Friday, March 14, 2008


"What is a mojo? It is, in short, the staple amulet of African-American hoodoo practice, a flannel bag containing one or more magical items. The word is thought by some to be a corruption of the English word "magic" but it more likely is related to the West African word "mojuba," meaning a prayer of praise and homage. It is a "prayer in a bag" -- a spell you can carry.

Alternaive American names for the mojo bag include hand, mojo hand, conjure hand, lucky hand, conjure bag, trick bag, root bag, toby, jomo, and gris-gris bag. In the Memphis region, a special kind of mojo, worn only by women, is called a nation sack. A mojo used for divination, somehwat like a pendulum, is called a Jack, Jack bag, or Jack ball.

The word "gris-gris" looks French (and in French it would mean "grey-grey"), but it is simply a Frenchified spelling of the Central African word gree-gree (also sometimes seplled gri-gri). Gree-gree means "fetish" or "charm," thus a gris-gris or gree-gree bag is a charm bag. In the Caribbean, an almost-identical African-derived bag is called a wanga or oanga bag, from the African word wanga, which also means "charm" or "spell" -- but that word is uncommon in the USA.

The word "conjure" -- as in "conjure work" (casting spells) and "conjure woman" (a female herbalist-magician) -- is an old alternative to "hoodoo," thus a conjure hand is a hoodoo bag, one made by a conjure doctor or two-headed doctor. Likewise, the word trick derives from an African-American term for spell-casting -- "laying tricks" -- so a trick bag is a a bag that contains a spell. Similarly, "wanga" is a West African word meaning a spell, hence a wanga bag is a bag containing a spell.

The word "hand" in this context means a combination of ingredients. The term may derive from the use of finger and hand bones of the dead in mojo bags made for various purposes, from the use of a rare orchid root called Lucky Hand root as an ingredient in mojo bags for gamblers, or by an analogy between the mixed ingredients in the bag and the several cards that make up a "hand" in card games.

Although most "Southern Style" conjure bags are made of red flannel, some root doctors favour the colour-symbolism employed in hoodoo style candle-burning magic and thus use green flannel for a money mojo, white flannel for a baby-blessing mojo, red flannel for a love mojo, pale blue flannel for a peaceful home mojo, and so forth. Leather bags are also seen, but far less frequently than flannel; they are associated with West Indian obeah, another form of folk magic closely related to African-American hoodoo.

Mojos made for an individual are usually carried on the person, always out of sight. They are very rarely worn on a string around the neck, fairly commonly pinned inside a woman's brassiere, and much more commonly pinned to the clothes below the waist or caried in a pants pocket. Those who make conjure bags to carry as love spells sometimes specify that the mojo be worn next to the skin. Mojos intended to purify or protect a location are generally placed near the door, hidden in such a way that they cannot be seen by strangers.

Keeping the mojo from being seen is important because if another person touches it, the luck may be lost. This is sometimes called "killing the hand." The proscription against touching is far stronger in the case of the woman's nation sack than it is in any other kind of mojo.

Since the least conspicuous way for a woman to wear a hidden mojo is hanging from a string under her skirt -- or, as Coot Grant put it, above her knee -- a male blues singer is making a double entendre when he declares he's going to find that mojo. It's a sexual joke, but the mojo itself is not sexual.

And what is contained in the mojo hand? Well, that varies a lot, based on what the wearer hopes to accomplish by carrying the amulet and what the maker finds effective or customary to use in preparing it. A mojo carried for love-drawing will contain different ingredients than one for gambling luck or magical protection. Generally there are at least three items in a simple hand, and many root doctors try to ensure that the total number of ingredients comes to an odd number -- 3, 5, 7, 9, or 13 -- although sometimes mixed herbs are counted as one item.

Once prepared or "fixed," the mojo is "dressed" or "fed" with a liquid of some kind. It may also be "smoked" in incense fumes or the smoke from a candle, or breathed upon to bring it to life.

The most common liquids used to feed a hand are alcohol, such as whiskey; a perfume, such as Hoyt's Cologne or Florida Water; bodily fluids, such as spit or urine (or sexual fluids for a love-drawing hand); or with a specially-prepared condition oil. The bag is not generally soaked through, but simply dabbed with the liquid, although some old-time poker players i knew during in my youth, during the 1960s, used to say that to get a gambling hand to really work for you, you had to have your lover pee all over it out in the alley between rounds of play.

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