Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Down at the Crossroads

Welcome friend to the crossroads. Here in the lands between the living and the dead this is a remarkable place, and one I visit often. It is a barren and lonely place with two dusty trails intersecting, each oblivious to the other and each carries on unmarked and anonymous. Comings and goings are one in the same, and one path could just as easily be any of the others, yet each leads somewhere uniquely different.
Here in the world between worlds the crossroads is a physical place in time and all times just as it is an intangible metaphor. Yet once in a while there is someone from the land of the alive who perceives the power of this place and leaves behind a mark, a token, or a bottle. Some even come and entertain for a while awaiting a visitor before they return on the road from which they came. Whether or not this will affect their journey is not for me to say.

"If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself...A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want." Tommy Johnson

Hoodoo, root magic, and conjur are just some of the more common terms used to describe this tradition of American practical folk magic. That’s all fine for a dry flavourless dictionary definition, but it really doesn’t get to the root (pun intended) of what Hoodoo actually is. Functionally Hoodoo is a dynamic collection of rituals and beliefs that had their origins in Central African folklore and tradition. Naturally as slavery imported the African people to America it imported their beliefs as well. And in this new land these beliefs and traditions grew and adopted various other similar beliefs. Most notable is the inclusion of Native American botanical knowledge, as well as similar European pagan beliefs and rituals and medieval alchemy. Even more mainstream religious practices such as recital of Christian Psalms, Jewish Kabbalism, and even Hindu spiritualism have been adapted and incorporated to some extent.

One of the most unique and important traits of Hoodoo is that although it incorporates many old beliefs, it is completely free of any prescribed ideology. It is quite simply a method of employing natural elements and spirits to better oneself. This is a direct contrast to witchcraft and magik, which are connected to Wiccan theology (although many Wiccans readily dismiss spell casting and just prescribe to the ideology). This is also a major departure from Voodoo (Vodou or Vodoun proper). Although the terms Hoodoo and Voodoo have been used interchangeably for many years and in many published writings, this is a common error, usually attributed to the ignorance of the European-American community on the matter, and the apathy of the Hoodoo practitioners in failing to correct them. The similarities in application of spells and root-work (use of herbs and roots in concocting tinctures, powders and talismans etc.) and their exotic African heritages also serve as a source of confusion. Vodou is a Hatian religion with West African origins that worships one God and serves many spirits. Throughout the 20’s and 30’s most people who practiced hoodoo on the other hand typically adhered to predominantly Christian ideologies.

Hoodoo reached its peak during the 1920’s and 30’s and although it was mostly practiced within the African-American community there were well know white Hoodoo doctors. Certainly there were even more members of white society that sought out the aid of a Hoodoo Woman or Black Gypsy even though they might risk severe repercussions amongst their piers and their communities. This of course was likely the result of the pressures one encountered during the depression years, as widespread Hoodoo practice dropped relatively swiftly after world war two.

The primary ingredients of Hoodoo magic were natural elements, plants and or zoological curios. Unlike European folk magic incantations alone would produce nothing, nor was there a need for daggers, wands or other such magical paraphernalia. Like any form of folk magic the uses were almost limitless, and completely subject to the individuals situation and desires. But I’ll make mention of a few of the more common themes often found in classic blues music.

Crossroads magic: Typically this was how and where one could develop a specific skill, such as Tommy Johnson claimed to have done in order to become an accomplished musician. Practicing one’s craft at a crossroads at a prescribed time(s) was said to result in the appearance of magical animals usually black in colour. Then eventually a man again black in colour (not of ethnic nature) would appear and grant you the ability you desired. The idea of this individual being the devil and the cost of the skill being one’s soul is a fanciful exaggeration of the Hoodoo belief not found in Hoodoo tradition. The location itself is also important in other regards and would be used in connection to other tricks or spells to achieve a desired result or for the disposal of magical materials.

Foot-Track magic: Typically a nefarious form of trick to curse an individual, or even cause physical illness. Various curses could be performed by either having the victim come in direct contact with a powder or through the use of placing dirt from their footprint in the powder itself.

Mojo Hands: We’ve all heard the word mojo and this would be the source, although for the most part the actual meaning of the term is lost and substituted for a variety of other meanings usually related to sexual virility. In reality it is a lucky talisman, usually a bag containing magical items. John the Conquor Root, a rabbit’s foot, lodestone, money, bone, various oils or powders would be typical elements. A Mojo bag would be made for a specific person and a specific purpose, and would not work for another than it was intended.

Goofer Dust: A particularly nasty powder used to trouble, injure or even kill an enemy. Comprised of graveyard dirt, sulfur, magnetic sand or iron, salt and powdered snakeskin, Like Foot-track magic it could be used directly on an individual or with a personal element and buried or hidden away. You know you’ve crossed someone pretty bad if they goofered you. A silver dime in ones shoe however was said to be one form of protection from magical poisonings as such.

A fantastic and comprehensive internet resource for Hoodoo can be found at for anyone interested in a greater knowledge of this topic.

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