Conjure in pop culture – Supernatural S1 E9, “Home”

Supernatural is among my daughter’s favorite shows and she has forbidden me to carp about any liberties taken with magic, mythology, symbols, angelology, or religion. But that’s why I have a blog.

So in season 1, episode 9, “Home,” the main characters hook up with a palmist/psychic character of presumably African-American descent who instructs them on how to purify a house that’s infested with a poltergeist. “Angelica root, van van oil, crossroad dirt, [and] a few other odds and ends” are tied up into bags to be put into the north, south, east, and west walls of the home, one on each floor.

Poltergeists aren’t a precise fit in conjure, and I would personally take a different route for exorcism and even for house-cleansing, but the bags-inside-the-walls method isn’t a bad one for protection purposes. (It would obviously be easier to do this as you were building or remodeling the house; if you were doing it after the fact, in real life and not on TV, simply hanging or concealing the bags would be traditionally fine, and while the N-S-E-W thing is alright, I’d not neglect the center of the home, nor the entrances.) As for ingredients, the angelica root and the Van Van oil are easy to find info on, so I want to confine my remarks to the crossroads dirt for this post.

I can easily piece together a few different lines of thinking on how and why one might use crossroads dirt, but I personally never heard of any such thing being used as a standalone ingredient in any older traditional sources or from any older traditional practitioners. That doesn’t mean it was never used back in the day – I certainly haven’t met everybody from every region – but the reason why I suspect it’s an invention or interpolation from another tradition (or simply a writer’s imagination) is because the important thing about crossroads is that they’re places, not curios or objects. Now, I know that graveyards are places too and graveyard dirt is old-school, but graveyard dirt when taken and used as a standalone ingredient is usually used either for its attachment to/association with a particular spirit in that graveyard, or for the purposes of symbolically recreating a graveyard in another place (to bury someone or something in on your altar, for instance). Graveyard dirt “works” most often because of a particular grave in that graveyard – other uses are rarer. That means it “works” because of the spirits associated with the graveyard, not simply because it’s a graveyard, if the distinction I’m trying to make is making sense (and please note I’m leaving aside things like vodoun right now and deities or non-formerly-human spirits from other religions that are associated with graveyards). There’s a theory/philosophy of the relationship between the living and the dead at work here that underlies the whole usage of graveyard dirt as a standalone ingredient in conjure.

The crossroads, on the other hand, are important because they’re crossroads, not because of a particular spirit associated with particular crossroads (and again, I’m leaving aside the related matter of the “devil/black man at the crossroads” lore for the time being, as that is a rite that has to be done at the crossroads, and that particular rite is less common than other crossroads rites that have nothing to do with the “devil/black man at the crossroads.”)

Even if the intent behind using crossroads dirt was to somehow tap into the traditions associated with the devil or black man at the crossroads, that would be done in order to gain some kind of skill or knowledge, not for purposes of protection or driving away spirits. You don’t move the crossroads rite to a non-crossroads place like you might move graveyard dirt to a non-graveyard place. When we’re talking about driving away things we don’t want around, the crossroads would come in as a place to perform all or part of a rite focused on getting rid of something or somebody, most commonly as a place to dispose of ritual remains, personal concerns, water, etc (though they can also be used as more “neutral” disposal locations for other types or rites or workings, of course – I don’t mean to imply that they’re all about hotfoot or something because they aren’t, but they are very often about dispersal in some sense, even if it’s just a neutral “disposal” or dispersal of “energy” or materials to conclude a benevolent rite). Crossroads are important in those cases because they are a place where two paths meet and then diverge, where they cross; they are a place where things travel and where paths, well, cross, where direction can be changed, where choices can be made, and where things can be met, etc. So even if you were to use crossroads stuff as part of a rite or working to get rid of an entity, you wouldn’t try to bring the crossroads to the house – you would be more likely to take something from the house to the crossroads. And you wouldn’t “tie up” the crossroads by tying the dirt up into a mojo bag – it goes against the entire reason for using crossroads in the first place, the way I see it. When crossroads are used to get rid of things, they are used because of dispersal, to get something to go and stay gone, to move in the other direction from you. You don’t really use crossroads for binding or tying down, and even if you tried to stretch it that way and think of bringing some kind of dispersal energy to the site, using crossroads dirt for that purpose doesn’t make any sense to me. And crossroads aren’t really used as a way to confuse or keep away spirits in the same way that, say, crossing running water would be in some traditions or regions.

Like I said, if I had to use crossroads dirt as an ingredient, I can think of a few ways to use it I guess. I can reconstruct some of the thinking if indeed there’s any more to it than it being something that might have popped up if you googled hoodoo and needed something to make your dialogue sound reasonably interesting. I think it’s a later creation or interpolation or invention that came into conjure — if it can even be said to have a place in conjure, which I’m not convinced of — through not-traditional-conjure sources. (For instance, if you see it in New Orleans, I will bet you cash money that it came in via vodoun or another religion.) I suppose I can imagine using it in, say, a paket for Legba. But as a standalone ingredient in a mojo bag to get rid of spirits or keep them out? Nope, it doesn’t fit — for the same reasons you don’t see hot-foot mojo bags and that you can’t bottle running water and still call it running water. The crossroads are important because they are a place of meeting and movement in a way that makes the site itself important; you can’t capture it. If you could, it would no longer be about movement and meeting and divergence. That’s not to say you can’t create a spiritual crossroads in a ritual setting – you can, and you do every time you draw a veve, for instance, or make offerings on your ancestor altar — but that is a different animal, working in a different way, and that would be for another post.

spn211_94
For the record, I consider the quincunx or five spot (pictured above from S2E11) to be related but distinct; even if you consider it a ritually created, manmade crossroads of some sort, it’s used for completely different purposes than the crossroads as a location. The quincunx or five  spot is used to fix things, to set things in place – it’s declarative where the crossroads are more like ellipses, if you will. I don’t consider the five spot to be a crossroads, and I think it quite likely that anything you read about setting down crossroad dirt to perform a ritual, whether in a quincunx or in some other pattern, was written by somebody who comes from a tradition other than conjure. That’s fine – I know traditional southeastern conjure is not the only way to work, but I believe in separating the fact from the fiction is all. If they tell you it’s used in conjure to increase the power of your rituals, I would be very skeptical. If they then tell you to bury the crossroads dirt near your home to draw something to you, I would not hit a hog in the behind with anything they sell or say. So tying crossroads dirt into a mojo to get rid of a negative entity or person? It just doesn’t make sense.

Now, if you wanted a mojo or paket in your house to keep away evil spirits and/or unwelcome guests, you have all kinds of options. I like St. Michael for this type of stuff – a paket at the front door and one at the back. Here is a paket I have at one of my doors currently, made by my colleague Rev. Tixerand at Isle Brevelle Botanica, along with a partial view of some other odds and ends I keep at this particular spot.

paket
You can make a good St. Michael paket for your home with Grains of Paradise, angelica root, boldo leaf, blackberry leaf, broom straws, caraway seeds, and pennyroyal. If you want something smaller than holy-card-sized, then just put a St. Michael medal into the paket or mojo instead of having the image on the outside. You can also use a hoodoo nail or a sword charm dressed with St. Michael oil.

If you live on family land, or are doing work to protect a family, you might want to get a friendly family spirit or ancestor involved. In that case, you can use graveyard dirt from a relative who would be invested in the protection of the home and/or family, properly collected with proper payment. A nice three-ingredient mojo in that case could contain graveyard dirt, althea, and blessed thistle. Or whichever particular herbs suit your situation — if you live in the woods and need protection from animals, or have awful in-laws and need protection from them, or need to keep the cops away, or need to keep your teenager’s bad influences away, you can modify accordingly. Dress with Fiery Wall of Protection, Home Protection, St. Michael, or some other appropriate oil.

But leave out the crossroads dirt, y’all – that’s just television.

ETA: Read the comments at the mirror site on livejournal for commentary by ConjureMan Ali, who says he knows a trick from the VA/SC area involving crossroads dirt as a standalone ingredient — but note that the lore involves the practitioner setting out to travel, not binding the dirt up into a fixed mojo for protection or for anything else. That made sense to me, but tying the dirt up still didn’t. I called my cousin who was born in Louisiana but now lives in Texas, and she says she doesn’t know any uses for crossroads dirt as a standalone ingredient from any region she’s lived in. But my neighbor, who lives in the Atlanta area now but grew up in Florida, says she has heard of dirt from the “fork in the road” taken as a standalone ingredient in a bag for luck. So between these two, I guess I stand corrected and my train of thought on crossroads dirt being a new interpolation as a standalone ingredient misses the track somewhere. She doesn’t know where her people are from before her mother. But she and her mother call hoecakes “johnny cakes,” so that makes me suspect that her mother or grandmother spent some time on the East coast of the U.S. That could be just me wanting the East coast connection to be there to explain some differences I see in regional variations with how certain liminal places and states are treated (a bit on that is in the comments too), ’cause Lord knows regional dialect stuff can work on a pretty “micro” scale and lore can get into families all kinds of ways, especially when a family moves a lot. But my neighbor is 50 and her mother is over 80 and neither of them are practitioners of any particular spiritual path, religion, or folk practice (they ask me for stuff in a pinch), so they sure didn’t invent this stuff or read it to import it from somewhere else.

It also tells me that my asking people about “crossroads dirt” might be the wrong phrase. I should probably ask about “dirt from the fork in the road.”

questions you’ve asked: road opening, timing, haints, czechoslovakia (!?)

Some of these are from my saved-up list of questions that people ask via email or blog comments, that I save up to answer on my blog when I get a chance, and some are implied/indirect questions that come from search terms. Don’t forget that I maintain a directory of Frequently Asked Questions and commonly requested information.

***

Q: What are some spells to remove obstacles?

It kind of depends on the obstacles. In some cases, you need Uncrossing, in others you might need Spiritual Cleansing or Van Van or Chinese Wash, and in still others you might want Road Opener. If you don’t need uncrossing, but you’re just kind of stuck and have the inertia thing going or aren’t getting the opportunities you need, then the formula you want for removing obstacles is usually going to be either Van Van or else something like Road Opener or Abre Camino. Sometimes it might be called Blockbuster, but you should ask your supplier, because depending on where they’re coming from (theoretically as well as regionally), Blockbuster might be more akin to Uncrossing or Van Van. And some folks, probably those not from the Southeast, seem to make Road Opener with quassia, which is not how I learned it in the Southeast, and in my opinion that will not do the same job (and it cannot then be called Abre Camino, because Abre Camino contains an actual herb called Abre Camino instead of quassia). In short, there may be more or less intersection with other formulas, depending on the background of your supplier and their formula, so it doesn’t hurt to ask the person selling the stuff you are going to buy.

While on this topic, I have heard people claim that Road Opener is not hoodoo. I call bullshit. While it’s true that Road Opener came into hoodoo through Latin American routes, it’s sure as hell part of hoodoo now, and there is a definite difference between Road Opener and Uncrossing. Uncrossing removes crossed conditions. There are all kinds of situations that could benefit from Road Opening that do not need Uncrossing and that may need something that is not precisely Van Van; where once we might have approached that through a combination of herbs or actions that did not go by the name “Road Opener,” what we today know as Road Opener fills a niche, is useful, and is definitely used by traditional practitioners of conjure. Saying it’s not hoodoo is imo being overly pedantic (and is generally part of some online pissing contest and/or the kind of “over-correction” that results in people saying things like “irregardless” and “I feel badly for you” – people trying so hard to be “correct” that they end up “over-correcting” and end up somewhere silly; and if you’re like most of my readers and clients, you don’t really give a crap about whether something was used in the 70s in Florida but not the 50s in Mississippi. You just want your situation remedied.) Saying it’s not hoodoo because it entered hoodoo at some later point than the mythical non-existent “originary” point is going to put you on flimsy ground to talk about Chinese Wash (once upon a time it was not used in hoodoo); Hot Foot oil (once upon a time there was only powder); the method of candle-dressing employed by hordes of workers (because it was popularized in a booklet in the 40s by a man [or maybe a woman] who grew up Jewish; Blackhawk (Native American via Spiritualist churches in Louisiana); and boldo leaf (which is in a shit-ton of modern protection formulas but crossed into hoodoo through Mexican folk practice). Honestly, it’s a ridiculous argument. [*]

What you do with those obstacle-removing formulas will, for the sake of easier communication in this blog post, be called spells. (Usually folks who ask this sort of thing want to be given what they think of as a “spell,” which will be specific instructions for exactly how to do some multi-component rite called “a road opener spell” or something like that. Thing is, hoodoo really isn’t a system of “spells” in the sense of “things that have to be done just so on a Friday before a full moon with these rhymes” or where people have spells collected in books and stuff like that. Rather, you light a candle, or sprinkle powders, or take a bath, or do some combination of those things and others that suits your supplies and your situation. Every “road opener spell” I do for a client is probably slightly different; the appropriate actions and ingredients depend on the situation. I do not have a book of spells – the idea is sort of ridiculous, and most folks I know who didn’t come to this from a different background don’t default to calling their work “spells” or telling clients they need to do “spells.” Personally, I call what I do altar work or just plain “work,” and avoid the term “spells” just because 1. it was never called that when I was growing up, and 2. it gives the wrong impression, that conjure is about collections of spells and books of shadows and stuff like that. So people who write me saying “these spells are hard to find” have, in my opinion, *the wrong idea* about how these things are traditionally done; collections of typed-up spells are hard to come by because they’re unnecessary (and when we do post “spells” for the benefit of clients who want to be given “spells”, we usually have to endure dozens of follow-up questions about what herb we can substitute for some herb we list, and what to do if we can’t get that kind of candle or a certain oil, etc, which defeats the purpose of typing the damned thing up in the first place). It’s just the wrong way to think about conjure. When we do altar work for you, we don’t select a spell from out of a book. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, particularly in the FAQ directory; bottom line, if you want a spell explained or suggested that is specific to your situation and materials at hand, book a consultation with a professional worker who can instruct you on what to do for your specific situation.)

But here are some suggestions from Lucky Mojo. (So when you dress a candle with oil and light it, you are doing a candle burning spell for our purposes here.) If you insist on a given a set of instructions to follow just so, then Dr. E has a thorough, nice Roads of Fortune spell here. But honestly, properly dressing and fixing a candle is powerful work. So is a spiritual bath. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

***

Q: Reconciliation mojo bag takes one month to work.

A: I’d be pretty darned surprised. The most important reply here is that there’s no such thing as one simple answer to the question of “how long will X take to work.” It totally depends on the situation (and on your definition of what success is in that situation). You can read more about timing in spells here: “How Long Will It Take to Work” and “Timing Spells, Setting Limits, and the Non-Existent Rule of 3 Days/3 Weeks/3 Months.” But I’d say one month for a reconciliation working of any type, in very many of the situations for which I’ve been consulted,  would be way too optimistic. But it totally depends on the situation and specifics of the individual case. The bottom line: There are too many variables in anybody’s case for anybody to be able to answer your question about how long the candle or mojo you are thinking of buying will take to work, or even if it will.  Spiritual work just doesn’t work like that.  The reality is that sometimes it is NOT God’s will.  And this is not a gumball machine where you put your quarter in and get a prize you can anticipate from the picture in the window.

***

Q: Sour jar take how long to work? [sic]

A: See above.

***

Q: What happen to the old fashion hoodoo that was used in the 70’s?

A: Assuming you mean the 1970s, you are actually talking about what I’d call the full flower of “modern hoodoo” (I’d distinguish that from today’s hoodoo, which I’d call “contemporary” and, if pressed, probably use the late 80s as a historical marker for… maybe). The 70s is not “old fashioned” when you are talking about hoodoo history – that is recent as hell. But for starters, you have to define what you mean by “old fashioned.” Do you mean hoodoo as it was in the 1850s? 1920s? In Memphis? Detroit? Natchez, Mississippi? Crystal River, Florida? By the 70s, you had lots of published books on all kinds of practices “cross-pollinating” with older, more rural, less book-derived practice, including European witchcraft and commercialized “Eastern mysticism,” astrology, etc. You’d had mail-order catalogs for generations at that point, and you had drugstores in large cities selling candles and things from China. The old-school candle shop owners (who had once upon a time been new-fangled!) might start selling books on meditation to help their bottom lines; the tea leaf readers might branch out into astrology to get and keep clientele; the tarot was much better known by then, even among those who had grown up reading playing cards; the era of pharmacists blending their own colognes, hair oils, and perfumes in the back from formularies were largely over and everything was imported en masse. In some areas, a cultural turn resulting from Black Pride, Afrocentrism, or Rastafarianism, for instance, might mean that the younger generation was no longer using the hair products their parents had used, or attending the churches their parents had attended, or valuing the same art, aesthetics, music, and even naming conventions their parents had valued. This ties into the other question on this page that spilled over into my footnote about “what is and isn’t hoodoo” – you can’t really say something like “here’s the originary date of hoodoo, and here’s the cutoff date for old-school conjure, and everything that was new after that is not traditional hoodoo.” I see this today in interviewing people in academic contexts about voodoo in Haiti or folk religion or spiritual practice in just about anywhere – often the grandchildren will talk to you about their interest in or return to practices that their parents won’t speak of and tried to distance themselves from. Sometimes the children have to recover these practices on their own, if their grandparents or older relatives are no longer living.

So the bottom line depends on how you define some of your terms. What happened to the hoodoo of the 70s? the same thing that happened to the hoodoo of the 60s and the 50s. It changed a bit as the world changed, as horizons changed, as neighborhoods and markets changed. What happened to “old fashioned hoodoo”? Well, how do you define old-fashioned?

***

Q: Was czech jewelry ever spelled cech?

A: FFS, wtf. Well, this is a hoodoo, voodoo, magic, and folk religion blog, but I happen to be able to answer this, and the question brought more than one person to this blog, so what the hell. (Though these search terms make me baffled at how some people use search engines – they aren’t oracles and typing complete sentences usually helps rather than hinders!) The “czech” you see when a rosary is made with “Czech glass beads” is short for “Czechoslovakia,” which as of 1993 no longer exists; that area is now divided into “the Czech Republic” and “Slovakia.”  There, they speak Czech and Slovak (get it?). In the Czech language, they have different ways of conveying sounds through orthography than we have in English. In English, we use “Cz” to represent the sound we pronounce in this case as a hard “ch,” but they use “Č” (see that little symbol on top of the C? That is *critical* to its pronunciation and therefore spelling – you cannot just leave it out or it would be pronounced differently).  So, no, it was never spelled “Cech,” but it was spelled “Čech” (with the little symbol). I imagine the person who asked this question did not realize that “czech” was short for “czechoslovakia,” or else they could have just looked it up in any encyclopedia, but I digress.

***

[*] This sort of thing becomes an issue for anyone studying living folk practice. Living practices change. Herbs and resins and dirts and flora/fauna used in Western Africa, for instance, had to change in Haiti, Louisiana, Brazil, Trinidad, Virginia – because the same stuff does not grow in all those places, just to touch on the tip of the iceberg. You can see the sorts of issues it raises in the contemporary practices surrounding Santisima Muerte in Mexico today. I maintain that, from a historical perspective, the use of gold, purple, green etc Santisima Muerte statues is an interpolation that came through modern commercial occult markets and probably has at least a little to do with symbolism and practice found in commercially-available materia magica for traditions such as Santeria. But however they came about, and however recent they are compared to the red, black, and white statues, the fact remains that living devotees of the saint who are actively, at this very moment, living a spiritual life in which the saint plays a significant role, are using them and see a need they fill. And for someone to come in from “outside” their particular community and tell them their practice is not legitimate — well, who’s the authority, finally? The academic or the practitioner? You can do a slippery slope thing with this if you want and say “well, then, since I practice hoodoo, then whatever I do is hoodoo, and nobody can to say any different.” We can — and do, in various corners of monograph footnotes, articles, blogs, and websites — debate this kind of thing ’til the cows come home. You can even accuse me of doing the same thing I’m criticizing here, when I rant about people selling stuff to “cleanse” mojo bags, or when I say “watermelon fragrance oil is not hoodoo.” Sure, there are some lines that are going to be debatable, less than clear cut, in a living, breathing tradition. (For instance, I say that if it’s the consistency of soup, you have no business calling it gumbo, but there are folks winning prizes with gumbo recipes that I would not hit a hog in the behind with. Is it chili anymore if it’s white and made with cannellini beans? When you are really hungry, do you give a crap?)

*And yet* the fact remains that when my 40 or 60 year old clients from Louisiana or Florida or South Carolina order a bottle of Van Van oil from me, they have an expectation of what it’s going to smell like, and if I send them something pink that smells like gardenias, they are probably going to ask if I mislabeled the bottle (and maybe secretly think I’ve lost my mind). They will not have the same reaction to my suggesting Road Opener oil, even though neither of us used a thing called precisely that in our childhoods (probably in part because my clients know I am not some convert who jumped off a Wicca wagon and started making Van Van oil last year, so I am not going to sell them some new age goop that does not “fit” with what we both grew up with). Similarly, while Catholic conjure doctors were a relative rarity outside of Louisiana, they nevertheless did exist, and work with some saints did extend beyond the borders of Catholicism and even those who would self-identify as Spiritualists or Spiritists prior to the internet and folk Catholics like me writing blogs. So saying “work with the saints is not traditional hoodoo” is profoundly ignorant, not to mention insulting. Folk magic is *always, always* influenced by region, including the religion, traditions, culture, and flora and fauna of the physical land upon which its practitioners live, in their physical neighborhoods. I have clients from Alabama who grew up with this stuff who leave offerings at their ancestor’s graves, and I have other clients from the East Coast who grew up with this stuff who hold their breath when they go by graveyards and paint the baby’s windowsill blue to “keep off the haints.” Workers I respect who I know to be authentic and honest say they were taught that women shouldn’t do rootwork while pregnant. I was never taught any such thing and I seem to come from a very different way of conceiving of both spiritual work and pregnancy; the theory underlying such a prohibition doesn’t fit into my worldview, religion, or practice. Those are very different approaches to working with and living with the dead, with the unborn, with liminality, and they can be traced to different regions and distinct “paths” along the diaspora and/or traditions in question; and yet, it’s too simplistic to say that one set of beliefs is “traditional” or “authentic” and the other is not. The bottom line is that there has never been any monolithic central guide to *anything* that’s a folk tradition – if there were, it wouldn’t be a folk tradition anymore. At least part of it would be codified, captured, encapsulated, isolated, no longer “in free play” in a living community. To say that things change does not mean “anything goes,” but to say that any change after some arbitrary, imaginary cutoff date is “not hoodoo” is just ridiculous.

***

For some further thoughts and conversation that unfolded from this post in the comments section over at the mirror site, go here.