Erik Davis on American hoodoo

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In Erik Davis's latest Pop Arcana column, he looks into American hoodoo and the The Lucky Mojo Curio Co. Occult Shop Catalogue, your one-stop-shop for sachet powders, bottle spells, Cast Off Evil Oil, Money Stay With Me Bath Crystals, and the like. From Erik's essay:
 Castoffevilbc Digging into these pages, one discovers that Lucky Mojo is not New Age nor Neopagan after all, nor does it represent the current of Caribbean religious syncretism that gives us the urban botanicas that in some ways the site recalls. No, Lucky Mojo’s magical current is closer to home than any of these, and yet almost invisible.

That current is hoodoo, although according to Catherine Yronwode, the brilliant and indefatigable woman behind Lucky Mojo, the tradition has many regional names – rootwork, conjure, witchcraft – and for many people remains nameless, as in “that stuff my great aunt did.” Though essentially African-American, hoodoo should not be confused with voodoo or other Caribbean transformations of African spirit possession cults. (If anything, it most resembles Jamaican traditions of obeah, or “science.”) Though hoodoo encompasses a variety of oracular and healing practices, its core moves rely on botanical materials and ordinary household products like soaps and toilet waters, and largely aims for this-worldly results: lottery numbers, love, protection from (or vengeance against) the boss. This pragmatism is also echoed in the tradition’s intensely polyglot syncretism, which fuses African magical styles with streams of, among other things, Cherokee earth ways, Santeria, German folklore, Jewish sorcery, and the popular magic of Scots-Irish immigrants.

In his necessary history Occult America, Mitch Horowitz declares hoodoo “America’s first boundary-free faith.”

"Hoodoo You Know"


    1. Nadreck: It would appear so, yes. Strange where life’s paths take people, though not so much so in light of the territory her works encompassed previously.

  1. Major congrats to cat yronwode (she usually does not capitalize her name) for this essay! Lucky Mojo is highly respected, for good reason. I’m glad to see more folks will find out about them both from this post, and from Erik’s essay.

  2. Baffled that the essay — at least the quoted parts — repeatedly insists that hoodoo should not be confused with Caribbean religious syncretism and “should not be confused with or other transformations of African-American spirit possession cults,” and even more puzzled to read next that it *does* “resemble Jamaican ‘obeah.'” And still later we’re told that hoodoo is a “polyglot syncretism” that “fuses African magical styles with, among other things . . . Santeria.”

    Huh? Jamaica is not in part of the Caribbean world? The Caribbean world is not part of a western hemisphere cultural formation that can be boiled down to a great collision, mixing, and fusing — in many varied but related ways — indigenous with African and European — especially Spanish, Anglo, and French, but also Portuguese and Dutch — traditions and practices, with the Caribbean the very central vortex of this syncretism?

    It seems impossible to understand New Orleans as anything other than a Caribbean city — this explains how it in many ways is distinct from the more generally Anglo-settled American South while it also had its powerful infiltrates into Southern and eventually pan-US culture and folkways, as the listing of “Cherokee earth ways, Santeria, German folklore, Jewish sorcery, and the popular magic of Scots-Irish immigrants” and, under its “many regional names — rootwork, conjure, [and] witchcraft” perfectly illustrates.

    1. I think the point it’s trying to make is that hoodoo isn’t primarily a cult of possession, which is the hallmark feature of many of the most popular Caribbean and South American Afro-Catholic syncretisms – Haitian voodoo, candomble, umbanda, santeria, etc. – because most of them derive from the same group of West African tribal religions. Hoodoo, on the other hand, like obeah, lacks the cultic institutions, pantheons of ancestral spirit archetypes, and consistent cultural roots that are common among these more well-known religions.

      It’s all well and good to say that the Caribbean is and was a vortex of cultural influences that produced a lot of unique phenomena, but that shouldn’t stop us from tracing particular forms of practice and lines of descent within it.

  3. Good and thoughtful answer, #8. The original post was confusingly written, and seemed to be drawing distinctions and definitions by exclusion, and then contradicting its own terms. But you describe the necessary and fascinating project of cultural genealogy this and related practices and traditions call out for very well.

    And the woman described and her work are fascinating — which my original post left un-noted.

  4. An author shouldnt get snipey, and I appreciate Niche’s passion for this important subject, but I dont agree that the post was confusingly written. I said that hoodoo should not be confused “with voodoo or other Caribbean transformations of African spirit possession cults.” I was specifically thinking about Santeria. The term was not “Caribbean spiritual practices” in general, but “Caribbean possession cults”, which is what I said (as Heretic points out).

    Caribbean religion is a confusing vortex, and surely impossible to clearly delimit in a single paragraph. “Obeah” for example means something different in Jamaica than Trinidad–it is folk magic in the former, but in the latter it is associated with more voodoo-like possession rituals. But everything overlaps as well.

    Of course as a syncretism hoodoo takes bits from everywhere, including Santeria. But it appropriates more “minor” aspects of Santeria, such as the objects associated with saints, etc. And of course much more could be said about New Orleans, but not in a short article like this!

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