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

4 06 2009


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.



13 responses

6 09 2015

is it good for help if I am losing my home

6 06 2015

Thank you Mighty High John the Conqueror for helping me pass my test and write an excellent essay. Your strength and endurance gave me the boost that I needed. Thank you again for granting my petition!!!

15 12 2013
Lucky 13 Curio

Just so you know, yes John the Conqueror is very prominent in Creole Hoodoo. I know this because I am a Hoodoo practitioner and shop owner smack in the middle of the bayou country of South Louisiana. John the Conqueror products are one of the best sellers in the shop. It is used for everything from court cases to blessing shrimp boats for a good haul. Most commonly here it is used to slip through the legal cracks during trials, court cases, and parole hearings.

9 10 2013

High John The Conqueror I want to thank you in advance for evething you’ve done…past, present and future…;0)

16 12 2012

(I found it curious, the use of the above picture for an African prince, and with a French version of the name, wondering how the African tradition of hoodoo became intertwined w/santeria.) It was easier for Africans to attach the attributes of our ancestors to catholic saints than to perish for not worshiping the gods of our oppressors, this was also done by South Americans at the hands of the Spanish. Africans and Mexicans, Spanish, South Americans, et al., shared cultural ties prior to and after slavery…from diets and pyramid building to ancestor worship. Lastly, people tend to do what they see others doing if it looks like it works. But the bottom line is that we are all one. The whole world seem to have a reverence to the ancestors. The fact that the South American and Mexican practice is similar to Ancient African rites is no surprising feat considering we have shared a common land and a common oppressor.

22 06 2012

Thank you Honorable Black Prince High John the Conqueror for always being present in me and my childs liives. Bless your Holy Name. Feast day June 23rd

30 09 2011

Thank you High John for your ever present help

10 09 2011

En menos de diez minutos despues de
publicar esta simpatia te llamarà esa
persona. Señor que en este
momento ..JOM… estè pensando en
mi..MLR.. queriendo a toda costa estar a mi
lado queriendo verme, abrazarme. que su
boca tengas muchas ganas inmensas de
besarme, q no se pueda contener en venir
a mi casa. y en su mente solo me tenga a
mi..MLR.. Que ..JOM.. me busque
desesperadamente ahora mismo. que me

llame, que me persiga y acose hoy mismo
para estar a su lado para siempre. que me
llame hoy mismo y me diga palabras de
amor, que me hable con cariño, ternura y
mucho amor y pasiòn y deseos ardientes
de estar conmigo en mi casa. AMEN.

15 07 2011

another possibility is that an stories about an African folk hero might have been brought to Spain via the Moors, then to Mexico via Spanish Conquistadors or later immigrants.

21 01 2011

I want to thank you High John The Conqueror for always being a powerful help to me.

15 08 2009
Jean Ryan

There used to be a roaring zydeco scene in east Texas from the “Prairie Creoles” who moved from western Louisiana in the early to mid-20th century – Clifton Chenier moved to Port Arthur to work at a refinery for a while. There was also a big exodus to California at the same time. It doesn’t seem too terribly far fetched to consider African-American folk Catholicism as one possible conduit for High John to get from African-American Hoodoo to Mexican prayer cards. I don’t know whether or not John the Conqueror is prominent in Creole folk tradition, though. Definitely an interesting question, whether it’s ever answered or not.

8 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

For the record, Clifton Chenier was born right outside of Opelousas, Louisiana. Just a correction.

19 06 2009
Michaele Maurer

I have also heard of John the Conqueror as a “very present help in time of trouble,” as you will. I went to a gathering of the Friends of Negro Spirituals in Oakland CA last year, where I heard a tale of John the Conqueror coming to oppressed slaves at their work and taking them on a tour of heaven, and giving them the ability to rejoice in the midst of trouble.

There’s also a fair amount of overlap between hoodoo and Mexican folk magic in Tex-Mex country. We tend to forget how hybrid America is. For instance, to dip into another field: Clifton Chenier, the “King of Zydeco,” is from Texas – which many people outside the area associate more with norteno music instead.

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