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Wednesday, April 21, 2010



Candle burning has roots stretching back to ancient times as a part of both religious ceremonies and magical rites. Most hoodoo practitioners and rootworkers, like other folk magicians, burn candles for magical effect, spell-casting, and as an adjunct to prayer, but unlike the traditional and conservative craft of making mojo bags, candle burning in the African-American hoodoo tradition has undergone considerable evolution during the 20th century.

During the 19th century candles became readily available as a commercial product, sold in general stores, rather than having to be made at home or on the farm or purchased at a special candle-maker's shop. By the early 20th century, paraffin candle, with a relatively high melting point compared to tallow candles, were transported by rail nationwide and -- and with the invention of aniline dues, they were soon made available in a number of colours.

The epicenter of new developments in ritual candle-magic in the hoodoo tradition was New Orleans, where a long tradition of Roman Catholic candle-burning combined with African-American folk magic to produce an emergent style of working with candles, both for prayer and in laying tricks. This new way of working with candles soon spread to Memphis, Tennessee, and Mobile, Alabama, and, by the late 1940s, was fairly uniform throughout the South among all professional rootworkers.

Probably the single most important influence on the development of African-American candle magic from the 1940s to the present has been the ubiquitous "Master Book of Candle-Burning," a paper-bound pamphlet written by Henri Gamache in 1942. Advertised in black-owned newspapers like the Chicago Defender in the 1940s and still carried today by all the major mail-order spiritual supply catalogues, this work delivers exactly what it promises -- detailed instructions that instruct the spiritual doctor or rootworker on "How to Burn Candles for Every Purpose." The chapters include information on how to select candles, anoint them, arrange them on an altar, and engage in what the author quaintly refers to as "fire worship." Along the way Gamache presents a garland of anthropological tidbits about folk-magical practices from Canada, Europe, Africa, and the Malayan Peninsula, making this book a fascinating document indeed.

For those who are not familiar with the work of Henri Gamache, i'd like to note that he was a prominent mid-20th century occult author and folkloric researcher who developed a unique Creole combination of hoodoo, Christian, Kabbalist, and Spiritualist magic. Not much is known about Henri Gamache's personal life, but if he is not simply another pseudonym for the mysterious Mr. Young who ghost-wrote occult books from 1925 - 1948, he seems to have been a man of mixed race, possibly born in the Caribbean, who lived and worked in New York City. Most of his books remained in print for decades, and all are quite interesting. In particular, his "8th, 9th, and 10th Books of Moses" is a fascinating document, detailing his theory that Moses, the leader of the Jews, was a black African, "the Great Voodoo Man of the Bible."

Henri Gamache used the term "Philosophy of Fire" to describe the candle burning rituals he set forth in "The Master Book of Candle Burning." That term, and his frequent references to "Zoroastrianism" allow us to identify one of his major influences, for the "Philosophy of Fire" is a system of magical working described in the writings of an earlier author named R. Swinburne Clymer. A Rosicrucian and sex magician prominent in the early 20th century, Clymer in fact wrote an entire book called "The Philosophy of Fire" in which he espoused a mixture of magical theories that embraced Spiritualism, Zoroastrianism, and sex magic.

Clymer had in turn learned most of his occult theories and sex-magical techniques from the writings of Paschal Beverly Randolph, an African-American sex magician and Spiritualist of the mid 19th century. In 1860 or so, Randolph originated a magical order called the Brotherhood of Eulis to carry forth his beliefs; it was reformed in 1874 under the name The Triplicate Order. After Randolph's death in 1875, Clymer corresponded with his widow, Kate Corson Randolph, and received instructions from her as to how to operate his own order of sex magicians. Clymer also reprinted "Eulis!" -- one of Randolph's books on sex magic -- in 1930.

The link from Randolph to Gamache, through Clymer, is probably one of book-learning rather than direct initiation, but it is interesting nonetheless, especially in light of the fact that most modern occultists tend to identify African-American practitioners exclusively with folk-magic and to discount the contributions black people have made to the development of formal occultism and ceremonial sex-magic.


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