Column: Apple in a Cup or Memories of Detroit Hoodoo

Guest Contributor —  April 16, 2016 — 4 Comments

[We welcome guest writer Kenya Coviak, also known as Mistress Belladonna. Coviak has been a practicing Pagan and student of metaphysics and magick for over 30 years. Practictioner, Teacher, Coach, and Counselor, she has shared her knowledge and skills with many in the southeastern Michigan community. Additionally, Coviak has served as past Children’s Coordinator, Presenter, and Public Relations for Pagan Pride Day Detroit, is an editor at PBN News, was a member of FOCASMI, Third Degree Oak Moon Coven, and a founder of the Great Lakes Witches’ Council.]

It seems that all over the magickal worlds in the United States, that Hoodoo is the thing to do right now. People make claims to “Aunties” and “friend’s Grandma’s” with abandon when referring to their expertise and prowess in this practice. But for me, I grew up with it not being a separate thing to be studied, but something that one simply does.

Spell working, folklore and magickal traditions were the rhythm of life. Along with listening to the Blues and to Rock and Roll, I grew up thinking that everyone’s Daddy let them play with their extra lodestones. Everyone kept their brooms turned upside down, and the root store was always in the address book, along with the “street numbers” policy dream books and two dollar bills.

[Photo Credit: K. Coviak]

[Photo Credit: K. Coviak]

My early years were filled with stories of haints, dream books, and psalms. The latter being curious, as neither of my fictive kin’s parents attended church. As for me, Sunday’s began with church, until I got too mouthy, and were followed by floor wash and incense on Sunday evenings.That was a regular routine. My “god family” attempted valiantly to put God in me through ordeal-length services. But my invitation to these sermons eventually ended when I made a wisecrack questioning why the same women who were hit with the Holy Ghost every weekend were not holy enough to get hit with it at Farmer Jack’s supermarket. My preteen years ended with me being cut loose from the family of the Black Church.

It was 1986, and I was in my early teens. The wind played with my mess of hair as I happily walked toward the bus stop with my “blood sister.” We lived on opposite sides of town, so I had already arrived at her house, also by bus, and was ready to hit the free festivals of downtown Detroit.

Back in those days we took the buses everywhere. I lived on the North End, and she lived on the West Side. It was necessary to ride these bus lines back and forth when we wanted to hang out. And if we were going downtown, we had to take the Dexter bus. That monster was an adventure of experience with every type of character you could have imagined. I can still smell the mix of cigarette smoke from the passengers, and the Pink Oil and Ultra Sheen in my hair.

But this particular time, we had barely left her porch steps when her mom told us that she needed to make a quick trip.  And, we, of course, had to go along. Where did we go? Straight to Goodwill Candle near Grand Blvd. While her mother picked up “a few things” from the clerks, we busied ourselves looking at the genuine goat parchments and pre-made cursing dolls. My favorite was always the red and green greeting cards that came with a curse inside. A recipient was informed that if they had received such a card  they were already crossed. The severity varied. I got a real kick, and a chill, out of those cards.

After leaving the shop with my hands covered in a fine residue of Three Kings powder and charcoal, we were off to my friend’s house again. We waited while music played, tapping our feet on the blue carpeted floor. No shoes, of course. My friend’s mother did her works, and then finally we were given a brown paper bag to take with us on our way to the festival.

“Throw this in the river,” her mother said. The bag was heavy and a little damp. We were told not to look inside.

So of course, we did. We were teens after all, and in the bag was a small paper cup, an apple with the top cut out in a wedge, and some fish hooks. The apple was filled with honey and other things that will not be discussed here. This whole affair was to be thrown into the river. We were not to look back.

There we were, two teen girls headed to a summer festival for fun and excitement with a side trip of spell work. This was not a strange event to us. This was simply what one did. My friend’s mother was trying to keep a gentleman who was very angry. He was a real piece of undesirable work. My sister found the man vexing so she really did not want to do this. But there was no getting rid of her mom’s decision to keep him around. Therefore, we threw our parcel into the Detroit River, just like thousands of Detroiters have done for years and continue to do today. The water takes the spells for good or for bad.

Detroit River [Photo Credit: Gary Muehlenhardt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain]

Detroit River [Photo Credit: Gary Muehlenhardt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain]

While in high school, my book bags continually smelled of orange blossom oil and success oil. I blended these often for other girls in band class to help them. We never spoke of it, but they never stopped coming to me for it. No questions were ever asked, except by the sanctified girls who judged everyone. They always inquired after the state of my soul, but I ignored them.  

Friends, school, church, all these magickal parts of my life intersected and found a central point in my home and with my family. One time, my Daddy asked me to help him put in a concrete path leading from our back gate. In order to make a smooth foundation, he gave me what seemed to be a mundane task with a sledgehammer and a pile of red bricks. He had me crush those bricks into the dirt. The dust completely covered the soil; which he then covered with concrete.

The foundation that I was spreading was actually to keep burglars away from our property until two years after he died. They could not pass the gate post. We needed no alarm system. We were safe. At the time, I never thought about it as protection work. To me, it was just what you do when you lay concrete at your fences. But later, I would find out what it really was.  

I always looked forward to helping my father with his soil balls each year. They would be kept in the milk chute. He would go out to the yard and “test the soil” with the balls. But the balls always had something else in them, and it was sometimes sparkly. They were kept by the house and in the chute, except on occasions when they were in his room as he “doctored”  them. This also never seemed strange to me.

When I was at the beauty shop getting my hair relaxed, I would listen to the church ladies enjoying the gospel station. They would laugh and talk of rinsing their sheets in lavender to keep their men faithful. These women would also discuss which Psalms and seals to use on their husbands or on other women who were interested in their husbands.

Keeping the Bible open to the 91st Psalm and using holy water with people’s names in the bottles was common. Throwing a Psalm on someone to harm them was not strange. And, the minister giving you something to bind another was not unheard of. In fact, some even pronounced death to parishioners if they did not mend their ways in a set time.  

While at the beauty shop, my Mama would get a lovely silver rinse in her hair and smile. Then, back at home, as the pins came out, hair would inevitably come out as well. Our strands would get caught in the wires of the rollers. The only way to dispose of this hair was to burn it. You never threw away hair, it must always be burned so no one could get it. You didn’t want to go crazy like “such and such” person. This was “fact” just like the Law of Gravity; it was just truth.

Little mysteries filled my life in that house. The brass bottle that was painted blue was said to contain a djinn. Yes, that was the exact word. It had a dark wax seal, and I was told to never touch it or open it. The tiny jar with my Mama’s fingertip, which she kept in the basement dresser, was also something odd but normal as well. It had been severed at her workplace, but it was re-purposed for “works” that happened in the dark of the night. She used it for different things that were secret, but protective.

But that is another story

Then there were the times that things went very badly. All actions did not lead to desired outcomes. Damage control was another key skill to have. When I accidentally burned the wrong candle in my room and conjured up something I could not put down, a mom from our band boosters club came to my rescue. She had used her “eye,” which was in her hand, to look at me. She saw something was not right. 

This mother, then, went with me to the candle shop and fixed a set of herbs and had me take home seven candles to solve the problem. The appropriate verse was opened at the new testament, and my room was a sauna for a week as they burned.

[Photo Credit: K. Coviak]

Inside a Candle Shop [Photo Credit: K. Coviak]

My own Mama was annoyed, because another woman had come into the business of her house. She did not like active practice and only used prevention. I was grounded for two weeks. Not just for the candles, but because I had conjured without talking to her first. Although we never spoke of it again, she flustered when I would try to bring it up and spoke of haints overrunning the house if I wouldn’t listen. This is probably why she painted the bathroom blue.  

As a teen and into early adulthood, Anna Riva books were scattered across my floor next to those of Scott Cunningham. My practices “eventually” expanded.  A friendly Sikh taught me even more about the powers of oils and showed me how to use them to control. Eventually, Tarot cards and herbalism from different traditions were as much a part of my daily life as Faygo, Park’s Barbeque, and Stroh’s ice cream.

When I learned to drive, I was a mobile menace. Every month, I traveled to the banks of the river. Sometimes it was to toss in bottles filled with Four Thieves Vinegar and an unfortunate name on a parchment. Other times I stood on its banks and made fires. After these rites, the ashes were thrown in or buried on the banks. Again, none of these acts were thought of as exotic or strange, just something one does here in the “D”.

But to be clear, it was also not uncommon to go to church the “very” next morning and sing just as loud as everyone else with a smile on the lips and a swing in the hips. However, for me, church was a conflicted issue, because I have always been a witch. I did not reconcile my realities until my thirties, after the requisite excursion into the world of Black Consciousness-based liberation cults of various flavors.

Growing up like this, in a world of magicians, was something I took for granted. We never made a big issue out of it. We understood that there were certain things you either knew or did not know. And most of us knew them.

This common local lore of magick continues to be passed from generation to generation, even today. The Hoodoo stores stay busy with new customers of every age and background. Like clockwork, auto plant workers and civil servants visit twice a month to buy cases of candles, roots, and oils at the local shops. The traditions practiced in my childhood are the same ones that are practiced today.

For example, Belle Isle is the literal graveyard of spells, tricks, hexes, and personal concerns. Each and every willow tree on that island has probably been used by at least one person to remove and “take a cross” (also known as giving it to the tree). Visitors may notice that certain tree groves are avoided by native Detroiters. This is, because after you “remove or take a cross,” you are not to revisit that tree … ever.  

Another practice that reminds me of our unique magical culture is the midnight wanderings that many new Detroit “carpetbagging gentrifiers” sometimes find threatening. It is the Hoodoo tradition of walking around in the middle of the night with no clear destination. We seem to be hanging about sidewalks and corners aimlessly and furtively, which makes many “newcomers” suspicious and assume that we are engaged in criminal activity.

However, in actuality, we are often looking for a suitable crossroads. We do magic in these places. We dump items in these places. We make petitions. We leave offerings. We do all sorts of things that have not even been written, and will not be written … here or anywhere.

But one of the main requirements is that we be secretive. It is important to not be seen. Therefore, we become masters of the blink of the eye action.I credit many of the things that have saved my life in my motorcycle club days to having performed quick getaways from spell work in my teens.

Interestingly, a woman in that very “motorcycle club” once made a doll baby of me. It was a beautiful porcelain doll that contained some of my personal concerns. Unfortunately, this was done without my consent, and I only found out after the woman had a falling out with the inner group. One of the other sisters exposed her and offered to destroy the doll. After its destruction, my life picked back up to a better pace, and I eventually drifted away from that life. But before that, the compulsion had been strong enough that I could not escape.

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None of this was strange to me or to any of us. This is what life was. This is how it is. This is what one does. We do workings. Even the most holy of rollers may have a Seal of Moses in their purse from Discount Candle near Eastern Market. Even the most steadfast Moor has been known to carry High John root in their pockets in my circle.

The smells of sulfur, oils, powders, and novena candles take me to my childhood home. There is no stronger core for me than this “reality”. There is no taking the this out of me, any more than one can take that cup back out of the river.

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  • The Replicant Brooke

    What a fascinating read. I’m envious of your upbringing within magic traditions.

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  • Anna H. (Anima Mundi)

    Very interesting read! Thank you so much for sharing this.

  • Damiana

    Cunningham merely Wiccanized Hoodoo herbs and oils.