I assume people in the Lowcountry are at least vaguely familiar with the terms voodoo and hoodoo, but few really understand either, much less their differences.
Until recently I had no clue, but that changed as a result of conversations with Larry Fertick, a graphic designer for Belk, who has become not only a student of hoodoo but taken up the craft of making the most eerie and spectacular fetish dolls imaginable — just bristling with creepy, hair-raising personality and spooky mojo.
According to Larry, here are some of the basic differences:
Voodoo itself is actually an established religion in the African and Haitian cultures, whose practitioners are called voodooists, which translates to “servants of the spirits.”
The voodoo religion incorporates offerings and sacrifices (some of which are gruesome and mystical — like the leg of a black cat, for example), devotional altars, ceremonies, dances and the concept of spirit possession.
Marie Laveau (1794-1896, the famous Creole New Orleans Voodoo Queen, is credited with introducing elements of Catholicism and the recognizing of Voodoo saints. Voodoo gods and saints are too numerous to mention, but still play a very active role in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, where their characterization through dolls are an important part of the religion and tourist trade.
Hoodoo, on the other hand, is not a religion per se, but considered a type of folk magic rooted in African culture which further incorporates Native American botanical knowledge and European folk lore, all thrown in with a mix of conjuration, root-work charms and amulets (objects whose most important characteristics are to protect owners from danger or harm). Rituals are known to involve the use of herbs, roots, hair, nail clippings and body fluids.
Because hoodoo lacks formal religious organization, many of the practices and beliefs are passed down family to family and may therefore vary family to family. Practitioners are referred to as hoodoos and root doctors.
Voodoo or fetish dolls are a very important part of hoodoo.
“Fetish” in this case denotes an object of magical power or reverence, and the dolls themselves — although sometimes frightening in appearance — ward off evil.
Gris-gris bags and poultices are also worn around the neck or pinned to clothing for protection against illness and general badness, including the “blue” root (a specific type of evil curse). Sometimes hoodoos will sew gris-gris bags into the dolls themselves and later embellish the bags with select concoctions.
Gris-gris bags are typically made of red flannel and worn around the neck on a string. The contents of the bag vary depending on certain needs or desires and are used in both voodoo and hoodoo, having started with the African-American slave culture and been passed down to descendants and later to rural and urban people of all races. (As a high-profile example, New Orleans-based professional musician Malcolm John Rebennack, aka “Dr. John”, is of European extraction, became fascinated with the New Orleans voodoo subculture and named his first album “Gris-Gris.”)
Typical contents of a hoodoo gris-gris bag might include lavender, life everlasting (or rabbit tobacco), High John the Conqueror root (Ipomoea purga), goofer dust or graveyard dirt, and asafoedita root. In voodoo, animal parts might be included.
Hoodoo is still prevalent in the Southeast, particularly in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and parts of Georgia. It focuses more on the magical aspects of warding off evil by using gris-gris bags, dolls, charms and amulets to bring health and protection, although certain Hoodoos are known to “put the root” on people in a bad way, which is typically only relieved through skilled and powerful interventionists.
Root doctors usually take the name of an animal, bird or other living creature. The late Dr. Buzzard from around the Beaufort area is probably South Carolina’s most famous practitioner, whose grave site is a generally well-kept secret but an interesting pilgrimage for both believers and others determined enough to locate it.
My friend Larry, an avowed Christian, avoids interfacing with the darker side of hoodoo and makes his dolls as an artistic outlet under the name of Dr. Wren. Each one has its own charm, as it were, and lively character — so much so that one practically expects them to sit up and come to life. Inside a gris-gris bag Larry gave me is a poem he wrote that might accompany any one of his dolls. Here are a couple of stanzas to complete today’s column:
“In the night no path is safely taken
Where homes’ blue sentry frames windows and doors.
And a ceiling the color of heaven
Protects all who are peacefully sleeping
From the evils of Lowcountry lore.
“This fetish is comfort and safety
As night ends and the sun rises high.
Spoken spells and God’s prayers will keep you
Safe from Boohags and the evil Plat-eye.
Be gone to Haints who have passed before us.
Leave this land between water and sky.”
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.