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.]
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
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.
"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
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.
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'!
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!]
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
[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
"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
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
"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
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,
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.
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)."
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.
return to text
2. This is African, as still practiced on the Guinea coast.
return to text
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.
return to text
4. Good land! A land! A common American
interjection, confined to the blacks.
return to text
5. Quite true. This is the pombe
or maize-beer of Africa, used in magic.
return to text
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.
return to text
[See also the 1950s blues song
"The Mojo" by J.B. Lenoir, which describes a Jack Ball. The mode of
manufacture of Lenoir's Jack is not specified, but the manner of its
use is given in outline form in one verse.
When i was a teenager in the mid 1960s, i had read the above description by Mary Alicia
Owen of the Jack made by King Alex, but i soon learned how to make a slightly different form
of Jack Ball than the one described above. My teacher was a middle aged black
woman whom i met at a hoodoo candle shop in Chicago, Illinois. This woman,
who had been born in Mississippi, taught me several
forms of spiritual work which made use of red sewing thread or pearl cotton, white handkerchiefs,
crochet work, and other accoutrements of the domestic arts of the era. Her
Jack, like that of King Alex, was constructed of thread or string, but it was
not made in parts that were gathered together. Rather, it was entirely
wound up from the inside outwards, with the personal concerns and other curios
at the center.
This woman advocated the use of red thread or pearl cotton, and the ball
that resulted -- the type of Jack which i have long made for
clients of my candle shop
and taught the secrets of to my
Hoodoo Rootwork Correspondence Course students and
-- certainly resembles a red rubber Jack Ball,
as found in the game of Jacks, with the exception that it has a hanging-string
attached, to facilitate its use as a pendulum.
Because of this woman teaching me, and my wide dissemination of her form of work since the
1990s via sales at my Lucky Mojo Curio Co.
and through my own organized teaching program, the red-string Jack has become the
most well-known form of Jack Ball at the current time.]