This is an article completely revised to reflect my new understanding of Hoodoo is. For full transparency, the original article is here, Traditional Conjure – What it IS and what it is NOT, and I will be the first to admit that I was shoveled a whole pile of bullshit. This blog post is an attempt to reflect my current views on the subject (and has removed the opinions of cultural appropriators on this subject).
Please also keep this in mind when reading blog posts from my past. We all change and evolve, thank the gods.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines Hoodoo as:
A body of practices of sympathetic magic traditional especially among Blacks in the southern United States.1
The first and foremost thing to understand about Hoodoo is that it is an African American magical system that evolved from African Traditional Religions (ATRs), and over time it has been influenced by some Native American and European practices and folklore. However, it is important to restate that Hoodoo is an African American traditional magic practice.
It is also important to note that Hoodoo is a direct descendent of Western and Central African magical practices brought to the United States with the slave trade (several hundred years prior). Often, my enslaved ancestors had to keep these practices secret or risk death. We were forced to convert to Christianity after our forced arrival in the United States, and when we were finally allowed to make religious choices, many of us stayed in the Christian faith.
Some of us continued the magical practices of our African ancestors in conjunction with Christianity. As a result, Hoodoo became aligned with the Christian faith. Due to cultural appropriation, and the lack of knowledge by whites about the magical secrets of ATRs, we’ve been pigeonholed into this box of Christianity that is not, at its inception, aligned with Hoodoo at all.
The opinion that I was fed in the past was that non-Christians could not practice Hoodoo. I was told that the spellwork (that Christians call “The Work” in order to distance it from witchcraft) had to involve the use of the Psalms and the rest of the Bible, the Saints (introduced by Catholic practitioners), and the prayers. I was even told that even many of the roots/herbs in Hoodoo are based in Christian tradition. I now find this ludicrous because these plants predate Christianity by thousands (maybe millions) of years. It only takes one look at the Evolutionary Tree of Religion v. 2.02 (pictured below) to see that Christianity is a very distant relation to the Yoruba religions from which this magical practice sprang. The line clearly moves from Yoruba, goes through many iterations and philosophies to African Polytheism (circa 1550), and moves directly to Hoodoo.
I find it amusing that Catholicism and Christianity never intersect with Hoodoo at all. The melding of Hoodoo and Christianity at first was simply syncretism by African slaves in order not to be beaten, or even flayed. As time went on, we were convinced by whites that this powerful work was evil so that we would not practice it against them. When whites discovered that Black folks abandoned this magic and drank the toxic Kool Aid of the Black church. If you do not believe me, there are countless articles (and even books) on the commercialism of Black Folks magic.
The ruse of Catholicism/Christianity made this commercial venture less threatening to the general public and Black people who still believed in the power of the work. The problem was, out went the Ancestors, and in came a white god, his son, and all the saints. To this day, you see Black patrons flock to white occult stores on Saturday and be in church pews on Sunday. When I began to practice, I still held onto Christian beliefs, but in time, things began to contradict themselves in a major way.
For example, I was told if you used other sacred texts, prayers, and god(s) in your work, Hoodoo may influence it, but you could not really call it Hoodoo because you were not using the Bible. I now believe that I was sold a crock of shit. Once again, our ancient magical practices, that predate the Bible and Christianity, never stopped being co-opted, lied about, and altered by people not from the bloodline from where the magic originated in the first place!
I knew I had a problem when I could not find a passage in the Bible that could be used for a gambling or lust/sex spell. That is when I had to take a hard look at my belief system, shake off Christian guilt and cognitive dissonance and step into the sunshine of being the Hoodoo witch I really am.
The Black people who continue to perpetuate these lies (I was once one of those people.) are selling out the traditions of their Ancestors to make money and make their practices acceptable to their oppressor. I just giggled because slaver racist oppressors are the reason our magic survived in the first place. They separated nations (not tribes – Africa is a continent not a country) to confuse us so that we would forget about the very gods and spirits who kept us alive during chattel slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and currently the “alt-right” movement. They shot themselves in the foot, because the practice grew and evolved rather than disappearing into the night.
So, practitioners like myself, read mainstream magical books and accepted the new narrative that Hoodoo has a direct line to Christianity.
It simply does not.
In fact, Hoodoo goes against the grain of many things that Christianity teaches. This duality, and the fact that I found out very interesting things about the Bible and its origins, made me renounce Christianity and convert fully to Vodou. Vodou, and other ATRs, are seeing major changes as priestesses and priests begin to remove Christian trappings in the religion. Even now, I am debating whether or not to remove saint statues from my practice. I guess it is easier for me because I always viewed them as Black, as Lwa, and never as Catholic saints. It may be a bit harder for those who were raised practicing both Catholicism and Vodou.
That is not to say that Hoodoo does not have a system. There are rules and principles in the practice just like any magical practice. I continue to encounter people who have not been properly informed, or choose not to take heed when informed, and do what they want to do as “the Spirit(s) lead them.” That is a personal choice, but it should be understood that Hoodoo is NOT Wicca, Traditional Witchcraft, or a New Age practice.
I am only scratching the surface with Hoodoo, and I am finding the links to ATRs such as Haitian Vodou, Ifa, and Santeria, every day. That is why many who start off practicing Hoodoo evolve and initiate into a (or multiple) ATRs. I often joke with my students and call Hoodoo “the gateway drug,” because its limitations and alterations send us in search of a more defined, traditional connection to our Ancestors, Spirits, and Gods. I also call Hoodoo “spiritual work lite,” because once you learn the secrets from being initiated into an ATR, your magic will change drastically.
So please let me reiterate and take back words of someone who was a foolish, newbie practitioner several years ago.
Hoodoo is NOT just a practice within the African American Christian tradition. It spans the diaspora and its descendants. I still contend that it is important for people to understand this before diving into this work too deeply. You may find yourself in a completely different reality (and religion) than what you originally thought was the (pardon the pun) gospel truth.
I also still believe that this will be a deciding factor as to whether or not people wish to pursue this path, and it is an extremely personal decision. In my community (the Black community), the word “Hoodoo” was rarely used. I see that now one of the reasons was the cultural appropriation surrounding it made it feel like a drugstore hoax.
Often the syncretism required in a certain location (e.g., the deep south versus the north) made us not use the term. Many of us recognized Hoodoo as just something that we do. In the past, if we referred to it at all, we said “throwing a root” on someone, or simply referred to it as “throwing.” Traditionally, it was not taught in classroom or online. Often, you observed your elders practicing it in the home to remedy life’s situations. You were (especially if you were a child) to quietly observe and learn the practice. Often, the elders would figure you would pick it up by watching.
Following a reading, one my clients expressed her dismay to her mother because she did not “teach” her how to practice Hoodoo. Her mother’s reply? “Well you were there watching me, weren’t you?” As more Black people became formally educated, they did not see this informal observance as teaching, and many of us lost the lessons of Hoodoo and how it relates to everyday Black life.
That is not to say that Folk Magic did not and does not exist in white culture. That is not to say that Folk Magic did not and does not exist in white culture. Even old school workers considered white had grandparents who taught them The Work. It’s funny because so many people mixed and passed for white, that we never know who we are until we take a DNA test. I was one of those people. I actually feared that the results of my DNA test (whew 76% African and 24% European and some other stuff) would say I was whiter than I thought I was. Even Starr Cassas, a worker who is culturally identified as a white woman, has often said, “it was just what my mama did. We did not know it was Conjure.”3 She has also advised that it is a way of life. It is also of interest that not all of Starr’s ancestors were white.
Once you are familiar with the rituals in the practice, you will see that Hoodoo finds its way into your housekeeping, cooking, how you treat illness, deal with relationships, and entertain people in your home. Before the days of websites and online groups, there was Hoodoo. Most people heard about local workers via word of mouth, and if you employed the services of a worker, it was deeply personal and kept private. It is not a surprise that within the tradition, workings are not put on public display, and if they are, their meanings are not freely discussed.
It has been so integrated into the lives of my people so much, that it has assimilated into the culture, whether we are consciously practicing Hoodoo or not. Many Blacks are still surprised that there is scholarly study devoted to the subject and online groups and classes devoted to this practice. Many of them also continue to think that it is the evil work of the devil.
The following provides the two basic magical principles that guide the practice of Hoodoo.
The Law of Contagion is a folk belief described axiom found in magical thinking which suggests that once two people or objects have been in contact, that a magical link persists between unless or until a formal exorcism or other act of banishing breaks the non-material bond.4
In Hoodoo, you see this in the use of Personal Concerns in spellwork. When you have something like a person’s hair, fingernails, spit, dirt from foot tracks, name, picture, etc., employed and included in your spellwork, your spell for or against your target is much more powerful. It may happen faster, last longer, or have more intense effects on the subject.
There is a hierarchy in The Law of Contagion. Spellwork with someone’s hair is most likely to be more powerful than spellwork with simply a person’s name written on petition paper. This is because it is a physical part of your target. The spellwork becomes an extension of the person who is the originator of the personal concern. This, while most likely the case, is not always the case. Remember a practitioner’s connection to their Ancestors, Spirits, and Gods, their intent, and their magical abilities are also highly influential in the results. Based on this principle, when spellwork is practiced on a person, it takes uncrossing magic to undo the spell.
The Doctrine of Signatures is a philosophy shared by herbalists from the time of Dioscurides and Galen. This doctrine states that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of that part of the body. Although the Doctrine of Signatures was formalized in early modern times, the theme of natural objects’ shapes having significance is a very old one and is not confined to Western thought.5
That’s the basic definition of The Doctrine of Signatures, as indicated in the above quote, it is older and deeper in Hoodoo. This practice employs the belief system that every root/herb has a spirit and a purpose. Remember, these herbs, roots, and curios were used in our mundane life (e.g., cleaning with lemons or pine), they were/are our medicine when we could not go to the doctor (White Willow Bark is an ingredient in aspirin to relieve pain), and they are the magic that continues to rule our very existence.
It is the way the root/herb looks, smells, tastes, or the traditional use of it (e.g., roses for love, salt for cleansing) that creates its definition for use in Hoodoo. This practice also is not limited to roots/herbs. There are many curios used in Hoodoo that remain in the practice, that are not roots or herbs, that have found their way into popular culture (e.g. the lucky rabbit’s foot or penny). The common names (or Latin translations) and planetary alignments of the roots and herbs also have a big influence on how The Doctrine of Signatures was applied and implemented in Hoodoo.
Often the common names of a root/herb had something to do with the smell or appearance of that root/herb. It is not hard to see how Wormwood, Devil’s Dung, and Vandal Root are often used in jinxing workings in Hoodoo. It is VERY important that you apply The Doctrine of Signatures in your workings. You want to avoid using roots, herbs, and curios in ways in which they were NOT INTENDED in the practice.
For example, Van Van (condition) Oil is used for luck, blessings, and to remove negative energy/evil from a space. Many people use it in candle work, mojo hands/bags, and floor washes. The most important herb in Van Van Oil is Lemon Verbena, a cleansing herb. You should NOT add something like Black Dog’s Hair (used in jinxing) to Van Van Oil. If things unrelated with luck and blessings are added, it is no longer Van Van Oil. Without Lemon Verbena, it is not Van Van Oil. I have no idea if another practice finds these examples of what not to do useful for blessing, but these things are not so in Hoodoo.
What you will find is that this makes Hoodoo easier to understand at its simplest level. As you delve into spiritual work, you will find that it gets a bit more complicated. That is why it is called work. Some baths take days and days. Some rituals require you to do things at sunrise or midnight. You may have to go to the graveyard to work with an Ancestor. When you work with Ancestors/Spirits/Gods, you will set up altars as the tradition dictates. There are many things about Hoodoo that cannot be condensed into a simple definition, but we are still learning and uncovering truths. Those truths continue to make us more powerful and a magical force to contend with.
I am encouraged by Black practitioners everywhere who are reclaiming the word Hoodoo. I never liked to use it in relation to my practice because of its appropriation, but as we come to the truth about our own practices, I no longer have an issue using the word. No longer is Hoodoo seen as a drugstore sideshow full of snake oil. We are embracing it as our power, and now many of us realize it is key to our longevity as we fight our way back home to our roots, to Africa.