Many years ago, when I first started my herbal studies, I needed a few ounces of a particular herb (I don’t remember what it was now.) My usual herb store didn’t have it on hand, so I checked the yellow pages (I told you it was many years ago) and found a nearby “spiritual supply” shop that advertised as an herb seller. I went there and found it was a hoodoo (that is, African-American folk magic) shop. I loved it – all those candles, incenses, spells, potions and such looked totally familiar to my witchy younger self, and while at the time I felt, as a white girl, culturally out of place there, I went ahead and asked for my herbs. I spent a few bucks, took my bag home, unpacked it, and found that I had been sold something that was absolutely not what I had asked for. It wasn’t even that the clerk had misunderstood me – it was well labeled as the herb I wanted, but the contents were something else. I was annoyed – not annoyed enough to return it (I was somewhat intimidated by the place) but enough so to dismiss hoodoo practice as a ripoff and not to return there for a long time.
When I did return, I found the atmosphere much improved and far less intimidating – in part because it really had changed ownership and focus, but also I’m sure because of changes in my own perspective over the years. I liked them better, enough so to buy candles and such from them, but I still felt like hoodoo was something “other” and not anything like my own practice and I have never bought herbs from them again.
Lately, I’ve been working with the image of the crossroads as part of Faerie work I’m doing based on RJ Stewart and Orion Foxwood’s work. I started doing some research on the symbol of the crossroads since it seems to turn up all over. My Goddess is Hekate, who is in one form the Lady of the Crossroads, she to whom all ways are open, and RJ Stewart has me doing these daily meditations where I go to an otherworldly crossroads seeking faerie helpers (I’m getting more than I know what to do with at this point, but that might be a post for later. Maybe for the Otherworld synchroblog.)
When I did some google-research on the whole concept of meeting helpers at the crossroads, by far the most fascinating account I found was here (go read it, it’s really neat stuff!) Then spend a few hours combing through the whole Lucky Mojo site, which is an amazing place for anyone interested in magic.) The concept of finding a spiritual guide who will teach you a skill reminded me, not so much of Hekate or the faeries, but of my patron Lugh. That is part of what he does for me – if I need to learn a new skill of any kind I appeal to the Master of all Crafts for his help. I have yet to find any reference to Lugh as a Crossroads God (if anyone has one, please let me know – I would love it), but in his Gaulish form, he was equated with Mercury by the Romans, and Mercury was absolutely a “teacher at the crossroads.” So I’m feeling linked to this symbol, the crossroads, from multiple directions. I still need to explore the implications of Lugus/Mercury/teacher/crossroads, but I feel like it’s a scent worth following.
After exploring the Lucky Mojo site and reading through some of the history and theory of hoodoo practice, I feel hooked. I want to learn more. I still have some of that cultural insecurity but it’s much less after reading more, because many of these practices are obviously syncretized from multiple sources. The standard line on hoodoo is that it’s descended from West African magical practices, and while that’s certainly true in part, there’s very little there that wouldn’t be immediately recognizable to a Thessalian witch of the 1st century. This is part of what’s fascinating to me. You could retell “The Golden Ass” and set it in 1930’s New Orleans, replace Pamphile with a conjure-woman, and not need to change much else besides names and settings (actually, I would love to read that. Or maybe write it someday.) Some of the spells could have come straight from the PGM, and a modern hoodoo worker would know right away what katadesmoi were about. There are traces of medieval grimoires, Kabbala, Native American practice, modern hermeticism, and probably other influences which I don’t even recognize there as well. In other words, this is a uniquely American magical practice, syncretized from many different sources by people with access to both the knowledge of their ancestors and magical texts and a willingness to experiment and incorporate whatever worked.
Up until this point, I was interested in an intellectual sense but still not thinking of this as a practice for me. I am kind of sensitive about cultural appropriation – I don’t incorporate Hindu or Native American deities in my practice, for instance, because I don’t feel like I have any business doing so without some connection to the living cultures that revere them. If I work with Buddhist deities, I do so only in the context of Buddhist practices. I feel like there is much more wiggle room for working with deities that originated in cultures that have left them behind. Hekate was originally a Greek goddess, but over the centuries she has been transformed into a goddess of witchcraft and that is how she presents herself to me and how we work together. I do not honor her as the Greeks would have only because that is no longer possible. That culture is long gone. Hoodoo culture is still alive and relatively well and I am not part of it.
Except – maybe I am. I bought yronwode’s Hoodoo materia magica and absolutely love it. The plants are all familiar to me; they grow in my backyard and by roadsides and in vacant lots all around (and she addresses the problem I ran into, that of defrauding people by substituting cheaper herbs, which was apparently not so unusual in the past.) The style of work is familiar to me because of my studies in European magic. The ingredients of hoodoo are mostly readily available in the local environment. One item that got my attention was the silver dime. The so-called “Mercury head” silver dime is considered a powerful token, so I looked around at coin dealers to see if they were inexpensive enough to actually use regularly in practice (answer: absolutely, as long as you don’t care too much about condition.) As I was looking at these coins, I realized that any of my grandparents could have handled and spent them. They are a part of my immediate past – not some culture of Others, not something straight out of Darkest Africa, not anything distant and far off at all, but a near part of my own culture, as close as my grandfather’s wallet or the botanica down the street. I feel like it’s something I ought to know about as a student of magic in this time and at this place. (Oddly, the only part I feel culturally uncomfortable with is the use of psalms – I can’t see praying to a god that I have never followed in prayers from his own holy book. It feels disrespectful. I need to learn if substitutes work – using something fierce and Greek from the PGM, for instance, or writing my own prayers.)
I ordered some supplies from Lucky Mojo and couldn’t be happier with the quality. Cat yronwode’s book is as thorough and well-researched as her website. I wondered if there would be objections to a white lady in California teaching hoodoo, but I looked around for any dirt on her or anyone saying anything bad (I always do this before accepting anyone as a teacher or buying a book – find the worst review possible and decide if that is something I can live with) and no one has anything but praise for her as a teacher or as a practitioner.
So, as the next “leg” of my magic spiral, I’m studying hoodoo. For now, it’s mostly just reading but I might move on to the Lucky Mojo correspondence course if it keeps sounding like what I want to do.