What is Traditional Conjure?
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines Hoodoo (henceforth in this document referred to as Traditional Conjure) 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 Traditional Conjure is that it is an African American magical system in its origin, and over time it has been influenced by Native American and European practices and folklore. However, it is important to restate that it is an African American traditional magic practice.
catherine yronwode writes that the actual term Hoodoo came into use possibly in “the 19th century or earlier.” 2 It is important to note that Traditional Conjure 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 upon our arrival in the United States, and when 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, Traditional Conjure goes hand in hand with the Christian faith.
This is not to say that non-Christians cannot practice Traditional Conjure, but understand that the spell work (henceforth referred to as “work”), the use of the Psalms and the rest of the Bible, the Saints (introduced by Catholic practitioners), the prayers, and even many of the roots/herbs are based in the Christian religion. If you are using other sacred texts, prayers, and God(s) in your work, please keep in mind that while your work may be influenced by Traditional Conjure, you cannot really call it Traditional Conjure.3
That being said, there has been a lot of appropriation in Traditional Conjure. People who have not been properly informed, or choose not to take heed when informed, tend to do what they want to do as “the Spirit(s) lead them.” That is a personal choice, but it is to be understood that Traditional Conjure is NOT Wicca, Pagan, Witchcraft, Santeria, Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo (although NOLA Voodoo practitioners incorporate many elements of Traditional Conjure in their work), any New Age Religion, etc. Traditional Conjure is a practice within the African American Christian tradition. It is important that people understand that before diving into this work too deeply. It is often a deciding factor as to whether or not to pursue this path, and it is an extremely personal decision.
In my community (the Black community), the word “Hoodoo” is rarely used. Often Traditional Conjure is just something that we “do.” If we refer to it at all, they discuss “throwing a root” on someone, or simply refer to it as “throwing.” In the past, 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 do The Work. Her mother’s reply? “Well you were there watching me, weren’t you?”
As more people were more formally educated, they did not see this informal observance as teaching, and many Blacks lost the lessons of Conjure and how it relates to everyday Black life. As Starr Cassas has often said, “it was just what my mama did. We did not know it was Conjure.” She has also advised that it is a way of life. Once you are familiar with the rituals in the practice, you will see that Conjure 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 Traditional Conjure. 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 was assimilated into the culture, whether we are consciously practicing Traditional Conjure or not. Many Blacks still do not know that there is scholarly study devoted to the subject and online groups and classes devoted to practice. This is not to say that Traditional Conjure was/is not practiced by non-Blacks. That is simply not true. It has been, and always will be a practice that is open to anyone that believes in the power of God’s Roots.
The following sections provide the two basic magical principles that guide the practice of Traditional Conjure.
The Law of Contagion
“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 Traditional Conjure, you see this in the use of Personal Concerns in the work. When you have something like a person’s hair, fingernails, spit, dirt from foot tracks, name, picture, etc. employed and included in work, your spell for or against them 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. A working with someone’s hair is most likely to be more powerful than a working with simply a person’s name. The work becomes an extension of the person who is the rightful owner of their personal concern. This, while most likely the case, is not always the case. Remember the workers faith and magical abilities AND the faith and execution of the person requesting the work are also highly influential in the results. Based on this principle, work is practiced on a person, it takes uncrossing magic to undo the work.
The Doctrine of Signatures
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, but it goes a bit deeper in Traditional Conjure. It stems from the belief system that every root/herb has a spirit and a purpose. It may be 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 Traditional Conjure. This practice also is not limited to roots/herbs. There are many curios used in Traditional Conjure that remain in the practice that are not roots/herbs, and some have even found their way into popular culture (e.g. the lucky rabbit’s foot or penny).
The common names (or Latin translations) of the root/herb also have a big influence on how The Doctrine of Signatures was applied and implemented in Traditional Conjure. Often the names of the root had something to do with the smell or appearance root/herb. It is not hard to see how Wormwood, Devil’s Dung, Vandal Root are often used in jinxing workings in Traditional Conjure. 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 conditioning oil is used for luck and blessings. Many people use it in candle work, mojo hands/bags, and floor washes. It’s most important herb in Van Van Oil is Lemongrass. Lemongrass is used for cleansing. 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 Lemongrass, it is not Van Van Oil. This is not to say that another practice may not find these examples useful for blessing, but this is not so in Traditional Conjure.
What you will find is that this makes Traditional Conjure easy 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 and Saints, you will be setting up altars. There are many things about Traditional Conjure that cannot be condensed into a simple definition, but it is being Soon I will be creating a Getting Started Reading List to help you find more resources for Traditional Conjure.