Two weeks ago, while winding up the story of the colonial Rhode Island astrologer Joseph Stafford, I noted that the kind of occultism practiced by Stafford and Johannes Kelpius—the learned occult traditions of the Renaissance, which were experiencing their last golden autumn in Europe during the years when the American colonies were being founded—was by no means the only kind of occultism being practiced by settlers in what became the United States. There was also a great deal of traditional folk magic, which crossed the ocean from every part of the world that people left to come to America. In a future post I’ll talk at length about some of the European folk traditions that made the leap across the Atlantic and put down roots here.
This week, though, we need to talk about another important body of folk magic that got here with newcomers—the magical traditions that enslaved Africans brought with them on their forced journeys to the New World. The immense and important role that the African magical heritage has played in the occult history of the United States is easy to misunderstand, and it doesn’t help that a great many people over the years have gone very far out of their way to misunderstand it. In order to make sense of it, we’re going to have to start with some basic points that most Americans never learn in their history classes.
The first point that has to be made is that Africa is not a single country with a single culture and a single magical tradition. It’s the second largest continent on the planet, accounting for 20% of Earth’s total land area. At just shy of 12 million square miles, it’s three times as big as Europe and a fifth again the size of North America. (Most Americans don’t realize this because the Mercator projection used for most of our world maps inflates the size of northern countries while making tropical regions look much smaller than they are.) The nations, peoples, languages, cultures, and occult traditions of so vast a land area are just as diverse as the landscape itself. When American history textbooks say that the slaves came “from Africa” and leave it at that, in other words, they leave out far too much.
The part of Africa that matters in the history of the slave trade is an arc of the continent’s west coast extending south from the Senegal and Gambia Rivers at the furthest point of Africa’s great westward bulge, then east along the northern shores of the Gulf of Guinea, and then south again to the mouth of the Congo River and beyond, into what is now Angola. To put things in perspective, the distance on land from Dakar in Senegal to Kinshasa on the banks of the Congo is about the same as the distance by road from Cincinnati, Ohio to Anchorage, Alaska. It’s a huge slice of an even bigger continent, and the people who lived there during the era of slavery were accordingly diverse.
The second point that has to be made is that it’s an absurd misstatement to claim that Africans in these regions were happy, primitive, illiterate tribespeople sitting around in grass huts until white slave traders showed up. (It’s all the more ironic that this claim so often gets made implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, by exactly those people who are quickest to accuse others of racism.) In point of fact, the history of civilization in West Africa goes back a very long ways—longer than the equivalent history in Europe; the first cities in West Africa emerged around 2000 BCE, centuries before the founding of the first European cities. Those cities had all the characteristics of high civilization well in advance of such urban Johnny-come-latelies as London or Paris; Timbuktu in the present nation of Mali, for example, was a major center of scholarship and culture during the years when Europe was in the depths of the Dark Ages.
By the 15th century, when the first Portuguese ships began timidly poking their way down the coastline from Morocco, the vast majority of West African societies were literate, urban, and civilized. Three great empires dominating the trans-Sahara trade routes—Ghana, Mali, and Songhai—had risen and fallen in the region long before Europeans got there. Bustling port cities dotted the coast, especially in the West African heartland: the region on the northern shore of the Gulf of Guinea, where Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria are today.
West Africa in those days was also rich in resources. Several parts of the region had substantial gold mines; ivory commanded a high price north of the Sahara, and so did many other local products. Among those products, of course, were human beings. Slavery was a normal practice in most of the world’s nations in the 15th century, and the bustling urban centers of West Africa had slave markets long before the first ship arrived to buy slaves to ship to the New World. Though some enslaved Africans were kidnapped by white raiders, the vast majority were purchased at slave markets in those port cities.
That said, the coming of the transatlantic slave trade transformed the economics of slavery. What made things different was the fantastic amount of money that could be made by slave-worked plantations in the New World in an era of global maritime trade. Tobacco, cotton, sugar, and a dozen other cash crops could be produced cheaply in huge volume and sold to customers around the world, allowing plantation owners and merchants to rack up unparalleled profits. All that was needed to uncork that wealth was a limitless supply of cheap disposable labor, and that could be purchased, of course, in the slave markets of the West African coast.
As a result, the nations of West Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries ended up with an exact equivalent of the “resource curse” that afflicts so many tropical countries today. West African rulers and elite classes could become fabulously wealthy by agreeing to trade on terms that impoverished their nations and ultimately led to social and economic collapse—and this, in too many cases, they did. The result was the largest forced migration in human history, a mass movement of enslaved Africans that took something between 11 million and 28 million people (no records were kept and so all we have are estimates) across the Middle Passage. That migration unfolded in stages, and this is where the history of the western shores of Africa intersects with the history of the United States.
The first drafts of the plantation economy got started in the colonies that became the southern half or so of the United States, and so most of the enslaved Africans who arrived here came early on in the transatlantic slave trade’s dismal history. Since most West African nations were still more or less economically intact during that period, the majority of the slaves who were brought to the future United States came from regions far from the heartlands, on the two ends of the great swath of coast described earlier: the valleys of the Senegal and Gambia rivers in the far west, and the lands around the great watershed of the Congo and its tributaries in the far south.
That was simply where it was convenient for raiding parties from West African kingdoms to go first. Only later, as West Africa neared economic collapse, were enslaved people taken in huge numbers from the heartlands of the region, and by the time that happened, the importation of slaves to the United States had all but stopped and most slaves in the United States were born here. The West African people who were enslaved went mostly to the Caribbean islands, which kept up the mass importation of enslaved Africans until much later. That mattered because, again, Africa is not a single country and its peoples don’t belong to a single culture.
The complex spiritual and magical cultures of the West African heartland gave rise to Vodoun, Santería, and most of the other African-diaspora religions of the Caribbean, with their priesthoods, rites of possession, and elaborate divinatory and ritual traditions. Those traditions, important as they are in the broader African diaspora, had little impact on the North American mainland until very recent times. Outside of New Orleans, which has a complex magical history of its own, the traditions of African magic and spirituality that endured here in the United States were primarily those of the Bakongo, the people of the lower Congo valley and the coastal regions nearby.
These differ markedly from the West African traditions just mentioned. They do not rely on elaborate rites and hierarchical priesthoods; they focus on less complicated forms of reverence for ancestors and nature spirits, and work extensively with nkisi—a word that means both a spirit and an object in which spirit resides. (The difference only appears in the plurals; minkisi are things that contain spiritual power, while bankisi are spiritual beings, some ancestral, some nature spirits.) A nganga, a specialist in working with bankisi, makes use of minkisi to mediate between living human beings, ancestors, and nature spirits. Over all these reigns a creator god, Nzambi a Mpungu, who is present in all natural things and controls the forces of nature.
The order of the cosmos established by Nzambi a Mpungu is displayed in Bakongo tradition by the Kongo cosmogram, an equilateral cross that indicates the Four Moments of the Sun—sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight—and unites life and death, the realm of the living and the realm of the ancestors. The horizontal line is the boundary between the mountain of the living and the white clay realm of the dead; the vertical line is the path that connects them; the place of noon above represents the masculine and the zenith of physical power, the place of midnight below represents the feminine and the zenith of spiritual power.
It’s a robust and resilient faith, one that could be preserved even in the grim conditions of slavery. It also blended well with the traditional religion of the Senegalese and Gambian people who were brought here as slaves, many of whom also revered a creator god, Roog Sene, and offered prayers to ancestral spirits known as pangool. The Bakongo traditions and those of Senegalese and Gambian origin, in turn, also found common ground with certain trends in Protestant Christian spirituality, and the resulting fusion gave rise to one of the great traditions of American magic: the tradition variously called conjure, rootwork, or hoodoo.
Hoodoo is not “voodoo” (that is, Vodoun), and by and large it’s only white people who confuse the two. Vodoun, as already noted, is descended from the religious traditions of the West African heartland and took on its modern form in Haiti. As for hoodoo—well, to begin with, nobody knows for sure where the word came from or what it originally meant, though there are plenty of theories. It’s best described as what happened when traditional Bakongo spirituality had to adapt to the harsh conditions of slavery and the physical and spiritual ecology of a distant continent.
That process of adaptation involved a good many transformations. North American plants and animals replaced those found in the lush tropical forests of the Congo valley. Words changed—in place of minkisi, slaves used the terms “toby,” “hand,” or “mojo”; in place of banganga (the plural of nganga), they spoke of hoodoo doctors and rootworkers; in place of Nzambi a Mpungu, they spoke of God, and in place of the Kongo cosmogram, they revered the Christian cross. The shift in terminology was never complete—the word “mojo,” for example, may well be descended from the Kikongo word mooyo, the spiritual power present in minkisi, and the phrase “goofer dust” for graveyard dirt almost certainly derives from the Kikongo word kufwa, “to die”—and the underlying practices remain identical.
The use of graveyard dirt is a good example: important in Bakongo spiritual practices because it forms a point of contact between the realms of the living and the dead and gives access to ancestral bankisi, it’s equally important in hoodoo, and the offering rituals used in the lower Congo valley to gather the dust of the ancestors are paralleled by the hoodoo custom of paying the dead for their graveyard dirt with silver coins and whiskey. Resources changed, in other words, but the fundamental structure of thought and practice did not.
Perhaps the best way to make sense of the transformation of Bakongo spirituality into hoodoo is to see it as an exact parallel to the transformation of African music into African-American music. The banjo, that quintessentially African-American invention, apparently drew inspiration from a Senegalese instrument, and musicologists are still arguing about where in the span of Africa affected by the transatlantic slave trade the distinctive blues scale and the intricate syncopations of African-American music have their roots, but the basic principle is the same: a sensibility and a stock of forms and practices with African roots adapted successfully to the resources and challenges of a new continent, and gave rise to vibrant and creative traditions here. It’s far from inappropriate to think of classic Southern hoodoo as the precise magical equivalent of the blues, in fact, and to think of the later, urban forms of hoodoo—which will be discussed in a later post—as the equally precise magical equivalent of jazz.
Fortunately for musicologists, the early history of the blues and jazz are fairly well documented. Unfortunately for students of occult history, the same is not true of hoodoo. What’s known today about the early stages of hoodoo’s history comes almost entirely from archeologists on the one hand, and written accounts by white journalists and diarists on the other.
Ever since it became politically possible for archeologists to excavate old slave quarters in the eastern United States, field reports have dealt (or, in tones varying from discomfort to contempt, refused to deal) with the vast number of minkisi of various kinds that turn up wherever slaves lived. Written accounts from the colonial era are full of references to the magical practices of African and African-American slaves, sometimes quite detailed, though every example I’ve seen in my research views those practices through an assortment of distorting filters: those of mainstream Christianity (which assails them as devil worship), those of scientific rationalism (which dismisses them as ignorant superstitions), or sometimes both of these at once.
What nobody has today, and almost certainly no one ever will have, are accounts from the other side of the picture, the side of the enslaved Africans and African-Americans who transformed their traditional magical and spiritual practices into the oldest versions of hoodoo. Nor are there historical records of the people who made those transformations happen. All that survives is a legend: the legend of High John the Conqueror.
According to the story, High John was a king in Africa who was kidnaped by slave traders, sent in chains across the Atlantic and sold into slavery somewhere in the American South. In the woods near his cabin, he found a root with great magical powers, and used the strength, cleverness, and luck that the root gave him to turn the tables time and again on his white owner. According to African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote a much-quoted account of the legend, High John went back to Africa as soon as slavery was abolished in the United States, but he left the secret of his root behind to help other African-American people.
Did this happen? In a certain sense, of course it did. The Roman writer Sallust noted that myths are things that never happened but always are, but he forgot to mention that legends are things that never were but happen over and over again. Behind the legend of High John the Conqueror are the dimly remembered legacies of countless thousands of African and African-American slaves who used hoodoo to help them cope with the trauma of forced migration and the harsh realities of slavery. Those stories doubtless blended with incidents borrowed from tales about trickster-figures of the sort beloved in African legend, and with bits and pieces from other sources—that’s the way legends grow—but it’s likely enough that a core of truth lies at the center of the story.
Some African or African-American slave, certainly, figured out that a particular root found in the American south—the jalap root (Ipomoea jalapa) is the one most commonly used in hoodoo practice today—could be employed effectively in magical practice; someone—possibly the same person, more likely other people—identified several other roots in the same region with magical properties, and started using them. Those roots remain standard items in hoodoo practice today. Jalap root is sold and used as High John the Conqueror root, and other roots found in the south have related magical uses and names that reference High John in one way or another: Southern John, Low John, Little John to Chew, and so on. Lacking any less legendary name for the persons involved, we may as well credit these discoveries to High John the Conqueror.
The discoveries were made, the transformations took place, and Bakongo spirituality found a new home and evolved into new forms on the North American continent as hoodoo. It has remained widely practiced here ever since, and not only among the descendants of slaves. It’s one of the more interesting features of the history of occultism that practitioners of magic swap techniques and share what they know, and it’s another that these exchanges reliably ignore the ethnic, religious, and cultural prejudices of the broader society. Thus by the late 19th century if not before, hoodoo came to be practiced by white as well as black mages; hoodoo techniques spread through the American occult community generally; and hoodoo practitioners adapted teachings and techniques from other occult traditions to their own uses. Over the course of American occult history, as a result, a great many people followed in the footsteps of High John.