What is Hoodoo?
What is hoodoo? Hoodoo is a unique form of American folk magic. Often called by other names including rootwork, conjure, and laying tricks. It’s based in African magic, melded with Native American medicines and European culture, to create something uniquely American and uniquely Southern.
The Roots of Hoodoo
Hoodoo is a unique form of American folk magic. Before the internet and our widespread access to information and technology, it was mainly found in the South. Even today, its Southern roots hold firm. Its heritage is African magic. When the Africans were brought to America during the Transatlantic slave trade, they brought with them their spirituality, their deities, their strong belief in ancestor worship, and their magical rituals and customs. However, they no longer had access to their homeland plants. This is how Native American herbal medicine made its way into the customs of the Africans. Over time, African-Americans incorporated some elements of the European culture, such as occultism and mysticism. With these three belief systems combined, time and practice created this unique form of American folk magic. Hoodoo is often called by other names including rootwork, conjure, and laying tricks. A practitioner is sometimes called a conjureman (or woman), a rootworker, or a two-headed doctor.
West and Central Africans all brought from Africa their own forms of conjure. Despite this ethnic diversity on American plantations, they pooled together their customs and beliefs into the practice. As recently as the 1950s, practitioners of hoodoo in New Orleans reported having to hide their magical practices because they feared oppression by Christians who would see their practices as Pagan or Satanic.
The purpose of Hoodoo was to give power to the powerless. It was a way to access the supernatural to improve their circumstances, bringing good fortune and luck in love, money matters, good health, protection, and even gambling. Similar to other types of folk magic, Hoodoo includes the use of herbs, roots, minerals, animal bones, graveyard dirt, the personal possessions of another, and bodily fluids into the practice. As time went on, pharmacies began carrying products that their black customers sought out and began producing goods and oils such as “Money Drawing” and “Love Attracting” as well as candles and incense for “Fast Luck” and others for gambling, protection, and unhexing. As these products grew in popularity, they began finding their way into catalogs and magazines where the merchandise could be purchased through mail order.
New Orleans Voodoo – a Hoodoo Variation
Some have referred to Hoodoo as the “country cousin” of Voodoo or Vodou. The slave owners oppressed the African religions and cultures, insisting the slaves become Christian. As a result, the slaves adopted the Catholic saints into their culture to stand in for their own deities and spirits – usually ones whose domain was the same or similar to their own. Louisiana Voodoo is often confused with Haitian Vodou and Deep Southern Hoodoo. While Louisiana Voodoo is strong among the Catholic population in Louisiana, most practitioners of Hoodoo have historically (mainly since the 19th century) been Protestant Christians. Moses was seen as the greatest conjureman of all time. But to many, New Orleans Voodoo is considered its own special brand of magic – not Vodou and not Hoodoo, but contains quite a bit of both.
In New Orleans, conjuration was a common practice because it gave people the ability to seek justice. It has been argued that this is one of the reasons that New Orleans became a melting pot for different cultures and faiths including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others. People from all over came to Louisiana knowing they could find something familiar.
Conjure doctors became a common practice in the city because of its high immigrant population and the desire to seek justice. There were even times when these types of practices were used by white plantation owners and their families, as well as wealthy white New Orleanians who had African American servants they wanted to make sure remained loyal.
The crossroads is a symbol of the meeting of two worlds, and in hoodoo crossroads magic is often used to make contact with the spirit world. In fact, crossroads magic can be used for any reason at all that you would want to call on spirits from the other side, such as communication between seemingly warring factions or obtaining information from beyond.
In crossroads magic a crossroads is created by drawing a cross in chalk on a roadway (many times an intersection will do), but if no crossroads are available paper must be laid down flat upon the ground and marked instead. After marking the paper, it’s turned up toward the sky, which allows spirits to travel down along it and into this world. The most common method of using the crossroads in hoodoo is for the disposal of used magical items or to nullify magic by leaving the items at the intersection and never looking back. See our full article about Crossroads magic.
In the Hoodoo tradition, we customarily use the term ‘mojo bag, ’ but it can be called by many other names: a mojo hand, gris-gris bag, toby, or trick bag. The word ‘gris-gris’ means charm or fetish. The reason behind why a mojo bag would be considered a fetish
is because practitioners of hoodoo consider it to be a living thing. Inside there may be a variety of ingredients: herbs, minerals, bones, flowers, and sometimes personal items like a locket of hair. When made for a specific purpose or person, a mojo bag usually contains a petition (a written prayer or intention). Some people use an actual drawstring bag to create their mojo. One method is what is known as a ‘flaming comet’ style mojo bag where a square of flannel is gathered up around the ingredients and tied off with string or twine. It should be made small enough to carry on your person. After it is created, it is fed with a liquid of some sort. While many use Florida water cologne or some other type of alcohol, others prefer to feed the bag with condition oil — one that corresponds to the nature of the mojo bag.
ORIGINS, VARIATIONS, AND DETAILS
A gris-gris bag is an amulet that originated in West Africa, specifically Ghana. Like a mojo bag, it also contained a number of objects such as stones, bones, oils, and herbs that combined to provide protection against bad luck and the evil eye.
The mojo bag used in hoodoo originated in the Bantu-Kongo. Toby, the name of mojo bags, derives from the Kongo word “tobe.” The Kikongo word “mooyo” is also the source of the term “mojo.” According to the definition of “mooyo,” natural materials have their own innate spirits that can be used in mojo bags to invoke luck and protection. The Bantu-Kongo “minkisi” served as the basis for the mojo bag or conjure bag. When a spirit or spirits occupy an object made by hand by a person, it is referred to as “nkisi” in the singular and “minkisi” in the plural. These items can include gourds, shells, bags (also known as conjure bags or mojo bags), and other containers. To give a bag a certain personality or function, several items are placed inside of it. The Nganga spiritual healer fills mojo bags and “minkisis” with graveyard dirt, herbs, roots, and other things. In African American communities, rootworkers and Hoodoo doctors replaced the spiritual priests of Central Africa. As both are fed offerings with whisky, conjure doctors in the American South make mojo bags that are comparable to the Ngangas minkisi bags.
When they reached America, the gris-gris changed over time. Some began to think of them as harmful tools to curse another, often being left on the tombstones of cruel slave masters or hung on buildings and homes. In Haiti, they are still considered to be positive, and bearers of good luck and have made their way into Voodoo practice. It is thought to be proper to carry a gris-gris in your left pocket. Scholars trace it to the word ‘juju’ the West African name for fetish or sacred object.
A nation sack is a mojo bag that is only carried by women, specifically for the purpose of controlling a man. Some debate that it is actually called a ‘nature sack’ and white researchers misunderstood the dialect of the black subjects they were interviewing. It appears the nation sack was not a widely known tool, with most accounts of it being made and used in the Memphis, Tennessee area. Also used to keep a lover faithful or a husband from straying, its contents are related to love, devotion, and domination. Queen Elizabeth root (orris root) is often found in a nation sack, and it is a common custom to use menstrual blood as a key element as well as the semen of the man involved.
A jackball looks similar to a mojo bag but is made and used much differently. While it also contains herbs, roots, and other components found in a mojo, those ingredients are encased in a ball of wax (or beeswax) by slowly adding wax into the ingredients and shaping into a ball. It is then wrapped in red yarn or red twine, leaving behind a long tail when complete. Jackballs are considered to be container spells, calling upon the same energy one would use to create a witch bottle. They are used as a talisman to protect against evil, to influence others, to bring mastery to the keeper of it, and can also be used for divination – the same way someone would use a pendulum. It is believed that swinging a jackball in the air charges it with power.
From a historian’s perspective, it is hard to determine if there were many people who advertised themselves as practitioners of conjure. There are records that show ads for midwives and doctors in the Times-Picayune newspaper but there are no records of any ads for “conjures.” The only type of person who was regularly documented performing these types of practices were African American women who were often referred to in historical documents as “doctoresses.” During childbirth, African American midwives spiritually protect the house because it is believed that evil spirits might harm a newborn soul. The doorway is often covered in a line of protective herbs to keep evil spirits out of the house during the birth along with other charms. These items are left untouched until after the child is born.
Hoodoo in Literature
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is an example of
hoodoo in literature. It tells the story of Janie Crawford, who is initially living in Eatonville, Florida, but eventually moves to Eatonville. The book follows Janie’s life and relationships, detailing her rebellion against the norms of society. Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 and died in 1960. This means that her book was published before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their race or color. However, it is also a book written about a black woman living in the South during Jim Crow. The society that she lived in was shaped by centuries of oppression and racism. This means that their eyes were watching her to make sure that she “knowed her place.” In this sense, many of the characters in Hurston’s novel are representative of hoodoo figures from folktales and stories.
Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men is considered to be one of her most influential works in terms of writing folklore. Her rich descriptions of life in the rural South provide a unique perspective on the “American Negro” (her words) during the early 20th century. She described her experiences with conjure doctors and how hoodoo was used to empower the African-American community.
Is Hoodoo a Closed Practice?
Unlike Vodou, Hoodoo is a system of magic – not a religion. Any religion may practice Hoodoo. With that in mind, most earnest practitioners will tell you that it requires respect for its roots. To leave the African connection out of Hoodoo would be considered outright cultural appropriation. While it isn’t necessarily closed, it is deemed to be restrictive. Meaning, to practice Hoodoo it should be done from an Afrocentric perspective. While it does have elements borrowed from Jewish mysticism and English folk magic, they are not used predominantly but rather to enhance the tradition and its workings. English witchcraft practices are carried out much differently than the magical practices of Hoodoo. Those not born from African ancestry should in no way try to take ownership of or claim authority over the tradition. This is the very definition of appropriation. Rather, those outside the culture are considered “guests” in the tradition. If they choose to learn its magic, part of that journey should include preserving its heritage for what it is it – African-based magic.
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For a more thorough look into the practice, check out the article: What Hoodoo Is: An African-American Folk-Magic Tradition by the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.