Hoodoo as a diasporic Congo-rooted magical system is practical and simple in it’s implementation of natural forces for accomplishing change. The most indispensable of those natural things is, of course, Water. Understanding how our Congo ancestors understood and worked with Water and it’s Spirits will enable a deeper understanding of Why we work with water–as both Hoodoos and Paleros–in the way and fashion that we do.
The River, in the Congo, was more than just a liquid. It was a living manifestation of Spirit, a spiritual body, and it served as a transferative and transformative medium. When it was time for someone to be reborn into spirit, to die to the physical and return changed, this death was accomplished through immersion into the waters.
To see how this approach to spiritual water in the Congo was born into the American South, and into Hoodoo, we need look no further than the Baptismal rites of the slave churches. Christianity didn’t dominate the Congo spiritual practices of the Slaves that were brought into the South….instead, it was interpreted through extant Congo practices and worked in a manner that was consistent with the understanding of our ancestors. The rite of Baptism in a traditional Christian context involved a gentle blessing, with water poured over the head. At least, this is how it had degenerated by the time it reached the Congo. Old John the Baptist might have had a more classical approach to the rite…..
The Congo took baptism and worked it the way they had always worked with Water; a person being reborn into Spirit needed to die, and in order to cross into the realm of the dead and be reborn–“born again”–the person had to be immersed fully into the Water. With ritual and ceremony, the person is placed deep into the Waters, where they enter the realm of the dead and rise up newly born into the world. Having died and then risen up, the person is more than a simple human; the contacts made with the world of spirit during the immersion remain. This is why in traditional Black churches in the South, Baptism is given in the river, and one is fully immersed. Through immersion in Water contact with spirit is made….through the agency of Water spiritual forces are brought to bear.
Spiritual Baths, washes, and Waters are arguably the most important tool in the conjurer’s arsenal. A hoodoo who doesn’t work with baths and washes is hardly a hoodoo at all. They are the simplest and also most effective methods we use. The water of a spiritual baths serves as a mercurial medium, a transferative medium between the power of the herbs and stones and bones within the water and the person using the bath. Our cleansing wash–say, made with hyssop, some blueing, mint, etc–will take within the waters themselves the power of the items within, so that the cleansing power of hyssop and the lot imbue the water. When using the wash that virtue is transferred through agency of the water to the conjurer or client using it, and a deep spiritual cleansing can occur. We can make waters that do near anything with this method, if we know the power and spirit of the natural things around us. A war-water can be made with a bit of graveyard dirt, wasp nests (especially one with larvae present), stinging nettle, rose or cactus thorn, and warring, violent song or prayer. I place within my war-water bullets and fula, and further refine it with methods shared with my apprentices and co-workers. This kind of water, when sprayed upon a doorway or area, or God Forbid drunk, will create havoc and discord. The Water itself is cleansing when paired with cleansing things, and violent with violent things. This is the power of water, and the essence of it’s use within Hoodoo.
As a Palero, the rites of our religion reaffirm the nature of this understanding of Waters, birthed in the Congo and alive in all of it’s spiritual children. Look to our baths, and I find the same principles at work. In our Chamba, the same principles….even in our creation of nkisi. Oftentimes the most obvious difference between a simple makuto and an nkisi, as far as constuction goes, is the nature of the ntoto used. When building our nkisi, the dirts are wet and alive with lustral waters. The dirts packed into a makuto are often dry, as they often serve as a tool to direct the power of a given nkisi in a certain way and have no agency on their own. There are many mysteries in water and it’s work, and in Hoodoo we have the silent wisdom of our Congo ancestors enabling our work. Palo Mayombe is blessed in the same way.