Hoodoo: Open Source Religion
Thanks to American popular music, many people have heard the terms “hoodoo,” “juju” and “mojo," but few understand what they really mean. For modern, white, middle class R&B and blues fans, they conjure up exotic images of the Deep South, some shadowy world of African-American spirituality that they don't really "get." Movie fans don't know what “mojo” is, but thanks to Austin Powers, they know they want it. Throughout the history of American popular media, stereotypes abound, ranging from the comical witchdoctor act of Screamin' Jay Hawkins to “Tia Dalma”, the black-toothed, dreadlocked swamp priestess in “Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. But what is hoodoo, really?
In a world of hierarchical and regimented spiritual dogma, hoodoo is a feral cat. It lives wild on the outskirts of American religious culture, thriving and propagating out of sight, right in the back yard of organized religion. Organized religion might catch a glimpse of it from the corner of its eye. Organized religion might fear hoodoo. Hoodoo might even live in the same house, as organized religion - it might let organized religion stroke its tail, but it will never wear its collar. Hoodoo is free.
Hoodoo is not Voodoo. Voodoo is an organized religion. Voodoo and its variants practiced in Haiti and in Louisiana, are descended from the West African Vodun religion. Hoodoo, on the other hand, is an amalgam of African and European folk magic traditions, not a religion, per se. Hoodoo can be a noun or a verb. You can "do" hoodoo or "make" hoodoo.
The iconoclastic writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston wrote extensively on hoodoo. Even with her deep understanding of hoodoo, Hurston herself mischaracterized hoodoo as being synonymous with Voodoo in her 1935 classic Mules and Men:
“Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has its thousands of secret adherents. It It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself, such as fire-worship as signified in the Christian church by the altar and the candles and the belief in the power of water to sanctify as in baptism.
Belief in magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started.
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. And now God is leaning back taking a seventh day rest. When the eighth day comes around. He'll start to making new again.”
As Hurston states, nobody does know the true origin of hoodoo. There is even debate about the etymology. Some say it is derived from the word “hu'du'ba” (magical retribution), which was brought to America by African slaves of the Hausa tribe. Others claim that it is Irish origin- from the Gaelic Uath Dubh (pronounced h-úŏ doo)- meaning a malevolent being or unlucky person. Perhaps it is a primordial sound, like Om, a verbalization of something common to human experience, transcending etymological pigeonholeing.
Some historical facts are known about hoodoo. The combination of African and European folk magic was born on the plantations of the Antebellum South and later grew and spread among sharecroppers and the rural poor. Later, as the U.S. became industrialized, hoodoo took on a more urban flavor and became more commercialized. According to Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by Catherine Yronwode (pronounced "Ironwood"), many of the Old Testament and Hebrew mystical elements were mingled into hoodoo by the Jewish-owned chemists whose mail order beauty and healthcare businesses served the black community. "Cat" Yronwode, who also owns and operates "Lucky Mojo Curio Company" writes: "... the agents who sold these items for manufacturer-distributors like Valmor-King, Lucky Heart, Hi-Hat and so forth were usually part-time beauticians and hoodoo root workers. They would come to your house to fix your hair (selling you the cosmetics and hair preparations they had bought wholesale) and they would also do psychic consultations and perform rootwork and conjuration, using the curios available from the same sources. They kept a stock of goods on hand, but they also carried their company's retail cosmetics catalogues and curio catalogues with them, and you could order both types of products through them and have the items drop-shipped directly to your home. " This also explains some of the traditional importance of the beauty parlor and barber shops in black and immigrant communities.
For some, hoodoo might be seen as a spiritual pyramid scheme, but in some ways, hoodoo is analogous to open source software- it is a spiritual program that shares common source code but is not proprietary. It can be adapted to run on any religious operating system, and it can add functionality not normally allowed by religious programmers. One church, priest or practitioner does not own it. Hoodoo can co-exist along side Voodoo, Catholicism, Protestant beliefs or other folk traditions. It is a religious “hack”- a tool to modify the source code of religion and make it work for the spiritual hacker. Hoodoo practitioners save prayers to God for big-picture matters of salvation. Day-to-day matters of love, luck and finances are all matters for direct spiritual action through spell casting, spiritual cleansing and “rootwork”.
A December 28th, 2010, article in the Wall Street Journal brought attention to the recent rebirth in interest in hoodoo, which they attribute partially to tough economic times and partially to the rise of Internet retailing. The article points out that...“Today's hoodoo revival is again being driven primarily by white retailers, and that has some blacks criticizing the commercialization of ancient rituals for a quick profit. “ Historically though, internet marketing is just an extension of the mail-order curio business that supplied practitioners on the early 20th century.
Hoodoo is an interesting combination of ancient traditions and modern technology. The revival has some echoes of the “New Age” craze of the 80's and 90's, but the multi-cultural roots and blue-collar heritage give it decidedly more dynamic character and sense of humor than the crystals and chimes bourgeois-Zen set. It's rituals reflect it's heritage- sweeping and scrubbing floors, growing and harvesting wild plants, preparing charms, known as “mojo hands” or “gris-gris”.
One of the most important elements of hoodoo, like any magical system, is that of personal empowerment through ritual. These rituals, although rooted in tradition, are an art and the practitioners are artists who attempt to take direct action on their spiritual lives. Critics and skeptics may laugh at the idea of burning candles or carrying a "High-John" root to attract money or using magnetic toy Scotty-dogs in a love spell. However, humans live in a semantic and symbolic space, and the reality tunnel of the individual is defined by their belief. One individual may feel better about their life when they buy "Fair Trade" coffee, another may feel safer with a gun in their house. Humans are fetishistic by nature, whether the "Toby" is a crucifix or an iphone.
As technology pushes humans into a more and more Korzybskian realm where the map becomes reality than the territory becomes something conceptual, hoodoo seems more real than ever. In a wooded area outside of Forestville, CA., Cat Yronwode and her crew at Lucky Mojo keep the tradition alive. In strip-malls and bodegas, beauty parlors and back yards, rootworkers and conjurors are hacking reality with all of the human senses.
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