The sacred for sale

6 01 2011

Again, thanks to Wufila for posting this link to the Wall Street Journal article on the return of hoodoo practice in the Internet age. The article and the video were fascinating. Some random thoughts:

1. An anxiety of influence: I think that there is no doubt that there is some sort of flow of rituals and prayers between Mexico, the Caribbean, and the American South. The rose of Jericho ritual seen here is something that can also be seen in Spanish-speaking botanicas and occult shops. I have even seen before a holy card of High John the Conqueror in Spanish. It would probably be impossible to find out who influenced whom in this case. As in social and economic questions, the United States is inevitably tied to Latin America, and vice versa, at least in its undercurrents.
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Hoodoo in America

6 04 2010

image credit

THE THREE sisters were on Interstate 20, just east of Dallas, in the early hours when it happened. Myra, who was driving, started to act strangely, trying to veer the car into oncoming traffic and off the sides of bridges.

Then the steering wheel squirmed into life and started to pummel her, before mutating into a monstrous demon. The apparition sprang from the dashboard, mounted the crazed Myra and began its possession of her.

It was exactly as the women had feared. The previous evening – 17 March, St Patrick’s Day – they had fled from their hometown of Arcadia in northwestern Lousiana, convinced that an evil spirit was pursuing them.

Most of what is known of their journey – including a decision, halfway, to abandon their terrified children with strangers – has been told by the women to lawyers, friends and the police.

But only one thing was recorded for certain: Myra’s admission, just after dawn, to a suburban Dallas hospital. Both her eyes were missing.

Four months on, the events of that night still haunt Arcadia, otherwise famous only as the place where Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down. It is a remote, neglected little town, population 3,000, where the racial divisions of Old South still linger. The Crawford sisters – Myra, 30, who will be blind for life, Doretha, 34 and Beverly, 35 – have retreated to a shuttered brick house on Evangeline Drive, a scrubby cul-de-sac on the black side of the railway tracks.

Neighbours, slumped in the boiling summer air on their porches, hesitate to talk of the affair. Some even run away, afraid, because this is hoodoo business. ‘I’m scared of them – the hoodoo, the Crawfords and all of it,’ says one young woman. ‘They might want pull my eyes out.’

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Bottle Spells

16 06 2009

hoodoo_highway

Lafayette, Louisiana, September 3rd, 2004 :

Among the soda bottles and lost basketballs floating down the Vermilion River, there are things much odder and mysterious.

The Vermilion River could be called a one-way hoodoo highway.

Over the years, more than four dozen ordinary, little brown plastic prescription bottles have been found in the murky water — each filled with blue or pink powder and strange, rambling spells meticulously written on scraps of paper.

Paul LaHaye, the watershed projects manager with the Bayou Vermilion District, oversees the collection of tons of debris pulled from the river each year.

Each time one of the brown bottles surfaces, LaHaye dries out the contents and places them in a plastic baggy or cardboard box labeled “Voodoo,” that sits in his office.

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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.