Once upon a time, we were Africans, involved in a unique lexicon of beliefs, lore, stories, and customs designed to help integrate us into an environment filled with plants, animals, elements, and a complex array of spirits. With the advent of slavery, those who had stayed the longest severed the physical bond with the Motherland, but like seeds lifted from a flower by wind, we found fertile ground in distant lands. The freshly sown seeds took strongest hold in sunny climes reminiscent of our Motherland.
Separated physically, we remained united as brothers and sisters in spirit. The various hybrids of traditional African-based religions continue to thrive in coastal Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba in the form of Candomble, Shango, Lucumi, Umbanda, and Santeria. In Louisiana and Haiti, our spirituality thrives in the form of Vodoun. In the southern United States, Hoodoo took root in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Hoodoo was established during slavery using the types of plants available in the United States. Our knowledge of African herbalism was enhanced through the generosity of Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, and Seminole, who understood our suffering intimately. Many Black Indians were the result of this interchange. The proof to this is within our recipes, appearance, and of course within Hoodoo.
With immigration and migrations of freed slaves in North and South America, the African-based religions spread from the older cultural centers of Bahia, Brazil; Havana, Cuba; and Yorubaland, West Africa. We settled in dynamic industrial centers such as New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Some of our traditional practices were transformed into systems that incorporated Catholicism. For example, the elaborate system of saints, priests and priestesses, deities, and ceremonies honored by Catholics is integrated into Santeria of Spanish-speaking countries and Vodoun in predominately French-speaking areas. Santeria, Shango, and Vodoun are unique blends of Western and non-Western religious rituals, ceremonies, prayers, invocations, and blessings, but they are also open to include the darker side of the world, including curses, hexes, and banishing.
Hoodoo and Candomble are primarily healing traditions involved with herbs, plants, roots, trees, animals, magnets, minerals, and natural waters combined with magical amulets, chants, ceremonies, rituals, and handmade power objects, which empower the practitioner to take control of his or her own fate rather than placing power in the hands of deities or religious leaders like priests or priestesses. Hoodoo and Candomble are distinctly American (North and South); therefore, they are multicultural and reflect strong links between various indigenous groups, the Judeo-Christianity of the dominant cultures, and West African magical and medicinal herbalism of the Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, and others.
Since Hoodoo is an American tradition widely practiced in the areas were my earliest American ancestors settled and mingled with Cherokee people and Chickasaw, it is the primary Africanism that was passed down to me. The word "Hoodoo," however, was seldom spoken by African Americans, though it was passed on. This eclectic collection of African holdovers survived the middle passage and slavery through songs, recipes, and rituals. Popularly called both hoodoo and voodoo by the uninformed, the term is of mysterious origins, most likely the creation of the media as an adulteration of Vodoun. The word "Hoodoo" wasn't spoken in my home, yet its tenets were evident in my upbringing. The term is a useful way to give form to the colorful and specific folkloric beliefs practiced by a wide range of believers, including the Gullah of people of Georgia and the Carolinas, black folk in major metropolitan areas, white folk of the Appalachians and other rural areas, European immigrants, and Native American groups, primarily from the southeastern coastal regions.
Since it is not a religion, Hoodoo has always been practiced by a variety of people. Its attractiveness lies in the fact that it is natural, non-dogmatic, and practical. Primary concerns include blessing the home and keeping the domestic environment running smoothly. Other concerns are gaining a faithful mate who is loving and doesn't cheat or abandon his or her spouse; general health and happiness; predicting the future; controlling people when necessary and freeing oneself or others from undesired control; using hexing and unhexing to alleviate situations; drawing luck in employment, career, school, prosperity, luck, and happiness; common concerns to humankind. It is also one of few paths that contains work that specifically addresses gay, lesbian, and bisexual people directly.
"Cultivating a great respect for nature is the ultimate goal of all the customs concerning the sacred wood."
—Excerpt from The Healing Drum by Yallo Diallo and Mitchell Hall
This Path Leads to and From Africa
Sticks, stones, roots, and bones are the basic ingredients found in the Hoodoo's mojo bag. To understand the concept of Conjur Craft, let us explore the African roots of Hoodoo. Until very recently, the relationship between Hoodoo and European folklore, mysticism, and magic, as well as its similarities to Native American spirituality, have been a primary scholarly focus. When I began to explore my ancestry and heritage, I was immediately struck by how very African Hoodoo is. As a scholar, I found study of Hoodoo from an African perspective extremely oblique, since the existing research came through a European filter. To complicate matters further, you cannot research Hoodoo by seeking sources on African or African American magic or even as alternative spirituality; such categories are not culturally relative.
As luck would have it, I was able to use my background as an artist and art professor with interests in folklore, some fieldwork in cultural anthropology, and a passion for linguistics to find answers. As I examined the non-English words used in Hoodoo treasure troves like the collection of slim volumes by Anna Riva, I found valuable clues that led not only to West Africa but all the way back to Ancient Egypt. The words in spells, oils, powders, and incantations include Egyptian deities (Sun Ra, Isis, Osiris, and Hathor). Sacred Egyptian herbs or herbal blends like Kyphi, Khus Khus (lemongrass), frankincense, and myrrh are ingredients often required for Hoodoo. Legendary people from the Middle East and North Africa like the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon are honored by incense bearing their names. Many powders use West African based terms like Nyama, Ngama, and Nganga and conjure up the Seven Powers of Africa (Ifa Orisha). Superstitions about brooms; the crossroads; reverence for warriors, water, metallurgy, and stones are implicit in Hoodoo; each is derived primarily from traditional African spirituality. These links were only the beginning of my magical journey.
The seminal book that pulls together African culture with that of the Americas is Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thomas. Thomas provides some of the most well-documented and well-illustrated relationships available. Building on the foundation provided by Flash of the Spirit, I delved into books and catalogs devoted to African art. I had an epiphany while exploring African figurative sculpture, finding Hoodoo's African heritage neatly preserved inside the mojo bag.
Before you can appreciate the cultural reservoir that a mojo bag represents, it is best to understand a few of the concepts that it embodies. The mojo bag is a collection of ashe. Ashe is the invisible power of nature represented in all natural products and organic objects. The Igala people of Nigeria are one of many African groups that consider any type of plant life to be filled with medicinal powers. The term medicine is holistic, so they are not just for treating physical complaints but the spiritual as well. Power objects like shields, masks, sculptures, amulets, and charms are conglomerations of ashe. Bamani Komo Society masks and Boli figurative sculptures are encrusted with feathers and quills. This captures the mystical powers of both bird and porcupine. Encrustation is a type of food for a power object. Food sustains the life of the power object. Feeding consists of ground stones or herbs; leaves; feathers; bones; animal skins, teeth; sexual organs or horns; chicken blood; semen or saliva.
The Yaka, Kongo, Teke, Suku, and Songhai people pack a cavity in the belly of their sculptures with a wide range or organic materials: bones, fur, claws, dirt from animal footprints; scales, sexual organs, lightning excreta, fingernails, animal skins, and more. Kongo, Suku, and Yaka people of Central Africa create some excellent examples of these sculptures. These groups of people prepare sachets made from shells, baskets, pots, bottles or food tins, plastic bags, or leather bags. These medicine bags are charged with natural and manmade materials like gunpowder or glass.
The Kongo power figures are called minkisi or nkisi (plural). Nkisi incorporate the elements and they are considered to be charms powered by nature. They help people heal and provide a safe spot or hiding place for the soul. They sometimes contain seashells, feathers, nuts, berries, stones, bones, leaves, roots, or twigs.
The Bamana of the Western Sudan use power objects such as medicine bags that are imbued with ashe for addressing various ills. These objects are used to express prowess as a warrior, to fight supernatural malaise, and to foil evil intentions. The bags contain bilongo (medicine) and a mooyo (soul).
Enslaved Kongo and Angolan medicine people brought the concept of bilongo and mooyo together in the Americas as mojo bags. These mojo bags are prepared by a specialist akin to the Banganga (priests/priestess) called a rootworker or conjurer in Hoodoo. The objects within each bag guide the spirits to understand the reason their help is sought.
Materials with strong ashe like human or animal footprints survived slavery and continue to be used in mojo bags within Hoodoo and Santeria as well. Other ingredients of a mojo bag include objects associated with the dead: coffin nails, ground bones, or graveyard dirt. The objects, whether stick, stones, leaf, or bone, have a corresponding spirit and particular medicine ascribed to them. Mojo bags are considered alive, possessing a soul; thus they, like their African power object ancestors, must be fed on specific days. American hoodoo feed their mojos powdered herbs, magnetic dust, herbal oils, dust, and foot-track dirt, singly or combined. African herbalism called Daliluw is used to strike the right balance of ingredients along with invocation of various deities. Daliluw is enhanced by rituals which either activate or control energy. Mojo bags vary by region, purpose, and even the gender that creates them. They are alternatively called a hand, flannel, toby, gris-gris, or Joe mow.
Here is a recipe for a mojo bag designed to draw prosperity:
A Money Bag
High John the Conqueror Root embodies the spirit of a heroic, fearless survivor of slavery. High John the Conqueror represents courage, strength, bravery, and the spirit of hope.
Begin this work on the waxing moon on a Thursday. Carefully select a High John the Conqueror Root that calls out to your spirit. Using your dominant hand (the most powerful hand) put root in a cup of sunflower oil. (Sunflowers possess positive energy because of their intimacy with Sun Ra). Stir in seven drops of attar of roses (substitute rose fragrance oil if necessary). Roses are soothing, healing plants that help us to receive blessings from the universe. Cap tightly. Swirl daily for fourteen days. Blot excess oil. Place fragrant High John, nutmeg, some cloves, and small cinnamon stick inside a four-by-six-inch piece of green flannel. Dip sewing needle in the sunflower and rose oil blend. Sew flannel together with green cotton thread. Feed bag at the beginning of the waxing moon and on full moon.
Food: sprinkle bag with a blend of powdered peppermint, lime, and basil (dried), magnetic sand, and sandalwood essential oil. (Store blend in stainless steel container when not in use). You can also feed your money powdered High John root to draw prosperity or sprinkle it with basil.
Conjur Craft: The Art of Contemporary Hoodoo
Now that you understand some of the history of Hoodoo, I would like to delve into Conjur Craft. My work stresses the idea of working with nature and not just using what she has to offer us. An easy way to accomplish this is to assure a proper balance in the relationship of give and take:
- Use but we don't abuse, cause pain, or destroy her gifts in the process
- Approach the Earth Mother as she exists today
- Shun overuse or neglect of nature, animals, the ocean, and fragile plants
To enlist the help of the earth, work closely with her:
- Listen to her whispers late at night under the light of the moon
- Hear her calls early in the morning carried on the wings of birds and butterflies
- Watch her sigh and undulate with the ebb and flow of the currents
- Seek out her advice when working herbs and roots
- Stay mindful that there are limitations to earthly gifts when tapping the source
- Open your eyes.
- Work with her and not against her.
This is Hoodoo for the 21st century—I call it Conjur Craft.
It is critical that we take into consideration the large population of humans that reside on our planet and the effects of these numbers on the Earth Mother's reserves. We need to own up to the urban nature of our existence. Moreover, we must stay mindful of the recent developments in our culture. To stay true to the origins of Hoodoo will attempt to incorporate as much tradition as realistically feasible. As we blend, we seek a balance between the old ways with modern ethics and contemporary technology. Our goal is to honor the Earth Mother and our ancestors as we work our roots in a respectful way.
The United Plant Savers is an important group that keeps herbalists, gardeners, and others informed of the fragile status of certain plants. It is important to realize that today many traditional Hoodoo plants are at risk and some are in danger of extinction, including:
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), also called kinnickinnick
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Blood root (Sanguinaria Canadensis), also called King root or He root
Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)
Cascara Sagrada (Frangula purshiana), also called sacred bark
Goldenseal (Hydrastic canadensis); ginger is a safe substitute
Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Trillium (Trillium spp.), Indian Root and Beth Root
White Oak Bark (Quercus alba)
White Sage (Salvia apiana), used widely in smudge sticks
It may come as a surprise that certain plants are endangered or at risk, but we've known this to be true for a long time about animals and sea creatures. A variety of animal's parts: fur, teeth, bones, horns, and claws have been useful to Hoodoo and similar paths from Africa. Let's examine a few of the more prominent animals used from an African prospective to understand why they were used in Hoodoo and then figure out a way to substitute for them in Conjur Craft.
- Badgers:Badgers' teeth were and in some cases still are used in mojo bags. The badger is an awesome creature—low to the earth, adept at digging, and extremely aggressive when crossed. They are symbolic of the hunter/warrior spirit, since they can take on animals as ferocious as bears or dogs. There are about fifteen subspecies of badger in the Americas. In West Africa, there is the species Mellivora capensis, also called honey badger or ratel. These guys have a skunk-like appearance—they have brown or black fur with a distinct white, pale yellow, or gray covering on top. Honey badgers are found in the Ituri forest of Northern Zaire. A characteristic useful to consider regarding all species of badgers is that their skin is so tough that even a porcupine quill, African bee sting, or dog bite can barely penetrate their skin. They appear to be completely devoid of fear. They attack animals such as horses, antelope, cattle, even buffalo, although they are no larger than a raccoon.
- Alligators and Crocodiles: Alligator teeth have been a component of mojo bags. Crocodiles are in a group of related reptiles called Crocodylidae who populate both the Americas and West Africa in the form of O. t. tetraspis and O.t osborni, also called West African Dwarf Crocodile and Congo Dwarf Crocodile. The American alligator and the West African Dwarf Crocodiles are crocodilians that share key characteristics admired by African warriors, hunters, and Hoodoos. Crocodiles are tough, tenacious, cunning, and difficult to penetrate.
- Raccoons: Raccoons are omnivores whose species lives in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. There is a great deal of folklore surrounding the raccoon in Native American folklore. The name raccoon is derived from the Algonguin word arachun, or he who scratches himself. Other Native American words for raccoon indicate that they are considered witches, sorcerers, or demons. The raccoon is another cunning survivor that we admire. The penis of the raccoon is sought after for love draw magic.
- Snakes: Snakes of various types have a prominent role in African myth, legend, and everyday life. The qualities of snake that are admired are its ability to survive on land and in the water; its ability to camouflage itself and blend quietly into its environment; its ability to hunt and eat much larger, more powerful prey; and the potency of its venom.
Dr. Buzzard, a renowned Hoodoo, is remembered as someone who could implant snakes and other reptiles into his human victims with the power of his mind, handshake, or a blow of dust. This is a well-documented practice in Africa. Anthropologist and authors Paul Stroller and Cheryl Olkes document snake venom sorcery in their book, In Sorcery's Shadow (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London, 1987), centered around the Republic of Niger.
The rattle of the rattlesnake is an emblem of ancient Egyptian Goddesses Hathor and Isis. Isis used her sistrum, a rattlesnake-like rattle, to motivate gods and humans, to become active rather than passive. Isis, or Auset as she was called in Egyptian, brought the cobra into being. Snakeskin and rattlesnake rattles are used in various Hoodoo formulas, including the infamous Gopher's Dust.
Fascinating histories, traits, and mythology aside, my advice in utilizing animals to conjure is to work with the animals without taking their lives. You can find a snakeskin, fallen feathers, found skulls, and deceased alligators, raccoons, and badgers to utilize their various parts. You can use a sistrum in ceremony and rituals to capture the power of snakes. If you eat meat, collect and then bleach (to sanitize) bones and feathers from your meals and use them in mojo bags.
Another thing to do is use artistic substitutes. These include plastic toy replicas; metal casts of spiders, scorpions, snakes, and tigers; and small sculptures. In South Africa, there is a lively tradition of creating power animals out of clay. I particularly enjoy using South African sculptures magically, since black Africans hew them from the Earth Mother.
West African tribes, ancient Khemetians (Egyptians), and various African spiritual paths strongly support the notion of working with totemic animals. In Wicca and Witchcraft, working closely with animals is aligned with the concept of the familiar.
In Conjur Craft, I suggest refraining from harming all animals, including humans.
Substitutes for animal blood offerings and sacrifice still enhance tricks (spells) if you bless and charge them with power. Try any one of these:
- Carnelian, garnet, or ruby stones or beads are representative of blood.
- Apple cider, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice, or tomato juice is recommended instead of real blood in Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham (Llewellyn 1985).
- Fossilized bones offer another rich possibility, but my favorite of all is working with the generous purity within the life force of various animals. I companion and tend to four animals indoors and many wild creatures outside—all of which serve as spiritual companions and messengers.
Hoodoo revolves around veneration of water, water spirits, and water deities; consequently, we look to the rivers, lakes, and especially to the sea for rootwork ingredients. There are two sea creatures that I discourage use of: coral and pearls. Cultured pearls are created and then extracted from living creatures in a violent way. Using pearls may cause your tricks or jobs to backfire negativity and bad karma your way. Coral is alive. If you can find a piece washed up on the beach or in an antique shop, it might bring some benefits to your conjuration. Buying commercially harvested contemporary coral, in light of the endangered status of world's coral reefs, is ill advised.
Cowries, Irish moss, sea kelp, and especially sea salt are useful in invoking the purifying, protective, loving presence of the sea. Cowries are a traditional instrument of divination in Africa. They have been useful as currency and in ornamentation—and why not? They are after all the symbol of the yoni.
Sticks, Stones, Roots, and Bones
By now, it is clear that Conjur Craft and its ancestor, Hoodoo, are built around nature. These traditions share some common ground to the more European based Witchcraft and Wicca. The practitioner of Conjur Craft or Hoodoo has much in common with Wiccans, Green Witches, and Hedge Witches. All of us employ nature, the elements, the universe, and the power from within to bring about powerful change.
The title of my innovative book Sticks, Stones, Roots and Bones. This book is a compilation of songs, recipes, tricks, jobs, rituals, spells, stories, recollections, and folklore that center around African and American culture. The book gives practical hands on ways for denoting rites of passage and cycles of life using magical herbalism and African traditions. Ample information, spells, charms, and amulets are shared to help the reader deal with common, everyday concerns.
Hoodoo was almost ridiculed out of existence by those who had no idea what they had stumbled across. It continues to suffer from misunderstanding, an excess of European interpretations, capitalism, and commercial interests. Crafting the formulas and recipes requires an essential ingredient—TLC (tender loving care) to harness ashe (magical forces and energies of the universe). Sticks, Stones, Roots and Bones emphasizes a hands-on, do-it yourself approach; thus recipes are central.
Thankfully, Hoodoo and conjuration are currently enjoying a renaissance.
I am grateful that the ancestors and nature spirits found me to be a suitable conduit to contribute to the creation of Conjur Craft. I leave you with a few projects and inspirations, so roll up your sleeves and get busy!
Spirit of Renewal Bath Sachet
Clearings and battling negativity can take their toll. To combat fatigue, try this invigorating sachet. It will renew your spiritual and psychic resources.
1 teaspoon each dried yarrow, chamomile, and peppermint.
2 tablespoons powdered whole milk
1/8 teaspoon each lavender, rosemary, and white pine needle essential oils
3 tablespoons aloe vera gel
Two marigold (calendula officinalis) flowers
1-teaspoon magnetic sand
Put dried herbs and milk into a large tea bag. (You can also use a piece of cheesecloth secured with a rubber band). Run bath. Hang sachet under faucet. Stir essential oils into aloe vera gel. Pour into tub. Mix. Pluck petals from marigold flower into the water while focusing on your intentions. Sprinkle in magnetic sand, imagining that they are grains of energy.
Get in, relax, and enjoy!
A Bowl of Dirt
An important reminder of our connection to the ancestors and to Mother Earth is to keep a crystal or metal bowl full of earth in the home. This may be graveyard dirt collected from a loving family member's plot, dirt from a fertile garden, or simply potting soil. Set the filled bowl on your personal altar on a piece of African cloth such as mud cloth, kente cloth, or indigo.
A Prosperity Charm
Press a five-leaf clover (Trifolium spp.) between two heavy books. When it is flat and dry, (about one week), remove clover and laminate it. Cut out two pieces of waxed paper about two inches square. Sandwich clover between papers. Iron on low. Once cool, place pressed clover in a locket and wear every day or carry it in your wallet pressed between your paper money.
On a Friday evening of the new moon, cup three white cardamom pods in your hands, blow on them, kiss them, tell them to bring you love. Place cardamom in two cups of red wine with a few orange slices. Simmer, don't boil. (Prick your finger with a needle and add a few drops of blood to the potion, if your dare!) Sip this with the desired person.
Love, prosperity, health, fertility, remembrance, success, empowerment, self-help, and all that you desire can be achieved through the considerate employment of the gifts of Mother Nature: sticks, stones, roots, and bones.