Hoodoo is a form of African American folk magic, brought into Hollywood in 2005 through The Skeleton Key. Also known as ‘conjure’, Hoodoo emerged from a combination of traditions. Within it, you can find African and Native American practices, as well as Christianity and European folk magic.
As a result, it’s unique to the United States. Some believe that the blend of traditions began on plantations, where slaves worked alongside Native Americans.
A Hoodoo revival in the mid-1990s renewed the practices for modern practitioners. Better access to knowledge through the internet, and journals such as the Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly, have brought Hoodoo out of the shadows. But, unlike European magical traditions, Hoodoo didn’t see a centuries-long break in practice. The continuity helps turn conjure into a living practice.
Don’t confuse Hoodoo with Voodoo
Popular culture largely misrepresents Voodoo – or Louisiana Voodoo to give it the proper title. Many people think it involves sticking pins in dolls. But both it, and Haitian Vodou, are recognised religions.
Unlike Vodou, Hoodoo comprises a set of practices based on other systems of spirituality and magic. It’s not a religion itself. There are no priests, no canonical beliefs, and no authority structure. Many practitioners use Hoodoo alongside their own spiritual beliefs. Though Christianity – or Protestantism, to be precise – is still a common element. The Bible is an incredibly powerful tool.
There are some similarities between Vodou and Hoodoo, but they are distinct from one another. Vodou followers may never use rootwork or magical workings. While Hoodoo practitioners use magic based in Vodou, they’re not actually practising Vodou itself.
Hoodoo more closely resembles the African folk magic of places like Trinidad or Jamaica, both former British colonies. The folk magic from places like Cuba or Haiti draws on the Catholic traditions of these French, Spanish or Portuguese colonies.
Similarities to other systems
Hoodoo bears some similarities to other magical systems, such as modern witchcraft. One common thread is the belief in energy specific to roots, herbs, crystals, and animals. Hoodoo uses sympathetic magic to tap into those energies that match the intention behind the spell.
This is little different to witches using items such as roses, pink candles, or rose quartz to work a love spell. Some systems call them ‘correspondences’, believing the inherent qualities of a time of day or a herb will give a ‘power-up’ to a prayer or spell.
Cat Yronwode notes one reason there are so many similarities between Hoodoo and modern witchcraft. Due to the Wiccan ‘revival’ in the 1950s and 1960s, the early practitioners had no magical traditions to draw from. Conjure provided a neat set of practices to adopt for new witches.
As a result, she says the two practices are very different.
Modern witchcraft attempts to revive the Old Ways of pre-Christian Europe. It focuses on a Lord and a Lady (or, in some traditions, just the Lady). The other blends magical systems with God at the centre.
There’s no set of Commandments behind Hoodoo so ethics is a very personal matter for the practitioner. The individual alone must determine the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of their intended actions. As a result, Hoodoo magic can heal or bless as much as it can jinx or ‘cross’. That said, many practitioners need to feel justified in their actions since their practice is between them and their God(s).
While other magical systems counsel followers to ‘do no harm’, Hoodoo has no such tenet. Practitioners may protect themselves, or seek revenge. Workings for the latter must fit the original crime.
The intention behind a working is critical. Curses only work if the higher powers feel they’re deserved. Anything that is not justified is ineffectual.
Common Hoodoo beliefs
While there is no Hoodoo dogma, there are still common threads. For instance, many practitioners direct their prayers to a range of higher powers. While the represented religions vary, the common belief in a form of divine providence remains. Santa Muerte, Jesus, or Papa Legba may all intercede on your behalf.
That said, Yronwode cautions against such a mix-and-match approach to Hoodoo. She notes the foundations of Hoodoo in the Protestant form of Christianity. That means working with Roman Catholic saints is actually very uncommon.
For her, the most important spirits in Hoodoo are; the Holy Trinity, angels, ancestors, animal or plant spirits, and the recently dead. Anything else is just confused thinking.
Many practitioners also believe in the continuation of the soul after death. Some workers communicate with the spirits of the dead for advice and guidance. This also links to a common practice of divination, whether that involves reading cards, clairvoyance, or consulting ancestors.
Types of magic
Candle magic is a popular form of magic in Hoodoo, and the colour or size of the candle is chosen depending on the intention. Oils or powders dress the candle, which is prayed over and charged with intent. According to accepted thought, the burning of the candle releases this power, allowing it to do its job.
Bottles or containers also make common spell items in Hoodoo. The practitioner combines herbs, roots, and other materials for a specific purpose. Always personalised, spells can be simple or elaborate. Some workers use bottle spells alongside candle magic, or they may bury the spell to allow it to continue working. This recalls the witch bottles of old England.
Mojo bags combine African spirit vessels and European talismans. Usually made of cloth or leather, these personalised bags contain roots, herbs, spells and prayers. They act as a talisman, although there is a belief that the bag houses a special spirit-helper, which carries out the prayers.
The misnamed Voodoo doll belongs more to Hoodoo. The doll represents a specific person. All sorts of materials go into its construction, including wax, clay, or bone. The practitioner stuffs the doll with herbs or roots. Whatever happens to the doll happens to the person.
Finally, cleansings fall under the remit of Hoodoo. That includes fumigations of places, exorcisms, or ritual baths.
Don’t believe what Hollywood tells you
Conjure forms a fascinating part of American history, as well as a living practice. It’s not a set of spells to be learned from a book. Nor is it a series of prayers to be chanted without feeling.
But approach it with respect, and who knows what you might learn?
I also highly recommend Sonya Clark’s fantasy novels about a modern-day hoodoo woman! Start here with Mojo Queen (aff link).
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