"THE HOODOO HIGHWAY":
|Advocate staff photo by Bryan Tuck|
|Bayou Vermilion District Watershed Projects Manager Paul LaHaye holds one of the spells, revealing the nearly illegible writing of the spells, some of it crossed out and unreadable.|
LAFAYETTE -- Among the soda bottles and lost basketballs floating down the Vermilion River, there are things much odder and mysterious.
The Vermilion River could be called a one-way hoodoo highway.
Over the years, more than four dozen ordinary, little brown plastic prescription bottles have been found in the murky water -- each filled with blue or pink powder and strange, rambling spells meticulously written on scraps of paper.
Paul LaHaye, the watershed projects manager with the Bayou Vermilion District, oversees the collection of tons of debris pulled from the river each year.
Each time one of the brown bottles surfaces, LaHaye dries out the contents and places them in a plastic baggy or cardboard box labeled "Voodoo," that sits in his office.
Some of the district's workers won't pick up the bottles for fear of the "powerful magic," LaHaye said.
And while LaHaye isn't superstitious, he said he still tries to treat the items with respect.
"These are cultural artifacts," LaHaye said.
Inside each bottle are pieces of torn or folded paper containing tiny, nearly indecipherable cursive script, colored powder and sometimes cayenne pepper or seeds.
LaHaye has ventured to read some of the spells. A co-worker even started to help transcribe one of the more readable spells, but stopped when she started feeling nauseated, LaHaye said.
"Your power is no more on me ... your spell by witchcraft is broken ... undone, gone," one of the spells reads. "Please help us great mother. Send his witchcraft back to him and destroy him with his own witchcraft."
Most of them end, LaHaye said, with "Thank you spell for favors granted in the name of ..."
"There's a hoodoo out there for somebody," LaHaye said.
Most of the spells seem to be written in the same tiny handwriting. Each could have taken hours of labor, as sheets of paper were filled, then torn and folded, for each spell, LaHaye said.
It's likely that the spells were written by a practitioner of what academics classify as Southern Rootwork or Southern Hoodoo, said Ray Brassieur, a professor of anthropology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Brassieur cautioned against trying to track down the person writing the spells.
To pry into such a secret and personal agreement between client and practitioner -- in a way like a priest and confessor -- would be improper, Brassieur said.
The practice was famously documented in the South during the 1930s and 1940s by Harry Middleton Hyatt, Brassieur said.
The type of folk magic practiced involves "sympathetic magic," the idea that "whatever you do to that item, a like thing happens in reality," Brassieur said.
"Bottle" spells, like the ones being found in the Vermilion, are common, Brassieur said.
Part of the spell is placing the bottle into running water or tidal streams -- with their symbolic ebb and flow, Brassieur said.
The practice is not as unusual as some people may think, Brassieur said.
But finding evidence of the practice is "surprising," Brassieur said.
Brassieur said he's yet to study the spells in detail and will be careful when doing so -- in order to protect people's privacy.
Generally, people who seek out the help of a hoodoo practitioner are looking for help with a specific problem in their life that, for whatever reason, "regular channels" and institutions like medicine or attorneys aren't a possibility, Brassieur said.
Likely, most of the clients are poor, without financial means to find help otherwise, Brassieur said.
There's also a cultural and traditional aspect, he said.
"They were taught that this is the way to control the world," Brassieur said. "They're continuing those traditions."
LaHaye -- who's degree is in anthropology -- sees the hoodoo bottles as one more aspect of the Vermilion River's unique personality.
He said he'll keep the bottles at the office so that the unique practice can be studied and appreciated -- despite the nagging feeling that maybe the bottles are better left undisturbed, like King Tut's Tomb.
"It makes you suspicious" anytime something strange happens at work, LaHaye said. "Maybe it's more than coincidence."
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