African American Folk Magic: Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork

Categories
Lifestyle

Voodoo or Hoodoo?

hoodoo kitchen set up, traditional ingredients
Photography by Clem Onojeghuo

There is a lot of confusion between what hoodoo and voodoo are—many believe they are one and the same, but as was discovered through the articles on voodoo, they are two separate entities. Louisiana and Haitian Voodoo are the two branches of the voodoo religion practiced by many, whereas hoodoo is not a religion at all. Hoodoo, conjure, and rootwork are all terms used to describe African American folk magic that originated from West Africa. While folk magic practices are wide-spread among the southern United States, they are highly focused within the state of Louisiana. Practitioners of folk-magic are referenced according to their own personal practice—hoodoo, conjure, and rootwork practitioners are called Hoodoos, Conjurers, and Rootworkers respectively—there are of course variations therein, such Root Doctors and Root Healers.

Another important difference is what can be observed when considering how people react toward either of these practices; voodoo is often regarded with disdain and fear, whereas those who practice hoodoo are more frequently thought of as healers or wise herbal doctors. It’s quite interesting to see the different reactions between the two practices, considering the similarities in origin and practice. Hoodoo is a practice derived from West African, Native American, and European sources; rootworkers often refer to what they do as “working the roots,” as it references the roots, or origin, as well as the significance of plants and herbs in this spiritual and magical practice.

Beliefs and Practices

Woman lighting sage bundle, warding off evil spirits
Photography by Brittany Colette

There is a tendency among rootworkers to believe in the indispensable power of their own being, along with the tools that are used within the practice—religion can be considered one of these tools. Despite not being a religious practice, there are very general prayers and religious symbols that can be found intertwined within hoodoo rituals. Not being bound to any one religious practice, it is worth noting that many rootworkers are in fact Protestant Christians or Catholics, while others may have a broad range of belief systems. Petitioning saints and deities, along with prayer are important tools for many, but not all rootworkers opt to incorporate these techniques into their rituals.

Much like voodoo, hoodoo does occasionally get an association with the darker aspects of the human spirit; punishment, revenge, and justice are all valid reasons within hoodoo to perform rituals, just as much as promoting spiritual wellbeing, healing the sick, and love works. The thing that people don’t tend to see is that practices are not simply good or evil—there is no black and white when it comes to magical spiritual practices, as the very nature can vary as wildly as that of a person. The intention behind all magic-related spiritual practices is to enact change within the world in which they live.

A Voodoo Practice: Mysteries of Zombification

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore

Digging Up the Origin of Zombies

Hand reaching into the darkness
Photography by Lalesh Aldarwish

While zombies have been on the pop culture radar pretty heavily for several decades now, the history of this undead phenomenon has a history deeply rooted in the Haitian Voodoo religion—in fact, the belief in zombies is still a relevant aspect of New Orleans Voodoo. In our western society, we rely heavily upon our knowledge of what is presented to us in movies and television, but the zombie culture we know and love evolved from a very real magical tradition. Original zombification didn’t involve leaks from biological factories, like what happened in Train to Busan (2016), or an airborne virus as was the case in AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010)—it involved a spiritual, magical, and chemical process that arose through voodoo ritual which required the calling of several voodoo spirits (Loa).

Where we see zombies being portrayed as people who have died then coming back to life, the voodoo tradition it is actually a person who is under the powerful influence of psychoactive drugs. These drugs are usually administered to the unfortunate person by a bokor, the voodoo equivalent to a sorcerer or witch doctor. After being dosed with these psychoactive drugs, the victim essentially goes into drug-induced paralysis which mimics death so profoundly that it is rumored that people have been buried alive after being zombified. This is the case in one of the original, classic zombie films The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), where the main antagonist, is buried alive while fully cognizant—which, needless to say would be incredibly terrifying.

The Process of Zombification

Skulls piled on the ground
Photography Renato Danyi

There is a lot of disagreement about whether or not the person who is to become a zombie is actually deceased or not—some believe that the process revives the recently dead into mindless, soulless automatons, while others insist it’s just the effect of psychoactive drugs that leaves the victim in a state of deep, chemical-induced paralysis, which mimics death to the point that even vital signs are not measurable. Within the Voodoo religion, only bokors have the power to create and control zombies, while the methods and ingredient amounts changes from each individual bokor, the process follows the same pattern. Some processes use voodoo dolls, blood and hair from the intended victim, and others use a “zombie” powder—this powder is a concoction of varies herbs and animal parts, most of which are poisonous, as well as human remains.

This powder can then be administered through ingestion or injection and begins to take effect immediately. Immobility, slowed vitals, and reduced oxygen intake occur within minutes which results in the death-like paralysis where the victim is still fully conscious of their surroundings. Once officially declared dead, the victim is buried alive and within eight hours, the bokor digs up the body to keep the victim from actually dying from asphyxiation. Other procedures follow, which result in a mindless and easily controlled zombie which does the bidding of the bokor who created it. The person remains a zombie until the bokor passes away and is no longer capable of administering the drug that maintains the victim’s zombie-like state.

Clairvius Narcisse the Real Haitian Zombie

Creepy old, overgrown cemetary

Photography by NeONBRAND

Zombification is often referred to as either a solely magical or physical experience, but in truth it is a mixture of both, it’s essential for a person to have a belief in voodoo and the ability to be turned into a zombie in order for the process to work in its entirety. This was the case for Clairvius Narcisse, the man who claimed to be a zombie, but returned home after eighteen years and his story was finally told.

In 1962, Narcisse was admitted to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. He complained of fever, body aches, and ‘general malaise,’ but after being admitted he began to spit up blood. His condition declined rapidly, until two days later when he was officially pronounced dead by two separate physicians. Narcisse’s sister, Angelina, was present when he was declared dead and then notified the rest of the family, a day thereafter his body was buried, and ten days after that a concrete memorial slab was placed atop the grave by his family.

What most the family didn’t know is that Clairvius had actually been pulled out of the grave and resuscitated. He was given the zombie concoction and kept in a zombie-like state for two years, working as slave labor in a region of the country that was much farther north. This was all done at the behest of his brother, after refusing to sell his portion of the family estate to him. After two years of being a zombie, his master had been killed, then he and all of the other zombie-slaves were released from their chemical induced state of submission. Clairvius stayed away from his home for the next sixteen years, knowing that his return would make his brother aware that he was no longer being controlled by another. Once his brother passed, he finally returned home, where he approached his sister Angelina in a local marketplace and introduced himself by his childhood nickname which she and a few other intimate family members alone were aware of.

Investigating the Haitian Zombie with Hamilton Morris

The following six-part Vice production follows the investigation of The Haitian Zombie, with Hamilton’s Phramacopeia, in order to find the truth behind the folk magic and legends of this walking dead phenomenon; Hamilton follows the scientific trail to the origin of the poisons that are said to cause Zombification in order to bring them back for formal chemical analysis.


Please watch the following footage with discretion–there are scenes and images that some viewers may find disturbing.

These videos are meant to be educational in nature.


Part One

This first episode goes into the initial introduction, including the nature of what Zombification entails.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 05

Part Two

The following video contains graphic footage included in a voodoo ritual, in which an animal sacrifice is made for the Loa, please be advised it may be considered disturbing to some viewers.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 06

Part Three

In this third episode, Hamilton goes to find a Bokor in order to witness the process of Zombification, but results in angering the Bokor and being told the deal is off.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 07

Part Four

Hamilton goes to find the main ingredient of Zombie powder, in this fourth episodes, which is a species of puffer fish.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 08

Part Five

In the fifth part of Investigating the Haitian Zombie, Hamilton meets up with another Bokor who possesses the Zombie powder that they have been searching for and witnesses a real zombie.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 09

Part Six

The final installment of the investigation into Haitian zombies, they travel back to the Bokor who showed them what they had been searching for to come through with the final product they paid for.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 10

Knowing what we have learned from different sources, about the process of Zombification, can it truly be said that it is a purely chemical process? These videos in particular have all but debunked the rationale that it can all be chalked up to a chemical reaction, so some aspects of this spiritual process is often contributed to the powerful belief in their magical practices. What do you think about the phenomenon of Zombification? Let us know in the comments below.

Ghost Tales of the Arctic: Don’t Take What Belongs to the Dead

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore

While attending college in the Interior of Alaska, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Yup’ik—a Central Alaska Native language—on Halloween of my second year, my professor deemed it appropriate to tell us Alaska Native ghost stories. Hearing these stories in Yup’ik gave unique perspective on the particular experience of growing up in such a harsh environment, his soothing rhythm and melodious speech gave it all an otherworldly feeling. It’s important to keep in mind that while this story is told as a folktale, but all folktales begin as oral stories and all of them have honest beginnings.

The Ghost’s Tea Kettle

Snow covered graveyard
Photography by Joy Real

There once was a Yup’ik man and a white man who were traveling from one city to another, during one cold January, by dogsled. The two men came upon an abandoned fishcamp alongside the river, and wishing to avoid the harsh cold of the evening, they made camp in one of the houses for the night. They had forgotten to bring a teakettle, but longed for hot tea to provide relief from the chill of the night—the white man recalled having passed a graveyard near the fishcamp, in which there were several teakettles sitting beside some grave markers. Upon hearing the idea, the Yup’ik man told the white man that it was dangerous to take something out of the graveyard, but this advice fell upon deaf ears.

Once the white man had gotten back from retrieving a kettle from the graveyard, he began to boil snow for their tea, but the Yup’ik man refused to drink any. The two companions began to ready themselves for bed when they heard a snapping sound, the house began to shake, and fog began to drift in through every crack in the house. The white man panicked, he didn’t know what was happening, but the Yup’ik man explained to him that a ghost was trying to get into the house.

Rusty old tea kettle
Photography by Jørgen Håland

Suddenly, the door burst open violently, the ghost seeped into the house like a dense white mist, and the door slammed with a bang behind it. The white man screamed and attempted to run in fear, but his escape route had been sealed off by the ghost and he was trapped. The Yup’ik man approached the ghost without fear and put his hand on the ghost’s head—the ghost was so cold, his hand went numb, but he refused to remove it, knowing what he had to do. He gently applied pressure on the ghost’s head and the ghost began to sink slowly into the ground, but soon he grew anxious and tried to push the ghost down faster, this didn’t work to the Yup’ik man’s benefit and the ghost started to come back up.

The Yup’ik man steadied himself, took a breath, slowed down and pushed down once more with a steady and firm hand, until the ghost slowly disappeared into the ground entirely. Unable to stay in the house any longer, the two men packed up all of their belongings, the Yup’ik man told the white man to return the tea kettle to the grave from which it had been taken. They believed that returning the kettle that it would give them freedom from the ghost, but it continued to follow them as a glowing red orb—the Yup’ik man stopped and made markings in the snow, these prevented the ghost from following them, but ended with them becoming incredibly sick. Once they got to the next village, the Yup’ik man had them roll in garbage to throw the ghost off of their scent and then according to traditional practice when dealing with ghosts, they both urinated around their house to keep the ghost away. Eventually they recovered from their illness and left them with the experience that would help teach others to not take what belonged to the dead.

Vilified Voodoo Dolls: Can They Really Cause Harm?

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore

The Origin of Voodoo Dolls

Voodoo Market in Bohicon, Benin
Photography by Jean-Baptiste Dodane

While the exact origins of the Voodoo doll aren’t known, it can be tracked down from the Fon people of the region that now Benin. When slavery brought the voodoo religious practice to the Southern United States—specifically Louisiana—it brought along with it the practice of imbuing dolls with magical intent. Many sources say that voodoo dolls are not actually a practice associated with legitimate voodoo, but actual practitioners would disagree. Doll magic is a part of many magical spiritual paths, including European based folk magic, wherein people would create poppets much for the same reasons that are seen in the modern voodoo practice.

Although slaves were forbidden by slave owners to practice voodoo, it was still an extremely common practice. These dolls were frequently used in secret as a means of self-defense, it’s been speculated that this history of trauma is where the dolls originally obtained their reputation for being instruments of revenge. These days it’s not uncommon to see voodoo dolls being marketed specifically for harmful intentions, which contributes to their already dark reputation. It’s unfortunate, as many people are unaware of the common belief that the practice of darker magic ultimately brings around its own darker consequences for the user—depression, conflicts, bad luck, and overall negativity are things that using such methods can bring back. Glossing over details like this are reasons why dark and devious magic practices are often still the source of fright and horror. It wouldn’t look as good to have the main villain of a story worrying about their own comeuppance for using magic that might harm another individual.

During the reign of Marie Laveau, the Queen of Voodoo, the use of Voodoo dolls rose exponentially. Veering from the original practice of carved wooden figures, used to house spirits of those who have passed, the modern-day voodoo doll is typically a small, soft fabric doll used to represent a person who has not passed. Physically, voodoo dolls vary in the extremes, from the type of fabric, color, and pattern, the basic idea is that a hand-constructed doll is a representation of the intended target.

The Importance of Color

Voodoo dolls in the Voodoo Museum
Photography by Claudia Brooke

Color carries incredible meanings that differ from culture to culture, where love, anger, sadness, infidelity, and more can be expressed merely by the color of an object. Even the culture of flower arrangements had a huge impact on western culture, in which it combined the shades of flowers along with the type of flower being added to the bouquet. Departing from everyday meanings of color, it’s widely believed in many different metaphysical communities that different colors represent different aspects of life and the voodoo community is no exception.

Fabric and Pin Color

When it comes to the actual intention of the Voodoo Doll, one of the most important aspects is the color of the material the doll is made out of, as well as the clothing that the doll is dressed in. The colors with which the doll has been crafted directly correlate to what the doll is meant to be used for. As an example, a doll made of, or clothed in yellow fabric represents things like success, confidence, and attractiveness. Using black fabric for the doll would represent dispelling negative habits, grief, poverty, and bad luck—keeping in mind that a doll made from and fully clothed in black fabric would be used in what is considered “black” magic, which would result in the kind of magic that is often over-represented in television, movies, and books. So what about the pins that you stick in the doll? Well, unbeknownst to many, the color of the pins also holds significance, and the meaning of pin color actually varies more than you might suspect.

How Are They Used?

The concept of these dolls isn’t lost on most people, but the intention of them is frequently confused with how they are portrayed in movies and popular culture—diverse as this spiritual practice is in reality, Hollywood loves to vilify practices that are outside of what is deemed the normal scope of religious practices. This isn’t necessarily meant to be an affront to such practices, the practice of painting it with such broad evil strokes is because of how deeply submerged the actual spiritual practices are in mystery. Modern media portrays voodoo dolls being used by witch doctors, black magic practitioners, and pins that cause pain when placed, but the truth is far more interesting. When exploring this practice in-depth, we see that these dolls are meant to convey the intention of the user, for a full spectrum of uses—not just the dark aspects.

Voodoo doll resting against a book
Artwork by Mary Farnstrom

When the user is attempting to manifest their intent, they can use various personal objects for the target. Handwriting samples, locks of hair, a picture or piece of clothing, and even bodily fluids can be pinned to, or stuffed into the doll in an effort to pinpoint the target person—whether that person is alive or dead. To further manifest the doll as a representation of the target, the user may focus upon the intended person during meditation or spells, either by placing it upon their altar or while holding it. Additionally, specific herbs are often stuffed into the dolls and oils are also used to anoint the doll before use.

What is done with voodoo dolls once they have been used for their purpose? The final step when using a voodoo doll is as much of a variable as what the doll is made of. There are a few methods for finalizing, some elect to toss it into a river, or lake if available to them, others bury them in the ground, where still others may burn them. Each of these avenues is a symbolic reference to ending a particular spell—to give the doll up to a rushing river would be helpful in sweeping everything the doll represents away with the moving water; whereas burying would imply wanting a solid result, allowing the doll to disintegrate slowly and over time in the earth that surrounds it. Burning a doll has be the most profoundly symbolic way of disposing of the doll, where it is literally turned to ash and the manifestation is carried away into the air through smoke.

It’s not difficult to understand the illustrious dark connotations that voodoo dolls carry outside of the spiritual practice, as it’s steeped in mystery and misunderstood history.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster of Louisiana

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore
Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

Louisiana is rife with local folklore, particularly stemming from the untouched acres of the Honey Island Swamp just a short drive from New Orleans. These legends are of the pirates of the Bayou who were said to have hidden buried treasures, Native American ghosts, and the mysterious green lights that lure unsuspecting night travelers into the depths of the swamp, never to be seen again. These are just a few examples of all of the stories that are hidden in the unfathomable depths of the Louisiana swamps, which is home to the Honey Island Swamp Monster.

In August of 1963, Harlan Ford—a retired air traffic controller—was the first to catch sight of the bigfoot of the Bayou, having recently taken up wildlife photography. He described this seven-foot-tall, bipedal creature as being covered in grey hair, with yellow or red inhuman eyes set deep into its primatial face. The air hangs thick around this swamp monster, with an odor of rotting, decaying flesh—a smell so distinctive and disgusting that it would warn anyone of its presence.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster
Honey Island Swamp Monster

In 1974, the Honey Island Swamp Monster gained fame nationally, after Ford and his associate Billy Mills claimed to have found footprints that weren’t like any other creature in the area—these footprints according to myth, and a chance casting of a footprint found by these two men were at between ten to twelve inches long with three webbed toes, along with an opposable digit that was set much farther back than the others. Along with the luck of finding this footprint and casting it, they found the body of a wild board whose throat had been gashed open just a short way away. For the next six years, until his death in 1980, Ford continued to hunt for the creature—after his passing, a reel of Super 8 film was found among the belongings he had left behind, this film supposedly showed proof of the creature’s existence.

In the early twentieth century, before the first reported sighting of the Honey Island Swamp Monster by Ford, there was a legend of a traveling circus—traveling by train, a catastrophic wreck resulted in the escape of a group of chimpanzees. These chimpanzees were said to have gone deep into the swamps and interbred with the local alligator population. The Native Americans who called the area home, referred to the creature as the Letiche—they knew it as carnivorous, living both on land and in water—they believed this creature had originated as an abandoned child, raised by alligators in the darkest, most untouched regions of the swamp.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster caught on Super 8 Video footage

Researchers who have studied the lore of the Honey Island Swamp Monster, believe that it is related to Bigfoot—one reason that it is often referred to as the Bigfoot of the Bayou. While their description is similar, the tracks do not resemble those collected of Bigfoot from the Pacific North West. Despite the reputable nature of Ford and Mills, there have been a number of shows that have focused on hunting down the Honey Island Swamp Monster in order to prove the existence of this cryptid—all of them have come down on the side of the whole thing being a hoax, which isn’t entirely surprising.

Signup to our newsletter