A folk term most often associated with conjuring powers and designated by variable names including “High John de Conker,” “Low John de Conker,” “John the Conqueror root,” and “HighJohn.” This term may refer to a plant, or a plant-derived substance, that is believed to have conjuring capabilities. It also is said to be a trickster figure in African American culture.
According to folk belief, High John as a “root medicine” will protect a subject against evil spirits and control potentially conflicting situations including love relationships, gambling, litigation, employment, and financial matters. It is most often associated with success, happiness, and improving one's fortune. This product may be dug directly from the woods or purchased from conjurers and used in a variety of forms, including a nonprocessed root, diced, liquid, or powder state.
The notion of High John as a traditional folk hero is somewhat speculative given that none of the collections of tales includes any reference to a figure by that specific name. Zora Neale Hurston appears to be the first to claim that the trickster in the cycles of John and Marster tales is HighJohn. In these tales, John, a cunning slave, may assume the posture of a rogue, naive rascal, or fool when he encounters an oppressive master who reminds him of his limited possibilities on the plantation. John may outsmart his dumbwitted boss, or he may be the unwilling recipient of a misapplied plan. Hurston eloquently valorizes the slave voice through this association. High John is a symbol of the slaves’ indomitable spirit, which Hurston argues began in Africa but assumed a more physical form in the New World through High John who metaphorically becomes the ultimate conjure maker.
It is unclear how widespread the usage of this term is. The identification of High John as a root medicine is dependent upon locale and the expertise of the conjurers. They do not all agree on which particular plant or plant-derived substance “High John” is. There is little documentation to support the claim that High John as a trickster figure is derived from the African American oral tradition. None of the collected tales about John, a trickster figure in slavery and freedom, refers to this hero as “High John.” Much more research needs to be conducted on this topic to determine more clearly its application in African American culture.
Zora Neale Hurston, “High John De Conquer” American Mercury 57 (1943): 450–458.Harry Hyatt, Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Rootwork, vol. 1, 1970, pp. 455–457 and 593–595.
Carol S. Taylor Johnson