Gnostic and Countercultural Elements in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Hoodoo in America”

In: Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies

Over the last decade, religious studies scholars have given attention to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Hoodoo in America.” These works, however, have not considered the important role of gnosis in hoodoo. This article acts to extend this literature by examining how Hurston employs secret knowledge to advance a particular understanding of hoodoo. Specifically, I argue that Hurston’s ethnographic study of New Orleans hoodoo captures a system of African-derived magical practices that is characterized by both gnostic and countercultural elements. These elements in turn reveal an intricate relationship between gnosis, human agency, and material culture that finds expression in the complex ritual system of New Orleans hoodoo.

Abstract

Over the last decade, religious studies scholars have given attention to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Hoodoo in America.” These works, however, have not considered the important role of gnosis in hoodoo. This article acts to extend this literature by examining how Hurston employs secret knowledge to advance a particular understanding of hoodoo. Specifically, I argue that Hurston’s ethnographic study of New Orleans hoodoo captures a system of African-derived magical practices that is characterized by both gnostic and countercultural elements. These elements in turn reveal an intricate relationship between gnosis, human agency, and material culture that finds expression in the complex ritual system of New Orleans hoodoo.

“A Genius of the South” is the inscription etched on the gravestone of novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. As a literary figure, Hurston published over fifty short stories and seven novels, which include Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, and Moses, Man of the Mountain.1 These works solidify Hurston as a novelist. More importantly though, they serve as markers used to designate her as a folklorist of African Diaspora culture, primarily because her novels contain rich folklorist content drawn from Southern regions of the United States, Jamaica, and Haiti.

While Hurston’s literary works are essential to consider, her academic publications are also equally as important when examining her multi-dimensional professional life. Hurston’s first journal article, “Hoodoo in America,” is a one-hundred page culmination of extensive anthropological fieldwork conducted in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. In this work, Hurston provides a comprehensive study of hoodoo. Specifically, she defines hoodoo as a system of transplanted African rituals and practices transmitted through esoteric knowledge.2

While some scholars have given attention to the overall religious significance of “Hoodoo in America,” they have paid little attention to the use of esoteric knowledge in hoodoo.3 This current article serves as a corrective in that it focuses on the central role that gnosis plays in the transmission of hoodoo.4 Specifically, I argue that Hurston’s ethnographic study of New Orleans hoodoo captures a system of African-derived ritual practices that is characterized by gnostic and countercultural elements. These practices, which are presented in the form of ritual prescriptions, possess a gnostic quality because they represent secret forms of knowledge used by the hoodooist (i.e. practitioner of hoodoo) to transform the everyday life realities of their clients. These ritual prescriptions, particularly in the eyes of hoodooists, represent hidden truths that have been transmitted by means of heredity, apprenticeship, or the “call.”5

Beyond this gnostic element, I seek to show how Hurston’s work illustrates at least two ways in which New Orleans hoodoo is counterculture. First, it, on one hand, is publicly seen in direct opposition to Catholicism, the dominant religious tradition in New Orleans. On the other hand, however, hoodoo culturally aligns itself with Catholicism through the incorporation of material culture into its ritual practices. Secondly, New Orleans hoodoo acts as counterculture because its practitioners deliberately integrate Catholicism into their ritual performances. For instance, initiation rituals are conducted on Catholic feast days; Catholic devotion candles are used to secure financial success; and images of saints like St. Benedict and St. Roque are employed to ascertain tranquility and real estate. While this form of ritual blending is publicly deemed as unacceptable, it is acceptable to many leading New Orleans hoodooists who unapologetically blend Catholicism and hoodoo in many of their ritual practices.6 Taken together, these gnostic and countercultural elements of New Orleans hoodoo correspond to rituals, prescriptions, and practices that, upon examination, reveal an intimate interaction between gnosis, human agency, and material culture usage.

The three sections of this article examine this relationship. The first section explores how Hurston acknowledges and attempts to resolve an antithetical relationship between Catholicism and hoodoo by looking at the ways that both traditions manipulate material culture to ascertain desired outcomes. It is this very relationship between these two religious traditions that I maintain results in the creation of a complex system of rituals, which is transmitted in the form of secret knowledge. The second section looks at how these rituals employ principles of opposition and attraction to mimic the countercultural relationship between New Orleans hoodoo and Catholicism. The concluding section provides a case study analysis of four ritual prescriptions drawn from “Hoodoo in America” to further highlight the instrumental role that gnosis plays in New Orleans hoodoo. This detailed analysis is meant to provide an intimate view of how hoodooists employ transmitted secret knowledge of material manipulation (specifically the altering of sand and magnets) to attract favorable results by countering undesirable conditions.

Gnosis, Counterculture, and New Orleans Hoodoo

In a 1928 letter written to fellow Harlem Renaissance artist Langston Hughes, Hurston writes, “I have landed here in the kingdom of Marie Laveau and expect to wear her crown someday—Conjure Queen as you suggested.”7 As the letter implies, Hurston’s arrival in New Orleans signals the beginning of her ethnographic research on hoodoo, or as she calls it conjure. What she encounters is a city whose religious identity can best be described as a hybrid of Catholic dominance and multi-faith diversity. By 1928, Catholicism had been a part of the city’s ecclesiastical landscape for well over two centuries and continued to secure its dominance through the establishment of a multitude of parishes (including fifteen African American parishes), seminaries, convents, and colleges (e.g. Xavier University).

This Catholic preeminence, however, did not preclude religious diversification. For example, enslaved Africans who helped erect the city’s infrastructure in the early 1720s brought with them their own religious belief systems and practices. The second and third articles of the Code Noir, a royal edict issued in 1724, which prohibits the observance of any other religion outside of Catholicism, act as a means to regulate enslaved populations in general and non-Catholic religions in particular that were operative in these same communities.8 Despite these legal attempts, religious diversification takes place primarily in the following forms: (1) the influx of Protestants after the Louisiana purchase, (2) the increased presence of Haitian Vodou with the rising population of immigrants from Saint-Domingue, and (3) the immigration of Europeans with diverse spiritual practices such as mesmerism, spiritism, and other folk forms of Catholicism.9

Despite the presence of this religious diversity, Hurston notes that Catholicism remained the “dominant religion” in New Orleans. Again, the city uses the law to ensure the continuation of this dominance. For example, Hurston discusses how the forbiddance of fortunetellers outlined in Ordinance 13347 impacted her research on hoodoo. She states, “I could see distrust in his eyes, [and because] the City of New Orleans has a law against fortune tellers, hoodoo doctors and the like, he all but threw me out.”10 Here, Hurston describes an ethos of distrust that she had to overcome in order to work with renowned hoodooists in the city. More importantly, she highlights how the complexities of hoodoo are flattened and equated to that of fortunetelling—a form of divination that centers on making predictions about an individual’s life. New Orleans hoodooists, in response to this type of judicial marginalization, began to practice their faith in private, residential spaces. Accordingly, hoodoo becomes, as Hurston states, “a suppressed religion [with] thousands of secret adherents [whose] worship is bound in secrecy [because] it is not an accepted theology.”11 [emphasis added] According to Hurston, this suppression is, on the one hand, the direct result of discriminatory laws like Ordinance 13347. However, on the other hand, she maintains that hoodooists practice in secrecy because their practices are categorized as unacceptable in relationship to the normative Catholic orientation that dominates the New Orleans’ religious identity. Hurston, in a letter written to Langston Hughes during her research trip in New Orleans, takes this oppositional conceptualization of hoodoo to task:

I am convinced that Christianity as practiced is an attenuated form of nature-worship. Let me explain. The essentials are a belief in the Trinity, baptism, sacrament. Baptism is nothing more than water worship as has been done in one form or the other down thru the ages . . . . I [also] find fire-worship in Christianity too. What was the original purpose of the altar in all churches? For sacred fire and sacrifices BY FIRE. The burnt offering is no longer made, but we keep the symbol in the candles, the alter and the term sacrifice. Symbols my opponents are going to say. But they cannot deny that both water and fire are purely material things and that they symbolize man’s tendency to worship those things which benefit him to a great extent . . . Sympathetic magic pure and simple. They have a nerve to laugh at conjure.12

For Hurston, Christianity’s foundational tenets are based on human recognition of nature’s power. Water possesses the ability to both cleanse the individual and initiate a process of spiritual re-birth. Fire consumes sacrifices that are offered to God. Both fire and water usage, according to Hurston, reveals the significant role of materiality in the everyday realities of Christians. It is this interconnection between divine access, material culture, and human agency that the Catholic authoritative structure in New Orleans uses to posit hoodoo as a counter religion but that Hurston maintains connects Catholicism to religions like hoodoo. In this way, Hurston raises the following question: Why do Christians (read: Catholics in New Orleans) laugh at hoodoo when at the root of both religions is the human manipulation of material realities in order to ascertain a beneficial outcome?

What Hurston ultimately identifies in the above question is a connective thread between Catholicism and hoodoo, which allows her to see a cultural alignment between the two religious traditions. Conjoined with the previously described oppositional view, hoodoo can be truly presented as a countercultural religion. Hoodoo, in relationship to the publicly accepted religious identity of New Orleans, is in opposition to Catholicism, but hoodoo is also culturally aligned with the dominant religion due to its doctrinal emphasis on divine/human agency and material manipulation.

This countercultural orientation is further complicated when Hurston introduces the important function of secret knowledge (i.e. gnosis) in hoodoo. In the New Orleans section of “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston describes in detail several initiation rituals that she had to complete in order to ascertain secret ritual prescriptions. For example, Hurston terminates a detailed description of her initiation with hoodooist Albert Frechard with the following words: “I was told to burn the marked candle every day for two hours—from eleven till one, in the northeast corner of the room. While it is burning I must go into the silence and talk to the spirit through the candle. On the fifth day Albert called again and I resumed my studies, but now as an advanced pupil.”13 As a student, Hurston receives instructions from Frechard on how to tap into the spiritual dimension to apprehend esoteric knowledge from one of the many spirits in the hoodoo pantheon. Thus, Hurston gains access to a secret knowledge that can only be learned through experiential means.

In addition to highlighting the instrumentality of secret knowledge in the propagation of hoodoo, the above excerpt captures another, even more important role that gnosis plays in hoodoo. Hurston recognizes that a divine source is the origin of the secret knowledge that she learns but maintains that it is through the lit candle that this form of gnosis is transmitted to her. Gnosis in this way functions as a mediating medium between agency (whether human or divine) and the use of materiality to achieve desired outcomes. In other words, the hoodooist possesses the knowledge to manipulate objects and get results. It is here at this juncture between gnosis, human agency, and materiality that New Orleans hoodoo can be characterized by its gnostic and countercultural elements, for it is a religious system propagated by esoteric knowledge, publicly conceived of as oppositional to Catholicism, and, as argued by Hurston, doctrinally aligned with Catholicism by way of human manipulation of material culture to gain desired outcomes.

The relationship between Catholicism and New Orleans hoodoo is vital to consider because it highlights gnostic and countercultural aspects of hoodoo. Equally as important though is a consideration of a specialized system of hoodoo rituals that results from this countercultural interaction between Catholicism and hoodoo. These rituals of attraction involve the use of specific material or objects to draw a favorable outcome by countering unfavorable conditions. Attraction here is a form of alignment between the client’s desire and perceived ritual outcome. Unlike cultural alignment, a notion presented earlier, this form of alignment is not premised on similarity, instead it involves the lining up of desire and outcome that results from the ritual space of attraction created by the hoodooist’s manipulation of material culture. Thus, whether located in private, residential spaces or public places like a courthouse or a church, these spaces are meant to attract desired outcomes by aligning them with the actual desires of the client. The drawing of these favorable outcomes results from the repulsion of tangible or spiritual forces. In this way, rituals of attraction are oppositional in that they counter undesirable conditions in order to attract what the client desires.

For instance, this use of materiality to attract by means of repulsion can be found in a ritual prescription that a New Orleans hoodooist shares with Hurston on how to win a court case. He instructs her to chew a plant known as Wish Beans (also known as St. Joseph beans) and scatter the hulls on the courtroom floor. This action, the hoodooist maintains, draws pleasurable words from testifying witnesses, which results in the judge deciding in favor of the client.14 In this way, the manipulation of a certain plant transforms the courtroom into a space of attraction because it draws favor to the petitioning client through the repulsion of potentially negative testimonies.

Here and throughout many other detailed transcriptions of these rituals of attraction, Hurston highlights the variety of ways that materiality acts as an agent of attraction (via alignment between client’s desires and actual outcomes) and opposition. She explores how the hoodooist uses secret knowledge about material manipulation to attract desirable results and oppose undesirable forces. What Hurston ultimately captures is a system of ritual practices that counter normative ways of achieving the same results. For instance, an individual uses Wish Beans to win a court case, instead of depending on solid legal representation. These hoodoo rituals of attraction in this way possess a countercultural function that mimics the relationship between New Orleans hoodoo and Catholicism, which is premised on cultural alignment with and opposition to the normative religious culture (read Catholicism) in the Crescent City. This countercultural orientation is further made evident in Hurston’s transcriptions of rituals of attraction that employ fundamental principles of magnetism to draw the desires of clients by countering undesirable conditions.

Magnetism and the Countercultural Function of New Orleans Hoodoo Rituals

Hurston’s definition of hoodoo is worth repeating here for it highlights constitutive elements of material magnetism, as it is used in New Orleans hoodoo. For Hurston, hoodoo is a blended system of African-derived rituals that utilizes organic elements like herbs and inorganic objects such as candles, metal coins, oils, and water to draw desired results for individual clients. This definition focuses on the how or processual aspects of New Orleans hoodoo. Specifically, it focuses on material manipulation and the drawing of desired results. Hurston illustrates the inseparability of these two processes in a ritual description taught to her by hoodooist Ruth Mason, which is worth quoting at length:

To rule a man head and feet: Get his sock. Take one silver dime, some hair from his head or his hatband. Lay the sock out on a table, bottom up. Write his name three times and put it on the sock. Place the dime on the name and the hair or hatband on the dime. Put a piece of “he” Lodestone on top of the hair and sprinkle it with steel dust. As you do this, say, “Feed the he, feed the she.” That is what you calling feeding the Lodestone. Then fold the sock heel on the toe and roll it all up together tight. Pin the bundle by crossing two needles. Then wet it with whiskey and set it up over the door.15

What this ritual prescription captures is the satisfaction of human desire by means of material manipulation. The petitioning woman desires to have authority over her man’s mental and physical faculties. So, in order to accomplish this task, the hoodooist gives the woman a list of specific objects—a sock, dime, lodestone, steel dust, and of course, strands of her partner’s hair—needed to perform the ritual. The hoodooist, then, provides step-by-step instructions on how to manipulate these objects. For instance, the woman is instructed to create a compact stack of objects arranged in the following order: a piece of paper with the man’s name, a dime, a sample of his hair, a lodestone, and steel dust. This stack is enclosed in the sock, soaked with liquor, secured with pins, and strategically placed above the front door, where the man is sure to pass.

The physical alteration of these objects is quite obvious in the above description. The variety of ways in which a hoodooist like Mason uses an object’s composition to get a particular result is less obvious, however. Specifically, Mason’s ritual prescription calls for the inclusion of objects with certain magnetic properties. These objects are instrumental in that they are the driving force behind a particular process in hoodoo known as magnetic drawing—a process that draws the desire of the petitioner through the creation of a field of attraction. The lodestone, for instance, is a magnetite (black iron oxide) that attracts an iron alloy like steel dust. Mason’s ritual stack utilizes these two objects in conjunction with a metal dime and the man’s hair to draw a specific desired result. Taken together, these objects, once rolled in the sock and soaked in whiskey (agent used to further awaken the lodestone), act as a magnet, for it attracts the man’s energy so that the petitioning woman can easily control his mind and body. The selection and manipulation of objects with magnetic properties illustrate that Mason not only possesses a working knowledge of basic magnetism, but that she also knows how to integrate these scientific principles into a ritual scheme to secure actual desired outcomes. This ability in and of itself is a form of gnosis or, according to Hurston, secret knowledge that is transmitted “in one of three ways: by heredity, by serving an apprenticeship under an established practitioner, or by the call.”16 Regardless of the path, the importance here lies in the instrumental role that magnetism as a form of esoteric knowledge plays in New Orleans hoodoo.

While Hurston highlights the variety of ways that New Orleans hoodooists use other substances like Essence of Attraction and Powder of Attraction to create ritual spaces of magnetism, she commits a considerable amount of space in “Hoodoo in America” examining how sand functions in this same capacity. Sand is generally described as “loose material consisting of small but easily distinguishable grains resulting from the disintegration of rocks.”17 New Orleans hoodooists indeed use this form of sand in many of their rituals. They, however, also employ the term as a descriptor in that sand for them represents fine grains of magnetic material (e.g. powered gold gilt and silver gilt). Sand of this sort possesses the ability to attract desired conditions, objects, and/or subjects. This latter understanding of sand incorporates general aspects of magnetism. Acting as magnetic material, sand has the ability to produce a magnetic field. Representing the immediate area surrounding the magnet, this field produces magnetic forces of both attraction and repulsion. For New Orleans hoodooists, then, sand is used to create a magnetized environment of attraction, which is the necessary condition needed to draw what the client desires. These desires, as discussed in Hurston’s essay, includes but are not limited to:

  1. Bringing spouses that have gone astray back home.
  2. Attracting potential intimate partners and/or friends.
  3. Gaining financial success.
  4. Drawing death to specific named individuals.

New Orleans hoodooists in this way employ sand to generate magnetic forces that are capable of “influencing the action of others” and to create specific conditions in order to enhance the client’s “own personal well-being.” In other words, sand creates magnetism, establishes an alignment between the client and her desires (by way of attraction/repulsion), and actualizes said desires to enhance the everyday life realities of the petitioner.

The ‘Secret’ is in the Sand: Case Study Analysis of Hoodoo Rituals of Attraction

In this section, a smaller sample of New Orleans hoodoo rituals is treated as case study material. Such an approach affords a closer look at the variety of ways that Catholic hoodooists like Marie Laveau, Albert Frechard, and Father Simms use sand to create ritual spaces of magnetism to draw love, companionship, and death. It is important to note here that Hurston highlights the religious orientation of these hoodooists to further advance a notion of cultural alignment and opposition between Catholicism and hoodoo. These Catholic hoodooists are authoritative human agents who possess esoteric knowledge of how to manipulate material objects like sand to attract what the client desires. They use revelatory forms of esoteric knowledge to provide their clients with ritual prescriptions that involves the manipulation of materiality to attract what a client desires. The actualization of such an attraction is obtained by eliminating oppositional forces that have initially blocked these desires. Overall, this in-depth analysis offers a compelling view of the working relationship between human agency, gnosis, materiality, and magnetism in New Orleans hoodooism.

Ritual “Works” of Marie Laveau

Marie Laveau, while quite often associated with Louisianan Voodoo, was also a member of St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic parish in New Orleans. She was indeed, in the words of anthropologist Martha Ward, “a Catholic in the morning and Voodoo[ist] by night.”18 Hurston bestows Laveau with yet another title. She refers to Laveau as “the greatest hoodoo queen in America.”19 This designation explains why Hurston commits a considerable amount of time outlining hoodoo rituals that have been credited to Laveau. It is important to know that these Laveau rituals have been passed down solely through a genealogical form of oral transmission. Thus, Hurston’s primary task was to find a hoodooist in Laveau’s lineage. Samuel Thompson, a devout Catholic and allegedly the grandnephew of Laveau, became a primary source for Hurston. He shared with Hurston a body of ritual formulas that were passed down to him from his mother and grandmother, who were both hoodooists in New Orleans. These rituals are known as the “traditional works of Marie Leveau [Hurston’s spelling].”20

Each of these works consists of three parts. The first part is known as the petition. Here, the client gives reverence to Laveau, describes in great detail her condition, and asks for guidance in attending to this particular matter. “Answering directions from the God” follows the petition.21 This answer is of divine origin but utilizes the hoodooist as a conduit. In this role, the hoodooist conveys specific instructions that the petitioning client must follow in order to resolve the condition presented in the supplication. Each of Laveau’s ritual prescriptions ends with the following affirmation: So Be It. This verbal proclamation from the hoodooist assures the client that her issue is resolved, as long as she carries out the prescribed ritual given to her by the God. What follows are two abbreviated examples of Laveau rituals, which vividly illustrates the use of sand to create magnetic ritual spaces:

Ritual 1: The Lady Whose Husband Left Home

Supplicant: O, good mother, I come unto you in deep distress and tears have coursed my face in the dark hours of the night, for him who was flesh of my flesh, the blood of my heart and the companion of my soul, my dear husband, has left home and gone from my side.

The God: O, my good daughter, do not lose hope and faith, for the stars say that there is a way to make your loved one’s spirit commune with you and to have him come back to your side, there to remain and to comfort you and protect you. In order to bring this about . . . you will into your house bring a magnetic horse shoe, that which is red in the circle and bright on the ends, and you will get of the Gold Magnetic Sand and Silver Magnetic Sand, of each one drachma. These you will pour of each on the bright end of the magnetic horse shoe so that some will remain on it. This you will do to attract his love again, and so that his gold, his silver, his worldly goods shall remain with you. [emphasis added]

Affirmation: So Be It.22

Ritual 2: The Lady Who Cannot Keep Lady Friends

Supplicant: O, good mother, the evil spirit seems to completely envelope me. I have no attraction, no sympathy from my kind. My lady friends look at me with indifference. Their friendship is only lukewarm. Their indifference is great. Their sympathy for me has fled. I ask them and they promise, but they do not do as I ask. I invite them and they say yes, but they do not come . . . . So I seem to have lost the power to hold my friendships. [emphasis added]

The God: Oh, my daughter . . . you have lost your magnetism, so your actions do not attract others to you. Look well to yourself first. Take heed that you try to value your friends. For the spirits have said that she who wishes to get back her power to attract must put around her neck a small bag made of the skin of the chamois who lives in the mountain. And she must make the bag round so that there shall be no beginning and no end to her friendship. And, into this bag she shall put a drachma of the silver magic sand and a drachma of the powder of the violet root made of the heart of root, so that she shall receive of the heart of the earth, and the magic of the stars.

Affirmation: So Be It23

An analysis of these two ritual formulas reveals at least three commonalities. First, both rituals begin with a petition made on behalf of each client to restore a broken relationship. The first client wants her husband back and the other one seeks female companionship. Secondly, the God (who is Laveau) identifies a loss of attraction as the cause behind the fractural states described in each petition. The first woman’s home has experienced a loss of attraction, which has lead to her husband leaving the home. However, the second woman is herself the reason behind her lack of friends, for according to the God, she has lost her magnetism.

Lastly, and more importantly, both rituals illustrate the ways in which hoodooists like Laveau employ sand to create ritual spaces of attraction in order to recover that which was lost. For instance, the first ritual prescription calls for two types of magnetic sand: silver magnetic sand and gold magnetic sand. Silver magnetic sand is composed of minute particles of iron, while gold magnetic sand is finely ground lodestone, an iron oxide mineral that naturally attracts iron. The God instructs the client to use these sands in conjunction with a magnetic horseshoe. Pouring these magnetic sands unto the ends of this horseshoe creates two forces of attraction: one between the gold and silver particles of sand and the second between the sand and the polar ends of the magnet. These forces act as a strong magnetic field that draws the client husband’s spirit. It is important to note that hoodooists like Laveau are interested in attracting the spirit, for the God states that the overall goal is to re-establish a communion between the woman and her husband’s spirit. In addition to attracting the essence of a person, the conjoined use of gold and silver magnetic dust draws worldly goods.

The second ritual prescription utilizes sand to magnetize the person not the residence. The client is instructed to place a small bag around her neck that contains silver magnetic sand and powder of violet root. The violet root is a strong attractant usually prescribed to women. The powdered form of this root combined with the magnetized sand is meant to draw female friends to the female client. Because these attractants are worn on the body, the client becomes an embodied form of magnetism exerting magnetic influence over potential lady friends. What these two rituals ultimately illustrate are the ways in which New Orleans hoodooists like Laveau employ magnetized forms of sand (i.e. fine grains of iron) to create attraction field lines meant to draw people.

Death Rituals of Albert Frechard and Father Simms

Albert Frechard, like Samuel Thompson, is Catholic and also claims to be the grandnephew of Marie Laveau. Frechard is an instrumental hoodooist to consider because he initiated Hurston during her fieldwork in New Orleans. As a result of this initiation, Frechard elevated Hurston to the status of advance student and for four months taught her the intricate details of his complex system of rituals. While she learned how to hold a man true, fix a landlord, remove neighbors, and win lawsuits, most of her time was committed to learning about and conducting death rituals. Frechard’s command of ritualistic death and the ways in which he used sand to achieve this desired result is intricately captured in Hurston’s “Hoodoo in America.” What follows is only one of the three rituals that Hurston describes:

Wash candles in whiskey. Then take the candles to hydrant and let water run on them upside down. Bring them inside and before you light them, say: “Dobinus, Bobinus, Spiritus! Kind spirit, I want you to dress the candle. I call on the king of the spirits, which is Moccasin.”

Now take sand and throw on the floor. Write on paper the names of the people concerned, and throw it on the floor. Rub the paper back and forth with your foot (like cleaning a needle). Pick up all the sand along with the particles of paper. Take a large bottle of iodine. Make a box and mix the sand with iodine. Put two black candles in the sand—one on each side. That starts your work. It drown the enemies of the person for whom you work.24

Before analyzing this ritual prescription, it is important to note that Hurston recognized the complex role that sand plays in Frechard’s ritual system and as a result of this recognition dedicates a sub-section in “Hoodoo in America” to his particular usage of sand. This section primarily discussed how Frechard prepares and painstakingly stores ritual sand. The sand that appears in the above death ritual is taken from a divided trough that Hurston discusses in this section on sand.

The first step of the ritual involves throwing a selected portion of this sand on the floor. From a practical standpoint, the floor provides a significant amount of surface area needed to conduct the ritual. But, the floor also aids the sand. Sand, with the floor providing the necessary support, acts as an abrasive, grinding the paper with the written “names of the people concerned” into smaller pieces. In this grinding process, the name, which hoodooists maintain is equivalent to one’s spirit, is magnetized. This magnetization is different than that presented in the ritual works of Laveau where an actual magnetic field is constructed by way of magnets and ferromagnetic metals like silver and gold gilted iron. Instead, Frechard creates a symbolic form of magnetism premised on his conceptualization of sand, in the form of finely granulated rocks, as a possessor of magnetic property. For Frechard, sand in this way converts the spirit of the individual into a type of ferromagnetic material that can now be attracted. Sand, then, possesses a dual function in that it both magnetizes and attracts the desired spirit(s). Transference of the sand into the box equates to the movement of drawn magnetized spirits. Now that these spirits are contained Frechard can start the work of the next phase, which is to “drown the enemies” of the petitioning client.

The last case study, which highlights hoodooist Father Simms, can be distinguished from the previously discussed ritual works of Laveau and Frechard in two ways. First, Father Simms is a Protestant with “Catholic leanings.” He publicly proclaims Protestantism but incorporates titles, vestments, and paraphernalia associated with Catholicism into his hoodoo practice. Secondly, Father Simms, despite discriminatory laws, openly practices hoodoo. He held “meetings” every week in Myrtle Wreath Hall.25 During these meetings, he proclaimed his power to curse people, undo hoodoo curses, and read people lives (past, present, and future). It is at the end of one of these public gatherings that Hurston introduces herself to Father Simms. He schedules a private session with her, and, as a result of this one-on-one consultation, he invites Hurston to become his student. Hurston provides great details concerning her initiation process. Specifically, she points out the essential role of candles and sand in this process. She discussed, for instance, the sacred sand pail. Situated in the middle of Father Simms’ primary working altar, this bucket contains holy sand to be used throughout the ceremony. It also provides support for the primary light (large cream candle) used to evoke specific spirits. The holy sand furthermore represents a symbolic confirmation, and Hurston attests to this function when she states, “I was then seated on a stool before the altar, sprinkled lightly with holy sand and confirmed as Boss of Candles [one who can work spirits via the lighting of candles].”26 Now that she is fully initiated, Father Simms begins to share with Hurston esoteric practices associated with New Orleans hoodoo.

Under the tutelage of Father Simms, Hurston learns how to punish individuals, make husbands stay home, break-up relationships, keep a person on the job, move an enemy from one’s neighborhood, win court cases, “run” a person crazy, and make herself invisible. Each of these rituals centers on the manipulation of objects and substances like metal keys, holy water, rubber bands, honey, apples, silk thread, feathers, and cooking pots. However, Father Simms teaches Hurston only one ritual that centers on sand usage. The bad work or death ritual uses sand in conjunction with other organic objects:

Take a coconut that has three eyes. Take the name of the person you want to get rid of and write it on the paper like a coffin. (Put the name all over the coffin.) Put this down in the nut. (Pour out water.) Put beef gall and vinegar in the nut and the person’s name all around the coconut. Stand nut up in the sand and set one black candle on top of it. Number the days from one to fifteen days. Every day mark that coconut at twelve o’clock A. M. or P. M., and by the fifteenth day they will be gone.27

In order to understand the way in which Father Simms employs sand as a means to draw death, the role of the coconut must be subjected to analysis. The ritual prescription calls for a three-eyed coconut—a mature fruit covered with a dark outer shell. These “eyes” are access points that when pierced allows one to access the liquid portion of the fruit. Father Simms instructs the client to discard of this liquid. He then tells his client to stuff into the coconut’s hollow space a coffined shaped piece of paper with the name of the person she wants to get rid of, a beef gall, and vinegar. The cow’s bile is meant to devour the spirit of the named person, while the vinegar (liquid form of impure acetic acid) serves as the very source of impurities to be used in this consumption. The name of the potential victim is written all around this stuffed coconut. The coconut functions to bring about death. But, now it is important to take into account how the spirit of the individual will be drawn to this symbolic death trap. Duel forces produced by sand and the black candles are responsible for drawing the spirit. The sand is a mixture of finely granulated rocks and magnetic sand. Once placed in a metal container, Father Simms maintains that this interaction between the metallic properties of both the sand and pail creates an initial drawing force. This particular force is compounded with the placement of a black candle on top of the coconut. The black candle, in the words of Hurston, “always draws evil or death.”28 Therefore, the sand pail, black candle, and dressed coconut work together to draw, capture, and devour the spirit of an individual, which leads to the physiological death of this same person.

Taken together, these rituals illustrate how ritualized forms of material magnetism can be utilized to formulate New Orleans hoodoo as an Africanized religious tradition that possesses both gnostic and countercultural qualities. The ritual use of magnetism to create conditions of attraction and opposition also mimics the countercultural relationship that Hurston establishes between New Orleans hoodoo and Catholicism. Specifically, she utilizes materiality to align the two religions, and in this way she counters a publically oppositional relationship between hoodoo and Catholicism that is based on doctrinal difference. Whether through doctrinal understandings or esoterically transmitted knowledge about material magnetism, Hurston’s capturing of this element of alignment and opposition in New Orleans hoodoo allows one to again conceive of this religion as both gnostic and countercultural.

Summary

In conclusion, by utilizing Hurston’s “Hoodoo in America” to advance an understanding of New Orleans hoodoo based on gnosis and counterculture, this article offers a few core contributions to African American religious studies in general and gnostic studies in particular. “Hoodoo in America” is a comprehensive resource that transcribes hoodoo rituals of material manipulation that are usually transmitted orally. Hurston’s anthropological work, then, is invaluable because it serves as valuable source material to be considered in the study of African American religion. More importantly, it provides the field a more expansive view of hoodoo, which includes the variety of ways that hoodooists use esoteric teachings on how to manipulate material realities to ascertain desired results by creating ritual spaces of alignment. Additionally, this particular contribution has an implication in the field of gnostic studies. While hoodoo is not considered a traditional religious current of gnosticism, the ritual prescriptions offered in Hurston’s work is a modern interpretation of gnosis. The ritual prescriptions on material manipulation represent secret knowledge with divine origination. However, because hoodooists are embodied conduits of gnosis and responsible for the transmission of this secret knowledge to both clients and initiates, this secret knowledge, which is divinely originated, at times is directly associated with human agents in the system of New Orleans hoodoo. These hoodoo rituals offer a new of way of examining the intersectionality between gnosis, human agency, and materiality. New Orleans hoodoo in this way provides a space in which scholars of gnostic studies can have rich cross-cultural conversations about the significant role that gnosis plays in African American religion.

1 Hurston 1935; Hurston 1938; Hurston 1939.

2 Hurston 1931, 319–320.

3 Estes 1998, 66–82; Turner 2002, 112.

4 It is important to note that gnosis here is a secret knowledge that can be transmitted through human agents like individual hoodooist. However, because some hoodooists acknowledge a divine origin is responsible for their knowledge, gnosis also then represents a direct knowledge that comes from divine sources: God, Spirit, Moccasin. See Hurston 1931, 328, 360, 362.

5 Hurston 1931, 320. The call is defined as a direct summoning of the individual by a divine entity. See note 4 for examples of authorities of divinity in the hoodoo pantheon.

6 Hurston 1931, 326, 357, 362, and 368.

7 Kaplan 2002, 124.

8 Rodriguez 2007, 541–543.

9 For a general history of religions in Louisiana, see Nolan 2004, 1–774. The following sources provide historical accounts for various religions in New Orleans: Tomlinson and Perrett 1974, 1402–1404; Roberts 2015, 1–256; Cox 2003, 162–188.

10 Hurston 1931, 357.

11 Hurston 1990, 183;185.

12 Kaplan 2002, 139.

13 Hurston 1931, 363.

14 Hurston 1931, 332.

15 Hurston 1931, 372.

16 Hurston 1931, 320.

17 Moore 2012, 146.

18 Ward 2004, 21.

19 Hurston 1931, 326. It is important to note that Hurston establishes a direct correlation between Haitian Vodou and hoodoo as practiced in New Orleans.

20 Hurston 1931, 327.

21 Hurston 1931, 327.

22 Hurston 1931, 336.

23 Hurston 1931, 341–342.

24 Hurston 1931, 364.

25 Hurston 1931, 380.

26 Hurston 1931, 382.

27 Hurston 1931, 387.

28 Hurston 1931, 414.

Bibliography

  • CoxRobert S. Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism 2004 Charlottesville University of Virginia Press

  • EstesDavid “The Neo-African Vatican: Zora Neale Hurston’s New Orleans.” Literary New Orleans in the Modern World. Edited by Richard Kennedy 1998 Baton Rouge Louisiana State University Press 66 82

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HurstonZora Neale “Hoodoo in America.” The Journal of American Folklore 1931 44 317 417

  • HurstonZora Neale Mules and Men 1935 Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott Repr. 1990. New York: Harper and Row

  • HurstonZora Neale Tell My Horse 1938 Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott

  • HurstonZora Neale Moses, Man of the Mountain 1939 Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott

  • KaplanCarla Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters New York Anchor Books

  • MooreJohn E. Field Hydrology: A Guide for Site Investigations and Report Preparations 2012 Boca Raton CRC Press

  • NolanCharles E.NolanCharles E. Religion in Louisiana 2004 Vol. 19 of The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History Lafayette Center for Louisiana Studies

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RobertsKodi A. Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881–1940 2015 Baton Rogue Louisiana State University Press

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RodriguezJunius P. “Code Noir of Louisiana (1724).” Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia 2007 Santa Barbara ABC CLIO 541 543

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TomlinsonW. K.PerrettJ. J. “Mesmerism in New Orleans, 1845–1861.” American Journal of Psychiatry 1974 131 1402 1404

  • TurnerRichard Brent “The Haiti-New Orleans Vodou Connection: Zora Neale Hurston as Initiate Observer.” Journal of Haitian Studies 2002 8 112 133

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WardMartha Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau 2004 Jackson University Press of Mississippi

  • 1

    Hurston 1935; Hurston 1938; Hurston 1939.

  • 2

    Hurston 1931319–320.

  • 3

    Estes 199866–82; Turner 2002, 112.

  • 5

    Hurston 1931320. The call is defined as a direct summoning of the individual by a divine entity. See note 4 for examples of authorities of divinity in the hoodoo pantheon.

  • 6

    Hurston 1931326357, 362, and 368.

  • 7

    Kaplan 2002124.

  • 8

    Rodriguez 2007541–543.

  • 10

    Hurston 1931357.

  • 11

    Hurston 1990183;185.

  • 12

    Kaplan 2002139.

  • 13

    Hurston 1931363.

  • 14

    Hurston 1931332.

  • 15

    Hurston 1931372.

  • 16

    Hurston 1931320.

  • 17

    Moore 2012146.

  • 18

    Ward 200421.

  • 19

    Hurston 1931326. It is important to note that Hurston establishes a direct correlation between Haitian Vodou and hoodoo as practiced in New Orleans.

  • 20

    Hurston 1931327.

  • 21

    Hurston 1931327.

  • 22

    Hurston 1931336.

  • 23

    Hurston 1931341–342.

  • 24

    Hurston 1931364.

  • 25

    Hurston 1931380.

  • 26

    Hurston 1931382.

  • 27

    Hurston 1931387.

  • 28

    Hurston 1931414.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • CoxRobert S. Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism 2004 Charlottesville University of Virginia Press

  • EstesDavid “The Neo-African Vatican: Zora Neale Hurston’s New Orleans.” Literary New Orleans in the Modern World. Edited by Richard Kennedy 1998 Baton Rouge Louisiana State University Press 66 82

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HurstonZora Neale “Hoodoo in America.” The Journal of American Folklore 1931 44 317 417

  • HurstonZora Neale Mules and Men 1935 Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott Repr. 1990. New York: Harper and Row

  • HurstonZora Neale Tell My Horse 1938 Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott

  • HurstonZora Neale Moses, Man of the Mountain 1939 Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott

  • KaplanCarla Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters New York Anchor Books

  • MooreJohn E. Field Hydrology: A Guide for Site Investigations and Report Preparations 2012 Boca Raton CRC Press

  • NolanCharles E.NolanCharles E. Religion in Louisiana 2004 Vol. 19 of The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History Lafayette Center for Louisiana Studies

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RobertsKodi A. Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881–1940 2015 Baton Rogue Louisiana State University Press

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RodriguezJunius P. “Code Noir of Louisiana (1724).” Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia 2007 Santa Barbara ABC CLIO 541 543

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TomlinsonW. K.PerrettJ. J. “Mesmerism in New Orleans, 1845–1861.” American Journal of Psychiatry 1974 131 1402 1404

  • TurnerRichard Brent “The Haiti-New Orleans Vodou Connection: Zora Neale Hurston as Initiate Observer.” Journal of Haitian Studies 2002 8 112 133

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WardMartha Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau 2004 Jackson University Press of Mississippi

  • 1

    Hurston 1935; Hurston 1938; Hurston 1939.

  • 2

    Hurston 1931319–320.

  • 3

    Estes 199866–82; Turner 2002, 112.

  • 5

    Hurston 1931320. The call is defined as a direct summoning of the individual by a divine entity. See note 4 for examples of authorities of divinity in the hoodoo pantheon.

  • 6

    Hurston 1931326357, 362, and 368.

  • 7

    Kaplan 2002124.

  • 8

    Rodriguez 2007541–543.

  • 10

    Hurston 1931357.

  • 11

    Hurston 1990183;185.

  • 12

    Kaplan 2002139.

  • 13

    Hurston 1931363.

  • 14

    Hurston 1931332.

  • 15

    Hurston 1931372.

  • 16

    Hurston 1931320.

  • 17

    Moore 2012146.

  • 18

    Ward 200421.

  • 19

    Hurston 1931326. It is important to note that Hurston establishes a direct correlation between Haitian Vodou and hoodoo as practiced in New Orleans.

  • 20

    Hurston 1931327.

  • 21

    Hurston 1931327.

  • 22

    Hurston 1931336.

  • 23

    Hurston 1931341–342.

  • 24

    Hurston 1931364.

  • 25

    Hurston 1931380.

  • 26

    Hurston 1931382.

  • 27

    Hurston 1931387.

  • 28

    Hurston 1931414.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 316 203 16
Full Text Views 220 7 1
PDF Downloads 17 6 1