Who Ruined Hoodoo?

Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013) 248 pp., photos, index, $85 (cloth), $28 (paper), ebook available.


Hazzard-Donald teaches anthropology and sociology at Rutgers University-Camden. She is herself an initiate into the Orisha religion, but this is not a work of  ethnography or autoethnography.

Her notes list some conversations with informants — rootworkers, etc., but Mojo Workin’ is based more on published sources, many from the 1890s–1920s, than on systematic fieldwork, apparently.  She saves descriptions of eight informants, including two fellow academics, for the book’s end, rarely quoting them in the text by name.

She divides American hoodoo into two (mainly) chronological categories: (1) Old Tradition “Black Belt” Hoodoo, as practiced in the South from slavery days up until the “great migration” to Northern cities, and (2) “Snake oil” or “marketeered” hoodoo, which is more commercial.

Practitioners of traditional hoodoo collected their own herbs, diagnosed clients, and participated in a “hoodoo complex” that she describes as “folk religion” that “integrated psychological support, spiritual direction, physical strength, and medicinal treatment.”

This she contrasts with the “exploitive” second version, the hoodoo of “curio shop” and candle shops, dream books, ads for “Sister This” and “Mother That” in magazines and newspapers catering to black readers, and Internet sellers of hoodoo supplies, mojo bags, etc. And who is behind this “snake oil” hoodoo? The Jews.

“Outsiders,” these businessmen — such as Morton Neumann (Valmor Co.), who also produced cosmetics for the African-American market or Morris Shapiro and Joseph Menke of Memphis, founders of Keystone Laboratories — are accused of seeking “unchallenged control of the Hoodoo supply market” and to “shut out blacks.”

Today’s Internet-based supply businesses, such as Lucky Mojo (whose owner, Cat Yronwode, happens to be Jewish), receive her particular scorn. According to one end note, Hazard-Donald tried to interview Yronwode by telephone, flaunting her Orisha credentials, and got the brush-off, which made her furious.

I have some problems with such neat dichotomies — old hoodoo good, “marketeered” hoodoo bad. Real people cross such boundaries, and even the author admits that “some old tradition [root] workers have succumbed to pressure to use at least some commercial supplies.”

But is “succumb” the right verb? Any folklore scholar could tell you that the line between “traditional” and “commercial” is thin and mutable.  Hazzard-Donald, for example, makes much of the Sanctified black church’s traditional Ring Shout’s connection with African religion. Here, for instance, is a self-consciously folkloric Ring Shout, while here is one whose participants were trying for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Authentic? Staged? Commercial?

But my chief interest in Mojo Workin’ was as someone interested in esoteric, magical, and underground American religion. As an insider, Hazzard-Donald’s authorial viewpoint is both emic and “curatorial,” for she sees her book as a step toward a Hoodoo revival as it becomes “a healthy and rebounding supplemental spiritual system.”

She treats “religion” as a self-evident category, uncritically describing hoodoo as “religion” even after the “death of the gods,” that historical point (somewhere before 1740, but the paragraph is confusing) at which the cultus of the African gods had ceased. (In North America, that is, where a predominately Protestant society and smaller plantation sizes worked against the kind of African-Catholic syncretism that occurred, for instance, on the big sugar plantations of Brazil, Cuba, etc.)

Given that most definitions of “religion” are based on scriptural and credal traditions — and hoodoo is neither — I would have liked to see how it fits a category of “religion” even when blended with the Sanctified churches, as when psalms become incantations to accompany a working or when, as Hazzard-Donald describes, yesterday’s conjure man becomes today’s charismatic preacher.

“System” or “religion” — how do we talk about these things? Hoodoo, like polytheism and animism, challenges our ideas of what “religion” is?

Pentagram Pizza from Rome’s Enemy

pentagrampizza¶ The word went around last week of the passing of Jonas Trinkunas (1939–2014), founder of the revived Lithuanian Pagan group Romuva. This Lithuanian website has video of his funeral ceremony, everyone in archaic ritual gear, lots of singing and drumming. (Video may be slow to load.)

¶ “Perhaps the future Carthaginians were like the Pilgrim Fathers leaving from Plymouth – they were so fervent in their devotion to the gods that they weren’t welcome at home any more.” But do not let that sentence give you any warm feelings until you have read the rest.

¶ The polytheists’ Ark was round, but still held animals.

Why Pagans Did Not Fight for Their Gods

Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1958, is often labeled as the “archetypal modern African novel.” Set in the 1890s, at the beginning of British colonial rule, its protagonist is a hard-driving Igbo yam farmer, warrior, and village leader named Okonkwo, who holds himself, his wives, and his children to high standards of hard work and respect for ancestral traditions.

Things Fall Apart was always on my list of Classics I Should Read Some Day, and two weeks ago, facing a 1,000-mile drive, I checked out the audio book from the library. Having cleared the urban areas of Colorado Springs and Denver and entered the High Plains on Interstate 76, I slipped the first CD into the player.

Somewhere in  South Dakota I finished it. And I connected it with a a book that I had been reading in September, Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome.

Achebe is writing historical fiction about villagers confronted (in the last fourth of the book) by the British colonial apparatus and Anglican missionaries. Cameron is examining the persistent idea that there was a self-consciously Pagan resistance in the Western Roman Empire during the 4th century to imperial Christianity — this a generation or two after the last Pagan emperor, Julian (who would have called himself a “Hellene”), failed in his attempt to decouple Christianity from the power of the empire.

Achebe’s characters are fictional subsistence farmers. Cameron looks at the writing and actions of upper-class Romans 1,600 years earlier, mostly men whose birth and wealth entitled them to a seat in the Roman Senate, even though little power came with the job — the power by then was centered far away in Constantinople.

As the book’s cover blurb notes,

It is indeed widely believed that a largely pagan [sic] aristocracy remained a powerful and active force well into the fifth century, sponsoring pagan literary circles, patronage of the classics, and propaganda for the old cults in art and literature. The main focus of much modern scholarship on the end of paganism in the West has been on its supposed stubborn resistance to Christianity. The dismantling of this romantic myth is one of the main goals of Alan Cameron’s book. Actually, the book argues, Western paganism petered out much earlier and more rapidly than hitherto assumed.

Cameron argues in fine-grained detail that there was no such stubborn resistance based on a clash of theologies. To these high-class Romans, the “old religion” was largely about social position and tradition. To be named to a college of priests was a social honor, perhaps like being invited to serve on the board of directors of a symphony orchestra. (Something similar happened on a smaller scale in Okonkwo’s village.) When they were able to keep their social position (and their copies of the Iliad) while accepting Christianity, they did so.

Likewise, in Things Fall Apart, as the Christian missionaries begin to attract more and more converts, and those converts attack the traditional religion, such as by killing a sacred python in a village shrine, someone asks one of the elders why they don’t fight back.

“It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” said one of them. “Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it. If we put ourselves between the god and his victim we may receive blows intended for the offender. When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us from hearing. That is a wise action.”

And when one group, including Okonkwo, does burn the missionaries’ church, they are punished by the colonial authorities, which breaks their resolve. The disruption of the structure of traditional authority and the disruption of traditional religion go hand in hand.

I am left with some thoughts:

• Whereas the Emperor Julian understood that Hellenic religion, literature, and philosophy were all interrelated and strove to keep that cosmos in place, the glue was looser in the Western Empire.

In their world, confronted by one British district commissioner, his African policemen, and a missionary or two, the Igbo people did not understand the scale of what was happening.

• Most people do not fight over theology anyway. Theology is often just a group marker, “us versus them.” The theological claims themselves are secondary. People fight for their group more than “for the gods,” perhaps.

• People will change religion for a variety of reasons—to get along with a spouse’s family, to gain or to retain their social status (the Roman senatorial class), or to avoid having their heads chopped off (anyone confronted with Islamic expansionism).

• An “organic” Pagan society is the dream of many, but as Things Fall Apart illustrates, such a society can be transformed within one generation.

• I do, of course, consider both the traditional Igbo and the fourth-century Romans to be Pagan, using the term as we now define it. There is no other choice when “traditional religion goes global” either, as the recent New York Times piece about a West African traditional priest working in New York City described. When geographical and cultural boundaries are crossed, we need a “global” descriptor.

• Can we construct a theology — or is it part of Pagan theology today — to say that the gods fight their own battles?

Those Wacky Muslims

We keel you! (Part 241).

French magazine fights back after firebombing. Cartooni-jihadis also swarmed its Facebook page, leading the group Reporters Without Borders to call on Facebook to “renounce censorship” and let the editors access their own page.

I give them credit for guts: They plan to republish the “guest-edited by Muhammend” edition.

• Arab spring? Let the killing begin! Coptic Christian high school student murdered  by his own teacher (with help). Does teacher-education in Egypt include a course on strangling and bludgeoning, or is that learned in continuing-education classes? This sheikh perhaps inspired him.

I expect that we are going to see a whole lot of Coptic Christians in North America very soon, the ones who survive.

• Toy guns made in China are part of an anti-Islamic plot.

Refresher: Aisha  was the prophet’s 9-year-old wife. And he consummated the marriage right away. But, hey, it’s a different culture, and who are we to judge?

An Islamist group whose name means “Western education is forbidden” kills 63 people in Nigeria.

Quick Review: Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps

Karen Palmer, author of Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps, is a veteran journalist, not a historian of witchcraft, so for me to read the book from the latter perspective is to do her a slight disservice. (As an inside, the subtitle might  better read “Inside Ghana’s Witch Camps,” but maybe some editor thought that “West Africa’s” had more punch.)

From her website:

With these words, Karen Palmer takes us inside one of West Africa’s witch camps, where hundreds of banished women struggle to survive under the watchful eye of a powerful wizard. Palmer arrived at the Gambaga witch camp [a sort of refugee camp for accused witches] with an outsider’s sense of outrage, believing it was little more than a dumping ground for difficult women. Soon, however, she encountered stories she could not explain: a women who confessed she’d attacked a girl given to her as a sacrifice; another one desperately trying to rid herself of the witchcraft that she believed helped her kill dozens of people.

One troubling thing about studying the Renaissance and early modern witch trials (1500s-1700s) is that we never hear from the victims except through the filter of witch-trial testimony.

Now if you can assume that the phenomenon of witchcraft in northern Ghana is analogous to “our” witch trials—and it certainly sounds that way to me—then once again there are no clear answers about what is going on.

There was Ayishetu, chased from her village by a violent mob, whose life was destroyed by the accusation that she practiced witchcraft, and Winangi, a tiny splinter of a woman who’d gne seeking witchcraft to protect herself and her children. She pleaded to her husband to move her to the camp when she felt she’d lost control of the dark gift. A smart businesswoman named Asara had ended up at the camp when a debtor accused her of causing a meningitis outbreak. Napoa, mannish and grumpy, readily identified herself as a witch and caused fear among the other women living at the camp (41).

The surrounding culture is mostly Islamic but with lots of magical practitioners. Muslim polygamy also contributes to the problem. How do you get rid of the oldest wife? Accuse her of being a witch!

Another analogy with the European witch trials is this: The village shaman-herbalist is not the witch but rather the person who accuses the witch. Or if someone has accused her (usually it is her), the shaman-herbalist conducts a ritual (e.g., watching the death throes of a chicken) to pronounce whether she truly is a witch or not.

So I recommend Spellbound both for a look at contemporary West African issues with witchcraft but also for thinking more about its history in Western culture.


An African Investigates Her Own Traditional Religion

It’s not that I have nothing to blog about, more that I have too much, and if I tried to write it all, nothing else will get done.

All that aside, I suggest you pop over to Egregores and read an interesting piece by a Christian urban West African (Ghananian) journalist who decides to investigate her own country’s traditional religion.

Her attitudes and observations are, to me, an interesting mix of the culturally familiar and the unfamiliar.

So when a new acquaintance invited me to the meeting of traditional believers this weekend, this is what went through my mind… I cannot say for sure that African traditional religion is evil. I cannot say for sure that it is good. I know that I have been preconditioned to consider it evil. I also know that I do not know. I would like to find out, but I’m scared of the whole affair. My fear is an irrational fear. It is a fear of the unknown. I wanted to confront that fear. Because every time I confront my fears, I grow. Plus I was curious.
So I went.

It’s part of a series of posts on African traditional religions in conflict with Christianity and Islam that you can find at the blog—scroll to the bottom of the post for more links.