With everyone often tossing around the words “hoodoo,” “voodoo,” and “rootwork” interchangeably, it can be very confusing to figure out what each word really means. Let’s dive into the meaning, origins, and history behind each word and the respective practices!
The Big Questions
Are “voodoo,” “hoodoo,” and “rootwork” all the same tradition?
“Hoodoo” and “rootwork” are synonyms for the same African American tradition that has some overlap with but is distinctly different from “voodoo.” The religion of the Fon and Ewe peoples in Benin and Togo is called West African Vodun (also spelled Vodon or Vodoun), which comes from the Fon and Ewe word for “spirit.” Fon and Ewe slaves brought to Haiti continued to practice their indigenous religion under the guise of Catholicism, which eventually developed into the Afro-diasporic religion that we now call Haitian Vodou.
Similarly, Fon and Ewe slaves brought to Louisiana, a very Catholic area in the United States, were able to preserve the Vodun religion by syncretization with Catholic saints. This became voodoo, which is a term that specifically refers to the Louisiana-based, African American tradition. Unlike West African Vodun and Haitian Vodou, Louisiana Voodoo has blended somewhat with the separate tradition of hoodoo. The words sounding similar and some of the overlaps between hoodoo and voodoo is where folks tend to mix the two up.
The word “hoodoo” and its traditions have a somewhat parallel but distinctly different set of origins from voodoo. Hoodoo originates from Hudu, the name of a language and Ewe tribe in Togo and Ghana. Today, “hoodoo” refers to an African American tradition that developed from a number of West African cultures, religions, and beliefs that were passed down through the transatlantic slave trade in the United States. Unlike the word “voodoo,” “rootwork” can be and is frequently used interchangeably with “hoodoo” as they refer to the same set of African American traditions.
Where does hoodoo originally come from?
Most African slaves brought to the United States were from West African regions such as the Congo, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana. Though hoodoo is a product of the peoples and cultures across all those regions, Congo religious influence stands out as a primary part of rootwork’s African foundations. Palo is the name of the Afro-diasporic religion that developed from Congo religion in Cuba, which has many similarities to hoodoo.
Is hoodoo a form of black culture, magic, spirituality, or a religion?
Hoodoo is considered different things to different people. Some view it as an African traditional religion (ATR) or an Afro-diasporic religion (ADR). Many refer to hoodoo as a “folk magic tradition” or “folk spirituality” rather than a religion since many rootworkers practice different religions and don’t treat their rootwork as a religious practice in and of itself. Hoodoo is what it is as a set of practices and beliefs, but there are many different perspectives on how to categorize it in a broader sense.
Regardless of what one does call it, hoodoo/rootwork is an African American tradition that originated from several West African traditional religions. Over time, hoodoo has also accumulated influences from a wide variety of other religions and cultures including Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Native American traditions, European folk medicine, European witchcraft and ceremonial magic, some East Asian beliefs, and Judaism. Despite these many influences, hoodoo is still primarily grounded in an Afrocentric approach to spirituality and is considered by many to be an aspect of African American culture.
During an interview with Broadly, black rootworker Madame Omi Kongo said, “Hoodoo is the power of intention, confidence, and faith manifested. Hoodoo broadcasts the beauty and power of black culture at its root.”
It is important to look at hoodoo through a historical and cultural lens, but sometimes in the struggle to express exactly how much hoodoo means as a part of black culture and identity, it feels like words will just never be enough. Out of frustration in the midst of arguments and debates to defend hoodoo against those arguing for the appropriation of the tradition, I wrote this poem entitled “Hoodoo is…” that I’d like to share with you.
Hoodoo isn’t voodoo.
Hoodoo isn’t a racist stereotype.
Hoodoo isn’t the commercialization of black culture.
Hoodoo is sweetening and souring, crossing and uncrossing, drawing and banishing,
domination, fixing, conjuring, candle reading,
casting candle spells, jar spells, petition papers,
hot foot tracks, war water, mojo bags, and nkisi bottles,
but the Hoodoo itself can’t be bottled up…
Hoodoo isn’t just a certain set of magical techniques.
Hoodoo is becoming a tree whisperer, speaking to the plants, the trees, the herbs, the dirt, the roots.
Hoodoo is remembering those little traditions your auntie or your pops taught you when you were a kid, and realizing they have so much power.
Hoodoo is making do with whatever ingredients you can afford between paychecks so that you can get more paychecks.
Hoodoo is our silence when we’re listening for the whispered guidance of ancestors, spirits, or deities to teach us our path.
Hoodoo is reclaiming agency by cursing those who seek to take our power, our pride, and our self-determination away.
Hoodoo is following in the footsteps of our enslaved ancestors, in awe of their strength and in remembrance of their pain.
Hoodoo is tuning into our DNA and channeling black magic of the diaspora.
The magic isn’t just how we do it,
The magic is us.