International Folk-lore Congress (2nd : 1891 : Lon.

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days. At the close of the ninth day, take the packet, separate
the leaves and scatter them to the four winds of heaven, throwing
them, a few at a time, over your right shoulder as you turn round

232 Mythological Section.

and round, so as to have them fall east, south, west, and north.
What dreams you have during the nine days are warnings, con-
sequently you must carefully consider the " sign" of them. For
instance, if you dream of fire you will have trouble in getting
your witch education. If you dream of honey bees you will be
a successful conjurer (Dorcas never said "Voodoo"), and receive
money and presents. As soon as your leaves are scattered you
are ready for lessons.'' In passing, it may be as well to state
that the more leaves there are in your weed, the more exalted
will be your rank in sorcery.

After the numbers are learned, a season is given to acquiring
knowledge of the value of certain vegetable remedies and poisons,
such as snake root, smart weed, red clover, mullein, deadly night-
shade, Indian turnip or " Cunjor John", mayapple, etc., together
with the proper times (all times are regulated by the moon) of
gathering and administering the same. There is nothing mys-
terious in this much of the profession : any old woman who
has an herb-bag has the same simples as a witch, and plants that
which is to grow mostly under ground in the dark of the moon,
that which is to go to leaves and blossoms when the moon is
waxing ; gathers all beneficent things when the moon is full, the
same as she does.

Afterwards it is imparted that charms and tricks are of four
degrees. To the first degree belong the good tricks which are
hardest to perform, because it is always harder to do good than evil.
Of this class are "luck balls", "jacks", and other fetiches prepared
and then endowed with a "familiar or attendant spirit in the
name of the Lord" For this class the formulas all begin, " The
God before me, God behind me, God be with me." John Palmer
said "THE God" always. Alexander said it sometimes. All
close with, " I ask it in the name of the Lord or God."

Here is a complete formula as I took it from the lips of the
Great Alexander when he was preparing a luck-ball for Mr.
Charles G. Leland:

"The God before me, God behind me, God be with me. May
this ball bring all good luck to Charles Leland. May it bind
down all devils, may it bind down his enemies before him, may it
bring them under his feet. May it bring him friends in plenty,
may it bring him faithful friends, may it bind them to him. May

Owen. — Among the Voodoos. 233

it bring him honour, may it bring him riches, may it bring him his
heart's desire. May it bring him success in everything he under-
takes. May it bring him happiness. I call for it in the Name
of God."

These kind wishes sound a good deal like a Christian prayer, but
you should have seen this ancient, ill-smelling, half-naked, black
sinner as he rocked himself to and fro, now muttering in a
whisper, now raising his voice to its ordinary conversational pitch
as he repeated the good wishes over his materials, four skeins of
white yarn, four skeins of white sewing-silk, four leaves and
blossoms of red clover, four bits of tinfoil, four little pinches of
dust. Over and over he said the words : I couldn't keep count of
the times, but he said that as he tied each knot in the yarn and
silk, he carefully said his charm four times. Four skeins, four
knots in each skein, four times muttered the formula for each
knot. And then the whiskey and the saliva, no prayer surely
ever had such an accompaniment ! The king had a bottle of
whiskey beside him, and filled his mouth therefrom every time he
tied a knot. Half of it he swallowed, and the other half with a
copious addition of saliva he sprayed through his jagged stumps
of teeth upon the knots. When all were tied he spat upon the
clover, the tinfoil, the dust, and declared that his own strong
spirit was imparted with the spittle. When he had gathered
the several components into a little ball he spat once more,
violently and copiously. " Dar," said he, " dats a mighty strong
spurrit. Now to keep it dataway wet it in whiskey once a week."

" Shall I spit on it, or tell Mr. Leland he must ? " I asked.

He looked at me with scorn, and made reply that we neither
of us had any strength, ■\^'e had nothing to spit out.

Last of all he breathed on the ball and shed, or pretended to
shed, a tear. Then the ball was done. It had a spirit in it to
work for the one for whom it was named.

"Go to the woods, Charles Leland," commanded Alexander,
dangling the ball before his eyes, "for Im going to send you a
long way off, an awful long way, across big water. Go out in the
woods now and 'fresh yourself. Do you hear me? Are you
going, are you going 'way off? Are you climbing? Are you
climbing high? " After a long pause Charles Leland was invited
to return. Was asked if he had started back from the woods, if
he was drawing nearer, if he was back in the ball.

234 Mythological Section.

To all this "Charles Leland" replied by causing the ball to dance
and spin in the most delirious manner, and by a murmur sound-
ing now far now near, something hke the coo of the wood-dove,
but it was oo-oo, oo-oo, not foo-ool, foo-ool, as the dove calls to those
who penetrate miasmatic woods. Then there was another shower-
bath of whiskey, after which the ball was wrapped, first in tinfoil
then in a silk rag. I was warned at the time to tie no knots in
the wrappings : such knots would tie the spirit up helpless. This
thing is to be worn under the right arm.

As an illustration of the power of the sorcerer's spirit, Mymee
and Alexander tell a story of Chuffy the rabbit. He had three
arrows, one of which he spat on before he shot at the sun. It fell
into the water. The second he breathed on : the wind carried it
away. The third he wetted with a tear, and nothing could impede
its flight. It made a hole in the sun, and from that fell fiery blood
that almost burned up the world. Indeed, nothing was left but
some trees on a sandy island in the midst of a great river. The
trees and river would soon have shared the general destruction
had not Chuffy shed another tear into the waters, and thus kept
them from drying up.

This same Chuffy had the most potent luck-ball that ever was
made ; it looked like silver, and was brought into existence by the
devil's wife. The story of it is too long for insertion here.

It may not be out of place to mention that the left hind-foot
or right fore-foot of one of Chuffy's descendants, especially if it
be a graveyard rabbit killed " in the dark of the moon", may be
used instead of a luck-ball.

Better still is the " swimming bone" of a toad. The " swim-
ming bone", as Arthur McManus explained to me, is "the one
bone of the hop-toad's body that will not sink when dropped in

A mole's right fore-foot is also a good-luck piece. These
things are not prepared ; they are powerful, because parts of

To the second class belong the bad tricks, charms and fetiches
made in the name of the devil : those queer little linen, woollen, or
fur bags, or tiny bottles filled with broken glass, bits of flannel,
hair, ashes, alum, grave-dust, jay or whippoorwill feathers, bits of
bone, parts of snakes, toads, newts, squirrels, fingers of strangled

Owen. — Among the Voodoos. 235

babes and frog-legs — this last component being especially neces-
sary, because in the old time the devil made the moon to illu-
minate the night for the convenience of his votaries. As the Good
Man had used up all the material of the universe in his creations,
the devil or Bad Man took a frog, skinned it, and made it into a

To the third class belong all that pertains to the body, such as
nails, teeth, hair, saliva, tears, perspiration, dandruff, scabs of
sores even, and garments worn next the person. These are used
in conjurations and charms for good or ill, not alone, but with other
things. I will illustrate their use by a story told me by Alexander.
He said, " I could save or ruin you if I could get hold of so much
as one eye-winker or the peeling of one freckle." Then he went
on to make his meaning clear by giving a scrap of biography.

Just before the civil war, in the days when he was a slave, he
lived for a short time in Southern Missouri, "nigh de big ribber."
He had an enemy, a conjurer also. The enemy affected friend-
ship, invited him to his cabin, and offered him refreshments, of
which Alexander refused to partake. " Dar wuz spiders in de
dumpHns and hell in de cakes," he explained, "and I dassent eat
'em, but I 'greed ter stay all night."

Both men lay down on a bed on the floor. The guest pre-
tended to fall asleep. Presently the host cautiously raised him-
self up and peeped into the face of the other, to see if he was
asleep, There was bright firelight in the room, cast from the
great open fireplace where many dry logs were burning. Alex-
ander breathed heavily, and, as he said, held his face like a stone,
though he was watching through a crack in his eyelids. The
host reached a pair of scissors towards the sleeper's head. Alex-
ander stretched out his hand and struck down the advancing arm,
at the same time muttering a curse upon the musquitoes.

Both lay quiet for a while, then the scene was re-enacted.
Again and again this was repeated, and all this time each man was
willing with all the strength that was in him that the other should
sleep. Finally Alexander prevailed. " I'd been a cunjurer longer
than he had, and my will was made up strong," said the victor.

While his host slept, Alexander arose, took his (the host's shoes)
and scraped the inside of the soles — they had been worn without
stockings. Then he took the man's coat and scraped the collar

236 Mytliological Section.

where it had rubbed his neck at the edge of his hair. The fire
was out then, and he had no light but a little grey streak of dawn
coming through the chinks of the wall. He stole forth with the
scrapings, put them into a gourd with red clover leaves, alum,
snake root, and the leaves and stalks of a mayapple. Then he put
the gourd into the river and said, " In Devil's name go, and may
he whose life is in you follow you." The very next week the un-
fortunate "cunjered" conjurer was sold and sent down the river.
" But no one could touch me," said the old man, " for I cun-
ji^red master and all of 'em."

The fourth class is composed of " commanded things", such as
honey locust thorns, parts of " sticks", sand, mud from a crawfish
hole, wax from a new beehive, things that are neither lucky nor
unlucky in themselves, but may be made so. No charms are said
over them : they are merely " commanded" to do a certain work.
Take, for instance, the locust thorn, used innocently enough as a
hairpin or dress-fastener, but which when " commanded" proves a
terrible little engine of mischief A small rude representation of
the human figure, made of mud from a crawfish-hole or wax from
a beehive, when named by a conjurer and pierced by a thorn of
his implanting, is supposed to make the man for whom it is named
deaf, dumb, blind, crazy, lame, consumptive, etc., according to the
place pierced. Worse still, the one killed or maimed will after
death " walk" till judgment day. A prolific maker of uneasy
ghosts is the " commanded thorn".

After each lesson, both pupil and teacher of witchery get drunk
on whiskey or by swallowing tobacco-smoke. I feel it necessary,
however, to state that I was an honourable exception to the rule,
although I did find it necessary to set forth spirituous refreshment
for my teachers. I must add to this, that maids and bachelors
do not progress very far in the degrees of Voodooism.

After the preliminaries I have mentioned, the pupil begins to
make some acquaintance with Grandfather Rattlesnake and the
dance held in his honour. The origin of the dance was in this
wise :

In the old times Grandfather Rattlesnake and his sister lived
together ; so say Mymee and a dozen other darkies of my
acquaintance. The sister's disposition was as sweet as his was
bitter. As he was very wise, many men and animals came to him

Owen. — Among the Voodoos. 237

for instruction, which he gave freely ; but as he took leave of a
disciple he always stung him. The sister, in the goodness of her
heart, immediately healed the poisoned wretch, who then went off
with all the serpent wisdom he had acquired. Finally Grandfather
became so enraged that he changed his sister into snakeweed.
As such she still heals, but not so freely as formerly, for she
cannot go to the afflicted; they must come to her.

Since that time men, warned by the sister's fate, have not
willingly approached Grandfather very nearly. They find it best
to dance about him, and thus absorb the shrewdness and cunning
he really cannot help giving out. As a further precaution they
render him almost torpid by giving him a young rat, bird, or toad
just before the dance begins.

The dance itself has no method in its madness, I have been
told. The participants, who are not all Voodoos by any means,
have been on short rations or none for nine days ; they are full of
tobacco-smoke or whiskey, and their nerves are still further excited
by fear of the snake and the god or devil he represents. They
howl in any key, without words or rhythmic sounds, the same as
they do at a rehgious revival or camp-meeting. Sometimes they
circle wildly about, with their hands clasping those of the persons
next them ; sometimes they jump up and down in one spot,
while they make indecent gestures or twine their arms about their
own naked bodies. They keep up this exercise until the greater
number of them fall exhausted, when they have a rest, followed by
a feast of black dog and, Arthur McManus says, kid. Four
conjurers — two men and two women — cook the meat and distri-
bute it.

The fire-dance is for strength of body, as the snake-dance is
for strength of mind. I have never heard of anything being eaten
at this dance. The same ceremony, or lack of ceremony, in the
dancing is observed.

Any wood may be used for the fire except sassafras or maple.
During the dances to the moon they chant — what I know not —
and circle round with rhythmic motion, which sometimes changes
into a rapid trot. I have never seen a moon-dance, nor more
than a glimpse of the others, but I am sure my information is
correct. The reason I am sure, I may state in parenthesis, is
because every participant in the dances denies that he has been

238 Mythological Section.

present, but accuses his fellow-sinner, with whom he has had a
quarrel, and described what the offender has stated he did :
" AVhen he wuz thes so drunk that his tongue runned off with
him." The full moon is by common consent given as the time
for these exercises. What the dance means I do not know, and
cannot find out. It seems very much like the Hottentot dance
to the moon which that Dutch traveller, Peter Kolben, describes
as taking place as early as the year 1705. He says :

" The moon with them (the Hottentots) is an inferior visible
god. They call this planet Gounja, or God . . . they assemble
for the celebration of its worship at the change and full, and no
inclemency of the weather prevents them. They then throw their
bodies into a thousand different postures, scream, prostrate them-
selves on the ground, suddenly jump up, stamp like mad creatures,
and cry aloud : ' I salute thee ! thou art welcome ; grant us
fodder for our cattle and milk in abundance.' These and other
addresses to the moon they repeat over and over, singing ' Ho,
ho, ho !' many times over, with a variation of notes, accompanied
with clapping of hands. Thus in shouting, screaming, singing,
jumping, stamping, dancing, and prostration, they spend the
whole night in worshipping this planet."^

The dances of the ghosts of the departed conjurers also take
place at the full moon. All I know about this is that Aunt
Mymee was said by other negroes to be able to appear in two
places at once, to take any shape she pleased, and to know what
people were saying and doing when they were miles away. This,
they said, was because she had found out where these " hants"
met, had watched their exercises to their close, and had asked
and received her heart's desire. Anyone as bold as she is may
ask and receive aid of these shades, it is said. The snake- and
fire-dances may take place any time : that is, anywhere that
policemen are not hkely to come. The moon-dance must be in
an open space in the woods.

There is a sacrifice of a black hen to the moon. Alexander said
that Arthur McManus had no better sense than to sacrifice a

1 "The Voyage of Peter Kolben, A.M., to the Cape of Good Hope." Vol. iv
of The World Displayed ; or a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels.
Selected and Compiled from the Writers of all Nations, by Smart, Goldsmith,
and Johnson. 1795.

Owen. — Among the Voodoos. 239

black hen and white rooster, and then wait for luck when he
ought to be making power for himself I do know that all
negroes, and not a few white people who have been raised with
them, believe that black hens, split open and applied to the body
warm, will cure typhoid or bilious fever, and stay the progress of

For sacrifice, Alexander says the way to kill the hen is to slit
her side and let the entrails protrude, then turn her loose ; she
will run a little way, then jump up into the air, crow like a cock,
and die instantly without any struggle. I asked what was then
done with her. He said, " Nothing."

Under date of December 20th, 1889, a distinguished scholar
asked me these questions :

" Where are these dances held ? I mean, in what district or
districts ? How is it possible that large gatherings can be con-
cealed from observation ? What is the nature of the hierarchy ?
Is your King Alexander a king among these people ? Have you
yourself seen the dances? How could you otherwise be initiated?
If you have not access to these, can you not procure the attend-
ance of some male friend ? This is a matter certain to be dis-
puted, and which requires, therefore, strong testimony."

When I read these questions I sat down before them in despair.
I have always lived among negroes and among white people
familiar with their peculiarities and superstitions. For the first
time in my life I reflected how small, comparatively, is the number
who do understand our Americanised African population. How
could I describe to the man who knows him not the cunning,
simple, cruel, kindly, untruthful, suspicious yet credulous, super-
stitious negro, who sees a ghost or devil in every black stump and
swaying bush, yet prowls about two-thirds of the night and sleeps
three-fourths of the day. The old-fashioned negro, who is des-
tined to have no son like him, who conjures in the name of his
African devil on Saturday, and goes to a Christian church, sings,
prays, and exhorts, and after " meetin' " invites the minister to a
dinner of stolen poultry on Sunday. Finally, I answer these
questions briefly, and, like a good Methodist sister, "relate my

" Where are these dances held ?"

Anywhere in the woods and fields of North Missouri. I know

240 Mythological Section.

nothing of what is done elsewhere. The last one of any size
that I knew of was just outside of the corporation limits of St.
Joseph, in a wooded dell surrounded by high hills. It was given
out among the dusky brethren that a camp-meeting revival of
rehgion would be held at that place. The revival lasted a week,
and was followed, after the preachers and more respectable attend-
ants left, by a fire-dance. The police had no authority to inter-
fere at that place, even if they had had knowledge of the gathering.
I did not know anything of the dance until it was over, and
certainly would not have risked my life by attending if I had been
invited. The secret was disclosed, as all negro secrets are in the
course of time, by those who held it quarrelling and accusing one

" How is it possible that large gatherings can be concealed
from observation ?"

The gatherings are not always large, but, large or small, they
can be hidden in the woods, or even in that negro settlement, a
suburb of St. Joseph called Africa. They are no noisier than a
revival or an ordinary ball. Think a minute of what a people are
like who will say, as a pretty and pious mulatto house-girl said to
my sister : " No, Miss Ella ; I didn't go to the ball. I'd loaned
out my razor, and it hadn't been sent back.'' Her successor, a
girl who could read and write, and sing by note, in complimenting
another entertainment, said : " It was so quiet and nice ; only
two pistol-shots were fired all evening." These girls, bear in
mind, are of a superior grade to the Voodoo and his chents. A
little howling, more or less, does not arouse suspicion, unless
somebody runs for a surgeon.

" What is the nature of the hierarchy ? Is your King Alexander
a king among these people ? "

There is no hierarchy. Alexander is the head-man in the
Voodoo circle that meets after church is over in the African
Methodist Church, but his title of King he probably gave

" Have you yourself seen the dances ? How could you other-
wise be initiated ? If you have not access to these, can you not
procure the attendance of some male friend ? "

I have never had but a glimpse of a dance, and that was when
a child. As I have said before, I rely not on the testimony of

Owen. — Among the Voodoos. 241

those old rascals who have instructed me, but on the proof fur-
nished by those who quarrel and accuse each other.

A dance is not an initiation : that is done with leaves or bark,
as I have said. I don't know what a moon-dance is for, but the
other two are considered as remedies rather than ceremonies. As
for getting a male friend to do anything for me, I've never found
one who would entertain the suggestion for a moment.

"Peril life and reputation among those beasts?" exclaimed one.
" Not I ! It will be better for the world when they and all
knowledge of their vileness die out."

My knowledge of Voodoos began at an early age. Aunt Mymee
Whitehead, or, as some called her, "Aunt Mymee Monroe", was
my nurse. She has always wished it understood that she is the
daughter of the devil. Her mother was a Guinea woman, a
conjurer also, who inspired such fear and hatred that the people
rose against her to kill her. She fled on board a slave-ship, and
was brought to this country — to what part Aunt Mymee did not
know. Soon after landing Mymee was born, and was sent with
her mother to Kentucky. When ten or twelve years old they
were brought to Missouri. I may remark here that Aunt Mymee,
a pure-blooded Guinea, and Alexander, half Guinea and half
Cherokee Indian, are the only two conjurers I ever heard speak
of themselves as Voodoos. The others, while practising the same
rites, invariably speak of themselves as Witches, men or women,
or conjurers. Their humble admirers, however, frequently speak
of them as " Voodoos", and of their deeds as " Noodoos".

Aunt Mymee gave me the first glimpse of her secret business
by importuning me to get from my grandmother some amaranth
seeds. When I insisted on knowing what she wanted with them,
she acknowledged she wished to make them into a little cake
which would make any who ate it love the one who handed it to
him. That sounded reasonable enough to anyone as fond of all
sorts of sweeties as I was, so I procured the seeds, and had the
cake made up.

Not long after I heard other servants of the family say that
Mymee had surely conjured me, for I followed at her heels like a
dog that had eaten shoebread.

Afterwards, partly by coaxing and partly by watching, I learned
to make a trick or two, and came to know of the existence


242 Mythological Section.

of some being called Samunga. When you go for mud, call


" Minnie, no, no Samunga,
Sangee see sa soh Samunga."

Perhaps this may be the Gounja of the Hottentots.

King Alexander I met for the first time the ist of July 1889.
I had heard of him for years, but he had a way of slipping in
and out of town that made it hard to interview him. With some
friends I drove to the house where he was staying. It was a hot
day, and he sat in most unkingly state outside the door on a
wooden chair tipped against the wall.

As I looked at him I thought, " Well, you are the most uncanny
old nigger I ever saw''; as I drew nearer, I added, " and the

He had on but two garments: a shirt, of which the original

Online LibraryInternational Folk-lore Congress (2nd : 1891 : LonPapers and transactions → online text (page 24 of 45)