Across the street from Lake Merritt, a small group gathers around a wooden table, writing on playing cards. A man called Briar instructs his students to write “KEEP ME SAFE” in all caps across the top of their cards. Every card is a King of Clubs, and the group uses the K’s on the cards as the first letter of the phrase. Briar passes around a jar filled with dirt from a soldier’s grave, which his students place on the cards along with drops of specialty oils that Briar says have magical properties.
Briar reads the entirety of Psalm 44 from the Bible—”You afflicted the peoples and cast them out, for they did not gain possession of the land by their own sword”—and passes his King of Clubs across a candle’s burning flame. For the final step (his own personal touch, he says) he takes a pin and weaves it through the card, giving the king a sword. The cards can be kept on a practitioner’s person, in their car or work desk or anywhere else they think they may need them in order to stave off danger.
Where the members of the group keep their cards is up to them, he says: “I’m going to take mine and I’m going to tack it up right over my front door.”
Briar, whose real name is Rowan Rivers, leads hoodoo classes once a month at the Sacred Well in downtown Oakland. Hoodoo, also known as Conjure or Rootwork, is an African-American spiritual tradition of folk magic. The word can function as a noun, a verb or an adjective, referring to the art itself, a practitioner of the art, or the act of casting a spell. Spells are meant for everything from attracting a romantic partner to obtaining financial success.
“The thing, the anchor for most people, is when you cast a spell and it works. And then you’re sort of hooked,” Rivers said.
Rivers described the first time he experienced a spell that worked. “I think it was a finding spell. I wanted to find a piece of wood to make a wand, and I had done one one night,” he said. “And then the next morning on my way to class, someone was like, ‘Oh, I found this fallen branch, and it reminded me of you and I thought to give it to you.’ And it was the perfect size and length and everything.”
The Sacred Well is a magic and spirituality shop, one of several in the Bay Area. It sells powders, candles, books, potions, oils and a dizzying array of gemstones and crystals, some carved into daggers. Visitors to the Sacred Well can also find experts in numerology, energy healing, herbalism and astrology. The store also contains temples to Aphrodite, Hecate, Dionysus and (perhaps appropriately for a place that features spells that use graveyard dirt) the Mexican deity of death, Santa Muerte.
Rivers, who also offers Tarot readings and Reiki sessions and describes himself in an online bio on the store’s website as “a queer Filipino-Irish artist, oracle, Reiki Master, priestx, and witch,”
also works at two other “witch shops” (in Rivers’ words) in the Bay Area, the Mystic Dream in Walnut Creek and Lucky Mojo in Forestville. Lucky Mojo is primarily a hoodoo shop, Rivers said, which is where he learned the art. Hoodoo is similar to voodoo, Rivers said, but whereas voodoo springs from African spiritual traditions blending with Catholicism, hoodoo comes from a mixture of African religion and Protestantism.
Hoodoo and voodoo share several traits as belief systems, and both run deeper than just the casting of spells. Practitioners of both traditions believe in the importance of ancestors, and both believe in a God who created the world as well as other, lesser, deities. Both traditions also place strong importance on the Christian Bible. Voodoo incorporates African deities, known as “Orishas” or “Loas” or a variety of other names depending on their region of origin and spiritual tradition.
“When slaves were being forced over from Africa, they brought with them a lot of their spiritual beliefs, from various regions in Africa. And wherever they landed, they would find ways to incorporate those spiritual [traditions], to continue practicing them,” Rivers said. “But they had to do it usually under Christian supervision. So in most places that were Spanish or French, they were Catholic. And so they could mask their Orisha or their Loa or their gods behind the Catholic saints. And that’s where you see voodoo, that’s where you see Santería, Palo, Macumba, Lucumi,” which are all the results of intermixing Catholicism with traditional African beliefs.
“But in America, there was very little Catholic influence,” Rivers continued. “And since there were no saints for the gods to hide behind, what was left was the folk magic. And that’s hoodoo.”
Rivers said that protection spells, of the kind he taught the class to perform using playing cards, are in high demand since President Donald Trump’s election. “Working at a spiritual supply store, we do see a lot of people coming in here since the most recent election looking for protection, so that’s a very common one,” Rivers said.
Hoodoo has a wide variety of uses beyond protection spells, according to Rivers. “You can use hoodoo to keep you and your partner from quarrelling, you can use hoodoo to get your boss to pay you, to get a job interview,” he said.
Rivers said that, since his ancestors are not from Africa and did not practice hoodoo, it’s extremely important to treat the tradition with respect and portray it accurately.
“Specifically as a white person, it’s very important for me that when I’m teaching that I am acknowledging that this is a tradition that I was invited into and that I’ve learned from. This is not a tradition I’ve inherited,” he said. “So I try to be very respectful when I’m communicating that and making sure that I am passing it along as I received it and I am not misrepresenting the tradition.”
Kevin Wong said he travelled from San Francisco to Oakland to attend Rivers’ class. “I have this neighbor who’s a little crazy, who I suspect to be a drug dealer, who makes noise all the time. So that’s what I was thinking of in terms of protection tonight,” he said.
Magic has worked for Wong before, he said, though it wasn’t specifically hoodoo. He performed a candle spell hoping to attract interest from a person he was romantically interested in, and immediately after completing the spell, the person called him.
“That was just bizarre,” Wong said. “After knowing someone for a year, and getting a phone call out of the blue.”