Misconceptions About Southern Conjure Magic
by Eden Royce
Conjure magic is a catchall term for folk magic. Those of you who, like me, played Dungeons and Dragons, may be familiar with the term “hedge magic”. Popular culture, movies and certain books, would have you believe that this type of magic is evil, and that you should flee at any cost. I’m reminded of a horror writer Facebook group I was in where a person shared an idea for a novel:
Police officers kill a young black guy and the cop gets off for the crime. Then his grandfather does hoodoo voodoo on the cops for revenge. It gets really bloody by the end. Several people commented on what a great idea this was. Um.
One: It’s been done.
Two: Hoodoo is not voodoo.
Three: Murder is not the intent of conjure magics.
I’ll start with number three. Murder Is Not the Intent of Conjure Magics: Conjure magics have been a part of every culture on the planet, each of which has specifics on ingredients, spells, and incantations. Southern Conjure is a mélange of African, Native American, and yes, some European magic systems. (There goes that D&D terminology again.) The main reason for the European influence is that when slaves were brought to the Americas, the tools and ingredients they were used to did not exist and substitutions had to be made. In many cases, they were also not able to perform ceremonies with any freedom and had to adopt methods that could be activated in a more clandestine manner.
The original purpose of conjure was to make life better for the practitioner and those around them. In the case of the earliest examples of this magic, it was to create protection spells, spells to send away those what would do harm, increasing luck. As time went on additional spells of luring love, financial success, and compelling others to your will developed. Conjure is alive, constantly growing and developing as a magic, depending on the needs and desires of those practitioners.
Hoodoo isn’t instantaneous, as some media would lead you to believe. It’s planned, considered, there is intent. It certainly isn’t the gore-laden blood bath some movies would like you to think. It’s subtle, thoughtful, and crafted with care. And a reliable rootworker will tell you when your situation doesn’t require his or her services. One of the main tenants of Southern conjure is respecting the earth and all that comes from it. Many of the ingredients and supplies needed to work a hex come from the ground and practitioners of conjure are taught to respect that fact. Waste is not tolerated. It’s similar to a chef saying, “Respect your ingredients,” on a cooking show.
Hoodoo isn’t voodoo I’ve read a great deal of short stories and novels, and have watched movies that use voodoo as a central tenant of the plot. For the most part, authors and filmmakers tend to take one path when portraying conjure magic: It’s evil and must be destroyed. The same goes for the practitioners.
In these tales, voodoo is practiced in tiny hovels in the backwoods of “insert Podunk town name here”, Louisiana or on the dusty, impoverished streets of the Haitian mainland. Spells are directed at seemingly blameless people out of spite or for some nebulous reason only the truly evil mind could understand. And the practitioners are either hideous crones, or beautiful, yet demented women who dance partially clothed in the swamps at midnight, slashing the necks of flailing chickens. And with this portrayal comes the confusion between conjure magics. What movies show as voodoo is usually not. Many now know, unlike the average person from the last century, voodoo, or Vodoun, is a religion practiced alongside Catholicism, which itself is ritual heavy. Yet the stereotype of it being steeped in evildoing and the love of destruction persists.
Typically, most hoodoo practitioners are Protestants. But hoodoo itself is not a religion; it is a spiritual and magical practice, whose traditions have been passed down in families and to eager students. It exists in many variations wherever African-Americans are, but it practiced by many ethnicities. The particulars of spell casting, hexing, or laying tricks is not as flagrant as the silver screen would lead you to believe, so some creative license is present in most cases to make those scenes more unsettling. Who wants to show on film a person sprinkling brick dust in someone’s yard? Ooooh, scary.
Authors and filmmakers understandably focus on the dark side of conjure magic. Blood and ritual is always alluring in horror circles. The unknown, the unusual can be most frightening—and fascinating. Conjure can be cool and/or creepy to someone unfamiliar with it, but what if it’s the norm? My great aunt was a practitioner of root, the Carolina’s term for hoodoo and conjure. She scraped against six feet tall and her frame filled most of a doorway. She drove a late model Cadillac and always told the best stories, punctuated by her table-slapping laugh. The ones I remember were hilarious—from people asking to win big in the local number- running racket to people that wanted to get their boss off their back. Most of the time, people came to her for helpful spells, not things to hurt other people. My cousin went to her for a potion so she could marry before she was thirty. She got married the week before her thirtieth birthday. I was in the wedding, but I wish I asked for a spell to make her pick another bridesmaid’s dress.
It’s Been Done
In the Facebook group, I responded to the idea mentioned above. To paraphrase, I said there are a number of books and movies with this theme and I’d really like to see one that showed the original intent of this folk magic. One that showed another side of conjure. The side where women are strong and powerful, but with an elegance and grace under fire. Women who helped each other and worked their magic for the greater good. In reality, male and female workers of hoodoo, conjure, root—whatever term you want to use—are normal people who hold jobs, pay taxes, raise families, and are compensated well for their talents. Even so, don’t cross them. Or they may cross you. I remember reading what bestselling author Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must be the one to write it”.Guess I’d better get to it.
Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in Charleston and had over two dozen stories published.
Eden is a writer for The 7 Magpies Project and the Horror Submissions Editor for Mocha Memoirs Press. She also writes a regular feature for Graveyard Shift Sisters, a site dedicated to purging the black female horror fan from the margins. Learn more about her at www.edenroyce.com.