Neo-Hoodoo and the dilution of the tradition

With hoodoo's recent surge of popularity across a broad spectrum of the online occult audience some complex, perhaps thorny issues have been brought into the dialogue. A lot of traditional workers - people who grew up in the communities who passed on and evolved this tradition over many, many generations feel that there is a genuine risk of true conjure becoming lost, diluted or bastardised. The influence of new age concepts, wicca and other modern western systems - and even that of its fellow afro-diasporic traditions, such as santeria and vodou can have an unwelcome and destructive influence.

What's most confusing about this is that because of the of the way hoodoo evolved it's already comprised of a broad range of magical influences ranging from its roots in the kongo traditions, to European witchcraft and Native American herbal lore. People take that to mean that it's a free-for-all and that it can be mixed with anything from wicca to chaos magic. Most destructive is the fact that the people being drawn to this new glamourous sparkle that the tradition is receiving forget that it in fact is the heritage of a group of people. It isn't simply magical system - it's a folk tradition. Which means that it is deeply intertwined with a group of peoples cultural experience and identity. It isn't this free floating thing that can be claimed by whoever pleases because it already belongs to someone.

Whenever this argument gets put forth it's usually round about now that people start getting uncomfortable. A slippery sense of entitlement rears its head - one which will have you believe we are free to do as we please and take what we want from whomever we want, because we are special. We are spiritual. What harm can we do?

So I will offer an example of the damage that can be done by the New Age machine.

One word: Reiki.

Most people don't know this because I am worried it might damage by bad-ass image ;-) but I have been trained and attuned up the Master-teacher level of Usui Reiki. In fact I went through the whole cycle of training from Reiki I to Master level a total of three times. Each time with different teacher. Why three times? Because I was determined to find an authentic transmission of the original system created in Japan. You know what I discovered? You pretty much can't. The reiki healing system was raped and pillaged so many times by so many greedy self-entitled westerners that the original form, whatever it was, is basically gone. Now you have Crystal Rainbow Dolphin Reiki, and Fairy Pumpkin Kundalini Reiki and Lumerian Varja Monkey Reiki. I personally was considering starting my own school of reiki - called Michael Jackson Moonbeam Reiki after I got a tingly sensation in my palms while watching Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk on TV the other day, just after he passed over to the other side. I swear, I laid my hands on someone and they said they could kinda sorta hear the baseline of Thriller pulsing in their crown chakra.

I am being silly, I know.

I don't mean to bash reiki people, because I have spent a lot of time with them and they are a lovely bunch to be sure. Some of my dearest friends are reiki teachers and I have tremendous respect for them. And I am quite certain that Lumerian Vajra Monkey Reiki really does make people feel a lot better and happier - but what what grinds me is that the Usui system, even the forms which claim to be traditional are simply remnants of whatever Dr. Usui received during his enlightening experience on the mountain. Interestingly, the founder of Aikido received his system in a rather similar fashion (a flash of golden light coming down through his crown) and roughly at the same time as Usui - supposedly they even knew each other. Now, compare Reiki today with Aikido.

Anyone for some Fairy Dolphin Kundalini Rainbow Aikido? Why not? I bet Aikido could be vastly improved by crystals and new age music, personally.

I am being silly again, I am sorry.

But my silliness aims to illustrate how destructive and demeaning sloppy New Age appropriation along with greedy self-entitlement can be. Just because you think it's spiritual and makes you feel good doesn't mean its right. Reiki got eaten up alive by the New Age monster and spat out as a pale spectre of its original form. Word is there is a clutch of original Usui Reiki practitioners somewhere in Japan, in hiding. I really don't blame them, honestly I don't.

Getting back to hoodoo for a moment - we find there is this problem that comes with being an outsider participant to any living tradition that you weren't born into, which is that you are inevitably going to bring your own world view and existing beliefs and practices to it. It cannot be helped. It's a human response to learning - you want to synthesise, blend and find commonalities that overlap so you can integrate what you know already. You are trying to make sense of it all, and this is sane and natural. The goal then should be to study the tradition in its purist form, with greatest respect that you can. To work with it as it stands before you begin chopping and changing the parts which don't fit your cosy expectations or the blinkered ideas you are bringing to the table. In all likelihood you are actually changing the parts that you need most of all, and in fact the part that makes it, you know, work. Before you know it what you have left is this watered down grey goo (or worse, fairy rainbow goo) which you will eventually abandon for next months new magical flavour because surprise, surprise it doesn't actually deliver anymore.


  1. Nice post. The problem as I see it is that when Hoodoo went "public" sometime in the early twentieth century, it was commercialized and commodified so as to suit a broader audience. The original Hoodoo, as you know, was embedded within the slave cultures, with all that that entails. That meant no outsiders, period. So what happens when something sacred and insular is exposed to the rest of the world? I believe that it is fundamentally transformed in the process. And it continues to be so. Is it right? Is it ethical or moral? I think that is for the owners of the tradition to figure out. And no one seems to know who Hoodoo "belongs" to, but there are plenty of opinions.

  2. That's not true there were quite a few outsiders and some quite famous going back for some time already. The commodification of the tradition happened due to the urbanisation of its practitioners - the audience was always mostly black. The creation of spiritual products therefor was just a new method of delivery aimed at them. Even today the vast majority of the clients who go to rootworkers and buy these products are black. There is no question that hoodoo is African American, and remains so despite what impression people are getting on the internet.

  3. Well said, Balthazar. I think the risk to any tradition is the fact that people feel entitled to change it, introduce concepts that have no place, etc.

    It is both a blessing and a risk that hoodoo has grown to reach new seekers. Let us hope that it doesn't loose its roots in the process.

  4. Yes, Reiki has been irreparably damaged by the New Age community and the Western penchant for instant gratification. That and the idea that you should be able to become a Master in one short afternoon.

    When I teach, my Masters "class" is actually year-long mentorship period. It involves a great many practice treatments, ongoing education, personal introspection, meditation, monthly Master-to-student energy transmissions, and also going through a course of healing via Reiki so that they first-hand experience the process of healing. It also stresses learning spiritual hygiene and energetic cleansing, which are SOO important (but that gets addressed in maybe 1 out of 25 classes that you find, and then only in the most basic in-passing form).

    In all my years of teaching, do you know how many students have chosen to take the time and effort to do my Masters mentorship program? 1. About 6 have begun it, but never finished, opting to go to one of the weekend-Master classes that are what pretty much everyone else offers.

    So, I absolutely agree. And I certainly see how that trend is entering conjure. I try to practice in as undiluted a fashion as I can. I'm sure I could do better, but I do my best to keep things as true to tradition as I can manage out of respect for the system and the people it came from. Every day I see completely foreign concepts to hoodoo like "karma" and the "Rule of 3", and "harming none", or using amethyst, etc, with people having no idea why it's not appropriate. And they'll get upset at you for wanting to step on their right to mix whatever they wish in.

    While I have certainly experimented with conjure methods used in non-traditional ways, I make no claim that those works were hoodoo. They were something new, whether or not they worked. Inspired-by, certainly, but in no way traditional.

    It all goes along with the flood of people who are uninterested in actually learning the historical context of their techniques. Following a blended spiritual path myself, I see this there as well as in conjure. People just cherry-picking stuff they find shiny and pretty and smooshing them all together with no concept of why that's energetically inappropriate and ineffective and thinking it's all ok.

    Anyway - now I'm just ranting. LOL.

  5. "That's not true there were quite a few outsiders and some quite famous going back for some time already."

    I have to correct you here. Your statement suggests that you do not grasp the chronology of this process of public commercializaton. Perhaps you have learned about these "quite famous" outsiders from a 20th century revisionist, but I am a historian and I have documented the rise of Hoodoo in the U.S. In 1788 there were no "outsiders" engaged with the tradition, which of course at that time, was local, and African. There were certainly native American and African interactions, but I consider native peoples "outsiders" to slave cultures. By the early 1800s anotherform of Hoodoo had emerged that carried Anglo and Christian influences into slave communities. "Outsiders" at this time would be those members of the slaveowning class as well as free black Americans. Are you saying that these people owned the tradition or had equal access to it? I find nothing of the sort in the sources. In the post emancipation period the commodification that I spoke of had not yet begun. So who are these quite famous individuals who are Hoodoo practitioners that you speak of, who were engaged with the original Hoodoo? When and how did Hoodoo become available for public consumption? In other words, who was Hoodoo meant for? Slaves? Africans? White people? Consumers?

  6. Well, off the top of my head one famous white figure comes to mind, the legendary "Doctor Buzzard" of Beaufort, South Carolina - whose legal name was Robinson and died in the late 19th century. What is interesting about him is that a second conjurer, an African American man, relying on name recognition (and with the same surname, Robinson), took up his practice, after he died - taking for himself the goodwill and reputation of the original by using the title of Doctor Buzzard. So I think it is safe to say he was a well regarded, even as an outsider - charging hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars for a single spell.

    Whilst throughout the 19th century conjure is conducted as a confidential affair between conjure workers and clients, we see the commodification of the tradition happens in the early twentieth century, when the creation of hoodoo products along with the advent of conjure shops begins changing the way it is delivered to its audience - which is what we were actually talking about, if you recall.

    So yes some outsiders had access to it before the "commodification" period in the early 20th century. I am sure I can find more examples if you like. And my sources are academic, I can assure you.

    As to there being some kind of "original hoodoo" as you seem to suggest above - it seems you are setting up a red herring in order to substantiate your argument. One that excludes 19th century hoodoo as somehow no longer being "original". A logical fallacy - to say the least.

  7. Well, for one thing, I think the tradition is only being diluted by outsiders. The people and culture who established that tradition stilly exist and carry one, no matter what books, websites, and outside sources say.

    As it does gain in popularity, there will be people who speak for the traditions and culture that it exists in, and seek to continue to practice it and preserve it as they learned it.

    I have always like the metaphor that the folk magic practices can be compared to thier cooking. If someone tells you know they are making Cajun Gumbo, and serves you Egg drop soup instead, you will know the difference. It works the same way with folk magic. If someone says they are doign Hoodoo, and they start invoking the Goddess and the Moon, then you know, clearly, it's not.

  8. Amen, Brother Christopher - amen.

  9. Well said Balthazar and Brother Christopher, you both hit the nail on the head. Starr

  10. You're more right than you know about Aikido. I've been practicing it for years on and off the mat, and it has been diluted GREATLY in a lot of schools. It was a big issue for my sensei because he felt that it was being misinterpreted as a purely passive art, when it has both passive and active components.

  11. I think this is an interesting post. It's kind of old now, but I've only just seen it.

    I think the reiki angle is interesting because reiki seems to have been appropriated in Japan long before Mrs. Takata was taught anything.

    Also, and I apologize for being dense, but I'm not clear if what conclusion we are expected to draw from the reiki/aikido angle. Are you saying that aikido compares favorably with reiki in regards to remaining pure or that it is just another example of the silliness that can arise from new age associations?
    I've known both new age and hardcore traditional aikidoka and can easily see a rhetorical argument going either way. It might be me, but it felt like the aikido part was just thrown in without any explanation.