Southern Spirits: Ghostly Voices from Dixie Land
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HOODOO LUCK-BALLS
(JACK-BALLS)

by Mary Alicia Owen

This is an extract from "Voodoo Tales as Told Among the Negroes of the Southwest, Collected from Original Sources" by Mary Alicia Owen (Putnam, 1893). The original text contains footnotes by the book's editor, Charles Godfrey Leland, a noted folklorist of the time, and Owen's mentor.

The material quoted here presents Owen's experiences as a young White woman sampling the folkloric magic of her family's Black servants.

The Luck-Ball that Owen commissioned was made in the name of her admired teacher, Charles Godfrey Leland, who was in Europe at the time. Leland in turn did Owen the honour of mentioning her work among the Negroes of her region in his massive tome, "Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition" (Scribners, 1892) and editing her book for publication the next year.

Owen is relatively unknown these days, but Leland is famous as the unwitting conduit for much of the modern mythologizing about Wicca and Witchcraft, through his book on Italian folklore, "Aradia, Gospel of the Witches.".

Because this author used terms unfamiliar to modern readers and employed spellings not commonly found in the literature of hoodoo, a few explanatory notes have been added [in brackets]. Sub-headings have also been inserted to separate the various portions of the narrative. All of the dialect spelling is as given in the original, as is the material (in parentheses), which was Ms. Owen's own attempt to de-cypher that which she had so labouriously rendered into barely-readable semi-phonetic English in the first place.

WARNING: The material on this page was written by a European-American who was describing African-American spirituality as an outsider. This author was racist or race-derogatory and the conclusions he or she drew while writing this eye-witness account are grossly offensive. However, the text is included in full because it accurately describes practices and customs of the African-American South during the 19th century (albeit not always with complete understanding) -- and it also serves as a political reminder of how far we have some in our struggle for race equality and respect in the ensuing years. Read with caution and compassion.

[AUNT MYMEE'S LUCK-BALL "LITTLE MYMEE" AND HOW IT WAS FED]

Aunt Mymee had been in what Granny designated as "a turr'ble takin'," the cause of which was the loss of her most powerful fetich, the luck-ball she had talked to and called by her own name as if it were her double.

[The word fetich -- more commonly spelled fetish -- is of Portuguese origin and signifies an idol or magical object of worship, particularly a small one. It is also often used in English to refer to any spell that is worked within a bag or packet, such as a mojo hand, toby, conjure bag,, jack ball, jomo, or nation sack.]

Her superstitious terrors when she discovered the loss were really pitiable; her overbearing manner towards the other negroes quite forsook her, her limbs were palsied and her complexion bleached to that awful greyish pallor so much more shocking to the beholder than the lividness of a Caucasian. She had missed the precious ball in the morning, when she was dressing herself, and hastily felt in her bed, expecting to find it there. Not finding it, she snatched off the covers and shook the pillows vigorously. The floor was next scrutinised. No ball could be found. Then Aunt Mymee went wild. Her morning duties were forgotten, she ran hither and thither, looking in all possible and impossible places of concealment and obstinately refusing to state what she had lost. Finally, with a groan of despair, she flung herself down on her cabin floor in a cowering heap and quavered out that she would be better off in her grave, for an enemy had stolen her luck-ball, and her soul as well as her luck was in it.

Her daughter's pickaninnies, in great excitement, spread the news, but scarcely had Granny and Aunt Mary begun to enjoy it when they had "ter laff out o' turr side o' de mouf"; Tow Head proudly marched to the cabin with an exceedingly dirty little bag in her hand and desired to know if Aunt Mymee's soul was " tied up in that nasty thing ?"

["Tow Head" -- meaning blonde-haired, after the colour of tow line hemp -- is Mary Alicia Owen's name for herself in this autobiographical account of her childhood.]

Evidently it was. Aunt Mymee sprang up with a joyful cry and kissed the bag and hugged the finder, then sternly demanded --

"Huccome dat yo' got dat medout me a-knowin'?"

"Found it by my bed this morning."

"Oh! honey, w'yn't yo' fetch um ri' off?"

"I didn't see you. Mamma dressed me this morning."

"Did yo'" -- Mymee's voice sank to an anxious whisper -- "show dat ball unter 'er? "

"No," said Tow Head, with great positiveness, "I didn't. She told me, once, when I was telling her about Uncle John's Jack, never to say anything more about such wicked idol-ertry, and I promised I wouldn't, and I always keep my promises -- if I don't forget. Grandma says that is my best trait."

Aunt Mymee heaved a sigh of relief.

"Dat's er good chile, don't pesteh yo' ma," she said, approvingly, as she began to fumble at the strings wrapped (not tied) round the neck of the dirty bag that had raised such a commotion. 1

"What are you doing, Aunt Mymee?"

"Gwine ter gib Lil Mymee er drink. Dat wut she arter, I reck'n, w'en she bust loose. I ain't gun 'er no drink sence er week ergo de day 'fo' yistiddy, an' she boun' ter hab one wunst er week. I wuz dat tuk up wid new-fangle noshins dat I fegit 'er, an', lo an' beholes -- wut does I git foh hit?"

"Shall I bring you a gourd of water?"

"No, honey. Lil Mymee, she don' sup watteh," said Aunt Mymee, lifting a dirty little yarn ball out of the dirty little linen bag. "She sup wut Big Angy name eau-de-vie, an' dat sholy am de watteh ob life foh huh, kase ef she don' git un she die."2

Aunt Mymee produced a black bottle of Little Mymee's elixir of life, better known to the general public as whiskey, and proceeded to moisten, first the ball, then herself therewith; after which ceremony she restored the ball to its proper receptacle, mended the broken string, which had been the cause of its loss, and made it an ornament to her person by slinging the string over her left shoulder and under her right so that the ball rested under her right armpit. She had, beforehand, be it understood, slipped out of the various waists of her raiment, so that the ball should lie against her naked body, with no intervening fold of calico or flannel to absorb its "strenk."

["KING" ALEX THE CONJURER]

How that ball was made, what were its components, Tow Head did not, at that time, know, though she gathered from the half-whispered gossip of the other aunties that it was the work of "King" A--- a Voodoo doctor or cunjurer of great powers and influence.

["Cunjerer" is a phonetic regional spelling for conjurer or conjure doctor -- a rootwork practitioner. The fact that the man's name was King Alex is given elsewere, although here she anonymizes him as "King A---." ]

This A--- was a curious half-barbarian, who never stayed long in a place, made his entrances secretly and mysteriously in the night, never confided in any one, never spent money for anything but whiskey, never lacked for the good things of this world, and never was reduced to the inconvenience of begging or stealing, although he was as the lilies of the field "that toil not, neither do they spin." No cabin refused him shelter and the best bed and food it could afford. No one knew whence he came or whither he was going. When four taps were heard above the latch, some one flew to usher in the guest. "A---'s dar" was the unspoken conviction. How he came was a matter of conjecture; it was generally conceded that he travelled at his ease on some strange steed of the devil's providing.

As soon as he was settled in his temporary quarters -- that is, had eaten of everything in the larder, drunk generous potations of whiskey, and taken possession of the best chair -- a messenger was sent out "to pass the word around" that he had arrived.

In the course of the night the answer came in the persons of scores of darkies, some of them from a distance of many miles, who eagerly purchased his remedies, charms and " tricks."

When she was a child Tow Head never once caught sight of him, but in after years she had more than one interview with this "king" of occult "cussedness." When she saw him her disappointment was extreme. There was nothing royal either in his appearance or demeanour. He was, as he is, a black, sweaty, medium-sized negro, half-naked, altogether innocent of soap, and not dispensing the perfume of Araby the blest. 3

His eyes were snaky, his narrow forehead full at the eyebrows but shockingly depressed above. His nose was broad and with a flatness of nostrils emphasized to the perception of the beholder by the high, bony ridge that divided them. His chin was narrow and prominent; at first glance, it seemed broad by reason of the many baggy folds that surrounded it after the fashion of a dew-lap. He was far from beautiful when his features were in repose, but the time to fully realise that he was a self-chosen disciple of his Satanic Majesty was when he unclosed his great rolling lips in a silent laugh. The yawning cavern thereby disclosed, with its double guard of yellow, broken, "snaggy" teeth set in gums unwholesomely red, and its ugly, wriggling tenant, a serpent-like tongue, were, in themselves, more awe-inspiring than any charm or curse that issued therefrom.

["KING" ALEX MAKES A LUCK-BALL FOR CHARLES LELAND]

When Tow Head saw him she meekly asked for some talisman to insure good luck to a friend.

"Fetch me," said the ogre, "er ha'r ur two fum de body o' de one dat wants de luck, an' er dollah, an' I mek yo' er luck-ball."

Tow Head explained that the "ha'r" could not be obtained. The friend was on the other side of the ocean.

"Den fetch de money an' I kin make red clobeh (clover) stan' in de place o'de ha'r."

Tow Head "fotch" the dollar and then, as she demonstrated that she was something of a witch herself, by repeating the formula she had learned from Aunt Mymee for preparing a "tricker-bag," she was not only furnished the ball but, in addition, was taught how to make it.

[A "tricker bag" -- more often called a "trick bag" -- is a mojo bag or toby.]

This is one way to prepare a "tricker-bag": --

Take the wing of a jaybird, the jaw of a squirrel, and the fang of a rattle-snake and burn them to ashes on any red-hot metal. Mix the ashes with a pinch of grave-dust -- the grave of the old and wicked has most potency in its earth -- moisten with the blood of a pig-eating sow; make into a cake and stick into the cake three feathers of a crowing hen wrapped with hair from the head of the one who wishes an enemy tricked. Put the cake into a little bag of new linen or cat-skin. Cat-skin is better than linen, but it must be torn from the haunch of a living cat. Whatever the bag is, it must be tied with a ravelling from a shroud, named for the enemy and then hidden under his house. It will bring upon him disease, disgrace, and sorrow. If a whipporwill's wing is used instead of a jay's it will bring death.

"Dat's toll'ble," A-- declared. "Des toll'ble. Thee (three) am er good numbeh, but fo (four) am betteh in de makin'up ob tricks. Good lan'! 4 De daid deyse'fs got ter mine de fos (fours) ef yot mek um plenty nuff. Fo' time fo' time fo' (4 x 4 x 4) am de gret numbeh. De daid an' de debbils gotter mine dat. Des see me mek dis hyeah luck-ball en' kote (quote) um in."

[Three is a more common number in hoodoo than four; four was more popular among Native Americans than Africans, and among those of mixed ancestry, we sometimes find discussions of which number is more powerful. From the folk tales Owen collected among servants in her own family [not archived at this site] it is apparent that several were of partial Native ancestry, for in reading them, one encounters phrases such as a "Hunter's Moon," and references to "quivers and arrows." Charles Godfrey Leland, who edited this manuscript for Owen, also noted (at footnote 3) that although King Alex was identified in the community as a "negro," he had a "pure-blood Indian" mother and spoke her tribe's language as well as English.]

Since Native Americans often feared the spirits of the dead, King Alex's statement that "the dead themselves have to mind the fours" is significant, as is his claim that 64 (4 x 4 x 4) is "the great number."

Also significant is the fact that although in the rite that follows, he makes 4 skeins of knotted yarn and thread, he only actually uses 3 skeins in creating the jack ball. Owen presents this as if he had made a stupid mistake through drunkenness, but there is a possibility that the work was performed that way on purpose, with the fourth skein kept in a secret place after presenting the luck ball to the purchaser, in order for the rootworker to have a means of control over the client.]

A-- spread his materials, consisting of red clover, dust, tinfoil, white yarn, and white sewing-silk, on a table, called for a bottle of whiskey, and, when the last-named necessity of modern "cunjerin" was produced, proceeded to business.

[Owen's sarcasm here overcomes her good sense as a folklorist. Alcohol is not a "necessity of modern 'cunjerin'" -- it is as ancient a part of both Central African and Native American magic as one can hope to find. King Alex's mouth-spraying ritual, given below, dates back to pre-slavery Africa, as he himself tells Owen when he describes it to her!]

He broke off four lengths of yarn, each length measuring about forty-eight inches. These were doubled and re-doubled into skeins of four strands each and spread in a row before him. To each skein was added forty-eight inches of sewing-silk folded as the yarn was.

"Dar now!" he said, "De silk am ter tie yo' frens unter yo', de yahn am ter tie down all de debbils. Des watch me tie de knots. Hole on dough! -- dis fust! "

The "fust" proceeding was to fill his mouth with whiskey. Then ensued a most surprising gurgling and mumbling, as he tied a knot near the end of the skein nearest him. As it was tightened, he spat about a teaspoonful of tobacco-perfumed saliva and whiskey upon it.

"Dar now!" he said, "dat's er mighty good knot. Dey ain't no debbil kin git thu dat."

"Stop! Stop! You are not dealing fairly with me. You promised that I should hear your incantation, and you mumble so that I cannot distinguish a word."

"Ise a-kotin in (quoting in) de name o' de one de ball am foh. Des wait twell I git thee (three) mo' knots tied in dis hank an' den I kote out loud foh de turrs."

["Quoting in" or calling names while making knots is an essential part of knotted spells in both European and African traditional folk magic.]

Sure enough, when the mumbling, spitting, and tying had been repeated three times, he laid down the skein, took up the second one, filled his mouth with whiskey, began to tie a knot, and said- --

"Gord afo' me' Gord ahine me, Gord be wid me. May dis ball fetch all good luck ter Charles Leland. May hit tie down all debbils, may hit bine down 'is innemies afo' 'im, may hit bring um undeh 'is feet. May hit bring 'im frens in plenty, may hit bring 'im faithful frens, may hit bine um to 'im. May hit bring 'im honeh (honour), may hit bring 'im riches, may hit bring 'im 'is haht's desire. May hit bring 'im success in evveht'ing he hondehtakes, may hit bring 'im happiness. I ax foh hit in de name ob de Gord."

[Surprisingly, King Alex's incantation begins with a fragment from the opening of a very well known Celtic - Scottish prayer: "God before me, God behind me, I on Thy path, O God, Thou, O God, in my steps. In the twistings of the road. In the currents of the river. Be with me by day. Be with me by night. Be with me by day and by night."

Here we see clearly the cross-cultural nature of hoodoo -- and it is noteworthy too that even though the rootworker did not recite the Scottish prayer in full, his luck-ball was made of "twistings" of yarn and silk and it contained dirt from where "the currents of the river" met the river bank (see below).]

This he repeated four times, then spat upon the knot, took a fresh drink of whiskey, began on a second knot and repeated the whole performance, exactly as he did also when he tied the third and fourth knots. When this second skein had its four knots tied, he laid it against the first. Before the two had lain several inches apart.

[Four skeins, each made of four feet of yarn and four feet of silk thread, folded in half twice, resulting in four yarn and four silk lengths per skein, each skein one foot long. Four knots made per skein. Four incantations per knot, for a total of 16 incantations per skein and 64 incantations for all four skeins.]

"Now," said he, "ef yo' gotter fair membunce (an' I reck'n ' has, kase yo' look lak er ooman strong in de haid, er mighty strong ooman in de haid) I 'low dat yo' knows dat chahm off by haht. Dat's yo' look out dough, kase I ain' gwine ter holler hit no mo'. Ise gwine ter say hit sorf (soft) w'iles I ties de fo' knots in dem urr two lil hanks."

When the muttering and spitting at length ceased, and four little skeins with four little knots in each lay side by side, Tow Head asked --

"What is the use of tying all those knots?"

"Dem knots! W'y dem knots am in fo's (fours) an' dey tie down all de debbils -- debbils is 'fraid o' fo' time fo' time fo'. Likeallwise, de knots bine yo' frens unter yo'. Dey ain't no debbil kin git thu dem knots."

"What is all that other stuff for?"

"Stuff!" the "cunjer-man's" tone was indignant. "Des wait twell dat stuff git a-wuhkin'. Dat ar piece ob file (foil) rupisent (represents) de brightness ob dat lil spurrit dat gwine ter be in de ball, dat clobeh am in de place ob de ha'r offen de one dat ter own de ball, dat dus' am innemies' dus,' en' hit am ter bline de eyes ob de innemies."

[Tin foil for the spirit being called into the jack ball, hair (or red clover) as a magical link to the ball's owner, dirt from where the river sand meets the clay bank (see below) to run off or blind enemies.]

So saying, he drew three of the skeins towards him, twisted them into a little nest and gave them a copious bath of saliva and whiskey.

"It seems to me that conjuring is mostly whiskeying."

"Dey's er heap o' pennunce in (dependence to be placed in) whiskey, sholy, dough in de outlandish kyentry fum whurs dey fetch de niggehs in de fust place, dey tek some sort ob greens an' putt um in er gode (gourd) wid watteh an' set um in de sun twell dey wuhk (work -- ferment), an' dat go in de place ob whiskey.''5

Tow Head would fain have asked other questions, but the "king" waved his hand to enjoin silence. Again he had recourse to the whiskey-bottle, and once more he began to murmur his incantation, pausing only to spit upon the red clover blossoms and the encircling leaves and upon the tinfoil, as he placed them in the little yarn nest and sprinkled them liberally with enemies' dust -- a powder that looked as if he had picked it up at a gas-house, although he declared it was dust gathered where the river sand and the clay of the bank met.

Suddenly, with a dramatic flourish, he plunged his hand into his bosom and drew forth a ball of white yarn. From this he began to wind the thread about the little woollen nest, all the time keeping up the muttering of the incantation and the attendant punctuation of saliva and whiskey. In a few minutes, he had made a new ball of a little over an inch in diameter. This was a "luck- ball." He held it suspended by a length of yarn and began to talk to it in most caressing tones.

"Promuss dat yo'll be er good ball."

The string began to twirl as if unwinding.

"Dat's right! I know'd yo'd be good."

"You have left out a skein," interrupted Tow Head.

"Dat wuz a-puppus," was the lofty reply. "Now, ef yo' want de good ob dis hyeah ball, yo' ain't gwine ter flusteh me wid queschins."

Tow Head was stricken dumb.

The "king" shut his eyes and proceeded to give an uncanny exhibition of ventriloquism.

"Now," said he, addressing the ball, as he dangled it between his thumb and finger, "yo' name is Leland, Charles Leland. Ise gwine ter sen' yo' er long way off unter er master, er mighty long way off, 'cross big watteh (the ocean). Go out in de woods an' 'fresh yo'se'f 'fo' yo' staht. Go 'long! Do yo' hyeah me? Is yo' gwine? Is yo' gwine way off? Is yo' climbin'? Is yo' climbin' high?"

After each question there was a series of answerings, growing fainter and fainter as the spirit of the ball was supposed to go farther and farther away.

After the last question there was a long pause. Then "Charles Leland" was invited to return. As he was a long way off, the "king" listened attentively to the faint murmur that came in reply, even pressing forward the rim of his ear to catch the faint, far-distant answer.

The answer was evidently what the "king" desired, for he continued to question and receive replies, and each time the question was fainter, and the reply louder. "Is yo' stahted? Is yo' comin' closter? Is yo' gittin' nigh? Is yo' back? Is yo' in de ball ergin ?"

All of "Charles's" replies were in the affirmative. When he was once more at home, he proclaimed the fact by causing the ball to spin and dance in the most surprising manner. When he finally relapsed into quietude, he had another shower-bath from his summoner's mouth. Then there was nothing more to be done but to wrap the ball in tinfoil and a little silk rag.

The only instructions given were to place the ball in a linen bag, attach it to a string of flax or hemp and direct the one for whom it was named to sling the string over the left shoulder and under the right, so that the ball should rest under the right arm. From thence he must be taken once a week and bathed in whiskey, otherwise its strength would die.

At any time "he" could be taken out and consulted or confided in. His approval or disapproval could be felt by the owner, at once, and his help relied on if asked for. Only one warning was given. "Don't tie no knots in he kivvuz (covers)." 6

Just such a ball was the one Aunt Mymee lost and found.

[This jack ball was to be carried for luck after the manner of a mojo hand or conjure bag, but it could also be used for divination, a trait common to jacks.]

[The rest of this chapter of the book consists of folk-tales and songs in dialect.]

Editor's Notes [by Charles Godfrey Leland]:

1. This same incident also occurred almost exactly as here related to my brother -- Henry P. Leland -- when he was twelve years of age. The old black cook of the family had lost her "cunjerin' bag," when my brother found i t. It contained a chicken's breastbone, ashes, and rags. -C. G. L.
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2. This is African, as still practiced on the Guinea coast.
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3. Like nearly all the persons described in these chapters, A-- was not quite a negro. His mother was a pure-blood Indian, and the son spoke Indian as naturally as English.-C. G. L.
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4. Good land! A land! A common American interjection, confined to the blacks.
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5. Quite true. This is the pombe or maize-beer of Africa, used in magic.
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6. I received this luck ball in a letter when in Copenhagen. It appeared to be such a mysterious or important object, that an official was specially sent from the post-office with it to the hotel where I was staying, and I received it from him. The reader may find an account of how I myself have seen luck. bags made by witches in Italy, in "Etruscan Roman Relics in Popular Tradition." (London: T. Fisher Unwin. 1873.) - C. G. L.
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