Magic in the United States, a new podcast by Heather Freeman of U. of North Carolina-Charlotte, has just launched. As one of her panel of advisors, I have had the opportunity to listen to several episodes. They are well-organized and not t00 long (usually under 30 minutes). So far I have heard about the famous murder of a Pennsylvania Dutch pow-wow doctor and the beginnings of Spiritualism — it’s a wide-reaching show.
Magic can mean different things to different people. For many, it’s reserved for those fantastical worlds seen on screen, but for others, it’s not so far removed. For Heather Freeman, its proximity to our world is something she seeks to explore in her podcast Magic in the United States: 400 Years of Magical Beliefs, Practices, and Cultural Conflicts.
“It really spans the gamut. So I started putting together a proposal for a podcast series to do this project looking at magic in the United States,” she recalled. “There’s tons of podcasts about witchcraft, about ceremonial magic, and then also about religious practices that get called magic. But historically, calling these practices magic is a racist pejorative.” . . . .
Freeman said exploring why certain practices get called magic while the word “religion” is reserved for more mainstream practices is at the heart of her podcast.
“This question of ‘What is religion?’ is really challenging,” she said. “If most people understand religion as one of these major monotheisms, they’re missing a lot.”
In rural 19th-century Estonia, as depicted in the film November, people did not merely put out food offerings for the Dead on All Souls Day — they fed them. And talked to them. And if the Dead wished to enjoy a sauna, a fire had already been lit. And then things get weird.
November is a beautifully photographed black-and-while film (with a little infrared too?). Sometimes it is such a series of images that I felt as though I was watching someone’s curated Instagram feed or Tumblr blog, until the snowman started talking or the Devil twisted someone’s neck and took his soul.
Maybe instead of “Baltic Gothic,” we should call it “Estonian Hoodoo.”
Things you will find in November: shapeshifting; wolves; dirty doings at the crossroads; servants who steal from German aristocrats justifying their thefts in the name of Estonian nationalism; people stealing from each other; sleepwalking; the Plague personified as a beautiful woman, a goat, or a pig; lots of folk magic (with some spectacular failures); dreams; visions; love; and death.
The society depicted is nominally Christian but the other elements justify the label Pagan-ish. In fact, it made me think of a novel that I had read, The Man Who Spoke Snakish, which is set in medieval Estonia at the time of Christian crusades against the Baltic Pagans.
Color me surprised. November is based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, who wrote The Man Who Spoke Snakish as well. This novel was Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barny aka November), and I am not sure if it has been published yet in an English translation.
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 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 cultusof 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?
There is the inevitable discussion of “nature religion” in the city.
I think that [living in an intense, man-made environment] would be subjective – every locale has is ups and downs. Being on overcrowded trains everyday makes me put more emphasis on spiritual cleansing and being surrounded by concrete does mean that it takes effort to get to “nature.” But I’m all the more appreciative of ivy growing up in a brownstone and all the more in awe of when a neighborhood decides to start growing its own vegetables.
I’m attracted to the goal of creating a sustainable earth-centered life in the midst of all this. I also think that magick might work quicker – in a city of 8 million people, you could virtually do a love spell in the morning and meet your new partner that night!
Lucky Mojo employs a small staff in mail-order product sales, hoodoo lessons, and counseling. The first thing you see when walking up to the shop is a shed painted with a version of the “See Rock City” advertisement painted on barns throughout the Southeast and Lower Midwest.
The Rock City ad not only sets you up for what has been described as Lucky Mojo’s “1930s Memphis” aesthetic, but since founder Catherine Yronwode has a background in graphic-novel and comics publishing, I suspect that it might also be a reference to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
That is Lucky Mojo: ironic, postmodern, humorous—but still serious.
My other souvenir is a classic wooden-handled cardboard fan, of the type handed out by funeral parlors in the pre-air-conditioning era. One side shows a soppy portrait of Jesus as The Good Shepherd, while the other advertises the ambiguously named Missionary Independent Spiritual Church, located adjacent to the shop and office.
It has just a small table and two chairs for card readings, etc., plus altars for placing help requests according to their elemental correspondences.
In the spirit of Hoodoo and rootwork, the “smallest church” is cheerfully casual about theological categories. As Tayannah Lee McQuillar writes in Rootwork, “[Rootwork] has no pantheon or priesthood. It refers only to a set of healing and spell practices, and the practitioner can be whatever religion they wish.”
Denise Alvarado: “The Origin of the Root,” “Dirt Dauber Nests,” “Conjure Artist profile: The Georgia Mojo Man,” “A Goetic Ritual: Magickal Doll to Raise the Ghost of a Loved One”
Sharon Marino: “Bat’s Blood,” “Secrets of Sex Magick: Explore Your Sexual Fantasies with the Help of the Guede,” “St. Martha Dominadora Love Domination Candle.”
Matthew Venus: “What is Real Hoodoo?” “Bottle Spell for Prosperity”
Madrina Angelique: “Buying Cemetery Dirt”
Alyne Pustanio: “Haunted New Orleans Folklore: The Devil Baby of New Orleans: Fact or Fiction?”
Chad Balthazar, “Planetary Magick and the Venus Love Tub Lamp”
Papa Curtis, “A Short Look at Witchcraft and Self-Defense in the Diaspora”
Carolina Dean: “Shoe and Foot-Track Magick”
Dorothy Morrison,: “The Real Dirt on Visiting the Dead”
Aaron Leitch: “The Return of Psalm Magick and the Mixed Qabalah”
H. Byron Ballard: “Cove-Witches and Curanderas: Traditional Healers and Magic-Women in Modern Appalachia”
And there are several formulas for magickal oils and powders, a little lagniappe (that’s Cajun for a little something extra) magick, a free conjure doll baby template, and a historical text related to Voodoo in New Orleans by Lafcadio Hearn.
Maybe these are people who don’t worry about whether there are pentagrams on the tombstone—they are there for the graveyard dirt.
In the early 20th century, white pharmacists in black neighborhoods began marketing hoodoo items through mail order after noticing they were fielding a lot of questions from their black customers about roots, herbs and potions. Their shops fell on hard times in the 1970s, in part because many African-Americans began to view hoodoo, also known as rootwork or conjure, as backward, say scholars who study the practice. “As African-Americans came more in the mainstream and more affluent, they were embarrassed by this stuff,” says Carolyn Morrow Long, author of Spiritual Merchants, a book about hoodoo stores.
Today’s hoodoo revival is again being driven primarily by white retailers, and that has some blacks criticizing the commercialization of ancient rituals for a quick profit. “Hoodoo is not just oh-help-me-bring-my-baby-back, help-me-get-my-man-back stuff,” says Katrina Hazzard-Donald, a Rutgers University sociology professor who is black and was taught hoodoo as a child. She says hoodoo stores are corrupting the spiritual belief system by selling inferior, nonsacred products and focusing on alleged quick fixes to problems. “What is so pathetic about it is they don’t even know the origins of all this stuff,” Ms. Hazzard-Donald says of online hoodoo vendors.
I did finish Christine Wicker’s Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America.
To be honest, the subtitle should read, “How magic is transforming Christine Wicker.”
The book maps closely to Susan Roberts’ 1974 book Witches U.S.A.. The author, a middle-aged female journalist, looks for those wacky magical people to interview–Wicker starts in Salem, Mass.–but then finds some rapport with some of them. In Wicker’s case, it’s hoodoo priestess Cat Yronwode.
So the authorial stance varies: “Reader, let me show you these wacky people–but maybe they know something that we don’t.”