Southern Rootwork is a living tradition currently practiced and passed along by word of mouth, imitation, and observation over time and space within groups, such as family, ethnic, social class, regional, and others. It evolved out of a conglomeration of African Traditional Religions (ATRs) brought to American shores with the slave trade. The word Hoodoo is often used interchangeably with rootwork to denote various forms of African-based ethnobotanical, folk magic systems, medicinal healing and hexing through the use of herbs, roots, bones, and stones. Southern rootwork as we know it today is largely influenced by Native American and Latino Diasporic traditions, as well as European folk magic. That said, it is African at its roots.
When it first arrived to these shores via the slave trade, Hoodoo was a very powerful system of ancestral-based magical, spiritual and herbal system of knowledge said to be directly connected to the African Vodou Spirits. It is said that Legba, the primary deity and intermediary, was given this system of knowledge by the forest spirits (Azizzas) and he along with the Vodou, in turn passed the knowledge on to the ancestors. The system provided the ancestors with a means of controlling and influencing the environment and was a primary way of coping with daily living. The African spirits were represented by crude wooden fetishes called boccio which were undoubtedly the forerunner of the American Voodoo doll; though, popular culture and the tourist trade have corrupted their original meaning and intent. According to the Mami Wata society:
"This system of knowledge was mastered by most Africans who lived on the Guinea Coast, all the way to Nigeria and the Bight of Benin (Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Angola, Senegal, etc.) It is from these African populations in particular (Fon, Ewe, Yoruba, Kongo-based groups) who carried this knowledge and tradition with them during their forced migration to the New World.
From the Dahomean perspective, if one were to substitute the word "Hunbonon" (familiar/mother) or Gbo/Gbokonan (medicine maker) for the popular New World term "Hoodoo", one would be placing this system of both magic, esoteric science, medicine and art, back in its historical mileu.”
For the term itself refers to a body of powerfully consecrated priests whose title literally translates as "producers or activators." Producers in the sense that it is they who not only possess the knowledge of all of the most sacred herbs, animals, metals, and other products of nature, used in magic, "hexing" and medicine, but are also its activators.
These priest are derived from all aspects of West African traditional spiritual practices, from our Bokonons,(geomancers), Azondoto, Zokas, Garbara, Akpases (socerers), Botonons (priest) and Mamaissiis (Mami Wata priests)."
Over time, the connection between the Vodou religion and the system of sacred knowledge of herbs, animals and minerals in magic and medicine was weakened as a result of colonization and the various traumatic events associated with colonization, i.e. religious persecution, forced separation of families, slavery, discrimination, Christianity and the Black Code (particularly in Louisiana). Now, Hoodoo is mostly considered to be the practice, study and use of roots, herbs, bones, stones, natural elements, and their magical, esoteric and medicinal use within a particular cultural context without the initiatory and religious practices of the Vodou religion or intervention of its pantheon of spirits. The connection between Legba, the Azzizas and the gift of knowledge of the healing properties of plants, herbs and roots has been forgotten by modern day rootworkers. Let us not forget from whence the “root” in rootwork came.
Article copyright 2013-2014 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved.