A brief history of American Conjure and its influences
Conjure (also known as “hoodoo” or “rootwork”) is a style of African-American folk magic practiced in the Old South, before the American Civil War.
For hundreds of years, millions of men, women and children representing countless African tribes were kidnapped and brought to the New World to work on cotton plantations and cut sugar cane, bringing with them their own shamanic beliefs – special ways of healing people with plants, looking into the future, or attacking enemies in their dreams.
African slaves in Catholic slave colonies like Cuba, Brazil and Haiti combined their gods and magical traditions with the saints, masses and rituals of Roman Catholicism to create new religions: Santeria, Voodoo, Palo Mayombe, and countless others.
The United States was different because most Southern landowners were Baptist Protestants – a highly individualistic strain of Christianity that rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, celebrating the individual believer’s relationship to the Holy Spirit instead.
Forcibly converted to Christianity, early Conjure practitioners adapted their shamanic techniques to the Baptist worldview, particularly embracing the practices of:
- Faith Healing
- Baptism by water
- Speaking in tongues
- The reading of Psalms
These were combined with various Central African folkways, including:
- Ancestor worship
- A reliance on the crossroads as a spiritual vortex of chance, choice and fate
- The use of footprint and graveyard dirt in contagious and sympathetic magic
- Invoking and forming magical alliances with the forces of nature through roots, bones and stones
- Taking magical baths in various herbs to alter one’s “luck”
What evolved was not a new religion, but a uniquely African-American understanding of the Bible as a secret key to the mysteries of existence, revealing the word of Spirit to captives in exile, giving them hope and the endurance to press on when all seemed lost.
Figures like Moses – a mystic prophet who sent supernatural plagues to curse the Egyptians until Pharaoh finally relented and free the slaves – became special heroes to practitioners of the art (called “root doctors”); so too Jesus, an eccentric healer who was falsely accused, whipped half to death and executed in the prime of his years by a hypocritical power structure blind to its own cruelty.
Relying on a mixture of Native American plant lore, Scriptural inspiration and African shamanism, the slaves worked with plants and soil from the natural world around them to summon powerful, destiny altering forces, kindling love affairs, escaping punishment, healing diseases and even administering justice when necessary.
With the end of slavery came the great northern migration, as former sharecroppers and maids moved from the rural South to industrial hubs like Chicago and Detroit, bringing with them soul food, jazz and conjure.
Here, their magical practices were transformed yet again with the introduction of various new spiritual tools from corner Jewish drugstores – candles, mass-manufactured oils and all of the popular spell books known to mail-order conjure today.
Surviving, adapting and evolving as a powerful magical form for hundreds of years, conjure thus represents the unique genius of a people to survive and thrive under the harshest of conditions, to maintain their dignity, solve their problems and find even joy in the midst of despair.
Conjure retains its appeal today for its uniquely practical and down-to-earth approach to the problems of everyday life, drawing its inspiration from the very best and worst we have to offer as a species.
It is my sincere hope that this humble offering may in some small way contribute some small measure of insight to those unfamiliar with this resilient and utterly beautiful art.