on sulphur, cayenne, and other “irritants” in hoodoo

I see this come up occasionally, and I thought I'd repost something I posted on a hoodoo list not all that long ago, in response to someone expressing curiosity over why someone would use sulphur or cayenne in a love spell.  To their way of thinking, sulphur and cayenne are part of the crossing/hexing/icky family of herbs and minerals, from which you see them make occasional forays into uncrossing and protection work, and would thus "make more sense" as part of a breakup spell rather than a love spell.

Here was my response:

I'll tell you my theory on it, which you're free to reject ­čÖé  Where I grew up in Cajun cooking land, you think of cayenne as an irritant first, and then think of different ways to use irritants. One way to use irritants is to heat things up – a little cayenne can be a good thing.  Think of old uses of Spanish Fly – an irritant for an aphrodisiac – or those herbal patches with capsicum in them that my Kung Fu instructor used to give us for healing.  I think of cayenne in the same category as ginger and even cinnamon (only a hell of a lot more irritating).  Then obviously irritants can be used to heat things up for less pleasurable or benevolent things as well (causing fuss and discord, running somebody crazy).

So I would think of it less like "cayenne is for breaking people up" and instead like "cayenne is for heating things up" and go from there in terms of thinking about how to use it.   Is this making sense? I think this is the same way that sulphur can be used in attracting business, even though most folks think of it as a "drive away" or "cause trouble" ingredient.  It's not always, though.  I have a bunch of recipes for business scrubs from Mobile, AL, New Orleans, and areas around and between, that call for sulphur, to raise up attention and get a good crowd at an event or sidewalk sale or barbecue, and at least one "draw a lover" recipe that calls for sulphur, cayenne, and salt.  Now, sulphur, cayenne and salt seem like a good "get the hell away from me" recipe, but at least on the Gulf Coast that same recipe has been used to get somebody to come back.  I believe the principle is that a little irritant can be used to heat things up in a good way, given the larger context of whatever other work you have going on.

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

Recently, on a mailing list I┬ásubscribe 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.┬á The thinking is that if they gave out the “real” spells or formulas, then “anyone could do it.”┬á Here is what I┬árecently 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.

egg container spell for peaceful home, from Waycross, GA

Hyatt Vol.2, p.1491

Well, now when a man an’ his wife is havin’ a great difficulty an’ he wants peace in his home. Well, now he jes’ git him one pinch of sulphur, one pinch of de lady’s track, an’ one pinch of his track.

(Either track?)

Yes sir.  An’ den now he’d break an egg, a fresh hen egg, an’ he’d open dat egg in a position where dere’d be jes’ only two parts; but he’ll place ’em [foot tracks and sulphur] inside of dat egg an’ den he’ll make a tie. He’ll tie it den wit dis wrappin’ thread dat’s been dipped in spirits of turpentine. Well, when he tie it, every time he make a tie why he calls her name. An’ den when he git it tied, why he’d bury hit. But be shore hit’s in de middle part of his house, underneath on de ground right in de middle of his room [making a quincunx – see p. 710]. In three days time he’ll see de results of dat.


I love container spells. especially container spells that use eggs and coconuts and the like.  I’m working on doping some eggs with Hot Foot and Goofer type of powders, but it’s proving insanely difficult.  I’ll keep y’all posted.

an instance of conjure in Georgia

From Roland Steiner, “Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in Georgia.”  The Journal of American Folklore 14.54 (1901): 173-180.

“I was cunjered last May, 1898.  I felt the first pain, hoeing in the field; it struck me in the right foot…and rested in my head ; I went home, and knew I was cunjered.  I looked for the cunjer, found a little bag under my front doorstep, containing graveyard dirt, some night-shade roots, and some devil’s snuff, took the bag, and dug a hole in the middle of the public road, where people walked and buried the bag, and sprinkled red pepper and sulphur in my house.  I have used fresh urine, pepper, and salt to rub with; am going to get fresh pokeberry root on the next new moon, make a tea, and rub with it.  My feet feel hot, the cunjer done put a fire in them.” (p. 177)