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African American Folk Magic: Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork

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.

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Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult

The Voodoo Religion of New Orleans

Zombie standing in a dark cornfield
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The roots of voodoo run deep with the sordid history of slavery in America, originating from the traditional West African religion of vodoun (also vodun), it further evolved once it reached Haiti and Louisiana. Louisiana voodoo—properly known as vodoun—the queens and priestesses hold the highest position within this matriarchal religion. Something that may surprise those unfamiliar with vodoun, is that it’s actually a monotheistic religion which centers around the supreme creator, Bondye (French Creole for “good god”) who controls life and destiny. Bondye manifests his will through the many loa (also lwa) present within this belief system.

Loa: Spirits of Vodoun

The loa are spirits who connect the followers of vodoun to their deity—through the use of vèvè, symbols which serve as visual representation of the loa during ritual, practitioners are able to call upon the loa for their assistance in personal matters. Despite many people not having any formal knowledge of loa or their role in the religious practices of vodoun, they would easily recognize the visage of popular spirits such as Papa Ghede and Papa Legba, if not just as cultural references that they associate with New Orleans in general.

Assortment of voodoo dolls
Photography by Wian Juanico

Misconceptions of Voodoo Dolls

Misrepresented time and time again, voodoo dolls have come to represent something far beyond the reach of what they were originally used for. Hollywood would have us convinced that they’re instruments of evil, used to control the actions of people, or otherwise wreak havoc, and destroy their lives. Except voodoo dolls are not traditionally used to cause people harm in any sense of the word. These dolls are indeed used as a physical representation of the person who is the focus of the ritual, but instead of harm, they are often used for among other things, love, success, and healing.

The Mystery of Zombification

A far cry from the stereotypical walking dead that has made the horror genre of international cinema so powerful, the origin of zombies is quite a bit more disturbing than we’re used to these days. When it comes to the origin of zombie lore, the fear isn’t derived from the idea of being the main course of a zombie feast—instead it’s the idea of being turned into a zombie. The short and sweet version? Zombies as derived from the Haitian vodun practice are actually living people, who have been chemically induced to have no free-will.

New Orleans Voodoo Display
Photography by Jane Hawkner

Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork: African American Folk Magic

Many people believe that hoodoo and voodoo are interchangeable—it’s not a tough concept to explain that while they’re similar, they’re not the same, but it still seems to be an ongoing issue of mistaken identity. Voodoo, as has been explained now, is actually a religion that utilizes the folk magic practice, whereas hoodoo is actually just a folk magic practice with no hard and fast religious affiliation, although most practitioners identify as Protestant Christians. To be clear, hoodoo is but one of the most common types of African American Folk Magic, with other practices such as conjure and rootwork being nearly interchangeable with minimal differences, other than the region in which they are practiced.

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

Santería: The Worship of Saints

Another religion that is commonly mistaken for voodoo, is Santería—a religion that also has West African origins, but was further developed in Cuba among West African descendants. One of Louisiana’s best kept religious secrets, this Yoruba based religion merged with Roman Catholicism and embraced the Catholic saints, referred to often as orishas who act as emissaries to God—Olodumare.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster

Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

A legend known in the Bayou is that of the Honey Island Swamp Monster—a bipedal cryptid that is likened to bigfoot, but described physically as being quite dissimilar other than its stature. This grey-haired, yellow (or red, depending on the source) eyed monster is said to be a creature that was born from chimpanzees that escaped from a circus train that wrecked on the tracks, and the local alligator population.