Archive for the ‘Blog’ category

Blog Post 129 – Upcoming Events

May 31, 2011

Good news everyone!

Today I have some very fun events to share with y’all about events coming up later in the year.  These will be opportunities to meet with one or both of your New World Witchery hosts, as well as to meet and greet other great people as well.

The Second Annual Pagan Podkin Supermoot
We mentioned this in our last episode, but both Laine and Cory will be attending the Second Annual Pagan Podkin Supermoot in Salem, MA, on the weekend of Sept. 17th, 2011.  This is a gathering of Pagan and witchy podcasters from across the continent (we even have Canadians coming!), and there will be a big meet-and-greet on Saturday, Sept. 17th, at the Omen store. Fans are encouraged to come out and meet us, ask questions, be horribly disappointed in how boring we really are, etc. Some of the other podcasters who will be there include:

Other podcasters may come, too, though they haven’t been able to confirm yet. There may be workshops and classes as well, though details are still being worked out at this point. We will probably also have a group lunch that day which fans will be able to attend, too.  If you want to stay up to date on happenings with this event, check out the PPSM2 Website, and watch for tags like #ppsm2 on Twitter and Facebook.

A note on this event: While we both want to meet our fans and get to know you all, we do please ask that you not take any photos of Laine—she is still in the broom closet and can’t risk exposure. We’ll try to come up with something clever to allow you to still get a photo (maybe Cory in a wig or a sock puppet of some kind), but we hope you’ll understand about this issue.

West KY Hoodoo Rootworker Heritage Festival
This event will be taking place the weekend following PPSM2, from Sept. 23-25, 2011. It’s going to be focused on Southern Conjure practices, with an emphasis on hoodoo, rootwork, Pow-wow, granny magic, Vodoun, and Santeria/Lukumi. Some of the guest presenters will be:

  • Jack Montgomery, author of American Shamans, NWW friend & interviewee
  • Stephanie Palm, owner of Music City Mojo and Cory’s conjure teacher
  • Temperance, owner of Temperance Alchemy and magician, healer, & interfaith minister extraordinaire
  • Cory, from New World Witchery (hey, that’s me!…still not sure what I’m going to teach, but I’ll post that as soon as I figure it out)
  • Telling Point, a musical act featuring a deep tribal rock sound

This festival is still in its early planning stages, but it will likely be growing and adding new guests, performers, and workshops between now and the end of summer.

The Heritage Festival is put on by the Spirit of the Earth Church and will take place near Hopkinsville, KY. It’s a multi-day camp-out type of festival, so be aware that you’ll need to bring your own tent or find a hotel nearby.  Cory will definitely be attending at least part of the weekend.  For more information, check out the event website. Updates will likely be made frequently, and we’ll try to mention it again as time gets closer for it.

There may be other events we mention or post as time goes on, but for now these are the two places you will be able to find at least one of us in person.

Hope to see you all soon!  As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 128 – Iron

May 25, 2011

North American history has a funny relationship with iron.  On the one hand, iron is largely behind the early expansion that allowed Europeans to dominate the continent so completely with weapons, locomotives, and durable goods and architecture.  On the other hand, it has also been a curse used to inflict injury and death on undeserving people and leading others to rip the very soil of the land apart in search of it.  So maybe it’s not so much of a “funny” relationship as it is one fraught with difficulty and complexity.

American folklore, however, has largely good things to say about iron.  It’s a powerful anti-witchcraft charm and can be used to repel things like wicked fairies attempting to replace a baby with a changeling.  It can come in the form of nails, railroad spikes, horseshoes, or even just random flakes falling as refuse from a blacksmith’s anvil.

Today I thought I’d look at a few of the bits of folklore regarding iron.  Before we look at the New World side of things, though, let’s look at iron in a slightly older context: Roman superstition.

“The taboo on iron dates from the beginning of the Iron Age when religious conservatism forbade the use of the strange new material in place of the usual bronze. It has been suggested that the magic significance of iron arose from its susceptibility to magnetism which, as the superstitious Romans often believed, it derived from witchcraft” (from Taboo, Magic, Spirits, by E.E. Burriss)

Here we see that iron is associated with witchcraft and has a somewhat negative reputation.  Even the Romans, though, were not averse to using witchcraft to fight witchcraft, and so iron became a de facto tool for combating wicked witchery, and by extension, any other harmful supernatural force (ghosts, demons, fairies, etc.).

Other cultures picked up the thread (or started their own threads), seeing iron as a powerful magical tool.  African, pan-Celtic, and Northern European cultures all had particular beliefs about iron and its more enchanted properties, so it probably surprises no one that the Old World traditions regarding iron became the standard beliefs in the New World.

So what are those New World beliefs?  Let’s look at some examples from a few different areas:

From the Colonial Period, South Carolina
In the Joshua Gordon “Witchcraft Book,” (also sometimes called a Commonplace Book) dated from 1784, there is an example of the type of charm typically imported to the colonies from places like England and Ireland in which a heated iron is used to scald milk from a bewitched cow in order to undo witchcraft:

“A cow losing milk could be cured if its owners would ‘take a heather belonging to a box Iron, put it in the fire, and make it Red hot [and then] take the milk of the cows thats hurt [and] power [i.e., pour] on the hot iron repeating the names of the blessed trinity’” (from “ Magic, Astrology, and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760,” by Jon Butler in The American Historical Review).

This method is commonly found in folktales from Appalachia, such as the next entry.

From the late 19th- or early 20th-century, Tennessee (Appalachian foothills)
Again, a hot iron is used to scald milk and thus undo bewitchment:

“Another case of the use of heat, combined with iron and steel, is shown in the following account, also resulting in injury to the witch and her exorcism. Lewis Hopkins, formerly of Big Creek just beyond the park bounds [The Great Smoky Mountains National Park] told this unusual tale:
My grandmother’s folk had a cow and she give bloody milk.  An old lady, a Phillips, was accused of being a witch. So they got to talkin’ to Sam Evans who said he was a witch doctor and knowed about witches. The witch doctor told the folks to put a baker lid [i.e., the lid of a Dutch oven] in the fire. So they pecked it on with a reap hook [like a scythe or sickle]. So this old women Phillips come to this old man Evans and raised a fuss with him about tellin’ him what to do. They got into a fight and this old man pulled her dress up and they saw the pecks where they was a reap hook a-hackin’ at her. [But] she jumped out and got away from him” (from A Tennessee Folklore Sampler, by Ted Olson, et al).

Other cases of heated irons being used to procure magical results also abound, as we shall see momentarily.

From the 19th-century, Mississippi
In some places, iron implements are not so much valued as remnants of iron from a blacksmith’s shop.  Here is one account of “anvil dust” as it relates to Southern conjure practices:

“Anvil dust is also greatly valued as conjure material. One educated blacksmith of Columbus, Miss., tells me that people are constantly coming into his shop to get the black flakes that fall from the hot iron when it is pounded, although they always look ashamed and give a fictitious reason as to why they want it” (from Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro by Newbell N. Puckett).

This anvil dust is basically iron filings or flakes, and can be found in hoodoo practice as food for magically empowered lodestones.  Or it can be used to help create a cursing formula known as War Water (I’ll hopefully address the creation of this product in a separate post).  Interestingly, these two uses would seem diametrically opposed, with one being the food for an attracting magical fetish, and the other being an ingredient in a banishing potion. I would assert, however, that in these cases the iron serves a similar function on a magical level—with the lodestone it helps broaden the field of attraction for the stone while simultaneously running bad luck away, and in the War Water it’s repelling evil.  So in both cases, there is an element of something being turned away.  That is simply a way for me to reconcile these differences, however, and my come down to rationalization.

From the 19th– or 20th– Century, Ozark Mountains
Old favorite of New World Witchery, Vance Randolph, lists several methods for using iron as a magical tool (I omit the horseshoe lore which I have previously covered in another post, however):

  • “Nails taken from a gallows are supposed to protect a man against venereal disease and death by violence. Country blacksmiths used to secure these nails and hammer them out into finger rings”
  • “A little iron wire worn as a necklace, according to some power doctors, will protect a child from whooping cough”
  • “The water in which a blacksmith cools his irons is supposed to be good for witched cattle and is  sometimes given to human beings also, particularly children” (from Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph)

The last method mentioned is one I found repeated in several sources.  The power and provenance of “anvil water” or “slack water” seems to be well known across several cultures.

From the 20th-century, Illinois
To illustrate my point from the last section, I thought I’d share a bit of folklore from the Midwest, collected by ethnographer Harry M. Hyatt (who famously collected much of the lore about Southern conjure and hoodoo practices):

  • “A piece of old iron hung over the front and back door prevents the spirit of the recent dead from haunting you”
  • “Five nails driven into the trunk prevent the fruit from falling off the tree.  ‘My father did this when fruit was dropping off: drive those old- fashion square iron nails in the tree to hold the fruit on the tree. Never use wire nails; it must be the old iron nails’”
  • “Water from the tub in which a blacksmith cools hot iron is a good wash for the sore udders of a cow”
  • “A broken-winded horse (a horse with heaves) becomes well, if given water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron”
  • “Your looks will be improved if you wash your face frequently with the water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron”
  • “Slack-water, the water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron, is a good wash for poison ivy” (from Folklore of Adams County, by Harry M. Hyatt).

The first two bits are interesting, especially with the death connection, but the last four show that the slack water was considered a sort of cure-all magical formula.  I don’t know about you, but I think I need to make friends with a blacksmith, and quickly!

That’s it for iron, for now at least.  What I’ve written here is only the tip of a very large and ferrous iceberg.  As I said, I didn’t get into the related topic of War Water in the hopes it will appear in another post at a later date.  And I also didn’t touch on the lore of blacksmiths, specifically, as I hope to cover that in some depth later (our next podcast will have a bit about them, in fact).

If you have any local or family lore regarding iron and its magical properties, I would love to hear them!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 127 – Summoning Devils

May 9, 2011

In Blog Post 126 we looked a little bit at the Devil as a folkloric figure in American witchcraft.  One of the questions I received in response to that post was, “but how do I meet him?”  Is the Devil an entity anyone can just summon up?  Do you have to be careful to call the “right” devil so as not to wind up with more on your plate than you can handle?  And if you do meet the Devil, how do you come away with your soul intact (assuming you want to)?

Today I thought I’d look at some of the ways, folklorically speaking, that people have been known to get into contact with the Devil or other “dark” spirits.  Some of these are based on old European folk traditions, and some call a figure which may or may not be the Devil, but which certainly shares traits with him (trickster nature, otherworldly knowledge, granting of gifts, etc.).  A word of warning before we dive in, though: Do NOT attempt any spiritual summoning work or diabolical contact without the proper precautions—while dark spirits can be powerful allies, they also can have a dangerous side and should be treated with respect and caution.

So, with that being said, let’s look at some of the main ways to meet your devil.

Invocation & High Magic

If you’ve ever read Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, you’ll be quite familiar with this method.  In this late 16th century play, Dr. Faustus (quite possibly based on a real person), learns the art of high magic and uses a magic circle to call forth a devil named Mephistopholes, who will act as his servitor on Earth in exchange for his soul.  He seals his pact with blood, and pretty much gets what he wants for a while (including Helen of Troy), then gets dragged off to hell for his final punishment.

In Marlowe’s version, the imp is a distinct entity, and in some versions of the legend he takes on the form of a dog or other animal to serve Faustus as a familiar.  Shakespeare, contemporary to Marlowe, also knew a bit about diabolic invocation through high magic.  In his Henry VI, part 2, Shakespeare demonstrates a different version of how such a meeting might go.  In Act I, scene iv, a conjurer named Bolingbroke summons the spirit of a devil named Asmath into a witch named Margaret Jourdain (based on a real woman and accused witch named Margery Jourdayne), then proceeds to interrogate the demon for information.  He dismisses the devil just before royal authorities break in and arrest everyone present for heresy and treason.

So here we have two methods inherited from the grimoire traditions of old Europe: direct appearance and possession.  Owen Davies gives an excellent overview of these traditions in his appropriately titled Grimoires: a history of magic books.  These late-antiquity and medieval methods of making contact with nefarious forces also found popularity in the New World, mostly through grimoires like the Grimoire Verum, Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets, and derivative texts drawn from such sources.  These tomes influenced magical systems like Pow-wow and hoodoo, though the specifically diabolic elements were often highly diminished by the time they reached the hands of folk practitioners.  The exception to this is that the seals found in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses were still used for magical purposes, and several of those seals are specifically designed to invoke diabolic aid from entities like Mephistopholes and Leviathan.

Should you get the urge to perform any of these types of invocations—and I reiterate my warning about being prepared and knowing what you’re doing first—here are several rituals you might try:

  • The Grimoire Verum – This text says that America is ruled by the devil Astaroth, whose sigils are included for your invocational purposes.  Please note that you should probably learn a little bit about basic Solomonic invocation and banishing from the Key of Solomon first, though the Grimoire Verum does give a little instruction in these areas as well.
  • The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses – There is a lot less instruction here than you would find in some of the other grimoires, so if you’re not versed in summoning and dispelling, you may need to look elsewhere.
  • Dr. Faustus – Here is the text used by Marlowe for his Faustian invocation.  Bear in mind that this was designed to be staged, so use it more as a guide than a rote ritual to be followed.
  • Henry VI, part 2 – Shakespeare’s text for invocation and bansishment.  Take with the same grain of salt you used with Marlowe’s work.

Meeting the Devil

On the more folkloric side of things, the common method for contacting a devil of some kind involves a journey to a liminal or wild place where he is thought to reside.  In most cases, the Devil can be found either at a crossroads or in a forest of some kind, though there are exceptions (many modern stories of meeting the Devil involve transportation or big cities, e.g. Robert Bloch’s Hell-Bound Train, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, and the cult film Rosemary’s Baby).  Probably the most famous ritual is the crossroads ritual, which I’ve mentioned here before.  As I’m planning to do an article on the crossroads as an independent magical space, I won’t go into great detail, but rather just say that Cat Yronwode has a great entry on the crossroads for those who are interested.

The forest or wild place meeting is a common folkloric theme across many cultures.  There are, of course, the Teutonic tales of meeting various wild spirits or devils in the forest, as in the Grimms’ tales of the Devil (see “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” or “The Devil’s Grandmother”).  There are biblical precedents for these sorts of meetings as well—Moses encounters the burning bush in the desert, which is at least terrifying if not outright diabolic.  Three of the gospels also recount the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert (an analog for wilderness in biblical terms).  American folklore picks up this thread, and stories of meeting the devil in wilderness are quite common.  “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, features such a meeting, and at least one scholar has brought the idea into the twentieth century by suggesting that “Men in Black” sightings associated with UFO’s in rural areas may be connected to devil lore.

The other alternative to the forest meeting is the graveyard meeting.  Usually in this version of the story, the person meeting the Devil must also do battle with him.  It can be a battle of wits, but just as often it is a physical wrestling match which parallels the interior struggle of the person confronting his or her fears by meeting the Devil in a graveyard in the firstplace.

So how does someone put this kind of meeting into practice?  Will devils always show up in graveyards after dark?  Will someone wandering in the forest or through a crossroads inevitably meet a Man in Black of some kind?  Sadly, I have no answers here.  All I can say is that if you’re truly moved to attempt these sorts of rituals, the Devil tends to show up in some form or fashion.  So if you’re interested in pursuing this line of contact, you could:

  • Attempt the Toad’s Bone ritual, which terminates with a graveyard wrestling session or a bout in a river
  • Give the Greased Plate method a try (mentioned in Blog Post 50 and found in The Silver Bullet, p.24)
  • See what happens if you do a Crossroads Ritual for a certain amount of time
  • Or, just wander to any of these kinds of places, swear yourself to the Devil (or in many cases, against God), and call out to the Devil to come and offer you terms of some kind—a new skill, riches, knowledge, etc. in exchange for service or something intangible like, oh, say, your soul.

One final thing I should mention is that the best-case scenario in many of these stories usually involves a person quick-witted enough to outsmart the Devil.  So always be aware of just what you say to any devil you meet, and make sure you leave loopholes for yourself if you promise them anything.  They seem to enjoy a good trick, so it’s a win-win if you can outsmart them.

Again, please be careful with this sort of magic. It has the potential to be dangerous, and at the very least it’s a little intense and can run you afoul of the law if you’re not cautious (loitering at crossroads or in graveyards tends to get the police rather grumpy).  If you do have any good experiences with this sort of work, though, please share!  I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 126 – Walpurgisnacht 2011

May 3, 2011

A Hornie Fellow

Stones and bones, brooms and fire.  In the olden days, the night before May 1st was spent burning brooms or effigies of witches in big bonfires to ward off evil.  Witches were thought to gather at the Brocken, a mountain in Germany where they held their strange revels around infernal fires of their own.  Dead things might come galloping up out of their graves to follow the witches and join in their wicked revelry.  Wild storms preceded and followed the witches and the Wild Hunt on their nighttime gallivants.

It’s terrifying stuff, but like most fairy tales, people don’t really believe in it anymore.  But maybe they should.

I’ve loved Walpurgisnacht since I first started observing it as a complementary holiday to the more often observed Beltane or May Day.  I even did a post on it last year, which has been one of my most popular posts to date, actually.  This year, the group I do my social witchcraft with celebrated Walpurgisnacht together, and it may have been one of my favorite gatherings to date.

It started with a bonfire in a park about 500 feet from a big Boy Scout campout.  Or, rather, it really started the day before when I am sure I piqued the curiosity of a few neighbors by hiking into our local woods, dropping handfuls of something powdery and muttering to myself at certain locations on the forest perimeter, then emerged moments later with a big, heavy object under my arm.  I spent the rest of the day piecing together all of the elements I would need to fulfill my duties at Walpurgisnacht—sorting candles, making magical gifts for my co-coveners, bringing the appropriate skulls and bones and broom and stang down to my car under cover of darkness so I wouldn’t have to drag them out the next day while the neighbors looked on (they already had enough reason to look at me funny, why add to that?).

When I pulled into the camp, the scouts were swarming.  As I struggled to gather some firewood from a rather flooded site, a number of the boys approached, waving glo-sticks and flashlights and demanding (in a charmingly pirates-and-lost-boys way) “Who goes there?!”  Apparently some older kids had been running around trying to scare them earlier, so I had to vouch that I was not, in fact, a “robber” as they put it.

New Brooms Against an Old Tree

By the time our leader  had arrived, the scouts had pretty much removed themselves to the far side of the camp and were engaged in what looked like a snipe hunt (bless ‘em). We  got the fire going and arranged everything we would need for the night.

I can’t say too much about what happened next, but I will say that the following things may have been involved:

  • Black-strap Molasses Rum offerings
  • Leaping the fire on a broom
  • Hedge-Crosser’s Smoke from Forest Grove Botanica
  • An exchange of several magical gifts
  • I may have worn lipstick at one point

Because it's just not a party until someone breaks out the ram's skull...

Walpurgisnacht proved to be a great night for a few witches to gather around a bonfire, calling upon the dead, riding brooms, leaping through flame, and generally doing all the things the fairy tales say.  We may not have had storms on the Brocken, but the winds definitely started rising before all was said and done.  At one point, I very seriously had to say, “If you hear the sound of horses’ hooves, drop to the ground and don’t look up.”  Maybe it was just my imagination at that point, but the air certainly seemed ripe with witchery.

So, what did you do on Old May Eve? (Or the next day, for that matter.)

-Cory

Blog Post 125 – Some Devils

April 27, 2011

One of the longest-standing charges against witchcraft in the New World (as well as the old) is its inherent alliance with diabolic forces.  A person simply could not be a witch without being bound in some way to the Devil or one of his minions, according to popular conceptions which remain strong even today.  The notion of witchcraft as a Satanic practice is, of course, inaccurate—many Satanists have nothing to do with witchcraft, and many witches have nothing to do with Satan (that name here being used for the Adversary of the Judeo-Christian God).  There are certainly Satanic witches, just as there are Jewish witches or Christian witches.

I prefer to draw a distinction, though, between Satan and the Devil (or devils in general, the capital “D” being used when referring to a singular entity).  In most cases, Satan appears in biblical lore as a being concerned with the overall cosmology of heaven and earth, leading wars against God, and presenting deep philosophical and theological complications into the story of Creation.  Devils, on the other hand, are creatures interested in particular individuals, usually offering them power or temporal gifts in exchange for a soul, a service, or as a reward for exemplary cleverness.  They stem from myriad sources, including the Teutonic Teufel, the trickster spirits of African and Native American mythology, the Norse Loki, and British devil-figures like “Old Nick.”  Today, I’ll be looking at the Devil and his role in American witchcraft, particularly his place as an Initiator and a Trickster.

Devil as Initiator

I’ve already somewhat covered this in our post on Initiation, but the Devil (or one of his guises) functions as a primary point of contact for aspiring witches looking for ways to join the Otherworld.  While this initiation does often feature some distinctly anti-Christian elements, such as the inverted recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Devil’s role in such inductions tends to take on the tenor of a patron or godfather.  The Devil “sponsors” the initiating witch, usually offering a physical or magical token in exchange.  Some of these gifts include a familiar imp, spirit, or animal – See “Devil beetle bleeding toe” by Davies, or

exceptional magical and/or physical ability (such as the tale of the crossroads by Tommy Johnson, or any of the accounts of gamblers using the crossroads ritual in Harry M. Hyatt).  What the witch herself offers the Devil varies a bit.  Some examples are:

  • The life of someone near to her – “I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).
  • Her family – As happens, for example, in the Appalachian story of Jonas Dotson, a young man whose granddaddy and daddy were both preachers who decides to become a witch.  A very specific ceremony is laid out in the book, involving the use of stolen rams, toad’s blood, a pewter plate, a silver bullet, and an incantation.  He undergoes the initiation rite three times before it “takes” and the Devil makes him a witch (or in the context of the story, a conjure man).  Basically, he must untie the bonds of family in order to become a magician, and each initiation separates him further and further from those family members.  (Davis, p. 22-25)
  • A bit of her own flesh or blood – “If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return.  This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).
  • Her immortal soul – This is probably the most common story, and is what is frequently meant by “selling yourself” to the Devil.  In Vol. 2 of Harry M. Hyatt’s magnum opus on hoodoo folklore, a ritual for meeting the Devil in the form of a tornado at the crossroads ends with “An’ when he [the Devil] gits dere he tells them [the person at the crossroads] exactly whut tuh do, an’ dey’ll dance with him. Dat’s whut chew call sellin’ yo’self to de devil” (Hyatt, p.1346)
  • A person’s soul even after death.  W.J. Hoffman recounts a Pennsylvania-Dutch legend about a miserly man known as “Old Kent” whose death was presaged by all manner of supernatural occurrences, such as a murder of crows rapping at the windows. After he died, his wife heard such rapping frequently, so often in fact that no guests would stay the night and eventually she had to abandon the house altogether (Hoffman p. 34-5)

In many of the tales of the Devil as initiator, he also takes the new witch’s name down with a pen in a great black book, signifying the entry of the witch into a long line of witches whose names fill the book’s pages.  He is often quite terrifying to those who encounter him.  One account of a witch’s initiation witnessed by a couple of country men out in the woods describes him thus:

“Neither me nor Jeff had ever seed the Devil, and we couldn’t believe our eyes, but it must’ve been him.  He had horns just above his ears, his feet had hoofs like a deer, he had a long tail like a cow, and fiery eyes that looked like two boiled eggs.” (Davis, p. 17)

Quite frightening, no?

The gifts gained by becoming a witch through compact with the Devil often must be exercised regularly in order to remain potent.  Lapsing in witchcraft seems to lead to torment on the witch’s part if the Devil finds that she’s not been keeping up her end of the bargain by using her powers.  I would posit that while the folklore here superficially portrays the Devil as a cruel master, he may instead be a necessary goad.  After all, what great musician or momentous artist ever became who they are without practice?  Again, the Devil may be a stern teacher at times, but one that provides the necessary impetus for improvement in one’s craft.

In all of these particular aspects—mentor/sponsor, gift-giver, book-keeper/librarian, school-master—the Devil rather reminds me of a faculty member at a university, taking a student under his wing, and helping the young witch succeed in her field of calling.  But that may just be thoughts spurred on by my gearing up for graduate school again.  Because imagining the Devil as some doddering old professor is foolhardy at best.  He is, of course, more dangerous than I give him credit for.

Devil as Trickster

Tricksters are common in a number of cultural mythologies, and often have somewhat unsettling or frightening sides.  Because of these attributes, the Devil makes a perfect candidate for chief trickster in many folk tales.  Just as often as he tricks someone, though, the Devil also gets tricked or outwitted in some way.  This flip-side to his role provides a number of amusing tales, but I tend to think there’s a subtle willingness to play the fool on the Devil’s part, making the whole scenario one big trick in the end.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The lore about trickster Devils is not a New World phenomenon, of course.  There are several tales from Europe and Africa which feature a Devil or a diabolical trickster figure of some kind, such as the Grimm’s tale “The Devil’s Sooty Brother” or the Ashanti tales about Anansi the Spider (see Podcast 26).  Native Americans, however, also seemed to latch on to the concept of the tricksy Devil, and either came to the campfire with their own Devil tales or allowed a Devil to be integrated into their storytelling at times.  A legend recorded by Charles M. Skinner in 1896 discusses a land dispute between the Devil and the Long Island Native tribes which resulted in the creation of a natural landmark (see “The Devil’s Stepping-Stones”).

Skinner also records another wonderful story which has become a tightly integrated piece of Americana.  In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the poor, bedraggled title character meets the Devil in a wood outside of Boston, where they have this exchange:

“Who are you?” he [Tom] asked.

“I go by different names in different places,” replied the dark one. “In some countries I am the black miner; in some the wild huntsman; here I am the black woodman. I am the patron of slave dealers and master of Salem witches.”

“I think you are the devil,” blurted Tom.

“At your service,” replied his majesty.

The Devil coaxes Tom with the promise of treasure, which he at first resists, instead sending his wife to collect it instead.  When she disappears, he enters into his Faustian bargain and uses the money to set up a usury business.  He attempts at every turn to outwit the Devil, keeping a Bible on him at all times and even burying his horse feet up so that if the world turns upside down on Judgment Day, he’ll have a running start in escaping his fate.  Of course, the Devil finally catches Tom and spirits him off to hell, leaving behind only cinders and ashes in place of all his money and possessions.

What interests me about this particular tale is that unlike the European Faust, Tom Walker has no interest in magical gain or supernatural powers—only money.  Well, money and getting rid of his wife, that is.

Sometimes the Devil’s trickster competitions are with angels, saints, or even God.  In these cases, the Devil almost always loses, but often whatever occurs in the story has some lasting impact on the world.  The catfish, according to one Southern folk tale, gets its distinct and ugly appearance from a brush with the Devil.  God created the fish, then took the evening off to go up to the “Big House” with his archangels and eat supper.  When he came back down to the river, the Devil was sitting there descaling the fish.  God demanded he put the catfish back and the devil agreed.  The catfish rolled in the mud to make up for its lack of scales but never grew them back again (Leeming, p. 59-60).

Sometimes, of course, people do get the better of the Devil.  In a piece of Maryland folklore which parallels the Ashanti story of Anansi and Anene which I told in Podcast 26, a woman (who is never quite identified as a witch, peculiarly enough), enters into a contract with the Devil and outwits him at every turn:

“Not many outwitted the devil, but Molly Horn was one.  She and the devil contracted to farm on the Eastern Shore together.  They agreed that on the first crop Molly would take what grew in the ground and the devil would take what grew on top.  Molly planted white potatoes and the devil came out shortchanged.  So for the next crop they decided to do it the other way round, the devil getting what grew in the ground.  This time Molly planted peas and beans and once more the devil got nothing.  A hot argument ensued on the bank of the North West Fork of the Nanticoke River in Dorchester County.  Molly struck the devil a terrific crack and skidded him across the marsh to the edge of the Bay.  When he stood up and shook the mud off himself, it formed Devil’s Island, then he dove overboard and made Devil’s Hole.” (Carey, p. 49)

Sometimes, though, people don’t quite get the best of the trickster Devil, and pay a gruesome price.  Zora Neale Hurston records the tale of High Walker in her book, Mules & Men, in which the titular Mr. Walker gains necromantic powers from the Devil only to eventually be tricked into losing his head, literally, in a graveyard.

As a final point about the Devil as a trickster, I’d like to look at the Devil’s music.  As most probably know, the Devil loves music, especially fiddle music, and can be lured into a fiddle contest on a moment’s notice.  If you’ve ever heard the Charlie Daniels Band perform “The Devil went down to Georgia,” you know this story (a Mariachi band once sing this to my wife and me at a large Mexican wedding, which was a pretty phenomenal experience).  While it is an entertaining song even on its own, it has precedents in folklore, too:

“It is a well-known old belief that fiddlers make pacts with the devil in order to obtain their talent.  Players of old-time fiddle music commonly kept (and still keep) rattlesnake rattles in their fiddles, perhaps unconsciously associating a symbol of the devil with the instrument.  The devil appears as a serpent in Genesis, and he is more modernly portrayed playing a fiddle…the instrument has been called the devil’s box, the devil’s riding horse, and similar terms” (Milne, p.153)

Milne also asserts a connection between the rattles placed in the instrument and a similar practice in West Africa, something I’ve not had time to research but which adds an intriguing layer to this particular custom.

Well that’s it for the Devil for today.  I have a feeling he’ll be coming back up periodically.  When he does, hopefully I’ll be ready for him.  Perhaps I should start some fiddle lessons?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 124 – Tobacco

April 14, 2011

[A note here:  This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. Additionally, I am NOT condoning the use of cigarettes, snuff, or any other tobacco product, especially for minors. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions.  Leave me out of it.  Thank you!]

This particular magical herb/plant/ingredient is rather controversial. As a reformed smoker, I know the power of tobacco’s hold on a person—it’s not just the nicotine, but a whole range of psychological dependencies that develop when one is a smoker.  What I’m looking at in this post, however, is not really tobacco as a commodity sold in convenience stores using cartoon animals, but instead the plant found in the Nicotiana genus. Tobacco is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes other rather magical plants like belladonna, datura, and mandrake as well as common (yet mythically significant) edibles like the tomato, potato, and chili pepper.  The plant is also a potent natural insecticide—or insect deterent, rather—and an infusion of tobacco leaves in water is often sprayed in organic garden to keep pests away.

Tobacco, like corn, is deeply significant to certain Native American tribes, who incorporate tobacco into ceremonies and offerings.  Cherokee shamans, for example, would use sacred tobacco in ceremonies designed to combat “night-goers,” evil spirits or people who invaded the dreams of others.  Tobacco smoke was also used as a curative for a number of ailments, and these uses filtered into non-Native practices over time (which we’ll see in just a moment).

When tobacco met European colonists, it experienced a boom in popularity that has kept it one of the top cash crops worldwide ever since—for better or for worse.  It has been deeply wound up in the lives of most North Americans for centuries now, including in their folk medical and magical practices.  One oft-repeated use of the leaf was as a treatment for insect stings and bites, as well as other types of wounds:

  • Tobacco used as a poultice to soothe “abdominal pain…cuts, stings, bites, bruises, and even bullet wounds.” It is thought to “draw out poison” (Randolph, p. 98)
  • “TOBACCO. The leaves are put on a wound to stop bleeding or to prevent infection” (Gainer, p.109)
  • Tobacco, especially homegrown, is good for insect stings and bites (Foxfire 9, p. 66)
  • Wet leaves are wrapped on feet to prevent infection of “full sores” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • Tobacco juice/tea used to wash wounds from snake/dog bites (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • A personal informant told me that her grandmother used to put wads of chewing tobacco on cuts, bug bites, and stings to help heal them (informant “Darlene”)

The other chief folk medicinal use for tobacco was the application of smoke to sick or troubled persons.  There were almost as many mentions of this method as there were of the poultice method.  Here are a few:

  • Tobacco smoke can be held in the mouth as a cure for a toothache (Cavendar, p. 118-19)
  • Smoke was blown into an ear for an earache, accompanied by the rhyme “Hurt, Hurt, go away/go into a bale of hay” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • Tobacco smoke is blown into the clothes of colicky children to quiet them, or blown through a straw and “bubbled” in milk as a sedative (Randolph, p.98)

This method clearly derives (I think, anyway) from the Native American medical practices which Europeans adopted in the New World.

The use of tobacco has always had its controversies, of course.  Some objected to it on aesthetic grounds, thinking the act of smoking vulgar and primitive.  Others were disgusted by the smoke and smell associated with the burning leaves.  Still others thought it a waste of money or even a diabolical entrapment for hapless Christians.  One poem I found was circulated in the middle-Appalachians during the nineteenth century and covered all these points:

“Tobacco is an Indian weed,

The Devil himself sowed the seed;

Robs your pockets, burns your clothes,

And makes a chimney out of your nose” (Milne, p. 58)

The religious objections to tobacco were primarily on its use as a vice and an intoxicant.  According to Foxfire 7, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had especial objections to it, and for quite intriguing reasons:  “Smoking has always been completely out of vogue among Jehovah’s Witnesses…As the Society researched the derivations of tobacco and smoking, they found it to be associated with spiritism.”  They also related tobacco to “drugs” used by “priests in pagan ceremony and worship” (Foxfire 7, p. 152-3).

When it comes to purely magical uses of tobacco, the information I found varied a good bit.  Zora Neale Hurston mentions it as a cursing ingredient in a powerful separation spell.  She also tells a very interesting story about a man who takes shelter in an abandoned house only to be joined by a mysterious old man who begins spitting tobacco across the fire at him. When the man attempts to fight the old fellow, he finds himself thrown across the room over and over again.  In this context, there seems to be a subtle current relating the “old man” of the story to the Crossroads Man, Papa Legba, or perhaps the Devil (or maybe even all three from a certain perspective).

One article from 1890 indicated that tobacco was included in mojo bags made with the famous lucky rabbit’s foot.

Cat Yronwode recommends tobacco as an ingredient in court case and spirit contact work.  In this latter capacity, I’ve see tobacco used as an offering to various spirits, particularly crossroads entities and spirits of the dead (Central American folk-saint/crossroads spirit Maximon frequently smokes cigarettes or cigars).  Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook indicates that tobacco is frequently offered to Baron Samedi in the New Orleans Voodoo tradition.

I would also suggest that due to the calmative and drawing effects that tobacco exhibits in folk medicine, it makes a useful addition to house-cleansing and blessing incenses.  A very small pinch added to another incense blend in a well-ventilated house should draw evil spirits out of your home and welcome friendly (and particularly, ancestral) spirits into it.  If you or anyone you live with cannot abide tobacco smoke, however, consider burying a little cut tobacco leaf at the four corners of your property to produce a similar effect.

Lastly, if you choose to smoke tobacco in a ritual context, consider whispering prayers as you exhale smoke.  It makes a fantastic visual focus point to see your requests and adoration slowly rising from your mouth and into the air.  Again, I don’t condone smoking (especially not outside of a very occasional ritual setting), but if you do incorporate it into your practices, I hope that this suggestion helps.

That’s it for the devil-weed tobacco!  I hope this proves useful to some of you out there.  Please let me know if you have any other magical or folk remedy uses for tobacco leaf in the comments below.

As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 123 – Corn

April 12, 2011

[A note here:  This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions.  Leave me out of it.  Thank you!]

Today’s topic may not exactly pop out at you as a magical one (I beg forgiveness in advance for the bevy of bad puns this article may include), but corn is actually spiritually and magically significant in several parts of the North American continent.

Corn, or as most of the rest of the world knows it, maize (of the species Zea mays) is a crop which was domesticated by early Mesoamerican cultures and which has been a native staple food for thousands of years now (though its widespread use throughout all of North America may only be about one millennium old).  It has proven both extremely useful and occasionally problematic.  It is fairly easy to grow, and can be processed into any number of products, from food and food additives to industrial lubricants and even plastics.  I’m not going to get into the heavily heated debate about corn as a commodity crop and its place in modern economics and agriculture, as this is not a blog about either of those topics.  I will say, however, that while corn may have its downsides, it also has much to offer culturally and culinary, especially the homegrown sweet varieties (can’t imagine a summer barbecue without it!).

Native Americans depended greatly on corn for survival, and it figured in several native mythologies.  One of the best known stories is that of Kana’ti and Selu, the Hunter and the Corn Mother, from Cherokee mythology.  In this story, mother Selu tells her children that they must drag her body over the land when she dies and that corn will sprout wherever her corpse has been.  In this respect, her tale is not so very different than the John Barleycorn legend.  Folklorist James Mooney demonstrated that this story has parallels in Huron mythology as well (he also mentions that the Iroquois grow a specific type of magical tobacco, which is the subject of an upcoming post).

Picture of a Mid-Atlantic Cornfield with a Remnant Corn Offering, via listener Chet

Listener Chet wrote in with a bit of folklore regarding the Corn Mother from the Central Atlantic coast:

“I read an article, while researching the corn maiden aspect, that covered the offering and adoration of a field spirit not only in NA culture, but all over the world…what quite a few would do is, leave a section of the field uncut, as an offering to the Maiden. I had seen these areas, the past few years where I live, and really had no idea what the uncut areas were about until I read this article. So here we are at harvest time again, and I am seeing these areas once again. So I took a pic of one (see attached corn pic). I have a feeling these farmers are not actually making an offering to the Miaden per se, but the tradition seems to have carried over, so maybe it’s bad luck, to not leave part of the field uncut.”

Chet also included a bit of information on his own practices, including his practice of reburying part of any harvest as an offering to the Corn Mother.  Big thanks to him for the local lore and for the photo!

Moving into the Appalachians, corn becomes magical and medicinal, depending upon its application.  A variety of sources indicate that tea made from corn silk (the long, slightly sticky strands which jut out from the top of the ear and which serve as pollination conduits during the corn’s growth cycle) is excellent for clearing up kidney and urinary tract ailments.  This sentiment popped up in Foxfire 9, Anthony Cavendar’s Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, and even Karl Herr’s Hex & Spellwork (which indicates to me that it found a home with the PA-Dutch and the mountain folk alike).  Patrick Gainer shares an interesting West Virginian folk magical technique for healing warts.  According to his Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, warts are cured by making them bleed, rubbing the blood on corn kernels, and feeding the kernels to chickens.  This could be very similar to jinx-removing practices in hoodoo which also use chickens.

Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia rates corn as a top botanical panacea for mountain people:

“It may come as a surprise to some that Southern Appalahcians used cultigens like apples, corn, [etc.] as much as, if not more than, herbs for many illnesses.  The juice, silk, kernels, and shucks of corn, for example, wereused for a variety of illnesses” (p. 64).

Some of the cures listed in the book’s pages:

  • Corn milk/juice used to treat skin irritation
  • Warm cornmeal to treat sprains and mastitis
  • Corn fodder burned to smoke/sweat out measles

In the Ozark Mountains, Vance Randolph records a couple of bits of lore about corn, one of which is quite unique: “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist on sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before burial” (p. 315).  In light of Chet’s lore about burying corn as an offering to a Mother-figure and/or the land, I think this is pretty fascinating.  Is the corn an offering, and if so, is it for the actual deceased person, or for the land which will be surrounding that person soon?  Randolph also mentions a bit of weather lore, noting that the thickness of corn shucks indicates the severity of the coming winter.

Finally, I can’t discuss corn without at least mentioning the corn dolly which is so ubiquitous around Imbolc/Candlemas.  I won’t go into that particular association, as it seems to be well covered in other places, but I will say a corn dolly makes a very useful poppet for working figure magic, especially since it’s easy and cheap to find the basic materials you need (if you don’t have corn growing anywhere around you, look in the Hispanic portion of your local grocery—husks are almost always available there as tamale wrappers, and usually quite inexpensively as well).  Recent New World Witchery interviewee Dr. E mentioned the corn dolly poppet, if you’ll recall, and I think it’s an excellent way to craft a magical doll, especially one for burial or burning.  They tend to be easy to stuff with herbs and things like hair or fingernail clippings, and they can be made without requiring much skill (trust me on this, I know from experience, or rather, obvious inexperience). There are plenty of great places to learn dolly-making, but since I like the series so much I’ll go ahead and eagerly recommend the corn dolly tutorial found in Foxfire 3 (on pp. 453-460).

That’s it for corn (at least for now).  If you’ve got some magical lore regarding the use of corn, I’d love to read it!  Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory


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