folk magic

Book Review: Old Style Conjure- Hoodoo, Rootwork and Folk Magic by Starr Casas

January, 2018

 

I was quite excited to have the opportunity to review this book. It’s a subject that I’ve been curious about, but haven’t read about as much as I would have liked. There was a great Foreward by Orion Foxwood who is an author and conjure worker as well, then we get into the Introduction, which Casas writes “I am going to try and write in a way even the novice worker will understand, and the information will also maybe help the seasoned worker as well. I feel that it is important for this work to be passed on, as many of the elders are passing and with them the knowledge they hold. I don’t want this work to die out; it is too important to my culture”. She then goes on to talk about how over the last ten years the work has been watered down and whitewashed. She writes about how respect for the work and the ancestors is critical, as is the fact that the work must always be justified. In this Introduction Casas gets into something called hotfoot work, which is “something done to move someone out quickly where they will not come back…that when you work with hotfoot products on someone, you could be sending their spirit to wander and be restless. The hotfoot work could cause them to never have peace and to just move from place to place” Reading about this I knew that this book would be talking about a type of magic that I have never practiced. Once I kept reading she does talk about why it is this way; that you need to think about how this work got to the place that it did- the horrors of slavery. She ends the Introduction with some common questions and answers, it is here too that I discovered the importance of the bible in old-style conjure.

The next chapter is full of basic Q and A’s. It was a great idea to put this right at the beginning of the book. It touches on a lot of topics, and it’s a great idea to get it all out of the way. She did get to a question that I already had at this point in reading; and that was if you needed to be Christian for this work, and I think that a lot of people who are reading this are probably Pagan. Her answer to that is “No, you do not have to be a Christian. But if you remove the bible, then you are no longer doing conjure work; you are doing something else. The bible is an integral part of conjure. There are a lot of folks who would love to take the bible out of conjure, but if you do, then it is no longer conjure.” This answer seemed kind of silly to me. Clearly you need to have a bible to do this work, and you need to believe in what you are doing. So all in all, you do need to be a Christian in my opinion. After reading the whole book, there are for sure things that I took away from it, and I feel like I could take many aspects of conjure and wicca and put them together, but for the sake of this review I just need to say that it seems contradictory to say that you don’t need to be Christian, but then immediately after say that if you take away the bible, it’s not true conjure. The rest of the Q and A really does touch on a lot of subjects and it was a great chapter. It really did answer a lot before even getting into the meat of the book.

Chapter two is about ole time religion. This chapter was overwhelming me with talk about Christianity and the bible. She also mentions numerous times how tricky conjure workers are. I did find this chapter repetitive and a lot of the same information that I just read in the introduction were stated again in this chapter. The following chapter is about the foundation of conjure, and it was full of a lot of interesting tidbits. A great way to sum up the chapter is to quote the author herself. “The blood, suffering, and deaths of the ancestors ensure that this work belongs to them. They should be honored and remembered for their great gift. They are truly the foundation of Conjure, and we must all remember without them there would be no conjure, Hoodoo, or rootwork, or whatever name you wish to call the work.” She then answers more common questions and gets into an altar. It reminds me a lot of a pagan altar and she also talks about giving small offerings, just like a lot of Wiccans do. It was good to see some similarities and some things that I personally could connect to.

The next chapter she covers the topic of an altar to more extent. She also touches on the importance of colour, like when deciding what colour cloth to use. The 5th chapter expands on offerings. Again, I found some similarities between Paganism and Conjure; especially in relation to honoring Spirit (even if we are talking about two totally different definitions). I did find aspects of this chapter a bit confusing as on one page she talks about leaving an offering on your altar for a few days, but no longer than a week, but on the following page she talks about leaving offerings on the altar permanently- so I wasn’t too sure what way would be the best in that aspect.

The chapter on divination was one of my favorites. Bone reading and card reading are the main focus and style of divination when looking at conjure. I’ve always been curious about old style divination and have only really heard stories about bone reading so I really enjoyed that section, and it was cool to hear about chicken feet being used in real life. She says that “Each bone tells its own unique story. The thing to remember is to relax and let Spirit guide you in the reading.” And that resonated with me. A lot of the time in life you need to just relax and listen to Spirit and see what it makes you feel. Another cool thing in this chapter was the topic of protection when doing divination, which to me was just a Christian way of casting a circle. There was also a lot on trinity, which as a pagan the power of three resonates with me as well. So I liked the similarities to my own religion. The card reading part was different than what I expected, as usually when I read or look into card divination it’s usually involving the Tarot, whereas in conjure you use just a regular deck of cards. I want to give it a try for sure.

Following that, there is an excellent chapter about the spirits of Conjure that focuses on the ancestors, elders and spirits. I think this was my favorite chapter of the book actually. She gets into the historical ancestors “those who fought against the unjustness of slavery, of the wrongness of one man owning another man, or someone who fought against the odds and achieved something that was almost unachievable for a nonwhite”. And she tells the stories of many of those people. After educating the reader about that she delves into spiritual ancestors of conjure, with the first being Big Mama. I loved hearing all the tales of these spirits, as I hadn’t really heard of them and it really was a great read and would be informative to new and old conjure workers.

Chapter 8 was all about places of power. Which, I am aware of the importance of location when working with magick. The first place she touched on what the graveyard, which makes total sense to me. I’ve always been cautious and have avoided working in a graveyard except for a few times out of respect for the dead. Casas is a very blunt author and I appreciated that for this chapter. “Use your common sense when you are dealing with the graveyard and the dead that live there”. One thing that did get a bit repetitive was the use of “use your common sense”. It showed up many times in just this chapter, but also throughout the book. But, I understand where she is coming from. Something I took from this chapter especially was when she talks about a “wash”; which is a cleansing. I’ve done and heard of a lot of methods, but she does talk a lot about Christian prayer and I am used to casting a circle, or something similar and it’s always interesting to me to learn about different methods of spiritual protection. She gets into many other places of power including the police station, the banks and hospitals, which honestly I haven’t thought about ever doing magick in any of those three locations.

Following that was a chapter all about light. “Fire has always been a part of spiritual work from the time the first people discovered it. Whether through candle lights, lamps or an actual fire, folks and spiritual workers alike recognized the power of fire and what you can do with it”. That quote sets up this chapter well, as the first things she talks about is candles, which is what most people work with on a day-to-day basis. She also gets into talking about oil lamps, and a nice little feature is the basic spells she gives for both types of light-work.

She moves from light to conjure waters. This is a very neat chapter with a lot of information that is new to me. I never thought of using things like dishwater and toilet water. There is also something called Tar water and War water. It’s a short chapter but she touches on some neat information. After that she writes about dirts and dust. The dirts are used to make conjure powders. She tells the reader here that she is sharing information that she’s never written about before. She reminds the reader as well that not all conjure work is “sugary and sweet” and gets back into the topic of slavery. She lists the different types of dirts and dusts used, but there is a pretty noticeable error in this chapter and she has the exact same post about termite dust twice.

After all that, chapter 12 moves on to roots, herbs and trees. A lot of this hits home with my inner Pagan as this is something I’ve read a lot about. She lists all the different plants used and why you work with those specific ones. It’s a pretty decent list that I think is quite informative; especially if you are new to that topic. Chapter 13 moves onto the tools of conjure- and it opens with writing a petition- something new to me yet again. “Your petition tells Spirit exactly what you are asking for”. She gives a couple examples of how to plan said petition and works through it so if you’ve never done it before it makes you feel like you’re in good hands. Once she finishes up that she gets into household tools. There is another nice list for the reader. Some items are pretty common (coffee, brooms, eggs, etc.) and some would be items most would need to go out to buy specifically. (chicken feet, gunpowder, railroad spikes, etc.)

The last three chapters sum up a lot in the book. Casas delves into various things that are hidden within the culture, things she did automatically as a child because that’s what she was taught, without even realizing why. I like the personal touch here. The 2nd to last chapter is all about “Drawin’ and Removin’” Where she gets into attraction and reversal work and how you need to have an understanding on both sides of the fence. There is also a really great section in this chapter where she gives the reader a “Love yourself power work”, which I think is just fantastic. Then there is a final Q and A and a few more examples of work you can do. The last chapter is titled Africanized and she gives a bit more information on the history, the bible, and the culture itself.

All-in-all I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about a topic I’ve always been interested in and so I felt like I was being educated by someone who actually knew what they were talking about and I love the fact that she grew up learning conjure and didn’t just decide to pick it up as a hobby or anything. She has a lot of stories to tell, which makes the book that much more of a better read. The only negatives I have to say is that as a Pagan, I did find some things conflicting with my belief, and that there really should be a better index. She gives so many great examples of “spells”, but if you wanted to learn how to do something, there is no quick reference guide to find the page you would need. If you wanted to learn how to make a conjure bag for example, you would need to flip though the book and just hope to find it. I had to use a bunch of post-it notes to keep track of some things in this book. But- it’s great read and I think a lot of people could take something away from it.

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Book Excerpt: Old Style Conjure- Hoodoo, Rootwork, & Folk Magic by Starr Casas

September, 2017

THE FOUNDATION OF CONJURE

Despite all the information out there on Conjure, no one to my knowledge has ever written about its foundation. You see plenty of works, or “spells” as outsiders call the work, but there is no mention of the foundation of this work. Is it because folks don’t think it’s important? Is it because they really don’t know? Or is it something else? It really is food for thought. It is one of the first lessons I learned as a young worker and one of the most important.

I have found in today’s conjure world that it isn’t enough for folks to know the work; they want to “own” the knowledge. They seem to want to claim it when it isn’t theirs to claim. This work is borrowed, because it belongs to someone else. Are you wondering what I am talking about? Like my elder Mr. Robert used to say, “Let me break it down for you.”

Are you thinking that the foundation of the work is the ingredients that go into the work? If so, you’re wrong. The foundation of this work is the ancestors who brought the work over on the slave ships! Conjure didn’t exist over here until the slaves were transported here. That’s one of the reasons Conjure is part of the South. The ships docked in the South, and all the Southern states were “slave” states! The ancestors’ beliefs became part of the Southern culture. The only thing the kidnapped ancestors had was their knowledge. They didn’t have a backpack filled with roots, herbs, and remedies; all that information was in their heads. They only had the clothes that were on their backs. They suffered untold miseries in the bottom of slave ships being taken halfway around the world to an unknown place. Then they were off the ship and on the slave block being sold like ani­mals, but they still had their knowledge and their pride. Can you imagine how much willpower it took to stand docile while in chains and having folks poke and prod you? Or how about never being able to lift your head in pride or to be able to look a white person in the face?

This work—Conjure—came out of their misery and suffer­ing; it came from their blood being spilled. It came from their deaths. The work was done and passed on to help protect the family. The law stay away work was done to keep the slave patrols from finding the runaways. Dollies were made to bind or influence the slave master or overseer. Justice work was done to try and bring justice to an unjust situation. These works came alive from the need to survive.

The blood, suffering, and deaths of the ancestors ensure that this work belongs to them. They should be honored and remembered for their great gift. They are truly the foundation of Conjure, and we must all remember without them there would be no Conjure, Hoodoo, or Rootwork, or whatever name you wish to call the work.

Honoring the ancestors of this work will empower your work. I know this topic makes folks uncomfortable, but it must be discussed in order to give the ancestors their due, which is so sorely lacking. Some folks might not like what I am saying, but that is not my problem. It is theirs. The ancestors of this work deserve to be honored and uplifted for all that they gave. With more folks getting DNA testing done and finding out family histories, questions can arise. Here are some questions that I have been asked over the years by some of my students.

Q. Do you have to be of African descent to practice Conjure?

A. No, but you must honor and acknowledge the ancestors of this work.

 

Q. I did an ancestry search and I found out genera­tions back my folks were slavers; can I still be a conjure worker?

A. Yes. What better way to right a wrong than to uplift and honor the ancestors of this work?

 

Q. My family is racist; do I have the right to do conjure work?

A. Respect and honor go hand in hand. We are not responsible for what others do. We are only responsible for our own actions. If something within you is calling you to this work, then I would say as long as you uplift the ances­tors of this work and honor them, then there is no reason why you can’t.

 

Q. What do you mean when you say to honor and uplift the ancestors of Conjure?

A. We are all guests in this work; it doesn’t belong to any of us. When I say “honor,” I mean for you to maintain a small space for these ancestors, a place where you can offer a cool drink or say a prayer for them. By doing this you are not only showing them respect, but you are feeding their spirits and uplifting them.

 

I have been asked these four questions many times by new students. The important thing is to understand that we don’t have the right to just take this work without giving the ances­tors their due. Set up a small altar and dedicate it to the ances­tors of Conjure. I have a large altar in my home and the whole family burns lights on it when the need arises, but I am the keeper of the altar.

**Adapted, and reprinted with permission from Weiser an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, OLD STYLE CONJURE  by Starr Casas is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at www.redwheelweiser.com or 800-423-7087.

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Author Bio:

Starr Casas, a veteran rootworker and traditional conjure woman, has been helping people for over 35 years through her ancestral art of old style conjure. She is one of the preeminent modern masters of this southern American style of folk magic, and she maintains an active teaching schedule. Starr is also among the organizers of the annual New Orleans Folk Magic Festival.