Ancestor worship, also called – perhaps more accurately – ancestor veneration, exists in many cultures and is a prevalent practice amongst many African tribes. The term ancestor “worship” should not be taken to mean that the dead are considered to be gods or god-like, but rather that they are believed to still have the power to affect and influence the world of the living and are therefore presumed to still require care and sustenance. Ancestors are presumed to have the most vested interest in preserving social orders on earth, and they offer a link between the divine world and the mundane which entitles them to a special place as the go-to source for any spiritual help needed by their descendants.
And yet, in old time hoodoo practice, the documented reports suggest that it is not beloved ancestor’s graves that are most highly sought by the American hoodoo man for aiding in his magical intents, but the graves of those poor souls who “died bad” (that is, unnatural death — especially by murder or suicide) or else people whose situation in life related in some way to the circumstances one desires to bring about, such as a gambler’s grave to improve one’s luck with money. This would appear to bear a more like resemblance to a practice of African magic called muti, where people of certain conditions are specifically murdered or sacrificed in order to use their bodies for spells. It is a practice still followed today: “The victim is not first killed and the parts removed,” a recent article reports, “No, for if the medicine is to have greatest effect the parts in question, limbs, genitals, eyes, ears, even the whole skin, must be removed while he or she is still alive, in the belief that their agonising screams add to the potency of the magic.” Several hoodoo beliefs using parts of animals echo this particular notion, such as the black cat bone spell wherein a cat is boiled alive to provide a lucky bone, or the belief that a mole’s paw cut only from the live animal could bring luck. The 21st century African film director Neill Blomkamp, in his commentary on his own movie District 9, describes a practice in modern African muti of using dead men’s hands to attract good luck — he even remarks on its similarities to American Voodoo. Compare to the report of American author James William Buel around the year 1880: “In earlier years grave-yards were frequently desecrated by negro resurrectionists whose sole impulse was to obtain parts of the corpse from which to make charms. It is even now common for negroes to carry about on their persons the hand of a dead man or woman, with all the putrifying flesh attached. Bodies of murdered men are most sought for, as these are regarded as possessing greater mystic virtue than the bones of one that has come to a natural death. It may be asserted [many negroes] ... carry either in their pockets or attached to strings about their necks, finger-bones of a human hand. The thumb is more generally used as an amulet, but every finger-bone is regarded as being very efficacious in bringing good luck.”
Retrieving body parts from strangers’ graves certainly does not appear to have been a common custom of ancestor worship. Does American hoodoo derive the preference for those who “died bad” as a replacement for the ritual medicine murders of Africa?
The popular conjure ingredient of grave dirt appears to be another item of Atlantic African origin: in historical sources it is typically mentioned as being used in hoodoo or obeah rites, but rarely ever in European spells. The grave dirt’s power is provided by the spirit of the person from whose grave it is taken: it can be added to mojo charms, powder blends, or sprinkled alone to produce its desired effect, which can range from working love spells to deadly curses. Typically, it is expected that a few coins, or some food or drink will be left on the grave as payment for the service of the one from whose grave the dirt has been taken. Some of the old accounts specify the dirt should be taken from particular spots on the grave (as at the foot of the grave, in the center of the grave by the heart, from the dirt that touches the coffin, etc.) or that it should be collected at certain times (such as the dark of the moon, or at midnight.) It was apparently felt that the grave dirt would only possess an effect for the person it was intended to be used against, and it could otherwise be handled freely by the magical practitioners or by innocent bystanders.
Buel provides further information, writing of the hoodoo belief that “every instrument causing death is endowed with a supernatural power which may be utilized by any one who possesses the ghostly trophy ... We have now the horrifying spectacle of a greedy scramble among white men and women every time an official execution takes place, to obtain pieces of the rope with which the hanging was accomplished, and sometimes parts of the scaffold are also broken off and preserved by superstitious persons.” Buel assumed the belief in the beneficial powers of the dead to be of purely African origin, but employing the dead or their associated artifacts for drawing positive influences is also traditional amongst whites. European grimoire spells make use of funeral shrouds, graves, and ropes from hanged men in gambling and money drawing rites. Love potions could include the flesh of a thief amongst the ingredient list. In England, a law was passed in 1604 forbidding anyone to “take any dead man woman or child out of his her or theire grave ... or the skin, bone or any other parte of any dead person, to be imployed or used in any manner of Witchecrafte, Sorcerie, Charme or Inchantment,” suggesting that people had been so doing up till that time. A powder called mummia, originally made from pulverizing Egyptian mummies and later made from any kind of dried human remains, was a popular medicine in Europe in the middle ages and remained available for purchase from legitimate medical suppliers as late as 1908: it was believed to be efficacious for preventing decay and degeneration of the body if swallowed or applied, and was even added to artists paint in the belief it would prevent colors from fading. Even the very concept of the holy relic – preserved body parts from saints, still believed to possess special abilities to bless those who would come into their presence – proves the European’s view of the dead was not purely negative. Use of coffin hardware, often as a protective or medicinal agent, is known from European magic: rings from a coffin were used against colic and digestive troubles; coffin nails were used against epilepsy, rheumatism, toothache and other ailments; funeral shrouds were employed as a power-enhancer. But the dead of Europe did have their harmful use, too: a German spell to cause death was to put a coffin nail into a living victim’s shoe, and a Danish/German spell to bring about someone’s death was to put a piece of the victim’s clothing onto a corpse so he would sicken and die as the garment rotted with the dead man.
Old reports claiming to detail Voodoo in America sometimes make reference to cannibalism as being a part of the practice. An article in the Journal of American Folklore describes a case circa 1885 wherein “an old negress … had cut up a small child and salted it away in a barrel,” but notes that there was no evidence for the crime being related to any occult practice. I, too, have found no knowledgeable accounts of old style hoodoo or Voodoo that I would classify to include cannibalism (though by a stretch one could claim certain love spells, whereby one feeds their own hair, skin or blood to a potential lover, might be able to count.) However, given the frequency of the claim, and the fact that cannibalism is still known to occur in certain instances in modern Africa – with recent examples in Liberia, Congo and Sierra Leone – it seems possible that some early slaves may have initially attempted to preserve this practice, and the stories it bred kept circulating for a few generations even after it was discontinued. At the same time, the European beliefs and claims that witches would eat babies were also popular from the middle ages onward, and yet have little worthy evidence for support; so it may just be one of those things people always say about witchcraft, but nothing more.