Hoodoo - What is Hoodoo?

Woman holding bowl of apples
Pauline St.Denis / Getty Images

A traditional form of folk magic, the term Hoodoo can have different meanings, depending on who is using it and what their practice includes. In general, Hoodoo refers to a form of folk magic and rootwork that evolved from African practices and beliefs. In the United States, it has often been diluted to include some Native American botanical knowledge as well as European folklore. This mishmash of practices and beliefs combines to form contemporary Hoodoo.

Did You Know?

  • Modern Hoodoo evolved from traditional African practices, which came to the United States with enslaved people.
  • Despite the use of magic and ancestor worship, Hoodoo is not a Pagan tradition–many practitioners are in fact Christian.
  • In some areas of the United States, the term Hoodoo is used to apply to traditional Appalachian mountain magic. 

African Ancestral Magic

Close-Up Of Man Performing Ritual
Naveen Kumar / EyeEm / Getty Images

Although many followers of modern Hoodoo practices are African-American, many non-Black practitioners are out there as well. However, the tradition’s roots are typically found in the folkloric practice of Central and West Africa, and were brought to the United States during the time of the slave trade. These magical systems are sometimes called Hoodoo, but are also called conjure or rootwork, depending on the practitioner.

Jasper is a rootworker in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. He says,

“I learned it from my father who learned it from his father, and so on, going way back. It’s an interesting paradox, how traditional Hoodoo hasn’t changed much, even though our society has. I’m a Black man with a Masters Degree and a successful computer business, but I still get phone calls from girls wanting love philtres, or men who need a conjure done to keep their woman from straying, or someone who’s going gambling and needs a bit of extra luck.”

Many Hoodoo spells are related to love and lust, money and gambling, and other practical applications. There is also, in some forms of Hoodoo, a veneration of the ancestors. However, it’s important to note that despite the use of magic and ancestor worship, Hoodoo is not a Pagan tradition at all–many practitioners are in fact Christian, and some even use the Psalms as a basis for magic.

Yvonne Chireau, Associate Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College, writes in Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic that Hoodoo, or conjure magic, was a way for African slaves to use their ancestral practices for protection and power. She says, 

"In the cultures from which the slaves were drawn in West and Central Africa, religion was not a distinct, compartmentalized sphere of activity but a way of life within which all social structures, institutions, and relationships were rooted... Traditional African religions were oriented toward the invocation of these powerful otherworldly forces for various purposes, including the prediction of the future, the explanation of the unknown, and the control of nature, persons, and events... For its part, Conjure spoke directly to the slaves' perceptions of powerlessness and danger by providing alternative—but largely symbolic—means for addressing suffering. The Conjuring tradition allowed practitioners to defend themselves from harm, to cure their ailments, and to achieve some conceptual measure of control over personal adversity."

In general, people who are not of African descent should be very cautious about appropriating African traditional practices.

Hoodoo and Mountain Magic

Women in apothecary shop
Hero Images / Getty Images

In some areas of the United States, the term Hoodoo is used to apply to mountain magic. The use of omens, charms, spells, and amulets is often incorporated into folk magic practices found in the southeastern U.S. This is a perfect example of how a diasporic magical practice has become trans-cultural. For more information on mountain Hoodoo, read Byron Ballard’s excellent book, Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo.

Despite the confusion often found in people who are not practitioners of magic of any sort, Hoodoo and Voodoo (or Vodoun) are not the same thing at all. Voodoo calls upon a specific set of deities and spirits, and is an actual religion. Hoodoo, on the other hand, is a set of skills used in folk magic. Both, however, can be traced back to early African magical practice.

During the late 1930s, Harry Middleton Hyatt, a folklorist and Anglican minister, traveled around the American southeast, interviewing Hoodoo practitioners. His work resulted in a stunning collection of thousands of spells, magical beliefs, and interviews, which was then gathered into several volumes and published.

Although Hyatt was prolific, scholars have often questioned the accuracy of his work—despite his interviews with hundreds of African Americans, he seems to not have had much of a grasp on how Hoodoo worked within the context of Black culture. In addition, much of his work was recorded on cylinders and then translated phonetically, making it appear that he’s stereotyping the African American regional dialects that he encountered. Regardless, keeping these issues in mind, the Hyatt volumes, entitled simply Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork are worth exploring for anyone interested in Hoodoo practice.

Another valuable resource is Jim Haskins’ book Voodoo and Hoodoo, which looks at both magical traditions. Finally, Vance Randolph’s writings on Ozark magic and folklore give a great perspective on mountain folk magic.


  • Alvarado, Denise, and Madrina Angelique. Workin in Da Boneyard. Creole Moon Publications, 2012.
  • Bess, Gabby. “Black Magic: Hoodoo Witches Speak Out on the Appropriation of Their Craft.” Vice, VICE, 23 Sept. 2015, www.vice.com/en_us/article/qkg93m/black-magic-talking-with-hoodoo-witches.
  • Bird, Stephanie Rose. Sticks, Stones, Roots & Bones: Hoodoo, Mojo & Conjuring with Herbs. Llewellyn Publications, 2009.
  • Haskins, James. Voodoo & Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft as Revealed by Actual Practitioners. Scarborough House, 1991.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Hoodoo - What is Hoodoo?" Learn Religions, Dec. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-hoodoo-2561899. Wigington, Patti. (2020, December 26). Hoodoo - What is Hoodoo? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-hoodoo-2561899 Wigington, Patti. "Hoodoo - What is Hoodoo?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-hoodoo-2561899 (accessed June 5, 2023).