Abracadabra!

  • Abracadabra is the famous magical word that is still used today by stage conjurers.
  • It may have derived from an ancient Jewish cure for sickness that went:

Ab Abr Abra Abrak Abraka

Abrakal Abrakala Abrakal

Abraka Abrak Abra Abr Ab

  • Another theory is that it came from the followers of Basilides who worshipped a god called Abraxas.   He ruled the 365 days of the year. The 7 letters of his name may represent the 7 astrological planets that control fate.
  • The first recorded use of Abracadabra was made by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, who was the doctor of the Roman Emperors Caracalla, Geta, and Severus.  In 208 AD he accompanied Emperor Severus on his expedition to Britain.
  • The word was used as a healing charm set out like this:

Abracadabra

  • These letters were written on paper and tied around the patient’s neck with a length of flax.  After 9 days the charm was thrown backwards over the shoulder into an east-moving stream.  As the words shrank away, so did the fever.
  • According to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) people thought the Black Death was caused by an evil spirit taking possession of the body.  A similar Abracadabra spell was used to ward of the sickness using the power of magic.
  • Many favorite charms were written in pyramid form.  These amulets would be worn on the body, kept under the bed, or placed in a box and hidden somewhere about the home.

Sources:

Man, Myth and Magic.  “Abracadabra” (London: Purnell, 1970)

Wikipedia. “Abracadabra,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abracadabra

What’s Your Poison? Oleander!

Did you know:

  • Nerium Oleander is a highly-toxic shrub that grows between 6-20 feet tall.
  • It is drought-tolerant and can survive in poor soil.
  • Oleander thrives naturally around dry stream beds but it is often reared in ornamental gardens because it is a showy and fragrant bush.
  • Mature stems have a gray bark, while the dark green leaves are thick and leathery.
  • The downy seeds grow in long narrow capsules.
  • Oleander flowers come in a wide variety of shades including white, purple, yellow, apricot, pink, and red.  They generally have a sweet scent.
  • All parts of the plant are toxic, even when dried out.  It should not be used for firewood or cooking.
  • The sap causes irritations of the eyes and skin.
  • Rodents and birds are not affected by the toxins but it is highly dangerous to humans.  There are, however, few reported deaths from Oleander poisoning, even when it is intentionally ingested in suicide attempts.
  • Effects of the poison last 1-3 days if treated in a hospital.
  • Ingestion of the toxin affects the stomach, heart, and central nervous system causing blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, excess salivation, pain, diarrhea, and irregular heartbeats.  The skin becomes pale and cold.  There can be drowsiness, tremors, seizures, coma, and eventual death.
  • Because Oleander was the first plant to bloom in Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of 1945, it  was adopted as the city’s official flower.

Sources:

Home Guides. “How Toxic Is Oleander To Humans?” at http://homeguides.sfgate.com/toxic-oleander-humans-82304.html

Medline Plus.  “Oleander Poisoning,” at https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002884.htm

Wikipedia. “Nerium” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N

What’s Your Poison? Opium!

poppy

Did you know:

  • Papaver somnifera – the Opium Poppy – has been cultivated in Eurasia for over 6,000 years.
  • There is some evidence that poppies were important in pre-historic religious rites.
  • The word opium comes from the Greek word opos, meaning juice.  It was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite, and the god of sleep, Hypnos.
  • The flowers can be red, white, orange, yellow, and deep pink.
  • Not all poppies contain the narcotic opium, but they are all poisonous.  For this reason they were traditionally mixed with hemlock for a quick and painless death.
  • For many years opium was used as a murder weapon by unscrupulous members of the medical profession.
  • Poisoning occurs from eating unripe poppy seed capsules, or from overdose after it has been processed into opium, codeine, heroine, and morphine.
  • Poppies were grown for a wide range of medicinal benefits: sedatives, pain reduction, and mood elevation.  The Greeks and Romans used them to treat diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, stomach complaints, and poor eyesight.
  • Overdose triggers erratic behavior, loss of appetite, stupor, coma, and may result in death from respiratory failure.
  • Poppies are also toxic for dogs and cats.
  • John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields inspired the adoption of the poppy as the national Remembrance Day symbol to honor British war veterans.

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John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Sources:

Poison Diaries. “Opium Poppy: A poisonous plant,” at http://thepoisondiaries.tumblr.com/post/18186895021/opium-poppy-a-poisonous-plant

Poison Plant Patch. “Poppy,” at http://www.novascotia.ca/museum/poison/?section=species&id=102

Right Diagnosis From Healthgrades. “Common Poppy Poisoning,” at http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/c/common_poppy_poisoning/intro.htm

Wikipedia. “Opium” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium

 

What’s Your Poison? Henbane!

Did you know:

Henbane

  • Hyoscyamus niger is also called Henbane, Black Henbane, Stinking Nightshade, and Devil’s Eye.
  • The name Hen likely derives from the Old English word for death, as this plant was known as hen bell (meaning death bell) as early as 1265.
  • Its veined yellow flowers grow wild in chalky soil, by roadsides, on waste ground, and near old buildings.  It likes sandy ground too, and flourishes by the sea.
  • Although part of the Mandrake and Belladonna family, Henbane is also associated with the potato, tomato, and tobacco plants.
  • All parts of the Henbane plant are poisonous – especially the leaves.  Neither boiling or drying destroys its toxicity.
  • Henbane is often associated with witch-brews and magic potions because it causes hallucinations and the sensation of flight.  Merely sniffing its offensive smell can make people giddy.  Other symptoms include restlessness, flushed skin, and manic behavior.
  • The Oracle of Delphi supposedly inhaled smoke from smoldering Henbane to induce mystical experiences.
  • In ancient times this herb was used as a pain medication, toothache cure, and sleep aid.  During the Nineteenth Century it was prescribed for epilepsy and other convulsive ailments.
  • Before the widespread use of hops, Henbane was used to flavor beer.
  • Perhaps because of its association with witchcraft, in German folklore Henbane was believed to attract rain, blight cattle, and destroy crops.
  • And Shakespeare may have used this plant as the “cursed hebenon in a vial” that killed Hamlet’s father.

Sources

Botanical.com.  “Henbane,” at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/henban23.html

Rowan.  “Henbane – the insane seed that breedeth madness,” at http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/henbane.htm

Wikipedia.  “Hyoscyamus niger” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyoscyamus_niger

Kit’s Crit: Tell My Horse (Zora Neale Hurston)

Hurston

Do you believe in Zombies?  Having studied Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse (1938) claims that the undead really do exist and she has seen proof with her own eyes!

As a member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was interested in recovering authentic black feminine power.  But she did not look for it in the guise of the New Woman, she wanted to reconnect with the wily, wild conjure woman from the African Ur-cultures, the pagan witches of antiquity.

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is divided into three parts.  The first two are a little disorganized as she describes the history and politics of Jamaica and Haiti.  Legend has it that while Hurston was doing “under cover” research in Jamaica, the natives found out she was going to publish their secrets and she had to flee the island in fear of her life.

The third section about Voodoo is both disturbing and compelling.  Hurston respectfully introduces this practice as “a religion of creation and life,” but then describes at length the “people who have been called back from the dead,” in particular “this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor . . . So I know there are Zombies in Haiti.”  But these are not the flesh-eating TV characters that appear in The Walking Dead.  Haitian Zombies are generally called back for one of three reasons: to work as free manual labor toiling in the fields; as the revenge of an enemy who wants to deny them eternal rest and peace; or as a sacrifice to another spirit.  It is the Haitian version of giving-a-soul-to-the-devil.

ZombieThe dead person’s spirit is stolen by the Bocor  who turns the body into a mindless slave.  Bocors are the “bad witches” of Voodo, as opposed to the “good witch” leaders called the Houngan. 

Tell My Horse is a strange and fascinating attempt to explain the West Indian Obeah practices.  It is weird – and at times disgusting – and definitely an acquired taste.  Scholars will find it useful, but I do not think its antiquated style holds much appeal for the general reader.

Fortunately, it is a very different book from Hurston’s other stellar work!

Doctor John Bayou: Voodoo Man

Voodoo 6

The “Last of the Voodoos” in New Orleans was the infamous tattooed Jean Montanet, commonly known as Doctor John, Voudoo John, and Bayou John.  Born a free member of the noble Bambaras Tribe from Senegal, John was kidnapped by Spanish slavers and shipped to Cuba.  After earning his freedom from a friendly master he worked as a ship’s cook, finally settling in Louisiana.

Doctor John seemed to possess mysterious Obi powers.   He began telling fortunes – and must have been skilled at reading people because he soon had enough money saved to buy a house.  Then he set up as a conjure man, and at the height of his fame was estimated to be worth $50,000.

John kept a harem of at least fifteen “wives” that he claimed to have married according to African tradition.  Most of these women were bought as slaves and they bore him many children.  At one time he teamed up with Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau to sell potions, charms, and spells.

Although Doctor John often looked after the poor in his neighborhood – and gave away food to the needy – he was tricked several times by unscrupulous business men who stole away his fortune.  He ended up broke, living with one of his daughters.

But how powerful was this Voodoo conjure man?  He seemed to have a charismatic personality and a sound understanding of herbal lore.  There are many first-hand accounts that his medicines actually worked.

However, he also liked to take advantage of the gullible white women who came to him out of curiosity.  One lady paid him $50 for a potion he later confessed was merely a few common herbs boiled in water.  His rationale was, “If folks want to give me fifty dollars, I take the fifty dollars every time!”

Sources:

“Haunted New Orleans” at http://www.nola.com/haunted/voodoo/?content/history.html

Hearn, Lafcadio.  “The Last of the Voudoos” at http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/hearn/lastvdu.htm

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

Voodoo or Hoodoo?

Voodoo 1

What is the difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo?  I recently visited the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum to find out.  Here is a brief account of my discoveries:

Voodoo is a religion (led by initiated witch doctors) that has split into two branches – Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Vodoun.

Hoodoo, however, is a form of folk magic (that anyone can practice) which originated in West Africa and thrives predominantly in the southern USA.

They are complimentary aspects of a supernatural belief system from similar ancient roots.

Voodoo 2

Voodoo comes from West African Vodun – “spirit”- and was made popular in Haiti.  It has since spread to many other places, most notably Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria.  Voodoo is a way of life  built around the supreme being Bondye, a remote creator god.  But there are many spirits called loa that can be worshipped on a personal level.  To connect with the spirit world a believer can invite the loa to enter their body and possess them during religious ceremonies.

Voodoo 3

Hoodoo is also called conjure, witchcraft, working the root, and root doctoring.  It is closely aligned with the form of African spirituality known as Ggbo.  As part of the Obeah folk tradition it spread from Haiti and Jamaica to New Orleans and along the Mississippi Delta.  In many way it is an American form of Voodoo.

Voodoo 5

Constantly changing as it comes into contact with other cultures, Hoodoo has many Roman Catholic elements.  When African American slaves were forced to convert to Christianity by a law of 1685 they replaced the loas with saints from the Bible.  God became the archetypal Hoodoo doctor who controlled fate and destiny, while Moses was the first man who performed magic and miracles.  The Bible is the greatest conjure book in the world and many of the Psalms are used in spells.

Hoodoo also draws on Spiritualism.  People are able to harness supernatural forces to assist in their daily lives and they can connect with the other world in different ways, often involving rituals and sacrifices.

Bottle Trees are a popular garden feature.  These glass bottles are used to trap evil spirits until the morning sun destroys them.

If you are ever in New Orleans then pay a visit to the Voodoo Museum.  It is a fascinating experience!

Voodoo 6

Additional Sources:

Knowledge Nuts, “The Difference Between Voodoo and Hoodoo” at http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/12/26/the-difference-between-hoodoo-and-voodoo/

Wikipedia, “Hoodoo” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoodoo_(folk_magic)

Wikipedia, “African Vodun” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_African_Vodun