In Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, after attempting to sell Monisha a bag of luck and being rejected by her husband Ned, the conjuror Zodzetrick starts to leave the stage. Ned exits the stage, and Monisha enters their cabin. In what a hoodoo-believer would see as a dangerous move, Ned and Monisha's eighteen-year-old adopted daughter Treemonisha politely confronts the "king of Goofer dust land":
Wait, sir, for a few moments stay,
In a parenthetical stage direction following Treemonisha's request, Joplin further reveals his knowledge of hoodoo traditions. Before speaking, Zodzetrick “marks a cross on the ground, spits on it and turns back.”
In part, this gesture threatens Treemonisha. “Crossing” someone is one of hoodoo’s simplest ways of casting an evil spell. In the Journal of American Folklore (JAFL), Henry C. Davis explains that a spell, or goofer, may be placed upon an enemy "by adding a mark or cross-mark on the ground and spitting in or near it” (27:105, July-Sept. 1914) Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchraft-Rootwork (HCWR) records a hoodoo believer’s description of crossing: “[D]at’s a cross, “X,” –like yo’ see, made dat in de ground yo’ see, de image of it in de ground an’ you leave it stay there” (III, 1968). According to Donald J. Waters’ Strange Ways and Sweet Dreams: Afro-American Folklore from the Hampton Institute, one informant for the Hampton folklore project spoke of having witnessed a boy and a girl laugh at a passing conjure woman who subsequently “spit on the ground and then crossed it.” Allegedly, the conjure woman’s spell “came to pass just as she said it would.” If the conjuror could not perform this ritual directly in front of the rival, he or she could also draw the cross mark on a path leading to the rival’s house (JAFL , 14:54, July-Sept. 1901). This belief probably explains why the Ku Klux Klan sometimes made cross marks on doors (HCWR, III, 2113, 2134). After being “crossed,” superstitious residents fearing a hoodoo were likely to flee the area.
Several scholars help us to understand the historical and religious context of crossing. Jeffrey E. Anderson, in Conjure in African American Society, writes, “Throughout the South, cross marks (X) were powerful protective symbols. Archaeologists have discovered them on colonial pottery shards from South Carolina. Derived from a cruciform Kongo symbol for the cosmos and continuity of life, they have sometimes also adorned African American graves.” In Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson, Yale historian of African and African American Art, draws on the work of Haverford anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey to describe this cross-mark as “the point of intersection between the ancestors and the living”—thus, the point of communication between two worlds. Thompson also differentiates what he calls the Kongo cruciform from the familiar Christian cross:
This is the simplest manifestation of the Kongo cruciform, a sacred ‘point’ on which a person stands to make an oath, on the ground of the dead and under all-seeing God. . . . The Kongo Yowa cross does not signify the crucifixion of Jesus for the salvation of mankind; it signifies the equally compelling vision of the circular motion of human souls about the circumference of its intersecting lines. The Kongo cross refers therefore to the everlasting continuity of all righteous men and women.
In hoodoo tradition, a crossroads—another intersection between the spiritual and the living worlds-- serves the same function and is often spoken of as the place to go in search of contact with the spirit world, for instance when wanting supernatural aid to strengthen a skill. This belief led to the widely-known folk legend of blues singer Robert Johnson’s selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in exchange for his guitar-playing ability. However, because the cross mark could be drawn anywhere, its portability made it a more convenient spot for performing a hoodoo.
By making the cross mark, Joplin’s Zodzetrick can be viewed as invoking the judgment of the living and the dead upon Treemonisha, the young woman who dares criticize him.
Although Zodzetrick’s actions could cast an evil spell on the opera’s heroine, they could also serve as self-protection. As Jeffrey Anderson points out in Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Conjure: A Handbook, to prevent adversaries from following them, conjurors and other hoodoo believers spit on cross marks they draw along their paths. ”You cross, prevent his [your enemy’s] work,” writes Hyatt (HCWR, III, 2026). While this was a common belief and another logical hoodoo for Zodzetrick to carry out, Joplin might have had yet another superstition in mind. Fanny D. Bergen reveals that “in Alabama to spit on a cross-mark exorcises the ill luck consequent on turning back from a journey” (JAFL, 12: 44, Jan.-Mar. 1899). Writing about neighboring Georgia, Roland Steiner expands on Bergen’s remarks: “When a negro is going from you, and you call him, making it necessary for him to retrace his steps, he will make a cross-mark X in the path and spit on it for good luck” (JAFL, 12:47, Oct.-Dec. 1899). This is precisely what happens in Joplin’s opera when Treemonisha calls out to Zodzetrick, asking him to stay.
According to one of Hyatt’s informants, the simple act of crossing could quickly reverse the bad luck brought on by turning back: “It shore a sign of bad luck, if yo’ goin’ some place an’ dere’s some reason fo’ you’ tuh turn roun’,” but by making a cross mark and spitting in it, “why dere’s nuthin to it” (HCWR, I, 401).
With Zodzetrick’s spitting on the cross mark in Treemonisha and the recurrent references to the same action in folklore resources, we have to wonder how spitting contributed to the spiritual ritual. Most people today would regard public spitting as defiant, insulting, or simply low class. Although I have not located any scholarly source that clearly explains the reason for spitting as a hoodoo practice, online hoodoo sources explain it as a means of infusing life into a spell and as a means of dominating or controlling an enemy.
The first explanation suits Mary Alicia Owen's King Alexander in Voodoo Tales, As Told Among the Negroes of the South-West. When making the luck ball for Owen’s friend, folklorist Charles Leland, King Alexander repeatedly mixes whiskey with saliva, spitting on each strand of yarn used to bind the luck ball. “As it was tightened,” Owen writes, “he spat about a teaspoon full of tobacco-perfumed saliva and whiskey upon it.” While working on the luck ball, King Alexander talks of the original African alcoholic drink used for the same purpose and made from greens fermented in a gourd set out in the sun. After completing the ball, he spits on it again and explains how Charles Leland will need to remove it weekly from under his right arm and bathe it in whiskey, “otherwise its strength would die.” Spitting the mixture of tobacco, saliva, and whiskey on Charles Leland’s luck ball seems to activate and power its luck. In The Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo, Tony Kail speaks of such acts among American and African hoodoo practitioners. “The practice mirrors one from several African religious cultures where priests ‘spit’ liquids onto sacred objects.”
Several accounts in Hyatt’s collection illustrate other powers of saliva. To show how spitting could enable the conjuror to control another person, Hyatt records several stories of people wanting to dictate an outcome. In one, a conjuror tells what to do when needing to have power over a situation. Advising the person to first obtain "guinea seeds," the conjuror continues:
You take one of those seeds and chew it up fine and just as you about to enter and start talking to this party, you spit three times in front of ‘em and say to yourself what you want them to do. And they claim that they have to do these things (HCWR, I, 748).
In a similar example, Hyatt’s informant instructs job seekers to chew “Paradise seeds” before entering the work place and then, in front of the future employer, “spit three ways—front, side, and back, you see.” By so doing, the applicant will have a job in nine days or sooner (HCWR, I, 651-652).
Hyatt also illustrates how spitting can activate or strengthen a curse rather than activate and feed a luck ball as in Owen's Voodoo Tales. An elderly man tells the story of a conjure woman who performed a ritual closely resembling Zodzetrick’s in Treemonisha. Believing a small boy was “hollering and sassing her in the street,” she drew a circle on the ground (sometimes substituting for the cross mark), spat in it, and told the child he “would never live to be a man.” Fortunately for the storyteller, he had been able to convince the old woman that he had not been her young adversary in the street. “I don’t know what she did. But here I am. I was nine years old,” he concludes (HCWR, I, 254).
In addition to controlling or cursing someone, Hyatt shows that spitting can also protect the spitter. A common superstition of this sort involves the belief that an enemy can obtain a strand of someone' hair, a few nail clippings, or a few drops of a body fluid and use them to place an evil curse causing pain or death to that person. “An den too, dere’s anothah superstition among men,” explains one believer, “dat if yo’ urinate and don’t spit in it . . . somebody kin do somethin’ tuh offset chew, yo’ understan’ if you don’t do dat . . . yes, to harm you” (HCWR, I, 401) Another of Hyatt’s informants elaborates:
Dey take yuh watah an’ stop it up an’ you’ll never make water, no more in de worl’. Put it intuh a bottle—if you don’t spit intuh it, see. If yuh spit in yuh urinate, dat kill de urinate [and an enemy cannot use it to harm you.] An’ dey dig a hole an’ put it undah de step. Well, yuh don’t make watah no mo’, an’ dat cuz yuh tuh be watah bound (HCWR, III, 2598).
Like luck bags which can bring good luck or bad, cross marks and spitting can also fulfill a variety of purposes. Although we cannot know which specific purpose Scott Joplin had in mind when having Zodzetrick make the cross mark and spit in it, folklore resources help us better understand the traditions behind the stage direction. The fact that Joplin includes the direction at all provides further evidence of his familiarity with hoodoo traditions and his conscious decision to embed them in his opera.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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2018 copyright on research content, Sue Attalla