Black Lives Matter. I say that first, because it is the most important component of what I write today. To all those standing up for Black lives right now, thank you.
In our recent Patreon newsletter, which we made public, we issued our position about valuing Black lives and Black contributions to our world. One of the points we made was this:
“To us, Black Lives Matter. Frankly, we wouldn’t exist without the numerous contributions and creations of myriad Black and Brown minds throughout our history, and we have sought to highlight those figures on the show and on our site when possible, and we know we can do even better in the future, too. We must. We will. American folk magic does not exist, does not thrive and grow, without People of Color. So again we say, Black Lives Matter.”
Today, I’m going to highlight a small number of the figures from Black magical history (particularly in the U.S.) that prove that statement true. American folk magic does not exist without the contributions made by these individuals, and in many cases it has thrived and grown only because of the efforts made by People of Color. I’ll be mentioning only a small handful of what could easily be a MASSIVE list, and I’ll be sharing resources and information where you can learn more about them (as often as possible in their own voices or from non-white sources). I also showcase several contemporary Black magical figures because it is important not only to see the foundations of American folk magic as rooted in African American soil, but to see what continues to grow and thrive here. I recommend listening to them, hearing their perspectives, buying their books, or supporting them in any way you can. (Note: Where possible, all books are linked to a Bookshop.org page, and I encourage you to order these books from one of the many excellent Black-owned bookshops throughout the U.S.; Amazon links are used ONLY when the book is not available through Bookshop).
So let’s get started.
Zora Neale Hurston
To me, Zora Neale Hurston is the grande-dame of North American folk magic in so many ways. I know that’s a controversial opinion, but Hurston herself was no stranger to controversy. She was a key piece of the Harlem Renaissance, working on plays with the likes of Langston Hughes, while also doing advanced anthropological work at Columbia University. Hurston was prompted by her mentor, Franz Boas, to go out and document her own culture, to see it as equally valid and important, and through that she produced both fiction and non-fiction texts that are absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in folk magic. She documented Vodun and Obeah in Haiti and Jamaica, and produced a quintessential collection of stories and material on hoodoo by researching in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, as well as other parts of the Gulf Coastal South. She was sometimes accused of being accommodating to white folks (like one of her patrons, the paternalistically racist Charlotte Osgood Mason) or of embellishing her work, but it rings with poetry and life and as Hurston herself might say, “the boiled down juice” of living. She died in relative obscurity until her literary reputation was resurrected by Black scholar Alice Walker a decade-and-a-half later.
To read: Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography); Tell My Horse (Vodun/Obeah); Mules and Men (Hoodoo); “Hoodoo in America” (extensive folklore article); Their Eyes Were Watching God (gorgeous literature); Moses Man of the Mountain (fiction with strong magical elements).
Aunt Caroline Dye
She was known as the seer of Newport, Arkansas, and received visitors from hundreds of miles away. She was the subject of several blues songs, and was reputed to be able to find any lost or stolen object with her powers. When she died, it was said she had literally thousands of dollars hidden away on her property, making her one of the wealthiest women around. During the peak of her popularity and power, it was said that more Black folks knew her name than President Woodrow Wilson’s.
To read: Statesmen, Scoundrels, & Eccentrics: A Gallery of Amazing Arkansans, by Tom Dillard (biography section); “The Hoo Doo Woman of Arkansas” (AR State Parks Dept.)
Black Herman was both a stage magician and a practitioner of mystical and magical arts when the spotlights were off. He was born Benjamin Rucker in the late nineteenth century, but he took the name “Black Herman” to honor his teacher and partner, a stage magician named “Prince Herman,” when the latter died. Black Herman took over the show and toured it with incredible success from the time he was seventeen until his untimely death nearly thirty years later. He was best known for his legerdemain and escapist tricks in his act, including a stunt that saw him buried alive then miraculously resurrected days later (when he’d continue with his show). Herman also folded in a number of African American folk magical elements, too, including the curing of patients with “live things” in them like snakes or the expulsion of evil spirits.
Stephany Robinson, known to most around St. Helena Island, South Carolina, often gets painted as a sort of villain or foil in the stories about him. He was well-known as a rootworker and conjurer in an area connected with the Gullah culture, specializing in “chewing the root,” which involved visiting a courthouse where a client was expecting a trial, sitting in the audience, and slowly chewing a “Little John” root (galangal) while spitting the juices on the floor. He would fix a judge with his gaze and in many cases get his clients off from their accusations just by showing up. He also provided medications to young Black men who were being drafted into military service that would make them fail qualifying draft tests. Eventually, his success ran him afoul of local law enforcement, particularly Jim E. McTeer, a sheriff who decided to start using rootwork on his own to combat Dr. Buzzard. The conjure war between them escalated for a few years until Buzzard’s son was killed in a car crash, devastating him. He soon after called a truce with the sheriff. I’ll admit that I often think of this more from McTeer’s perspective than Buzzard’s, but in truth Buzzard’s clients likely faced incredibly unfair circumstances and his roots and magic were invaluable to his community, while McTeer’s use of conjure was almost play-acting at times as he engaged in a form of psychological combat with the respected local root doctor.
See also: The Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor (for more on the region)
So much is written about Marie Laveau it’s hard to separate fact and fiction, but we do know that she existed and that she was one of the most powerful Black women of her day. She’s mostly associated with New Orleans Voodoo, although she likely also incorporated elements of hoodoo at times while maintaining a strongly Catholic public presence. I won’t belabor her story here, because of all the people on this list you’re probably going to be able to find the most information about Laveau, but she’s absolutely one of the core figures in North American magical history.
Less well-known than Laveau, but deeply influential in the Brooklyn community where she lived (and beyond), Mama Lola was a Haitian mambo overseeing a number of rituals for the immigrant community around her and acting as a social pillar for her neighborhood. One biographer gives her full name as Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, but everyone knew her as Mama Lola or Alourdes. While New Orleans Voodoo may have captured the imagination of many, in Brooklyn Alourdes/Lola kept the living spirit (and spirits) of her tradition going. She acted as a spiritual and social counselor for those around her, as well as providing childcare for her daughter and helping to financially support members of her community. She would meet with clients almost daily, stage elaborate birthday parties for the lwa spirits she honored, and offer initiation and teaching to talented students.
To read: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, by Karen McCarthy Brown (bio)
For some, Katrina Hazzard-Donald is controversial, because she insists that Hoodoo is its own traditional spiritual system, a religion that was essentially quashed during the late nineteenth century and which has only been revived as a commercial enterprise in the intervening years. Hazard-Donald’s scholarship on the subject, built on her years as a professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Rutgers University, is frequently compelling and points out that the specific rituals of Hoodoo as a religious phenomenon include things that derived from or mirrored existing African spirituality. She points to things like ritual dancing, water immersion, and divination as reflective of the African roots of the tradition. Her work shows that once the religion left its home soil in particular regional zones, it became nationalized and easily coopted and marketed by outsiders, including white and Jewish merchants in big cities. While I don’t always agree with every point she makes, her analysis of Hoodoo is absolutely mind-expanding and thought-provoking. Additionally, she also practices African Traditional Religion as an Ogun Olorisha in the Lukumi tradition. I had the absolute pleasure of getting to hear her speak at an academic conference a few years ago, and she is fiery, eloquent, and moving when she talks about African and African American spirituality.
To read: Mojo Workin’ (her seminal work on “Old Black Belt” Hoodoo)
The author of the deeply influential book Jambalaya: The Natural Women’s Book, Luisah Teish has been working with African and African American spiritual traditions for decades and connecting her knowledge of spirituality with healing for issues of both race and gender. She makes feminism a crucial part of her spiritual practice, and was advocating for self-care as a radical form of spiritual action back in 1985. She continues to act as a guide and teacher to people, particularly women, who know her as Yeye Teish. She’s an initiate (Iyanifa) and chief in the Yoruban spiritual tradition, and hosts workshops and international trips to places like Jamaica to connect with living African-derived spiritual and magical traditions.
If you haven’t heard of Lilith Dorsey, you’re doing yourself a disservice. She’s an incredibly cogent writer on the subject of a number of diasporic practices, especially Vodun, witchcraft, and Afro-Caribbean spirituality. She recently put out a magnificent-looking book on Orishas, and has written books looking at love magic and African American cooking as a form of spellcraft, too. Her blog over at Patheos is always thoughtful and points toward new sources and new ideas while also bringing in her anthropological background and rooting what she discusses in that field.To pile talent upon talent (which she has in abundance), she’s also a filmmaker, who made the documentary Bodies of Water: Voodoo Identity and Tranceformation.
Lisa Jade is a Canadian witch with a keen eye for issues of environmentalism, social justice, and–of course–witchcraft. She’s also a Patheos blogger (like Lilith Dorsey above) who shares her insights into issues like locavore lifestyle witchcraft and the deep problems with capitalism for those who walk a crooked path. She also produced an EXCELLENT reading list of Black witchy authors a few years back including Black writers and magical workers that aren’t on this list (including people like the brilliant Khi Armand).
To read: Her reading list, 100% for sure, because it will offer you a lot of new options to discover
See also: Her website (which also produces material for Patheos)
The A Little Juju podcast is something I’ve only recently found, but it’s been going strong for a while now. It also has one of the best and catchiest theme songs I’ve heard on a magical podcast, and Juju Bae covers a wide range of topics that intersect with Black magical spirituality. She’s talked astrology, money magic (which she takes VERY seriously), reiki, and even why masturbation is a healthy expression of spiritual self. She offers a line of hoodoo-related oils and products as well as divinatory readings (including ancestral readings), and she teaches online courses as well.
To listen: Check out her A Little Juju podcast
Stephanie Rose Bird
She’s a prolific author who shares her knowledge of hoodoo readily in her books, but who also writes about health and wellness as a Woman of Color and even has a debut novel in the works! She’s generous and supportive while also providing rigorous and careful instructions in her books, and she looks at places where magical practices and spiritualities overlap with a thoughtful eye. The ecological side of her writing runs deep, and she situates the hoodoo she knows and does within the framework of natural cycles and seasons, while also making it contemporary and accessible for anyone.
To read: 365 Days of Hoodoo (a hoodoo-based daily practice book); Sticks, Stones, Roots, & Bones (her landmark work on her hoodoo-rooted practice); The Big Book of Soul (African American culture and spirituality)
See also: Her website
My final member of the thirteen-person coven assembled here is someone that I think everyone should know. Via Hedera is one of my favorite writers on North American folk spirituality. She looks to the folklore and scours collections and practices to better understand and share a deeply-rooted, deeply-felt sense of folk magic here. She comes at the topic as someone who lives intersectionality, bringing a multi-ethnic perspective and elevating practices from a wide range of sources, connecting sources such as Indigenous and African American magical practices through her work. She’s a delight to read, and her forthcoming book is one that I’ve been lucky enough to preview and I will say it should be at the top of any New World Witchery fan’s reading list. Plus, she’s a crazy talented artist who makes gorgeous plant-spirit sculptures that will melt your brain with their beauty.
To read: Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Mulitcultural Experience (forthcoming, and you should definitely get it)
* * *
This is truly just a sampling of the hundreds (of thousands) of Black/POC figures that have informed, shaped, guided, and continue to influence the magic of North America. There are no shortage of people I skipped or missed here, ones that I think deserve just as much praise and recognition as the ones I’ve highlighted. To that end, if you have figures that you think should be on this list, please feel free to share them in the comments (along with any links to relevant information).
A note: any racist, misogynistic, or otherwise heinous comments will not be approved and may be reported as harassment. Please use the comments to lift up and elevate Black magic.
Black Lives Matter. Black Magic Matters. Rise together.
Thank you for reading,
- Lilith Dorsey’s Patheos blog is the best way to see her regular writing, and the article “Black Witches Talk Back” in response to the article in The Atlantic is a must-read companion to this episode.
- Dorsey has also written several books, including The African-American Ritual Cookbook and Love Magic: Over 250 Spells and Potions for Getting It, Keeping It, and Making It Last.
- We also mention Witchdoctor Utu, who we had on our show during the Great Lakes episode.
- We discuss several anthropologists whose work we find valuable, including Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Deren, and Margaret Mead.
- We mention Bri Luna (the Hoodwitch) and Chiquita Brujita in conjunction with the rising movement towards magical diversity and inclusion.
- Lilith mentions dancing for Dr. John, whose New Orleans music is a lot of fun to listen to
- We briefly touch upon the idea of sexual predation in neo-Pagan circles, a topic covered well by Sarah Lawless in some of her recent articles
EDIT: We’ve had a very informative and respectful email from a listener that pointed out a few errors in my retelling of the Haitian tale about Obatala, Yemoja, and Shango. I would like to note that Yemoja is not historically associated with Haitian spiritual practices, and that the selections from Teish’s book are not reflective of African Traditional Religious practice as done by initiates from those traditions (like Lukumi or Candomble). The tale of Obatala’s Yams is from Courlander’s book, which has come under critical fire at times for inaccuracies. I am leaving the story as-is and in the context of the episode because I think it does fit the overall theme and has some grounding in folk narrative from Haiti, but please do not take it as solid evidence of Haitian traditions and practices. The listener also noted that Haitian Lwa and Lukumi Orishas are not “goddesses,” which is a good point to reiterate. They are not. Nor are White Buffalo Woman or La Virgen de Guadalupe. They are “goddess figures” in an anthropological sense, but I am using a very blunt instrument in categorizing these three tales together. I hope that I have not misled anyone into thinking that the Western concept of a “goddess” is universal or fits cultural material from non-Western sources without some severe oversimplification. Again, this episode is designed as a way of looking at the “lighter” side of the Feminine Divine, and is made in a spirit of appreciation. If I’ve reduced anyone’s spiritual beliefs in any way through this material, I apologize, as that was certainly not my intention. -Cory
We spend sometime with mothers bright and beautiful, the Queens of Heaven, in lore and practice. Hear some folktales from the New World, as well as some spells, music, and other fun stuff all devoted to the Bright Mother.
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Download: Episode 93 – Bright Mothers
The idea to do this episode is related to our previous show, Episode 63 – The Dark Mother (although obviously we’re sort of looking at the divine feminine from the other side this time).
Folklore for this episode comes from several sources:
- American Indian Myths & Legends, by Erdoes & Ortiz
- The Ways of My Grandmothers, by Beverly Hungry Wolf
- Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America, by Leeming & Page
- A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore, by Harold Courlander
- Jambalaya, Luisa Teish
- Kanaval: Vodou, Politics, & Revolution, by Gordon & Constantino
- Chicano Folklore: A Handbook, by Maria Herrera-Sobek
- Novena: The Power of Prayer, by Calamari & DiPasqua
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Promos & Music
Incidental Music (from FreeMusicArchive, used under a Creative Commons License):
- Paul Messing, “Lakota Prayer (Edited)”
- Laurent Danis, “Lakota Prayer”
- L’Horrible Passion, “Lucidique”
- Mild Maynard, “Migrant Mother”
- Canton, “Ambient Gourd”
- Advent Chamber Orchestra, “Serenade for Strings (Dvorak)”
- Sergei Chereminisov, “Mother’s Hands”
Additional music used by permission: “Treachery is Afoot” (Ember Days Soundtrack) and “La Sirene,” by S.J. Tucker.
Happy New Year to you!
Today I thought I might share a few of the things from my holiday stocking, as well as other treats and delights I’ve been enjoying lately. I got a very lovely and eclectic selection of books & music, some of which might be of interest to folks here, so if you find something among the pile that you like, I’d love to know!
The first thing I want to mention is a beautiful copy of Crossway’s Four Holy Gospels. It’s the English Standard Version (ESV) of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John illuminated using contemporary art by Makoto Fujimura. It’s a big, gorgeous clothbound edition and conveys a great deal of the mystical nature of these texts. I know it’s a bit odd to recommend a Bible of sorts on a site with so much magic and all, but if you’ve been around us for a while you know that we’re equal opportunity when it comes to mysticism and magic. So if you’re looking for a good heirloom version of the gospels with a little artistic magic, this is a good one to have.
In addition to the gospels, I got a copy of an excellent book called Kanaval: Vodou, Politics, & Revolution on the Streets of Haiti. It’s a photojournalistic look at the Haitian carnival costumes, parades, and traditions, and it will be of extreme interest to anyone captivated by the rituals of Vodou(n) or other African Traditional Religions. A number of lesser-known loa show up in the text, and there are oral histories from participants in the celebrations that are simply unmatched in recent history. In addition to the book and its magnificent photos, there are two accompanying CDs (one of which I received along with the gospels from my in-laws—I have an amazing family). One is called Spirits of Life, which has a number of ritual songs, and the other is Rara in Haiti and plays some of the more celebratory carnival jazz-style music. I also bought myself a simply wonderful new magical psalter from Troy Books: The Charmer’s Psalter, by Cornish witch Gemma Gary. It has fast become one of my favorite magical books and travels with me everywhere now.
Shifting from the authentic to the entertaining, I’ve been very much enjoying this year’s run of American Horror Story, subtitled Coven and set in a world of New Orleans Voodoo and witchcraft. I actually introduced Laine to the show, and she’s taken off running with it, consuming the first two seasons as well (subtitled Murder House and Asylum). I’m sure we’ll wind up discussing it more elsewhere, and it’s generating some controversy around the Pagan blogosphere, but if you’ve not checked it out and enjoy good, immersive horror, it’s fun to watch, in my opinion.
In that same vein, I’ve also been enjoying the kitschy-but-witchy antics of Witches of East End on Lifetime. I can’t say it’s a must-see, but the episodes I’ve seen have been enjoyable and if you’re a fan of things like Charmed, this might be fun, too. Might.
A lot has been going on in the podcasting universe lately, too. I’ve been tuning in to a couple of new shows, including The Kindle Witch with Faelyn, Pagan Life Radio with Brent/Raven, and one called Disney Story Origins. The first two offer some nice new elements to the Pagan podcasting world. Faelyn uses her show to explore books in a sort of book-club format, while also sharing a lot of neat moments from her own practice. Brent/Raven uses his show to create a really neat community space for talking to Pagans working on specific goals, or just get into good discussions about the role of Paganism in contemporary society. The Disney origins podcast is a gem, where the host compares and contrasts the stories that inspired Disney movies to the films and explores how that translation happens. The most recent episode gets into the excellent recent film Frozen and its inspiration, “The Snow Queen,” by Hans Christian Andersen (a section of which was included in our Yule show this year).
I’m also sad to say we’re losing at least one of our podkin for a while. Gillian at Iron Powaqa recently announced she’s taking an open-ended break from recording to focus on other projects. I completely understand her reasons, but she will definitely be missed. I fear this will be a trend, as several podcasters have disappeared this year. On a happier podkin note, Fire Lyte has published his first book of poetry, The Playground, which is available in several formats now. If you’re a fan of his poetry, this is definitely a book to get (plus it supports Pagan podcasting, which is always a noble cause). Finally, if you’ve not been listening to Peter Paddon’s revitalized podcast, do so! It’s the reason New World Witchery even exists, and he’s an absolutely charming fellow (all puns intended).
That’s all the news that’s fit to print for me this week! What was under your tree this year?
Thanks for reading!
Last time, I looked at a few of the standard products found in a typical supermarket which could be easily used within a folk magical context. I’m continuing that theme today, and while I’ll still be doing my best to stay out of the ubiquitous enchanted spice aisle, I will be touching on a few ingestibles. Please note, however, that as I frequently say: THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE SHOULD BE TAKEN AS MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE. Before you start popping things into your mouth or rubbing them on your skin, you should make sure with your doctor that doing so will not lead to genetic mutation, pestilence, plague, or ennui of any kind.
I’m going to start in what my part of the country likes to think of as the “ethnic foods” section, which generally speaking involves a portion of the produce area and an aisle with Asian, Hispanic, and perhaps Italian meal ingredients. It’s where I found the candles I showed in the previous post, but in most of the grocery stores around here, despite the obviously oblivious marginalization that comes with a label like “ethnic” or “international” cuisine, the diversity of the consumer population has made a lot of once-rare items much easier to find. The section of these stores directed at Hispanic consumers provides a number of tools for folk magic that fall under the practices of curanderismo and/or brujeria. I’ve covered supermarket staples like eggs already, so today I thought I’d look at three somewhat more distinctive items: corn husks, hot peppers, and coconuts.
The papery, stiff-but-pliant corn husk is absolutely essential for making really good tamales. Usually these come in huge packs (because if you’re going to go to the trouble of making tamales, you may as well make a lot of them), and they’re often dirt cheap. In fact, in the late summer, I frequently fine freshly stripped corn husks in buckets next to the corn displays, and few grocery store managers care if you grab a sackful to take home with you for free. So what sorts of magical mischief can you get up to with all those husks?
If you’re not making ensorcelled tamales, you might consider saving a few husks and turning them into doll babies for working various kinds of poppet magic. In some cases, the husks would be bound to the cob, along with various herbs and things like hair or clothing from the intended target to work a spell on them. Texan rootworker Starr Casas describes one such baby in The Conjure Workbook, vol. 1:
“When I was caring my daughter [sic] I was very ill. I was put on bed rest for five months. My Grandma knew this lady and asked her to come to my house and help me during the week. She treated people who were ill. I think that due to her efforts my daughter is alive today. I trusted her because my Grandma trusted her…She prayed over me every day; one day she asked if she could have some of my hair. She could have just taken the hair from my brush, at this time my hair was very long. She told me the hair needed to come from the crown of my head.
A few days later she came with this Dollie. This was the first time I had ever seen a doll like this. The body of the doll was a corn cob and the doll was covered in corn husk. When I asked her what it was for all she told me was to keep me and my baby safe. After I had my daughter the Dollie disappeared. When I asked her about the missing doll she told me the doll wasn’t needed anymore. I have never seen another Conjure doll like that one again” (Casas 246-7).
Starr’s encounter with this type of doll is not typical of conjure practice, something even she notes, but the use of doll baby magic is fairly common and corn husks make a simple, cheap, easy-to-make-and-destroy sort of doll. One reason that Starr may not have seen them since is that they are less directly associated with hoodoo and more directly associated with mountain crafts, particularly the crafts of the Appalachians. In fact, you can find wonderfully detailed instructions and step-by-step photos on constructing corn dollies in Foxfire 3, which records the folk practices of the southern Appalachians (a later compendium called The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Toys & Games also discusses the corn dolls, but doesn’t give the detail the actual anthology book does). That’s not to say that such dolls are not found in any version of conjure—Dr. E mentions them in his article on doll making, found in The Black Folder, for example—but that they very likely drifted in from non-African sources. Their provenance matters not, though, because they are incredibly useful magical tools in any case.
Have you ever seen the sheer plethora of peppers available in a bodega? Even at the chain supermarkets, you can now find dozens of choices, ranging from fresh jalapenos and big, fat Anaheims to the huge sacks of tiny dried japones peppers and the small-but-potent habaneros. So what to do with all those peppers?
Of course, the obvious answer would be hot-foot work in hoodoo, but you can also get a little more creative than that. Using the peppers as a vessel, it takes very little effort (but a good bit of practice and caution) to slit open a habanero, stuff someone’s name inside and bind it back up. Doing that works sort of like a vinegar jar cranked up to eleven, in that it puts a lot of unpleasantness into someone’s life. Peppers don’t have to be all bad, either, as cooking them with something like chocolate creates a very different effect—a good hot cocoa with a hint of chili pepper makes an enlivening winter beverage, and a heck of an aphrodisiac! A little rum in that latter option helps, too, of course.
Speaking of rum, one of the more interesting uses for all those hot peppers in magic—and here I’m stretching the term to incorporate a certain degree of magical religion—is to soak the peppers into an alcohol like rum until it is nigh undrinkable. Why would you do that, you ask? Maya Deren explains the use of the drink during a Vodoun rite in her book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti:
“As Lord of Eroticism, he [Ghede] embarrasses men with his lascivious sensual gestures; but as God of the Grave he terrifies them with the evidence of the absolutely insensate: he will not blink even when the most fiery liquid is sprayed into his eyes, and only Ghede can swallow his own drink—a crude rum steeped in twenty-one of the hottest spices known. Thus he may alternately remind men that he is their past, their present and their future, that he is master of their compulsive drive to life and the inevitability of their death” (Deren 104).
Deren also notes that anyone claiming possession by Ghede is subject to both of the tests she mentions: having the hot rum sprayed in their eyes and being told to drink it. A truly possessed devotee will have no problem doing so (and likely be able to down the entire bottle of rum and show no effects after the possession ends).
If you ever need to pretend to ride a horse, you will probably automatically feel the need to buy a coconut and bang the two empty halves together to simulate the sound. At least if you grew up watching a lot of Monty Python that’s probably what you’d do. The coconut is good for more than equine simulations, however, and you can use the whole fruit/nut and its liquid for several magical functions.
Drilling holes in the coconut will allow you to do two things: firstly you can get at the precious liquid, coconut milk, inside. It’s delicious and a wonderfully refreshing drink, but if you can resist the urge to down it all in one go, save some for later. Now that you have a semi-empty coconut with holes in it, why not stuff it full of name papers, sweet things like raw turbinado sugar (also available in the Hispanic section usually) and create a natural honey-jar spell? This sort of spell will, of course, not last as long as an actual honey-jar, but it has the advantage of being very quick and due to the sympathetic magic connected to the coconut’s skull-like density and shape, it works right on the minds of the folks targeted with the spell.
Speaking of heads, if you saved that liquid, you can turn that into a powerful magical formula as well. An African-derived magical practice known alternately as “feeding the head,” or in Vodoun as a lave tet ceremony (literally “head washing”) involves using a coconut wash on the head and hair during a ritual setting in order to fill it up with good spiritual forces. The feeding usually follows a simple head washing, either with natural water (sea water, spring water, etc.) or a number of aqueous formulae found in various traditions. Then comes the feeding:
“The process of feeding the head is simplicity itself. The coconut milk or cream is scrubbed into the head, just like the head-washing compound or a shampoo. Once the compound has been worked into the head, the hair may be combed out again. However, unlike a head-washing compound, the coconut compound should be left to dry on the head—preferably, overnight. A scarf or towel may be wrapped around the person’s head to insure this…In the morning, the coconut compound may be rinsed out and the person’s hair washed with a shampoo and dried, as it would normally be” (Mickaharic, Spiritual Cleansing, 101).
The richness of the coconut milk causes the spirits which guard a person (frequently though to be connected to a person’s head in African tradition) to be refreshed and take a renewed interest in the person’s well-being. It’s sort of like bribing a guardian angel with a good pina colada, which would be another fun way to use that coconut milk if you’re so inclined.
Of course, you don’t even have to open the coconut up to use it magically. I’ve seen a house cleansing method which involves simply kicking a coconut around a new home, through every room from top to bottom and back to front. You might say a psalm as you go, or repeat the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. Other traditions use other incantations, songs, or words, but the point is the same: get the coconut all over the house, kicking it as you go, letting it soak up bad vibes like a sponge. When you finish you can either pick it up in your left hand and take it to a far away tree, where you crack it open and leave it at the roots, or you can drop it into running water heading away from your home. It essentially functions as an egg cleansing for a domicile, but coconuts tend to be less messy than eggs when kicked (Mickaharic has a variant on this practice using a head of lettuce in his Spiritual Worker’s Spellbook).
There’s an entire pharmacopeia in a well-stocked bodega, with everything from aloe vera gel (and the live plants) to nopales (prickly pear cactus, sometimes used in curanderismo for treating diabetes) to chicken feet and cattle tongues (both edible, but also both used in various hoodoo spells as well) available to an informed shopper. I mention these three ingredients solely as a way to begin to see the shelves as stocked with more than marketing gimmicks and high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden beverages. While having a good local witch shop is invaluable for many reasons, the grocery store may be your best friend when it comes to simple, practical magic.
I know this article barely scratches the surface of the subject, and I highly encourage you to look at some other sources on making the most of a grocery store’s shelves for your spell work. As I said before, much of my own inspiration came from Sarah Lawless’ post on the topic and Cat Yronwode’s compilation The Black Folder, which features not only an article on grocery store magic (covering things like onions and lemons) by Cat herself, but other useful tidbits such as Norwegian bread charms (from Dr. Johannes Gardback) and an article on “kitchen witchery” by Sister Robin Petersen. Of course there are probably dozens of books on this subject, many of which I’ve sadly neglected here. Do you know of any good grocery-store spells? If so, please feel free to post them to the comments below!
I may eventually come back to this topic another time, but for now I hope this has been a useful glimpse beneath the barcodes into the magic of the market.
Thanks for reading!
Greetings and salutations! It has been a phenomenally busy end-of-summer around here. We’ve got a show in the works, and I’ve got articles brewing for the website, the Witches & Pagans site, and several print publications as well, so keep an eye out for those. Today I thought it would be good to have a brief cartulary post, though, so that while you’re waiting on tenterhooks for more New World Witchery (and you are waiting on those tenterhooks, aren’t you?), you won’t get too bored.
First of all, it’s the birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the noted author of some of the best weird and horror fiction of the twentieth century. If you’ve ever heard of Cthulhu or the Necronomicon, those are Lovecraft’s brainchildren, as are so many modern horror elements. What makes him of interest here is that he blends the occult with the scientific, creating a strange but wonderful mythology that is very easy to get sucked into. Much of his work has entered the public domain, and you can frequently find good collections of it cheaply, such as this Kindle collection of his work for less than a dollar. If you want to spend a little more, pick up the truly excellent Library of America collection, which also contains a chronology of Lovecraft’s life and a thorough annotation to the stories. If you’re a podcast listener, you should also definitely check out the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, who record dramatized versions of the author’s eerie tales.
I recently reviewed a couple of books on conjure, both of which fall into the non-fiction camp, but since we’re talking about weird tales, I think a few recommendations of conjure fiction would be worthwhile. First, I have to recommend the collection Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by the wonderful Nalo Hopkinson. I’ve reviewed this book before, so I won’t say more than it is definitely worth a read. Fire Lyte sent me a wonderful collection of late 19th and early 20th century conjure tales called Voodoo: Strange & Fascinating Tales & Lore, edited by John Richard Stephens. The editor unfortunately bowdlerized a number of the stories, but you can find a number of great tales in here anyway, by authors like H.G. Wells and Charles Chesnutt. If you’re looking for a great collection of hoodoo stories just by Chesnutt, I received the marvelous Norton Critical Edition of his Conjure Stories back at Christmas, and it definitely rewards a reader with an interest in folkways , magic, and good literary storytelling.
I can’t recall if I mentioned it or not, but I recently watched a few classic “voodoo” films via Netflix and/or Amazon Instant that may be of interest to folks here. The classic White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi and features all sorts of ridiculous fun. The 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow was more enjoyable than I thought it would be at first. It’s based on a book of the same name by anthropologist Wade Davis, who theorized that the “zombie powders” of Vodoun might be a form of bufotoxin or tetradotoxin found in poisonous animals which induced corpse-like comas in victims. The movie obviously mangles the research a bit in the name of good storytelling (well, storytelling of some kind, anyway), but it still makes for a harrowing look at the political and spiritual life of Haiti under the dictatorship of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier.
Finally, I wanted to mention a few musical items of interest. Firstly, I picked up a really fun compilation CD put out by the Lucky Mojo Company called cat yronwode’s Hoodoo Jukebox. It’s part of a 2-CD set which includes a CD-ROM full of hoodoo-related graphics (mostly in the Lucky Mojo style). The music CD is basically a collection of old country or backwoods blues tunes by the likes of the Memphis Jug Band, Johnnie Temple, and Blind Willie McTell. It’s essentially all tunes coming from public domain sources, so I’m not sure if any of the proceeds go to the artists’ families, but I imagine with Yronwode’s usually ardent position on intellectual property and copyrights she’s found some way to do good things with the funds. Most of these songs you could find by digging around in archives or on the internet long enough, but Cat has done a marvelous job assembling them in one place and providing a really rich commentary on them in the liner notes. If you like blues or even just music about magical things (and I’m looking at you and your upcoming Halloween episode, Velma Nightshade), this is a good collection to have.
I also cannot help but shamelessly plug a friend of mine’s latest release. If you’ve not heard of Amanda Shires, you probably will, and soon. Her new CD, Down Fell the Doves, is the deeply haunting sort of alt-country record I can’t resist. It’s relevant here because several of the tracks have deeply folkloric elements. “Bulletproof” talks about animal curios given to Shires by a man named “Tiger Bill” with the assurance “That’ll make you bulletproof.” The song “Deep Dark Below” speaks of a devil who plays a fiddle with a bow made of bone that “sounds like your deepest desires.” If you like good, spooky music touched by rock, blues, country, and folk influences (somewhat similar to the marvelous band Devil Makes Three, which Sarah Lawless introduced me to), give Down Fell the Doves a listen.
Thanks for reading!
SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – ZOMBIES
Tonight we celebrate everyone’s favorite Deadite, the zombie:
We begin with “Chapter 13: Zombies,” from Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston
Then we hear a short story from Voodoo: Strange & Fascinating Tales & Lore, edited by John Richard Stephens
A selection of text from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti finishes the show.
Apologies for the audio glitches near the middle of the episode!
Incidental Music: “Ouch” (Be Your Own PET); “Play with Fire” (Cobra Verde); “Sixteen Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six” (Tom Waits); “John the Revelator” (Blind Willie Johnson); “This Old World is Going Down” (The Modulations)
I realize this is rather late, and that I’ve taken a long time to get it out. I’m still working on papers and projects for the graduate seminar, which wound up being incredibly time-consuming, so I had very little time to devote to my work here. However, I hope you’ll forgive me and enjoy the articles I do manage to put out when I manage to get them up.
Today, let’s continue working on those summer saints I started in the last post. While there are plenty of saints remaining in the calendar for the season, I thought that one saint’s feast day deserved some particular attention. St. John’s Eve, which is June 23rd, is ostensibly a celebration of the life and times of John the Baptist. It falls remarkably close to Midsummer, however, and so its connotations and meanings have absorbed a good bit of the lore associated with that holiday, too. It features prominently in accounts of New Orleans Voodoo from the nineteenth century, and functions as a day of tremendous power for working all sorts of quasi-magical operations. Let’s look at two from (quasi-)anthropological perpsectives. The first is an account found in Robert Tallant’s Voodoo in New Orleans, taken from a newspaper report contemporary to the events described (allegedly 28 June 1872):
“On Monday morning (St. John’s Day) I went to the French Market for the express purpose of finding out…the exact spot where the Voudou Festival would be held this year…I took the 8 o’clock train on the Ponchartrain Railroad. Arriving at the lake I fooled around a little; saw great crowds…I hired a skiff and pulled to the mouth of Bayou St. John—the best way of getting there from the lake end—the festival took place near Bayou Tchoupitoulas. Upon arriving at the shanty I found congregated about two hundred persons of mixed colors—white, black, and mulattoes…Soon there arrived a skiff containing ten persons, among wich was the Voudou Queen, Marie Lavaux [sic]. She was hailed with hurrahs.
The people were about equally divided male and female—a few more females. The larger portion of the crowd Negroes [sic] and quadroons, but about one hundred whites, say thirty or forty men, the remainder women.
Upon the arrival of Marie Lavaux, she made a few remarks in Gumbo French [Creole, I presume the reporter means], and ended them by singing, “Saiya ma coupe ca,” to which all hands joined in the chorus of “Mamzelle marie chauffez ca.” [reporter’s itallics, not mine]…The song ended, orders were given by the queen to build a fire as near the edge of the lake as possible, which was ‘did,’ every one being compelled to furnish a piece of wood for the fire, making a wish as they threw it on. Then a large caldron [sic] was put on the fire; it was filled with water brought in a beer barrel; then salt was put in by an old man, who jabbered something in Creole; then black pepper was put in by a young quadroon girl; she sang while putting in the pepper; then a box was brought up to the fire, from which was taken a black snake; he was cut into three pieces (the Trinity), one piece was put in by Marie Lavaux, one piece by the old man who put in the salt, and one piece by the young girl who put in the pepper; then al ljoined in chorus of the same song: “Mamzelle Marie chauffez ca;” then the queen called for a ‘cat,’ it was brought, she cut its throat, and put it into the kettle.
Another repetition of the same chorus, then a black rooster was brought to the queen. She tied its feet and head together and put it in the pot alive. Reptition of the chorus. Then came an order from the queen for every one to undress, which all did, amid songs and yells. The queen then took from her pocket a shot bag full of white and colored powders. She gave orders for every one to joino hands and circle around the pot. Then she poured the powders into the pot, sang a verse of some oracle song, to which all joined in a chorus while dancing around the pot, “C’es l’amour, oui Maman c’est l’amour, etc.”…everybody went into the lake, remained in the bath about half an hour…in half an hour the horn was blown (a sea shell), and all hand shurried back to the queen, and set up another chorus to a verse she sang to the same tune as the first one.
After the song she said ‘You can now eat’” (Tallant 80-81).
A long account (even with my editing), and likely a pretty sensationalized one. Certain aspects—communal feeding, dancing, music, memorized choruses, and the direction of a guiding presence like Marie Laveau—all ring somewhat true to accounts of African Traditional Religious practices in other places, such as the thorough examination of Brooklyn Vodoun in Mama Lola. Yet other features seem glaringly off, such as the complete lack of lwa, or the insistence on nudity (a common embellishment which appeared in several accounts and which essentially exists to exoticize and sexualize an entire race—even in the 1920’s stage shows at The Cotton Club in New York featured nude Black dancers with spears and tribal makeup because white patrons enjoyed “primitive” Black culture). The St. John’s dances, however, were highly popular affairs, and I see no reason to doubt that they truly happened. In many cases, it seems whites saw what they wanted to see—or what they were directed to see, and missed a great deal of the spiritual side of the events.
In Mules & Men, Zora Neale Hurston recounts her apprenticeship with Laveau’s alleged nephew, Luke Turner, who gives a somewhat more mystical (and significantly shorter) version of events:
“Out on Lake Ponchartrain at Bayou St. John she hold a grat feast every year on the Eve of St. John’s, June 24th. It is Midsummer Eve, and the Sun give special benefits then and need great honor. The special drum be played then. It is a cowhide stretched over a half-barrel. Beat with a jaw-bone. Some say a man but I think they do not know. I think the jawbone of an ass or a cow. She hold the feast of St. John’s partly because she is a Catholic and partly because of hoodoo.
The ones around her alter fix everything for the feast. Nobody see Marie Leveau [sic] for nine days before the feast. But when the great crowd of people at the feast call upon her, she would rise out of the waters of the lake with a great communion candle burning upon her head and another in each one of her hands. She walked upon the waters to the shore. As a little boy I saw her myself. When the feast was over, she went back into the lake, and nobody saw her for nine days again” (Hurston 193).
Again, I am a bit skeptical about Turner’s claims in some ways, but he seems to get at the heart of the event in a more profound way. Laveau becomes a demi-goddess in his account, a precursor to the lwa which she would eventually become. Certain aspects of both accounts agree: the presence of music, particularly drum music; the great communal feast; the crowd chanting and calling for her to arrive. For a celebration of St. John, the focus in these accounts tends to be awfully heavy on Marie Laveau, no?
However, that is not to say that St. John should be completely left out of his own holiday. Even one of Tallant’s informants recognizes the role the saint plays in the New Orleans frenzy on his feast day:
“Alexander Augustin remembered some of the tales of old people which dated to the era of the Widow Paris [another name for Marie Laveau].
‘They would thank St. John for not meddlin’ wit’ the powers the devil gave ‘em,’ he said. ‘They had one funny way of doin’ this when they all stood up to their knees in the water and threw food in the middle of ‘em. You see, they always stood in a big circle. Then they would hold hands and sing. The food was for Papa La Bas, who was the devil. Oldtime Voodoos always talked about Papa La Bas” (Tallant 65-6).
So does that mean that John’s role—and I should here clarify that the John honored on St. John’s Eve is St. John the Baptist, who was written about in the New Testament, but who was not the author of the Gospel of St. John (different saints entirely)—is always sublimated to another spiritual force, be it Marie Laveau or Papa Le Bas (also frequently called Papa Lebat, and sometimes seen as an alternate identity for Papa Legba, although he may also be named after a New Orleans priest who tried to eradicate Voodoo only to become a lwa after his death)?
Let us briefly look at the saint behind the day, then. Since we’ve already spent so much time in New Orleans, I’ll pause to crack open my copy of Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, which says that St. John is aligned with Ogun, Agonme, and Tonne in the lwa/orisha traditions, and that he has patronage over silence, slander, bridges, and running water. While Alvarado does note that the eve of June 23rd involves observations in honor of Marie Laveau, she does a lovely job looking at the current understanding of the saint’s feast day on the 24th:
“[The] holiday coincides with summer solstice, celebrated in New Orleans every year by Mambo Sallie Ann glassman at St. John’s Bayou. To celebrate the summer, the warmth, fire, and nourishment from the sun. For opportunities, good luck, and to realign with cosmic forces” (Alvarado 74).
Both Hurston and Alvarado have noted the strong connection to the sun with this day, not surprising given its proximity to the summer solstice. Within Christian cosmology, the desert-dwelling St. John recognized Jesus before most others had, and spoke of baptizing people with fire. He saw the heavens open up, and the holy spirit—sometimes represented by fire, though in this case in the form of a radiant dove—descend to earth to acknowledge Jesus as God incarnate. A number of solar symbols appear in this myth—deserts, fire, heavens opening up, descending light, and even the metaphorical light of understanding which enables John to see Jesus’ true nature. And since Midsummer forms the balance point for the winter holidays, which included the feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), it makes a great deal of sense to have the fiery and solarly-aligned John the focus of such a major holiday. Plus, they guy lived off of locusts, so I think we can spare him a day on the calendar.
Turning to NWW favorite Judika Illes, we find that St. John is associated with the color red, love spells, herbs, marriage, fertility, and, of course, beheading (the method of his death). She notes that he “has dominion over healing and magical plants in general,” which makes sense as one of the famous magical herbs bears his name: St. John’s wort. A bevvy of rituals surround the acquisition and deployment of this enchanted plant, the most famous of which Illes shares in her book:
“If you rise at dawn on Midsummer’s Day and pick a sprig of St. John’s Wort with the dew still clinging to it, tradition says you will marry within the year—but only if you do not speak, eat, or drink from the time of rising until after the plant is picked. A second part to this spell claims that if you slip the plant benath your pillow and go back to sleep—still without eating, drinking, or speaking—your true love will appear in your dream” (Illes 381).
The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages also points out that in a number of European cultures, any herb gathered on St. John’s Day before dawn is inherently imbued with intense magical qualities.
Finally, let’s finish up our (rather long) snapshot of St. John with a smattering of magical lore surrounding him and his feast day from around the world:
- “Wear a mugwort wreath around your brow on Midsummer’s Eve to banish headaches for a year” (Illes 381).
- “Gather blossoming St. John’s Wort at midnight on St. John’s Eve. If the blossoms remain fresh in the morning, this is an auspicious sign that the rest of the year will be happy; if the blossoms have wilted, magical protective measures may be in order” (Illes 381).
- To return an wandering lover, gather three roses on St. John’s Eve, bury two secretly before sunrise in a grave and under a yew tree, and put the third under your pillow. Leave it for three nights, then burn it, and your lover won’t be able to stop thinking about you (Illes 381).
- St. John is the patron of conversion/baptism and tailors, and can be petitioned for “good luck, good crops, fertility, & protection from enemies” (Malbrough 29).
- In Russian, a priest would visit local farms on St. John’s day and make a cross of fresh tar on the fence posts while reciting a prayer to keep away witches “who were liable to go around in the shape of dogs and steal milk from the cows” (Ryan 43).
- A Russian spell from the Enisei region of Siberia notes that gathering twelve magical herbs (unspecified) on St. John’s Eve and placing them under the pillow would induce prophetic dreaming (Ryan 47).
- St. John could be invoked in a charm with St. Peter to diminish fevers, according to English cunning man William Kerrow (Wilby 11-12).
- English cunning woman Ursula Kemp “recommended three leaves each of sage and St. John’s wort steeped in ale,” as a powerful potion against witchcraft (Davies 110).
So that’s a little look at St. John. And his day. That was worth the wait, right?
One thing I did learn in my long absence is that I should be careful about setting expectations with some of these posts. I originally intended to make a 3-to-5-part series on the “summer saints,” but at this point it will probably be a while before I return to the saints I had planned to cover in the remaining posts. I still will be addressing magical saints in various articles and from a few different perspectives, but I think for the moment I want to move on to other topics here. My reading and research have me exploring a number of topics, and I’d prefer to get those covered here while they’re fresh in my mind, so forgive me if I get a little bit more scattershot in terms of what gets posted here. I’ve also had requests for topics to be covered that I may essay given a bit of time and the proper resources. So, in other words, I’ve got lots to do, and the saints of summer may just have to wait a bit. I hope that’s okay with y’all.
With all of that being said, thank you so much for hanging in there with me. I’ll do my best to keep work coming your way, but I hope that what is here already is proving useful to you. I’m not going away anytime soon, even if I do seem quiet from time to time. I really love getting emails and comments, too, and I apologize for the delays in response to those, but thank you to everyone who has written in.
I really appreciate your patience, and thanks so much for being friends to us here at New World Witchery!
Thanks for reading,