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Hoodoo

My talk is about the syncretic folk magic of the American south. Hoodoo, rootwork and conjure sorcery, and their place in contemporary occultism. The magic I practice is about speaking with Spirits, walking between worlds, making fetish items and weird potions, and getting things done practically and physically within the world.

The first bit of magic I ever did when I was a kid was to accurately predict three winning horses for my dad at the racetrack. All three horses came in and my old man, quite bemusedly, gave me a ten-pound note for the tip. Inadvertently kick-starting my career in occultism and setting the tone for my subsequent experiments in magic

I didn't get into this stuff to invoke anybody's new aeon, or kick-start a self-indulgent magical current, or pretend to be some sort of ascended and enlightened post-human being, any such high flown endeavours. Bluntly and simply, I got into magic to be able to bring tangible benefit to both myself, and importantly, the people around me that I care about. Hoodoo practice delivers the goods on that front.

Hoodoo is ostensibly the folk magic of the Southern American states, but it can also be considered a melting pot of the world's sorceries. Like a big pot of Creole jambalaya, it's a mixture of all sorts of different unlikely ingredients that work well together. Its main components are African folk magic, European folk tradition, and Native American Herbalism.

It shouldn't be confused or conflated with any of the African Diaspora religious traditions such as Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Santeria or Brazilian Candomble or Umbanda. Although there's a degree of cross-fertilisation involved as many hoodoo practitioners also make service to the Gods of these traditions, the Lwa and Orisha, and sometimes involve them in their work.

Hoodoo had its heyday in America during the late 19th and early 20th century. The bulk of its lore is African in origin and it was practiced mostly, although not exclusively, within black communities in the South. If you listen to pre-war blues music of the 20s and 30s it's steeped in hoodoo tradition, from the myth of Robert Johnson cutting a deal at the crossroads, to Memphis Minnie's recording of 'Hoodoo Lady'. The music of the period is a catalogue of references to folk magic.

Robert Johnson's output alone yields up tracks such as 'Stones in my passway'. Which is a reference to the hoodoo practice of jinxing someone by laying out a series of stones in the shape of a cross in their path, often with a button belonging to the target placed in the centre as a sympathetic link. In the track 'Come on in my kitchen', Robert Johnson sings about stealing a nickel out of his woman's 'nation sack', which is a kind of mojo bag specifically prepared by female practitioners and carried by women.

African folkloric practices such as crossroads magic, foot track magic, crossing and uncrossing, the creation of gris-gris bags, and the use of baths and washes are all at the core of hoodoo practice. I'll talk a bit about each of these:

Foot track magic involves working sorcery using the dirt from someone's footprint placed in a bottle, or else placing a sprinkling powder such as goofer dust or graveyard dirt inside someone's shoes or in a place they're likely to walk through, in order to administer a curse.

An uncrossing is a method of removing crossed conditions, which could mean anything from an actual curse someone has put on you, to a run of bad luck, to a destructive behaviour pattern. An uncrossing operation is like a souped-up banishing ritual or psychic detox that purges your system of crossed conditions.

Crossroads magic is a remnant of worship of the West African trickster deity known variously as Legba, Ellegua or Eshu. The Lord of the crossroads, opener of doorways and master of paths. Although in hoodoo his worship is often a stage removed from its African religious context. He is sometimes syncretised with the persona of the pagan teutonic devil, or simply referred to as "the black man at the crossroads" as in the Robert Johnson myths. Deals are made at the crossroads, power is gained, and magic is worked.

A gris-gris bag, also known as a mojo bag, lucky hand, toby or wanga bag, is an amulet in the form of a small cloth bag filled with various herbs, minerals or zoological items. It functions like a prayer in a bag, that you carry on your person concealed out of sight. A mojo bag might be constructed to bring luck in gambling, to attract love or sex, to draw in money or for any number of purposes. It might contain objects such as lodestones, a racoons penis bone, hair from a black cat, a silver dime, dirt from the crossroads, alligator teeth, or whatever items might be appropriate to the working at hand.

The use of baths and floor washes in hoodoo generally involves straining a mixture of herbs into water like a tea, which is then added to a persons bath water for a variety of purposes, such as the removal of bad luck. Often these herbal mixtures might be added to water and used to wash the floor of a house or place of work to bring blessings or improve business.

Harry Middleton Hyatt's exhaustive five volume compendium of oral history Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, consisting of interviews with rootworkers and hoodoo docs recorded between 1936 and 1940, contains a wealth of variations on these formulas and many more besides.

These African folkloric practices are central to hoodoo sorcery, however it's also a multi-ethnic blend of practical sorcery techniques, with many diverse and sometimes unlikely influences coming into the mix.

Much of the botanical lore is Native American in origin, as African magicians taken from their homeland during the slave trade communicated and shared information with the disenfranchised original occupants of the New World, in order to learn the strange new language of roots and herbs indigenous to the Americas. For example, hoodoo makes great use of American botanical items such as high john the conqueror root and devils shoestring.

There's also a fair helping of European and Kabbalistic influences present in hoodoo. This ranges from the kind of magic practiced by "cunning folk" in Europe such as homespun methods for seeing the face of your future husband, to the utilisation of magical formulas such as the Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas square. Hoodoo also soaked up and utilised a lot material from what might be called the Anglo-Germanic "wonder-book" tradition, and many early 20th century mail order suppliers of hoodoo materials also stocked popular works such as "Albertus Magnus' Egyptian Secrets", "The Black Pullet" and John George Hoffman's "Pow Wows, or the long lost friend". The modus operandi in hoodoo was very much - if it works, use it.

Interestingly, there's also a strong element of Christian and Jewish mysticism present in hoodoo. Such as the use of various seals and sigils from western sources such as the 'Key of Solomon', which are often utilised outside the context of the original rites and rituals they came from and incorporated directly into hoodoo workings on their own merits.

The Bible itself was often considered a primary source for magical lore. For instance, the use of the herb Hyssop as a purifying agent in hoodoo uncrossings originates from the passage in Psalm 51 that says: "Purge me with Hyssop, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow".

The psalms became a key component of hoodoo practice mostly due to the popularity of the text Secrets of the Psalms by Godrey Selig. Selig was a member of a late 17th century German millenarian sect called the 'Monks of the Wissahickon'. The general theme of Selig's book is that the words of scripture contain magical power, and that by vibrating the names of God, passages from the Bible, and suchlike, certain magical effects could be accomplished - a theory that's not a million miles away from the principles of western quaballa, as utilised by ceremonial magic groups such as the Golden Dawn.

According to Selig's text, the recitation of various psalms combined with certain actions could ensure such results as a release from prison, a successful business, safe childbirth, help in court cases, an end to malicious gossip, and so on.

This penchant for Biblical source materials and psuedo-Jewish mysticism led the popularity of books such as "The 6th and 7th books of Moses". A collection of Middle Eastern and European magical formulas attributed to the author of the first five books of the Bible, containing various seals and incantations that added some Old Testament fire and brimstone to popular hoodoo practice.

The popularity of "The 6th and 7th Books of Moses" amongst hoodoo practitioners in turn led to the publication of the "8th, 9th and 10th Books of Moses" written by Henri Gamache. The bulk of this text is in a similar vein but is of particular interest due to the lengthy foreword, written by Gamache, that links African tribal beliefs with ancient Jewish and Egyptian practices. Gamache asserts that Moses, the leader of the jews, was a black African sorceror, "the great Voodoo Man of the Bible" with command over snakes and great sorcery at his disposal. His theories were possibly influenced by the socio-political writings of Marcus Garvey and the Rastafari notion of the transported black nation as being the lost tribe of Israel. As an aside, there is actually a 60s reggae track by The Maytals that I haven't heard called "Six and Seven Books of Moses".

Henry Gamache was also the author of another influential hoodoo text called the Master Book of Candle Burning. During the 19th century candles became a mass produced item, available in general stores in a variety of colours. The use of candles in hoodoo practice probably came out of New Orleans where the Roman Catholic tradition of lighting votive candles to the Saints had begun to merge with the folk magic and traditions of African-Americans living in the City. This new way of working with candles in hoodoo practice spread throughout the southern states and by the late 1940s had become an essential part of the hoodoo workers repertoire. Gamache's work is a textbook of instructions on "how to burn candles for every purpose".

Whilst the core of hoodoo candle burning is similar to the style of candle burning popularised by authors such as Ray Buckland and fairly prevalent in Wiccan and new age practice. There are several distinct differences. Some of the colour correspondences follow the western planetary attributions, but others differ, for instance money drawing magic would require a green candle probably due to the colour of US dollar bills. Other differences in colour usage may be derived from traditional African colour attributions.

One of the most notable differences between hoodoo candle magic and the kind that has become popular in mainstream occultism is the emphasis on the use of condition oils. Sometimes cooked up by the practitioner, sometimes mass-produced and bought through mail order specialists - condition oils are extracted from various roots and herbs and applied to the candles prior to burning. In hoodoo practice, condition oils are named fairly directly after what they do, so we have: Run Devil Run Oil, Follow Me Boy Oil, I Can, You Can't Oil, Fast Luck, Kiss Me Now, Fiery Wall of Protection and Black Arts Oil, amongst many other. These concoctions are also used to dress amulets and mojo bags or to anoint the hoodoo workers forehead to make a link a between the candle burning and the practitioners will.

Hoodoo candles are available in many different shapes and sizes. There are glass encased seven day devotional candles with magical inscriptions or pictures of the Saints on their exterior - the wax sometimes mixed with appropriate herbs. There are candles in the shape of black cats, skulls, the cross, the devil, a married couple, or a male or female effigy. All of which can be dressed with condition oil and readily incorporated into sympathetic magic. Candles are available with notches showing you where to nod out the working at the end of the night, so that it burns evenly over seven or nine days. There are double action candles with the wax divided into two different colours for setting multiple influences in motion, and reversible candles with a different colour wax inside and outside, for instances where you want to remove a jinx and then send it back.

Another influence on hoodoo is spiritism, or espiritismo as its known in Latin America. Spiritism was founded by 19th century French author Allan Kardec and is an offshoot of Spiritualism. It became very popular amongst practitioners of Santeria in Cuba, as a means of re-connecting to ancestor worship. The mysteries of honouring the dead were the provenance of the Egungun Societies in West African Yoruban culture, but this body of knowledge was lost to many Africans following their dispersion throughout the new world. Espiritismo provided a new and accessible technology for speaking with the dead. The medium conducting a Spiritist séance became possessed by the ancestors or spiritual guides, in much the same way that the Orisha ride the celebrants during a Santeria ceremony. Spiritism also provided a more acceptable means of practising the ancestral religions openly, due to the general fashion for all things spiritualist during the late 19th century.

Similarly, Spiritist practices found their way into hoodoo. A hoodoo worker might keep a Spiritist altar consisiting of a white sheet draped over a table, with a white candle, a crucifix and glass of fresh water placed on it. Spiritual guides would be called in a mediumistic fashion and asked to intervene in workings or to relay messages from beyond. Oujia boards became available from hoodoo mail order suppliers, and used to speak with the dead. For the practice of magic, hoodoo workers might house their spiritual contacts in Spirit Jars or a Spirit Box - a hoodoo variation on the mysterious Spirit cauldron in the religion of Palo Mayombe. These devices might be used in combination with hoodoo methods of candle burning to accomplish a variety of effects, feeding the spirits with candies or other small offerings to entice or coerce them into lending their power to the operation.

Hoodoo practice is about getting things done. The hoodoo practitioner, trick worker, conjure worker, root doctor, is a professional magician offering a range of services to his or her community, and as such could be considered an early modern permutation of the shamanic role. It has parallels with the services provided by cunning folk in British Society from the medieval period to the early 19th century, but it is very much alive and well within certain communities in the 21st century. Many of the botanica's in London, that primarily supply the Santeria community and practitioners of African Traditional Religions in the capital, also stock a large supply of hoodoo materials. There are several mail order suppliers in existence that sell hoodoo paraphernalia internationally and many of the books mentioned earlier remain very much in print.

However, hoodoo practice and many of the methods that it employs tend not to get much exposure in contemporary western occultism, and more often than not seem to get overlooked as tacky huckster-ism or the invention of snake oil salesmen peddling their wares. Much more cultural cache is given to the psuedo-masonic rituals of ceremonial magic, or the various pop-science and pop-psychology endorsed methods of contemporary sorcery.

Don't get me wrong, hoodoo is tacky, with its banishing aerosol cans, "All night long" annointing oils, and reversible double jinx candles. But it's also a fascinating, valid and particularly potent form of magical practice. I think that the more commercial end of hoodoo has its own level of validity and cheesy store bought items can play a part in general practice, but I think the actual mechanism of rootwork and hoodoo practice certainly demand a closer look by anyone interested in sorcery and results magic - from either a practical or academic perspective.

From my own experience of working with hoodoo, it tends to encourage a level of engagement with your environment and openness to creativity that is often missing from a lot of contemporary practice. It could be argued that when late 20th century currents such as chaos magic got rid of the bubbling cauldrons and eye of newt, they were throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The physical process of making up gris-gris bags, uncrossing baths, sprinkling powders, condition oils and the like introduces an element of creativity largely missing from a lot of approaches to results magic. It's not sorcery that takes place within a safe centrally heated flat. You have to go out and walk the streets to get what you need, and that questing process is where I think a lot of the interesting stuff happens. In my own work I might use a combination of traditional hoodoo ingredients acquired from a supplier, along with items that I've drifted for. Literally walking the streets of the City, under the guidance of ally spirits, looking for ingredients to go into the magic. Curious plants growing between paving stones, discarded bus tickets, dirt collected from old London power spots, creepy items seen in charity shop windows, strange objects found in dark alleyways.

All functioning as totemic items feeding into the magic. Over time, an entire language of ingredients begins to develop out of your practice - a personal hoodoo Quabala made out of the things that exist in the streets where you live. It's an instinctive magic that grows organically out of what you're doing. It's not cobbled together on a wet afternoon over a cup of tea and a copy of Crowley's 777. It's alive and within the world. The process of collecting ingredients can be thought of as a two-way dialogue between the practitioner and the universe, or the spirits, or however you may wish to frame it. Items won from a lengthy, difficult or possibly dangerous hoodoo drift take on a numinosity that transforms them from unusual or even mundane objects into holy relics and powerful totemic items.

A bit of plastic with the word "win" written on it added to a gris-gris bag for success, becomes more than the sum of its parts if you acquired it by following a fragment of map found at the crossroads to a dodgy bar in the East End, where a combination of a song on the radio and an overheard conversation inspired you to prize the totem object off a fruit machine - resulting in six enraged skinheads and a terrifying chase across London.

Even the action of collecting store bought items can be considered as part of a questing process. For example, what sort of situations might you find yourself in if you were hunting for something like Four Thieves Vinegar in London, let alone a Racoon's penis bone? For that matter, where would you go to get something fairly plausible such as lodestones or magnetic sand?

Learning where to find your ingredients re-shapes your understanding of the City and its psychogeography at a magical level. The process you go through in constructing items such as gris gris bags and condition oils is as much a part of the magic as the items themselves. I think comparisons can be made with the stern admonitions in medieval grimoires to go out and forge your own magical sword, or construct your own hooded robe, etc… Engaging with these processes takes you on an initiatory journey, and working sorcery in hoodoo seems to function as a more accessible backyard formula for setting in motion that kind of process.

7, 9 or 13 hoodoo ingredients, each one a potent symbol of your desire, wrapped together in a red cloth, and ritually sewn up on the altar. Placed between 2 red candles dressed in "Fast Luck" Oil and a white candle dressed in "Van Van" Oil, the oils themselves created by hand, mixed from ingredients collected on previous drifts. Words of power read over them. Spirits called. Drums beaten. Magic worked.

To my mind, practising hoodoo - with all its paraphernalia, weird stuff in jars, spirit communication and lucky mojo - feels like what magic's meant to feel like, and I think there's power in that. It taps into something primal. Sure, you can work magic with a sigil drawn on a post-it note in felt-tip pen, but that approach has its boundaries and limitations when it comes to practical application.

I think that hoodoo sorcery addresses a lot of the limitations of contemporary results magic. For instance, the sigil method - whereby a statement of intent, such as "I want a bag of crisps" is reduced to an abstract glyph and then ritually charged during an altered state of consciousness - has experienced a rapid growth in popularity over the last ten years due to its accessibility and ease of practice. However it does have its limitations that are rarely addressed.

The sigil method is often approached as if it were a 'one size fits all' solution to every magical endeavour. Need a new job? Do a sigil. Want to sort out a troublesome neighbour? Do a Sigil. Looking for a rare book? Sigil. Want to promote world peace? Sigil. Cat stuck up a tree? Sigil.

However the only way to really refine and target a sigil is by tinkering with the initial statement of intent, and by being really precise with the language you're using to cover as many variables as possible. Some magicians seem to tie themselves up in knots over the wording of the spell, which can sometimes lead to an over-intellectualisation of the processes at work - a phenomena quite removed from the ideas of artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare, from whose writings the sigil method is ultimately derived.

For instance, I've come across people who have this whole other sigil that functions as a kind of "legal disclaimer" that they then append to whatever sigil they're firing to try and cover themselves for any unforeseen eventualities:
"The content of this sigil does not necessarily reflect the true will of the practitioner. Whilst the practitioner endeavours to make sure that this sigil is accurate and contains nothing prejudicial to the position or reputation of any party, the caster shall not be liable for any karmic damages arising in contract, extradimensional or otherwise from this sigil, or from any action or decision taken as a result of charging this sigil"

I mean, what's that all about? It's almost to the point where people are getting so hung up over their statement of intent that their getting a lawyer in to have a look over it prior to charging, just in case there's anything in there that the butterfly effect might misinterpret. Just stop!

In contrast to this, hoodoo allows you to take a very hands-on approach to sorcery. For instance, if someone needs a job, you make up a money-drawing bag and give it to them. If someone has chronic bad luck, you prepare an uncrossing bath for them. If someone is bothering you at work, you mix up some hot foot powder and sprinkle it under their desk.

Over the last ten years this old school 'get your hands dirty' approach to results magic seems to have been suffering a bit of a decline in popularity, to the point that a lot of magicians seemingly don't know how to direct and target results magic towards real life situations that they might encounter.

I came across a situation recently on an occult web forum, where someone was looking for advice on magic to protect a friend from an abusive partner. The extent of the suggestions they were given were just variations on the sigil method, with a few warnings to get the statement of intent right.

In the same situation a hoodoo practitioner would have any number of possible approaches to explore, and have the ability to tailor the selected method to the specific situation at hand. For instance, you could make up a mojo bag to give to the person as a protective amulet. Or you could ask for some of their personal concerns and construct a doll of them, taking it to a place of power in the city and marking out a circle in protection oil, barbed wire and stinging nettles. Or you could get a photo of the abusive partner and burn a purple candle on it, dressed in Commanding oil. Or wrap an item of his clothing around a high john the conqueror root, place it in a jar with vinegar and other materials, then bury it in his front garden late at night. Or any combination or variation on the above. There's no one size fits all formula. Every situation where magical intervention might be required has to be closely examined and responded to on its own terms. You never quite do the same working twice.

The role of hoodoo worker, as I interpret and try to aspire to, is a profession. Possibly the world's second oldest profession. It's about becoming very good at results magic, in order to administer grassroots occult assistance to the body of people that might loosely be considered your community. Doing stuff for other people. Providing a service to those who need it. Not out of some lofty altruistic sense of duty, but because it's the obvious application of those particular skills. To do otherwise would be like the surgeon who studies medicine for ten years only to perform minor operations on himself, or the barrister who only ever represents himself in court.

If you're operating from the hypothesis that magic works and tangible results can be accomplished through the medium of sorcery, then I think you really have to consider the social implications of that statement. How does the magic that you practice relate directly to the world around you? How do you integrate it into your life and adapt that potentiality for change to the environment you are a part of?

For instance, how many people here tonight that identify as practising witches or magicians or whatever, regularly use their magic to actively engage with the problems that might be going on around them? Helping people you care about, using the magic to look out for friends and family when they're having a rough time, even becoming involved in local community problems at a magical level, keeping the local arts centre open, stopping a small business from going under at the hands of corporations, sorting out the bunch of kids that bricked your next door neighbours window, finding lost property, healing the sick, giving divination, using this stuff to try and make a difference in whatever small way that you might be able to.

It strikes me that a lot of people don't seem to even think about sorcery in these terms, or relate their practice directly to the world around them, and I'm interested in why that is. I think there's almost a tendency to shove the whole issue of "doing magic for other people" into a box marked "shamanism" and forget about it, as if shamanism is a completely separate "system" of magic entirely divorced from "chaos magic" or "Thelema" or whatever flavour people happen to identify with. "All that 'serving the community' stuff? It's a calling isn't it, shamanism, on a different shelf in the occult bookstore mate, nowt to do with me". I think that's a load of bollocks. If you can make stuff happen, then using that ability to intervene in situations that really desperately need some kind of intervention, is not some magical mystical "shamanic" vocation. It's just taking responsibility for your skills and what you can do. The world seems to be at a crisis point. You could argue that there's no time for all the theoretical dilettante shit that characterises much of contemporary occultism, no time for magic as an entertaining hobby or diverting little parlour game. If you want a hobby take up knitting or fisting. If you're going to be spending countless hours of your life studying and practising magic, then at least think about finding something tangible and practical to do with it.

Some plausible reasons why people seem to shy away from functioning in this sort of capacity are a lack of confidence in their own magical abilities and perhaps a squeamishness about getting involved magically in a live situation and making a load of mistakes. Making things worse. Meddling in something that should be left well alone. All of which are valid concerns, but the ability to navigate the various grey areas of a complex real life situation, and act decisively and with confidence to bring about a positive resolution, is part of a hoodoo workers stock-in-trade.

There's more to the hoodoo worker skill set than knowing how to stick pins in dolls and knock together a "Let's get it on" mojo bag. The hardest part of the job is often knowing when to act, when not to act, how much pressure to apply and where to apply it. These are skills that you can't get out of any book. You learn them by doing. There's no better way to sharpen up your sorcery skills than to put them to the test in a real world situation where a tangible outcome denotes success or failure. And there's no space for power trips or self aggrandisement when your skills are constantly being put to the test on a weekly basis.

Similarly, the only way to gain confidence and expertise in applying magic effectively and with precision within the world around you, is by gaining experience in the field - by engaging magically with the world and all that it involves. You might well get your fingers burned one or two times, and inadvertently trigger the occasional magical crisis that you have to then try and resolve. But these experiences, as unpleasant and potentially fraught as they might be at the time, are often where the real learning gets done. The role of hoodoo worker can be looked on as an initiatory journey in itself, with its own distinct challenges and rewards - and to my mind, is worth closer exploration by anyone involved or interested in contemporary occultism.

For more of Stephen Grasso's work visit his website: Molotavia

A large glass of the best rum in the house to Catherine Yronwode, whose work, research and stunningly brilliant website luckymojo.com provided most of the historical background for the first half of this presentation, and remains the best resource for information on hoodoo on the web and in print. Respect.