Have you or will you try it?
IMAGE BY KAT AILEEN
Join in on any 21st-century witchy gathering, and you’ll most likely take part in rituals from all over the world. At the last goddess worship session I attended, we sang in a pastiche of chants and spiritual practices that had wide-ranging origins—Kundalini, Santeria, Japanese Reiki—and at the end of the night they all blended under the muddled banner of “New Age.”
While a lot of modern witchcraft tends to be an amalgamation of practices from varying folk magic traditions, there are some witches who insist on purity. On Tumblr, the earthly world, and beyond, contemporary practitioners of Hoodoo, a folk spirituality with African American roots, are fighting against cultural appropriation of their craft.
Hoodoo, also known as rootwork or conjure, was brought to the Americas by African slaves. Due to its origins, Hoodoo was first a tradition of protection and practicality. “In the era of slavery, questions of security loomed large in African American experience,” writes Yvonne Chireau in Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic. “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.”
According to the iconic author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who embedded herself in the Hoodoo culture of the South in the 1930s and wrote about its history, the practice itself evolved from a combination of African spirituality and Christian rituals that slaves newly encountered in the Americas. In New Orleans, for example, she writes, rootworkers incorporated altars, holy water, and blessed oils from the Catholic church.
Though Hoodoo itself (not to be confused with Voodoo) stems from an appropriation of sorts, the southern folk magic is still intimately tied to its uniquely African American history. This is particularly apparent in the specific uses for Hoodoo spells, many of which are for security, stemming from the violence and disregard that enslaved blacks endured. Common rituals include carrying “a little bag of garlic and brimstone on the person to safeguard you” and walking backward into your house and then forward to ensure that no one will harm you, Hurston writes in Hoodoo in America. Today, this manifests in reblogging sigils—a painted symbol said to have magical powers—like that which circulated on Tumblr among Hoodoo practitioners to protect the people of Ferguson during the unrest following police violence and the killing of Mike Brown in the
Feline friends and fans know there is nothing to fear from the world’s most cuddly creatures (sorry, red pandas, corgi puppies, and fluffy bunnies, this is a cat’s world), but the persistence of the pesky belief that black cats are somehow bad luck has endured for centuries. Sure, back during the heyday of Egyptian rule (around 3000 BC), all cats were notoriously honored and worshipped—killing one was even a capital crime—but the rise of good, old-fashioned witchcraft in Europe put the kibosh on any trace of goodwill towards the inkiest of felines, and the all-black brethren are still trying to distance themselves from the bad press of a witchcraft affiliation.
Black cats pop up frighteningly frequently in all sorts of culturally based bits of folklore, and though much of their mythos is actually of the positive variety, Western tradition has so maligned the critters that black cats as bad luck have become something of a given in various circles (at least, that’s what it looks like once Halloween decorations start popping up, “scaredy cats” and all).
The Middle Ages
It seems that the association between bad luck and black cats dates all the way back to the middle of the fourteenth century. It’s not known exactly how and why cats became associated with the Devil in the Middle Ages, but the belief was so persistent that they were all but exterminated during the Black Death pandemic around 1348 CE. (Pause to cry.) Ironically, killing off the cats only worsened the plague, which was often spread via rodents, which all those dearly departed cats could have helped kill. Oopsie!
Scottish folklore includes a fairy known as the Cat Sith, a giant black cat (with a small white spot on his chest) who was believed to have the ability to steal a dead person’s soul before the gods could claim it. That belief led to the creation of night-and-day watches called the “Late Wake” to guard bodies just before burial. The Scottish also employed such tried and true methods as “using catnip” and “jumping around a lot” to scare off potential Cat Sith soul-stealers. (Some things never change, even when you’re dealing with possibly fairy-infused felines.)
The Age of Witchcraft
Blame black magic. As chatter about nefarious witchcraft began to spread around Europe in the sixteenth century, cats (particularly black ones) found themselves tangled up in the hunt, simply because many presumed witches had taken in alley cats as companions. Somehow, the concept of “companion” turned into “familiar,” and the belief that witches could turn themselves into their (typically black) cat companions became
If you see a shop or stall offering to paint black tattoos onto your skin, don’t be tempted to get one. It could leave you scarred for life and put you at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Often called “black henna” or “neutral henna” tattoos, these patterns painted onto your skin are readily available abroad. They may also be available in the UK, at festivals and fairs, and to buy online.
But the black paste used in these temporary tattoos may contain high levels of a chemical dye so powerful and toxic that it is illegal to use it on the skin in this way.
Risks of ‘black henna’
The risks of black henna lie in the paste’s ingredients – specifically, a chemical called paraphenylenediamine (PPD).
Although PPD can lawfully be used in hair dyes in the EU, this use is strictly controlled.
Dr Chris Flower, director general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, explains: “PPD is safely and legally used in permanent hair dyes where clear instructions are given, and where the maximum level is controlled by law. But black henna often contains PPD at high levels, to give a dark colour quickly.
“When applied to the skin in the form of a black henna temporary tattoo, PPD can cause chemical burns and lead to allergic reactions.”
How to tell if it is real henna
Real henna, which is generally safe to use, is an orange colour, with a red or brown tint to it.
Dr Flower says that everyone should be suspicious of black “tattoos”.
“Real henna is never black, but is orange-brown,” he explains. “Any very dark temporary tattoo should be treated with caution.”
Lisa Bickerstaffe at the British Skin Foundation agrees. “Check the colour if a product is described as