Hoodoo (spirituality)

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Hoodoo candle

Hoodoo is an ethnogenesis of spiritual practices, traditions, and beliefs created by African slaves in North America that were held in secret from slaveholders.[1] Hoodoo evolved from various traditional African religions and practices, and in the American South, incorporated various elements of indigenous botanical knowledge.[2] Also known as "Lowcountry Voodoo" in the Gullah South Carolina Lowcountry.[3][4] Following the Great Migration of African-Americans, Hoodoo spread throughout the United States.

Regional synonyms for hoodoo include conjuration or rootwork.[5]


The Kongo Cosmogram (Yowa Cross) represents the human life cycle of death and rebirth of the soul, and the rising and setting of the sun. The Yowa cross is the origins of the crossroads in Hoodoo.
Kongo Yowa Cosmogram


Approximately 388,000 African people from various ethnic groups were shipped to British colonial North America and the West Indies between the 17th and 19th centuries as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.[6] They were Kongo, Igbo, Akan, Mandé, Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, and Fulbe, among many others.[7][8]

Central African Origins[edit]

The Bantu-Kongo origins in Hoodoo is evident. According to academic research, about 40 percent of Africans shipped to the United States during the slave trade came from Central Africa's Kongo region. Emory University created an online database that shows the voyages of the trans-atlantic slave trade. This database shows many slave ships primarily leaving Central Africa (slave voyages).[9][10] Ancient Kongolese spiritual beliefs and practices are present in Hoodoo such as the Kongo Cosmogram. The Kongo Cosmogram is a cross (+) sometimes enclosed in a circle. It represents the human life cycle of death and rebirth of the human soul, and the center of the cross is where the communication with spirits take place, the cosmogram symbolize the rising and setting of the sun and cosmic energies. The two lines in the Kongo Cosmogram is a boundary between the physical world and the spiritual world. "The basic form of this cosmogram is a simple cross with one line representing the boundary between the living world and that of the dead, and the other representing the path of power from below to above, as well as the vertical path across the boundary."[11][12] The Kongo Cosmogram cross symbol has a physical form in Hoodoo called the crossroads where Hoodoo rituals are performed to communicate with spirits, and to leave ritual items to banish negative energies.[13] The Kongo Cosmogram is also called the Bakongo Cosmogram and the "Yowa" cross. The Yowa (Kongo Cosmogram) is "A fork in the road (or even a forked branch) can allude to this crucially important symbol of passage and communication between worlds. The 'turn' in the path,' i.e., the crossroads, remains an indelible concept in the Kongo-Atlantic world, as the point of intersection between the ancestors and the living." Communication with ancestors is a part of Hoodoo which is a practice that was brought to the United States during the slave trade originating among Bantu-Kongo people.[14][15]The Ring Shout in Hoodoo has its origins from the Kongo region with the Kongo Cosmogram and ring shouters dance in a counterclockwise direction that follows the pattern of the rising of the sun in the east and the setting of the sun in the west which the sun rises and sets in a counterclockwise direction.[16]

Also, the word "goofer" in goofer dust has Kongo origins it comes from the "Kongo word 'Kufwa' which means to die." [17] The mojo bag in Hoodoo has Bantu-Kongo origins. Mojo bags are called "toby" and the word toby derives from the Kongo word tobe. "Another important word in the lexicon of the charm makers is toby. A toby is a good-luck charm. In form and function it almost certainly derives from the tobe charms of Kongo. The original charm was 'made up of a mixture of earth and grave plus palm wine, and is believed to bring good luck." The mojo bag or conjure bag derived from the Bantu-Kongo minkisi. The Nkisi, singular, and Minkisi plural, is when a spirit or spirits inhabit an object created by hand from an individual. These objects can be a bag (mojo bag or conjure bag) gourds, shells, and other containers. Various items are placed inside a bag to give it a particular spirit or job to do.[18][19] Other Bantu-Kongo origins in Hoodoo is making a cross mark (Kongo Cosmogram) and stand on it and take an oath. This practice is done in Central Africa and in the United States in African American communities. The Kongo Cosmogram is also used as a powerful charm of protection when drawn on the ground, the solar emblems or circles at the end and the arrows are not drawn just the cross marks which looks like an X.[20][21]

In 1998, in a historic house in Annapolis, Maryland called the Brice House archeologists unearthed Hoodoo artifacts inside the house that linked to Central Africa's Kongo people. "Materials excavated in Annapolis from the Brice and Carroll houses provide evidence of Kongo-like activities in eighteenth and nineteenth century urban settings. Archaeologists have interpreted such caches in terms of African American spiritual practices known as 'Hoodoo.' Descriptions of Hoodoo practices refer consistently to the use of doll parts, pins, pierced coins, and bottles, which functioned very much like power bundles from the Kongo region used to guarantee healing and protection or for pursuing wrongdoers. One set of materials has been interpreted as depicting a cosmogram (a Kongo sacred symbol) created and maintained over forty years. Scholars believe that the Brice House material created a sacred interior landscape rooted in a Kongo tradition." These artifacts are the continued practice of the Kongo's Minkisi and Nkisi culture in the United States brought over by enslaved Africans.[22]

Other artifacts uncovered at the James Brice House were Kongo Cosmogram engravings drawn as crossroads (an X) inside the house. "The Hoodoo artifacts make a crossroads that was intended to give its makers [enslaved African-Americans] active control over their own lives-including such applications as curing rheumatism, protecting children, assisting with finding a mate, and warding off a harsh mistress or master."[23]

Yale University professor, Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, has done academic research in Africa and in the United States and traced Hoodoo's (African American conjure) origins to Central Africa's Bantu-Kongo people in his book "Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy." Thompson is also an African Art historian and found through his study of African art the origins of African Americans' spiritual practices to certain regions in Africa.[24] Academic historian Albert J. Raboteau in his book, "Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South," traced the origins of Hoodoo (conjure, rootwork) practices in the United States to West and Central Africa. These origins developed a slave culture in the United States that was social, spiritual, and religious.[25]

West African Origins[edit]

The West African Yoruba origins is also evident in Hoodoo. For example, the Yoruba trickster deity called Eshu-Elegba resides at the crossroads, and the Yoruba people leave offerings for Eshu-Elegba at the crossroads. The crossroads has spiritual power in Hoodoo, and rituals are performed at the crossroads, and there is a spirit that resides at the crossroads to leave offerings for. However, the spirit that resides at the crossroads in Hoodoo is not named Eshu-Elegba because many of the African names of deities were lost during slavery; but the belief that a spirit resides at the crossroads and one should provide offerings to it originates from West Africa. Folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett, recorded a number of crossroads rituals in Hoodoo practiced among African-Americans in the South and explained its meaning. Puckett wrote..."Possibly this custom of sacrificing at the crossroads is due to the idea that spirits, like men, travel the highways and would be more likely to hit upon the offering at the crossroads than elsewhere."[26] In addition to leaving offerings and performing rituals at the crossroads, sometimes spiritual work or "spells" are left at the crossroads to remove unwanted energies.[27][28][29] Hoodoo also has Vodun origins. For example, a primary ingredient used in goofer dust is snakeskins. Snakes (serpents) are revered in West African spiritual practices, because they represent divinity. The West African Vodun water spirit Mami Wata holds a snake in one hand. This reverence for snakes came to the United States during the slave trade, and in Hoodoo snakeskins are used in the preparation of conjure powders.[30] Puckett explained that the origin of snake reverence in Hoodoo originates from snake (serpent) honoring in West Africa's Vodun tradition.[31] Water spirits, called Simbi, are also revered in Hoodoo which comes from West African and Central African spiritual practices. When Africans were brought to the United States as slaves, they blended African spiritual beliefs with Christian baptismal practices. Enslaved Africans prayed to the spirit of the water and not to the Christian god when they baptized church members.[32] "Baptism also had a distinctly African side to it. The nineteenth century Georgia practice of praying to Kongo-derived simbi spirits before immersion demonstrates this aspect of an other wise Christian rite."[33]

In Annapolis, Maryland archeologists uncovered evidence for West African and Central African practices. A Hoodoo spiritual bundle that contained nails, a stone axe and other items was found embedded four feet in the streets of Maryland near the capital. The axe inside the Hoodoo bundle shows a direct link to the Yoruba people's deity Shango. "The bundle’s most striking component, the stone axe, was especially intriguing. Dr. Lamp said this brought to mind the Yoruba and the Fon people of Benin, who considered the axe blade a symbol of Shango, their god of thunder and lightning. Matthew D. Cochran, a doctoral student in anthropology at University College London, who uncovered the bundle, said it would probably prove to be associated with Yoruba practices related to Shango." Shango was (and is) a feared Orisha in Yorubaland, because he is associated with lightening and thunder, and this fear and respect towards thunder and lightening survived in African American communities. Folklorist Puckett wrote..."and thunder denotes an angry creator." Puckett recorded a number of beliefs surrounding the fear and respect for thunder and lightening in the African American community. In Hoodoo objects struck by lightening hold great power. However, the name Shango and other African deity names were lost during slavery. Therefore, the name Shango does not exist in Hoodoo, but just the name the Thunder God.[34][35]

The West African Igbo origins is also evident in Hoodoo. Ambrose Madison was a slaveholder in British colonial America in the colony of Virginia, and was the grandfather of president James Madison. At Madison's plantation home (Mount Pleasant later Montpelier) in 1732 Ambrose Madison died from poisoning likely by his Igbo slaves. According to research from Douglass Chambers it was believed by Ambrose Madison's family that he was poisoned by three of his Igbo slaves. The evidence that Igbo slaves poisoned Madison is limited; however, the book does offer some information about Igbo people in Virginia. The Igbo people's spiritual practice is called Odinani that was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. Igbo people had their own herbal knowledge and spiritual practices that shaped Hoodoo in the United States. Communication with ancestors is an important practice in Hoodoo that originated from West and Central Africa. The Igbo people believe family members can reincarnate back into the family line. To ensure this process proper burial ceremonies are performed. Igbo people and other ethnic groups in West Africa have two burials for their family members one physical and one spiritual. Burial ceremonies of African Americans was influenced by the culture of Igbo people's belief in the care and respect for the dead and ancestors. If family members were not given a proper burial the soul suffered in the afterlife. "A proper burial ceremony opened the door to reincarnation; only the completion of all rites, Igbos believed, would send the spirit of the deceased to the spirit world. And only after having entered the spirit world could one reincarnate. A proper burial actually involved two burials, a physical one, in which the body was placed into the earth; and a spiritual one, a very public ritual that celebrated the individual's life while simultaneously mourning the loss. This second burial was just as important as the placing of the body in the ground because without it the spirit could not join the other ancestors or reincarnate."[36][37][38]

Haitian influence[edit]

Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American cultural anthropologist and Hoodoo initiate, reports in her essay, "Hoodoo in America", that conjure had its highest development along the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans and its surrounding rural areas. These regions were settled by Haitian immigrants at the time of the overthrow of the French rule in Haiti by Toussaint Louverture.

Thirteen-hundred Haitians (of African descent, along with their White ex-masters) were driven out, and the nearest French refuge was the province of Louisiana. African Haitians brought with them their conjure rituals modified by European cultural influences, such as Catholicism. While some retained Haitian Vodou practices, others developed their own regional Hoodoo.

Unlike the continental North American slaves, slaves in the Caribbean islands were encouraged to make themselves as much at home as possible in their bondage, and thus retained more of their West African customs and language.[39][40]

The Haitian Revolution and the conjure used during the revolution also inspired other slave revolts in the United States. For example, in 1822 a free black named Denmark Vesey planned a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina that was modeled after the Haitian Revolution. "Denmark Vesey, a carpenter and formerly enslaved person, allegedly planned an enslaved insurrection to coincide with Bastille Day in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. Vesey modeled his rebellion after the successful 1791 slave revolution in Haiti. His plans called for his followers to execute the white enslavers, liberate the city of Charleston, and then sail to Haiti before the white power structure could retaliate." Denmark Vesey's co-conspirator was an enslaved Gullah conjurer named Gullah Jack. Gullah Jack was known to carry a conjure bag with him at all times. Also, Gullah Jack gave the slaves rootwork instructions for their spiritual protection for a possible slave revolt planned by his co-conspirator Denmark Vesey. "He instructed his fellow rebels to keep crab claws with them and to only eat parched corn meal and a peanut butter-like mash before the rebellion. These measures were believed to protect against harm and capture through supernatural means." The plan was to free those enslaved through armed resistance and the use of conjure; however, Denmark Vesey and Gullah Jack were not successful because their plan was revealed and stopped.[41][42]

Hoodoo's botanical knowledge[edit]

African Americans had their own herbal knowledge that was brought from West and Central Africa to the Unites States. European slave traders selected certain West African ethnic groups for their knowledge of rice cultivation to be used in the United States on slave plantations. During the transatlantic slave trade a variety of African plants were brought from Africa to the United States for cultivation; they were, okra, sorghum, yam, and benneseed. These African plants brought from Africa to North America were cultivated by enslaved African Americans for medicinal and spiritual use for the African American community, and economic use for white American slaveholders. African Americans mixed their knowledge of herbs from Africa with European and regional Native American herbal knowledge. "Likewise, their [African Americans] folk medicine mixed medicines that originated in Africa with cures learned from the American Indians and European settlers."[43] In Hoodoo, African Americans used herbs in different ways. For example, when it came to the medicinal use of herbs, African Americans learned some medicinal knowledge of herbs from Native Americans; however, the spiritual use of herbs and the practice of Hoodoo (conjuring) remained African in origin. Enslaved African Americans also used their African knowledge of herbs to poison their enslavers. For example, "In the 1700s, an enslaved man named Caesar was given his freedom and one hundred pounds per annum for life by the General Assembly as a reward for discovering a cure for those who were bitten by a rattlesnake or who had swallowed poison. This knowledge was a two-edge sword, for blacks could use plant poison against their masters, and some did."[44][45]


Hoodoo developed as a primarily Central and West African retention with Native American and European influences such as regional indigenous traditional medicine and Judeo-Christian beliefs and folklore. The extent to which Hoodoo could be practiced varied by region and the temperament of the slave owners. For example, the Gullah people of the coastal Southeast experienced an isolation and relative freedom that allowed retention of various traditional West African cultural practices; whereas rootwork in the Mississippi Delta, where the concentration of enslaved African-Americans was dense, was practiced under a large cover of secrecy.[46][47]

The term "Hoodoo" was first documented in American English in 1875 as a noun (the practice of hoodoo) or as a transitive verb, as in "I hoodoo you," an action carried out by varying means. The hoodoo could be manifest in a healing potion, or in the exercise of a parapsychological power, or as the cause of harm which befalls the targeted victim.[48][49] In African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), Hoodoo is often used to refer to a paranormal consciousness or spiritual hypnosis, or a spell, but Hoodoo may also be used as an adjective in reference to a practitioner, such as "Hoodoo man".[50]

The mobility of Black people from the rural South to more urban areas in the North is characterized by the items used in Hoodoo. White pharmacists opened their shops in African American communities and began to offer items both asked for by their customers, as well as things they themselves felt would be of use.[51] Examples of the adoption of occultism and mysticism may be seen in the colored wax candles in glass jars that are often labeled for specific purposes such as "Fast Luck" or "Love Drawing". There were some African Americans that sold Hoodoo products in the black community. "Mattie Sampson, a robust young Negro woman, told us that she does an active mail order business as representative of the Lucky Heart Company, the Sweet Georgia Brown Company, and the Curio Products Company. She supports herself comfortably by means of selling her credulous neighbors good luck perfumes, roots, lodestones, and similar charms. 'Duh chahms an good luck puhfumes an powduhs do deah wuk independent of any additional hep,' Mattie said. 'Ef anybody believe a puticuluh chahm is wut dey need, well, dat chahm will do duh wuk."[52]

The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses is a grimoire that was made popular by European immigrants. Purportedly based on Jewish Kabbalah, it contains numerous signs, seals, and passages in Hebrew related to the prophet Moses' ability to work wonders. Though its authorship is attributed to Moses, the oldest manuscript dates to the mid-19th century. Its importance in hoodoo among some practitioners is summarized as follows:

I read de "Seven Books of Moses" seven or eight yeah a'ready ... de foundation of hoodooism came from way back yondah de time dat Moses written de book "De Seven Book of Moses".[53][54]

Hoodoo spread throughout the United States as African-Americans left the delta during the Great Migration.

Hoodoo and Slave Resistance[edit]

Known hoodoo spells date back to the era of slavery in the United States. In the year 1712 in British Colonial America in New York, enslaved Africans revolted and set fire to buildings in the downtown area. The leader of the revolt was a free African conjurer named Peter the Doctor who made a magical powder for the other slaves to be rubbed on the body and clothes for protection and to empower the slaves.[55] Conjure bags, also called mojo bags, were used as a form of resistance against slavery. William Webb helped enslaved people on a plantation in Kentucky resist their oppressors with the use of mojo bags. Webb told the slaves to gather some roots and put them in bags and "march around the cabins several times and point the bags toward the master's house every morning." After the slaves did what they were instructed by Webb, the slaveholder treated his slaves better.[56] Another enslaved African named Dinkie, known by the slaves as Dinkie King of Voodous, on a plantation in the American south, used goofer dust to resist a cruel overseer (a person who is an overseer of slaves). Dinkie was an enslaved man on a plantation who never worked like the other slaves. He was feared and respected by blacks and whites. Dinkie was known to carry a dried snakeskin, frog and lizard, and sprinkled goofer dust on himself and spoke to the spirit of the snake to wake up its spirit against the overseer.[57] Frederick Douglass, known abolitionist and author, wrote in his autobiography that he sought spiritual assistance from an enslaved conjurer named Sandy Jenkins. Sandy told Douglass to follow him into the woods and found a root which Sandy told Douglass to carry in his right pocket which would prevent any white man from whipping him. Douglass carried the root on his right side instructed by Sandy and put it to test when he returned back to the plantation. The cruel slave-breaker Mr. Covey told Douglass to do some work, but as Mr. Covey approached Douglass, Douglass had the strength and courage to resist Mr. Covey and defeated him after they fought. Covey never bothered Douglass again. In his autobiography, Douglass believed the root given to him by Sandy prevented him from being whipped by Mr. Covey.[58] Hoodoo or conjure for African Americans is a form of resistance against white domination.[59][60] For example, "...other people [slaves] used conjuring to protect against the evils of slavery...Conjurers were perceived as a threat to white society as many enslaved persons went to them to receive potions or charms in protection or revenge against their masters."[61]

Today, Hoodoo and other forms of African Traditional Religions are present in the Black Lives Matter movement as one of many methods against police brutality and racism in the black community. For example, in a news article from California State University..."the Black Live Matter movement, a movement that is generally deemed as non-religious, is actually deeply rooted in spirituality and has brought spiritual healing to the Black community and continues to share and spread this information to non-Black communities." "We are carrying out a rich tradition of Black organizing that is dynamic, spirit based and gives honor to what we are doing… We are giving honor to the spiritualism and the activism that our ancestors did and relied upon." Black American keynote speakers that are practitioners of Hoodoo spoke at an event at The Department of Arts and Humanities at California State University about the importance of Hoodoo and other African spiritual traditions practiced in social justice movements to liberate black people from oppression.[62]


The use of divination in Hoodoo originated from African practices. In West and Central Africa, divination was (and is) used to determine what measures an individual or a community should know that is important for survival and spiritual balance. "Throughout Africa - whether in the city or in the country, no matter the religion, sex, or status of the individual - questions, problems, and choices arise for which everyday knowledge is insufficient and yet action must be taken. The information necessary to respond effectively is available, but often only through a diviner. This is why divination continues to provide a trusted means of decision making, a basic source of vital knowledge."[63] There are several forms of divination traditionally used in Hoodoo.


Involves the casting of small objects (such as shells, bones, stalks, coins, nuts, stones, dice, sticks, etc.) The use of bones, sticks, shells and other items is a form of divination used in Africa.[64]


Divination by means of interpreting cards.

Natural or Judicial Astrology[edit]

The study of positions and motions of celestial bodies in the belief that they have an influence over nature and human affairs.[65]


The deciphering of phenomena (omens) that are believed to foretell the future, often signifying the advent of change.[66]


A form of divination based upon dreams.[67]


"Seeking" process[edit]

In a process known as "seeking" a Hoodoo practitioner will ask for salvation of a person's soul in order for a Gullah church to accept them. A spiritual leader will assist in the process and after believing the follower is ready they will announce it to the church. A ceremony will commence with much singing, and the practice of a ring shout.[4] The word "shout" derived from the West African Muslim word saut, meaning "dancing or moving around the Kaaba." The ring shout in Black churches (African American churches) originates from African styles of dance. "Despite the African style of singing, the spirituals, like the 'running spirituals' or rings shout, were performed in praise of the Christian God. The names and words of the African gods were replaced by Biblical figures and Christian imagery."[68] During slavery enslaved Africans were forced to become Christian which resulted in a blend of African and Christian spiritual practices that shaped hoodoo. As a result, hoodoo was and continues to be practiced in some Black churches in the United States.[69][70] In the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor area, praise houses[71] are places where African Americans gather to have church and perform healing rituals and the ring shout. "For example, since the mid-nineteenth century, travelers and northern teachers among the Gullah/Geechees have described an African-looking ritual called the 'ring shout.' Following the normal church, or 'praise house,' service, fully ordained members of the praise house often engaged in an accelerating circular dance, accompanied by singing and clapping. The ring shout culminated in the ecstatic descent of the Holy Spirit."[72] The ring shout in hoodoo has its origins in the Kongo region of Africa with the Kongo Cosmogram. For example, "Ring Shouts begin with an ancient ceremony which follows the circular pattern of the (Ba)Kongo Cosmogram. The Cosmogram symbol depicts the pattern of energy flow connecting the spiritual and physical worlds. During a Ring Shout, the counter-clockwise motion is meant to invoke The Spirit while participants sing, pray and chant. Participants never lift their feet from the earth as they travel the Ring." "A Ring Shout is ritual with spiritual healing qualities as prominent as transcendental vision quests, astral projection, or nirvana. 'In order for a Ring Shout to occur, the participants must step aside from their cerebral presence and allow Spirit to enter and govern the Ring."[73][74] The Kongo Cosmogram sun cycle also influenced how African Americans in Georgia prayed. "According to Sophie the old people on St. Catherines would pray at the rising and at the setting of the sun and at the conclusion of their prayers they would say the words 'Meena, Mina, Mo.' Asked if she knew the meaning of these words, she shook her head negatively."[75]

Hoodoo Initiations[edit]

This seeking process in Hoodoo accompanied with the ring shout is also an initiation into Hoodoo. For example, "Both during and after slavery, people of the sea islands [Gullah People] took part in spiritual initiation process as young adults. Scholars attribute this initiation practice as one that combined West African community-based initiation practices with what Methodist preachers called 'seeking Jesus.' It resulted in the young person joining the Christian community and required several phases. Seekers required spiritual guidance most often provided by spiritual mothers, time in the 'wilderness' of the Lowcountry (often using a forest or open field), and finally, approval from the community’s Black religious leaders."[76][77] Zora Neale Hurston wrote about her initiation into Hoodoo in her book Mules and Men published in 1935. Hurston explained her initiation into Hoodoo included wrapped snakeskins around her body, and lying on a bed for three days nude so she could have a vision and acceptance from the spirits. Hurston wrote..."With the help of other members of the college of hoodoo doctors called together to initiate me, the snake skins I had brought were made into garments for me to wear...I was made ready and at three o'clock in the afternoon, naked as I came into the world, I was stretched, face downwards, my navel to the snake skin cover, and began my three day search for the spirit that he might accept me or reject me according to his will. Three days my body must lie silent and fasting while my spirit went wherever spirits must go that seek answers never given to men as men."[78]

Spirit mediation[edit]

The purpose of Hoodoo was to allow people access to supernatural forces to improve their lives. Hoodoo is purported to help people attain power or success ("luck") in many areas of life including money, love, health, and employment. As in many other spiritual and medical folk practices, extensive use is made of herbs, minerals, parts of animals' bodies, an individual's possessions.

Contact with ancestors or other spirits of the dead is an important practice within the conjure tradition, and the recitation of psalms from the Bible is also considered spiritually influential in Hoodoo. Due to Hoodoo's great emphasis on an individual's spiritual power to effect desired change in the course of events, Hoodoo's principles are believed to be accessible for use by any individual of faith.[79] Hoodoo practice does not require a formally designated minister.

Spiritual supplies[edit]

Homemade powders, mojo hands, oils (van van oil, dragon's blood, etc.), and talismans form the basis of much rural Hoodoo, but there are also some successful commercial companies selling various Hoodoo products to urban and town practitioners. These are generally called spiritual supplies, and they include herbs, roots, minerals, candles, incense, oils, floor washes, sachet powders, bath crystals, icons, aerosols, and colognes. Many patent medicines, cosmetics, and household cleaning supplies for mainstream consumers have been aimed also at Hoodoo practitioners. Some products have dual usage as conventional and spiritual supplies, examples of which include the Four Thieves Vinegar, Florida Water, and Red Devil Lye.

Bottle tree[edit]

Photo of a bottle tree.

Hoodoo is linked to a popular tradition of bottle trees in the United States. According to gardener and glass bottle researcher Felder Rushing, the use of bottle trees came to the Old South from Africa with the slave trade. The use of blue bottles is linked to the "haint blue" spirit specifically. Glass bottle trees have become a popular garden decoration throughout the South and Southwest.[80] According to academic research, the origins of bottle trees practiced by African Americans has its origins from the Kongo region. "It is, however, in the United States that most Kongo-derived bottle trees are to be found...In Mississippi these trees, shorn of life, bearing cold, glittering bottles - visuals statements, again, of death and arrest of the spirit - simply block or ward off evil. The custom compares with that in Texas, where 'grave glass will keep the 'evil spirits away' or 'keep away the man's spirit." The purpose of bottle trees is to protect a home or a location from evil spirits by trapping evil spirits inside the bottles.[81]



Since the 19th century there has been Christian influence in Hoodoo thought.[82] This is particularly evident in relation to God's providence and his role in retributive justice. For example, though there are strong ideas of good versus evil, cursing someone to cause their death might not be considered a malignant act. One practitioner explained it as follows:

[In h]oodooism, anythin' da' chew do is de plan of God undastan', God have somepin to do wit evah' thin' you do if it's good or bad, He's got somepin to do wit it ... jis what's fo' you, you'll git it.[83]
([In h]oodooism, anything that you do is the plan of God, understand? God has something to do with everything that you do whether it's good or bad, he's got something to do with it... You'll get what's coming to you)

According to Carolyn Morrow Long, "At the time of the slave trade, the traditional nature-centered religions of West and Central Africa were characterized by the concept that human well-being is governed by spiritual balance, by devotion to a supreme creator and a pantheon of lesser deities, by veneration and propitiation of the ancestors, and by the use of charms to embody spiritual power. ...In traditional West African thought, the goal of all human endeavor was to achieve balance." Several African spiritual traditions recognized a genderless supreme being who created the world, was neither good nor evil, and which did not concern itself with the affairs of mankind. Lesser spirits were invoked to gain aid for humanity's problems.[84]

God as conjurer[edit]

Not only is Yahweh's providence a factor in Hoodoo practice, but Hoodoo thought understands the deity as the archetypal Hoodoo doctor. On this matter Zora Neale Hurston stated, "The way we tell it, Hoodoo started way back there before everything. Six days of magic spells and mighty words and the world with its elements above and below was made."[85] From this perspective, biblical figures are often recast as Hoodoo doctors and the Bible becomes a source of spells and is, itself, used as a protective talisman.[86] This can be understood as a syncretic adaptation for the religion. By blending the ideas laid out by the Christian Bible, the faith is made more acceptable. This combines the teachings of Christianity that Africans brought to America were given and the traditional beliefs they brought with them.

A recent work on hoodoo lays out a model of hoodoo origins and development. Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald discusses what the author calls

the ARC or African Religion Complex which was a collection of eight traits which all the enslaved Africans had in common and were somewhat familiar to all held in the agricultural slave labor camps known as plantations communities. Those traits included naturopathic medicine, ancestor reverence, counter clockwise sacred circle dancing, blood sacrifice, divination, supernatural source of malady, water immersion and spirit possession. These traits allowed Culturally diverse Africans to find common culturo-spiritual ground. According to the author, hoodoo developed under the influence of that complex, the African divinities moved back into their natural forces, unlike in the Caribbean and Latin America where the divinities moved into Catholic saints.

This work also discusses the misunderstood "High John the Conqueror root" and myth as well as the incorrectly-discussed "nature sack".[87]

Moses as conjurer[edit]

Hoodoo practitioners often understand the biblical figure Moses in similar terms. Hurston developed this idea in her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, in which she calls Moses, "the finest Hoodoo man in the world."[88] Obvious parallels between Moses and intentional paranormal influence (such as magic) occur in the biblical accounts of his confrontation with Pharaoh. Moses conjures, or performs magic "miracles" such as turning his staff into a snake. However, his greatest feat of conjure was using his powers to help free the Hebrews from slavery. This emphasis on Moses-as-conjurer led to the introduction of the pseudonymous work the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses into the corpus of hoodoo reference literature.[89]

Bible as talisman[edit]

In Hoodoo, "All hold that the Bible is the great conjure book in the world."[90] It has many functions for the practitioner, not the least of which is a source of spells. This is particularly evident given the importance of the book Secrets of the Psalms in hoodoo culture.[91] This book provides instruction for using psalms for things such as safe travel, headache, and marital relations. The Bible, however, is not just a source of spiritual works but is itself a conjuring talisman. It can be taken "to the crossroads", carried for protection, or even left open at specific pages while facing specific directions. This informant provides an example of both uses:

Whenevah ah'm afraid of someone doin' me harm ah read the 37 Psalms an' co'se ah leaves the Bible open with the head of it turned to the east as many as three days.[92]


A spirit that torments the living is known as a Boo Hag.[4] Spirits can also be conjured to cure or kill people, and predict the future.[93] Also wearing a silver dime worn around the ankle or neck can protect someone from evil spirits and conjure.[94] Communication with spirits and the dead (ancestors) is a continued practice in Hoodoo that originated from West and Central Africa. Nature spirits in Hoodoo called Simbi originates from West Africa, and simbi spirits are associated with water and magic in West Africa and in Hoodoo.[95]

In Hoodoo, the ancestors are important spirits that intercede in people's lives. "The Gullah people believe the spirit of their ancestors participates in their daily affairs and protects and guides them using spiritual forces." Also, it is believed one's soul returns to God after death, however their spirit may still remain on Earth. Spirits can interact with the world by providing good fortune or bringing bad deeds. Among the Gullah Geechee, "...the Gullah descendants continue to lead a spiritual life that influences every aspect of their lives. They believe in the dual nature of the soul and spirit. In death, one’s soul returns to God but the spirit remains on earth to live among the individual’s descendants. It is common for funerals to be ornate and for mourners to decorate graves using items that belonged to the newly deceased."[96]

To have a strong connection with the ancestors in Hoodoo, graveyard dirt is sometimes used. Graveyard dirt from the grave of an ancestor provides protection. Graveyard dirt taken from the grave of a person who is not an ancestor is also used to harm an enemy or for protection. Also, graveyard dirt is another primary ingredient used in goofer dust. Graveyard dirt is placed inside mojo bags (conjure bags) to carry a spirit or spirits with you, if they are an ancestor or other spirits. Dirt from graveyards provides a way to have connections to spirits of the dead.[97][98] This practice of ancestral reverence, using graveyard dirt, working with spirits of the dead, and decorating graves of family members and giving food offerings to dead relatives so they will not haunt the family, originated from Central Africa's Kongo region that was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade.[99]

Differences from voodoo religions[edit]

Hoodoo shows evident links to the practices and beliefs of Fon and Ewe Vodun spiritual folkways.[100] The folkway of Vodun is a more standardized and widely dispersed spiritual practice than Hoodoo. Vodun's modern form is practiced across West Africa in the nations of Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso, among others. In the Americas, the worship of the Vodoun loa is syncretized with Roman Catholic saints. The Vodou of Haiti, Voodoo of Louisiana, Vodú of Cuba, and the Vudú of the Dominican Republic are related more to Vodun than to Hoodoo.

Archeologists unearthed Hoodoo artifacts on slave plantations in Maryland showing evidence of West African practices in the United States brought over by African slaves.[101] On another plantation in Maryland archeologists unearthed artifacts that showed a blend of Central African and Christian spiritual practices among the slaves. This was Ezekial's Wheel in the bible that blended with the Central African Kongo Cosmogram. The Kongo Cosmogram is an + sometimes enclosed in a circle that resembles the Christian cross. This may explain the connection enslaved black Americans had with the Christian symbol the cross as it resembled their African symbol. Also, the Kongo cosmogram is evident in hoodoo practice among black Americans. Archeologists unearthed on a former slave plantation in South Carolina clay pots made by enslaved Africans that had the Kongo cosmogram engraved onto clay pots.[102] The Kongo cosmogram symbolize the birth, life, death and rebirth cycle of the human soul, and the rising and setting of the sun.[103] "The basic form of this cosmogram is a simple cross with one line representing the boundary between the living world and that of the dead, and the other representing the path of power from below to above, as well as the vertical path across the boundary. Marks on the bases of Colono Ware bowls found in river bottoms and slave quarter sites in South Carolina suggest that more than one hundred and fifty years ago African American priests used similar symbols of the cosmos. While cataloging thousands of Colono Ware sherds, South Carolina archaeologists began noticing marks on the bases of some bowls. Most of these marks were simple crosses. In some cases a circle or rectangle enclosed the cross; in others, 'arms' extended counterclockwise from the ends of the cross. On one there was a circle without a cross, and on a few others we found more complicated marks." The Kongo cosmogram in hoodoo is also represented in physical form called the Crossroads.[104] In the practice of hoodoo, there is much Kongo spiritual beliefs and practices, because the majority of Africans taken from Africa during the slave trade came from the Kongo region.[105][106][107]

See also[edit]


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