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.
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!