Archive for the ‘Blog’ category

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.)


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!


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!


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!


Quick Update – Reminders, Thanks, Apologies

April 4, 2011

Hi everyone!

First of all, I just want to say a HUGE thank you to everyone who’s written, posted, tweeted, or otherwise shown support and love during the past couple of weeks after the arrival of my new daughter.  She’s doing well (other than a little cold which she got from her big brother), and we’re starting to normalize.

I also wanted to apologize very sincerely to anyone who is waiting on a response from me via email or comment.  I always mark incoming emails and comments so that I can get back to them, but it is just taking me a while to get around to responding at this point.  I will be writing to anyone who’s written to us as soon as possible, so thank you for your patience, and sorry again for the delay.

There will be more material up on the site soon (I’m working on a few articles now), and Laine and I are already planning more episodes and lining up more guests.  So if your inbox has been a little light lately due to my absence, rest assured I’ll be burdening you with my insufferable prattle again soon.

Finally, I wanted to remind everyone, especially those of you who write, that there is an open call for submissions from Misanthrope Press right now.  They’ve got a Pagan-themed short story anthology called “Etched Offerings: Voices from the Cauldron of Story” that they are putting together, and they will be accepting your work right through the end of this month.  So if you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please do so!  Complete submission guidelines are here.

Thanks again for all the support and patience!  I’ll be in touch soon!


She’s Here!!!

March 17, 2011

This is a quick post to announce the newest member of the New World Witchery family, my daughter!  She arrived safe and sound on the evening of March 16th, and is doing quite well.  Mama and daddy are very proud, and her big brother is already giving her kisses (though we don’t expect that to last long).  Here’s a picture of our lovely little girl:

I probably don’t have to say this, but the blog will not be getting much attention for a week or two (though I do have a few articles in the works, and a podcast nearly ready for release, so it won’t be completely silent here).  Likewise, the Etsy shop is down for a bit, though I do have several things already in the works there, too. But for now, I just want to say a big thank you to everyone who’s sent love, support, prayers, spells, and good wishes to us during the difficult past few months.  It’s all paid off beautifully in the form of a gorgeous girl.  Now all I have to decide is what type of pony to get her first…

Thanks for everything!


Blog Post 122 – Bibliomancy

March 10, 2011

I thought today we would take a look at one of the many divinatory systems found in the New World, and one which has remained popular through the centuries:  bibliomancy.  We discussed this topic during our most recent episode, but I have wanted to expand upon it a bit.  The practice of bibliomancy as a form of divination is common enough in the New World that many folks who wouldn’t touch any other type of magical practice might be persuaded to do at least one of the methods below.

Probably the most commonly used book for bibliomancy is the Christian (or in some cases, Hebrew) Bible.  Other texts can be used, however, and it would not be out of place to turn to a favorite book of poetry, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or any other piece of writing.  The overarching control factor seems to be that the inquiring party must feel the book has some kind of power.  Whether that power is religious/spiritual or simply the force of knowledge or even a fondness born of favoritism does not seem to matter much; just the reverence offered the text is enough to imbue it with oracular power.

The methods for bibliomancy break down into roughly three categories:  scanning the text (either at random or specifically), using interpretive devices such as dice, and a very particular technique involving a key.


This is probably the most familiar method, and the one which is least likely to raise eyebrows among laity.  People frequently look for signs from God or at least from somewhere else to help point them towards good decisions in times of doubt (or they like to have signs that affirm their choices, depending on your perspective).  I’ve known even the most skeptical and non-magically inclined folks to flop open a Bible and point at the page without looking in order to find what will hopefully be a relevant quote.  For those who want a little more magic in the process, however, it might help to get into a ritual mindset before posing questions to the Divine.  In Draja Mickaharic’s Magical Spells of the Minor Prophets, he notes:

“When selecting a verse that is pertinent to the situation the person finds themselves in, it is generally necessary that the person looking for the verse compose themselves and place a bible before them, either on their lap or on a table.  They then are to concentrate upon the matter that troubles them.  Once the true question is firmly in the mind of the person seeking an answer, the bible is opened randomly, and without looking at the pages, a finger is set upon some part of the page.  The verse so indicated by the person’s finger would then reveal some advice, or lead to a solution to the question that has been poised, or even reveal a solution to the problem at hand” (p.125)

There are other ways to consult a holy book for heavenly guidance, too.  Jewish folklore and magical practice interprets scriptural passages incidentally, rather than just directly, for instance.  From Jewish Magic & Superstition by Joshua Trachtenberg:

“The familiar use of Scripture in divining (Bibliomancy) was not unknown to Jews. The Romans had thus employed Vergil [sic]; the Bible was already put to this use by Christians before the eight century; in medieval Germany hymn- and prayer-books served the same purpose. But Jews did not have to borrow this device from their neighbors.  In Talmudic times it was common practice to ask children what verses they had studied that day in school, and to accept them as good or bad omens, an expedient that persisted throughout the Middle Ages.  The more usual procedure of opening the Bible at random and taking the first word or sentence that strikes the eye as a portent, was also followed.  Similarly, ‘if, upon awakening, one recalls a Biblical verses, this passage is to be regarded as a”minor prophecy,” and if it is an ominous passage, one should fast.’” [footnoted to   Pa’aneah Raza on Leviticus and Perles’ Beitrege] (p. 216)

Trachtenberg goes on to say that no special skills were required for bibliomancy and anyone can do it, and that it is also connected to the act of sortilege/casting lots (much like the Dice Method).

One of the more peculiar and interesting methods of scanning a text for magical guidance comes from New World Witchery standby Vance Randolph:

“Many hillfolk tell fortunes and predict marriages by means of certain quotations from the Bible.  For example, the twenty-first and thirty-first chapters of Proverbs have thirty-one verses each.  Chapter 21 is the man’s birthday chapter; chapter 31 is the woman’s birthday chapter.  A boy looks up his proper verse in the man’s chapter, according to the date of his birth.  A man born on the twenty-third of any month, for example, reads Proverbs 21:23—the content of this verse is supposed to be equally significant to him” (OM&F, p. 184)

In my case, the Proverb says, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty, /But those of everyone who is hasty, surely to poverty.”  Patience has been a long-standing goal of mine, even from when I was very young, so I do think this method may hold some merit.  Or it may be a strange coincidence.  Either way, I really like it for its unique spin on a traditional method.


I mentioned this method in Podcast 25, too, but I thought it would be good to write it out here for those who are interested.  Connected to one of the few methods of divination not condemned by the New Testement—casting lots—the use of dice in conjunction with the Bible might raise eyebrows now, but it actually makes a great deal of sense.  And when you consider that dice were (and are) often made of bone, the vaguely necromantic side of this method begins to surface.  The method cited here comes from Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells:

Lord Thoth’s Trio

Thoth, Egyptian lunar god, is given credit for inventing books, magic, and dice.  All are combined in the following method.

  1. Formulate your question, while holding dice.
  2. Close your eyes and flip open the book.
  3. Gently, with eyes remaining closed, toss the dice onto the open book.

Read the passage indicated by the location of the fallen dice.  An alternative is to read the passage indicated by the numbers shown on the dice—thus you might begin on the sixth line, third word or similar.  If using numeral coordination, it’s not necessary for the dice to actually land on the page, although both methods can be integrated.

There’s no reason other interpretive items could not be used similarly, though the precedent doesn’t exist to my knowledge.  I can imagine, however, that a deck of cards could be likewise consulted in conjunction with the holy book of choice, and the number or value of the card taken as a guidepost in determining which verse to read.


Arrow over at the Wandering Arrow blog actually mentioned this a while ago, and it’s her post (and an email she sent me) which really sparked my entire research bender into the subject.  The overall method seems to derive from a folk Catholic practice which was outlined in Reginald Scot’s 1584 treatise on magic, The Discoverie of Witchcraft.  In this book, Scot lampoons the “popish” superstitions of the Catholics, and cites an example of their folk magic involving a scriptural text (a psalter) and a skeleton key:

“Popish preests (saith he) as the Chaldceans used the divination by sive & sheeres for the detection of theft, doo practise with a psalter and a keie fastned upon the 49. psalme, to discover a theefe. And  when the names of the suspected persons are orderlie put into the  pipe of the keie, at the reading of these words of the psalme (If thou  sawest a theefe thou diddest consent unto him) the booke will wagge, and fall out of the fingers of them that hold it, and he whose name remaineth in the keie must be the theefe.” (Ch. 5)

The Psalm cited, the 49th, is full of memento mori imagery, reminding the singer that death comes to all, and none escapes God’s eye.  The connection between this method and the sieve and shears method—both of which involve tenuously suspending something and asking questions until it begins to move—is also interesting, as the sieve and shears appear in witch folklore, too (see “The Horned Women” tale from Ireland).  Scot’s mention of this form of bibliomancy is brief, though, and a a more thorough description of the method can be found in Draja Mickaharic’s Magical Spells of the Minor Prophets:

“In the second method of divining using the bible, a key, one of those old fashioned ‘skeleton keys,’ is used in addition to the bible.  The key is placed somewhere in the bible, keyed end first, so that the turning end protrudes, sticking out of the wide end of the bible.  To keep the key in the bible in this manner, the bible must be tied closed.  This may be done with rubber bands or with string, however the person desiring to read in this manner chooses.  Irregardless of how the bible is held closed, it is important that it be tied or held tightly, as the bible will be suspended from the key when this work of divination is being done.  Once the key when this work of divination is being done.  Once the key is fixed in the bible in this manner, the bible is suspended from the fingers of both hands, usually one finger under each of the keys turning end.  In that precarious position, a question is asked, either having a yes or no answer, or several questions.” (p. 125)

In this method, the person reading must determine what yes and no are before asking the question, whether it turns or wobbles one way or the other.  Mickaharic says this is very effective, and that “the first time I did this, the bible actually jumped from my fingers when the question was answered with a no.”

This method is also backed up by practices within the hexenmeister community.  In Chris Bilardi’s Red Church, he provides an almost identical system for inserting a key into the Bible, binding it, and suspending it while asking questions.  He is more specific about which books to use, however:  “Take the key and place it into the Bible.  Some traditional places to put it are the Book of Ruth (Chapter 1), the Gospel of John (any of the Four Gospels, really), and the Epistle of James” (Red Church, p. 303).  It’s very interesting to me that the Book of Ruth shows up repeatedly in magical bible study.  That might be a topic for another day, though.

So that’s it for basic bibliomancy!  I hope this has been informative and useful to you.  If you have any other examples of this method, or stories to share about using this or similar techniques, we’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading!



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