John the Conqueror
John the Conqueroo, also known as High John the Conqueroo, John the Conqueror, or John the Conquer root, refers to a number of roots to which magical powers are ascribed in American folklore, especially among the hoodoo tradition of folk magic among African Americans. The root, in turn, is named after a folk hero called High John the Conqueror.
The root and its magical uses are mentioned in a number of blues lyrics. Regardless of which name is used, in all of these contexts "conqueror" is invariably pronounced "conker".
Who is John the Conqueror?
John the Conqueror was an African prince who was sold as a slave in the Americas. Despite his enslavement, his spirit was never broken and he survived in folklore as a sort of a trickster figure, because of the tricks he played to evade his masters. Zora Neale Hurston wrote of his adventures ("High John de Conquer") in her collection of folklore, The Sanctified Church.
In one traditional John the Conqueror story told by Virginia Hamilton, John falls in love with the Devil's daughter. The Devil sets John a number of impossible tasks: he must clear sixty acres (25 ha) of land in half a day, and then sow and reap the sixty acres with corn in the other half a day. The Devil's daughter furnishes John with a magical axe and plow that get these impossible tasks done, but warns John that her father the Devil means to kill him even if he performs them. John and the Devil's daughter steal the Devil's own horses; the Devil pursues them, but they escape his clutches by shape-shifting.
What is John the Conquer root?
The root known as High John the Conqueror is (supposed to be) the root of Ipomoea jalapa, an Ipomoea species related to the morning glory and the sweet potato. The plant is known in some areas as bindweed or jalap root. It has a pleasant, earthy odour, but it is a strong laxative if taken internally. It is not used for this purpose in folk magic; it is instead used as one of the parts of a mojo bag. It is typically used in sexual spells of various sorts and it is also considered lucky for gambling. It is likely that the root acquired its sexual magical reputation because, when dried, it resembles the testicles of a dark-skinned man. Because of this, when it is employed as an amulet, it is important that the root used be whole and unblemished. Dried pieces and chips of the root are used in formulating oils and washes that are used in other sorts of spells.
Cecil Adams has claimed that John the Conquer root is the root of St. John's wort; however, according to cat yronwode, Cecil Adams is mistaken. St. John's wort root is thin and thread-like root, while John the Conquer root is a tuber. As the blues lyrics below make clear, John the Conquer root is carried by the user, and the spell is cast by rubbing the root, which could not be done with fine root-hairs.
Other roots are linked to the same body of legends.
Low John is the root of the trillium or wake-robin, Trillium grandiflorum. It is carried on the person for assistance in family matters. It is also known as Dixie John or Southern John, and additionally is the basis for a hoodoo formula called Dixie Love Oil.
"Chewing John" is galangal, Alpinia galanga -- a member of the ginger family. This is chewed much as chewing tobacco is chewed, to sweeten the breath and to calm the stomach. It is said that if you spit the juice from chewing this root onto the floor of a courtroom before the judge enters, you will win your case. Other names for this root are Little John and Little John to Chew. (This is called "Low John" in the Deep South.)
The magic of John the Conqueroo became known beyond the circle of African American hoodoo practitioners by being mentioned in a number of well known blues lyrics.
In 1961 Willie Dixon wrote a song called "Rub My Root" and in 1964 it was recorded by Muddy Waters under the title "My John the Conquer Root." The first verse goes:
- My pistol may snap, my mojo is frail
But I rub my root, my luck will never fail
When I rub my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain't nothin' she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root
In 1954, Muddy Waters recorded a very popular version of Willie Dixon's "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" song with an additional verse mentioning John the Conquer root:
- I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too,
I got a John the Conquer root, I'm gonna mess with you,
I'm gonna make you girls lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know the hoochie coochie man.
In 1955, Bo Diddley wrote and released "I'm A Man" with the following verse:
- I goin' back down,
To Kansas to
Bring back the second cousin,
Little John the conqueroo.
In 1971, Dr John (Mac Rebennack) recorded a song called 'Black John the Conqueror' on his 'Sun Moon & Herbs' album which describes some of the legends surrounding the folk hero and as well as the powers of the herb.
- Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic by catherine yronwode. ISBN 0-9719612-0-4
- The Sanctified Church by Zora Neale Hurston. ISBN 0-913666-44-0
- Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston. ISBN 0-06-091648-6
- Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and Commerce by Carolyn Morrow Long. ISBN 1-57233-110-0
- Deep Blues (1991). Directed by Robert Mugge.
- Angel Heart (1987). Directed by Alan Parker.