Review: Rootwork: Using the folk magick of black america for love, money, and success
By Tayannah Lee McQuillar
Review by Kim Huggens
Rootwork (otherwise known as Hoodoo) is a subject that is quite difficult to find decent books about. A lot of the available literature is amateur and brief, giving the budding rootworker very little by way of intellectual resources. Sadly, “Rootwork” by Tayannah Lee McQuilllar is a prime example of this.
Numbering 141 pages and split into three sections, it took me just under an hour to read, so at least it wasn’t too much of a waste of my time. Luckily the book is also written in an easy, simple and approachable style, so “Rootwork” can be read without too much concentration. The three sections of the book are “Rootwork Basics”, “Elements of Rootwork”, and “Understanding Spells for Love, Money, and Success”. The first section deals with the history and development of Hoodoo, the nature of magic (yes, note my insistence on the lack of a ‘k’ at the end of the word…), and the beliefs of rootworkers. It is this section that I have the most problems with – firstly, McQuillar’s so-called history leaves much to be desired. She continually reminds the reader how important it is to understand the roots of Hoodoo and how it developed, yet only touches upon it briefly, giving absolutely no references for further reading or study. This leads me to believe that the historical account given in this book is over-simplistic and possibly inaccurate. McQuillar’s explanation for how magic works will also turn many a reader blue:
“No form of magick is based on logic – if it was, it would cease to be magick. There is no explanation for why spells work, but they do. All that is needed to work successfully with spells is patience, confidence, and faith. It is a completely illogical process that must be allowed simply to be. As soon as you try to analyze it, its power is lost.” ~ pp.11
Well, I read this paragraph to an Hermetic magician and he just laughed out loud. I have no doubt any magic practitioner from a wide variety of other traditions would have a similar reaction. I also have no doubt that another Rootworker would have a similar reaction. By virtue of the very fact that McQuillar has managed to write a book on the practice of magic in the Hoodoo tradition, she has contradicted her own statement! If it were a completely illogical process, it would be impossible for her to give the tables of correspondences that later form the second section of the book. And don’t even get me started on the nature of sympathetic magic – I have an overwhelming desire to beat McQuillar over the head repeatedly with the unabridged version of Frazer’s Golden Bough, not to mention the vast array of excellent studies on the nature of magic throughout history that highlight the logic in which magical practice moves. It is true that magic does not work in the same logic as science, but it nevertheless possesses its own very unique kind of logic.
The second section of the book, “Elements of Rootwork”, may come in handy for some people, depending on how much they already known about Rootwork. It covers the main items used in the practice, splitting them into the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. As such, some of it will undoubtedly be familiar to those who have spent some time working in the Wiccan tradition or Hermetic tradition – subjects such as using coloured candles, incenses, and moon water are covered and seem to be the basic stuff of $ilver Ravenwolf books. However, there are certain things covered that I found very useful and interesting: the use of earth taken from various locations (graveyards, courthouses, prisons, mountains…), how to interpret the flame of a candle as it burns, and (perhaps the most useful part of the whole book) recipes for various waters and baths.
This section also includes a list of commonly used talismans, herbs, and miscellaneous objects in Hoodoo practice, and – of great interest to me – the use of substances from the human body in magic. Such a practice goes back to the earliest examples discovered of a spell (ancient Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BCE), so it was extremely interesting to read how this is used in Rootwork. I was also surprised to find how similar the practice was to that as it was used originally all those centuries ago. Finally, divinatory methods of Rootworkers, including cartomancy, are covered, as well as communicating with the spirits of the dead and ancestors.
The third section is more of a grimoire than anything else – it gives dozens of Hoodoo spells for use by the reader. They are simple, and McQuillar says they have been slightly modified to better suit the lives of those who will be reading the book. Luckily she hasn’t dumbed the spells down, and they seem pretty traditional in most places. There are a couple I raised an eyebrow at, however, such as the “Pay Me Now!” spell to get back money owed to you. The effect of this spell is that the person who owes you money will lose things until they give that money back to you. Now, surely their losing items precious to them will do nothing but aggravate the cause of their not returning your money?!
Throughout the book there are references to black heritage and culture, and the author often refers to “we” and “our ancestors” from black Africa. “We are the descendants of the strongest [black African slaves], the ones that made it.” No, I’m not. I’m as white as they come, English, with fair hair and green eyes and I probably don’t have an ounce of black blood in me. I just happen to be interested in Hoodoo. I appreciate that we should understand the cultural heritage of the magical traditions we work with, but I really would also appreciate it if the magic was taken in its own stead, not simply as a way to big-up one’s heritage and oppressed culture. You don’t see books on Runelore and Seidhr magic talking about blonde haired, blue-eyed Aryans and the blood that we share with them, do you?
I also found there to be a great deal of conflicting information given in the book. On one page, for instance, we are told that when interpreting candle wax we should base our interpretation on our own personal feelings about the symbol – that it should not be interpreted by anybody else for us. Yet on the very next paragraph McQuillar recommends using a dream dictionary for symbol meanings, and on the next page gives a list of interpretations for the “ten most common” symbols!
Overall, I found this book extremely disappointing. My skepticism regarding it is heightened even further by the worrying minimalism of the bibliography – a grand total of four books grace the list. I greatly value the recipes for the waters and baths given in the book, and have no doubt that some of the spells and mojo bag recipes will come in handy, but frankly I could have got them for free off the internet. Which I hope is NOT what the author did.
Kim Huggens is a 24 year old Pagan Tarot reader and PhD student in the Ancient History Department of Cardiff University. She is the co-creator of “Sol Invictus: The God Tarot” (recently published by Schiffer Books) and the forthcoming “Pistis Sophia: The Goddess Tarot”. She has had recent work published in Horns of Power, edited by Sorita D’Este, and is the Editor of online Pagan magazine Offerings. When not getting orgasmic about ancient voodoo dolls and Sumerian cunieform writing, she works in a vetinary clinic, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and practices Vodou.