Chas Bogan (San Francisco, CA) is a professional Conjure doctor who practices at his store, The Mystic Dream. He is an initiate and practitioner of various metaphysical traditions, teaching classes on Conjure and Feri at the online school of which he is a founder, Mystic Dream Academy, as well as at conventions and festivals. He also produces talking boards (Carnivalia) and spiritual supplies steeped in Hoodoo (Modern Conjure). His recent book is titled The Secret Keys of Conjure, Unlocking the Mysteries of American Folk Magic. Find him online at ChasBogan.com.
How did you get into conjure?
I like to think I was born for it; as a child, I was always drawn to magic and mysticism. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many diverse communities from across the country have come to settle throughout the years, from the Gold Rush, the Great Migration, the Dust Bowl, and so forth; military bases and shipyards have encouraged a constant mix of people from across the nation who bring their regional folk magic practices with them, constantly adding to the mix. Magic was always an obsession with me, so I sought it out, and took note of it more than those around me did. I remember being young, maybe about 11, when my neighbor from next door let me watch her do an egg cleansing on her grandson. Afterward, when I told my mom, who had no interest in such things herself, she simply said: “Weird.” Mom was never impressed by magic, or religion, which worked out great as it made my participation in such things a minor rebellion. I was reared vaguely Methodist, and on those rare occasions when we attended church the sermons were never theological, but rather political in a working class, pro-union, support your local Democrats sort of vein.
It wasn’t until I was older that I got religion, at least for a while, as that was where I found magic. I attended a church, best described as Pentecostalish, and though the pulpit sermons were mostly about salvation and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the potluck chat was often conjure related, practical tricks to get a job or keep a neighbor from harassing you. No one called it conjure, nor did they use the words Hoodoo or Rootwork. There really was no word for it that I remember being used, just a way of doing things that supported prayer. I learned a lot there, until I got old enough that my effeminate ways were no longer cute, but evidence of my homosexuality, at which point I felt pressure to either leave or be segregated in the choir, and since I cannot carry a tune, I left. It was difficult back in the day to find groups that focused specifically on conjure, but I found that many of the practices I was familiar with had been adopted by the sort of wiccany witchcraft that was popular here in North America around the late 80’s. When I came upon Feri tradition, I discovered that the underlying magical system came directly from conjure, so that sort of bridged the gap for me, and I felt at home there.
How do you differentiate Modern Conjure from various other conjure, root working, and folk-magic practices?
Conjure has always been adaptive. A certain plant goes extinct, or a practitioner moves to a local where that plant does not grow, so they often find something different to take its place. Innovations occur, and those are especially notable historically when folk moved from rural to urban areas. It used to be the case that you could bury something protective under your porch, but if you are living somewhere with a concrete foundation, or in an apartment building, then adaptation is necessary, you may for instance place a potted plant beside your door and bury your charm there.
Conjure tends to be a very regional practice, and although it thrives in my part of the world, the culture of the Bay Area is different than, say, somewhere deep in the mountains. As I stated earlier, this region has a lot of traffic in terms of folk moving here from other places, so that has impacted our culture in the sense that from my observations we tend to value innovation, and talk less about tradition. It’s probably the reason so much new technology is created here; it seems that we tend to always be looking for a new and better way to do things. I value that impulse, as much as I also value traditional ways of working. Though, honestly, when I hear folk define their work as traditional or old style, it often does not excite me as much as when I learn about new ways of doing conjure work. Just my preference I guess. I don’t want to suggest that I’m against tradition, as I believe that energy often moves swiftest along a well rutted path. I find, however, that I am often on a quest to make my everyday life more magical, so I tend to focus more on engaging items from my modern environment, cell phones, led lights, laser cutters, rather than working with implements that come from some distant plantation that I have no direct association with.
Your book, the Secret Keys of Conjure, brilliantly categorizes all the main practices of folk magic into 13 keys and you provide lots of different “tricks”. How does a “trick” differ from a “spell”? Or does it?
I pretty much use trick and spell interchangeably. The word trick sounds like it fits the parlance of conjure better than the word spell, as the latter sounds somehow witchier to me. There is often an added connotation with the word trick, in the sense that many actions tend to be done clandestinely, rather than with a theatrical ritual production. Also, many times the goal is make someone behave as you wish them to, say, to make someone fall in love with you or sell you their car for a low price, so there is the idea that you are tricking them into behaving a certain way.
You also practice witchcraft. In many folk traditions witchcraft is seen as taboo and something to defend against and not engage in, right? Do your practices overlap or influence one another or are they completely separate?
Witchcraft is often used pejoratively to describe a type of magical action that goes against what might otherwise be considered good, such as something that goes against religious values, or the course of nature, or another person’s autonomy. All of those things are a matter of one’s viewpoint and personal ethics. Despite the desire of many contemporary witches to reclaim the word witchcraft and promote it as something divorced from negativity, the association with evil deeds still exists, colloquially in some regions, and in historical texts. There seems to be a natural tendency for people to want to differentiate between magical actions that they consider good or evil, which is why even those who espouse a positive use of the word witchcraft will often speak in terms of white or dark magic. Language is fluid, so it’s important to understand how witchcraft is defined by whomever you are speaking to.
As far as my practices go, I’ll say that they overlap for the most part. Certainly, there are things that I do in my witchcraft practice that are not derived from conjure, such as if I were to cast a ritual circle or call in the guardians of the directions. I wouldn’t call those acts conjure, however they are not at variance. If I were to erect a maypole for Beltane I would not call that conjure, however if I took the ribbon afterward and used it to bind a pair of raccoon baculums together in order to secure the sexual interest of my lover, then I’m working more in the tradition of conjure. It’s sort of like making chocolate chip cookies, where you can regulate the baking soda and such to make them thinner or cakier and still have something that tastes like it ought to, but if you leave out the chocolate chips then it’s a whole different kind of cookie.
Speaking of which, you co-founded Black Rose Witchcraft with your partners Devin Hunter and Storm Faerywolf. How did that come about?
We had each been teaching in person classes at our store, The Mystic Dream, and noticed that we were unable to reach as many people as we would have liked. Many of the folk who were interested in training with us were not local. Seeing that the internet had opened up a whole new venue, we decided to take advantage of that technology. We created the Mystic Dream Academy, with each of us offering our own classes, yet we wanted something that was a collaborative effort from all three of us. Once we decided to create Black Rose Witchcraft, it was as though there were spirits who had been waiting in the wings, eager to step forward and offer their service. It all came together as if it was something that had already existed. It is hard to say what elements came from which of us, as there were many occasions when one of us would present an idea only to realize that the other two had been similarly inspired. We were equally involved in creating the core of the curriculum, yet each of us had specific talents, such as Storm’s experience conveying magical experiences long distance, Devin’s knowledge of how to awaken psychic abilities, and my get-your-hands-dirty approach to spellwork. I think it represents the best that each of us have to offer.
In Folk Magic, the Devil of the crossroads seems to be different than say the biblical Devil. Would you agree? Could you explain the similarities and differences between these Devils or do you see them as all the same entity or force?
This Devil in particular haunts not just the crossroads of North America, but many of our folk tales and songs as well. His exact ancestry is unknown. Some suggest he is of African origins, seeing in him similarities with figures such as Elegua. Others suggest that he hails from Europe, finding similarities between him and the Horned God. I don’t believe that he arises from a singular entity, but like the crossroads themselves he exists because of an intersection of paths, being a uniquely North American blend of various myths and personas. The crossroads are a sacred place in conjure, which is why there is the tradition of burying tricks at that spot. I believe this has to do with how the crossroads are perceived, as they represent potential. When you find yourself at a crossroads, there are always choices. One road may present you with the chance for escape, or another lead to your homecoming. It seems obvious that this would be where a transformative spirit would choose to exist.
To better answer your question, I suppose we must wonder why he is referred to as the Devil. Some have suggested that he was given the Devil’s name by those who sought to denigrate him, and others have said that he was masked as the Devil in order to hide his true power. There is no definitive answer, but we do see a correlation between him and Mephistopheles from Faustian legend. The notion of the Devil being able to grant wishes—for a price—existed well before our country did, so I think therein lies the reason why he is so often associated with the Devil. By some accounts, such as the legends surrounding Blues legend Robert Johnson, the man at the crossroads will take one’s soul as payment for success in this lifetime. For others, this entity is perhaps more benevolent, accepting offerings more tangible than a human soul, such as whiskey, or an item associated with whatever skill one wishes to be granted supernatural mastery over. Even when he is conceptualized as synonymous with the Christian Devil, there are different perspectives on the Devil’s role; for some he is opposite of all things godly, the Great Adversary; whereas others consider that God would not allow the Devil to exist if he did not ultimately serve a necessary function, seeing him a dark angel, sometimes as a sort of trickster, who though he challenges one’s faith and morality nevertheless is an agent of God’s will. But there is no need for me to describe the many facets of the Devil at the crossroads given that folk can visit him there, meet him for themselves, and draw their own conclusions.
You also make some beautiful spirit boards (often referred to by the brand name Ouija). Spirit boards seem to have the worst reputation in regards to any other method of divination or spirit work. Why do you think this is? Should people be afraid of spirit boards?
Spirit boards were a common feature in American life for many decades, their reputation benign and associated with light mysticism and parlor games, pretty much until the release of the movie the film The Exorcist. That movie was a reaction to the type of spiritual exploration that had become popular in the American counter culture during the 1960’s, when things such as Meditation, Yoga, Astral Projection, and so forth, gained prominence in the spiritual lives to American’s previously dominated by Christianity. The establishment largely saw these spiritual imports as a threat, which is illustrated in the story of The Exorcist, the little girl who plays with a Ouija board and is overtaken by demonic spirits. Though I doubt it was designed as propaganda, by tapping into the insecurity of the time it presented a cautionary tale against spiritual exploration. The Ouija was well suited as a symbol of unorthodox spirituality, as it had always had a reputation as a simple tool by which anyone, without the aid of a priest or psychic medium, could communicate with spirits. Decades after that film, its reputation remains tarnished. However, I’m not certain this is such a bad thing. Like the Devil I described earlier, some things exist in order to stir things up. Given that people have been taught to be scared of it, it often obliges them by spelling out scary messages. To a large degree you get what you expect to get. But even this serves a function. To some, the idea of a threatening realm of spirits is still better than their greater fear of a world in which death is final. A frightening experience nevertheless serves to satiate their deeper existential fears. Spirit boards continue to have a role in American society, as it is a rite of passage to play with one and walk away with a spooky story to tell.
What spirit boards do is serve as a conduit between states of being, allowing your unconscious mind to spell out insights otherwise hidden to you, or, on a more metaphysical level, many believe that can allow the dead to communicate through you. On a scientific level, ideomotor responses are understood to move the planchette. These reflexive, unconscious movements, also govern practices such as automatic writing and pendulums. Or course, the stimulus for such reactions is debatable, even if it is known to come from your mind, that may simply suggest that spirits have contacted your mind through psychic means, the spirit board serving as a means to enact those mental messages. That tends to be how I approach working with spirit boards.
Could you share a story that sticks out for you as particularly strange or interesting in regards to experiences you’ve had with spirit boards.
I get asked this question often enough that I wish I had a fun answer. Despite getting plenty of emails from people who claim to have seen their planchette fly across the room or their board spontaneously catch on fire, the sessions I have done tend to be rather humdrum. Again, I suppose you get out of it what you expect to. I see the boards merely as a means of text messaging either my inner mind or spirits in the beyond. If anything, the dead I have spoken with tend to be living afterlives that I find unappealing. My great aunt, for example, speaks about how she loves to fish, and despite her telling me how exquisite the colors of the water are in what I suppose to be her heaven, the notion of an eternity spent fishing, no matter how lovely the scenery, appeals to me not at all. This however does remind me of a story involving her that is kind of cute. Again, she loved to fish and used to take me with her. As a kid I enjoyed this much more than I would today. I remember that she taught me a rhyme to repeat under my breath, claiming that it would draw fish to our boat. Years late I remembered this, but did not remember the rhyme itself. So I sought her out in the beyond and asked her. I need to construct a spirit boards with something like an emoji to represent laughter, since that was the impression I got from her. She let me know that this rhyme was not some ancient spoken word spell handed down from my mountain loving grand aunt, but something she had made up on the spot just to shut me up. A talkative youth, I had been scaring the fish away, so having me say the rhyme under my breath served more of a practical purpose than a metaphysical one.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their exploration of conjure?
I feel it is important to find what things speak to you, then broaden those conversations through further engagement. I mean this in a variety of ways, beyond the surface implication of finding those things that interest you. Conjure provides many conditions to work for, and materials to work with.
There are only so many conditions that people wish to manipulate, such as love, protection, money, fame, and so on. Often workers will find that they are better at manifesting some things more than others. Build your strength in what comes easiest for you, and after those muscles are firm you will be better able to exercise whatever skills you may feel you are lacking. Don’t feel as if you have to do everything on your own, and don’t be too quick to hang a shingle from your door and offer work for others. You don’t learn to become a good dentist by extracting your own teeth and those of your friends, rather, you study, and then work with trained professionals to hone your skill. I would encourage folk to hire other workers (I’m always suspicious of rootworkers and psychic readers who never hire others in their field, as it suggests to me that they do not actually the value or believe in the efficacy of such work), and ask the worker whom you hire to include you in the work, such as by having you burn a candle on your end or collect dirt from some auspicious place. That way you can begin to engage in work that you might otherwise feel ill equipped to do solo.
Beyond that, when I say find the things that speak to you, I am also talking about interacting with materials in an intimate way, what we might call animistic. The flame of a candle will dance for you, and the more you work with such flames the better you will be at interpreting their movements, which can communicate a lot regarding the process of your work. That bone you are using was once part of an active animal, and hold within it the memories of its experiences, which may enhance its meaning for such activities as bone reading. Everything that we might work with is alive in its own way. While the symbolic nature of a curio is important, every item is so much more than that. Recognizing the full potential of whatever material you engage with amplifies its power, and the first step towards developing such a recognition begins with initiating a dialogue between you and that root resting in your palm.
Any future projects you’re working on that we can look forward to in the future?
I just bought a laser engraver/cutter, so I plan to spend the following few months developing new spirit boards and other things. Some of these things are a surprise, so I don’t want to give too much away, but stay tuned. As part of all this I will be revamping my website Carnivalia.com soon. It’s time. It hasn’t changed much in over a decade, and with new items on their way I want it to have a new look. Hopefully this can be accomplished in the summer months, when as I’m doing now I can sit in the backyard and work on the computer in the shade of my sequoia trees.
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Chas Bogan provides a guide to safely working with spirit boards including how to bless the board, open a line of communication, and end communication when desired. When used conscientiously, spirit boards are a safe means by which to check in with your ancestors or other benevolent spirits. He also shares his blessing powder formula he uses for working with spirit boards. This is available for Patreon supporters with the tier “In The Know Jackalope” and higher.
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