A Short History of Hoodoo

American Hoodoo magic has evolved from many different types of magic. Learn more about its rich history here!

A Short History of Hoodoo

by Talia Felix

In the 1980s, Jim Williams — a wealthy white man, on trial for murder in Georgia — hired a black rootworker, or hoodoo practitioner, who specialized in spirit contact and the use of grave dirt and other curios of the dead to work magic spells to help his case. Williams himself claimed not to believe in the value of the worker’s ritual items, but had faith in the power of her mental energy to influence events — a philosophy that is apparently felt by many modern magical practitioners and users, apparently derived from ideas originating in the 19th century New Thought Movement. Meanwhile, the rootworker’s use of articles of the dead is a practice that has been employed since at least the 17th century by European witches and practitioners of “Natural Magic,” and it is documented in African traditions as well. The rootworker was mentioned to use John the Conqueror powder to dress the prosecutor, and to harvest fresh devil’s shoestring root that she employed for ending the interference of harmful spirits — herbal magic using native North American plants. Three hundred years worth of American spiritual practices were going into Williams’s defense.

European Magic Spell, from France, 17th century: Against maladies and other accidents that plague the life of man. [...] You get, when in season, some leaves of St. John’s wort, before it has cast its flowers, as much as you are able to hold in your two hands; put them to infuse in the sun, in four pounds of olive oil, for ten days, then you lay it out on a stove, in a bain marie, in hot water, and you squeeze out the moisture with a press, and put it into a jar, or bottle, or a sturdy glass jug; and, when the St. John’s wort shall be blooming and seeding, you put a handful of this seed and of these flowers in a jug, and put it to boil over a fire, in a bain marie, for the course of an hour; then you cast therein three scorpions, a viper and a green frog, from which you separate the heads and the feet; and after they have been put to boil once more for a little while, you put thereto two ounces of each of the drugs which follow, powdered or chopped: gentian root, dittany flower, greater or lesser fortelle or motherwort, some tormentile, some rhubarb, some prepared bole armoniac, some good treacle, and a bit of powdered emerald. You expose this all to the sunlight, for three of the dog days of summer, after having stopped-up the jug securely; and, finally, you place it into digestion, for three months, in a warm dung-heap; and, after this time, you run this composition through a colander, and ideally keep it in a vessel of pewter or of strong glass, for your utilization. The way to use it is to rub it about the heart, temples, nostrils, sides, and the length of the spine, and you prove whether or not it is an antidote against every type of poison… It is also good for healing the bites of venomous creatures. – The Petit Albert

In 1692 the slave, Tituba, who was blamed for setting off the famous Salem Witch Trials, got herself documented as one of the first hoodoo practitioners in America; it is known she was a woman of color, though her exact origins remain mysterious as Africans and American Indians were not always clearly designated from one another by the 17th century Puritans. She might have been a slave taken from a Spanish colony in South America or the Caribbean. Sometimes, her husband John is indicated, instead, to have been the magician of the household; nevertheless, when the Parris children began to exhibit symptoms of bewitchment in Salem, one or the other of the couple was responsible for making a “witch cake” — a kind of magical bread intended to be used to find out an evil witch. This cake resulted in Tituba being blamed as the culprit of the supposed witchcraft, and a confession was extracted from her in short order.

In the 17th century, white settlers generally believed that the American Indians were devil worshippers, like European witches were alleged to be. Willem Kieft, the governor of New York (then called New Netherland) feared “that the Indian medicine-men were directing their incantations against himself.” (Burr: Narratives of Witchcraft Cases.) While each tribe’s individual practices would differ, in general the reports from the era indicate that spirits and incantations were primary elements of the Native American magical workings during this time — a practice that indeed, to whites, would have seemed most similar to European demonic practices and necromancy. The black slaves were also supposed by the whites to be in league with the devil, with their prayers, dances and talismans; the African-born had magic too, which they had brought with them from their homelands.

Whites were no strangers to slavery amongst themselves — they had long practiced indentured servitude (a sort of voluntary enslavement, usually negotiated for a limited term) as well as forcing labor and removing rights from prisoners and prisoners of war — but the numbers were still not enough for meeting the demands of business in the American Colonies. However, world travel and exploration had brought Europeans into better contact with Africans; and Africans had their own long history of capturing and enslaving members of rival tribes as prisoners of war. The Africans saw, in the new white visitors, a fresh market for their excess slaves; and so the enslaved blacks were sold to the Europeans and used to provide the labor needed for the new American plantations and farms. Unfortunately, the African's situation worsened once the European slave traders realized it was easier to simply snatch their own African slaves, than it was to buy them from tribesmen

In 1620 the colony of Carolina was founded and its first slaves introduced. Southern colonies rapidly put slavery to practice, using it to provide workers for planting and labor. Slavery was also found in the north, but on a smaller scale; northern slaves were typically more urbanized and more often used as servants, artisans, and sailors. Most of the slaves who came to North America were from western and central Africa. According to Carolyn Morrow Long, “Those who most influenced the African-based New World religions were the Fon of the ancient West African kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin and Togo; the neighboring Yoruba of what is now Nigeria and parts of Benin; and the BaKongo from what is now the Central African nations of Angola and and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” The slave trade had begun earlier in Spanish-ruled colonies in South America and the Caribbean, and some experienced slaves were resold to the English from this region. Their magical rites were practiced all around.

African Slave Spell, from Brazil, mid 17th century: An old negro [...] came thither to cure a negro slave of his illness, which he told us was occasioned by witchcraft. He made the patient rise from his chair, and taking a piece of wood from the fire-hearth, he ordered him to lick three times with his tongue, that end which was burning hot with the glowing coals. The same end of the wood he later extinguished in a bason [sic] of water, and rubb’d the coals in it, till it turned black as ink. This he ordered the sick negro to drink off at a draught, which he did accordingly, and was immediately seized with a slight griping in his guts. This done he rubbed both his sides, and taking hold with his hand of a piece of flesh and fat above the hip, he made an incision there, with a knife he pull’d out of his pocket, of two inches deep, out of which he drew a bundle of hair and rags; with a little of the black water that was left, he washed the wound, which soon after was healed, and the patient cured. – Mr. John Nieuhoff’s Voyages

The 18th century was considered the birth of “rationalism” and “the age of enlightenment”: European and American witch-hunts came to an end as magic came to be recognized no more as “real”; but even then, there was still much reliance even amongst the highly educated upon ideas like astrology and planetary influence, and early science still was more approximate to modern quackery and our understandings of magic. Blacks and Indians were still accused of Devil-worship, as were many white witchcraft practitioners such as the Pennsylvania Dutch “hex workers.” Mesmerism and hypnotism were developed in Europe during this time. The few spells that get documented as being used amongst the American black slave populations are of a clearly African origin involving gourds, beads and Koranic verses. What we now would know as “Voodoo Dances” were also being performed, though at this time Obeah, Obi or Obia were the terms more commonly used to refer to the practices of the slaves (neither the words voodoo nor hoodoo are documented in English till the 19th century). White settlers, meanwhile, were still using their own European-inspired magical customs, and the native Indians still had their own religious spell traditions long in play.

Anglo-American Magic Spell from Pennsylvania, 18th century: A curious bottle unearthed during recent excavations in Governor Printz State Park in Essington, Pennsylvania, provides a glimpse of early American witchcraft — unique evidence of a special “white witchcraft” hitherto known only from England. This squat piece of glasswork with a bright gold patina over its dark olive color had been buried upside down in a small hole. Two objects were deposited under the shoulder of the bottle: a piece of a long thin bone from some medium-sized bird, possibly a partridge, and a redware rim sherd from a small black-glazed bowl. The bottle contained six round-headed pins and had been stoppered tightly with a whittled wooden plug. [...] On study, it proved to be a type of “witch bottle” that is familiar from English contexts dating to the 17th century. Although the American example probably dates to the 18th century — the bottle was manufactured around 1740 and may have been buried about 1748 — the parallels are clear enough to establish its functions as an anti-witch charm. [...] The bottle itself, its contents, inverted position, and placement next to the house where it was found all point to the magical powers such bottles were thought to possess. In general, witch bottles seem to have served two functions: they could serve as prophylactic amulets during the building of a house, or they could serve as countermeasures against special acts of witchcraft. In the former case, bottles generally were buried beneath thresholds or hearthstones or within the confines of structures. – Archaeology

African-American Magic Spell from North Carolina, late 18th century: A negro man from the coast of Guinea had been sold to a farmer on the southern line of North-Carolina. In the fall of 1793, he applied to a black boy and girl, the property of an adjacent planter, to give him some victuals. In return he assured them that he would perform a charm to soften the severity of their master. He gave them a callibash [sic] full of the feathers and claws of birds, mixed with negro men’s nails. This was buried under the threshold of the planter’s door. He was, at that time sick, or fell ill soon after; and having ordered the boy to be punished for some offence, the latter said that, if he was pardoned, he would tell what had made his master ill. The concealment was immediately discovered, along with some of the same materials which had been stuck about the sick man’s bed. – The History of the United States for the Year 1796

During the 19th century, there came to develop a breakdown of clear-cut magical systems for each ethnicity, and the practices all began to blur together; not only was a certain amount of miscegenation going down throughout the US and areas that would become US, but there was also a lot more cultural interaction between races as languages were learned and shared social systems developed. Black practitioners would boast of an Indian ancestor having taught them the ways to use the locals herbs for magical and medicinal purpose, or could learn European spell recipes from works like The Petit Albert and The Black Pullet either direct from the source, if literate, or by second-hand accounts and hearsay if uneducated. Some grimoires were even reputed to bestow magical powers just by being opened, meaning it was not merely those who meant to read them who might “use” them for their magic powers. Blacks were also coming to practice Christianity and to follow the common white belief that magical practice was inherently Satanic. All while the blacks were adopting white practices, a white woman might learn from her black housekeeper some helpful kind of African-derived magical charm for curing sickness or resolving a household problem, or even just observe the servant’s performing these acts. One example of this is Mary Alicia Owen’s story of her black housekeeper throwing a fit after misplacing a “conjure ball,” which everyone in the household scrambled to locate; and this story is annotated by Charles Godfrey Leland saying an almost identical event had once happened in his brother’s household. Both Owen and Leland seemed pleased to eventually learn the contents and processes for working such charms, for both of them were known collectors of folklore. Nevertheless, the practice of magic was not exactly smiled upon by the mainstream world, and racist bias often targeted blacks and foreigners as objects of ridicule for allegedly being particularly susceptible to these superstitious beliefs. The practice of magic was seen as an indication of being “primitive” by the educated, and of being “devil-worship” by the unlearned. Even the folklorists Owen and Leland mentioned above, tended to present their work as being merely scholarly and, in their texts, endeavor to make clear indications that they did not actually practice such things. Still, despite this, book shops of the day easily sold and promoted occult books, and by the early 20th century the practice of “wholesale hoodoo” or the marketing of occult products to a mass audience was in full swing.

The buying of supposed love powders and other occult remedies from apothecaries and pharmacies had been in practice for centuries, but it was when the art of pharmacists fixing customized on-the-spot preparations came to fade from practice, that a market for pre-made conjure also became a necessity. Assorted “swindlers” were already noted to be marketing love powders by the mid-19th century, and the demand for such products seemed only to grow as the Gilded Age progressed.

African-American Magic Spell from Kentucky, first half of the 19th century: [An old slave] professed to understand all about conjuration [...] if I would only pay him a certain amount in cash, that he would tell me how to prevent any person from striking me. After I had paid him his charge, he told me to go to the cow-pen after night, and get some fresh cow manure, and mix it with red pepper and white people’s hair, all to be put into a pot over the fire, and scorched until it could be ground into snuff. I was then to sprinkle it about my master’s bedroom, in his hat and boots, and it would prevent him from ever abusing me in any way. [...] It was my business to make fires in my master’s chamber, night and morning. Whenever I could get a chance, I sprinkled a little of this dust about the linen of the bed, where they would breathe it on retiring. This was to act upon them as what is called a kind of love powder, to change their sentiments of anger, to those of love, towards me, but this all proved to be vain imagination. – Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb

American Magic Spell, mid-19th century: Real love powders [...] are simply preparations of Spanish flies (cantharides), and are designed to excite the base, animal passions. ‘Spanish flies’ is a dangerous drug, producing head-ache, delirium, inflammation, convulsions, and death. RECEIPT Spanish flies… 2 parts Phosphorus… 1” Musk… 1” Cloves… 1” Mix, and you have genuine modern love powders, which can be taken with about as much safety as spoonfuls of tobacco oil! – Humbug!

Native American Magic Spell from Wisconsin or Michigan, 19th century: The Menomini have a charm called takosáwos, ‘the powder that causes people to love one another.’ It is composed of vermillion and mica laminae, ground very fine and put into a thimble which is carried suspended from the neck or from some part of the wearing apparel. It is also necessary to secure from the one whose inclination is to be won a hair, a nail-pairing, or a small scrap of clothing, which must also be put into the thimble. – Primitive Love and Love-Stories

Hoodoo, as associated with African-Americans, was noted to be losing touch with its African origins even by the end of the 19th century. In the 1880s, when a reporter came to Louisiana to witness the famous Voodoo ceremonial dances, he found that only a few old timers actually knew how to perform them. James Buel, writing around the same time, lamented as a tragedy that more and more white people seemed to be adopting hoodoo superstitions.

Another advance of the 19th century was the New Thought Movement, “a spiritually-focused or philosophical [...] set of beliefs concerning metaphysics, positive thinking, the law of attraction, healing, life force, creative visualization, and personal power.” The movement had its origins in the early 19th century and in the 1890s was popularized by a sudden explosion of books being printed on the subject. Per Wikipedia: “Rooted in Socrates’ notion of universal science, early New Thought leaders shared a Romantic interest between metaphysics and American Christianity. In addition to New Thought, Christian Science, transcendental meditation, theosophy, and other movements were born from similar interests, all in the late 18th and early 19th century. Early New Thought leaders were influenced by Calvinistic belief in the absolute sovereignty of God; John Locke’s belief that anything that existed in the mind that could be expressed through words; and the transcendentalist belief that ideal spirituality ‘transcends’ the physical and is realized only through individual intuition, instead of through religion.” This philosophy was acceptable to many Americans, even those who might not traditionally believe in magic, as it was perceived religiously sound according to Christian principals and often felt to have more in common with the practices of science and psychology than with magic. The man often considered to the the founder of New Thought, Phineas P. Quimby, had derived his understanding after observing the workings of hypnotism. The New Thought movement’s beliefs have influenced hoodoo throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Since ancient times, an Old World practice called Necromancy had been used to communicate with spirits of the dead. In the mid-19th century, it evolved into Spiritism, and became a popular diversion and religious movement. Combined with the old Native American and African practices, it established mental “spirit contact” as a common practice of hoodoo ritual.

Beginning around 1900, a professional hypnotist by the name of L. W. De Laurence began a very successful company, De Laurence, Scott and Co., which marketed his own instructional and occult books (which were often, but not always, plagiarized from other authors) and sold supposed magical incenses and perfumes (which were apparently all toiletry products originally available from A. A. Vantine and Co., relabeled by De Laurence with mystical and occult sounding names.) De Laurence’s magic was all of European origin, but he promoted his materials worldwide and often particularly targeted black customer bases, bringing further European influences into the hoodoo and voodoo styles of magic. “Gypsy” and “Hindu” magic also grew popular during this time, and occultists would apply this label to their products and practices (whether or not there was any basis for the claim.) The use of candles for working magic spells also grew in popularity during this time — the oldest such spell of American origin that I’ve ever found dated, was from the region of New Orleans, recorded in The Century Magazine: “Some scheme, too ignoble to be prayed for at any shrine inside the church [is affected by] a little pound cake, some lighted candle ends, a little syrup of sugar-cane, pins, knitting needles, and a trifle of anisette.”

“By the 1930s,” writes Carolyn Morrow Long, “anything required by the hoodoo worker — roots and herbs, black cat bones and other animal parts, graveyard dirt, lodestones, baths, floor wash, oils, perfumes, sprays, incense, candles, and prefabricated mojo bags — could be easily obtained from spiritual and mail-order companies.” This mail-order magic became all the more necessary to the traditional black practitioners when the “Great Migration” of 1910 – 1930 found many of them moving northward and away from their local practitioners and botanical resources in the southern US. Brand-name conjure formulas started to replace the old animal, herbal and mineral ingredients.

American Magic Spell from Louisiana(?), first quarter of the 20th century: HOW TO INFLUENCE PEOPLE. My dear child, you come to me because you seek help. You have been devoid of the power to influence those you came in contact with. It is written, my child, that you shall follow these instructions to accomplish your desire. It is very important that your body be clean at all times as well as your raiment. Pour ten drops of the oil called “Special Oil No. 20″ in your bath water, after bathing apply to your body the “Controlling Powder” and rub in your hands and clothing the “Bend Over Drops”. Burn in your house a combination of “Mixture of John the Conqueror Incense” and “Helping Hand Incense” every day. Use the Master Oil as a perfume every day. Do these things with faith and ask God to help you. SO BE IT. – The Black and White Magic of Marie Laveau

Much of the modern perception of hoodoo — or voodoo (“as the whites pronounce it” says Hurston) — as being “a senseless orgiastic cult accompanied by sex excesses and human sacrifice” or an “evil religion” based solely on causing harm, is derived from the sensational accounts of Haitian practice provided by William Seabrook, a journalist, who in 1929 released the book The Magic Island in which he described occult rituals he claimed to have witnessed. “It remains open to debate whether he was describing Haitian realities or if he was projecting his own admittedly Gothic obsessions,” writes Philip Jenkins. Tales of witches both white and black dancing naked or practicing cannibalism had circulated already for centuries, but now additional stories about zombies, snake worship and pin-filled voodoo dolls became popular symbols of voodoo amongst non-practitioners for the rest of the 20th century. “Voodoo” and “Black Magic” became synonyms in the popular mind.

In 1949 Gerald Gardner wrote an account of a secret witchcraft society he had joined in England during the 1930s. This text had a strong influence in creating a new religion called Wicca, which was based on understanding of ancient and medieval pagan traditions. B. A. Robinson writes, “There is general agreement that Wicca first became a mass movement in recent times [...] It has expanded at a furious rate in North America and Europe.” Wicca is listed as the 5th most popular religion in the US. It is strongly associated with magical practice (though many Wiccans will insist that magic is not inherently part of the religion) and to the extent that “witchcraft” and “Wicca” are mistakenly considered synonyms by a lot of people. Wicca’s popularity has made it at least one of the most dominant magical traditions in North America, if not perhaps the most dominant. Much to the dismay of some traditionalists, Wicca has had sway over the practices of hoodoo folk magic: the notion that spells meant to influence others (especially love spells) are inherently harmful or that an evil spell will invariably “backfire” or “come back times three” seem to originate with it — formerly, love spells were considered to be doing “good” by hoodoo practitioners, and evil spells were only believed to harm their caster if a counter-curse or reversal spell were put on him by the victim.

When the United States took on Puerto Rico as a territory in the 1917, an influx of immigrants from the region came to New York. Many settled in Harlem, where they created occult supply shops called “Botanical Gardens” to sell necessary tools for their folk magic, which in turn influenced the African American equivalent, the “Candle Shop.” In the 1970s, an increase in Latino immigrants to the United States added further mergings of magical cultures. Formulas of hispanic origin like Seven African Powers and Road Opener started to become common hoodoo paraphernalia. The glass encased candle, favored by American and Latin-American Catholics, became a hoodoo standby as it was adapted for use by the lay and professional conjurers alike. Other hispanic practices like egg-cleansings came into practice (traditional hoodoo had previously been more likely to use a whole black-feathered chicken for this purpose).

African-American Magic Spell from Pennsylvania, 1960s: Bishop Everett explained to me a typical candle burning and scripture reading ritual for someone who believes he is in ‘a crossed condition.’ Six candles are needed: two black altar candles, one His astral candle, one astral candle of rival, one midnight blue inflammatory confusion candle, and one light blue fiery wall of protection candle. The two black altar candles are dressed with uncrossing oil, the His astral candle is dressed with zodiac oil, the astral candle of the rival is dressed with zodiac oil, the midnight blue inflammatory confusion candle is dressed with inflammatory confusion oil, and the light blue fiery wall of protection candle is dressed with fiery wall of protection oil. Dressing the candle involves rubbing the oil on it from the center toward the top and from the center toward the bottom. This is an important procedure, the Bishop said. The dressed candles are then placed in the following position. [Here an illustration was given of two rows of candles, the back row being the two black candles placed at the extreme left and right, and the front row being the His candle at far left, a gap of empty space, and then grouped together going left to right: the light blue candle, midnight blue candle and astral candle of rival. ] Next, a clipped piece of sock, glove, shirt, hair or any similar item from the person who is believed to have caused the crossed condition is to be placed next to the light blue fiery wall of protection candle. If the victim believes the enemy has taken a piece of hair from the victim, it is necessary for the victim to obtain a similar item from the enemy to use in this ritual. When all of this material is in readiness, the astral candle is the first to be lit. Second the light blue fiery wall of protection candle is lit; third the midnight blue inflammatory confusion candle is lit; fourth the astral candle of rival, and finally the black altar candles are lit. When all of the candles are burning, the Bible is opened and the 53rd Psalm read. Then the black altar candles are extinguished, but the other candles are allowed to burn out. On the second day, do the same thing but read Psalm 25, and on the third day the same ritual is repeated but Psalm 23 is read. – Keystone Folklore Quarterly

Latino-American Magic Spell, from Texas, 1970s: To treat patients [to give spiritual healing] Mr. Castro performs a barrida with an egg or prescribes taking three parsley baths three days in a row to take away superstitions and drinking soda waters each day. ‘Drink half and throw half away.’ – Texas Monthly

In the second half of the 20th century, the New Age movement began with a belief in the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. According to Wikipedia, “Its central precepts have been described as ‘drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational psychology, holistic health, parapsychology, consciousness research and quantum physics’. [...] It holds to ‘a holistic worldview’, emphasising that the Mind, Body and Spirit are interrelated and that there is a form of monism and unity throughout the universe. It attempts to create ‘a worldview that includes both science and spirituality’ and embraces a number of forms of mainstream science as well as other forms of science that are considered fringe.” New Age is perhaps as muddled as hoodoo itself: “Some of the New Age movement’s constituent elements appeared initially in the 19th-century metaphysical movements: Spiritualism, Theosophy, and New Thought and also the alternative medicine movements of chiropractics and naturopathy. These movements have roots in Transcendentalism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, and various earlier Western esoteric or occult traditions, such as the hermetic arts of astrology, magic, alchemy, and Kabbalah.” Nevertheless, it seems to have had more influence over hoodoo than hoodoo had over it, and its modern ideas of gem stones, spiritual energy, karma and chakras have permeated the old folk tradition.

African-American Hoodoo Style Magic Spell, 2000s: Unhex Mojo: Red or purple flannel 1 John the Conqueror root 1 piece of agate, charged [i.e. infused with spiritual energy.] Pinch of dried St. John’s wort

Feeding powder: 2 tablespoons powdered hyssop 2 tablespoons powdered rosemary 1 teaspoon powdered angelica root 3 drops attar of roses or quality rose fragrance oil 3 drops frankincense essential oil

Place the John the Conqueror root, agate and St. John’s wort into the flannel. To make the feeding powder, mix together the hyssop, rosemary and angelica in a small metal or glass bowl. Add the attar of roses and frankincense one drop at a time, stirring after each drop. Sprinkle on one teaspoon of the powder and repeat on the day of the sun (Sundays) as needed. – Sticks, Stones, Roots and Bones

Writing his conclusion based on research conducted in the late 1960s, folklorist David J. Winslow declared: “An extremely personal form of fundamentalist theology and a smattering of astrological practices have been fused to a voodoo-like faith, resulting in a system of religious beliefs revealing a symbiosis of several systems. Also, a chain of oral tradition appears as an important aspect of the spiritual advice offered to clients. Most of the beliefs and practices encountered [...] are traditional, indeed, very ancient in some cases, although they have been remodeled to suit urban problems, and they have become tainted with commercialism, even exploitation.” Just as Jim Williams’s rootworker combined centuries of tradition into her practice, modern hoodoos are living the realities of magic as it has evolved through years of changes and trials. Hoodoo is still going strong, with botanica shops selling supplies to the general population, and for those special cases, professional workers can still be called to handle your case for you.

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Copyright 2013, Talia Felix
Revised edition copyright 2017, Talia Felix