Although remnants of hoodoo still exist throughout American culture, little is known about the African-American slave religion. The sum of African spirituality and Christianity, it is often confused with the voodoo religion. Not to be dismissed as mere uncivilized conjecture, hoodoo has its own legacy and will forever be part of the American fabric.
Copyright: Nicole Paschal. All Rights Reserved
1. HOODOO IS NOT VOODOO
If considering what many Americans would consider creepy religions, Voodoo often rises to the top of the list. As images of fowl sacrifices, banging drums, and hypnotic possession dominate pop culture, the American public still knows very little about voodoo practices. Despite the truth and myths surrounding Voodoo, there is one thing it is not—hoodoo. Although lesser known, hoodoo may just be a bit more frightening because almost any practitioner can use it against you at any time and in multiple ways, without you knowing it. Although both hoodoo and Voodoo originate from a mesh of African spiritual practices and Christianity, hoodoo arose as a folk magic under African-American slavery. The anthropologist Katrina Hazzard-Donald describes hoodoo as an, “…African based religion among African American bondsmen.” Since it is considered folk magic rather than a religion today, hoodoo’s reach typically does not extend past American borders. Unlike hoodoo, Voodoo is practiced in many forms throughout the world and remains the official religion of countries like Benin and Haiti. Furthermore, unlike hoodoo, Voodoo possesses formal ritualized holidays with distinct ceremonial practices.
2. HOODOO AS THE ONLY SOURCE OF POWER
Whether during or after slavery, hoodoo just wasn’t practiced for sport. It was a means of influencing the universe and the power structures within it. Although there is some controversy amongst researchers as to the function of hoodoo in early African-American culture, two points of view are most prevalent. Archaeologists believe that the slave’s worldview was formed by forces that was beyond his control. Possessing no agency over their lives, those that believed in hoodoo had a way of gaining power and influence in ways that didn’t exist otherwise. Although the chattel slave might have tried to use hoodoo power against the enslaver originally, he had to refocus his attention to other social ills after emancipation. After slavery, he applied magic to employment issues, gambling dilemmas, relationships, law troubles, detecting an unknown enemy, and more.
The use of mojo against police bullying became prevalent as well. In the 1935 “Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation” study of hoodoo, for example, a hoodoo practitioner states that cinnamon, holy water and java, inclusive of writing the officer’s name 15 times, is a surefire way to prevent harassment by the law. Even today, you can order a “Law Stay Away” mojo online or learn a spell to keep an officer from entering your home. One old mojo, according to luckymojo.com, is to nail Indian head pennies around your door frame. Next, you’d hammer 2 nails on either side of every penny and then flatten them down in an x formation over the coins. This will keep out the law.
Some anthropologists disagree about hoodoo as a source of power for the oppressed. They suggest that hoodoo is merely a survival of West African cultures. It was common for dominated African cultures to implement their conqueror’s spiritual beliefs into their own. Therefore, a new religious subculture using various African religions and Christianity was inevitable.
3. BEWARE OF THE CONJURER
One of the primary components in hoodoo is the idea of the “conjuration.” The act of conjuration is completed by someone known as conjurer, hoodoo priest, or two-head. Known by many names, the hoodoo man could be of any gender and had the ability to access otherworldly powers.
The power of the “conjurer” first gained credibility during slavery. The slaves believed that he could influence lighter punishment for his fellow slaves. One conjurer was believed to be able to enter through the master’s keyhole and whip and ride him as he lay in bed. The same lore often frightened some white slave owners with the possibility of insurrection. This element of fear was apparent in other slaves as well. William Brown, a former slave, for example, spoke of a mighty “conjurer” on the plantation who was feared by his fellow slaves and master alike. Named Dinkie, this conjurer did little work. Unbothered by slave master and patrollers, he was never beaten or sold. He bore a snake skin around his neck with a petrified frog and lizard in his pocket. According to Brown, even white women would visit the slave quarters to have their fortune told. The mighty conjurer occupied a space between fear and respect for those around him and as the old slave William Brown said he, “…was his own master.”
After slavery, the conjurer still held a position of power amongst African-Americans for some time. The Works Progress Administration slave narratives recorded between 1936 and 1938, makes mention of hoodoo quite often. One sordid tale, from an Arkansas narrative, speaks of a conjurer named Cain Robertson. The account, given by H.B. Holloway, an-89-year old former slave, told of a man they believed could make anything happen. When his wife was ill, Holloway called for Cain. He arrived, scratched her stomach and laid 3 horns upon it. After drinking corn whisky and waiting ten minutes, he removed the horns which were filled with blood. He laid the horns in water and sprinkled them with powder. Ten minutes later, they were filled with creatures that resembled the larvae often called, “wiggle tails.” His wife was healed from what the hoodoo doctor was determined a curse put upon her. When Holloway asked the hoodoo doctor to put the curse back upon the suspected transgressor, he denied. He said he’d lose his hand (powers) if he returned the negative sentiment.
5. LAYING OF TRICKS
The laying of tricks is a very old style of conjuring. When the conjurer wished to personally affect a target, the target would have to physically come into contact with any material that was infused with the conjurer’s wishes. Often the easiest way of affecting the target was to have him/her unknowingly touch something covered by an oil or powder. Hot foot powders are still sold today where one can plant a powder for the target to step in and never come back. This method is used to rid of unwanted guests.
The Voodoo Hoodoo Spell book notes that laying the trick in an unsuspecting, preferably long term, place is the key to it working appropriately. To lay a trick on yourself, for prosperity, the chimney of the home may just be a good place. For fertility, bury the trick in your garden in spring or summer for fertility. Leaving a trick in a place long-term is known as “grounding the trick.” To hex someone, you can bury the trick in their garden as a well, condemning your foe to long-term negativity of some sort. Playing tricks under rugs are also good alternatives. For enemies, one might want to use a foot powder or place the trick under the enemy’s door or porch steps. To afflict serious illness or death, burying a trick in a graveyard might be necessary.
4. POWER IN INANIMATE OBJECTS
In hoodoo, you can gain access to God or spirits via inanimate objects. The conjurer uses mojo, charms, amulets, or tricks to cast spells or influence luck. Depending on the conjurer, an amulet can harness good or evil powers. However, the amulet just isn’t powerful on its own. It has to be infused with power through ritual.
Exactly what can be used as an amulet varies with the amulets purpose. Whether its beads, marbles, coins, nails, human hair, graveyard dirt, horseshoes, hairpins, silver, copper, gems, horseshoes, or lodestones, it doesn’t matter. Sure, some work better than others, but they all can do the job. Charms, on the other hand, are primarily used for prosperity. They can be used to protect against witchcraft, sickness, or to finally get that financial windfall you’ve hoped for. Like amulets, almost anything can be a good luck charm-bones, teeth, broken pottery, feathers, or stones.
Where you put your charm is equally as important, for it to do its job. Charms could be used under the bed, to protect the sleeper or on steps and entrances in the home. This would act as a supernatural barricade, blocking the evil forces, people, and things that might rudely enter without an invitation. Most importantly, just as in Africa’s Yoruba “Abika” practices, charms can also be worn on the person. Waist belts, anklets, wristlets and strings tied around the waist are acceptable.
6. THE ROOT DOCTORS
Whether your stomachache is from a “trick” or a bad pastrami sandwich, the doctor to call just might be a root doctor. Amongst hoodoo believers, the root doctor tends to be just as honored as the “conjurer,” for he or she is also a healer. Practicing what was sometimes referred to as, “root work,” the root doctor had knowledge of herbs and roots that better one’s health. Perhaps comparable to the practice of herbal medicine today, the root doctor did not always implement hoodoo into his healing. Whether or not hoodoo was used depended on the practitioner. One might say that conjurers often practiced with roots, but not all root doctors acted as conjurers.
Not only was the root doctor important for helping ailing slaves treat parasites and dysentery amongst other illnesses, but non-slaves often took notice. Sometimes sickly freed slaves, dared venture back over to the plantation to see an especially good root doctor. Whites took notice as well and some implemented root remedies into their healing practices. George White, a root worker, told of when his root doctor father would share his remedies with their master, a medical doctor. However, most root workers were very secretive about their knowledge. In 1729, an old Virginian slave named Papan bartered his secret venereal disease remedy for his freedom. In 1749, a slave named Caesar received his freedom from the South Carolina Assembly due to his snakebite cure.
Grant and Wilson, "Keep Your Hand Off My Mojo: 1932
7. HOODOO AND MUSIC
Since music has always played a role in the merging of subcultures within America, perhaps the greatest trick hoodoo ever laid was on mainstream American music listeners. Hoodoo, which was firmly rooted in blues music, was carried as blacks migrated north in the 30’s and 40’s. Hoodoo was rampant in the blues, but invisible to a mainstream culture that knew nothing about it. During this period, the many references to “mojo” were constantly misunderstood by the white mainstream to depict sexual exploits and endeavors. Coot Grant and Kid Wilson told the world not to touch their Depression era luck charm(s) in 1932’s “Keep Your Hands Off My Mojo.” As the man and woman sing back and forth, it’s easy to assume they are merely talking about Coot denying Wilson’s sexual advances. However, a Hoodoo interpretation might suggest that as she says, “Keep your hands off of my mojo, you can’t cut off my luck. Keep your hands off my mojo if you ain’t got a buck,” she means that his ill luck and lack of money will affect her luck in life. Also, it’s important to note that in hoodoo culture, it is vital that one should never touch another’s luck piece or it will render it inactive. Worse, it may turn the positive energy to negative, depending on who touches it. Coot might have thought that his hard times would influence her prosperity. Others, like Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup were more direct. As he sang, “Now Ms. Hoodoo lady, please give me a hoodoo hand,” he spoke of getting assistance from someone with the supernatural knowledge, but when he added, “I wanna hoodoo this lady of mine, I believe she’s got another man,” there was no doubt that he might have just been talking using dark or binding magic.
Mainstream artists such as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley continued the hoodoo theme in songs that are considered classics today. In Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the artist sings a testament to his virility, strength and power as man. He makes a reference to hoodoo symbols that also convey power. Waters let us know he had swagger as he sang, “I got a black cat bone; I got a mojo too; I got the Johnny Conkeroo [John the Conqueror Root]; I’m gonna mess with you.” Diddley was a force to be reckoned with as he let us know, “I goin back down to Kansas to bring back the second cousin, a lil John the Conqueroo.” In Harry M. Hyatt’s (1935) survey of hoodoo culture, “John the Conqueror Root,” was a root with various uses. It could bring luck in money or be used against suffering from spirits and enemies.
8. HOODOO AS BIG BUSINESS
The Great Depression ushered in a rise in the manufacturing and sales of hoodoo-related items. With products aimed at African-American hoodoo beliefs, companies like Valmor Products and its subsidiaries, King Novelty and Famous Products all profited greatly. Perhaps the greatest retailer of hoodoo, the sale of toiletries, tonics, and hoodoo-related items became big business for its owner Morton G. Neumann. In the catalogs, one could buy hoodoo-related products such as, “John the Conqueror Root, Lucky Mo-Jo, and Lucky Dream incense. If you needed your own mojo bag, there was something called the “Alleged Curio Luck Box” with a lodestone, powder, roots, perfumed essence, and it’s very own red-flannel curio bag. At times, the hoodoo connection was only implied. For example, the John the Conqueror Root floor wash guaranteed that the floor would smell “sweet and pleasant.” The title of the floor wash alone suggested that the smell wasn’t the only benefit of the floor wash, but it might magically protect your home from misfortune as well.
Other items incorporating hoodoo and commerce involved love and magic. In 2015, the Chicago Cultural Center held an exhibition featuring enlarged images of the graphics in Neumann’s curio catalogs from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. Called “Love for Sale: The Graphic Art of the Valmor Products,” the exhibition detailed how bright colored advertisements and claims of mystical powers in perfumes, beauty items, and mojo produced a curio empire. The influence of selling hoodoo-related items was so profitable that Neumann was able to invest in an art collection worth millions of dollars today.
9. HOODOO AND BODILY FLUIDS
If you’ve ever wondered how bodily fluids like saliva and urine could change your life for the better, its use in hoodoo could not only better your luck, but strike down your enemy. Hoodoo folk magic includes the use of bodily fluids to influence your target, specifically in the matters of love and romance. Someone, may use his/her first urine in the morning to wash the floor or entrance to the doorway where a lover may walk. The idea is that the hormones, most concentrated in the morning, will somehow keep a partner faithful. If you fear your partner has strayed, you might boil his/her hair in your urine to bind yourself to your significant other. Body fluids such as menstrual blood, semen, blood, or vaginal excretions, may be added to food or drink to hold a lover steady. The bodily fluid can also be put in or on a mojo to enhance its power as well.
Not all practitioners agree with the use of body fluids in ritual, however. Apple cider vinegar, ammonia, Sulphur, and lye can be a comparable replacement for urine. It’s not only bodily excretions that can be put to good use, but the bodily image is a plausible conduit as well. Many times in hoodoo, the action that one takes with an image is similar to what he wishes for the person in the image. Stirring a photo of someone you wish to rid from your life in a glass of turpentine or alcohol removes the person in the image from your life. As the fluid eats away at the photo, dissolving the image, the person is then dissolved from your life as well.
10. HOODOO AIN'T DEAD YET
Although it may seem as if the heyday of hoodoo is gone, retired to the back woods of some small rural areas in the south, the truth is that hoodoo ain’t done yet. We still see the influence of hoodoo every so often in American culture. For three films Mike Meyers spewed the misuse of the infamous term “mojo” in the Austin Powers franchise. The Skeleton Key, a 2005 horror film that relied heavily upon hoodoo in its plot, is still considered an all-time creepy movie by many. Even Disney put a word in for hoodoo in 2009. Dr. Facilier, in the animated film, “The Princess and the Frog” sang, “I got Voodoo. I got hoodoo. I got things I ain’t even tried. I got friends on the other side…” Although one might argue that the symbolism is not accurate, as the character sings he holds up dolls and then a chicken to clearly making the distinction between the two. Websites like conjuredoctor.com and luckymojo.com offer a full stock of hoodoo supplies to keep that mojo working for years to come.
- Harry M. Hyatt, Hoodoo- Conjuration- Witchcraft- Rootwork, Vol. 1: Memoirs of the Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation (Missouri: Western Publishing).
- New World Ritual: Genuine and Spurious, Stephen D. GlazierJournal for the Scientific Study of ReligionVol. 35, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 420-431
- Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Lawrence W. Levine. 2007
- http://memory.loc.gov/mss/mesn/023/023.pdf (NOTE: Multiple narratives. Unnumbered. Search the word “hoodoo” to find Holloway’s narrative.)
- Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (North Carolina: North Carolina Press, 1926.
- Voodoo Hoodoo Spell Book, Denise Alvarado, 2011
- Working Cures: Healing, Health, And Power on Southern Slave Plantations, Sharla M. Fett, 2002
14. http://www.metrolyrics.com/hoochie-coochie-man-lyrics-muddy-waters.html ,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQ4NFsw4bOU
16. http://www.metrolyrics.com/im-a-man-lyrics-bo-diddley.html (2 links, lyrics and audio)
17.Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, And Commerce, Carolyn Morrow Long, 2001
23. Conjuredoctor.com, luckmojo.com
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on October 18, 2015:
I agree. The history of Anthroplogy has been ironically ethnocentric.
Nicole Paschal (author) from Saint Petersburg, Florida on October 17, 2015:
I agree with you Oztinato. I just know that within the history of anthropology, there have been many times where they upheld a one-dimensional and dismissive view of such cultural practices as merely primitive magical practices rather than looking into its deeper function in the culture or the social climate that influenced it. However, in the last few decades, it's been changing.
Thank you for taking the time to read my hub and your very insightful comments!!!!
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on October 17, 2015:
Thanks for that thorough explanation.
I only mentioned sympathetic magic as it is an anthropological term. Its merely their way of classifying certain phenomena. It is really all under the heading religion to me.
Personally I don't see anything wrong with the word magic. Its a lovely word!
I am interested in your hub as it fills in some blank areas of my reading. I have studied just about every area of religion.
Nicole Paschal (author) from Saint Petersburg, Florida on October 16, 2015:
Mojo can refer to a bag of items or one singular item serving as a charm. It can be your bag of tricks (see above) or your good luck charm. It can harness your personal energy, so it is something one shouldn't let fall into the wrong hands. Like a number of old Afr. Amer. terms, it has multiple meanings. What it is not, is sexual prowess, which became the popular misunderstood use of the word. However, if a man carries something in his mojo bag for that purpose amongst others, that is okay. :
I have a Bachelor's degree in anthropology. "Sympathetic magic" is a subcategory under folk magic. A number of Anthropologists today may call it folk magic, but others often within the area of African-American research are leaning toward "religion." Hence the reason for my question above.
Certainly an anthropologists might have dismissed it as sympathetic magic in the 1940's when the term and ideas of cultural heirarchies was popular, but today many that have studied hoodoo realize that there were many multilayered functions to hoodoo. Sure, there are elements of sympathetic magic in it, but root doctors often produced very real herbal cures for poverty-stricken people that possessed no medical care. Hoodoo also supported slave rebellions such as with Gullah Jack who was a strong Methodist Christian and conjurer. Midwives, who were often thought to link this world and the next, delivered malnourished and ailing babies (and kept them alive) with their knowledge. So, I'd disagree as to hoodoo being simply a matter of imitation.
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on October 13, 2015:
I was left wondering what exactly the meaning of "mojo" is as it suddenly appeared in the hub without a definition. Does it mean "luck"?
Hoodoo would be classed as "sympathetic magic " by anthropologists.
The word mojo was 60's slang unrelated to it's proper meaning which is why Mike Myers used the term. I don't think he used it maliciously.