High John the Conqueror : African-American “folk saint”?

4 06 2009

juancon

From Bay Area botanica to Muddy Waters

The following is a translation of a prayer I found in a religious store in San Francisco:

In the name of God Almighty. Soul of John the Conqueror, who some call the Great John since you were a great lover and guardian of money, for this reason and because of the hours they are giving you, I ask that you put me in the heart of so-and-so and favored by my Guardian Angel, it be granted to me what I sincerely and of good faith ask you: that my fate and luck change and may the pains and torments of my life cease just as your punishment for your foolish actions and ambitions ceased in purgatory. To the Guardian Angel of so-and-so: do not give him/her tranquility until s/he is by my side.

At first glance, this is another prayer in the midst of many to “questionable” figures who may or may not have existed, such as Jesus Malverde, Maria Francia, or Juan Minero venerated in many places in Latin America. What is more interesting is that this man definitely falls into the category of an “anima sola“: a deceased person whose life was by no means virtuous but is miraculous nonetheless because of his suffering in Purgatory. It is one of the most interesting finds that I have encountered in my botanica hunts.

However, I have begun studying as well the religious traditions of African-Americans, and I have found a John the Conqueror there as well. Indeed, in “rootwork” or Hoodoo, John the Conqueror is a trickster figure who has great power. As it is explained on one website:

Who was John the Conqueror and what is the root named after him? Ethnographers, especially those influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, say that he was a black slave whose life — perhaps a real life that was embellished in the telling, perhaps a fictional life entirely imagined — was an inspiration to slaves who wanted to rebel against their masters but could not do so openly. John, said to be the son of an African king, was in captivity, but he never became subservient, and his cleverness at tricking his master supplied many a story with a pointed moral. If he was a real being, he soon acquired some of the characteristics of mythical trickster figures like the Native American Coyote, the African-American Bre’r Rabbit, and the West African deity known variously as Elegua, Legba, and Eshu. He gave — only to take away. He bet — and never lost. He played dumb — but he was never outsmarted. The reputation of High John is so great that, as recorded by the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt in the 1930s, just reciting the words “John over John” and “John the Conqueror” is a powerful spell of magical protection against being hoodooed.

Like the Catholic binding prayer above, one of the uses of “John the Conqueror root” is for love spells. The blues musician Muddy Waters even wrote a song about it, an excerpt of which you can hear by clicking on this link.

How this tradition got to Mexico and ended up on a “prayer card” sold in a botanica is an interesting question, perhaps one we will never be able to answer. But if it is indeed an African tradition, it is interesting to see how it was incorporated into the Catholic ethos in Mexico and how it evolved in the Hoodoo tradition.