High John The Conqueror!
It’s Hoodoo Heritage Month & this Thursday, October 15th, we will be celebrating one of our most notable Hoodoo spirits, High John the Conqueror.
Who is High John?
High John the Conqueror was first known in Africa as a spirit. Some stories trace him back to the Congo. He began as what Zora Neale Hurston calls, “a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song.” His presence was known and loved long before he took physical form.
Many stories say that High John manifested in the flesh and became an African Prince. Others say he remained a spirit until he reached America. Whether he remained in his spiritual form or manifested into physical form-- his village knew him to be rich in spirit and royal in regard. His energy was commanding and captivating. When High John showed up, the people couldn’t help but be taken by his presence. They held him to high esteem, as he brought them great joy and enriched their lives.
During the slave trade, in his spiritual form, High John traveled across the Atlantic- walking the waves, riding the wind, watching over the ships. When he arrived in America and chose his place on plantations where his enslaved people toiled, he manifested in the flesh as one of them, and remained there with them for hundreds of years.
His every footstep was a drum beat, and his very presence incited joy and laughter in his people. In a time of cruelty, sorrow, toil and trouble, High John- with his uplifting rhythm and contagious laughter- was able to bring hope, fun, ease, joy, beauty and divine intervention to those who needed him the most.
“Yes, yes, that was right. Old John, High John could beat the unbeatable. He was top superior to the whole mess of sorrow. He could beat it all, and what made it so cool, finish it off with a laugh. So he pulled the covers up over their souls and kept them from all hurt, harm and danger and made them a laugh and a song. Night time was a joke, because daybreak was on the way. Distance and the impossible had no power over High John de Conquer,” (Hurston).
High John conquered death and enslavement. He conquered struggle, hardship and pain. He conquered evil deeds and the wickedness of the colonizers. He was our conqueror indeed, and yet he was even more to us.
High John was a “trickster.” High John could pull off just about anything and get away with it through his charm, his quick wit, his light-hearted disposition, and his cleverness. He was most often known to be successful in his schemes against Ol Massa. Even when he failed, he could find something to learn from, and something to laugh about. He sometimes took form as B’rer Rabbit and is often compared to Anansi (Aunt Nancy).
High John was a protector. He would help his enslaved people to evade punishment and would often trick the slave masters out of harming them. When the slave masters would resort to punishing the people, he would take their spirits out of their bodies so that they would not feel the blow of the whip.
High John was a prophet. He showed his people that they were going to be free a hundred years before freedom came. This clear vision of freedom helped them to press on and endure with assured hope for their future.
High John was a liberator. It was he who planted the seeds of freedom in the minds of the white man and he who provoked the Civil War that led to it.
"Course, the war was a lot of help, but how come the war took place? They think they knows, but they don't. John de Conquer had done put it into the white folks to give us our freedom, that's what. Old Massa fought against it, but us could have told him that it wasn't no use. Freedom just had to come,” (Hurston).
High John was a conjurer and medium. One of the most notable stories of High John, is the story of the out-of-body spiritual journey that High John led some of his fellow enslaved Africans on. He had them lay under a tree where Ol Massa could see their bodies, as they traveled to a spiritual place where they could find them a song. They went all the way to Hell and all the way to Heaven and had some pretty exciting adventures along the way. They came back with a new song-- a song of joy, laughter, adventure, and something far better than anything they'd ever known. When Ol Massa got to yappin about them laying under that tree for too long, High John told them:
"Don't pay what he say no mind. You know where you got something finer than this plantation and anything it's got on it, put away. Ain't that funny? Us got all that, and he don't know nothing at all about it. Don't tell him nothing. Nobody don't have to know where us gets our pleasure from,” (Hurston).
High John, the Rooted Spirit
Once our ancestors got their freedom, High John decided to travel on back across the waters to his home in Africa. Before he left, he conjured a plant to possess his power and his spirit and give his people continued access to everything he had ever been to us and everything he had ever done for us. The root of that plant, High John the Conqueror Root, is one of our most sacred spiritual containers in the Hoodoo tradition. It continues to protect us, support us, enrich us, uplift us, and enlighten us to this day.
One notable example of the power of High John the Conqueror root, was highlighted in the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." In this narrative, Douglass recalls the many abuses he faced at the hands of his cruel slave owner, Mr. Covey. One day, after suffering abuse, he ran off into the woods to contemplate escaping the plantation. There he encountered a rootworker who suggested that he carry a particular root to help solve his issues with Mr. Covey. The root was said to “... render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip [him]," (Douglass 111).
Douglass, a devout Christian, initially rejected this offer, but was soon persuaded to take the root. The rootworker fixed it for him, and had him carry it at his right side. When Douglass went back to the plantation, he was expecting to be whipped, as that would be the punishment for running off as Douglass had done. To his surprise, the slave owner was unusually nice. Soon enough, the slave owner resorted back to his cruelty, and a fight between Douglass and the slave owner ensued. Douglass beat his slave owner down, and to his surprise… was not punished.
Douglass went on to try and rationalize this strange and unlikely occurrence beyond the power of the root, as his education and religious beliefs were not served by the “folklore” which he had little faith in. Even as he attempted to rationalize it, he wrote that, “the only explanation I can now think of does not entirely satisfy me …” indicating that his logic could not fully explain what had taken place, and that there was something more to it. Possibly, probably, certainly... it was that root.
Today, High John the Conqueror root is considered one of the most powerful roots to work with. Unfortunately, many spiritual shops (most of which are NOT of African ancestry) have capitalized off of the root and have simplified its significance to that of an everyday charm to help bring them success and good luck. These shops do not emphasize the relationship between the worker and the actual spirit which empowers the root to work. Most do not emphasize the fact that High John worked for the enslaved Africans in America and worked against their oppressors. Many of these shop owners are descendants of the very people High John worked against, and their relationship to the root is exploitive, much like their ancestors relationship to our people. Of course, we know that High John works in mysterious ways, and there’s no TRUE exploitation of a spirit like his. The same High John that fooled Ol Massa into thinking he was on those plantations working, is the same High John that will fool an exploiter into thinking he’s doing their biddings. One can try to manipulate High John’s spirit, but he ain’t called a trickster for nothing ;)
High John for the Hoodoos
In the Hoodoo tradition, we don’t simply buy a High John root and expect to reap its many benefits. High John is more than a root to us, more than a “charm.” First and foremost, we honor the spirit of High John the Conqueror as one of our ancestors, one of our patron saints, and one of our Great Spirits. High John the Conqueror is a liberator, he is a waymaker, he is a friend, he is a source of strength and joy and light and goodness. For that, we venerate him.
When we are ready to work with his root, we must “activate” it through ritual. Once it’s activated, we must treat it as the active, living spirit that it embodies.
Honoring High John on His Day
A few ways to honor High John include:
- Wearing purple, white, and gold. These are High John’s colors, signifying his royal and noble position in the lives of all who love him.
- Constructing an altar for High John. If you don’t already have one, create one. Use this article and the resources listed, along with the guidance from your ancestors & overseers to create it.
- Making offerings to High John. Some traditional offerings include but are not limited to: African-American foods, Crown Royal & other liquors, smokes, sweets, and coins. A good day to make offerings is on Thursdays, as that is his day.
- Listening to music about High John. See homework.
- Reading some of stories about High John. See homework.
- Laughing, playing, relaxing, and having fun. Giving yourself a break from the hardships of life and remembering to smile, to dance, to sing and to play.
Homework for the Hoodoos
1. Listen to "My John the Conqueror Root" by Muddy Waters. You can find it here: Muddy Waters - My John The Conqueror Root [HD]
2. Read “High John De Conqueror” by Zora Neal Hurston. You can download it here: High John de Conquer ((Scroll Down to “Available Formats” & select “PDF tablet”)) // Or you can copy and paste this link to your browser: https://www.fadedpage.com/link.php?file=20190457-a5.pdf
If you live in Chicago and want to celebrate High John the Conqueror Day with some of your local hoodoos, pull up at Washington Park on Thursday 10/15 at 7pm. See the flyer below for more details.\
Gratitude to Zora Neale Hurston for her work on High John the Conqueror and to Mama Rue of Mama Rue's Ancestral Musings (mamarue.com) for highlighting the connection between Frederick Douglass & High John!
Check out The Hoodoo & Good Juju Botanica. We offer roots, herbs, and spiritual supplies for our African-Indigenous Community.
That's all for now! Happy High John Day folks. Much love & many blessings to each of you.
Comments and feedback are very much appreciated.