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And so this post is not wasted on simply a facebook url, I thought I would let you know about a regular featured section in Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly called the Curio Spotlight. In this section, various curios are spotlighted and formulary is discussed. Many of the elements are discussed in the larger context of folk magick and hoodoo, and then specifically about their use in New Orleans hoodoo. Here is a screenshot of the curio spotlight on red brick dust in issue #2.:
Red bricks can be seen all over New Orleans, from the old brick streets to the brick graves in the Cities of the Dead. New Orleanians have found a variety of esoteric uses for them—they are the preferred writing implement for marking 3 cross marks on the grave of our infamous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and they are used in pulverized form at the front door to keep away evil. It comes as no surprise that red bricks would also be used in the makeshift shrines seen around the city in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
But where did this practice come from? One can only surmise; but a brief jaunt through history reveals that red ochre clays have been used medicinally and ritualistically since the earliest of times. For example, medicinal use of red ochre clay is described in the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt, dating to about 1550 B.C. (Ferguson, 2006). And, ochre pigments were used by Cro-Magnon artists who painted pre-historic cave paintings in southern Europe between 32,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Residues of red ochre clays have been found in burial contexts all over the world from Paleolithic peoples in Europe to Late Holocene peoples of the Americas. Red ochre paint was used to imbue the newly departed with symbolic blood. For example, a human burial ground was found at Caplen Mound on Galveston Island, Texas which had a clam shell covered with a thin layer of red ochre. The shell was found within the grave and is assumed by archeologists to have functioned as the receptacle which held the paint used during body preparation rituals (Campbell, 1957).
Many suggest that the origin of the use of red brick dust can be traced to traditional African irosun powder. Irosun powder is red dust produced by termites from the barwood (Pterocarpus osun) and camwood (Baphia nitida) trees. Termites eat the outer white portion of the wood, leaving the heartwood to produce the reddish powder called osun. Irosun powder is used in Ifá for divining purposes; it is sprinkled on the divining tray by the diviner and figures of Ifá are marked on the tray in the powder (Bascom, 1991).
In Yoruba, the word irosun signifies menstrual blood and is used to consecrate the pot of Ogun, the Yoruban orisha of iron and technology. The color red is often associated with blood, and blood is associated with power and the sacred. According to Luisah Teish (n.d.):
Oya, the Yoruba Amazon queen is associated with a grass skirt often dyed bright red; she is said to be the heart pumping blood through the body and a fierce warrior. And the most popular proverb for the Goddess Oshun is “Success is in your blood.” (Teish, n.d., par. 38).
In New Orleans, the most commonly known use for red brick dust is its application in pulverized dust form to the front steps of the home as a means of keeping evil away. It is said that red bricks were taken from the Dumaine Street Brickyard—the earliest place in New Orleans in which Voodoo rituals occurred—and were used in rituals and floor washes. The last reference to the Dumaine Street Brickyard in print was in connection with Voodoo Queen Sanité Dédé in 1825. Since that time, red bricks remain plentiful and can be procured all over the city.
Excerpted from Hoodoo and Conjure #2
Bascom, W. R. (1991 ). Ifá divination: communication between gods and men in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Campbell, T. N. (1957). Archaeological Investigations at the Caplen Site, Galveston County, Texas. Texas Journal of Science 9:448-471.
Ferguson, J. B. (2006). The Ebers Papyrus Possibly Having to Do With Diabetes Mellitus. Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson NY. Retrieved August 8, 2011 from http://biology.bard.edu/ferguson/course/bio407/Carpenter_et_al_%281998%29.pdf
Teish, L. (n.d.). Shedding old skin: A search for new origin stories. Metaforma: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture. Retrieved May 2011 from: http://www.metaformia.org/articles/shedding-old-skin/