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Hoodoo and Palo Mayombe

This is an article I wrote for the Lemba Congo American Society for the Preservation of Palo Mayombe (or simply the Society, as we call it, because that's a whole lot of name) that addresses heating and cooling spirits, and the links of tradition and approach between Hoodoo and Palo Mayombe. 

 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


  1. Wonderful post, Frater. The technology of Hoodoo and Palo are remarkably similar and various scholars in such matters have postulated that it is likely that the practices of Hoodoo are most likely drawn from the Congo. It is likely therefore that there was a sizable portion of slaves taken from the region and brought here. In fact, one individual has gone so far as to say that Hoodoo is Palo but with Christianity taking over the various religious facets of the paradigm.

  2. Your point about heating your lucero and the impact this has on your own life, by in turn heating it, is spot-on Chris. People miss this point and go crazy with spirits and then see a lot of craziness in their own life without realising they are causing it by overheating a spirit. The heating and cooling of spirits is an art form. In our line of practice a lot of emphasis is put on keeping them cool and refreshed and only heating them in controlled bursts.

    Spirits - especially the ones we are initiated to - and of course our own egun, permeate our life, they don't just answer petitions. They become the fabric of our underlying experience. When I realized that I approached my spirit work with a lot more care and respect. Its my own life I am messing with!

  3. @Conjureman Ali

    Thanks, brother! The research I've done (especially within the excellent Rituals Of Resistance--found here details the slave migrations make it clear that the Congo where the vast majority of slaves imported in the early and mid periods of American slavery, with the Yoruba peoples coming in the later importations. Frankly, the individual you know is mostly correct, although I would say instead that Hoodoo is Congo religion as reborn in the South, and Palo as it was reborn in the Carribean. They have he same roots, and similar origins. The bottle-spell of Hoodoo is an Nkisi, and it is brought to life with mambo (sung prayer) and mpemba (candle) the same as the makuto/cunanche of Palo. It's a beautiful thing to discover, especially for we American Palero's who don't speak Spanish. Much of the herb and root lore of Palo is in Spanish, and many of the plants aren't native to North America, or aren't available except by mail. As this is nature religion, we really should be using the plants and dirts that are available in the nature around us to build our makutos and prenda..our Hoodoo roots allow us to use the herbs and roots native to this land we are in for practical spiritual work in Palo as well. Because of the reality of the herbalism in both systems--congolese wisdom broadened by interaction with Native American priests who shared the wisdom of the native plant species--there is no dissonance whatsoever in the use of herbal lore from both systems in the creation of our medicines, be they tea or an Nkisi/Nganga. Add the lore of hoodoo to the treasure-trove available from our Tatas/Yayis and Nicholaj's excellent herb treatise in the Garden of Blood and Bones, and the English-only speaker is blessed with a huge amount of wisdom for working Mayombe. Beautiful.

    The Congo came to the Americas with their own Christianity, having had Christianity (made thoroughly Congolese and interpreted through their existing spiritual wisdom) a part of their culture a century before large-scale Atlantic slavery had begun. The Christian elements of Hoodoo are themselves directly rooted in the Congo approach to the Christian mysteries, and we need look no further than Palo Kimbisa to see the equivalent of the practice in Palo.

  4. @Balthazar

    So true, a delicate balance must be kept; too cool and there's no movement or growth, too hot and things go sideways, hahaha.

    I came to the same realization--that this work is one of relationship, and that none of it was happening in a vacuum. Definitely a different approach than the more cerebral and abstract approach I'd taken in my youth. Very true, my friend!

  5. All very true, Frater. Though I'd add a slight change to the history of Christianity. Syncretism between African cults and Christianity definitely took place in the Congo itself and most are unaware of this. This began as early as the 1400's with the arrival of the Portuguese.

    Christianity resonated with the people of the Congo, but the history was also complex as the anti-Christian movements--as the Imbangala is one--grew in power and eventually caused a counter-Christian movement.

    It was this blend of Christian, namely Catholic, and its counter movement that came to the New World. In those areas where Catholicism thrived, the Congo beliefs continued some of their previous syncretic beliefs, but further adopted more the indigineous flavors of the region they settled in. In those regions where Catholicism didn't thrive, there was a move towards more traditional Congo belief structure. And it is from there that we find that in the United States the Catholic-syncretic element of the slaves waned and their practices were seen as thoroughly "heathen" by their slave owners. Eventually what stepped in to fill the gap left by the religious structure of Catholic priest and Congo "nganga" was the deacon, leading to the eventual adoption of Charismatic Protestanism that became hallmark of hoodoo.

    I look forward with interest to your further studies in Palo and how it will take shape in the United States as it takes root with the direction of assimiliating its new nature.

  6. What are really good herbs to use in a marriage honey jar

  7. Process involes heating the steel above the critical temperature, maintaining the temperature and and then cooling home heat and air conditioning units


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