Last Friday was the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I wrote this post on Friday but didn’t manage to actually, er, post it 🙂 Anyway, that feast is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so familiar a symbol that even non-Catholics tend to recognize it.
Usually pictured as a flaming heart crowned with thorns, and often featuring a cross and a wound and/or droplets of blood, the Sacred Heart is a symbol of Jesus’ patient and eternal love and compassion for humanity. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is often practiced to obtain grace, mercy, a peaceful home, consolation in grief, blessings, compassion, and greater depth of faith.
It is related to, but not identical with, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, usually pictured as a heart surmounted with flowers and pierced by a sword.
There’s also a whole “genre” of workings in the hoodoo rootwork tradition that operate under the aegis of the Sacred Heart, often to do with reconciliation or peace between cohabitating or married couples. But practitioners in the folk Catholic tradition have petitioned the Sacred Heart over the years for any number of things: to soften the heart of someone they want to influence, like a landlord or boss; to bless children; to return a lover; even for gambling luck.
The Sacred Heart Saint of the Month box for June will come with a short booklet containing history, prayers, spells, and recommendations for working with the Sacred Heart in the folk Catholic and Catholic conjure traditions. I do not believe there’s anything like it currently available in print.
Whether you’re just starting to learn about saints and spirits in the hoodoo rootwork tradition or you’ve been working with them for years, I strive to delight you with something new and covetable to add to your collection with every box.
Since I’ve been working with saints and spirits my entire life, and since I later went on to spend the better part of a decade in grad school studying medieval and early modern traditions around, and portrayals of, saints, I usually do manage to come up with something you haven’t seen before to add to your devotional practices. I have got some pretty neat stuff squirreled away (some pretty weird stuff too).
Standard box includes, at a minimum, a bottle of oil, a candle, a holy card or mini prayer booklet, brief history/recommendations for working with the saint or spirit, and a charm, medal, or curio.
Deluxe box includes, at a minimum, a bottle of oil, a fixed, blessed, dressed, and decorated vigil candle, a holy card or mini prayer booklet, brief history and recommendations for working with the saint or spirit, and a handmade chaplet, rosary, or necklace.
Praise for Saint of the Month Boxes
I wanted to say how much I loved the St. Expedite Saint of the Month box! I was completely wowed when I opened it and saw everything inside, especially the beautifully decorated vigil light and the lovely bag with the chaplet inside. It’s a lovely piece and clearly well-made. The booklet on St. Expedite was very helpful, especially considering I am new to working with saints now much confusing and conflicting information there is online about St. Expedite. The only thing I can’t figure out is, am I really supposed to burn this candle? It’s so pretty!
– E.S. 2022
You are supposed to burn the candle, yes! But you can use it as a vase for flower offerings or to hold other materials on your altar once the candle has burned out, if you like!
Please note that items in deluxe kits, such as jewelry, rosaries, and decorated candles, are one of a kind and hand-made upon order, so don’t expect them to ship in a day or two.
This one of a kind chaplet bracelet is handmade with 5mm ruby red glass beads, an ornate crucifix with a bronze-toned antiqued patina imported from Italy, a chain extension and lobster clasp if you want to wear it or secure it around a statue or rearview mirror, and a holy medal of St. Michael handpainted in bright and durable enamels.
The saintly protector par excellence, Michael is called on to defend against dangers both spiritual and physical and from enemies both known and unknown.
Unclasped, this chaplet’s length from end to end is 8.75″. Will fit a 7.5″ wrist, but I’m happy to customize it if you need it shorter or longer. (Just allow a few extra days handling, please!) Medal measures 1″.
This style of chaplet is called a “niner” and is a popular and very portable way of doing a novena for a saint, of keeping your prayer beads close to hand when you’re traveling or need to be more discreet than a full-size rosary might allow, or of having a set of prayer beads the perfect size for wearing as a bracelet or keeping on your car’s rearview mirror or the door knob of your room or home.
One way of praying with a niner chaplet is to call on the saint’s aid on the medal, pray the Our Father x3, the Hail Mary x3, and the Glory Be x3 on the beads, and then the Apostle’s Creed on the crucifix.
From World Religions and Spirituality Project, here’s an interview with Manon Hedenborg White, author of The Eloquent Blood: The Goddess Babalon and the Construction of Femininities in Western Esotericism (Oxford University Press, 2020) and co-author with Fredrik Gregorius of “The Scythe and the Pentagram: Santa Muerte from Folk Catholicism to Occultism” (Religions 8:1, 2017). I think a few different segments of folks who wander by here might find this worth a look.
I had originally inteded to stop this blog post at the above.
But the Santa Muerte article in the journal Religions is open-source, available in PDF format from MDPI under a Creative Commons Attribution (CCBY) license. I read it, and I have some problems with it. Fair warning: the rest of what I say here is going to presume you’ve read it. I don’t have time to summarize it right now.
I have read Conjureman Ali’s book on Santa Muerte and have recommended it to clients, remarking to a client recently that he and I appear to have been taught quite similarly and during roughly the same time period (which was 20 years ago now). And I’ve begun to address this issue of “the trappings of Catholicism” in Santa Muerte’s devotion elsewhere (though I still haven’t finished part 2 of that article). I don’t have time right now to fully engage all of Hedenborg White’s and Gregorius’s analysis, and I do get that this is an academic work and sets out to do a certain job within a certain framework and for a certain audience, so of course it’s not going to be as fully nuanced in every area as every reader in every potential audience would like – I’m not trying to review something according to criteria it never set out to meet in the first place.
But I do want to return to this – and I will when I finish part 2 of the article – to more fully contextualize the milieu here and why writers/workers like Conjureman Ali emphasize not throwing out the traditional. And this is going to involve complicating what I as a folk-Catholic hoodoo rootworker and educator perceive to be the authors’ oversimplistic operative categories, viz. “Anglo-American occultists.” This is far, far too broad a brush, and addressing it is going to involve addressing not just Christianity in Anglo-American occulture but specifically Catholicism in Anglo-American occulture — among other things, about which more below — which is something that most writers on these things have tended to get wrong at least some of the time (when they haven’t just tossed the whole thing out the window to begin with).
So there are *multiple* audiences, so to speak, within what they are calling Anglo-American occultists. There is not a single “mainstream culture” in the way that she’s framing it on p. 12, one that Conjureman Ali occupies alongside Sophia diGrigorio and Tomas Prower. And Conjureman Ali’s work (quite deftly, I think) manages to speak to a segment of it that hasn’t historically been spoken to directly all that often when we’re talking about the world of mass-market occult publishing, i.e. stuff that your average American can easily get their hands on.
Hadean Press is good about this, in fact, speaking more broadly beyond just this booklet, and I’m sorry I was late to the party finding out about them due to living under a rock for a few years. But the article’s authors collapse Ali’s motivations and subject positions as a hoodoo rootworker (an Afro-American tradition) and practitioner of Quimbanda (an Afro-Brazilian tradition) into a simple manifestation of the larger statement of intent by Hadean Press on their Guides to the Underworld series of pamphlets, which is honestly just a little sloppy in terms of scholarship. Part of what they’re missing is that people who have historically not had a voice in these arenas and who have had their religions and folkways misrepresented, even demonized, when they aren’t being yanked wholesale out of context and appropriated for a different kind of misrepresentation (one that pads Llewellyn’s pockets while infants in Haiti die of freakin’ dysentery, which nobody in the 21st century should have to die of) – some of these people are now finding platforms in some cases. Sometimes these platforms are even the same ones that have tended to contribute to the very misrepresentation that is so significant here, like mainstream publishers of occult works (though we are still a very long way away from perfection on that front – but any change in the right direction is noteworthy, even if it’s still very little and oh so late in coming). So we really need to complicate any underlying assumptions that everybody being published by a given publisher is toeing the same line.
Who gets to talk about this stuff, who gets to be read, who has a platform – this has been changing dramatically and rapidly. And if you’re talking about folk Catholicism, you have to engage the ways in which Catholics have been crowded out of that conversation in occult circles and how fundamental the misunderstandings are that that can produce. And then of course there’s hardly a single Catholic identity either, and folk Catholicism will certainly have different “flavors” or “textures” in different cultures, even Catholic cultures.
It’s true that Ali didn’t fully elucidate the ontology of modern Mexican Catholicism for an audience of non-Mexican non-Catholics – that would be a pretty tall order for what set out to be a slender pamphlet. But one thing to consider is that Santa Muerte isn’t a passive non-agent here. She might not be able to make a dent in the likes of the very dyed-in-the-wool “all gods are really one god” types who don’t see any problem with their entire spiritual life being a mix-and-match buffet, but that’s hardly every “consumer” of works like this, and she can and will effect changes in her devotees over time. And the *numerous* devotees and practitioners who are thrilled to see more available works on folk belief and religion written by actual practitioners from other-than-mainstream-pagan perspectives, who have been frustrated with what mainstream publishing has tended to make available — they often ultimately find that there’s more to the Catholicism as operative in her cult than just “trappings” or “window dressing.”
While it’s true that some people do rip her out of a Mexican and Catholic worldview, it’s also true that Santa Muerte invites many people *into* a Mexican and Catholic worldview – or at least opens those doors in productive ways that aren’t always about a thin veneer of political correctness or whatever. I mean, first-generation Mexican-Americans already have a different relationship to “Mexican Catholic culture” than their parents who were born in Mexico. None of this is monolithic or inflexible – it’s a lived religion, and it’s way more complex than just what’s officially on the website of the local archdiocese, or the Vatican, or whatever replaced the Baltimore Catechism. What’s out there, what’s published, doesn’t give you a well-rounded view of *who practitioners and devotees actually are.*
It also doesn’t elucidate the extent to which rootwork is so different to some strains of modern neopaganism insofar as *it really matters what dirt something grew in,* so it really matters that you come to understand that dirt when you work with the roots that grew in it, or how the spirits of the roots are also active agents in this whole energetic system, not just dead objects we move around that have power only insofar as we attribute it to them.
And it doesn’t account for the possibility that one can start out with a fairly nebulous vaguely witchy or vaguely occult-curious perspective and ultimately develop quite a different practice or even devotion over time. And when it comes to budding Anglo Muertistas, all roads do NOT lead to Llewellyn and paganism and armchair Goetic philosophy. Sometimes, some roads lead straight to the Catholic church. And of course there are all kinds of stops in between.
Basically, if we’re going to talk about Anglo-American occultism, we have to talk about Anglo-American occult publishing, which means we have to talk about representation and access to platforms and race and ethnicity and class and language and religion — ’cause for fuck’s sake, not everybody in the “Anglo-American occultist audience” is a pagan or flatly unreligious, and not every consumer of occultist works in North America is Anglo-American.
But this article fails to even imagine the complexity and diversity and thus motivations of some of the operative audiences, plural, here, and how some of them are part of a larger “speaking back” to what “mainstream culture” has tended to produce, both in terms of academic scholarship on magic and religion and in terms of mass-market works on “the occult” (yes, those are scarequotes). And such an understanding would provide a much more accurate and nuanced view of where Conjureman Ali is coming from and what he’s doing than the article exhibits.
Again, I know this article set out to address a fairly specific question and that what I’m raising would require a different article altogether to address, but given that it claims to examine “what these books reveal about the contemporary occult milieu” (4), I do think mine is a valid critique, or will be once I actually make the argument, because the article’s analysis really just fails to understand the contemporary occult milieu.
To be continued.
Postscript: As unlikely as it seems, it’s happened before, so in case the authors do stumble upon this blog post, let me say this is absolutely not personal, and I recognize at least some of the constraints you’re facing and the challenges of doing scholarship like this at all – and I’m glad you’re doing it despite the challenges and the fact that somebody is always going to want you to have written a different article than the one you wrote. I’m engaging here because I think it’s important work and an important conversation, and I believe that some of the most exciting stuff to happen in “the occult world” in ages is happening in large part because the gap between theory and praxis, between scholar and practitioner, is being bridged in new ways, and we’re seeing the results of that both in the academic efforts towards open source scholarship that exist and in occult publishing, which I seem to see in a drastically different light than y’all do 🙂
Modern trends in occult publishing may be packaging Mexican spirituality for the Anglo American occultist… but they might also be opening doors where the guy doing doctoral work on the Spanish grimoire tradition can have a Facebook conversation with a tech-savvy modern curandera, and holy cow, a native Spanish speaker not affiliated with a university can now publish an English-language work on Santa Muerte that is available in the mass market, and boy did we not have that 20 years ago! I love the gap-bridging and the conversations, and they don’t happen without goodwill – so please understand I have goodwill here.
I very frequently see folks online say things like this: “Though technically speaking Archangel Michael is not a Saint [sic], sometimes this entity is venerated as one.”
I’m not linking to the source for that because my goal is not to single anyone out for being wrong. Thing is, this is not an uncommon misperception. It’s pretty easy to find multiple websites and blogs that say something to this effect – even those of folks who are otherwise pretty well-versed in folk religion and/or folk magic. If this were just a couple of blogs and not a pretty widespread point of confusion and error, I wouldn’t be going to the trouble to write about it.
I get that not everybody comes from a Catholic background. But if you’re going to write about saints in the context of hoodoo and folk religion, you should do your research before you make assertions. And if you do your research, you’ll see that in a hoodoo context, when you’re talking about saints, you’re nearly always talking about the definition of saint as used by the Catholic Church.
Some Protestant branches define a saint as basically anyone who is a Christian, a member of the body of Christ by virtue of being a member of the church. Others use the term to designate someone who is “born again” and/or someone who has been baptized (at least into their particular branch of Christianity). Some reserve the term mostly to refer to widely recognized holy figures, such as the biblical patriarchs or those who were martyred for their adherence to the Christian faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints considers its members to be saints (but not the members of other churches).
But those are obviously not the operant definitions in traditional hoodoo. While the overwhelming majority of hoodoo practitioners historically have been Protestant Christians, there were always little geographical and cultural pockets of Catholicism (and folk Catholicism), and when rootworkers talk about working with saints, a quick survey of those saints and an understanding of the context in which they are petitioned make it clear that we’re talking about an understanding of sainthood from a Catholic perspective. We aren’t just talking about the biblical patriarchs and your very pious great aunt Emma, who is obviously a vibrant and committed member of the Body of Christ and brings the best potato salad in three states to the church picnic but is obviously not who you light a candle for on a few consecutive Tuesdays when you’re asking for her help.
Non-Catholic folks tend to think of saints as formerly living humans, maybe ones who led especially holy or exemplary lives, maybe performed a few miracles and now hang out in heaven doing various odd jobs for God and letting us bend their ears occasionally when we petition them. But that’s not how it works in Catholic ontology. According to the Roman Catholic Church, to put it as simply as possible, a saint is basically someone who’s in heaven, or to put it another way, if you’re in heaven, you’re a saint. But the actual fabric underlying all of this stuff is just a little more complicated. You can read more about it at the Catholic Encyclopedia, but it’s a concept called the communion of saints:
The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption…
So you’re part of the communion of saints, the mystical body of Christ, even while you’re still living and even if you’re not quite living perfectly. This isn’t exactly the same thing as being an actual confirmed saint, but you have the potential, and as long as you can stay out of hell, you’ll keep that potential. After you undergo “purification” (or “remedial training” or “detention” or however you want to see Purgatory), then you’ll head to heaven to join the actual community of saints. In other words, as long as you don’t do something that goes down on the Big Permanent Record and lands you in hell, all roads lead to heaven eventually. So you are part of this spiritual economy and you can pray, receive blessings, ask forgiveness, ask a saint to intercede for you, say prayers for the souls of your ancestors, etc. More on this spiritual economy in a moment, but the key point now is that all of these spiritual actions have spiritual results, so things can always change. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.
To paraphrase from later on that same linked webpage, then, saints are basically those who are in fellowship with God the Father and Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Scholastic philosopher and foremost theologian of the Catholic Church, who was known as the Angelic Doctor and the Angel of the Schools , writes in Summa Theologiae III:8:4:
Where there is one body we must allow that there is one head. Now a multitude ordained to one end, with distinct acts and duties, may be metaphorically called one body. But it is manifest that both men and angels are ordained to one end, which is the glory of the Divine fruition. Hence the mystical body of the Church consists not only of men but of angels. Now of all this multitude Christ is the Head, since He is nearer God, and shares His gifts more fully, not only than man, but even than angels; and of His influence not only men but even angels partake, since it is written (Ephesians 1:20-22): that God the Father set “Him,” namely Christ, “on His right hand in the heavenly places, above all Principality and Power and Virtue and Dominion and every name that is named not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. And He hath subjected all things under His feet.” Therefore Christ is not only the Head of men, but of angels. Hence we read (Matthew 4:11) that “angels came and ministered to Him.”
So the angels, at least the ones who didn’t rebel, are members of the communion of saints, which the Catholic Church characterizes in that linked article as “that reciprocal action of the saints, that corporate circulation of spiritual blessings through the members of the same family, that domesticity and saintly citizenship.” They are under Christ’s power and thus receive his grace, so they’re part of this same spiritual economy that the living and the dead are active participants in. Yes, the dead, which is another big difference between Catholicism and Protestantism and is probably another blog post… but yes, your prayers can help your dead reprobate uncle Joe who’s doing time in Purgatory. And your saintly Grandmother Bosworth, who worked her fingers to the bone and never deserved any of the grief that Joe brought her and who is hanging out in heaven with the other saintly grandmothers, well, she can help you, too, with *her* prayers.
And angels, some of whom Grandmother Bosworth is doubtless rubbing shoulders with at the right hand of God — or at least in a pastoral courtyard just cattycorner to the right arm of God’s comfy chair, but don’t nitpick Grandmother Bosworth! — can hear us and help us. They are part of this same system of reciprocity that extends beyond the borders of life and corporeality, the same spiritual economy in which we might petition a saint and promise a certain “payment” or offering in return, in which working with graveyard dirt or ancestors is not seen as “disturbing the rest of the departed” at all. That idea is totally alien to a Catholic worldview. The dead aren’t gone in the sense of being beyond our ability to interact with in any meaningful way. Grandmother Bosworth is still your grandmother and she’s listening. She made the transition to the afterlife with her personality intact, as it were — her memories and willpower and agency. She can choose to help you (or choose not to, if you’re taking after Uncle Joe).
And so with angels. They are our guardians on this earthly plane. Angels guide individuals (Genesis 28-29, Exodus 32-34, Tobias 4 ff), a chosen people (Exodus 12:13), even a specific geographical region (Deuteronomy 32). And they can serve as psychopomps when we’re leaving it, leading us past the snares of the devil and the gaping mouth of hell so we can make our way to heaven – assuming that’s where we’re headed. 
Now that’s not to say they’re all sweetness and light or they have the same tolerance for your bullshit that Grandmother Bosworth does. Don’t waste an angel’s time whining and don’t make the mistake of thinking they are all hanging around looking like Precious Moments figurines worrying about your love life or your chakras. There’s a reason angels who show up in the Bible often start off with “Don’t be afraid.”
But in the Catholic conception of the communion of saints, angels are 100% active participants and on the same team. And they are absolutely saints.
So yes, St. Michael IS a saint. And an angel. At the same time. The angels who did not rebel are all members of the mystical body of the Church and the communion of saints. People who say otherwise but claim to be talking about hoodoo just don’t have the slightest idea what they’re even talking about and didn’t bother to do their research before they opened their mouths. But the bottom line is that St. Michael can be both a saint and an angel because the Roman Catholic definition of a saint is not the same as the kinda vague concept of sainthood that is floating around in culture more broadly.
And so this in turn should help you see how folk saints fit into all of this – figures who have *not* been formally recognized or canonized by the Catholic church but who are nonetheless venerated by the faithful and seen to have an ability and willingness to respond to the petitions or prayers of the faithful.
That’s how there can be so many darned saints and the Catholic Church doesn’t even pretend that there’s a list anywhere of all of them — because the Church does not *make* saints or grant that status to people or entities. In beatification and canonization, the Church merely formally recognizes the status of sainthood that that person has already attained whether we knew about it or not, and outlines the proper observance of their veneration by the faithful. So there are tons of saints that aren’t formally recognized by the Church with their own feast day or series of statues or whatever. And among the forgotten virgin martyrs and the soldiers of Christ whose names we never knew, we also have figures of folkloric status, both human and not, who are also very active participants in their devotees’ lives: Santa Muerte, Jesus Malverde, Yevgeny Rodionov, Marie Laveau.
Maybe even your pious great aunt Emma one day. Patron saint of the perfect picnic potato salad.
Read more about St. Michael in folklore and vernacular religion, from medieval Ireland through to 20th century Louisiana, at Big Lucky Hoodoo.
But please let all this serve for now just to demonstrate the extent to which God’s creation, and by extension the various available modes and categories of being, are much more complex and dynamic and perhaps even unruly from a Catholic perspective than a non-Catholic might be prepared to appreciate without dropping some highly problematic assumptions and doing some serious digging. So don’t listen to ignorant people talking about the saints, not even if they’re generally well-informed on other aspects of magic or mysticism or religion. There are a lot of folks out there holding forth about saints and angels and who’ve set themselves up as experts who don’t actually know what the hell they’re talking about, not to put too fine a point on it.
 This has always been one of St. Michael’s preeminent roles, in fact. Here’s an 11th century prayer to St. Michael that is fairly typical of its ilk:
I therefore beseech and entreat, archangel Saint Michael, that you [who know those of the accepted souls to be received] deign to take up my soul when it leaves my body and free it from the power of the enemy, so that it may bypass the gates of hell and the ways of darkness, and the lion or dragon who is accustomed to receive souls in hell and lead them to eternal torments may not obstruct it.
(Te ergo supplico et deprecer sancte michael archangele qui ad animas accepiendas accepisti postestatem ut animam meam suscipere digneris quando de corpere meo erit egressa et libera eam de potestate inimici ut pertransive possit portas infernorum et vias tenebrarum ut non se deponat leo vel draco qui conseutus est animas in inferno recipere et ad aeterna tormenta perducere.)
Quoted from Oxford Bodleian Library MS Douce 296, fol. 122v, cited in Kathleen Openshaw, “The Battle between Christ and Satan in the Tiberius Psalter,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 52 (1989):14-33. Translation is mostly Openshaw excepting the bracketed segment, which she did not translate, so if it’s messed up, it’s my fault.