Posted tagged ‘animals’

Blog Post 190 – Magical Gift Giving

August 22, 2014

“Die Neujahrsbretzel für den Herrn Pfarrer”, 1884 (via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve had several people recommend a book to me called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It’s a book that looks at the various ways in which people give and receive love. It gets into a lot of psychology and interpersonal communication theories, but in a nutshell it assumes that people tend to give or receive affection via physical touch, loving words, acts of kindness or service, quality time, or gifts. I am definitely a gift-giver when it comes to expressing my feelings—I will work for weeks to handcraft something for someone I care about. When my lovely wife and I were courting, I put hundreds of sticky notes all over her apartment with love messages so that she would constantly find them for months and months afterwords. Even when we ship products out of our Etsy shop, I tend to add layers of Spanish moss to the packing material, as well as little lagniappe touches to the shipment to make it feel magical for the person who opens the box. None of this is to brag, but simply to frame the point that giving gifts is a major part of my connection to others.

Giving gifts has been an important aspect of human relationships for a very lnog time. The Ancient Roman patronage system essentially operated on a large-scale gifting economy. In North America, giving gifts with a magical bent appears time and again. A number of superstitions and rituals surround the acts of gifting and receiving gifts. Possibly one of the gifts most beset by magical rules is the knife:

  • One must not give a friend a knife or other sharp instrument, as it “cuts love.” (Price 34).
  • “Giving a knife as a gift is bad luck as it cuts the friendship” (Hines 12).
  • A present of knives will break the friendship between you (the giver) and the recipient of the gift. (Hines 13)
  • No hillman would think of giving a steel blade to a friend such a gift is sure to sever their friendship (Randolph 58).

The ‘hillman’described in the last point would have been obliged to pay for a knife if he received it as a gift, in order to abate any potential tragedies:

Whenever a knife changes hands, it must be paid for, even if the sum is merely nominal. I have seen a salesman, a graduate of the University of Missouri, present his son with a valuable hunting knife but he never let it out of his hand till the boy had given him a penny (Randolph 58).

This is a sentiment I’ve seen echoed through other traditions as well, including some Wiccan circles and their beliefs about gifting athames. I have also seen contrary points, insisting that Wiccan ritual blades must never be purchased, but only gifted.

Knives, however, are only scratching the surface of the myriad taboos, beliefs, and customs surrounding giving and receiving. In the following paragraphs, I hope to lay out some of these traditions (though certainly not all of them… The concept of Christmas and birthday gifts is well outside the scope of a single survey article, for example, and the topic is much larger than a 2,000 word synopsis could handle). What I hope that you will see is the sheer humanity of this process. People seem to develop an entire language around gifting (see the Victorians and their flowers, for example), and understanding that language, especially within a magical context, expands the conversation on American folk magic immensely.

Since we’ve started in the domestic realm with knives, let’s continue in that vein. In the Ozarks, even very small gifts can have great significance:

A button received as a gift is always lucky, no matter what the color. Years ago, many an Ozark girl collectedbuttons from her friends and strung them together into a sort of necklace called a charm string. A charm string not only brought good fortune to the owner but also served as a sort of memory book for women who could not read one button recalled a beloved aunt, another a friend’s wedding, still another a dance or a quilting party or an apple-peelin’ or some other pleasant occasion. (Randolph 61)

These little tokens often represent a greater whole. In the example Randolph cites the ‘memory book’ aspect of the charm pushes it out of the realm of luck and into a broader realm of personal narrative. It tells the story of where the girl has been. The luck may then be a cumulative blessing from all those around her, an assembly of good wishes designed to attract further goodness into her life. Similarly, some fairly small gifts can act as predictors or insurance of future blessings, as in these two examples from Louisiana:

  • A midwife should plant a flower for a baby at its birth.
  • It is good luck for visitors to place a silver coin in a baby’s hand (Roberts 150).

Here we see blessings which ensure growth and health (the flower) and insurance against poverty (the coin) passed onto a baby, with the hopes that the child will grow and prosper in the future.

Of course, there are just as many taboos on gifting as there are joyous customs. As we saw with knives, some of those can be firmly established and nigh universal at times. Let’s look at another domestic commonplace with strong taboos:

  • Never borrow salt or you will have bad luck (Hines 12).
  • Never return salt that has been borrowed (Roberts 178)

Why salt? In my family, we frequently gave salt as a component of a new house blessing for people we knew, which as I understood it derived from Polish traditions (after investigating this a bit, I’m reasonably sure this was adopted from a similar Jewish custom picked up by my family in the area on the border between Lithuania and Poland). We give a jar of salt with some bread and a penny in it, ‘So that the family may never be hungry (bread), never be poor (penny), and their lives may never lack flavor (salt).” The salt, then, can be seen as the experience and cumulative personality of the family, its seasoning or flavor which makes it distinct. Borrowing someone else’s flavor would, in essence, give them power over you, especially when the salt is returned carrying traces of your own eau de familie. It could also be that by taking one family’s wisdom and experience, then returning it, you set off a disruptive cycle whereby your two families will be struggling to rebalance power for a long time, which definitely sounds like bad luck. A similar Louisiana superstition says ‘Don’t give spades, etc., to your neighbors; you will have a fuss if you do (Roberts 174). In that case, the tool is symbolic of a person’s work and labor, and to lend it out cheaply doesn’t bode well for anyone (and makes me think of Homer Simpson borrowing essentially every tool in Ned Flanders’ garage…a very bad neighbor).

The issue of when a gift is given can also impact its significance and magical qualities. While I will avoid holidays and the like here, there are plenty of other occasions when gift-giving is an expectation, such as at baby showers:

  • At a baby shower, the giver of the seventh gift to be unwrapped will be the next to have a baby (Hines 14).

In this example, the gift-giver receives the magical benefit of a prediction. I suppose that if you are not in the market to start a family, this superstition could seem more like a taboo than a blessing. Another key occasion for giving gifts is after a new family moves into a new home. I mentioned my family’s custom for making a house-blessing from my Polish roots, but it turns out that the general concept of the house-warming may come from the other side of my family tree in the British Isles. The hint of magic behind this tradition comes from the original house-warming present, which actually served to warm a new home:

“As poet John Greenleaf Whittier noted…’The Irish who settled here about the year 1720, they brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies.’…The Scots [who were also early settlers in America, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of Appalachia]…believed in ‘brownies,’ a more subdued version of the leprechaun. Brownies lived in the kitchen fireplace, and the belief was that the owners of the house had a responsibility to always keep these fairy-creatures warm by keeping a constant fire in the hearth. The Yankees noted that Scots-Americans, when moving from one house to another, would always remove burning embers from the old house to the new, to provide a warm home for the brownies that would move in right along with the family. This was how the tradition of ‘house-warmings’ started” (Cahill 32).

I tend to think this is a bit of fancy on Cahill’s part, and that the giving of gifts to new homeowners is something much older and less literal than a brownie’s ‘house-warming,’ but I would be completely unsurprised to find that the actual practice of moving hearth coals to entice fairy-beings to move houses exists in the Old World or the New.

Marriage also features a number of gift-giving customs, some with superstitious components. For example, in Kansas groups of Russian-German emigrants pin money to the bridal skirt as a way of blessing the bride and groom with prosperity. Additionally, a fun game is made of the best man’s gift, and the “custom of some young buck’s stealing the shoe of the bride. The best man had to redeem the shoe with cash, which went into the household fund” (Tallman 227-8). The best man might contribute some or all of the money, with the remainder raised by good-natured begging of the wedding guests.

A number of tales from Appalachia and New England, including stories from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet and other collections of supernatural American folklore, indicate that magical gifts have particular rules when it comes to witches. For example, a witch might offer a very low price for some livestock or sundries she fancies from a local homestead. If she is refused the gift—which is all such a lowballed agreement could be seen as—she curses whatever it is she wanted, rendering it useless to the family that has it. Often she will curse a cow so it won’t produce milk, or she might even curse an entire herd of pigs or sheep rather than just the one she wanted. On the flip-side, a witch should never be given a present of anything from the household, or she could use it to harm those who dwell within. One story features a housewife who loans the local witch-woman a cup of sugar in a neighborly—if cautious—manner, only to find her butter won’t come when she churns it afterwords. She summons a local witch-doctor who takes a piece of hot silver and drops it in the churn, then spills cream on the fire and whips a pan of the scalded dairy until they hear shrieks from the direction of the witch-woman’s home. She, of course, suffers great pains and bears the marks of a whipping and burning the next day, and everyone knows just what’s what. Oh, and the butter is fine after that, too, of course.

Not all witches or magical practitioners are conniving and dangerous when it comes time to share the wealth, though. For example, many witch-doctors and conjurers in the Southern Mountains will not take direct payment for their work, but only offers of gifts made in-kind, such as foodstuffs, clothing, or other necessities. Vance Randloph noted that one witch woman in the Ozarks did not ask a fee for her work, but would accept such donations: “This woman makes no charge for her services, but if somebody offers her a present, such as a new dress or a side of bacon, she seldom refuses the gift” (Randolph 126).

Lest you think all these magical gifting traditions are limited to the realm of humanity, here’s a bit of lore from John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to show otherwise:

A GOOD METHOD OF DESTROYING RATS AND MICE.

Every time you bring grain into your barn, you must, in putting down the three first sheaves, repeat the following words: “Rats and mice, these three sheaves I give to you, in order that you may not destroy any of my wheat.” The name of the kind of grain must also be mentioned. (Hohman 70).

Here we see the old idea of “one for the rabbit, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to sow” extended from nursery rhyme to magical practice. Giving the animals a bit of the household bounty seems to be a way to stave off any thievery on their part, at least in this example.

Finally, I can’t help but offer up a humorous story from Maryland which shows animals getting in on the gift-giving action:

It seems that Mrs. Morison’s uncle and her father went fishing one time and as always they carried their [moonshine] jug along. They came to this water moccasin who was just about ready to swallow a frog. So Mrs. Morison’s father took a forked stick and clamped it down over the snake’s head and took it [the frog] away ‘cause they wanted to use it for bait.

Well, that snake looked so darn downhearted that they gave him a drink of moonshine, and off he went. So they went on with their fishing and about an hour later one of them felt a tug on his leg. He looked down and there was that snake back with another frog. All I can say is, that must have been awful good moonshine” (Carey 31).

I’m not sure if the ‘magic’ in that tale is so much in the moonshine or the moccasin, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.

I’m sure there are many other magical giving traditions I’m missing here, so if you have any you want to share, please do!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Sources

  1. Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
  2. Carey, George G. Maryland Folklore (Tidewater Pub.: 1989).
  3. Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, & Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Pub.: 1975).
  4. Hines, Donald M. “Superstitions from Oregon,” Western Folklore, Jan. 1965.
  5. Hohman, John George. The Long-Lost Friend (Llewellyn, 2012).
  6. Price, Sadie. “Kentucky Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Jan-Mar 1901.
  7. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover: 1964).
  8. Roberts, Hilda. “Louisiana Superstitions,” Journal of American Folklore, Apr-Jun 1927.
  9. Tallman, Marjorie. Dictionary of American Folklore (Philosophical Library, NYC: 1959).

Blog Post 109 – Holidays in the Mountains

December 23, 2010

Hi there, everyone!

Today, I’m going to be sharing a little bit of holiday lore from the mountains, both the Ozarks and the Appalachians (to those readers wondering when I’ll start including the Rockies, I promise I’ll get there one day!  I’m just woefully ignorant of the traditions from that area).  There are a number of pieces of folklore associated with the winter holidays in the mountains.  Often, storytelling and family visits were the primary entertainment in the financially poor but folklore-and-culturally-rich mountains once the cold weather set in.  Christmas was not always celebrated, especially during the early years of settling, largely because many Protestants settling in the Appalachians viewed the holiday with suspicion and regarded it as a Catholic celebration.  One source records that the penalty for observing Christmas during the Puritan era was a “fine of five shillings” (WG&S, p.28).  Over time, however, as more people of mixed backgrounds settled the area, Christmas became a social holiday.  Patrick Gainer records that holidays in the mountains included:

  • Fireworks and noisemaking
  • Very little decorating prior to the widespread introduction of electricity (most homes didn’t have a Christmas tree)
  • School Christmas parties
  • Costumed visits to friends and neighbors (called “Belsnickling”—more on that in a minute)
  • Toys for children, though almost entirely homemade ones

Belsnickling

The tradition of Belsnickling is particularly interesting.  It seems to be a mumming tradition in the vein of similar British activities, but is really practiced by only the Germanic settlers in the Appalachians.  It relates to the Belsnickle (whose name may come from pelz Nicholas, or “furry Nick”), a devilish traveling companion to good St. Nick during his holiday visits who would punish the wicked children in the same way that the saint rewarded the good ones.  In some variations, it was not St. Nick who traveled with Belsnickle, but Kriss Kringle (likely a derivation from the Germanic kriskindl, or “Christ-child”).   Gerald Milnes describes the practice thusly:

“To people in the Potomac Highlands, belsnickling is the action of going from house to house in masquerade, with residents guessing the belsnicklers’ identities…Sometimes treats were offered to the belsnicklers, and sometimes belsnicklers offered treats to the household” (SC&W, p.186)

Milnes also offers a variety of pranks and tricks related to this practice:

  • Candy would be thrown on the floor, and when children dove for it, they would have their fingers switched by the belsnicklers
  • Bands of belsnicklers would wander through the countryside hooting and yelling all through the night
  • People in costume would tap on the windows of houses and scare the children inside
  • Firecrackers would be lit and thrown into people’s homes

He also relates this practice back to something deeply witchy—the Wild Hunt:

“Belsnickling and similar activities, as group practices, have obscure beginnings, but they may well go back to the old Teutonic concept of the wild hunt.  In Scandinavian and German versions of this myth, a huntsman with dogs, accompanied by spirits, hunts the wild woman.  In some versions, the huntsman, a lost soul, leads a band of wild spirits to overrun farms at Christmas time (the winter solstice)” (SC&W, p. 186).

Christmas Dinner in the Mountains

Of course, no Christmas would be complete without a feast in modern minds, but the table offerings were not quite the same for every family.  Often, up in the mountains in the early-to-midwinter, the meal would consist on the wild meat that was available rather than anything domestically raised.  In Foxfire 12, informant John Huron describes a most particular holiday meal:

“Groundhogs aren’t bad eatin’ either if you cook them right…baked and layered with onions and sweet potatoes.  That was what Charlie’s daughter, Margaret, would fix him for Christmas dinner every year.  They invited me and my wife, Sandy, and my son, Jay, over for Christmas dinner one time, and that’s what we had.  A groundhog is a lot cleaner animal than a chicken.  When you get right down to it, a chicken is a nasty critter” (FF12, p.248)

Signs and Omens on Christmas

There are a number of superstitions which have sprung up around the holiday season, too.  Often, weather and luck are intimately tied to Christmas, though sometimes the date shifts a little between December 25th (“New” Christmas) and January 6th (“Old” Christmas).  Some of the signs and omens from the Appalachians and Ozarks include:

  • It will be a fruitful year if the eaves of the house drip on Christmas (SC&W)
  • Children born on Christmas Day can understand the speech of animals (WG&S and OM&F)
  • Being the first to say “Christmas Gift” to another on Christmas Day yielded good luck (WG&S)
  • On Christmas Eve at midnight, all farm animals will bow down and speak to acknowledge Christ’s birth (SC&W and OM&F)
  • Those with the “second sight” make predictions most accurately on Christmas Eve (IaGaM)
  • “A green Christmas makes a fat graveyard” – warm weather at Christmas will lead to many deaths over the coming year (OM&F)
  • On Old Christmas, the sun actually rises twice instead of just once (OM&F)
  • Bees buzz so loudly on Old Christmas they can be heard for miles away (OM&F)
  • Elderberries always sprout on Old Christmas, no matter what the weather (OM&F)

Even with its rather slow, Puritanical start, Christmas in the mountains has become one of the most magically charged times of the year.  From eating groundhogs to playing rowdy pranks to witnessing the miraculous behavior of animals, this is certainly one of the most interesting times of the year.  And, in my humble opinion, one of the most magical.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 104 – (A Little) More Colonial (and Native American) Magic

November 30, 2010

I thought in honor of the recent Thanksgiving festivities—at least those here in the US (and with a belated bow to the harvest feasting in Canada), I would take a brief look at some of the magical practices circulating around the time of that “first Thanksgiving.”  The people who arrived in places like Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay to settle the New World—never mind it was already quite settled by its native inhabitants—are commonly referred to as Pilgrims, and contemporarily would have been known as Separatists.  Thinking about that late autumn gathering, when the local Pawtuxet tribe and the Separatists who had survived the harsh New England winter and managed to put together enough bounty for the coming cold season gathered at the table, is a sort of fond romance or fantasy.  Often we imagine the Indians in their deerskins and the Pilgrims in their blackest hats with the shiniest buckles on them.  The staunch Calvinism of the Separatists contrasts with the “noble savage” imagery of the Natives, their shared meal demonstrating two very different worlds breaking bread together.  Yet both groups shared many things in common, including a set of magical practices aimed at protecting their homes and blessing themselves with prosperity.

The fear of malefic witchcraft—which would eventually go on to spawn the famous “witch hunts” of Colonial America—stirred hearts on both sides of the table.  Each group had its own charms, talismans, prayers, and formulas for dealing with the dangers of spiteful magic.  The Pilgrims, drawing on their English heritage, had all sorts of magical tricks up their black-and-white sleeves for defeating evil witches and devils:

“Legal actions against malefic witchcraft merely represented the final point of defense against what were perceived as destructive magical powers.  Prior to entering his complaint into the legal domain, the colonial villager could draw upon a variety of protective magical formulas to maintain some sort of equilibrium between good and evil mystical forces.  Several of these techniques—by no means an exhaustive list—were mentioned in a sermon delivered by Deodat Lawson…’The Sieve and Scyssers [Scissors]; the Bible and Key; the white of an Egge in the Glass; the Horse-shoe nailed on the threshold; a stone hung over a rack in the Stable.’” (Weisman 40)

Looking at these specific examples, we can see a few things which indicate that magic among the Pilgrims was not so uncommon.

The Sieve & Scissors – These items were commonly used in fortune telling games by young girls, particularly on exciting nights like Halloween.  They could also be used to confuse or cut a witch, magically speaking.  The Sieve and Shears appear in Aggripa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, as well.

The Bible & Key – The Bible was considered to have inherent magical and protective abilities, and the key likely held the symbolism of “locking away” or “locking out” any harmful witchcraft.  The use of the two together also formed the basis of a spell recounted in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft:  “Popish preests …doo practice with a psalter and a keie fastned upon the 49[th] psalme, to discover a theefe” (Scot, Chapter V).

The Egg White in a Glass – This is another method of divination involving cracking an egg into a clear glass or jar of water, then reading the resulting shapes, strings, bubbles, and colors found in the glass.  Curanderismo continues to use this method as a regular part of cleansing and reading practice even today.

The Horse-shoe on the Threshold – This particular charm moves out of the realm of divination and into prosperity and protection magic.  We covered horseshoes on our Lucky Charms podcast, and you can read all about them at the Lucky W Amulet Archive page on the subject.  The iron in the shoe, plus the somewhat mystical nature of the animal associated with it, imbued this charm with the power to block witchcraft and provide good luck to those passing under it as they entered a Pilgrim’s household.

The Stone in the Stable – The stone referred to in this charm would likely have been a holed stone, one which had been naturally eroded to leave a gap by which it was then hung in places needing protection from malefic activity.  Sarah over at Forest Grove wrote a bit about these holed stones, saying “In the UK it was used as a protection charm as the locals believed that by tying their front door key or the stable door key to a hole stone they would protect the building it hung upon.”  This, much like the horseshoe, was primarily protective, but a holed stone could also be used to “see” witches and other Otherworldly entities by peering through the gap.

Looking to the Natives’ side of the table, we find that charms to provide protection and blessing were also common among the Algonquin tribes of New England (Algonquin being a language and not an actual tribe, I use the term here to blanket a wide number of groups sharing a more-or-less common landscape and tongue).  Charles Leland (admittedly a questionable source on some matters of folklore, but not without his merits) wrote of many New England Native magical practices.  He compares the workings of Native shamans with the work of Catholic priests in one passage of his book The Algonquin Legends of New England: Tales of Magic:

“For wherever Shamanism exists, there is to be found, in company with it, an older sorcery, or witchcraft, which it professes to despise, and against which it does battle. As the Catholic priest, by Bible incantations or scriptural magic, exorcises devils and charms cattle or sore throats, disowning the darker magic of older days, so the Shaman acts against the real wizard.”

Leland recounts several legends of warriors and magical Indians doing battle with terrible spirits, the dead, and other dangerous forces.  In one tale, a chief’s son, described as “a great hunter, and skilled in mysteries” decides to marry.  In his efforts to get a wife, he sets out on a journey in which he acquires many talismanic and shamanic tools.  One of them is a golden key pulled from a whale’s mouth, which the whale tells him has great protective power:  “While you have it you will be safe against man, beast, or illness. The foe shall not harm you; the spirits which haunt the wilderness shall pass you by; hunger and pain shall not know you; death shall not be in your road.”  The key, then, appears in both the European and Native magical traditions as a powerful amulet.

As a final note on the magic of Native Americans, let us turn from the groaning board of the Thanksgiving feast and look at another magical practice:  fasting.  In an 1866 article entitled “Indian Superstitions,” Francis Parkman describes the use of ritual fasting in order to acquire a Manitou, or guardian spirit:

“Each primitive Indian has his guardian manitou, to whom he looks for counsel, guidance, and protection. These spiritual allies are acquired by the following process. At the age of fourteen or fifteen, the Indian boy smears his face with black, retires to some solitary place, and remains for days without food. Superstitious expectancy and the exhaustion of famine rarely fail of their results. His sleep is haunted by visions, and the form which first or most often appears is that of his guardian manitou, a beast, a bird, a fish, a serpent, or some other object, animate or inanimate. An eagle or a bear is the vision of a destined warrior ; a wolf, of a successful hunter; while a serpent foreshadows the future medicine man, or, according to others, portends disaster…The young Indian thenceforth wears about his person the object revealed in his dream, or some portion of it—as a bone, a feather, a snake-skin, or a tuft of hair. This, in the modern language of the forest and prairie, is known as his “medicine.” The Indian yields to it a sort of wor ship, propitiates it with offerings of tobacco, thanks it in prosperity, and upbraids it in disaster. If his medicine fails to bring him the desired success, he will sometimes discard it and adopt another” (Parkman 4).

Feast or famine, magic has long been on American soil (and Canadian, Central American, & South American soils as well).  So as you eat your turkey leftovers, you could crack an egg into a glass of water, pull out some scissors and a sieve, or maybe even think about putting the food aside for a while and seeing what comes to you in your dreams.  It might add a little New World Witchery to your holiday.  Which, of course, makes me feel pretty darn thankful.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 20 – Magical Animals

November 22, 2010

Podcast 20 – Magical Animals
-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 20-

Summary
Today we’re looking at animals and their role in magical practice.  We’ll talk about different species, shapeshifting, and familiars.  In WitchCraft, Laine talks about making Black Cat Oil.  Cory looks at one way to attune with a familiar in SpelledOut.  Don’t forget about the Winter Lore Contest!
Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 20

-Sources-
Some of the works we cite are:
Patrick Gainer’s WItches Ghosts & Signs
Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore
Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon
The Foxfire book series
Magical Creatures, from Elizabeth Pepper & Barbara Stacy of The Witch’s Almanac
We mention the Bible, particularly Leviticus 16 (the scapegoat). 16:8 in many translations refers to Azazel (wiki article.  Also, we mention Mark 16: 17-18 (the passage on snake-handling).
We also mention Auntie Greenleaf, whose tale can be found at Americanfolklore.net
You might also be interested in our New World Witchery blog entry on Snakes.
And, of course, we mention Judika Iles’ 5000 Spells again.

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – Inciting a Riot
Promo 2 – Borealis Meditations
Promo 3 – RadioLab

Blog Post 98 – Critter Bits (Magical Animals, Part III)

October 19, 2010

So I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to talk a little about the use of animal parts in magic.  Animals and magic have gone hand-in-hand for a very long time.  The reading of entrails from ritually slaughtered animals has been used as a divination technique since at least the pre-Roman era.  Talismans designed to imbue the carrier with the particular power of an animal were often made from that animal’s fur, bone, or skin.  Owen Davies chronicles the frequent use of virgin parchment—a type of scroll medium made from a highly treated animal skin, usually from a creature like a lamb or goat—in the construction of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean grimoires (in his book appropriately entitled Grimoires).  The thought was that this particular material would endow whatever was written on it with an extra layer of power, thereby charging sigils, elevating incantations, and generally adding a little va-voom to the inscribed workings of magicians.

On North American soil, many of the old rituals and magical practices found in places like Europe and Africa took root.  Some of them changed quite a bit as they grew here, and some stayed more or less recognizable.  I thought a brief survey of the common animal curios used in witchcraft—both folklorically and practically—might be a good way of seeing the connection between critters and crafting.  Please take note now, I AM NOT ADVOCATING THE INJURY, SENSELESS SLAUGHTER, TORTURE, OR HARM OF ANY ANIMAL.  This information is for educational purposes.  If you choose to use this information in your own practice, please do so responsibly and without resorting to cruelty.  There are lots of ways to gather magical tools and ingredients from animals which are already dead (see Ms. Graveyard Dirt’s excellent site for some great examples).  Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at some of these critter bits:

1)      Rabbit’s Foot – We’ve covered this here in the podcast (on Episode #13) and the blog (in the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot entry), so I won’t spend a lot of electrons on it here.  It suffices to say that the rabbit’s foot remains one of the most popular luck charms in the canon of animal curios.  It may have significant underworld ties, and it may simply be related to speed and fertility. Whatever its originally intended meaning, it stands for good luck now, especially in gambling.

2)      Toad’s Bone/Black Cat Bone – These are some of the darkest and most disturbing of animal curios, as the rituals required to obtain them are brutal.  The Toad’s Bone is mostly found in British magical lore, and was written about extensively by Andrew Chumbley, former Magister of the Cultus Sabbati.  Scholar Ronald Hutton also details the significance of this bone to members of the Toadsmen, a secret society along the lines of Freemasonry, in his excellent history of modern witchcraft Triumph of the Moon.   This ritual artifact was obtained (at least in one version—there are multiple ways this ritual can play out, depending on what source  you look to) by burying a toad alive in an anthill and letting the ants  strip it down to the bones.  The bones are then taken to a stream and floated one by one until one bone floats agains the current.  This bone is then the magic bone, and can imbue the witch carrying it with all sorts of interesting powers from spirit summoning to invisibility.  The black cat version of this same rite is even more gruesome.  As it is recounted in Mules & Men by Zora Neale Hurston, the cat is thrown into a pot of boiling water (also alive), and cooked until all the flesh falls from the bones.  The bones are then either floated in a stream (the same as the toad’s bones) or passed under the tongue of the magician.  The magic bone in this tradition turns the user invisible, and can also be used in some powerful love spells.  Most places selling this bone today are actually selling chicken bones painted black, and hopefully few people are actually performing this ritual as it occurs in folklore.  Again, I don’t condone this rite, and present it as a curiosity of history and culture rather than a suggested magical practice.

3)      Racoon Penis Bone – This is a popular charm in hoodoo, used in luck and love magic.  The bone itself, which is usually very thin and has a curved shape, has no disturbing ritual for obtaining it, but can simply be taken from an animal killed for meat or even from a roadkill hit (though I’d suggest being very careful how you handle remains of this nature, as they can often be riddled with diseases).  Cat Yronwode suggests that this particular curio entered American magical practice by way of Native American sources, and points out that the Pawnee often placed these bones along with ears of corn into sacred bundles.  I’ve heard that in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, it was common for boys to give girls these bones on red thread necklaces as love tokens (though I’ve not yet found a primary source for this claim).  Raccoons are not the only animal to have this bone—or “baculum”—and in fact many mamal species have it.  Other animals like foxes and dogs also have these bones, and occasionally these will turn up in magical charms, too.

4)      Rattlesnake Rattle – Snakes in general have a lot of lore about them, but the rattlesnake is particularly of note because its rattlemakes it a unique member of its family.  The rattles themselves have been collected for years as lucky charms.  Cat Yronwode suggests uses including:

  • A charm to help musicians play well
  • A simple “Live Things in You” curse
  • A personal power token
  • A gambling charm to bring luck

Rattlesnake rattles are fairly delicate things, especially once they’ve been dessicated for use in crafts and magic.  You can occasionally find one which has been turned into a key ring or charm, but the best way to handle these is to put them in a little vial or a small box of some kind and carry that with you.

5)      Snake Fangs/Bones/Skin – As I said earlier, snakes generally have all sorts of magical connotations.  You can look back at our blog entry on them (Snakes) and find out a good bit there, but here are some highlights:

  • Fangs can be worn as necklaces or carried as tokens of protection (from snakebite in some cases)
  • The bones or skin can be powdered and added to food to cause a “Live Things in You” curse
  • The skin of a snake soaked in vinegar can be used to treat boils in the Ozark magical tradition
  • The shed skins can be powdered and added to all sorts of crossing and jinxing formulae, including goofer dust and a variant on hot foot powder

Many pet stores will happily give you any leftover snake sheds they have if you call and ask politely, and if you develop a good enough relationship, you can sometimes wrangle dead snakes and/or bones out of them, too.  Roadkilled snakes are also good, but be absolutely sure they’re dead before approaching them.

6)      Dog/Cat Hair – These curios are nice because the animals don’t have to be hurt to acquire them.  Usually black hair is used, and preferably from all-black animals.  When the two hair types are mixed together in a mojo bag or vinegar jar, they can cause people to fight “like cats and dogs.”  Black cat hair can also be used to gain good luck, and black dog hair can be used to inspire feelings of loyalty or obedience in others.  If you have a black cat or dog, you probably have plenty of this available to you on furniture, carpet, etc. (I speak from experience here).  If you don’t, you might find a friend who does and see if they will let you have some of it for use in your magical workings.  At worst, you might have to snip off a little from the animal, but thankfully that does no harm (unless it’s the middle of winter and you leave a bald patch—don’t do that).

7)      Chicken Legs/Feet/Feathers – Chickens are popular creatures for magic, mostly because they are expendable (I call them like I see them) and ubiquitous.  Black hens and their feathers are wonderful for curse-breaking, according to Cat YronwodeStarr Casas, a notable rootworker from Texas, often speaks of using chicken legs or feet during cleansing work.  Even just having chickens can be particularly magical, since they will scratch up and destroy any curses laid for you on your property.  A Pow-wow charm from John George Hohman suggests that you do the following to prevent house-fires:

Take a black chicken, in the morning or evening, cut its head off and throw it upon the ground; cut its stomach out, yet leave it altogether; then try to get a piece of a shirt which was worn by a chaste virgin during her terms, and cut out a piece as large as a common dish from that part which is bloodiest. These two things wrap up together, then try to get an egg which was laid on maunday{sic} Thursday. These three things put together in wax; then put them in a pot holding eight quarts, and bury it under the threshold of your house, with the aid of God, and as long as there remains a single stick of your house together, no conflagration will happen. If your house should happen to be on fire already in front and behind, the fire will nevertheless do no injury to you nor to your children. This is done by the power of God, and is quite certain and infallible. If fire should break out unexpectedly, then try to get a whole shirt in which your servant-maid had her terms or a sheet on which a child was born, and throw it into the fire, wrapped up in a bundle, and without saying anything. This will certainly stop it. (#114)

The chicken’s wings can also be used to make a fan which some magical folk use to direct smoke during spiritual fumigations.  So popular is this animal in magic that one of my favorite grimoires is actually called The Black Pullet (a pullet being another name for a hen).

8)      Eggs – These are often used for spiritual cleansing, across several traditions.  In Mexican folk healing (curanderismo), an egg can be used to sweep, massage, and mark a person’s body to remove the Evil Eye (mal ojo) or harmful witchcraft.  The egg can also be “read” after this process to determine things like spiritual attachments, disease, bad luck, etc.  Another Pow-wow cure with a curious resemblance to the Toad’s Bone ritual earlier mentioned directs anyone suffering from failing health to catch rain water in a pot before sunrise without speaking to anyone, boil an egg in it, poke holes in the shell, and leave the egg on an anthill to be devoured.  This will supposedly allow the ailment to be “eaten” by the ants.  Eggshells also have some magical significance.  When powdered, they become cascarilla, which is used in Afro-Caribbean magic.  Cat Yronwode also lists several really interesting spells that can be done with black hens’ eggs.  For example, boiling a black hen’s egg and feeding half to a black cat and half to a black dog while saying two people’s names will cause them to have a falling out.  There is also a rather fascinating magical detective spell that can be done by placing an egg in each of a murder victim’s hands.  After the burial, the eggs will rot and eventually burst, at which time the murderer will return and be caught.

9)      Animal Fat – This is less of a curio than an ingredient, and the different fats from different animals (often referred to as that animal’s “grease”) have distinct properties.  According to Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, “Rattlesnake fat is a powerful ointment.  Rub it on any painful body part, or stroke the whole body downward to expel conjure poisons” (p. 162).  Ozark healers commonly used “skunk grease” to cure various rhumetoid conditions.  Vance Randolph says “The grease from skunks or civet cats, mixed with peppermint leaves, is highly praised by some hillfolk as a lubricant for rheumatic joints. It is said that the fat of a male wildcat is best of all” (OM&F, p. 108).   In Pow-wow magic, a range of animal fats is used to make a potent anti-rust treatment for firearms:

Take an ounce of bear’s fat, half an ounce of badger’s grease, half an ounce of snake’s fat, one ounce of almond oil, and a quarter of an ounce of pulverized indigo, and melt it altogether in a new vessel over a fire, stir it well, and put it afterward into some vessel. In using it, a lump as large as a common nut must be put upon a piece of woollen cloth and then rubbed on the barrel and lock of the gun, and it will keep the barrel from rusting.  (#110)

Wild animal fat has mostly gone out of use, though it can occasionally still be found, particularly in the mountain regions of America.

10)   Bear/Badger/Other Teeth – These curios are usually gambling, luck, or protection charms.  Hohman mentions the badger’s tooth as a wonderful gambling talisman.  Bear teeth appear in protective necklaces (along with claws in many cases).  One of Vance Randolph’s stories from the Ozarks recounts a man who kept a big boar’s tooth on a leather thong over his fireplace.  Whenever any of his children would get a toothache, he’d make them wear the necklace until the pain went away.  These charms are common in many places, and hardly unique to the New World (the badger is an Old World animal, after all).  Plenty of places, including the wonderful site The Bone Room, sell teeth, bones, and other animal curious for use in crafts, magical or otherwise.

I think that will end our survey for today.  There are still plenty of parts and pieces I’ve missed, including gator paws and heads, various animal skins, porcupine quills, and the myriad insect charms that could still be discussed (and hopefully will be at some future date or dates—ants alone obviously have plenty of magical uses).  If you can think of other charms, I’d love to hear them, and feel free to share your folklore regarding animal remnants and magic in the comments section!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 96 – Critters 2 (Magical Animals, Part II)

October 6, 2010

Hi all!

This is a continuation from the last post about magical animals, so you may want to look at that one before diving into this one.  Or not.  It’s up to you really.  Either way, here’s some more on North American animals showing up in magical folklore.

(More) American Magical Animals

Deer – Legends about magical deer are hardly new, nor are they limited to the New World.  White stags appear in Arthurian legends, and the label of Jagermeister liqueur bears the image of an enchanted cervid.  Charlemagne also had a stag legend associated with him.   In American folktales, they retain similar significance, though often they lead hunters astray or into mischief.  In a tale from Gilmer Co., WV, a normally gifted hunter encounters a doe he can’t shoot, even at close range when he knows he should be able to.  He decides to try shooting it with a silver bullet and succeds in hitting it in the leg, and then follows the blood trail back to a cabin where an old woman is nursing her bleeding leg, thus revealing her as a shape-shifting witch (Gainer p.157).  In New York State, there’s also the tale of “Auntie Greenleaf and the White Deer,” which bears a strong resemblance to the Gainer tale.  The Huichol natives of Mexico engage in a type of spiritual quest called the Peyote Hunt in which the peyote (a type of hallucinogenic cactus) is treated as a magical deer to be caught:

The Hunt is a symbolic re-creation of “original times” before the present separation occurred between man, the gods, plants and animals; between life and death; between natural and supernatural; be-tween the sexes. On the Peyote Hunt, the men who return to their homeland become the gods, and at the climatic moment of the ceremony, they slay and eat the peyote, which is equated with the deer and with maize (“The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex…” by Barbara G. Myerhoff, Anthropological Quarterly, Apr. 1970)

It’s not surprising that a continent whose inhabitants until only fairly recently depended upon deer for food would assign it such a high mythical value, and there are plenty of good stories about witch deer or helper deer to be found in every region.

Rabbit/Hare – This is the animal most associated with witches in folklore (other than perhaps the black cat).  North American magical tales are no exception, and there are a plethora of rabbit-related witch stories out there.  As I mentioned in the Spiders/Insects section, Anansi has an avatar in the form of a rabbit in the New World, a form probably best known and realized through his appearance in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.  The Trickster Rabbit of these tales became so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we turned him into an icon recognized worldwide, even though he is distinctly American in attitude:  Bugs Bunny.  Native American legends also provide Trickster Rabbit stories, such as “Rabbit Plays Tug-of-War” from the Creek tribe.  Hares could also be less mirthful magical creatures, and often appear in American folklore as witches in disguise.  Richard Dorson records a tale in Buying the Wind of a witch-hare that could not be caught or killed by anyone.  Even when they trapped it and set everything around it on fire, the rabbit still managed to escape.  Finally a hunter thought that perhaps this hare might be a witch in disguise, and so drew a picture of it and shot it in the leg with a silver bullet.  Not long after, he found out that a local woman with a rather witchy reputation had fallen and broken her leg while sweeping the floor.  The hare was not seen again (Dorson, p. 316-17).  Stories like this are echoed in the Deer and Cat stories mentioned above and other tales of witches becoming hares can be found in the collections from Patrick W. Gainer and Hubert J. Davis, too.

Bear – The figure of the Bear is a mainstay in several traditions of American lore.  He appears as Brother/Brer Bear in the aforementioned Uncle Remus tales, where he comes off as a bit of a brute.  The bear is a key figure in Native American lore, appearing as a spiritual totem animal for chiefs and warriors, as in the tale of the “Spirit Lodge” from the Nariticong people in the northeastern U.S. A curious tale from the Pacific Northwest features a comical (and obviously fictional) encounter between a Sasquatch, a black bear, and a river boat captain.   In northern Mexico, the story of “The Bear’s Son” describes a mytho-magical quest undertaken by a brave young man.  The repeated motif of strength and battle seems to be the bear’s primary contribution to North American folklore.  Yet occasionally bears appear as guides or wise teachers as well—even unintentional ones, as in the Maine tale of “The Fisherman and the Bear,” in which a clever ursine demonstrates a remarkably effective method of fishing to a hungry human.

Birds – This is a pretty broad category, and there are many different types of birds which appear in American magical tales.  The most common appearances of birds are as magical omens or forerunners of good and bad luck.  We touched a bit on this in our Weather Lore posts, but we also had to leave a number of bits out, so I’ll share a couple of them here:

  • A bird building a nest out of your hair will cause madness or headaches.
  • A bird building a nest in any piece of your clothing (shoes, hat, pockets, etc.) means you should prepare to die within the year.
  • Loons portend bad weather (because they are the souls of dead sailors).
  • Whippoorwills calling indicate death or bad luck soon to follow (I prefer Gillian’s interpretation of this, which is that a whippoorwill call means that you’ve done a good day’s work).
  • Killing barn swallows will cause your cows to give bloody milk.
  • To cure a backache, wait until you hear a whippoorwill call then roll on the ground three times.
  • It is bad luck for a hen to crow.

(These examples are taken from Ozark Magic & Folklore by Vance Randolph, Witches, Ghosts, & Signs by Patrick Gainer, and “Odds & Ends of North American Folklore on Birds” by W. L. McAtee [in Midwest Folklore, 1955])

There are truly endless numbers of folk spells, omens, signs, stories, and legends regarding animals in North America.  And there are plenty of animals I didn’t cover here that probably deserve some attention.  Critters like possums, raccoons, gators, eagles, buffalo, cattle, sheep, pigs, mountain lions, and any number of other animals all have abundant magical lore surrounding them, which I will hopefully be able to cover someday.  For now, though, I hope this couple of posts has helped open up some areas for you to explore with regards to animals and magic.  I’m hoping to get at least one more post out this week or early next week focusing on animal parts in magic, so stay tuned for that, too.  And if you have animal lore you’d like to share, feel free to comment on the blog or email us!

And thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 95 – Critters (Magical Animals, Part I)

October 5, 2010

Hi everyone!

A recent episode of 5-Star Spells discussed the use of animals in magic.  The Lovely Sarah over at Forest Grove also did an excellent post on the use of bones in magic (a topic I’m also working on but which will probably not be nearly as comprehensive as her fantastic article).  Gillian’s creature-feature over at Iron Powaqa has also gotten me thinking more and more about animals and their use or place within magical work.

I’ve covered animals a bit before (see my post on Snakes for example) and I’ll likely continue to explore those individual species in other articles, but today I thought I’d tackle the topic generally.  When animals appear in American magical lore, which ones crop up most often?  Are they alive or dead?  Are their parts used in magic (like the Rabbit’s Foot), or do they themselves represent something more significant as whole, intact creatures?

American Magical Animals

There are a number of animals that show up repeatedly in North American magical lore.  In fact, there are few animals which are not associated in some way with magic.  For the sake of keeping this entry simple, however, let’s look at some of the most common and popular creatures:

Cat – The ubiquitous black cat of magical lore appears in all sorts of stories.  Patrick W. Gainer relates a tale about a witch who turns herself into a cat and then murders the men her father hires to work in his mill.  In Spooky South, S. E. Schlosser describes a blacksmith whose wife slips in and out of a catskin every night until he outwits her by salting her human skin while she’s away.  There’s also the story of the Wampus Cat, a fearsome cat-like beast which terrified Native Americans and early colonists in the Southern Appalachians.  And of course, the powerful magical charm of the black cat bone has been discussed on the blog and podcast before.  There are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of cat-related stories connected to witchcraft and magic in North America, and while having a black cat weaving about one’s feet certainly isn’t a requirement for witchery, it does seem to be encouraged.

Dogs/Coyotes/Wolves – Everyone knows about Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, with their requisite images of the faithful companion to the bold pioneers and adventurers on the frontier.  So it should come as little surprise that dogs and their relatives show up in magical lore here, too.  The Native American trickster spirit, Coyote, remains a popular figure in storytelling (and as fodder for Roadrunner cartoons).  Black dog hair is used in hoodoo spells, sometimes in conjunction with black cat hair.   The famous “Man in Black” at the crossroads in hoodoo lore sometimes appears as a black dog, too:

“Well, people say yo’ meet de devil, but tell de truth ’bout de thing, ah don’t know if it wus de devil or not. It wus a black something othah jes’ ’bout dat high — sorta mind me of a dog. He had han’s lak a dog when ah fus’ seen him but fust and last his han’ wus jes’ lak mine only it wus jes’ as hot as could be.” From the work of Harry M. Hyatt [Fayetteville, North Carolina, (1438), 2581:1.]

There are also a number of stories from all around the country related to ghostly black or white dogs who presage death or misfortune.  These seem to be similar to the “Black Shuck” dogs found in English folklore (and which served as a roundabout inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Hound of the Baskervilles”).  Wolves show up from time to time in Northern and Pacific Northwestern lore, though they usually do not have the fearsome associations found in European stories but rather serve as guides or helpers to lost or wounded folks.  Though the element of danger sometimes hovers around the magical canine, for the most part they seem to act as allies to magical folk in North America.

Snakes – As I said earlier, I’ve posted on snakes before, but a quick rehash can’t hurt.  The reputation of the serpent in North America seems to have been tainted by the negative impressions of it transmitted through Christianity.   Yet it remains one of the most significant magical animals in American magic, too.  Even some Christians engage in ceremonies with snakes, handling them as a test of faith in accordance with Mark 16: 17-18.  Marie Laveau was known to dance with a large snake called Zombi during her famous St. John’s Eve celebrations in New Orleans (described in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men), thus cementing the serpent into the NOLA Voodoo tradition.  Snake parts are common in magical practice, with rattlesnake rattles being lucky and the shed skins and eggs being useful for cursing and negative work.  I like using snakes myself, as I enjoy their chthonic symbolism and ambivalent quality.  I remember making a rather nice Damballah altar jar for a friend containing a long snakeskin and bones, inscribed with the lwa’s veve on the front—it was beautiful and felt like it radiated power when I finished it.  So yeah, I’ve got a fondness for the slithery beasts.  At least, when I’m wearing boots I do.

Spiders/Insects– Moving from one creepy-crawlie thing to another, bugs show up a bit in the magical lore of North America, too.  In The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis, one witch uses a little black beetle as her familiar, traveling with it in and out of keyholes.  Much like snake eggs, spider eggs are used to create the “Live Things in You” spells so greatly feared in hoodoo work, as described in Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root MagicAnansi, a powerful spirit and/or deity imported from West Africa, appears in the magical lore of places like Florida and the Coastal South, where he was sometimes transformed into another magical creature on this list—the rabbit.  This shift in emphasis may be explained by several factors.  According to Newbell Puckett:

Only the spider, a great favorite in African folk-lore, has been almost entirely dropped from the folk-tales of the Negro, and this may perhaps be due to a falling away of African religious beliefs, since on the Gold Coast the spider is regarded as the Creator of all men, and is supposed to speak through the nose as the local demons are said to do. It also may be that the spiders of the South, being smaller and less terrifying than the African type, have caused that creature to lose its prestige.  (Folk Beliefs, p.34)

Vance Randolph also mentions spiders and insects as being connected to weather lore:  they either swarm into the house before a big storm, or if a spider is crushed in the home it can cause a dry spell of seven days.  Finally, there’s a curious little rhyme mentioned by Patrick W. Gainer which can help one find lost objects:

“Spitter, Spitter, spider, tell me wher that (name of the article) is and I’ll give you a drink of cider” (p. 125).

There are plenty of other little bits of lore regarding six-and-eight-legged creatures, but I’ll save those for a longer entry sometime in the future.

I’m going to stop here for today, but we’re not done with magical creatures yet, by any stretch of the imagination.  If you have animal lore you’d like to share about any of the creatures mentioned so far, though, please do!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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