When I was just a youngster, it was not uncommon to find baby alligators and caimans in pet stores being sold as novelty pets. Despite the fact that overharvesting threatened the survival of the species and hunting them became illegal in 1962, the practice continued.
Like many kids in the sixties, I too, had a pet caiman. But mine hadn't been bought from a pet store; rather, it had been caught by my two older brothers who were always kickin' it in the swamps and woods. I loved that little guy, he always seemed to have a smile on his face. Alas, he started growing pretty fast and so we ended up letting him go in the West Esplanade canal a couple of blocks from my home. Ever since, alligators, caimans and crocodiles held a special place in my heart.
In Louisiana, alligators are considered a renewable natural resource. Every part of the animal can be used; although, it is the meat and hide that are valued the most. By- products like dried heads and feet, claws and teeth have long been tourist commodities and considered good luck charms. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, "By placing an economic value on alligators, landowners are offered incentives to not only conserve wetlands but also enhance them, so as to increase alligator populations." Today, their populations are stable due to strict wildlife management.
Alligators, caimans and crocodiles have also long been used in southern conjure. We can trace the roots of this practice to the veneration of crocodiles in Africa when we pay attention to Southern folklore. For example, Uncle Monday is a powerful ancestral spirit that persists in southern Hoodoo lore. Uncle Monday is said to have been a medicine man of the shape-shifting variety who was brought to South Carolina with the slave trade. As the story goes, he escaped slavery and went to Florida to live among the Seminoles and the maroons, bringing his crocodile medicine with him. Like the Africans, the Seminoles held the alligator very sacred and like Uncle Monday’s crocodile medicine, they have their alligator medicine. You can read a version of Uncle Monday's story here.
The alligator is an animal of great significance to both Native Americans and traditional African cultures. Hoodoo revolves around veneration of water spirits in the South, and in Louisiana, Papa Gator and Uncle Monday carry with them the essence of rootwork, and are the keepers of ancient wisdom. Various parts of the alligator are deemed to carry special medicine, including the head, feet, claws and teeth.
A small alligator foot, for example, can be a powerful protection. On a key chain, it can draw luck for gamblers. To protect money, a piece of pyrite and a gold Sacagawea coin can be placed in the palm of the gator foot and wrap with green flannel. It is then worn around the neck to keep your money safe and close to you. In the absence of a Sacagawea coin, a buffalo nickel, Indian head penny or silver dime can be used. For fertility, a charm can be made by placing Adam and Eve root in the palm of the alligator foot and wrap with red string. This is then worn about the waist to boost fertility.
Alligator heads are also used by believers in ju ju type charms. A small alligator head can be set on a shelf near the front door with its mouth open as a protection for the household. These can often be seen throught the South, particularly in Florida and Louisiana. Some believe the spirit of the alligator resides in the head itself. In this context, the head is called a gad. Place the gator head over your prosperity bowl so he can protect your money. To protect the home, place a gator head by the front door to draw on its protective territorial nature.
Finally, an alligator's tooth is frequently worn by conjure doctors, root workers and others as a pendant around the neck for protection. Interestingly, it is said the pendant should not be worn near large bodies of water, such as a river or swamp, lest the pendant loses its power. Conjure doctors and rootworkers in the South also utilize single alligator teeth as an ingredient in mojo bags, typically for its protective and good luck qualities. When I was younger, alligator teeth were sold as earrings and it was common to wear just one. I still have my alligator tooth earring, tucked safely away with other conjure materia medica.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. (n.d.). General Alligator Information. Retrieved October 2, 2014 from http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/general-alligator-information.
Denise M. Alvarado