Q&A Part II – Voodoo and Hoodoo

To pick up where I left off with The Road Less Traveled’s set of intricate questions, I will actually end up mirroring the methodology of the post which I submitted yesterday. I love writing about this kind of stuff and my noodle is brimming with commentary about the more intellectual aspects of Paganism, so this is all perfectly timed. Plus, taking many pages of commentary and boiling them down to three or so pages forces me to concentrate on the real crux of the issue. I just hope y’all enjoy eavesdropping on my answers to TRLT as much as I enjoy composing them. I think I’ve exhausted the portion that asks, “What is the main difference between” Witchcraft(s). Here I will look at the variation among Voodoo(s) so that I can also address Hoodoo later in this post. Sorcery will have to wait.

Just as across Europe there are sets of non-homogenous “versions” of Witchcraft, some falling under neoPagan Gardnerian paradigms, some not, there are many, many ATR-based[1] (African Traditional Religions) religions. Voodoo itself, like Witchcraft, is not a uniform system. In several countries Voodoo is practiced with varying traditions, purposes, and structures.

Bear in mind that my information regarding Voodoo and all other ATR-based religions is derived from a scholarly perspective only; I am an outsider of these traditions.

We are most familiar with Haitian Voodoo,[2] which is likely the most visible of the Voodoo traditions. Since the decline of Duvalierism, Voodoo has been instituted as a national religion with official status. This makes a big difference when you compare it to South American Voodoo. (Yes, I mean South American Voodoo – not Santeria. I’ll get to Santeria in a minute.) Consider the freedoms granted in a religion that is sanctioned by the government versus one that must operate in clandestine modes. In Venezuela, for instance, the accepted religion is Catholicism, however, folks practice Voodoo as a regular course. We are familiar with the syncretic correspondences made between Catholic saints and Voodoo loa (and Santarian orisha) and understand that this arose out of the need to veil the practices from the eyes of officials. In Venezuela, as I understand it, Voodoo practices are not outlawed, yet citizens “identify” themselves as Catholic. So it seems to me that Voodoo could be envisioned as either a systematic religion in toto (as in Haiti) or a limited practice with a syncretic relationship to Catholicism (as in Venezuela, Cuba, and other locales). Both must be, in my opinion, deemed valid; however we should be cautious to identify what we mean when we refer to “Voodoo” since there is such variance across cultures.

I know you didn’t ask this part, but I’d like to offer the information since I have it on hand. There are many other ATR-based religions that are alive and well in the 20th Century. Across the Caribbean and into South America, there are as many variations that stem back to African religions as there are Witchcraft traditions (as there are Christian denominations, for that matter). Just to name a few, consider Umbanda of Brazil, Candomble of Uruguay, and Cuban Santeria.

At this point, I’d like to jump ahead to one of your latter questions that I will answer in full later. You asked if a non-black could practice Voodoo. Based on what I’ve just said, the answer *must* be “yes.” Of course, one cannot be a Haitian Voodooist (or Voodooisant) unless one is, in fact, Haitian. (I’ll discuss New Orleans Haitian Voodoo soon.) The connection between the people of Haiti, its historical politics, its government and local officials, and its religion is strong.[3] Nonetheless, given the variety of Voodoo sects, we have to acknowledge that not all of their adherents are the same race.

Hoodoo, the way I have come to understand it, is not a religion per se. As a matter of fact, most hoodoos are Christian and regularly incorporate Biblical passages into Workings. Rather, hoodoo is a set of practices based on folk magics from many cultures. These cultures include: multiple ATRs, multiple Southeastern NATP (Native American Tribal Practices) – especially Cherokee –and (believe it or not) white European traditions like those brought over with the Pennsylvania Dutch hexmeisters, Scots-Irish herbalists and midwives, and Germanic occult practices. If you want more information, I recommend Hoodoo in Theory and Practice: An Introduction to African-American Rootwork by Catherine Yronwode,[4] the most recognized author in American Hoodoo. Part of her work explains:

Hoodoo consists of a large body of African folkloric practices and beliefs with a considerable admixture of American Indian botanical knowledge and European folklore. Although most of its adherents are black, contrary to popular opinion, it has always been practiced by both whites and blacks in America. (“Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork: Definition of Terms”)

This makes sense the more I learn. For instance, The Bad Witch loves etymology. The origin of a word can tell you everything you need to know about a concept; or it can point you away from long-held misunderstandings about a concept. The etymology of hoodoo surprised me. Of course, hoodoo can be used as a verb, a noun referring to the practice, a noun referring to the practitioner, or an adjective. But while most dictionaries link hoodoo to voodoo, I found that the word hoodoo enters the American language in 1875, just before conjure comes to be used as a synonym for hoodoo in 1889.[5] So a connection between hoodoo and voodoo doesn’t make any sense, and is likely why the connection is disregarded by linguistic researchers. For example, Daniel Cassidy, author of How the Irish Invented Slang: The Secret Language of the Crossroads (CounterPunch Books and AK Press. July 2007), hoodoo is actually connected more clearly to the Gaelic, Uath Dubh, which is pronounced hoo doo.[6] So, it sounds to me that hoodoo is intended for anyone at all – but seems to have originated in Appalachia.[7] Hoodoo is also directly connected with and alternately referred to as “conjuration.” To conjure is both to summon and to influence. In the form of influencing, this is nothing more than basic Witchcraft. In the form of summoning, this is a little more like Sorcery. In my next post, I’ll talk about the difference between Goetia and Theurgy. This will, I hope, flesh in issues of Hoodoo conjure.

Also, as I understand it, hoodoo is non-hierarchical and non-initiatory. Whereas Haitian Voodoo adheres to a strict code of initiation, “couche,” and formal training (again, see Filan for the politics of the situation), hoodoo does not. This is likely where Louisiana or New Orleans Voodoo comes in. NOLA Voodoo is formally initiatory and prospective hoguns and mambos are expected to go to Haiti or Africa for initiation. I met one man in NOLA who claimed to be an authentically initiated Voodoo hogun; he was white. So it seems that whites can, in fact be Haitian initiated Voodooists. But, I have also heard that there are scammers in NOLA who claim to be trained or initiated in Africa, but are not. And I have heard that there are scammers in Africa who charge exorbitant amounts to conduct initiations for Americans, initiations that are not officially recognized by native practitioners. The lineage of white Voodoo “leaders” is often suspect – whether this suspicion is founded or not.

Most of the scholarship I look at argues that because Voodoo was a way for African-Americans to have a measure of influence over whites, they would have never conferred legitimate power on someone without any African lineage. But, this contradicts what I know: Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman is Jewish/Ukrainian, right? And only three (?) of the Mambos on the Haunted New Orleans “top ten” list (however valid that is) are black.

I am, admittedly befuddled on this subject. And we can’t really take anecdotal evidence here, considering the possibility of scams, now can we? Can anyone offer clarification?

To address your question of the origins of power, my understanding is that hoodoo attributes magical acts to personal power and to the natural properties of herbs, roots, minerals, etc.[8] As for a pantheon? Because hoodoos tend to be Christian and not Pagan, I would imagine that Jehovah is a viable supreme God; but because hoodoo is not a religion, but a practice, it seems to me that you should be able to Work within any religion that did not contradict hoodoo. There is also at least one commonly recognized African deity; known as Legba (aka Nbumba, Nzila, Ellegua, and Eshu), he is the “dark man” one can meet at the crossroads. As the keeper of the gate between life and death, a trickster, he seems to be more like the Pagan Devil than Biblical Satan. Where hoodoo connects the idea of “sin” and “evil” is beyond me at the moment. I do get the impression that death and hell are not nearly as terrifying as they are in many other Christian systems. And it also seems to me that it is not necessary to be a Christian to practice hoodoo.

The same goes for sorcery – which I’ll address tomorrow!

Thanks for hanging in there!


[1] And when I say “ATR-based,” it is with the realization that “Voudon” is historically (whether accurately or not, I haven’t checked the sources) to Nigeria and Dahomey. Yorùbá comes from, well, Yoruba. Both of these are the more recognized stem-religions from which most ATR-based traditions, like Palo, Congo, and Bantu, branch.

[2] And if you are not, there are two films I recommend: The Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti, based on Maya Deren’s work between 1947 and 1954 – so long as you promise to take it in a historical context – and Buying the Spirit, by Journeyman Pictures (2003).

[3] If you are interested in this topic, I *highly* recommend The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa by Kenaz Filan (Destiny Books, 2006).

[4] I have been instructed to read it in its entirety by Maman Lee. It’s truly fascinating. Yronwode explains the admixtures of of not only ATR, NATP, and European occult practices as mentioned above, but she also discusses Middle-Eastern (Kabbalist and Judeo-Christian) and Eastern (Hindu and Taoist/Buddhist) influences on Hoodoo. Some really cool and well-documented stuff.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary. “Hoodoo,” n and adj , 1; “Conjure,” n, 3.

[6] Uath Dubh means:

Dark specter, evil phantom, a malevolent thing; horror, dread; a dark, spiky, evil-looking thing. Uath, (pron. voo) n., a form or shape; a spectre or phantom; dread, terror, hate. . . . Dubh, (pron. doo), adj., dark; black; malevolent, evil; wicked; angry, sinister; gloomy, melancholy; strange, unknown. (O’Donaill, Niall and Patrick Stephen Dinneen. Focloir Gaeilge-Bearla/Irish-English Dictionary. de Bhaldraithe, Tomás. English-Irish Dictionary. Dwelly, Edward. Faclair Gàidhlig gu Beurla le Dealbhan/The Illustrated [Scottish] Gaelic- English Dictionary)

[7] By the way, there is a newfound interest in a thing referred to as “Granny Magic.” I was very keen on the concept, but the more I read the more I think it is misrepresented. Maybe I’ll tackle that later. Maybe in answer to the new question you posed!

[8] This doesn’t contradict my earlier statement that I believe power comes from the Creator. In panetheistic views, the Creator is always already immanent in all of Creation. So, cool.


7 comments on “Q&A Part II – Voodoo and Hoodoo

  1. ladyimbrium says:

    My only experience with anyone from this diverse family of spiritual practices is a series of long and fascinating conversations with an Umbandan houngan and his partner who is a Hatian Voodon mambo. I believe that both were of at least primarily Western European descent. They also said something I found very interesting regarding the syncretic tendencies of the systems: all are welcome to the table.

    That’s just about everything I know about the subject.

  2. So would I need to go and get initiated in Haiti in or order to practice New Orleans Voodoo, or is that only if I desire to claim the title of hogun or mambo? Is there information that is only privy to the initiated in New Orleans Voodoo? Cuz I’ve been getting my info from books, and blogs, and forums, so is the information released in books like “The Voodoo Hoodoo Spell Book” by Denise Alvarado an accurate portrayal of main stream New Orleans Voodoo, or is it a personal tradition?

    Oh, and I will definetly check out some of the other books you’ve mentioned 🙂

  3. This has been a fascinating and, for me, educational look at comparative practices in ‘magic traditions’. I love the Gaelic etymology for ‘Hoodoo’; I am always fascinated by the actual pronunciation of Gaelic (and Welsh, if the two are separate) selling. Having demonstrated my ignorance to my own satisfaction, I’ll end with a simple ‘thank you for explaining all that’! 🙂 I continue to really enjoy your posts.

  4. […] Sorcery or High Magic is not a religion. It is a set off praxes and can (like Hoodoo, I suppose) be practiced alongside a religion. There are Judeo-Christian Sorceries, Islamic […]

  5. […] Traveled to reeeeealy articulate the difference in several traditions—some of which are my own, some of which I didn’t understand nearly as well as I did after being asked to clearly express those distinctions—I found that my […]

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