One of the constants in my spirituality is that it comes from the source. I have these experiences or feelings or encounters or journeys, and that’s my spirituality. If some book somewhere says that I’m not supposed to have this or that experience, and yet I have, I don’t let that invalidate the experience. It took a long time and I went through all sorts of confusion before I could articulate it this simply, but what it comes down to is trust in myself. I find the whole concept of a “belief system” a little hard to swallow. Are there really people who believe in something, truly believe in it, simply because it’s part of a system? I hear that sometimes as a criticism of a syncretic approach to religion – that we don’t get to pick and choose what to believe, that you have to embrace all of a system or none of it, that religion is not a cafeteria where you get to decide what is on your plate – and I don’t get it. What else can you do? If you truly think one aspect of a system is true and correct and another isn’t, do you just pretend to yourself that this never occurred to you? Do you accept everything, do you just shush up the part that thinks critically? I wouldn’t even know how to begin to do that.
I’ve said here before that I find the whole concept of religion as a shared set of beliefs to be bizarre. Nobody shares every belief. All we really can share are practices. I am absolutely sure that if you sat each member of my Druid grove down and asked us each to articulate our beliefs about the Divine and the nature of Druid practice, you would get all kinds of rich, interesting and deep responses that had only tangential relations to each other. It doesn’t matter. That’s not what makes us a grove. What makes us a grove is that we get together eight times a year to mark the turning of the Wheel and we are all committed to that practice.
Anne had a junior troll on her blog a while back that, bless his innocent heart, tried out Pascal’s Wager on us. You know the one, where you balance the risk of nonbelief in a certain type of Christianity (eternal damnation) with the risk of belief (being wrong in this lifetime) and choosing belief as the safer bet. He ran off before anyone could point out the more obvious flaws in that argument, but it seems to me that the biggest one is that any omniscient God worth his salt is going to know that you’re basing your so-called “belief” on a calculation, not on devotion. He’s not going to be fooled for a moment. I can’t decide to believe in something, any more than I could decide to see the sky as green. I can run around and tell everyone that the sky is green; I could even start the Church of the Green Sky and make it a fundamental tenet that the sky is green, but I’m still going to see blue sky.
In spite of my fierce individuality, I still look longingly around for a label. It would be so nice to be able to sum up my religious/spiritual/magical practices with some word besides “Other.” “Pagan” works as a vague umbrella term to locate myself within a particular set of modern practices and it helps for deciding which parties to go to and where to camp, but it doesn’t really tell anyone about me. “Druid” is a little more helpful, but there are many flavors of Druid and I’m kind of an unorthodox one anyway, so it still doesn’t say much. I like the word “witch” but then people assume that means Wiccan, which I’m not. None of them say anything about the specific and important role of plant and land spirits (aka herbs and fairies) in my personal practice. So I have learned over the years to look for spiritual teachers who can teach me more about things I already believe in and can help me develop in the ways that I want to go, and to avoid those who only want to me to follow along in their footsteps and accept what they say in spite of my own beliefs.
So this brings me, in a long and roundabout way, back to hoodoo. My dear friend Wren expressed in a comment to my last post that she was concerned because she’s had bad experiences with people practicing African-style folk magic. (We had a private email conversation about it – I wanted to say more than I was willing to in a public place.) I appreciate the concern and I’m keeping her warning in mind, but I’m not really doing anything different than what I’ve always done.
If you’re not sure of what “hoodoo” is, go read here – this is what I’m talking about – not voodoo, or vodou, or Santeria, or Palo, or any religion at all. Hoodoo is, simply, American folk magic. It usually gets defined as “African-American folk magic” and I’m a little uncomfortable taking that “African” bit off because it makes me wonder if I’m doing the colonialist thing of saying “oh, hey, this thing your culture has is really cool, so let me pretend it’s really part of my culture.” I don’t want to be that way and I don’t want to downplay the fact that some aspects of hoodoo actually have African roots or that the African-American community has done more than anyone else to develop and maintain the tradition. These are important facts and I don’t want to deny them. However, it’s also true that hoodoo has equally strong roots in European magical traditions as well. This is immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the history of Western magic. Hoodoo is the distilled amalgamation of every magical practice brought to these shores by all of our ancestors, along with some of the practices that were already here when they showed up.
I work with plants and plant spirits. Medicinal use of an herb is more than just the ingestion of a material substance; it’s an act of communion with a tribe of living beings. Herbalism is not just a form of chemistry – it’s also an act of magic. The material substance and phytochemicals within the plants are important for healing, but so is the spirit of the being who is a part of that substance. Magical use of plants is not so different. A piece of angelica root is a direct link to the spirit of the angelica plant, and to use that root in a magical ceremony is to call upon that being for aid. That’s the simplest way I know to describe herbal magic. This is why an herb harvested from ground that you know and love, from a plant that you knew when it was alive and growing from whom you received permission to harvest, will always be more powerful than something old and powdered and encapsulated sitting on a store shelf.
Hoodoo is, in the forms I’ve encountered it, plant magic. It’s based on roots, flowers, leaves, twigs and bark. Other ingredients include things found in the environment – coins, stones, bones, feathers – or things found on the body – hair, fingernails, what cat yronwode calls “personal concerns” and what the ancient Greek magicians called “ousia.” (“stuff”). It’s all about making connections with the environment and the spirits that live all around us, moving among the unseen inhabitants of the everyday world and enlisting their help. I’m new to hoodoo – I had no idea what it was beyond “that thing people who shop in botanicas do” – but this way of working is not at all new to me. It’s just more of what I’ve always done.