To the untrained eye, the strain of magic involving animal spirits and the use of charms and powders in Cynthia Bond's novel might seem to be a branch of voodoo - a belief system that finds its origins in the Western African religion of Vodun. It is crucial to note that Ruby is, in fact, along with others in the community, a practitioner of the oft-confused hoodoo.
Also known as 'conjure' or 'rootwork', hoodoo is a term used for a certain kind of African-American folkloric practice and belief. Having made their way across the Atlantic with the slave trade, the elements of hoodoo frequently merge with European and Native American folkloric traditions and often incorporate Biblical psalms. The principal difference between the two is that voodoo is part of a religion while hoodoo is not; they do borrow from each other so it's hard to treat them as entirely distinct entities.
Hoodoo practitioners harness the power of natural herbs, and use animal sacrifice, bodily fluids and special elements such as lodestones to conjure their spells. Talismans (or gris-gris) are used to bring luck and protection; activities such as divination, card reading, astrology and dream interpretation are also a part of hoodoo.
Not a religion and not allowing omnipotence to any God in particular (practitioners often practice hoodoo while observing their own particular religious beliefs), hoodoo is rich with spirits, one such being the "dark man" or devil who bares a striking resemblance to Ruby's own 'dyboù'.
As an interesting aside, the word hoodoo might have Gaelic origin from the phonetic transliteration of the Gaelic word for "dark spirit." African American sailors crossed paths with their Irish counterparts in the Atlantic shipping trade and the term might have crossed over then. In fact, the eerie rock formations found in the desert Southwest in national parks such as Bryce in Utah, are known as hoodoo because Irish traders viewed them as personified demons. The term is now used for similar rock formations across the world.
There are many figures in American history who made a name for themselves within hoodoo culture, the most well-known of these perhaps being Aunt Caroline Dye, who practiced her particular form of clairvoyance and divination on clientele far and wide, earning a strong reputation. Born into slavery (and eventually freed), Aunt Caroline was aware of her abilities as a seer from a very young age, and had individuals travel and write to her from far and wide for advice and influence in all matters - from affairs of business to the heart.
Today, hoodoo is practised across the United States, and not only by the African American community.
This article was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the
February 2015 paperback release.
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