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24 June 2008 @ 07:12 pm
on chicken foot charms, now and then  
I keep running into statements like this online, ref. Chicken Foot charms: "Used in hoodoo, voodoo, and ceremonial magick for centuries for love, luck and protection."

Bullshit.  That's just utter bullshit.

I've been avoiding posting this for some time now, because I'm just going to have my research ripped off and posted somewhere else without proper attribution, but what do you do.  I figure it's best for the facts to be out there instead of a bunch of speculation.

There is precisely no evidence for chicken foot charms being used in Western Ceremonial Magick that I have been able to find, and I am much more than passingly familiar with Western hermetic traditions, medieval and modern.  So that right there renders the above statement bullshit.

Now, about the voodoo and hoodoo.  Even if you delete the bit about ceremonial magick, the above statement is still problematic.  I take particular issue with the "love and luck" aspects of it.  I'm not trying to say you can't make a chicken foot charm for whatever you darned well please -- you go right ahead, and more power to you -- but don't make centuries-old claims for practices and expect people who know what's what to swallow that hook.

In 1920, Dr. Daniel Lindsey Thomas, an English professor who was the founder of the Kentucky branch of the American Folklore Society, published his collection of folklore recorded in Kentucky [1].  There is a section on "hoodoo," which in this case is used as a verb sometimes with the same sense we would say "someone was crossed" or "someone was conjured," which is to say that "to be hoodooed" is an undesirable thing.  So what you have here is a description of a mojo bag that is assembled with ingredients to do harm to another.  On page 284, the belief reads:

3845. A hoodoo bag is a red flannel bag about six by four
inches in size, containing a pinch of salt, a pod of
red pepper, a rabbit's foot, a chicken spur, and
some ashes. It must be "made in dead o' night widout a spec' o' light."
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that this belief related to the spur from a chicken's foot predates the recording of this recipe.

On the same page, a belief about frizzly roosters is recorded:

3851. Negroes keep chickens with the feathers turned
back the wrong way, to keep away the hoodoos...
Now, I know keeping a frizzly chicken is not the same as making a protection charm with a chicken foot; my point is not that there is One Right Way to do stuff, nor that tricks and recipes don't change over time in response to human life and locales changing.  In any case, one thing going on here is that what is emerging is a tradition of using a chicken itself to scratch up enemy tricks in the yard, or using part of a chicken foot to do harm to another.  Anybody who can find me a source for using them for love or money that is older than twenty years old that furthermore doesn't originate in New Orleans gets a free chicken foot.

Chicken feet are used in Santeria, too, from some reports - I'm not a follower of this religion and I don't know if the reports I read and heard are accurate or not, but that is one contemporary usage.  They may or may not be used for love or money; my sense is that they aren't, but are instead used in protective and combative work on the rare occasions that they are not simply a byproduct of ritual sacrifice.  If they are used at all (feel free to chime in if you know more about Santeria than I do!) it doesn't seem to be for love or money.  Also, as you may have noticed if you have been paying attention, Santeria is not hoodoo is not voodoo is not ceremonial magick, so again, my "bullshit" label still sticks.

I have read a report of someone finding a dried chicken foot hanging from a tree in Spain within the last ten years; this was reported in the popular press.  Since love and luck charms are most often kept in the proximity of the person they're made for or a target of that person, rather than on a tree on public property, my sense here is again that its use is protective or even aggressive (assuming it's not a stunt pulled by a teenager to scare a neighbor.  I mean, at the end of the day, severed chicken feet are pretty creepy looking).

I have heard reports that chicken feet are used in Jamaica to protect from duppies.  I heard this from a collector of lore who wasn't sure where he got it.  The nearest I've been able to find is a mention of chicken feet used for this purpose in a work of fiction, Anne Rivers' 2001 novel Nora, Nora, set in Lytton, Georgia.  The teenage character Peyton has a chicken foot, and explains,

...It's got power, no matter how it looks....  Chickens are powerful carriers in vodun.  That's what they call voodoo in Haiti.  The Cubans have got a slightly different pantheon, but the charms look almost the same.  This chicken foot will absolutely protect you from duppies and were-tigers.  That's probably why you never see them in the South, all those chickens.

I have no idea how to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg, in this case -- or, rather, which came first, fiction or folklore.  And I haven't figured out what a were-tiger is precisely and why it would be afraid of a chicken foot.  In any case, we still have strikes against "centuries," and a fairly unreliable narrator of a work of fiction.  You'll have to ask Anne Rivers where she got her info.  My bet is, a website devoted to New Orleans voodoo.

Now, Google will point you to some websites selling chicken feet.  I'm one of those people who sells them on her website. I learned how to dry them and "fix" them in New Orleans, from a voodoo practitioner there (this would have been about 1994-ish? They enjoyed a period of popularity as car protection charms in New Orleans, most ). It may be "New World" voodoo in terms of dried feet done up as charms; I honestly don't know "how far back" something like that goes. I know that my ritual creation of them is informed by lore about chickens being used to scratch up tricks in the yard. I know that from my childhood in Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida, my family had folk traditions about them that I think are pretty common
around here. One was of the sort of protective variety -- you could bury a chicken foot in the backyard to cure what my
great grandmother called "cholera morbis," which near as I can tell, was a deliberately fancy-sounding term for any number of minor childhood illnesses. I filed that one in the same mental folder as burying the apple for warts and similar tricks -- you "put off" the bad stuff on the item, sometimes by rubbing it on the affected part, and then buried it. (This was the Florida branch of the family). They didn't have any tradition of drying the feet like I do, but they did have a tradition of black chicken feathers, particularly wisks or fans made of them, doing similar protective work around the house (and I always put black chicken feathers on the chicken foot charms I make and sell).

Now, I don't know how much my Catholic great grandmother made up (because she loved to do parlor tricks -- she would do seances and table rapping and mesmerize us and the lights would come up and we'd have ashes all over our faces or something equally shocking) and how much came from "around," so I really can't make any definitive statements,
just tell you where I got the idea from. She did collect other feet as well as dried armadillo shells, and we still do this. We collect feet from various animals on back scratchers (alligator ones are easy to come by) and we have an elaborate family hazing ritual for new friends and significant others that involves pawing them with this dessicated foot and uttering a word that I can't spell in English. (I know I sound facetious but I'm quite serious.  My ten year old daughter does this trick to people, my 90 year old grandmother is too dignified, but her mother taught the trick and she knows about it, and every single one of my first cousins, in six different states, knows the trick too and laughs really loud when someone sneaks up behind them to paw them with the dried foot.  We do it for fun but we got it from my great grandmother.) People who pass the "test" (can take it with a smile) are welcome in the house but they get years of ribbing if they don't pass.  It's also helpful, family-test wise, if you are prepared to share your momma's name, where you went to school, and whether you can make a roux.

From the Louisiana branch came the less protective, more offensive type of beliefs -- if you found severed chicken feet on your front step you had had something put on you (though truthfully, if you found any animal part on your front step it usually meant the same thing. This is the branch of the family that would never cop to any knowledge about how to DO any of this stuff, only how to have the traiteur come and clean it up if it resulted in trouble). That part of the family was also Catholic
until this generation; right now some have converted to Episcopalian due to marriage. I sell some of my chicken feet in this part of Louisiana as well, though these are the ones I don't mojo up -- there is a tradition of associating chickens and their parts with Mardi Gras "donations" to people who go around dressed up in burlap and stuff, and there is also a flamingo tradition associated with Mardi Gras in one area where I have family. Since flamingo feet aren't really easy to come by, the occasional partygoer will buy a hot pink chicken foot decorated with dyed feathers and beads for Mardi Gras wear (this is around Baton Rouge and outlying areas).

I encountered a similar belief about chicken parts in central Alabama, though the parts were more often formerly belonging to cats (the area I was living in had a cat disappearance problem in the early 90s) and entrails seemed to be favored over feet. I don't know what was backwoods lore and what had been imported by college students, but frankly it didn't matter -- having an animal part on your sidewalk or porch worked the head trick every time. I never encountered anything relating chicken feet to protection in central Alabama, only offensive stuff.

So that's my back story on why I make chicken feet, and my speculation on where it might have come from.

Now, onto some contemporary chicken foot usages.  In an article by Katrien Jacobs, which you can read here, she interviews artist Barbara Groves. 

Jacobs: So the success of the performance must have had something to do with those chicken feet. Can you explain that a bit more?

Groves: I grew up in Pass Christian, Mississipi, where from a young age onwards I came in contact with religious catholic mindsets and types of witchcraft and voodoo that seem to follow me around the world. Even when I moved here to Massachusetts, I remained aware of the hidden tradition of Christian culture, which is on the one hand very ornamental and festive yet morally very repressed. I see the signs of voodoo worship almost anywhere I go, and I see the chicken feet as symbol of rejuvenation and revival.
Absolutely fascinating.  However, it does nothing to weaken my original point.

One final bit of interest comes from a (never wildly popular) Libretto written by Francois M. Turenne De Pres in 1948, ostensibly based on Haitian folklore. [2]  One passage, in which the mother of a sick child frantically tries to think of ways to cure her baby, reads,

A dry chicken foot or the horn of a goat From the altar of sacrifice Will stop the death bell and make my baby well (55).
I don't know about you, but this sounds like the author may have taken some liberties.  In any case, while this is the only reference I've ever seen to chicken feet for healing, exactly, we are still a far cry from love or money (assuming we may accept this as a legitimate piece of Haitian folk belief).  You will not, however, convince me that the chicken foot has been used in voodoo for centuries for love and luck.  At best, this character is talking about removing portions of sacrifices from the altars of some loa.  While I have my guess which altars those would be, assuming such a guess is even appropriate, my argument, I believe, still holds water.

As I say on the item listing for my chicken foot charms, the chicken foot is traditionally used in Southern rootwork and "New World Voodoo" (ie, New Orleans Voodoo) for protection with an undercurrent of "scratching back" against those people, entities, or energies that would harm you (not love or money, folks, sorry! Take the rootworker's word for it!) and I create mine in the folk magic and rootwork traditions I was raised and trained in. My family is from Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana, and I live and work in the Southeast, the traditional heart of hoodoo. (I don't mean to imply there are not other makers of Chicken Foot Charms making the real things down here in Gumbo Land, because there are, and I didn't invent them. I'm merely pointing out that some wildly inaccurate information about these charms has recently been propagated, and I encourage you to do your research).

People, doubtless having read other seller's listings for these, keep writing me to ask me to make one for abundance, or love.  Folks, I can customize your attached mojo bag for nearly any circumstance, including abundance or love, but *chicken feet charms are used for protection,* so it's more of a "protection in love" or "protection of resources" type working if you use a chicken foot for it.  (They are actually appropriate for slightly more aggressive forms of magic, but I don't perform that kind of work without prior consultation, and in some cases won't  perform it at all, depending on what it is, so you would need to write me first if you want that done.)  I'm sorry to disappoint, but using a chicken foot for a plain old love spell is like using a hammer to open a bottle of Coke.  Sure, you can do it if you try, but that's not what the tool was designed for, there are already better tools out there designed to do what you want to do, and using the appropriate tools means you get quicker and neater results (fewer shards of glass in your sip of Coca Cola, know what I mean?)

Happy hoodooing,

Karma Zain

***********************

Other tidbits I've gathered since I originally wrote the first draft of this "article" :

Chicken feet used in the films The Deep and Angelheart as general bad signs or ominous objects.

A chicken foot is used in a modern Ogoun nkisi, titled "AN INKISI TO PROTECT YOUNG BLACK MALES 20TH CENTURY AND BEYOND," by artist Renee Stout (take a look - this is astonishing work).

http://scottfredrickson.com/?cat=4I
Chicken feet are used for property protection (and, it seems, protection FROM followers of New Orleans Voodoo), in a story by Scott Fredrickson.  He writes,

I thought Marie Laveau was buried in this graveyard but found that not to be true. As I walked around looking for her grave, I stumbled across the local cemetery historian (alright, a homeless guy who knew the area and was taking some tourists on a tour). He asked me if I wanted to join his tour and I said I only wanted to find Maria Laveau’s grave. He told me she was not buried here and that this was a safe cemetery and that they “didn’t allow no voodoo in this cemetery.” He told the me he had previously gotten a bag of chicken feet from the butcher and lined them up at the two entrances to the cemetery. Since then, there has been no trouble for anyone visiting the cemetery - or so he said.


Nappy Roots member Big V apparently believes in the power of the chicken foot.  Why he wears it is not stated.

Notes on a chicken foot painting.  "Part of the conjure act in August Wilson's first professional play Black Bart and the Sacred Hills; the chicken foot is symbolic of alternate systems of spirituality black people in the New World brought with them and created upon their arrival and commingling with other cultures."

I don't know exactly who this guy is, but his name is Rhondell and he was born in Kentucky.  He says, "In a certain area of the deep South, if a man came out of his house in the morning and saw two crossed chicken feet, feet cut off of a frying chicken, lying crossed on his door step or somewhere on his walkway to the street, the man would be in an utter state of panic because he knows that a black magician is practicing voodoo on him, and he feels that he has no chance because the black magician has marked him out. He is much like a member of the Mafia - he knows there's a contract out on him. 

And last but not least, here's what cat yronwode has to say about black hens

************************

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Kentucky Superstitions.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1920.

[2] Maia, a Libretto on Haitian Folklore
Francois M. Turenne De Pres
Phylon (1940-1956), Vol. 9, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1948), pp. 50-57
 
 
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Bawk: punk rock eggpunkbawkchicken on November 3rd, 2010 07:59 am (UTC)
Interesting stuff! I thought it was kind of odd to have a 'love' charm associated with a chicken foot as it's a rather macabre looking thing (although maybe one could re-interpret it as 'fertility' if it was a hen's foot?)

Anyways, I've been interested in purchasing a chicken foot charm as part of a necklace, and a protection charm would be perfect. how much would you charge for something like that?
(Anonymous) on November 24th, 2010 03:27 am (UTC)
wow.... thank you for sharing, it made my search of what to do with my recently slaughtered turkies' feet much more interesting
(Anonymous) on June 14th, 2011 07:12 pm (UTC)
chicken foot charm for car
I had one of these in the 80s which I kept in my car. I lived in South Central Los Angeles. Nobody ever messed with my car, even as I saw others whose cars were stolen or vandalized. Not sure who made that one but I'd sure love another ;)

It holds such a strong spot in my memory that I hope one day a maker will find me worthy of being taught to make these excellent charms :)
(Anonymous) on February 8th, 2012 07:30 pm (UTC)
rooster leg with feathers & feathers from the tail
There have been 3 occurances near my home first a bag with a dead rooster was found in the alley just outside the gate to my home, then feathers made a path to the door, and yesterday I found a severed roosters leg and a round fan of feathers in front of my sons window. This was placed during the day between 11:00 and 1:00. I'm trying to find out what this means. I'm afraid it is to bring harm and not good. can someone please help me. my email address is gringalatina95020@yahoo.com
Karma Zainkarmazain on February 10th, 2012 06:20 am (UTC)
Re: rooster leg with feathers & feathers from the tail
You should probably get a reading or consultation on the matter to see if there is any need to take cleansing/protective or other measures. Sometimes this sort of thing is teenage/neighborhood prank activity; sometimes it's meant to be malevolent but is not properly deployed with real effect; sometimes it's cause for concern. If your son doesn't know anything about it, I doubt it is meant for his or your prosperity.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )