Blog Post 29 – An Introduction to Hoodoo, Part I

This week I’ll be focusing on something that seems to generate a lot of interest:  hoodoo.  This is one of my personal favorites when it comes to magical systems, because it is incredibly practical and anyone can do it.  Plus, it doesn’t shy away from the less savory side of magic, but fully acknowledges that curses exist and must be dealt with (and sometimes dealt out when other attempts at justice have failed).

A (VERY Brief) History
Let’s start by getting the confusing terminology out of the way.  Often, the terms “hoodoo,” “conjure,” and “root work” or “rootwork” will appear as synonyms.  Adding to the confusion, most people also mix “voodoo” into this lexical stewpot.  Hoodoo, however, is NOT Voodoo/Vodoun—the former is a magical system not particularly affiliated with any specific religion, and the latter is a very distinct religion.  The confusion between the two stems from the fact that both are outgrowths of something called African Traditional Religion (or ATR for short).  There are other ATR’s which exist, primarily in South America and the Caribbean, but I’ll leave a discussion of those to someone more knowledgeable than myself.  When African slaves were brought to the West Indies, their native religion mixed with the folk practices of the indigenous tribes on the islands and the Christianity of their European captors.  Vodoun evolved over time, primarily in places like Haiti, as well as coming onto American soil through places like New Orleans.

Many modern Vodoun practitioners are very committed to the ATR religious powers, such as Legba, Oshun, and Yemaya (variants on spelling and pronunciation occur depending on where you are and to whom you’re speaking).  The Voodoo which grew up in New Orleans is quite different from the Vodoun in Haiti, though they do share many common elements.  Zora Neale Hurston’s excellent book Mules and Men details much of this overlap (though I advise readers to take this book with a grain of salt, as some of her folklore is a bit embellished and may not present an accurate picture of her subjects).

A big part of Voodoo, though, was a belief in magic and animism.  While Catholicism (dominant in the islands and French-and-Spanish-influenced Southern coastal regions) was fairly adoptive of these ideas so long as they were couched in terminology like “miracles” and “Saints,” slaves transplanted to Protestant-dominated areas found the religious side of Voodoo quashed.  The numerous spirits and beings found in Voodoo’s pantheon were stripped away, and what was left was a magical system detached from its religious side.  Other ATR’s also met the same fate as they moved into the white, Protestant-dominated sections of the United States.  Beliefs in “witchcrafting” and other magical practices go back to at least the beginning of the 19th century among African-American populations, completely removed from any ATR associations, or any deeply religious connection at all.  Only the practical side of the work was still available to the slaves brutally oppressed in Colonial America, as it was often their only real recourse to justice in any way.

Once this practical magic started working its mojo, so to speak, it began to grow in new ways.  It encountered new herbs via contact with another overrun people, the Native Americans.  European folklore, especially German and Anglo-Irish tales, provided new fodder for the developing system.  And the availability of particular regional curios and ingredients shaped the evolving practice.

So is it Hoodoo, Conjure, or Root Work?
In general, the terms “hoodoo,” “conjure,” and “root  work” still get used interchangeably.  “Hoodoo” is common in the gulf coastal regions, “conjure” in places like Memphis and the mid-South, and “root work” in the Atlantic coastal regions.  All terms, however, can be generally found in all places, so don’t be surprised at the overlap.  Additionally, spelling may vary (I’ve seen at least one WPA folklore collection from Tennessee showing this practice called “cunjur” instead of “conjure”).

In my own mind, I do see a slight difference in the three terms:

  • Hoodoo is the general name for the system of African-American and Southern magic using herbs, roots, and everyday objects to influence people and events in one’s life.
  • Conjure is more specifically related to working with spirits, but also uses much of the same magic hoodoo does.  It also relates to faith-healing (to me, anyway).
  • Root work has to do with the crafting of herbal and curio-filled spell objects, or with the use of such things to heal or harm a target.

There’s not a single consensus on where the actual term “hoodoo” comes from.  Some think it is a corruption of “Voodoo,” but this is not a majority opinion.  Catherine Yronwode has a great discussion of this topic on her website, outlining much of this history in more detail.

Hoodoo Now
During the early-to-mid twentieth century, hoodoo underwent another evolution.  It moved, along with Southern blacks, into cities and became urbanized.  Many merchants began to supply hoodoo practitioners with the oils, herbs, candles and other items they needed to do their work.  A number of these suppliers were Jewish, and a strong Jewish presence can still be seen in hoodoo, mostly in the use of talismans and charms imported from European grimoires like The Black Pullet.  Some, such as scholar Eoghan Ballard, have even made convincing arguments that the word “hoodoo” comes from a particular pronunciation of the word “Jewish.”

The terms Voodoo and hoodoo are still confused, even by those who are in the know.  The very reputable and knowledgeable author Jim Haskins even titled his book about hoodoo Voodoo and Hoodoo.

Modern hoodoo is still growing and changing.  Some of the major centers of hoodoo are Forestville, CA (where Cat Yronwode runs her Lucky Mojo Curio Co.), the Gullah region of South Carolina (discussed in Jack Montgomery’s American Shamans in the section on Sheriff McTeer), cities like Memphis and Savannah, and of course New Orleans.  It is also present in rural areas, like the swamps of Mississippi.  And the general practice of root work seems to have spread to other countries as well, as Sarah from the Forest Grove Botanica in Canada uses many root working techniques in her magic.

As this week goes on, we’ll get into more on those techniques, as well as the specific herbs, roots, and curios found in hoodoo.  For now, though, I think I’ll stop before I write a whole book here.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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7 Comments on “Blog Post 29 – An Introduction to Hoodoo, Part I”


  1. Excellent overview.

    As to the rural areas in Mississippi and it’s hoodoo, I would say it is more represented in the Delta than the swamps.

    Though we have our fair share of swamp and marsh land, especially here on the Gulf, they aren’t as inhabited as they are in Acadiana and such. Most swampland here is marked off as preserve and hardly anyone gets to live there.

    There are of course exceptions to this, but it just isn’t as prevalent as it is in Louisiana, especially in years past. Stilted homes on marshes and bayous are common, and some communities have as many canals as they do roads.

    There is a strange place where the Gulf South meets the rest, where wetland meets pasture and shrimping and crabbing, and farming and raising livestock, are only a few miles apart for one another. Dialects and cultures are varied for such a small area, and naturally so is the conjure traditions…and lack there of (think plain old protestant white folks).

    I have one friend who owns a conjure shop in the Bay, and another who owns one in the Forest, and I am right in the middle of them both, and know that their clients can sometimes be as different as the are similar, and the Protestant/Catholic line is a major player in the differences. As to similarities, it is found more in the culture than the color. There are some places not far from me that had isolated Mulatto Creole culture up until the 40’s, and though many have moved out into more inland settlements, everyone can still tell where they are from. It is truly fascinating. A last name is enough to give away where your people are from most times.

    My granny was a Saucier, French Creoles who came over from New Orleans and settled here on the coast, but though there is still an area with their namesake, the culture was replaced with “Piney Wood Protestants” who came down from the mountains, and other northern parts of the Southern states, in the early 1900’s due to the lumber industry (ask me about how i feel about that another time). They brought another culture with them, and sadly it is become the common one in many parts. You can always tell when you are in a logging community.

    Sorry for the ramble!

    Be well.

    PTB


    • Papa TB, this is great! I notice lots of regional differences in my area, but you’re absolutely right about that Gulf Coastal region being a real grab bag of cultures, languages, and customs. Feel free to write/speak more on this topic! I think our readers and listeners would love to know about life down by the delta.


  2. Well you’re gonna have to ask somebody else about the Delta haha I have hardly been there! I go to Natchez regularly, but it is just south of where the delta officially starts.

    The Gulf Coast however, I can go on about all day. The Gulf South, from New Orleans to the west coast of flordia is a world of its own. It has been French, then Spanish, French again, the English…for a bit…the Amercian, then Confederate, and finally back to being American again.

    Where I live wasn’t part of the US until 1812, and only as a territory…became part of other states….and then left the Union all together of course.

    Read about Spanish West Florida, the short lived West Florida Republic and about the first capital of Louisiana, Biloxi…where I make my groceries every sunday!

    Sadly, since the storm, lots of culture changes are taking over places that were once living shrimping communities, steeped in Cajun, Creole, and even Slav culture…then came the Vietnamese, adding to the gumbo. But now, with homes gone, people scattered and modern day carpet baggers getting legislation passed, making resettlement almost impossible for the “natives” of the areas, it is being developed into tourist traps. Tragic, but that is how things go…can’t stay the same i guess.

    Parts of NOLA are the same…especially in the Quarter.
    Need a Voodoo Beanie Baby? Go to “Voodoo Authentica” and get you one. 😦

  3. YearInWhite Says:

    As a practitioner of the Santería, I was happy to hear you mention both ATRs and the Diaspora in general in some of your podcast episodes (and this post).

    One thing I have noticed, though, is that just as some mistakenly use the term “voodoo” instead of “hoodoo” (or vice-versa), the same can be said for Santería, which often gets lumped in the same category as Voodoo.

    Just as a basic example from your post: Legba is a part of Voodoo, while Oshun, and Yemaya are a part of Santería.

    Santería and Voodoo are both separate and complete religions in and of themselves, even though it might seem like there are a lot of similarities initially. The former originated more from the Yorùbá people while Voodoo came from Haiti.

    Unless specifically talking about one faith, I usually try to just to use the vague “ATR” or “African-based faith” umbrella. That also includes Candomblé, Palo, etc.

    But I digress… 😉

    I’ve been loving the podcast! There isn’t enough good-quality podcasts out there that actually deal with DOING STUFF. Also, I was amused by the talk of hexes, curses, etc. A lot of these practices are, ultimately, about balance. Some of the other podcasts only seem to focus on the magical equivalent of fluffy-little-bunnies and focus on sweetening people up, bringing forth good, luck, etc. That’s all well and good… Personally, I feel like when people ignore the other side of things, they don’t always allow themselves to see the bigger picture out there.

    Keep up the good work!


    • Many many thanks! I was unaware that Oshun was not a part of Vodoun, but it’s good to know that. I’ll try to check more thoroughly on those sorts of things in the future. (Lol, you can see why I’m hesitant to talk much about them…my own knowledge is *extremely* limited).

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast! I hope it continues to provide good information and ideas for you. I definitely see the need for balance in magic (though I also like to go by “all things in moderation, including moderation” in my life). We’ll be talking more about curses/hexes in the future, though, so I’ll probably discuss that idea then.

      Again, many thanks for writing! We’ll hope to hear from you more here!

      Be well,

      Cory

  4. Hoi Sum Says:

    Great post and I enjoyed reading all of the other listener comments. I am not sure if YearInWhite is completely correct though…it’s hard to say because ATR’s, Voodoo, Vodou, Hoodoo etc seem to have so many different definitions. I know that Oshun and Yemaya are worshipped in Santeria which stemmed from the original Yoruba tribe’s religion. I practice Hoodoo and I definitely work with Oshun and Yemaya. From what I have read though Voodoo practitioners (mostly in America) do use and believe in the 7 African powers. It is more the Haitian Vodou practitioners that do not use the Orishas. On the Voodoo Authentica site (and store in New Orleans) the store owner answered such a question on her website (http://www.voodooshop.com/)….see below

    (4) Can you please tell me about the Gods of Voodoo. I’ve heard about the 7 African Powers — who are they?

    Thanks so much for your inquiry! In Voodoo, there is one God and a pantheon of Spirit Forces, similar to the Catholic Saints. Below, I’ve pasted a chart of these 7 Primary Spirit forces of the Voodoo religion, referred to as the “7 African Powers” along with some of their attributes. It comes from the instructions which accompany our 7 African Powers Doll Set . Hope this is helpful!

    This set includes 7 dolls which represent the primary African Spirit Forces (Orisha) of the Voodoo religion. Each Spirit has His/Her own day, number, favorite foods, etc. Their names are: Papa Legba, Obatala, Yemaya, Oya, Oshun, Chango and Ogun. They are each called upon for very different and specific reasons. May the blessings of the 7 African Powers be with you always!!!

    Hopefully this will help add to your collection of information here. Again great post!

    Blessings,
    Hoi Sum


    • Thanks Hoi Sum!

      I thought there was something relating to those powers in Vodou as well, but that’s one area I’m horribly deficient in when it comes to having much background info. At any rate, this definitely gives some good information to start digging into.

      Thanks again!

      -Cory


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