Archive for the ‘Blog’ category

Blog Post 118 – Four Thieves Vinegar

February 2, 2011

Greetings everyone!

I recently received an email regarding a topic we discussed on the podcast a while back:

“Cory, on one episode you mention 4 thieves vinegar and was wondering if you had the recipe. I totally want to make some! I heard what items go into it, but don’t know the proportions.”

I was surprised that I actually haven’t done a post on this yet, as it is such a fundamental formula, and so easy to make.  So today I thought I’d put up some information on this particular recipe.

Let’s start with the history.  The legend is that sometime during the plague years of the 16th and 17th centuries, a story went about that four spice merchants had discovered a secret formula which made them immune to the plague and which they’d rub on their bodies before robbing corpses ravaged by the disease.  That formula was eventually revealed to be a strong red wine vinegar with a number of different spices—reputedly one for each thief—most notably a lot of garlic.  Vinegar and garlic have some strong antiseptic properties, so it’s not hard to imagine that in a time before Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microorganisms in 1675 any application of anti-microbial formula would help prevent a communicable disease.

Of course, the history provided is the stuff of legend, and may or may not have a basis in fact.  The earliest English reference to the Four Thieves and their famous concoction appears in 1825, in the publication Pharmacologia, where it is referred to as Four Thieves Vinegar or Marseilles Vinegar, after the French region where some legends claim the Thieves operated.  A 1939 article published in Pennsylvania History by Mulford Stough notes that the formula was used in Philadelphia during the outbreak of a plague during the 1790’s.  Stough blames the outbreak on the huge influx of immigrants from Santo Domingo (basically the Haitian Revolution concurrent with that time period sent a large number of Dominicans and Haitians fleeing to America, through major centers like New Orleans and Philadelphia).  While there’s no explicit link between the use of the vinegar formula to battle the disease and the immigrants themselves, I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of speculation here and say that there is a connection.  Whether the European formula entered the immigrants’ magical systems here, or whether the arrival of the immigrants (who may already have been using the formula magically) spurred its resurgence, I cannot say.

What I can say is that the potion did enter into the folk magical practices of America, and has continued to remain popular.   It’s also a flexible formula, one that has been adapted and changed many times over the years, depending on the need of the practitioner.  Here I’d like to give you my own personal recipe and method for making it and tell you a bit about how I use it, then look at some variations from other recipes and magical folk.

Cory’s Four Thieves Vinegar (please feel free to copy, use, distribute, etc. with attribution)

Ingredients

  • One pint mason jar, filled to just about 3/4 full with good cider vinegar
  • One head of garlic, peeled of skins (around 8-12 cloves)
  • One large handful of red chili flakes (probably about 2 tbsp, though I don’t measure that way when I make this stuff)
  • One large handful of black mustard seeds (again, around 2 tbsp, and if you can’t find black mustard, brown will be fine, though you might want to toast them to release their oils and blacken them a bit)
  • One handful of salt (not quite as much, maybe 1.5 tbsp)–kosher or sea salt are best
  • Optional ingredients include: a sprig of rue (I usually include), black peppercorns (small handful of these), rosemary, other types of chilies such as habanero or jalapeno, guinea pepper grains, galangal root, ginger root, etc.  You only need a little bit of any of these to boost the overall strength of the mix.

Put your ingredients into your mason jar, making sure it doesn’t overflow.  Cap and seal, then shake vigorously for 30-60 seconds.  Put it a cool, dark place or a refrigerator.  Shake daily for 2 weeks, then keep stored in a dark pantry or a fridge.

If you want to time your vinegar production magically, set it up to begin when the moon is waxing and finish when the moon is full if you intend to use it  for protection.  Go from full to new moon if you want to use it to banish someone/thing.  If you can make it while the moon is “in Aries,” “in Leo,” or “in Sagittarius” that might boost its power, too.

The ways I use FTV tend to be protective and for uncrossing work.  A little can be added to a bath to help knock off any evil eyes or general bad luck.  During spring cleaning, I usually add a little urine (in a separate bucket, please!) and red brick dust to a wash that I use on the front door and porch steps of my home to repel any harm sent my way.  One of my favorite ways to use FTV is to mix it with some olive oil and put it on a salad as a sort of spring tonic to clear out any lingering malevolence that might have accrued in my body.  Adding a tablespoon of it to a glass of water and drinking every morning is another good way to go (I’ll admit that I did this for a while but eventually let it slide and now just use the salad dressing method instead).

If you want to use it for banishing someone, you can break a bottle of it on their property (much like War Water) or stick their name paper in a jar of the vinegar—maybe with an extra handful of red pepper flakes to really heat up the spell.  Or, and this is probably going to blow your mind, give it to them to eat.  But wait! you say.  I’ve been eating it all along and it’s protecting me.  What’s going on here?  This is one of those weird circumstances where intention seems to play a part.  If you serve it to them with the desire to get them to leave you alone, that seems to be enough.  Of course, if you’ve timed the production to make the vinegar essentially banishing anyway—in which case I hope you’re not eating it—then intention may or may not really be what’s causing the results.

Okay, so now for the variations.  Of course, there are lots of folks who follow the older French recipe and use red wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar.  I just use the latter because it’s more typically American and thus something I have a stronger connection to, but feel free to use either version.  Other variations include one from author Ray T. Malbrough’s Charms, Spells, & Formulas in which he says: “To a gallon of strong cider vinegar add a handful of the following: rosemary, wormwood, lavender, rue, sage, and mint.  Add 1 ounce of powdered camphor gum.”  He goes on to recommend shaking and heating the mix for four days before finally straining it and bottling it, and that would definitely speed up the process.  I would say, however, that ingesting this version might not be a good idea with the camphor gum in it (camphor is poisonous if swallowed).  Malbrough recommends the vinegar as a cursing agent, one that can be used to cross someone’s luck or break up their home.

Cat Yronwode speaks of its uses, saying “Four Thieves Vinegar is used for protection, because it contains garlic, and also to cause confusion and discord among enemies, because it is sour” (p. 203).  Jim Haskins mentions it as “bad vinegar” in his book Voodoo & Hoodoo, and talks of it being used to curse and break up homes.

Draja Mickaharic gives a recipe in his book, A Century of Spells:

“To make the original Four Thieves Vinegar, peel a number of cloves of garlic.  Place the garlic in a clean glass bottle.  When the bottle is full of peeled garlic cloves, wine vinegar is poured over the garlic until the bottle is full.  The bottle can then be capped and placed in the refrigerator, root cellar, or spring house for a week or so.  The vinegar should be used a little at a time, with new wine vinegar being added as some is drawn out.  It will last a year or so before a new batch needs to be made” (p. 130-31).

Mickaharic also says that “Purists use a red Bordeaux wine, and wait for it to turn to vinegar before using it…Apple cider vinegar is not the ‘real thing’ but it works just as well in magic and better for some healing work,” which is basically how I feel about the topic.  He recommends it as a spring tonic and calls it a great salad dressing, too!

Northwoods witch Sarah Lawless says that her FTV uses “the old school recipe which is more a tonic than a crossing blend – onion, garlic, thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender, peppercorns, bay leaves, and red wine with red wine vinegar”  (Thanks Sarah!).

One of the more unusual recipes I’ve found for this mixture is from Dorothy Morrison’s Utterly Wicked, which lists the recipe as including Adam & Eve Root (a type of endangered orchid found in the eastern U.S.), John the Conqueror root, black pepper, and vetivert.  This is a recipe I also would probably never eat, as the High John root comes from the Ipomoea genus which has demonstrated toxicity.  However, this recipe is very unique as it does not contain most of the key ingredients found in other blends: garlic, red pepper, rosemary, etc.  About the only ingredients it has in common with other recipes are black pepper and, well, vinegar.  I’ve not tested the efficacy of this version, so if anyone out there has, I’d love to know what you think of it!

Four Thieves Vinegar continues to be popular among occultists and witches, but it’s got a broader appeal, as well.  One of the best sites I found while researching this article was Secret of the Thieves, a website which tells the history of FTV and offeres a wide range of products based on the recipe such as toothpaste, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, soap, and even dental floss!

So if you’re looking for a good, widely-used folk-magical formula, I recommend making this rather simple one yourself.  It’s easy, has protective and cursing applications, and keeps for a long time.  If you have other variants, I’d love to hear those, and if you find new applications for the vinegar, please let me know those as well!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Quick Update – Call for Submissions

January 26, 2011

Attention all writers!

I know there are at least a few folks who read the blog or listen to the podcast and who also enjoy wordsmithing in a fictive vein.  In case you haven’t heard, Misanthrope Press is holding an open call for submissions of short fiction to be included in their upcoming Etched Offerings: Voices from the Cauldron of Story pagan fiction anthology.  They’ve extended their submission deadline to the end of April, so I highly recommend you put together your best short story with touches of the magical, the mythical, and the metaphorical and send it over to them for consideration.  Here are some of the details from their website:

“If you are reading this anywhere other than www.misanthropepress.com, we urge you to visit our website and view the full guidelines page. We have had to reject several submissions that did not fit our intended theme because people didn’t fully review the guidelines first; we don’t want you to waste your own time by being another one. Etched Offerings: Voices From the Cauldron of Story is a Pagan religion themed short fiction anthology. We are seeking stories about, or relevant to, contemporary Pagan paths and lifestyles, regardless of tradition. Stories about the gods and goddesses, about modern Wiccans, witches, shamans, and other magickal practitioners, as well as fantasy stories of myth and magick are all welcome…

Stories that retell existing myths and legends are acceptable, but there needs to be an original twist or fresh perspective in the telling…

Stories not strictly about Pagan topics, but featuring Pagan characters are very welcome…

We are not looking for stories that focus too heavily on how difficult it is to be Pagan in our society. It’s a valid issue, very much so in some geographic regions, but it’s not what we want to focus on in this anthology.  We’re looking for stories that celebrate the joys and rewards of following a Pagan path, not ones that lament the challenges we face. If your character faces such a challenge and overcomes it, and your story focuses on the triumph of that, that’s acceptable. We won’t, however, accept many stories of this nature, so keep that in mind when submitting.

Along these same lines, while we will potentially accept a very small number of stories that deal with the clash of religious beliefs and/or groups, we won’t be accepting any stories that directly criticize or bash the beliefs of another group. It’s a fine line, we realize; if you’re not confident in your ability to walk it, pick another topic for your story.”

Full guidelines are available at the Misanthrope Press site, so please head over there and throw your ink-stained hat in the ring!

Good luck, and happy writing!

-Cory

Blog Post 117 – Favorite Non-magical New Media

January 25, 2011

Hi everyone!

Today’s post is actually not much concerned with witchcraft or magic, so if you usually read for those reasons, you might want to skip it.  Instead, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’m listening to or reading when I’m not focused on purely magical pursuits.  It’s no secret I have a deep love for folklore and Americana, but I’m also deeply interested in science and history as well.  I think they’re very important because they are two of the best references for understanding the world and our place in it we have available.  They are balanced by folklore and magic, I think, and so I tend to get very into them.  So here are some of my top new media (i.e. blog and podcast) sites:

History

The History of Rome – Podcast – Mike Duncan’s magnificent podcast has been going on for well over two years now, and shows no signs of slowing down.  Each episode, which can range from 15 to 35 minutes long, covers a segment of Roman history, from the mythical origins to the military victories to the day-to-day life Romans endured or enjoyed depending on their station.  I’ve learned so much from this show.  Of particular interest to those who read this blog might be episodes 86, 87, and 88, which touch on the daily life of Romans, including their religious doings.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.
12 Byzantine Rulers – Podcast – This series from Lars Brownworth, a noted historian and also the voice behind the Norman Centuries podcast, is a wonderful overview of the Byzantine Empire.  Brownworth covers the rise and fall of one of the most interesting and oft-misunderstood empires in history with depth and narrative enthusiasm.  If all history were this interesting, we’d have a lot more historians around.  I also recommend his excellent book on Byzantium, Lost to the West.
Appalachian History – Podcast & Blog – This is a wonderful site and show which has the feel of an audio newsletter, complete with short tales, historical notes, and anecdotes about life in Appalachia, particularly during the Depression.  The production is quite nice, with little filmstrip-soundtrack bells between each segment, and a brief overview of the topics covered in audio abstract format at the top of the episode.  The site is updated more frequently than the podcast, but both are well worthwhile, and even occasionally touch on magical topics, as in the post on the Blood Verse.
The Blind Pig & the Acorn – Blog – This is a lovely and well done blog which looks at not only historical Appalachia, but modern-day mountain life, too.  There are a number of topics covered, from gardening and self-sufficiency to medicine to music to storytelling.  There’s even a wonderful series of posts about planting by the signs, which might be of interest to folks here.
Backstory with the American History Guys – Podcast – This NPR-produced show features three professors of history with different specialties (18th, 19th, and 20th centuries) tracing the course of particular topics throughout American history.  Topics have included a history of courtship and romance, a history of ghosts and the supernatural, and even a history of climate control and air conditioning!  The rapport between the hosts is stellar, and the information is always fascinating.  If you have any interest in American history, give them a listen.

Science

RadioLab – Podcast – This deeply fascinating WNYC/NPR show features two hosts with a lot of good questions tackling some very big topics in science.  For instance, shows cover topics like dreams and Sleep, conceptions of the Afterlife, the nature of Words and language, finding Limits of human performance, the wonderful world of Parasites, and Stochasticity (I’ll let you look that one up).  Jad and Robert make the universe seem like a playground, albeit a big, terrifying one sometimes, and their probing show really unearths a lot of new questions for the curious listener.  The production values are phenomenal, too!  Plus they often have great music (this is where I discovered the amazing cellist Zoe Keating, and They Might Be Giants are apparently fans of the show, too).
Earth & Sky – Podcast & Blog – This is a wonderful short series on the many different aspects of physical science that influence our daily lives.  They cover everything from asteroids and space dust to the shifting coastlines of major continents to the influence of rare earth elements on our economy.  You can subscribe to particular feeds following particular topics, or get your fill of the whole shebang if you prefer.
The Naked Scientists – Podcast – This show, which also features offshoot programs on Africa, Archaeology, Engineering, etc. is loaded with lots of short, fun, interesting segments.  It primarily deals with the basic processes of science and how they relate to understanding our world today, but there are occasional segments related to historical science as well which are quite fascinating.  They feature guests, field reports, and lecture-style deliveries on a wide range of topics, which should certainly whet the appetite of any eager science aficionados.
Nature – Podcast – A group of scientists connected with the journal of the same name host this very informative show which doesn’t focus on current events in science, but rather spends a lot of time looking at the natural world and trying to understand it.  It gets some criticism because it is definitely aimed at scientists, but usually it’s not that hard to follow and the more difficult stuff just makes me more curious.  Give it a listen if you have an interest in natural science!
Borealis Meditation – Podcast – Okay, okay, this IS a pagan podcast from one of our own, Kathleen.  But let me be frank here in saying I get a huge education in earth science every time I tune into the show, and actually find myself listening more for that angle than any other.  Great science, great host, very enjoyable show!

Folklore

The Moonlit Road – Podcast – A delightful podcast which tackles individual tales from American folklore in every episode.  Master storytellers recount these famous stories, like “Taily-po” and “The Blue Girl.”  It has relatively high production values, and always makes me happy when I see a new episode available (though I could do without the cricket noises on the webpage).  A great listen!
To the Best of Our Knowledge – Podcast – This one is not strictly folklore, but also covers things like science, sociology, literature, etc.  However, I’ll be honest, I don’t always listen to the episodes on topics I’m not interested in, so I primarily hear the information on literature and folklore.  Some of the great episodes in that vein have been the episodes on Magic and Fairy Tales.
Librivox – Audio Archive – I’m a huge fan of this project, which aims to take all public domain literature and provide volunteer-created audio recordings of it to everyone.  I’m working on getting a few tales together myself for this site, and I love listening to all sorts of folklore, including the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights.  As it is volunteer-based, the quality of the audio varies a bit, but overall it seems to be audible and there are a variety of voices to experience, which is very nice in my opinion.
Hometown Tales – Podcast – This show really focuses on listener-submitted lore, and as such, doesn’t get a whole lot of scholarly points.  However, as far as fun and interest go, this podcast is really solid.  The hosts have a good chemistry together, and the stories are presented with a little bit of humor and a sense of combined belief/unbelief that makes each topic more intriguing.  If nothing else, it usually sends me scrambling for a pen so I can look up some of the lore they present and find out more about it, which is always a good thing.
The Moth – Podcast – Another show from NPR which isn’t so much about folklore as it is about storytelling.  As such, I can’t really say it’s folklore in the way I usually mean it, but it still fits as storytelling is a major folk art and one I particularly love.  And the stories are often very fun, funny, or poignant, with occasional forays into the magical.  It’s a grab bag, really, but I think it’s worth listening to.

Religion

Speaking of Faith – Podcast – Host Krista Tippett discusses religion with some of the most fascinating religious figures out there.  If you’re into comparative religion, I highly recommend this show.  Some highlights have included episodes on ethical eating, a discussion on Ojibwe language and story, and a wonderful show about Haitian Vodou.
The SaintCast – Podcast – Dr. Paul Camerata does a marvelous job exploring the Catholic faith through the lives of the saints.  While he would probably not be thrilled to see his show linked from this particular site, I personally love his show, which features “Saint Jeopardy!” and a weekly saints calendar.  You get historical information as well as the lore surrounding the saint, often from primary sources, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to, if you happen to like saints.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, if you can’t tell, but I also have a heck of a commute to work every day.   And I’m not even including things like my foreign-language podcasts which I use to help improve my Spanish and German vocabulary!  I don’t know if this post will turn anyone on to some new listening material, but if it does, that’s great!  Of course, I’m really hoping none of these shows will replace New World Witchery on your mp3 player…but that would be impossible, right?  Right?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 116 – Cursing Psalms (part II)

January 20, 2011

Staying on the dark side of things today, I’m going to continue the theme I started in my previous blog post on the biblical Psalms which have been used to curse.  In this post, I’ll be looking at several of the most commonly used Psalms, as well as some of the spells which are built around them.

To begin, let’s look at the spell that prompted this whole topic.  From Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells:

The Cursing Psalm

The power to heal can be the power to harm.  Even something as intrinsically good and sacred as a psalm may be used malevolently.  Psalm 109 has been called ‘the cursing psalm.’  It may be chanted to harm an enemy.

The psalm itself is inherently benevolent.  It’s your emotion and intention that transforms it.  Therefore the fist step is to be in the right mood.  Then start chanting and visualizing.” (p. 575)

This is certainly the most intensive of the cursing Psalms, including the admonitions:

9Let his [one’s enemy] children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

10Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

13Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

Not pleasant stuff, certainly.  This one is powerful enough that merely chanting it while focusing on an enemy should cause him or her some distress.  However, before simply writing this particular Psalm off as evil, I should point out that it also gets interpreted in more positive ways.  Ray T. Marlbrough says it is used “To protect from an enemy, persisting in bothering you” (Magic Power of the Saints).  In this light, it is not so much of a curse as a barrier against harm.  Braucher Chris Bilardi recognizes its power to be used “against a tenacious enemy,” but also says it is useful “for acquiring friends” (The Red Church).  So even the “cursing Psalm” has its upside.

Next, let’s lok at Psalm 70 in a spell from  Hyatt’s books, via the HyattSpells Yahoo! Group:

CUT LIMB FROM A TREE THAT IS WITHERING
WHILE MENTIONING WHICH LIMB OF YOUR ENEMY YOU WISH TO BE AFFECTED, OR WHILE MENTIONING OVERALL WITHERING AS YOUR INTENT;
READ THE 70TH PSALM ON YOUR ENEMY;
BURY WITHERED LIMB WITH YOUR ENEMY’S UNDERWEAR -
– TO HURT BY DRYING THEM UP

When ah want someone tuh dry up, or tuh hurt them, yo’ go to a tree an’ git a tree that’s withered all up, dryin’ up.  Yo’ don’t know the cause of the tree dryin’ up but chure not supposed tuh know how come the tree is witherin’ up yo’self tuh do this.  Yo’ jes’ git the witherin’ tree that’s dyin’, an’ yo’ cut a branch offa that tree, see.  An’ yo’ want that person – whatevah limb yo’ want that person tuh lose when yo’ cut this branch offa this tree, yo’ mention de limb that chew want ‘em tuh lose, if it’s the right laig or the right arm.  It won’t work on they haid; it’ll work on a limb, yore arm or yore laig.  An’ then yo’ bury this withered tree wit some of this person’s underwear.  Until it’s found, why they’ll wither away or lose dere laig or lose they arm, whichevah yo’ say, an’ they’ll be lingerin’ from it.  Co’se if yo’ don’t want ‘em tuh die like that or lose their laig or arm, yo’ would say, “Let ‘em wither as dis tree withers.”  But chew would have tuh read de 70th Psalms tuh do that work.  De 70th Psalms will dry that person up, jes’ wither him up.  De 70th Psalms will dry yo’ up jes’ like a herrin’ – yo’ see, a dry herrin’.  Yo’ read de 70th Psalms on anyone an’ it will dry ‘em up.

[Memphis, TN.  Informant #926 and #1538 (this is one informant, two different interview dates); B45:19-B51:1 = 1503-1509 and D96:1-D110:2 = 2779-2793.]

This is definitely a severe curse, in that it aims to cause at least semi-permanent damage to a person’s body.  Both Bilardi and the Curious Curandera also list this Psalm as one to be used for overcoming evil, particularly bad habits—the withering of a limb in this case being the withering of the wicked part of oneself that must be removed.

Some of the other Psalms that may be used in a cursing capacity include:

Psalm 7 – Used to overcome enemies, especially those who plot against one secretly

Psalm 48 – To undo envious enemies; according to Malbrough, it can also be used to “strike fear into your enemies”

Psalm 52 – Used to punish one’s enemies, especially those who use magic against one

Psalm 53 – Which can be used to curse someone who is being stubborn, or to inflict blindness (mental or physical)

Psalm 59 – Henri Gamache has a ritual “to overcome an enemy” using this Psalm and several candles (see Master Book of Candle Burning)

Psalm 93 – Used in legal cases where one has been unjustly accused in order to cross the one who brought the charges

Psalm 100 – According to Bilardi, this Psalm is for “overcoming enemies and obstacles” (TRC)

Psalm 109 – The Curious Curandera recommends this one “to overcome a strong enemy, for the ungrateful people who turn against their benefactors”

Psalm 120 – To stop gossip against one or to cross one’s enemies in court cases

Psalm 140 – Against anyone “evil,” though I think that is a fairly subjective idea.  It is also used like Psalm 52 against anyone who has worked harmful magic against one

In all of these cases, the Psalms themselves are sometimes all you need, though the more one wants to add to the process, the more potent the curse will be.   Muttering the curse over a candle with an enemy’s name carved into it would be a simple and not-terribly-visceral way to do it.  Sewing up one of these Psalms into a doll-baby containing an enemy’s hair or foot track and tossing it into a fire, burying it in the earth, or dropping it into a jar full of baneful herbs and oils would be a pretty big curse.  The mechanics of the curse really would depend upon the practitioner.

Before I finish up today, I thought I’d also look at a few of the other curse verses employed from the Bible.  Just as non-Psalmic verses (like the Blood Verse in Ezekiel 16) and extra-biblical prayers can be employed to do good works, there are a few passages which have some crossing power in them.  These are taken from a very fine book on Old Testament magic called Jewish Magic & Supersition, by Joshua Trachtenberg:

“Against an enemy: Ex. 15:5; 15:6; 15:9; 15:19; Deut. 22:6; Is. 10:14 and Prov. 1:17

To cause an enemy to die: Nu. 14:37

To cause an enemy to drown: Ex. 15:10

Against slander: Ex. 15:7

To cause a man who has sworn falsely to die within a year:  Ex. 15:12

To cause a curse to take effect: Lev. 27:29” (p. 110)

Pretty rough stuff!  All of these curses make me want to up my protection factor quite a bit.  You can’t be too careful out there, where magic is concerned.

I hope this has been useful to someone.  If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment or email me.  For now, blessings upon you for reading this (after all these curses, you might need them!).
And, of course, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 115 – Cursing Psalms (part I)

January 18, 2011

Several months ago, I received an email from a reader/listener asking about the use of certain biblical texts in the context of cursing.  It said:

“I have been reading Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells and came across Psalms 109 being used as a hex. I did not know that you could use Bible verses as a hex. Can you give me more info of this Psalms 109 hex?”

So I thought that today I might start to look at some of the “cursing Psalms,” with an eye to their historical precedents, their place in American folk magic, and some ideas of what to do with them.  Before I get too far into the topic, however, please let me emphasize that using any curse is tricky, and biblical ones can be especially so.  Many of them are based on specific theological ideas about the Old Testament G-d and His will regarding the administration of justice.  If a curse isn’t justified, not only might it not work, it might backfire as according to the theology involved, the curse would go against G-d’s will, and thus invite destruction on the curser.   Basically, as always, be careful with curses.

To look at biblical curses historically, the first hurdle most folks have to leap is the hurdle of modern thinking.  Many who study the Bible are incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that it contains admonitions to do harm to others, yet it clearly does.  Repeatedly G-d tells his chosen people to exterminate tribes, towns, and even civilizations down to the last man, woman, and child (see Deuteronomy and I Samuel).  He inflicts suffering on even his most loyal subjects (see Job).  Some view this all as an historical account, or a gloss for political struggles in a religious context, or as something undone by New Testament theology.  Cursing in the Bible, though, is not limited to cataclysmic events on a national level or a cosmic wager between G-d and Satan—it’s often deeply personal.  There are several accounts in the Bible of G-d’s representatives dishing out curses:

2 Kings 2 – The prophet Elisha curses a group of children for calling him “bald,” and the children are eaten by a pair of bears.

Numbers 5 – A magical ritual is prescribed for determining if a woman has abeen unfaithful.  If she has and she is pregnant from her adultery, the ritual causes spontaneous abortion.

Acts 5 – Peter curses a man and woman who lied to him, and they die.

Acts 13 – Paul curses a man pretending to be an Apostle/sorcerer, and the man goes blind.

(You can read more about magic in the bible here, by the way)

It should be apparent, then, that the Bible doesn’t contain only sweetness and light and the works of a “good” G-d the way many modern people might prefer it.  Rather, it contains a mix of history, folklore, philosophy, and even some occult information straddling the line of morality on all accounts.  Rather than viewing it through the lens of today, when we might not understand why anyone would resort to cursing in the name of a higher power, it is helpful to have a little more perspective.  Theologian Tomas O Curraoin writes about curses in an article for the Irish Catholic digest The Furrow:

“The stand taken by the Old Testament was certainly uncompromising; whereas the contemporary world which influences us all is, to say the least, more accommodating. The maledictions found in the psalms are merely an expression of that fundamental attitude of the Old Testament to evil and to evil-doers. They take their origin in certain human situations, and express an attitude to God, to Life, to the cosmic struggle between good and evil, which is certainly not characteristic of the world-attitude today. In fact there is no question of justifying, in the sense of excusing, the use of curses in the psalms. The psalms are inspired, and do not need to be justified…” (from “The Malediction in the Psalms”).

(Please note here that O Curraoin makes the point that the Psalms themselves, as divine passages, do not need to be justified—I still stand by my point that the use of thes Psalms for cursing must be justified, however).  He goes on to point out that in many cases, the maledictive Psalms are really about justice for those who have no other recourse.  In a tribal system where many legal cases come down to one man’s word against another and where death is on the line for what we might consider minor transgressions, it’s not senseless to call upon G-d to smite one’s enemies before one is destroyed by them.  From a nationalist point of view, the enemy of a faithful follower is an enemy of the people, and thus of G-d, so again, a curse is a-okay.  And in the case of a curse against one who is simply acting immorally to wards his neighbors, well, that is still in line with the whole “G-d’s will” idea because the laws about morality supposedly come from G-d. Or as priest John J. Greehy puts it:

“We must be fair to the Psalmists. They had a keen sense of justice. They realized that there could be no real peace (shalom—the fullness of God’s promise in every sphere of life) unless justice, truth, freedom, even some loving were present in the land. So they invoked the divine justice against unrepentant sinners” (from “The Cursing Psalms” in The Furrow, Mar. 1978).

So, what we have is a system of last resort for someone without other recourse, backed by the most powerful forces he or she can muster.

In that vein, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poor and enslaved are the ones we find using cursing Psalms in history.  Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of spells involving the Psalms among his Black informants, including some curses.  One particularly interesting example follows:

HOODOO PSALM SCRATCHED ON NEW TINPAN WITH NEW PIN OR NEEDLE OR NAIL TO
CONTROL

9783. Yo’ kin take a tinpan an’ control a person. Yo’ kin take a
brand-new tinpan an’ yo’ kin write – lemme see. Ah got it right heah, de
psalms yo’ find where it says “Vau – v-a-u.” Yo’ kin take that an’ write
that on a brand-new tinplate. (This psalm in which the word “Vau” is
used?) Yes Sir. It’s in psalms [the psalm of a hoodoo book] an’ yo’ kin
write that. But now yo’ don’t write it with a pencil or nuthin like
that. Yo’ take a needle or pin or new nail that’s sharp – anyting that’s
sharp except a pencil – an’ yo’ write that psalm on that tinplate. Then
yo’ kin take that tinplate an’ put it away where it won’t be disturbed
or be handled by anybody else. An’ you kin control that person if yo’
write that psalm fo’ them.

[Waycross, Ga., (1166), 1959:8.]

The Psalm in question is the acrostic Psalm 119, focusing specifically on the Hebrew letter “vau”in verses 41-48 and its portion of the overall Psalm.  From the King James Version:

41Let thy mercies come also unto me, O LORD, even thy salvation, according to thy word.

42So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word.

43And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth; for I have hoped in thy judgments.

44So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever.

45And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.

46I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.

47And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved.

48My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes.

While this isn’t a particularly virulent bit of cursing, it is certainly not a pleasant spell, as it puts someone under the spellcaster’s control. Hyatt also records Psalms 20 and 93 being used to bind one’s enemies in a court situation, Psalms 35 and 102 being used to get rid of a troublesome enemy, and Psalm 70 to make them wither up and suffer.  I should go ahead and say that, of course, the use of cursing Psalms even in hoodoo is fairly limited compared to using Psalms for things like success, luck, love, and protection.  I generally interpret the large percentage of non-cursing spells in most folk magic practices probably indicates that curses should make up a minority of any witch’s magical work, but that’s just my perspective.

I think we’ll stop there today, as this is already a rather lengthy entry.  In my next post, I’ll be including a list of cursing Psalms and their intended effects, as well as any techniques you might use to bring them to fruition.  Until then, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do…

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 114- Magic Books in the American Colonies: Witch-hunting Books

January 11, 2011

This is the second part of the series on magical texts in America that I started way back in Blog Post 105.  In that article, we looked at the different criteria for “Devil’s Books” that were often cited as a key component of witchcraft during the Colonial era.  Today, we’ll be looking at a few of the tomes that were used by witchhunters in that era to determine just who was a witch, and what to do with one.

In general, witches were viewed as a very real phenomenon during the Colonial period.  In New England, the belief in witches was prevalent enough that “witchfinding” was a legitimate career, just as it was in England (Matthew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder General” being a prime example of this profession).  Other colonies, such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, took a more publically liberal stance towards witchcraft, and regarded it as “bad behavior” rather than any indication of diabolic allegiance.  William Penn once ordered a woman accused of witchcraft to simply “practice good behavior” and insisted to her accuser that there was no law against “riding a broom” (SC&W).  The Calvinist influence on the upper Appalachian colonies may have made them more willing to regard witchcraft as superstition, at least publically.  However, the prevalence of anti-witchcraft charms, talismans, and amulets in all the colonies demonstrates that in private, many folks believed much as the Puritans did—witches existed, and they were dangerous.  Naturally, those who feared malefic magic wanted to know how to figure out just who might be bewitching their cattle, stealing their milk, and spoiling their butter (an awful lot of witchcraft seemed to revolve around dairy products), and so they turned to the manuals available at the time.

Some of the key texts used to seek out, identify, and punish witches were:

The Malleus Maleficarum (Witch Hammer) –  This is probably the most famous of the witch-hunter’s manuals, a heavy tome which set out to prove witches exist, that the were dangerous, that they were (usually) women, and that they could be stopped.  Published first around 1486 in Germany by Swiss-German priest Jacob Sprenger, the Malleus was a central tool of the Inquisition as it pursued those it considered heretics.  The book may also have been co-authored (or potentially solely authored) by Heinrich Kramer, but Kramer was later denounced by the Inquisition, and so authorial attribution has generally gone to Sprenger.  The Malleus is divided into three basic sections:  the first section tries to prove that witches must exist, the second describes how witches are made or how one becomes a witch, and the third section examines methods for detecting and punishing witches.

To give you some idea of what the Malleus contained, here is a section on how one forms a “Devil’s Pact” (I like that subject, if you haven’t noticed):

“Now the method of profession is twofold. One is a solemn ceremony, like a solemn vow. The other is private, and can be made to the devil at any hour alone. The first method is when witches meet together in the conclave on a set day, and the devil appears to them in the assumed body of a man, and urges them to keep faith with him, promising them worldly prosperity and length of life; and they recommend a novice to his acceptance. And the devil asks whether she will abjure the Faith, and forsake the holy Christian religion and the worship of the Anomalous Woman (for so they call the Most Blessed Virgin MARY), and never venerate the Sacraments; and if he finds the novice or disciple willing, then the devil stretches out his hand, and so does the novice, and she swears with upraised hand to keep that covenant. And when this is done, the devil at once adds that this is not enough; and when the disciple asks what more must be done, the devil demands the following oath of homage to himself: that she give herself to him, body and soul, for ever, and do her utmost to bring others of both sexes into his power. He adds, finally, that she is to make certain unguents from the bones and limbs of children, especially those who have been baptized; by all which means she will be able to fulfil all her wishes with his help” (from the Montague Summers translation).

If any of that sounds familiar, well, that’s probably because the Malleus basically served as a repository for folklore about witches and their powers.  Based on stories and legends, an entire system of witchcraft was extrapolated, and then used to seek out and punish those who fit certain molds set by the Malleus.  Punishments for witchcraft could be relatively light, requiring the accused to produce character witnesses: “assigning to you such a day of such a month at such hour of the day, upon which you shall appear in person before us with so many persons of equal station with you to purge you of your defamation.”  Or they could be rather severe, including torture with red-hot irons and eventual execution by fire.  Folklore is serious business when it’s taken too literally, it seems.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft – Reginald Scot’s 1584 treatise on superstition and attack on the Catholic Church became central to witchcraft persecutions not because it advised how to detect and destroy witches, but rather because it set out to completely disprove them.  Scot, who considered the persecution of the poor or elderly which so often occurred during witch-hunts to be abominable, penned this small work in order to prove that any “witchcraft” being performed was pure charlatanism and that only the most foolish of magistrates and judges would subscribe to such ideas.  His method for doing this, however, was to basically lay out in detail a grimoire’s worth of magic.  As scholar Owen Davies puts it:

“Scot, a rather unusual demonological writer in that he was not a clergyman, lawyer, or physician, propounded a rationalist view of religion that went beyond [fellow demonologist] Weyer’s own more cautious view on diabolic intervention.  Yet Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft was a treasure trove of magical information, providing spells, Catholic prayers, exorcisms, charms, talismans, and rituals on how to communicate with angels, demons, and the spirits of the dead.  There were detailed instructions on conjuring up treasure and how to enclose a spirit in a crystal…So Scot produced what amounted to the first grimoire produced in the English language, and while he did so to prove the worthlessness of its contents he unwittingly ended up democratizing ritual magic rather than undermining it” ( Grimoires p. 70).

The Malleus Maleficarum had spelled out a number of magical rituals and spells, too, and so it seems that many of these guides to witch-hunting became, instead, roundabout guides to witchcraft.  Scot’s work, however, ran afoul of King James I of England upon his ascension to power in 1603.  James, who was a fervent believer in witches and demons (and authorized the translation of the Bible which contained the phrase “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” in Exodus 22:18 rather than a more accurate “sorceress” or “person who does evil magic,”  although that is neither here nor there), ordered all copies of Scot’s Discoverie burned.

Wonders of the Invisible World – What sounds like a rollicking travel guide is, in fact, a defense of one of the most notorious witch-hunters in early American history.  Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is best known for his role as a goad and “expert” during the Salem witch trials of the late 17th Century.  When his part in that particularly tragic series of events (which I hope to explore more in a future article or show) came under criticism, he wrote his work as a means of proving that honest-to-goodness witchcraft was happening in Salem and everyone was darn lucky he was there to help stop it.  After all, witches were blasphemous and diabolical creatures who not only used wicked spells—and okay, occasionally healed the sick, sure, sure—but did so as an intentional affront to Christian dignity and belief.  For example, in a section entitled “The First Curiositie,” Mather says:

“The Devil which then thus imitated what was in the Church of the Old Testament, now among Us would Imitate the Affayrs of the Church in the New. The Witches do say, that they form themselves much after the manner of Congregational Churches; and that they have a Baptism and a Supper, and Officers among them, abominably Resembling those of our Lord.

But there are many more of these Bloody Imitations, if the Confessions of the Witches are to be Received; which I confess, ought to be but with very much of Caution.

What is their striking down with a fierce Look? What is their making of the Afflicted Rise, with a touch of their Hand? What is their Transportation thro’ the Air? What is their Travelling in Spirit, while their Body is cast into a Trance? What is their causing of Cattle to run mad and perish? What is their Entring their Names in a Book? What is their coming together from all parts, at the Sound of a Trumpet? What is their Appearing sometimes Cloathed with Light or Fire upon them? What is their Covering of themselves and their Instruments with Invisibility? But a Blasphemous Imitation of certain Things recorded about our Saviour, or His Prophets, or the Saints in the Kingdom of God” (p. 246)

Mather’s book did not have quite the same effect that Scot’s book or the Malleus did.  Instead, it merely capped the end of some of the most ferocious witch-hunting in New England.  Nor did Mather’s work become a grimoire unto itself as the other texts mentioned here did.  While it certainly offered some ideas of how one might become a witch and what powers might then be gained, there was little in the way of magic actually in its pages.  All in all, that is probably for the best, as Mather seems a bit stodgy and reading a grimoire by him would probably prove a bit dull.

There are other witch-hunting manuals and texts on just how to pursue and prosecute suspected witches, of course.  James I had his own (likely ghost-written) catalogue of the supernatural, Daemonologie. The Malleus was likely influenced by other manuals of its kind like Formicarius, by Swabian priest Johannes Nider.  Modern witch-hunts in places like Africa and India tend not to rely on weighty guidebooks to the world of the unseen and diabolical, though the influence of these texts certainly lingers in the identification and punishment of supposed witches.  I have even heard well-educated American Christian missionaries returning from Tanzania describe entire villages of witches.  While they were cautious not to present witchcraft as the Harry Potter-esque phenomenon that those in the attending congregation might have mentally pictured, they absolutely believed that people with dark, uncanny powers lived in that particular enclave, and that the area was best avoided if at all possible.  Somehow, such admonitions made me want to visit that particular village.  But maybe that’s just me.

While witch-hunting manuals are, mostly, a thing of the past, it is worth noting that websites abound with information on finding and purging witches from one’s community.  I’ll not list them here, as I really don’t want to entangle this site with links to those sites, but a quick Google of terms like “how to get rid of a witch” and “neighborhood witch” will yield some results, including one site which actually says:  “I just read the first booke [sic] of Daemonolgie by King James and I found it highly instructive.”  So, in all fairness, witch-hunting manuals aren’t gone—they’ve just upgraded to digital.

At any rate, I count my blessings that for the most part I live in a place where my magical practice is an asset (albeit a fairly secretive one) rather than a genuine liability.  Hopefully books like the Malleus will one day be historical relics, rather than active references.  Until then, a few extra protection spells can’t hurt.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Quick Update

January 7, 2011

Hi all,

I had been hoping to do several more posts this week than I have, but unfortunately life got in the way.  My wife, who is carrying our second baby, had to go to the hospital this week due to fears about pre-term labor.  All seems well now, but she’s on a form of bedrest which means I’m having to pick up a lot of slack as far as childcare and housekeeping are concerned.  I’ll probably have less time to write (and sadly, podcast) over the next month or two, so please accept my apologies in advance for any diminished content.

I hate having to say my personal life is interfering with my passion and making any kind of announcement here, but I thought that you all should know about it.  I’ve still got several articles planned (and a few that will be popping up in non-internet sources soon, too) and Laine and I always have the podcast planned about three months out, so we’ll definitely have stuff out to you, but please be patient if things don’t come quite as frequently as they have been.

Here’s hoping all is well out there with you!  Thanks for reading, and for your support and understanding!

-Cory


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