palatinate of Germany on June 12, 1694, aboard the Sara Maria, which landed across from the Blue Anchor Inn on Dock Street in Philadelphia. He was a follower of Johannes Kelpius, the leader of an often misunderstood band of millennarian pietists who were variously called "The Monks of the Wissahickon" or "The Woman in the Wilderness." Their practice was fairly esoteric. They relied on astrology, were avid astronomers, and created the first recorded botanical garden in North America on a site occupied today by the Wissahickon Golf Course. They also performed the first concert in Pennsylvania, on organ and brass instruments that they brought from Germany, at Gloria Dei -- a Swedish Lutheran church, which is still standing.

In 1720, Johann Conrad Beisell, the Eckerling brothers, Michael Wohlforth, Simon Koenig, Johan George Stiefel, Jacob Stuntz, and Isaac Van Bebber emigrated to Pennsylvania with the intent of joining Kelpius' group on the Wissahickon. Kelpius was by this time dead, leaving only an aging Matthaue and Seelig of the original community remaining faithful and still living in the hermitage. This was the first in a chain of events that led to the revival of esoteric Theosophy and Rosicrucian mysticism in Pennsylvania. Beissel went on to found the much better known and understood monastic community in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, while the man he apprenticed himself to on the advice of Seelig and Matthaue, Peter Becker, founded the Dunkers, another Pennsylvania German religious community important in Moravian history.

The legend of "The Monks of the Wissahickon" grew more fantastic over the years as German ceased to be the language of the community in Germantown, the settlement nearest the Wissahickon, which was eventually incorporated into Philadelphia in the last century. So farfetched had the legends become, that one recent scholar actually claimed that this group practiced an early form of "neopaganism." Actually, they were well within the rubric of German Enlightenment esoteric Christianity and would have blanched to be called "pagan."

Interestingly, a tradition, probably an echo of an earlier tale told concerning Magister Kelpius, attached itself to the death of Johannes Gottfried Seelig, his follower. In this version of the death story, Seelig indicated a desire to William Levering to have his staff thrown into the nearby Schuylkill River. Upon its hitting the water it was reported to have exploded with a loud noise.

Seelig's book was first published in Germantown shortly after his death, based apparently upon handwritten manuscripts. Several editions from the 1700s and early 1800s in both German and English may be found in Philadelphia area museums and libraries.

In "Secrets of the Psalms," Selig's general theme is that of the power of "names," a mystical Jewish Kabbalist belief that by properly pronouncing and invoking certain names of God, of angels, and of demons, one's wishes will be executed. This notion is conjoined with a medieval tradition that holds that many of the Psalms, particularly those attributed to King David, contain within them "seed sounds" or hidden syllables which, when spoken aloud, will cause magical works to be accomplished. The important Medieval Jewish book "Shimmush Tehillim" ("On the Use of Psalms") probably formed the basis for his work, and explains why "Secrets if the Psalms" was subtitled "A Fragnent of the Practical Kabala."

The fact that Godfrey Selig considered himself a mystical Christian, not a Jew, is of little importance in the context of his compilation of Hebrew source material and his translation of it into German. "Christian Kabbalists" have been around since the 12th century, and Selig himself declared in his introduction that "the greatest and most genuine Kabbalists of the Jewish nation were nearly all followers and disciples of the the blessed Saviour of the world." (That this is not true is irrelevant; Selig, like many Christian Kabbalists, believed it and few Jews have sought to point out the error, for fear of persecution.)

The edition of "Secrets of the Psalms" that has been in circulation in English translation in the United States since the late 1930s or early 1940s seems to have been redacted by someone familiar with hoodoo terminology, for in the added headings to the first batch of Psalms there is reference to "crossed conditions," an African-American turn of speech meaning chronic bad luck. There is also evidence of poor copying, for mention is made of one "Rabbi Isaac Logria," a typographical garbling of the name of the celebrated medieval Rabbi Isaac Luria that is unlikely to have been made by Selig.

Among the many results that proper recitation of the specific Psalms will produce, according to Selig's sources, are release from prison, safe childbirth, business success, safe travel, help in court cases, removal of enemies, and overcoming evil. Some of the Psalms are embellished with special prayers to be recited, actions to be performed, or holy names to be called upon. The formula for the construction of the holy names involves an esoteric Kabbalistic letter-substitution method called "gematria" which Selig alludes to but does not explain in full.

Here are a few examples from Selig's book showing how the Psalms are used, My comments (in parentheses) indicate which words in each Psalm seem to have inspired these magical ascriptions:

  • Psalms for Making Peace between Husband and Wife
    Psalms 45 and 46 -- Whoever has a scolding wife, let him pronounce the 45th Psalm over pure olive oil, and anoint his body with it, when his wife, in the future will be more lovable and friendly. But if a man has innocently incurred the enmity of his wife, and desires a proper return of conjugal love and peace, let him pray the 46th Psalm over olive oil, and anoint his wife thoroughly with it, and, it is said, married love will again return.

    (Psalm 45 refers to anointing with "the oil of gladness" and to the "rejoicing" that occurs when the "glorious" daughter of the King of Tyre is brought before the King. Psalm 46 contains the words, "God is in the midst of her...God shall help her...He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the Earth.")

  • Psalm to Make Your Home Lucky
    Psalm 61 -- When you are about to take possession of a new dwelling, repeat this Psalm just before moving in, with a suitable prayer, trusting in the name of Schaddei, and you will experience blessing and good fortune. The letters comprising this name are taken from the words: Schimmu, verse 2, Ken, verse 9, and Jom, the last word of this Psalm. It should, however, be remarked, that both the last letters are selected according to the alphabetical order of Ajack Bechar.

    (Psalm 61 contains the lines, "Thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy. I will abide in Thy tabernacle forever; I will trust in the covert of Thy wings." The reference to "the alphabetical order of Bechar" is obscure Kabbalistic in-fighting about variant rules of gematria which non-Kabbalists can safely ignore.)

  • Psalm for Safe Travel at Night
    Psalm 121 -- Are you compelled to travel alone by night, pray this Psalm reverently seven times, and you will be safe from all accidents and evil occurrences.

    (Psalm 121 opens with the line, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.")

  • Psalm for Severe Headache or Backache
    Psalm 3 -- Whosoever is subject to severe headache and backache, let him pray this Psalm [...] over a small quantity of olive oil, [and] anoint the head or back while in prayer. This will afford immediate relief.

    (Psalm 3 contains the line, "Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter of mine head.")

  • Psalm for a Repentant Liar
    Psalm 132 -- If you have sworn to perform anything punctually, and notwithstanding your oath you neglect to perform your obligation, and in this manner have perjured yourself, you should, in order to avoid a future crime of a similar kind, pray this Psalm daily with profound reverence.

    (Psalm 132 contains the line, "The Lord hath sworn the truth unto David; he will not turn from it.")

  • "Secrets of the Psalms" is an artifact of the mystical Jewish belief in the magical efficacy of the recitation of God's Holy Word. That this tradition was mined by a millennarian Christian German and brought to America where it became a magical receipt-book among the descendents of Africans is just "one of those crazy things" that makes life among the humans so interesting.

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