on the hyatt material, informant motivations, professional rootworkers and hoodoo suppliers

Recently, on a mailing list I subscribe to, there has been some discussion of whether the Hyatt informants wouldn’t sometimes deliberately mislead Hyatt by giving the spells slightly wrong so that they couldn’t be reproduced.  The thinking is that if they gave out the “real” spells or formulas, then “anyone could do it.”  Here is what I recently wrote on that matter.

This idea of “anyone could do it” discounts the fact that many of the rootworkers Hyatt interviewed believed they had a gift from God, a gift from an accident of birth, a special insight into human nature (e.g., Zorro the Mentalist – and he did, too!), or some other ability for any number of other reasons. It also discounts the fact that many of Hyatt’s informants were not “professionals.”

I personally would hesitate, as a student of the Hyatt material, to make judgments on the informants’ motivations based on an incomplete picture of the way that informant had of working in and being in the world. This is not to say that I personally haven’t had the sense that Hyatt was being teased here and there, because I certainly have, and I doubt I’m alone. But there are all kinds of seemingly contradictory things in old school conjure — take the recent discussion on St. Martha,* for instance, or the use of sulphur in an attraction spell. This doesn’t necessarily speak to an incoherent “system” or a worker deliberately misleading Hyatt — I can think of one, though I can’t tell you right now which volume it came from, who kept saying something along the lines of “you get this because you’re a man of God” to Hyatt. The idea that everybody was out to protect their trade secrets is really not a fair reading for many of the Hyatt informants. A ton of these informants are folks who heard something, who know some tricks, but have absolutely no reason to protect this information – because for them, in their neighborhoods, it was common knowledge (just COUNT the different versions of hotfoot recipes). And, just because something is common knowledge doesn’t mean that a professional would never be called on because somebody knew the ingredients and steps – I mean, we could all change our oil in our cars if we decided to learn, but some people are better at this, have more practice at this, and have better materials and tools on hand for this than we do, so we tend to have those professionals do it, even for such mundane matters that can presumably be learned by anyone — NOT the case with rootwork in many workers’ purviews, this idea that “anybody can do it.” Take the informant from Vicksburg, MS who takes Hyatt to see a root doctor — Dr. Fargo — whom Hyatt describes as a “psychotherapist” and who owns his own druggist department and has a white horse that comes when you whistle. You can’t do what Dr. Fargo does, and I dont’ care how many tricks you read about.) So this idea that professionals are out to protect themselves in Hyatt material strikes me as way off the mark in more cases than not. (Here’s Hyatt in v. 3: “The lesser people we welcomed because they sometimes supplied a few excellent rites, and they were always valuable in flushing out the experts” (2227).)

These informants are giving material that is difficult to understand if one comes from an alien mindset, and many 20th century urban folks who come to this from other magickal traditions do in fact come from quite alien perspectives. Granted, we can’t really recreate a mindset and worldview from interviews, and we especially can’t if our only exposure to this material is from this list — we are only getting bits and pieces of a HUGE body of work, and it’s removed from many of us in time as well as culture. But IMO that’s all the more reason to withhold judgment — and that includes saying “I tried it and it didn’t work so it must be deliberate misinformation.” Which is the height of hubris, really, when you think about it.

I’m not trying to say every informant had the same motivation, by a long shot. Just that the mindset of “these are all great secrets that nobody would give up to the unwashed” can in many cases be an uneducated mindset. I mean, many of the spells “Nahnee the Boss of Algiers” gives are a little different from similar spells from other folks — but I would take a Nahnee trick to the bank any day, even if the spell instructed me to paint myself in whipped cream. Nahnee’s stuff is pretty hardcore. Whether or not it matches up just so with what you may have read elsewhere, her stuff indicates a coherence, a reflection of many years of practice and work, and I guarantee you any differences with her are differences for a reason. Yep, she recommends parsley for a “return to me” trick, and I know what a lot of folks think about parsley being a copout of an herb for rootwork, but I would not presume to “correct” Nahnee the Boss of Algiers. And if I tried a trick of hers and it didn’t work I would be grateful for the lesson.

Also in terms of motivation, we might consider that some of these informants (for instance, the Agent for Curios starting on p. 1075 in v. 2 ) had nothing to lose by giving out spells, because — as many of the spells we see, including those that have been posted to the list lately, highlight — the spells call for ingredients by brand name, and/or mention specific suppliers. If you’re in the supplier business, why NOT give out spells telling people what they need to use? Worst case scenario is they buy it from somebody else, best case is they buy it from you. Many of Hyatt’s informants were not professional rootworkers, and I think this “deliberate obfuscation” idea might come from a supposition that most of them *were* professionals. This is simply not the case. The times, they were a’changing, when Hyatt was interviewing.

* re. St. Martha – she is often called on to help women rule their roosts, so to speak, but there are cases where she is called on by men to control women, as well, to get them to tend to their household duties.