Posted tagged ‘black cat’

Blog Post 197 – Shapeshifting

November 26, 2015

“Loup-Garou,” from The Werewolf Delusion, by Ian Woodward (1979) (via Wikimedia Commons)


[N.B. Please also check out our podcast episode on this phenomenon as well: Episode 82 – Shapeshifting]


One of the talents attributed to witches in a number of cultures is self-transformation. If you’ve plunged more than ankle-deep into witchcraft research, you’ve likely run across famed Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie’s charm, which she reputedly used to transform into a hare, which begins “An I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and sighing in mickle care…” Gowdie was not alone in her belief that through the force of her magic and her will (and perhaps some psychoactive botanical substances or a judicious application of rendered animal fat), she could change her form to that of an animal. Perhaps the most famous example of this power is the werewolf, which sometimes changes of its own volition, but more often is a victim of the shiny moonlight’s powers.

In the New World, plenty of witches also had the power of transformation. This article will look at a few key tales of shapeshifting from New World lore, and ask questions about what the stories could mean for a magically inclined person with an interest in exchanging human form for an animal’s.

Perhaps the best-known and most widespread incarnation of the shapeshifting legend east of the Mississippi is the story of the loup-garou (sometimes also rou-garou, rugaru, or a similar variation). The beast can be found just about anywhere which saw frequent contact with French Colonial influences, such as in Canadian border zones or Louisiana. Often the loup-garou is essentially a werewolf, a human being who can—through magical means often diabolical in nature—become a wolf-like beast. Some versions of the story, recorded by University of Louisiana professor Barry Ancelet, describe the beast as more of a thief than a predator for humans, stealing fishermen’s clams while they sleep. The exact nature of the creature is also indeterminate, since depending on one’s location, it can “range from the rougarou as a headless horseman to a wolf that prowls the forest at night” (Lugibihl). The actual transformation may be permanent (or even ghostly, as some accounts tell of the beast as the remnant of a cruel old man), or may only last for 101 days, after which time the loup-garou transfers its curse to another person through a bite or drinking his or her blood. A person under the curse seems to know whether he or she is suffering from the transformation, and becomes rather wan and unhealthy, but usually remains silent about the condition with others. A major variation on the loup-garou is the bearwalker, about which Richard Dorson recorded several stories in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the mid-20th century. As you can probably guess, the assumption of a bear form (or at least an animal form which resembles a bear more than a wolf) is more common in the lore of the borderlands on the north of the Great Lakes.

In the mid-section of the United States, particularly from the mid-Atlantic down to the upland South and across into the Midwest, the power of transformation is far less canine in nature. While the loup-garou certainly fell into the purview of New World magical lore (albeit lore largely imported from Europe), the tales of transformation one finds in places like Appalachia skew distinctly witchy in flavor. Several stories, including one which we’ve recorded here before called “The Black Cat Murders,” talk about witches transforming into cats in order to visit harm on prospective victims. Patrick Gainer recorded his version of the tale in West Virginia from Mrs. Robert Pettry, whose account included a man with a pet bear that struck off the witch-cat’s paw only to have it transform into a human hand once it was severed. This is a very common feature of witch transformation tales, and often once a witch has been injured in her animal state, she bears the marks of her injury in human form as well (which proves helpful to neighbors in identifying her). One of the remarkable points about these transformations remains that in many cases the witch has a physical human body in one place and a spectral body (with some corporeal aspects, as in the case with the bear above) that can travel around at her behest while remaining deeply linked with her. That trait appears throughout North America (again, with some Old World antecedents, including Africa as well as Europe). A tale from Virginia recorded in The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis, tells of women who turns into a cat only to have her hand whacked off with a knife. The next day, when the man who did the whacking tries to shake hands with the suspected witch, she refuses because her hand is now missing. Davis also reports a tale of a witch who becomes a cat only to be caught by a lonely mountain man, and transformed back into a woman, she marries him and bears him two children. When he begins drunkenly telling someone how they met, she turns herself and the kids into cats and kittens and they disappear forever through a hole in the wall.

Of course, not all witches turn into cats, and not al were-cats are witches, exactly, either. In Utica, New York, Davis found a tale of a witch who turned herself into a black colt that would appear in neighbors’ fields and graze among their horses. When a man sneakily catches the colt and has it shod at the blacksmith’s (I’d note the importance of iron to this story, by the way), the colt then gets put into a pasture, then disappears. However, a neighbor-woman is seen with bandages on all her hands and feet the next day. New York is also the home of famed witch Aunty Greenleaf, who reportedly would turn herself into a white deer rather than a cat or a horse. She managed to elude hunters constantly until one hunter got the idea to use melted silver for bullets and struck her in her transformed state. She, of course, took ill and died (Schlosser 2005). Another famed shapeshifting creature, however, is not a witch at all, but a Native woman who has been cursed into cat form known as the Wampus Cat (Schlosser 2004). Lest you think that all those who are animagi (to steal a term from Harry Potter) are female, an African American tale speaks of a male witch whose form is that of a boarhog, and who uses his powers of magic and transformation to gain a pretty wife with lots of land. Interestingly, a little boy in the story—often called the “Old Witch Boy”—knows the boarhog witch’s secret and reveals it to the girl’s father, resulting in the death of the hog-witch (Leeming & Page).

Some of the most pervasive and powerful witch-stories of transformation come from the American Southwest. Navajo skinwalker tales abound with narratives about evil witches who could use the pelts of animals to take on different shapes, usually to terrorize outsiders or those they did not like on the reservations. Some accounts claim that the witch who could take on the skin of another creature was the most powerful type of witch, and had mastered what was known as “The Witchery Way.” Such a creature was to be greatly feared, and trade in certain skins and furs was severely limited within Navajo culture. Skinwalkers could be recognized by some of their supernatural abilities, but more especially by their eyes: in animal form, their eyes looked human, and vice versa when in their human form. Nasario Garcia recorded many tales in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and California from people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who reported knowing about or having seen witches that had taken on animal forms, just as skinwalkers do. One story related by a a man who recalled the events of the tale from when he was eight years old told of how his father had been driving an oxcart on a dark night with his son (the narrator) and a few farmhands along with him. Suddenly, two sheep appeared alongside the cart, one white and one black, and simply followed them, always matching pace with the cart. Eventually, they simply disappeared. Many others recorded by Garcia spoke of witches taking on owl forms to travel out by night, or occasionally coyote or dog forms, in which case they seemed to want to bite errant travelers (although never in such a way as to cause permanent injury or death, although most who see these creatures report being terrified).

So just what do witches do once they are transformed? In many of the stories, they seem to be up to no good. The tales of witch-cats often speak of numerous murders or unexplained deaths attributed to the shapeshifting sorcerers in the area. In some tales, witches take on cat forms to sneak into the houses of children and steal their breath (which is obviously related to the superstition about cats stealing babies’ breath). In some cases, the witches seem to be up to mischief, as in the case of Aunty Greenleaf, who likes to lead hunters on wild chases and get them lost, or cause their guns to fail. The loup-garous steals food, or worse, passes its curse on to others, sometimes even drinking the blood of another person to accomplish its nefarious task. The near-universal terror of skinwalkers in the Southwest is attributed to their powers to cause sickness and death as witches, although they seldom seem to kill or even severely maim while in animal form (although there are often reports of animal mutilation later connected to them). Richard Dorson records one tale from the Southwest in which shapeshifting witches seem to threaten each other more than the average person. He speaks of a pair of witches who make a bet about which one is faster in horse form. The loser has to stay a horse, which is accomplished by means of a magical halter. The winning witch sells the loser to a man, whose son accidentally removes the halter, and the witch transforms into a fish and swims away in a nearby river, then continues to transform until he’s a coyote. The coyote is tracked and killed by dogs in the end, and notably the witches have done no harm to anyone but themselves.

Why do shapeshifting witches get a bad rap, then? I would like to suggest that the real uneasiness among those who tell the stories is a fear that witches can be anywhere, and anyone, and just about anything. You never know when you might offend a hidden witch, who could be the cat twitching its tail by the fire or a horse in a pasture across the road. A healthy show of respect (even one tinged with fear) makes for a good insurance policy against the witch’s other fearful talents. Of course, being able to take on animal forms also means that the witch knows just how well you treat the lower orders of species, which might also inspire one to act a little better around the flocks and fields, or to pass an extra dog biscuit to the pooch curled up at your feet. Who knows, that might just be all that stands between you and a rather nasty hex, right?

Thanks for reading!




  1. Davis, Hubert J. 1975. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. Jonathan David Publishers.
  2. Dorson, Richard. 1964. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore. Univ. of Chicago Press.
  3. Dorson, Richard. 1972. Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers. Harvard Univ. Press.
  4. Gainer, Patrick W. 2008. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. West Virginia Univ. Press.
  5. Garcia, Nasario. 2007. Brujerias: Stories of Witchcraft & the Supernatural in the American Southwest & Beyond. Texas Tech Univ. Press.
  6. Leeming, David, and Jake Page. 1999. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America: An Anthology. Oxford Univ. Press.
  7. Lugibihl, Steve. 2001. “The Rougarou: A Louisiana Folklore Legend.” The Nichollsworth. 26 April. Louisiana State University.
  8. Navajo Skinwalker Legend.” 2015. Navajo Legends Website.
  9. Pitre, Glen. 1993. Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. Louisiana State Univ. Press.
  10. Schlosser, S. E. 2004. Spooky South. Globe Pequot Press.
  11. Schlosser, S. E. 2005. Spooky New York. Globe Pequot Press.

Wilby, Emma. 2010. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft, & Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press.

Blog Post 166 – Dem Bones, part II

November 14, 2012

The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.

Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.

Healing Specimens
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:

  • To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
  • You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
  • The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay.  Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).

In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.”  What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page:  “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.”  Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.

After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:

  • TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
  • To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
  • To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
  • As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
  • If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
  • To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)

Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.

With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

Charm Curios
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:

  • Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
  • The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
  • When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
  • A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
  • Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
  • “Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)

Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).

Other methods for using bones as magical curios:

  • A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
  • Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
  • Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
  • You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
  • Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)

Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one:  the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:

To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).

Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:

“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).

I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.

With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!

Thanks as always for reading!



  1. Anderson, Jeffery D. Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook. (Greenwood Press, 2008).
  2. Artisson, Robin. “The Toad Bone Treatise.” Self-published (2008).
  3. Brown, Michael H., Ed.S. “The Bone Game: A Native American Ritual for Developing Personal Power or Tribal Consciousness.” Journal of Experiential Education (1990).
  4. Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Book of Gypsy Magic: Travelers’ Stories, Spells & Healings. (Weiser, 2010).
  5. Chumbley, Andrew. “The Leaper Between: An Historical Study of the Toad-bone Amulet.” The Cauldron (UK) (2001).
  6. Davies, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. (Jonathan Davis Publishers, 1975).
  7. Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore.  (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1935).
  8. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
  9. Hoadley, Michael. A Romany Tapestry. (Capall-Bann, 2001).
  10. Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  11. Howard, James H. “The Akira Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle.” Plains Anthropologist. (Plains Anthropological Soc., 1974).
  12. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
  13. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois.  (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
  14. Knab, Timothy. The War of the Witches: A Journey into the Otherworld of Contemporary Aztecs. (Westview Press, 1997).
  15. Martin, Kameelah L. “Conjuring Moments & Other Such Hoodoo: African American Women & Spirit Work.” Dissertation. Dept. of English, Florida State Univ. (2006).
  16. McAtee, W. L. “Odds and Ends of North American Folklore on Birds.” Midwest Folklore.  (Indiana UP, 1955).
  17. Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
  18. Poenna, Carlos G. The Yoruba Domino Oracle. (Red Wheel Weiser, 2000).
  19. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
  20. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).
  21. —. Throwing the Bones. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2012).

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!


Podcast Special – The Black Cat Murders

October 8, 2010


A short retelling of “The Black Cat Murders” to help set the stage for Halloween!


Download:  New World Witchery Special – The Black Cat Murders

Witches, Ghosts, & Signs by Patrick Gainer

Promos & Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on

Special Episode – The Black Cat Murders

October 8, 2010

New World Witchery Special – The Black Cat Murders
A short retelling of “The Black Cat Murders” to help set the stage for Halloween! (complete shownotes at

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!



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,916 other followers

%d bloggers like this: