Interestingly, there is no single, simple answer to this question. Hoodoo has been characterized as a spiritual practice, a healing tradition, an art form, and a style of magic. All of these are correct. In its heyday in nineteenth-century America, Hoodoo was understood primarily as something that one did. Later, Hoodoo was viewed as a kind of thought, a world view, a way of understanding causes and effects, and not only a practice. Perhaps the best way to define Hoodoo is to do so as broadly as possible, with terms that contemporary Hoodoo insiders themselves might use: Hoodoo is an African American-based tradition that makes use of natural and supernatural elements in order to create and effect change in the human experience.
Is Hoodoo a Religion?
Many practitioners would say that Hoodoo is most definitely not a religion. They would argue that it lacks a theology, that it does not rely upon belief in God or divine beings to be effective, that it lacks rituals of devotion and worship, and that rigid doctrines and moral tenets are absent in the Hoodoo system. Some practitioners would see this differently, though. I think that the question itself betrays an understanding of religion that is quite limited. What is a religion? Is it something you do in a church? a mosque? Out in the woods? The idea of “religion” as something that is separate and distinct from other aspects of one’s existence is very recent in human history. Religion, for Hoodoo practitioners, might be defined as something akin to “culture” or “spirituality” as we understand those terms today. To state that Hoodoo is not a “religion” is not to say that it does not share fundamental and basic elements with “Religions.” In fact, Hoodoo draws copiously from traditional religious sources, including ideas of sacredness, cosmic order, notions of superhuman forces and powers, and conceptions of reciprocity and engagement between people and the spiritual world.
Is Hoodoo magic, then? Is it like black magic or witchcraft?
Magic is also an interesting term that is used in different ways by scholars, academics, and adherents. Some Hoodoo workers reject the idea of magic entirely, viewing Hoodoo simply as a way of life. The term “black magic” is even more controversial, in that it has illicit connotations – “black” suggesting immorality or evil, and though not necessarily a racial classification, it is negative. Witchcraft, similarly, has a history that precedes Hoodoo, and it was often used in reference to spiritual practices and ideas that were deemed illicit and dangerous in human societies. I am not trying to dodge your question. It’s just that terms like “black magic” and “witchcraft” can only take you so far in understanding what Hoodoo is about. They are not very precise in what they describe.
Fine. What is Hoodoo’s relationship to Christianity?
Historically, practitioners of Hoodoo have interacted with number of different religions, practices, and ideas. Since Hoodoo as we know it in the United States was “born” in the community of enslaved African American people, it stands to reason that Christianity was a part of the cultural mix. But since African American slave religion itself was informed by multiple sources – including indigenous African faiths, European and African Catholicism, Islam, native American traditions – it is difficult to determine the precise influence of all these on Hoodoo. Clearly, Christianity had a profound impact on how the slaves understood Hoodoo. Even today, some Hoodoo practitioners utilize prominent symbols from Christianity (such as the Bible, candles, holy water, etc.) as well as prayers and appeals to the higher Powers of the Christian faith (including God, Jesus Christ and the saints), for assistance.
I’ve heard of Hoodoo, Voodoo, Vodou, and a bunch of different terms. I’m confused. Are these all the same thing?
You are not alone in your confusion! Hoodoo experts themselves disagree on these terms. Although most Hoodoo practitioners are independent agents – there is no “Pope” or High Priest of Hoodoo, nor any central authority – there is actually a general consensus around the definition of these words as they relate to the traditions of Hoodoo. The dividing line here is between organized religion and organized magic. Strictly speaking, the words “Voodoo” and “Vodou” describe organized religion – the sacred beliefs and practices of groups who share particular values, laws, and social mores. Those would be religious communities. “Voodoo” is a word with roots in the Fongbe languages of Africa, for “Vodu,” meaning “spirit.” The term recalls indigenous religions found in coastal West Africa, including Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. Vodou, on the other hand, is a religion native to the island of Haiti that draws inspiration from African, European, and American elements. Ironically, Vodou and Voodoo were names that began to be used by members of these religious communities after the fact of their organization. Likewise, when members of these communities arrived in America during the eighteenth century, their ideas, beliefs, practices, and perspectives came with them. Their knowledge and experiences would be instrumental in the development of a new religion in the French colony of Louisiana (Voodoo), with the city of New Orleans as its sacred center. New Orleans Voodoo was (and continues to be) a wonderfully eclectic and diverse cultural tradition, with religious elements that derive from Haitian Vodou, and magical elements that resonate with African American Hoodoo.
Is Hoodoo real? Does it work?
Two excellent questions. But like many questions about things that are unfamiliar, it helps to reframe the content and wording to get at the heart of the query. Obviously, Hoodoo, like religion, is real, by virtue of the fact that it exists and that it is a site of human engagement. Some questions that you might ask instead are, what is the nature of people’s experiences with Hoodoo? How have people been impacted by Hoodoo? and how does one know whether a person’s experiences with Hoodoo are true or not? The point of this website is to provide a larger context and make information available to you as you ask these questions. It offers detailed information from different points of view on the history and culture of Hoodoo traditions as a starting place to answering any questions that you might have.
But is it safe? Is it legal?
As far as safety goes, I would argue that Hoodoo is as “safe” as life itself; and as with life there are risks, dangers, and opportunities in every experience. Some of these may evoke deep fears and concerns for security. For questions of safety, protection and control in the Hoodoo system, see the forthcoming section on The Dark Side.
Is this just another way of taking people’s money?
I think that you are asking if Hoodoo is free. As it happens, there are many online resources devoted to Hoodoo education and commerce, such as how-to courses and universities, spiritual merchants, and hundreds of companies dedicated to the business of Hoodoo. I would argue that Hoodoo is not free, but Hoodoo consists of much, much, more than a commodity that can be bought and sold.
I need help. What do I do if I think I have been Hoodooed? How can I speak to a legitimate Hoodoo practitioner?
There are sections of the website that contain resources should one want to make connections with knowledgeable individuals and experts. There are Hoodoo scholars, Hoodoo practitioners, Hoodoo artists, and teachers of the Hoodoo traditions.
You don’t really believe in all of this stuff, do you?
The Academic Hoodoo takes no position with respect to “belief.” What we think is that there are more fascinating and amazing phenomena around us than we will ever get to see, taste, experience, and understand. Hoodoo represents a fragment of this universe. We understand magic as a tool that provides a glimpse into a window onto worlds that are hidden or obscured from most of us, even as the partial essence remains in plain view. As the philosopher Lao Tzu said, “From wonder to wonder, existence opens.” Hoodoo offers another way of experiencing and acting upon life; it might be the gateway to an expanded knowledge of nature and human culture. Enjoy.