Olde Tales and Practices of the South: Hoodoo and Rootwork
Olde Worlde Magic in the Deep South
We often hear tales of vengeful women sticking dolls with pins in order to hurt an enemy or exact revenge on a cheating man. When we hear the words New Orleans, visions of bonfires, rum and cigars, tombstones, skeleton keys, and dark storefronts fill our minds with miniature Hollywood movies. Often we will hear that New Orleans, Louisiana was the birthplace of Voodoo in the United States. But what we don't hear is that Voodoo is actually a religion, while the magical practice often confused for Voodoo is correctly termed Hoodoo or Southern root work.
When the African Americans were brought here as slaves by the rich white man, they brought with them a whole variety of religious and magical practices from the Old World...from their homes in Africa. In this article, we will explore those magical practices that were brought from Africa and used in the Deep South for centuries to gain success, love, and even to smite one's enemies. Come with me on a trip to a place where the moss hangs from the old oak trees, where graveyards are scary but sacred, and where roots of trees and bones of animals are used in what modern day society calls "spells".
Aunt Caroline Dye and Marie Laveau
Perhaps you have heard of the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau before today, but have you heard the name Aunt Caroline Dye? Aunt Caroline Dye was a very famous name in Hoodoo and rootwork in the Deep South in the early 1900s. She was known to have lived in Arkansas but was said to have been born to slavery in Spartanburg, South Carolina in the late 1800s. Caroline Dye was a very powerful woman, as she was keen to the ways of her African ancestors. She employed the use of her third eye and various divination practices. To sum her up in a sentence, she was one of the most famous hoodoo practitioners of her time...and probably of all time. Businessmen would come to Aunt Caroline Dye and ask her advice before signing contracts and making risky investments.
We do not know the exact hoodoo practices that Caroline Dye used, but we can guess that she might have utilized all of the natural tools around her at that time. Roots, bones, sticks, stones, plants, dirt, and so much more. Some say Aunt Caroline used only a simple deck of cards to do her readings for business folk and political officials. She would never advise in the matters of love or war, but she would give readings related to financial and prosperity issues. Back in the early 1900s, her name grew to such a size that some said she was even more famous than President Woodrow Wilson.
You may have heard of the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Did you know that not only was she a voodoo-isant but also a hoodoo practitioner? There is a legend of Marie Laveau praying with three ghost peppers under her tongue for a matter of 3 days in order to plead with the saints to resolve a legal issue for a local politician/businessman. This is a Hoodoo practice, not necessarily a strict Voodoo practice. The use of plants' power to gain a particular desire or need is essential in root work and hoodoo, and this is exactly what Marie Laveau was doing with the ghost peppers.
Marie Laveau lived and worked in New Orleans in the nineteenth century and made a name for herself with the locals. She was thought to have been a very powerful woman and magician, and helped those in need of answers related to love, power, money, and more. She was a hairdresser to the high class folks, and so she made connections fairly easily that she was able to use later to her benefit. She was intelligent and had a deep connection with the Supreme Being and with the saints and spirits of New Orleans. She is also known for holding large Voodoo meetings in Congo Square that on many occasions were attempted to be shut down by local police officials. You can read more about Marie Laveau's life by clicking here.
Powerful Powders and Waters
So we know there were individuals from Africa or who had ancestors from Africa living in the Deep South that employed various magical methods to exact their will upon others and nature to get what they wanted. What kinds of things did they do? What kind of magic were they making?
One form of magic is known as foot track magic. Foot track magic was exactly as it sounds...magic in the form of using one's footprints or tracks for a specific purpose. Let's say you had an enemy. A neighbor that was coming onto your property and stealing your belongings or food supply. Foot track magic could be used to send that neighbor away...for good. There are different kinds of foot track magic that you could use to send this neighbor away, one of them being a powder called Hot Foot Powder. Hot Foot Powder was made up of black pepper, cayenne pepper, salt, and sulfur. Sometimes other ingredients were added to give it an extra punch, i.e. graveyard dirt, gunpowder, or other ground up herbs. This Hot Foot Powder was mixed up and either sprinkled in the person's footprints or put directly into their socks or shoes to send them a-runnin' and quick like. You won't see that person come around your property...ever again. Another similar powder used to send someone away was known as Goofer dust. But goofer dust was much more dangerous, and could cause extreme physical harm to the victim. This type of powder contained graveyard dirt and snakeskin.
In addition to using powders, hoodoo practitioners and root workers would also use different kinds of "waters". Simply put these waters were either concoctions or perfumes used for various purposes. One of the most popular types of waters is known as Florida Water, and no it is not water taken from a river or the ocean in Florida. Here is a list of some of the Hoodoo waters used then and still used today:
- Florida Water - a blend of floral essential oils in an alcohol-water base as sort of a perfume/cologne used in Hoodoo to bless/cleanse a home or worn to draw in a particular need or desire
- War Water - iron rust suspended in water used in foot track magic to poison the victim or throw them into quarrels with their family, etc. Sometimes spanish moss and other herbs were mixed in to pack an extra punch.
- Kananga Water - a blend of ylang ylang essential oil in an alcohol-water base used in ritual and cosmetic purposes to draw love and prosperity to the user. This type of water was also used in offering bowls to the spirits, etc.
These waters were used in various ways, for both good and bad purposes. Another water or cologne used by hoodoo practitioners was referred to as Hoyt's cologne and was specifically employed in the use to draw gambling luck to the wearer.
Along with waters used in Hoodoo, there were also various oils, floor washes, cleansers, and herbal baths.
How to Make Modern Hot Foot Powder:
Nation Sacks and Mojo Bags
We have all heard of the infamous and dreaded voodoo doll, but many of us have not heard of a nation sack or even a mojo bag.
A nation sack was created and used mostly by women hoodoo practitioners in matters of the home, love, and success. Oftentimes the woman who created the nation sack would never tell another what the purpose behind it was, as it would give away the nation sack's power. So what was a nation sack?
A nation sack was simply a bag that contained various contents including herbs, roots, stones, sticks, bones, oils, and more. Anything the practitioner felt would aid to her workings would be included in the nation sack. And each nation sack had a purpose...be it to keep a home protected, to bring prosperity and fruitfulness to the home, to keep a lover faithful, etc.
A Mojo bag was similar to a nation sack but usually smaller in size and were made of red flannel material or some other kind of fabric the practitioner could easily get his or her hands on. Mojo bags were also known as root bags or gris gris bags, depending on the person and region in the south. Put in layman's terms, mojo bags were charm bags filled with whatever objects the practitioner had and felt necessary to draw a specific intention into reality. Mojo bags were mentioned in old blues songs, but today "mojo" has taken on a meaning of a man's ability to physically love a woman...which is incorrect.
A main part of the process of working "mojo" on someone or something by using a mojo bag is to "feed" the spirits inside of the bag. Hoodoo practitioners were animists, which means they believed that everything (including plants) had a consciousness or a soul. So they would feed the plants and items inside of the mojo bags with oils and other things on a daily or weekly basis. This would keep the magic inside of the mojo bag alive. If they would neglect this magic, the energy would never manifest...so the mojo bag or nation sack would be short-lived and unsuccessful.
The Good Lord Made Dirt, and Dirt Can Hurt?
Dirt is a part of the Earth, it makes up the Earth. And therefore it was also used by root workers and hoodoo practitioners (conjure-folk) to make magic. Different forms of soil had different powers. Also, where the soil was gathered mattered the most as to what the intent was.
For instance, graveyard dirt was gathered in order to be used in foot track magic to send an enemy away, and it was also used along with other ingredients in a sort of witch's bottle in order to cause harm or illness to an enemy. The gathering of the graveyard dirt was more likely done at night, when most folks would be sleeping and when the practitioner could gather the dirt unnoticed. For if someone was caught gathering graveyard dirt, the townsfolk would know and therefore your enemy might have been placed on alert and had some mojo to throw back at you. If you were to gather the dirt from over the top of an actual grave, you would have to be careful over which body part you were gathering the dirt. For example, if you were to gather the dirt over the corpse's head, you were asking for a certain outcome from that graveyard dirt. This type of dirt could also be used in ancestral protection (if gathered from an ancestor's grave) and also in love spells when mixed with other roots and such.
Other forms of dirt used in Hoodoo were crossroads dirt, churchyard dirt, and dirt from an enemy or lover's yard. Each had their own powers and meanings and was employed how the conjureman or woman saw fit.
Roots and Bones, Sticks and Stones
Now that we've explored the world of Hoodoo practices in using herbs, oils, washes, dirt, mojo bags and more, you might be surprised to know that we've only scraped the surface of all of the items used in Hoodoo practices!
Here is a brief list of other ingredients employed in Hoodoo that root workers also used back in the day (and some still use to this day!)
- roots - i.e. john the conquerer root, queen elizabeth, black snake root, mandrake root, and more.
- bones and animal parts - 'coon dongs, alligator claws, rabbit's feet, snakeskins, crab shell powder, chicken/hen eggs, cat and dog hair, badger teeth, etc.
- sticks, leaves, seed pods, flowers, nuts
- stones and minerals - pyrite, sulphur, rusty nails, coffin nails, salt of various kinds, railroad nails, lodestone, blue balls
- human parts - teeth, hair, sweat, body fluids, nail clippings, etc.
- household items - bottles, jars, jugs, vinegar, honey, sugar, ice, brooms, hats, pennies/coins, pipes, buttons, and more.
By now you can pretty much ascertain that Hoodoo practitioners in the Deep South and rootworkers used whatever they could get their hands on. Being animists, everything around them had a life force...power that could be invoked and used to their aid. They only had to learn how to rein in these powers.
A few places where Hoodoo was prevalent in the South:
Read more on Hoodoo and Rootwork:
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© 2013 Nicole Canfield