One day it hit me. I’d read books on Southern Conjure, New Orleans Voodoo, and Appalachian folk magic, but I’d never read anything on Florida folk magic. In my naivete, I thought it would be a quick internet search. But when Google gave me no results, I realized I had to dig deeper. This simple question sent me on a sunny, albeit sometimes muddled, magical journey that went far beyond what I initially imagined. From the southern tip to the panhandle, I discovered the sunshine state has a colorful history of folk magic, remedies, native shamanism and witch lore as vibrant as the people who’ve lived in it over the centuries.
The Timucuan tribe lived and thrived in present-day Florida from ancient times until the early nineteenth century when they were wiped out by European disease, slave trade, and war. Archaeology confirms the Native people had a wide range of Florida folk magic beliefs and traditions.
In Safety Harbor, Florida, stands the Tocobagan Indian Mound. Safety Harbor is believed to have been a capital of the Tocobagan culture. The mound, which can be visited in present-day Philippe Park, was made by human hands and consists of discarded shells and bones but has long since been disguised with trees, bushes and grass. Today, you’d never know it wasn’t just a normal, random hill in the middle of a beautiful park overlooking the bay. Scholars debate whether the mound was used as a simple dump-site of shells and bones, nothing more, OR whether it held a shaman’s temple or chief’s home at the top.
Local legend says a powerful shaman would climb to the top of the mound and calm or ward off potentially malevolent nature spirits in the area. When the last shaman was killed off by the Spanish, Safety Harbor was left wide open to be ravaged by storms and hurricanes. The nature spirits are no longer appeased – Safety Harbor’s been hit by numerous hurricanes since the Tocobagans died out, including one that washed away one third of the mound in the eighteen hundreds (Freaky Florida).
The natives left more than one temple mound in Florida – in a park located in Crystal River sits another ancient mound. Legend says there was a battle between a Timucuan warrior and a great nature spirit of the land. The battle ended in the Timucuan tribe retreating and abandoning their homes around 1400 AD. There is evidence confirming the Natives residence the site, but scholars can’t figure out why they left or where they went. Perhaps there’s more to the local legend than what meets the eye (Florida Lore).
Weedon Island Preserve is a small island in the Tampa Bay that’s been occupied for seven thousand years. Pottery, human remains and tools have been found on the island, a few tools of which are still present in the visitors’ center. One corner of the center warns visitors to enter upon their own discretion: some of the displayed pottery was presumably discovered in Native burial grounds and therefore considered sacred or off-limits to some. For those who enter, the clay vessels are decorated with spiral and geometric patterns, and many of them are topped with sculpted heads of birds and ducks. It’s possible the Weedon natives considered local birds psychopomps – spiritual guides to the afterlife.
An exciting discovery turned up on the banks of Weedon Island during a Duke Energy remediation project. A woman dug up a large shell, which turned out to be a vessel used in the Black Drink Ceremony. The Black Drink Ceremony was a part of Florida folk magic and a ritual in which the Natives brewed and consumed a beverage made of yaopon holly berries. The Black Drink was so high in caffeine that it caused vomiting and hallucinations, which put the individual into a liminal state (Duke Energy).
The famous war chief Osceola was named after the Black Drink – his name translates to “Black Drink Singer” indicating he tolerated the Black Drink well. There is evidence of the Black Drink Ceremony all over North and Central Florida. Certain shells were traded between the Natives in which to hold the Black Drink ceremonially, confirming the ritual’s spiritual importance (Florida Lore).
In the 1700’s, bands of Creek Natives from Alabama and Georgia migrated to Florida. War with European settlers and other tribes sent them to the sunshine state in search of land and peace. They brought their beliefs and spiritual traditions with them, but adopted new ones once they’d settled in. The Creeks would become the Seminole nation. A band of Seminoles occupied the land around Lake Okeechobee. The Seminoles revered local wildlife – including the large alligators who lived in the Lake.
Tales circulated of a Seminole alligator cult that worshiped a giant gator god living at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee. During times of drought, Lake Okeechobee recedes and human remains have been discovered by fishermen and locals. Is it possible the bodies seen at the bottom of the Lake were thrown in as sacrifices to the great alligator god? Or was Lake Okeechobee simply a place for sacred burial? Some claim the bodies were victims of a hurricane from the past that flooded the lake and killed the people nearby (Palmetto Country).
Florida offered a refuge for more than just the Seminoles, at least for a time. The state saw an influx of African settlers in the nineteenth century. Many escaped slavery by fleeing to Florida – some of whom were taken in by the Seminole tribes. The Seminole tribes hid many runaway slaves from officials. Relationships between them gave way to the term the “Black Seminoles”. Other African settlers were promised freedom if they would only covert to Spanish Catholicism.
The runaway slaves and free men brought their culture and beliefs to Florida: a mixture of Christian and indigenous African customs. They also brought with them a folk magic tradition now called Conjure, Rootwork or Hoodoo. Like the Natives, the African settlers were resourceful. They were in touch with the land and the food and medicine it provided. The land provided magical resources, as well. To the African settlers who had faced much torment at the hands of their oppressors, magic was a way to survive.
Cotton and sugarcane plantations existed in Florida and some participated in the practice of enslaving people for labor while others employed their laborers. Cotton held sacred importance to the slaves and laborers. They were animistic in their beliefs which meant the cotton plant itself contained spirits. When the plant was ripe, the spirits emerged and haunted the living (American Folklore).
Conjure signs involving cotton included: if the cotton boll contained no cotton, it was bad luck. If the cotton boll was yellow, this was also bad luck, particularly if consulted for the future of a marriage. If it was white, this was a good sign. To sleep on cotton in the marriage bed ensured a prosperous union. In the same regard, cotton was considered an aphrodisiac. It was employed as a medicinal herb – when chewed it cured a toothache. When the root was powdered, it brought on miscarriages. In addition, black fishermen carried cotton seed with them and placed it at the edge of the water to lure fish and ensure a good catch (American Folklore).
Conjure was alive and well in Florida by the nineteenth century. Uncle Monday was a runaway slave who took up living with the Seminole tribe on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Uncle Monday was a large man, but more importantly was a powerful conjuror or Obeahman. He could put good or bad spells on people at will and was very much dedicated to saving his people during the Seminole Indian War. When his plans to save his tribe went sour and the battle at Lake Maitland proved a defeat, Uncle Monday transformed into an alligator and retreated into the depths of the water (Palmetto Country).
By the early twentieth century, Florida’s population was forty percent African descent. A folklorist and literary trailblazer emerged during this time – Zora Neale Hurston. Zora grew up in Eatonville, FL and spent part of her life gathering stories from Floridians of African heritage. In her book Mules and Men, Hurston describes “Hoodoo” as a religion brought to America from Africa. She claimed Voodoo is a term white folks use to incorrectly describe Hoodoo. Hurston, in attempt at collecting information on said religion, studied under at least five “two-headed doctors” (called such because these individuals would heal and harm with magical customs). Some of these two-headed doctors were Floridian (Mules and Men).
One Floridian conjure woman took Hurston as an apprentice. In her book, Hurston reveals the doctor’s method of breaking up a couple: writing the couple’s names on papers placed into the heart of a lemon and covered in salt. The lemon was then buried upside down in the couple’s yard where the sun would set on it. Then, Hurston and her teacher entered the couple’s home and sprinkled salt in the corners while chanting a break-up prayer (Great American Folklore).
Other Hoodoo tricks taught to Hurston involved benevolent and malicious magic. Foot track magic was used as a means to send someone away and typically involved throwing materials into the path of the target OR behind where the target had just walked. Rolling an onion behind a target where they just walked by will send them away. Throwing an onion containing a target’s name into running water would also send them running (Great American Folklore).
To stop a man from wandering – write the man and woman’s names on paper 9 times, put it in a bottle of cinnamon and sugar and holy water, then bury it under the back steps. Hurston describes a version of war water, an old Hoodoo trick: put thirteen nails of different sizes into a black bottle with well water, write the enemy’s name thirteen times on a piece of paper and place that in the bottle. Bury the bottle upside down at the enemy’s gate. While Hurston’s war water is buried, other sources claim war water was often thrown at the enemy’s door or front steps in hopes the target would step on the broken glass. Again, a form of foot track magic (Great American Folklore).
In addition to Florida’s colorful history of Native shamanism, Conjure and folk herbalism, it also has a history of Italian, Greek, and German folk magic. The pirates and seafarers who once sailed along the shores also brought their superstitions and beliefs with them to the sunshine state. I’ve also discovered an old way of medicine called Granny midwifery. All of these topics will be discussed in detail in future articles in the Old Florida Folk Magic series.
Vikings. Valhalla. Thor and Odin. I’ll bet you are at least partially familiar with these …August 30, 2023