There is a way of thinking about reality–and learning to interact with it–that empowers all of the Congo-rooted magical systems currently alive here in the West. Having years of experience as a conjurer in the Hoodoo tradition here in America, and learning from an experienced Tata the methods of Palo Mayombe as an Engueyo, I continually am finding parallels between the two. There are two ideas in particular that stand out that I wanted to discuss.
Heating and Cooling Spirits
In Hoodoo, we “heat” a spirit to great activity using herbs and roots and powders, and “cool” a spirit using water and herbs and roots as well. The concept of heating and cooling a spirit in Hoodoo comes directly from Congo approaches to medicine and Spirit-Work; cooling herbs are used to calm and soothe, and heating herbs to agitate and cause movement. In Palo, we find the same approach with our bilongo and spiritual baths. “Bitter” herbs in a bath function powerfully to cleanse negativity and remove links to negative spirits because of their natural association with unpleasantness–we use that unpleasantness to chase off the negative spirit. This is similar to how a method for cleansing a home in Hoodoo works; taking a black cast iron skillet, we heat it until it is smoking-hot, and then throw in red hot peppers. We go from room to room while incanting an expelling psalm, using the irritant smoke from the hot peppers to chase the negativity off. Even in the singing of Mambos/Reciting of Psalms we see that the Congo current has powerfully shaped both approaches. If you aren’t singing or praying, in Hoodoo or Palo, you aren’t working Spirit. An example of “heating” a spirit in Hoodoo would be using Ginger powder in a conjure-hand, in order to get the spirit within lively and moving. If we were being punitive in a working, we may use a particularly harsh “heating” agent, like black peppercorns….heating the spirit into a rage in order to punish an enemy. We would also use heat in a medicinal approach; adding ginger to a work laid at the crossroads to improve on job opportunities and repair the imbalance in life, so that there is activity and action occurring. In Palo the same principle is at work; gentle heat for medicine or simply to awaken and make lively a spirit (think blowing Chamba on the Nganga or a bilongo, for instance) and more intense heat for punitive works. Where a conjurer would add black peppercorn, a palero would likely use fula; working the same principles that are rooted in Congo understandings, with differences in culture changing some of the materials used.
When working with our nkisi in Palo, the heating and cooling is a constant thing; we blow rum and smoke over them to keep them cool and relaxed and pleasant toward us, and blow hot chamba when we need them up and moving toward accomplishing a particular goal. We often see–especially with our Luceros, in my opinion–that heating our spirits is heating our own lives up, by nature of the pact we have that creates unity between ourselves and the Nkisi. When Lucero is agitated and moving with Fire, I see that same conflict in my life, and when he is soothed and calm, the same reflected for me–especially in opportunities and in relationships with natural forces. This agitation isn’t a bad thing, as fire and conflict are often needed to create positive change in a situation…..the understanding of spirit we have from our Palo traditions gives us tools to manage how much fire is applied to our daily lives, and to those of the people we work with.
Sweetening Spirits and Souring them
Another commonality is the idea of “sweetening” ourselves or a given working so that it attracts the right kind of spirits. We see this in the conjure-hand of Hoodoo; this is similar to our bilongo in Palo. Making a mojo hand to make a boss treat you better, for instance, would require some honey or sugar to “sweeten” them toward you. If I were working with a particular spirit from a local graveyard in hoodoo, they’d be paid for their time in coins and food, and honey or sugar-water would be poured on the grave to keep the Spirit sweet on me and pleasant in our interactions. In Palo these same principles are at work, with spiritual baths meant to bless and heal requiring sweet herbs and waters in order to sweeten the spirits interpenetrating a person, and to attract the good and positive spirits into their lives. We offer our nkisi Honey to sweeten them, rum and blood to feed them, smoke and water and rum to cool them. We feed our conjure hands in hoodoo with rum and smoke as well; it is amazing and beautiful to see how the fire of the Congo tradition has found root and blossomed in different ways on our side of the Atlantic.
Part of the beauty of these two traditions is that they are rooted in nature and direct interaction with it, in perceiving spirit as living, and give us tools to interact with that living spirit from a position of Wisdom and understanding. There is no way to understand the practical work of either of these traditions without fully grasping the concepts of heating and cooling. Even without a deep herbal knowledge, this basic understanding allows us to make effective medicine using smell and taste to gather the correct herbs for baths and workings. I don’t need to know the Latin name for mint to taste it and know that it is sweet; nor do I need to know all of the healing/punitive uses of the dandelion to know that it is sour. I can tell that a pepper is hot without years of study….this basic understanding is one that, when fully grasped, makes it possible for the Tata/Yayi or Hoodoo to take a quick walk outside in his garden, or in the nearby brush, or grocery store, and using discernment find herbs that can be worked to accomplish any goal regardless of how many years they have been working. There is no excuse for us not to know, for instance, which plants growing around our homes are sweet and which are bitter. We shouldn’t need to order herbs on the internet to do our work, as Palo and hoodoo are nature-based spiritual practice. That being said, a proper understanding of herbs and their uses in workings is a great gift, and one we should strive to work for our entire lives as Paleros….but we are never powerless, even without a personal teacher of herbal knowledge. We can live in the middle of a city, and get everything we need from the produce department of a grocery store, if there isn’t a park nearby. Understanding the basic principles of heating/cooling and sweetening/souring, we can work spiritual medicine to heal ourselves and accomplish positive things for the people of our communities.
Chris Bradford–Engueyo, Lemba Kongo Kriyumba Engo Brillumba con Mayombe