Thanks to @afro-gay for inspiring this post! There are a lot of correspondence posts out there for witchcraft that explain what herbs, plants, flowers, etc. can be used for what purposes. There definitely are traditional hoodoo correspondences that could be listed in the same way, but it would actually be very inconsistent and paradoxical to the way that hoodoo works to take a list of those correspondences off the internet and use them for the sake of using them. Working the roots and using herbs and plants in hoodoo has its own process, which is at the very core of the tradition itself.
In this hoodoo guide to correspondences, I discuss how the process of working with organic materials and determining correspondences yourself by communicating with their spirits and energy is integral to practicing and learning hoodoo. I’m going to mostly draw on a mixture of my own experiences and the various works of black hoodoo author Stephanie Bird.
The Roots of Rootwork
It’s commonly known that rootwork is another way of referring to hoodoo, and this particular name for the African American folk tradition is extremely important because it expresses the foundational core of the practice. When talking about doing rootwork, sometimes people say “workin the roots,” which is basically what “rootwork” literally means. So what are the “roots” of rootwork? It might seem obvious that this is literal – roots are a common and important ingredient in hoodoo recipes. However, it is even more profound than this. The roots are two different sources of magic, power, and wisdom in Africana tradition that are two sides of the same coin or two aspects of the same spiritual circle.
The roots of rootwork are ANCESTORS + NATURE.
What does this mean? Even most beginner rootworkers pick up quickly that ancestor work is essential and so are the use of herbs and roots. However, I don’t see many talking about the fact that from an Afrocentric perspective, our ancestors and the forces of nature are actually deeply interconnected to almost being one and the same. Bird says, “Rootwork consists of understanding herbalism and then incorporating indigenous wisdom regarding nature” (10). That indigenous wisdom regarding nature isn’t just accessed through ancestor work or herbalism as separate practices, but rather simultaneously through an Afrocentric understanding of their interconnections.
Going back all the way to rootwork’s historical origins in traditional African religions, most African cultures regard the earth as being the home and the embodiment of the ancestors. People lived and died, then they were buried in the earth. African peoples were aware of this and understood how bodies naturally became food for the plants and trees, just as those plants and trees had nourished people all their lives. There’s a reason why “the Circle of Life” is in Lion King, that concept and deep awareness of humanity’s interconnection with nature really truly is a part of the traditional African worldview. The earth nourishes us, and when we become ancestors, we nourish the earth.
“… since in the African’s mind the fertility of the earth and human beings was connected with the ancestors’ spirits, he maintained contact with these spirits at burials and rituals of ancestor worship” (Segy 27).
In the Africana studies class I took last semester on Africana diasporic religions, I learned that the Yoruba culture are an example of people believe that the ancestors (egungun) live on with a deep connection to the earth (aye) and the land (ile). I’m sure there are countless other examples, and in fact, the connection between ancestors and nature is a common theme among many indigenous cultures – so not just on the African continent but around the world.
The Magic of Rootwork
Some people refer to it as magic. Chaotes and other prefer the word magick to distinguish from stage magic. In Kemet, it was called heka. In Yoruba language, spiritual energy that can be used as magic is called ashe. Bird describes it:
“Ashe is the invisible power of nature. Ashe is present inside herbal products and natural objects. Herbal teas, incense powders, spiritual washes, healing balms, healing soaps, healing charms, medicine bundles, and even the purposefully spoken work all contain ashe” (27).
From all these different examples she gives, we see how the magical forces of the Yoruba and many other African cultures were the powers of nature itself. It is finding ways to harmonize with and tap into the power of one’s ancestors and all the earth’s elements, the ashe of the world within and around us.
“Organic objects are replete with potentiality and healing ashe, It is important to address each element or aspect of nature with the assertion that it is alive and our partner. This approach puts us in touch at once with the past, present, ancestors, and nature spirits” (Bird).
The hoodoo looks at nature and its seemingly infinite array of manifestations – trees, grass, moss, roots, plants, flowers, rivers, oceans, rain, clouds, wind, fire, soil, mud, clay, dirt, rocks – from the Afrocentric perspective where they are all teeming with life, spirit, and ashe. As Bird explains, within this living world of nature, the ancestors and nature spirits are side-by-side. They are two overlapping groups of partners and guides who given respect, kindness, and gratitude may be willing to put all that ashe together for a collective purpose.
The heart of rootwork is doing what our ancestors before us have always done by forming intimate relationships with ancestors, local spirit communities, powerful nature spirits (like the orishas or loa), and the spirits of every material we work with. Hoodoo magic is nature magic, it is spirit magic, it is ancestral magic, it is in the roots. These are all interconnected as one and many: the roots that are nature, spirits, ancestors.
Bird discusses Jiridon, a traditional knowledge system of the Mande people in Mali within West Africa. Referred to as “the science of the trees,” Jiridon is an indigenous Mande system of studying and understanding the forces of nature.
“To learn Jiridon, the seeker, whether hunter, warrior, or shaman, must spend ample time alone in the wilderness, observing the workings of nature, including the expressions of animals and the whispered wisdom of the sacred wood. Jiridon studies are not carried out through an apprenticeship with a human; they are learned directly from trees and plants themselves.” (Bird 11).
Although learning directly or indirectly from one’s ancestors about working with herbs, plants, roots, etc. is extremely important where possible, learning from the nature spirits themselves is essential too. This is absolutely a form of spirit work that encompasses working with nature spirits and one’s ancestral spirits at the same time. Though it is possible to learn from any plant or aspect of nature, trees have been significant mentors to our ancestors both in Africa and the Americas:
“Trees are tremendously important to Africans, thus they play an important role in Hoodoo. Trees are the primary teachers of the hoodoo and the hunters, herbalists, and warriors of Africa… Similar to a West African hunter or warrior, a good hoodoo must spend a great deal of time alone with trees in order to learn the secrets and wisdom they wish to share with us” (Bird 8).
“In early African American historical accounts, there are written testaments of people who spoke the language of the trees. They were called tree whisperers. Tree whisperers in the United States spend time living with and studying a single tree” (Bird).
Now with an understanding of rootwork’s African history and magical basis in nature, it should be abundantly clear why rootworkers wouldn’t benefit from relying solely on a correspondence list. When working the roots, one speaks to the roots. Listens to the roots. The ancestors and nature spirits themselves are the living guides for the rootworker, not a static list of properties. If the correspondence list is truly traditional hoodoo, then it’s also genuinely a form of ancestral wisdom that may be a useful reference. My point is not that rootworkers shouldn’t ever consult correspondence lists, but that these lists do not replace the crucial roles of ancestral and nature spirits.
Basic Tree Communication Tutorial
So, now that we’ve established why it’s critical for rootworkers to be communicating with the organic materials they work with, the question is how? Basic spirit work communication skills! This tutorial is focused on communicating specifically with trees, but can be adapted to working with any type of plant or nature spirit in general. The most important things to keep in mind while you’re interacting with them is a sense of deep respect and awareness of how you’re treating them. If you engage with a nature spirit in a very polite and thoughtful way, you’ll usually get a much more positive response and openness to share and communicate.
The following is a suggested approach for those new to spirit work:
- When approaching a tree, try to look at it and tune into its energy. Does it have a nurturing vibe? Angry? Quiet? Welcoming? Interested? Tired? Timid? Young and youthful? Old and wise? Try to see if you can feel out a little bit of this tree and whether it wants to speak with you.
- If you get okay vibes, then ask mentally or aloud, “May I speak with you?” You should get an intuitive sense of yes/no usually clearly right away. If it’s anything less than a clear yes, then don’t approach any further and respectfully try another tree.
- If you get a “yes,” you may put your hand on the trunk, then continue the conversation. Sometimes there are pauses filled with silence. Sometimes the spirit’s answers are feelings, not words. I usually get a sense of the tree’s personality the more I talk to them, and the more I talk to surrounding trees – other conversations with other trees will come up sometimes. The trees nearer each other are very aware of each other.
- Make sure you don’t start asking anything from these spirits until you’ve established a good relationship first – or unless you are able to provide something equally valuable to the spirit in return. I once asked a tree spirit to help me with a spell, and she agreed but asked that I provide her some positive energy later. You can still give offerings from afar – it all really depends on what the spirit would like. Typically, I’ll bring some fresh water with me in case a tree asks for an offering of water after chatting. Don’t ever assume what they do or don’t want with regards to anything. Just ask and you’ll find out!
Learning the Correspondences
Once you’ve initiated contact and communication with a nature spirit – whether a tree, plant, flower, herb, some roots, bark, moss, etc. – you can then figure out what that specific part of nature and its ashe may help you. Some various ways to ascertain this information…
- Politely ask the spirit what sort of ashe/energy they have
- Notice the spirit’s personality
- Sense the spirit’s ashe and its qualities
- Observe the shape and colors of the physical object
- Ask one of your ancestors
Remember that working with all the organic materials involves working with their ashe and their spirits as partners in your magical pursuits. Rather than forcing the spirit to tell you what you want to know, be creative in using different means to find out and work with the spirits not against them.
I hope yall found this post helpful! Others may have a different style of practicing hoodoo so it’s meant to be informative but not at all dismissive of other types of hoodoo. This post is intended for black and Afro-Latinx rootworkers to use, and for anyone else to read if curious or reblog for visibility/ally support <3
This is so perfect and I am grateful it was written!
🌹I know many who take 4 pennies or a pendulum with them to read the energy of the spirits around them.
🌹Always leave a small offering, such as rain water, when you take from the plants.
🌹These walks with nature are also when you should be looking for the bones and curios to read and use in your work. Working with animals and death is a natural part of Hoodoo (should be obvious now with the Ancestors + Nature theme).
🌹Using living things is important….that’s where the Ashe is and why it’s kind of pointless in hoodoo to use a bunch of dried things you shipped from Ohio. You have plants around you that you can get to know.
🌹I have also had a teacher who was raised traditionally in NC remind me that, in reality, we do NOT praise/serve the plant spirits! In modern hoodoo, many people are starting to push together a lot of different traditions as they blend in the diaspora…but I was taught there’s only your ancestors above you. You are the one in charge of all other spirits. That does not mean be foolish and approach a plant spirit after the answer was clearly “no” because you will be asking for trouble. But it is to remember there’s no gods, no plant goddess to serve, none of that. The only ones above you are your Ancestors. Any of the other stuff is part of a separate spirituality you also practice and not Hoodoo.