The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Briefly Noted: ‘Spiritual Merchants’ by Carolyn Morrow Long

Spiritual Merchants: Religion Magic & Commerce Paperback – May 31, 2001

This is a very thorough, readable and well-illustrated reference to the traditionally large and widespread practice of selling hoodoo, Voodoo and other spiritual supplies via mail order, web sites, and retail stores. The book begins with a compact description about the origins of hoodoo and charms–one of the best descriptions I’ve seen–and then goes on to discuss the nature of selling charms, herbal mixtures and other supplies by mail. The book includes a list of current (as of the publication date) merchants that were in business along with their histories.

One thing you notice before reading too far into the mechanizing section is the sad truth that many merchants faked what they were selling.  The ingredients were either not as advertised or were not prepared in the proper manner. Carolyn Long conducted extensive interviews with catherine yronwode (pronounced “Ironwood”) who founded the Lucky Mojo Curio Company. Long notes that yronwode not only has a great deal of hoodoo information (history, spells, practices) on her site but guarantees that the powders, oils, herbs, candles and other supplies she sells are genuine.

All savvy merchants, current and historical, were likely to run afoul of the USPS if they claimed their merchandise would actually produce working magical spells and/or cure ailments. For that reason, merchants sold–and continue to sell–their products “as curios only.”

Long includes a chapter about one of the more famous products, High John the Conqueror (and related “John” products) which are generally used for protection. The irony is, nobody’s sure what it is. Many plants have been considered that are native and non-native to the United States. The problem goes back to the fact that early conjurers were not, of course, using the scientific name of the root, so now we’re stuck having to guess. Until shown otherwise, I would tend to believe yronwode’s description here.

Typical catalogue page, this one from the now-defunct King Curio Company.

The oldest and longest running spiritual manufacturer listed in Spiritual Merchants is the L. W. DeLaurence Company which was founded 125 years ago. The store began as a spiritual publisher; you’ll still find reprint versions of some of DeLaurence’s books on Amazon.

From the Publisher

They can be found along the side streets of many American cities: herb or candle shops catering to practitioners of Voodoo, hoodoo, Santería, and similar beliefs. Here one can purchase ritual items and raw materials for the fabrication of traditional charms, plus a variety of soaps, powders, and aromatic goods known in the trade as “spiritual products.” For those seeking health or success, love or protection, these potions offer the power of the saints and the authority of the African gods.

In Spiritual Merchants, Carolyn Morrow Long provides an inside look at the followers of African-based belief systems and the retailers and manufacturers who supply them. Traveling from New Orleans to New York, from Charleston to Los Angeles, she takes readers on a tour of these shops, examines the origins of the products, and profiles the merchants who sell them.

If you are researching hoodoo and/or writing a hoodoo-based folk magic novel, this book will serve as a handy reference.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the hoodoo-based novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

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