Posted tagged ‘Kentucky’

Blog Post 196 – Body Lore & Magic

October 22, 2015

Hans van Hayek, The Fortuneteller, 1892 (via Wikimedia)

“My ears are burning; who’s talking about me?”

“If your nose is itching, someone wants to kiss you.”

“Your feet itch? You must be about to go somewhere.”

I remember my mother often sharing the little bits of proverbial wisdom throughout my childhood.

Usually they were delivered with a wink or a wry smile, and I don’t think she took them particularly seriously, but then she also wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that any one of these tokens had borne some fruit in the real world. If you think about it, assumptions about the intimate connection between a person’s body and the world around him or her are not anything new or unusual. Plenty of people have an uncle whose bunions predict snowstorms, or a grandmother whose arthritis tells of coming rain, or headaches that detect heatwaves moving in. There are plenty of other ways one’s body might help one prepare for a day outdoors, according to American lore:

Beyond those sorts of weather-related phenomena, however, bodies are reputed to be in touch with all sorts of esoteric information. Of course, obtaining pieces of a person’s body is a primary way of gaining magical control over him or her, but that, I fear, goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this brief examination will focus on the body as a giver or receiver of information, rather than a source of spell ingredients. For example, often the physical features of a person imply certain characteristics about their intellect or psychology, according to American lore:

  • A fat person is believed to have a good disposition and a friendly nature
  • A big head can be the sign of great intelligence, provided it’s not too big (which would mean a person of no wit whatsoever)
  • A person with a “long head” is thought to be someone of dubious morality and “unscrupulous” character
  • A person with a broad face is thought to be warm and friendly, while a narrow face indicates shrewdness and insensitivity
  • “Dimple on the chin,/ Devil within” – A dimpled chin indicates a troublemaking personality
  • Long arms indicate someone with a “grasping” nature, someone who will do whatever it takes to geth what he or she wants
  • Trimming a baby’s fingernails will turn it into a thief
  • And of course, cold hands mean a warm heart.

What do all of these sorts of lore have in common, then? They all seem to operate off of the ever-present Doctrine of Signatures, which we’ve seen before, and which fundamentally states that like affects like. By that logic, we can see how things like “broad face” and “big head” can be indicators of abundance with regard to particular character traits (I can only assume that the same sort of logic applies to the “fat person,” in that they have general abundance in their figure and thus must have some in their disposition towards others as well). More interesting are the less direct connections between things like trimming fingernails and later thievery in life. I would suggest that because a baby is supposed to undergo very little “reduction” during the first year or so of life (a period when their hair, body, and in some cases, teeth, are all growing more abundant), that trimming something off of the baby’s hand will make it always look for something to fill the void. That, in turn, might lead the baby to fill it with other people’s things, and thus the fear of thievery is attached to the belief. Makes sense? Coming with me on that one? (It’s fine if you don’t, of course, as these sorts of lore-bits often can have multiple meanings and origins).

Some of my favorite bodily predictors come in the form of love (and lust) lore, because they seem so appropriate to connect to how we experience our fleshly existence. I always heard that if your nose itched, someone wanted to kiss you, as I noted above (which may indicate either a lustful flag of interest if one subscribes to the nose/penis symbolism that some folklorists do, or a simple sense of “rooting out” such a person, as indicated in the paragraph on itching below). Another fairly common bit of folklore says that “a hair in your mouth means someone wants to kiss you.” Hair can have very sexual connotations (which is why it frequently gets associated with sexuality in Abrahamic religions), so its presence in the mouth would be a very reasonable indicator of lustful intent. Another bit of lore deals more with what to do if your paramour wanders off: “Throwing nail parings into a fire is a way to call a lover back to you” (okay, so this is more of a spell, but it does seem as though the nail trimmings are communicating with the other person, so I’m calling it a fit).

Itches or burning sensations on the body are of particular importance, and seem to offer very particular meaning depending on where they occur. Some examples from Kentucky lore:

  • If your ears burn some one is talking ill of you, while if your hand itches you will receive a present, or shake hands with a stranger.
  • If your right foot itches, you are to go on a journey; if the left, you are going where you are not wanted.
  • When your nose itches, some one is coming. If it is when you are away from home, you may know you are wanted at home.
  • If your right eye itches, you will cry; if the left, you will laugh.

Again, we see elements of the Doctrine of Signatures, in that ears receive the voice of others in most circumstances, so if they act in an uncharacteristic manner, they must indicate an unheard voice somewhere out in the world. Feet carry us on journies, of course, so the interesting element in that superstition is the association with particular feet and the type of journey. With the long-standing stigma against “sinister” (the original meaning of that word being “left-sided”) use of limbs, the connection between the left foot and an unpleasant journey makes some sense. The less obvious one is the nose, although we may make some guesses about why a nose would be a barometer for upcoming human contact. We might think of proverbial phrases like “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong” or a “nosy person,” and understand that noses are believed to be the body part which roots for information, particularly about the lives of others, and so the nasal connection does have some precedent.

In Mexican-American folklore, bodily functions are often regulated by “hot” or “cold” natures (not dissimilar from Ayurvedic medicine). Because of those temperature associations, people can figure out important information about a person’s state of well-being based on whether small signs on the body indicate larger imbalances within the person. A great example would be hair, which is thought to be “hot” while it grows. A person whose “heat” dies away quickly, however, will likely begin to go gray, as though his or her vitality were turning to ash on his or her head. Having long hair can also help one lose weight in this estimation, because longer hair burns off more energy, thus depleting the body of its energetic fat stores.

Surprisingly few death omens connected to anything body related. This likely reflects an anxiety that bodily warnings are incredibly frequent and common, and that death should be a rare and unusual occurance, rather than anything commonplace. One of the few bits of bodily lore connected to death has to do with the loss of a limb and its disposal. Supposedly, if one loses a limb through combat or other misfortune, and fails to take off any shoes or other vestments on the detatched extension, the person will experience phantom pains so long as the problem is not corrected.

Vance Randolph collected some interesting lore which borders on a divinatory method using the appearance of spots on fingernails:

“White spots on fingernails are supposed to represent lies, and little boys often hide their hands to avoid betraying falsehoods. However, there is a fortunetelling rhyme children use when counting these white spots :

A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, A letter to come, a journey to go.

Some people say that a large white spot means a journey.”

These sorts of counting-out rhymes often figure in children’s play, sometimes as a means of selecting play partners and sometimes with more occult connotations, as in the spot-counting rhyme above. Why white spots should indicate lies remains open to interpretation, but if I had to guess I’d assume that the spots are thought to be the actual lies trapped beneath the glass-like surface of the nail, demonstrating that lies always come up for air, sooner or later.

I’ll close today with a little tidbit from a somewhat older book (originally published in England, but likely in circulation throughout the British colonies), which is devoted to divination via dreams and moles on the body. The entire second half of the pamphlet is about moles and their meanings, and often provides startlingly specific and inalienable interpretations of mole size, shape, and position. One such indicator: “If a Mole is on the crown of the head, it shews another on the nape of the neck, and the party witty, and to have good natural parts: but that he will die poor.” I would say that indicates that a pair of moles is a bit of a mixed bag, wouldn’t you? I think I’ll go back to being a bit heavyset and being perceived as friendly, then.

Thanks for reading!



  1. Bronner, Simon J. Explaining Traditions. 2011.
  2. Bronner, Simon J. American Children’s Folklore. 2006.
  3. “Dreams & Moles, with their Interpretation & Signification.” Published by the Royal Society of London, 1750.
  4. Dundes, Alan. Interpreting Folklore. 1980.
  5. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois. 1935.
  6. Ingham, John M. “On Mexican Folk Medicine.” American Anthropologist. 17, (1): 76-87.
  7. Price, Sadie F. “Kentucky Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore. 14, (52): 30-38.
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. 1964.
  9. Smith, Grace. “Folklore from ‘Egypt.’” Hoosier Folklore. 5, (2): 45-70.

Blog Post 164 – Superstitions and Omens, Redux

October 9, 2012

Hi everyone!

At the recent Pagan Podkin Super Moot, I had the privilege of teaching a class which I called “The Clear Moon Brings Rain,” focusing on living an “omen-ic” life. There’s a possibility that a recording of that class may surface at some point, and I really enjoyed getting to be a part of that experience, as it was mostly a directed conversation rather than a lecture-type of class, but I thought some of the notes and information I shared might be of interest to my readers.

I began with a question about the movie Practical Magic, which I love. I used the line “Broom fell; company’s coming,” to start talking about the way we learn and adopt signs and omens into our lives. Some people had not heard that particular sign prior to the movie, and some grew up with it. On some level, it seems that many people—especially those involved in a magical lifestyle of some kind—recognize that the world is essentially ‘speaking’ to them, if they are willing to listen. A prime example of living by signs transcends the purely magical and veers into the realm of science, specifically meteorology. People frequently use idiomatic expressions or folk methodologies to detect patterns in the weather around them and predict potential changes that will personally impact them. In some cases, these changes are immediate: a greenish sky and hail preceding a tornado in some parts of the country; animals freaking out prior to an earthquake in another place (like San Francisco, where PPSM3 took place). There is a wonderful infographic which displays a lot of weather lore quite succinctly, and touches on some of the scientific reasons behind each phenomenon:


From there, we looked at why we are able—as a whole—to accept signs related to imminent weather disasters, but we resist signs with more tenuous connections, like when wasps build their nests up high prior to a long, hard winter. Several people made excellent points about detachment from our surroundings, particularly nature, and I was very pleased to hear people making the point that when we don’t directly rely upon natural phenomena to feed us or make us comfortable (due to living someplace with regular access to food, climate control, and entertainment), we ‘unlearn’ the connective language of omens in the process. However, I then posited that we should develop a new set of omens in place of the old ones: predicting traffic based on certain sounds or sights, for example. Several folks attending said that they already did exactly that, which seems to me a prime example of being ‘tapped in’ to the world around you, no matter what environment you live in.

I asked if the signs and omens, then, were universal or personal, or some combination of the two. A marvelous array of answers suggested that for most folks, reading the world around you requires familiarity with it, with at least some aspect of personal interpretation involved. Likewise, it was pointed out that symbols register differently: an owl swooping across the road in front of your car may just be a raptor on the hunt. But a second owl doing the same thing may be a tap on the shoulder from the universe. We also brought up the point that ignoring a good omen frequently lands one in hot water in mythological circumstances, so paying attention can be more valuable than blissful ignorance.

Knowing how to discern signs is also important.  A song stuck in your head may just be an infectious earworm surfacing for no reason, but if you live an “omen-ic” life, then frequently those sorts of little details can alter your perception enough to add enchantment and significance to everything. Taken to an extreme, however, omens can become superstition. While I tend to embrace the latter term, I also recognize that for most people, superstition denotes custom or tradition without substance, or a fear-motivated lifestyle, and I would absolutely agree that spending seven years in fear after breaking a mirror is not a life really lived anymore.

Near the end, we played some games involving reading omens from other people’s experiences, and I shared this passage from Toni Morrison’s Sula:

“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.

What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as “natural” as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knonws that robins could fall” (89-90).

This comes after the return of the titular character in the novel to her hometown, where she is regarded as something of a wonder, something of a witch, and definitely not a welcome presence. So unwelcome is she, that the town endures a “plague of robins,” with hundreds of the birds roosting and dying all around the townsfolk after Sula arrives. My point in bringing up this passage was to focus on the cosmology implicit in it: Nature never askew, only problematic, and always offering hints as to what comes next; deciding when it is better to fight against Fate, and when stepping out of her way as she passes is best; and seeing great moments as personally symbolic in life. I think that Morrison’s words capture a bit of the sense of what I mean when I speak of the “omen-ic” life. It is a life lived fatefully, purposefully, and with a tremendous awareness of the vast interconnection of all the moving parts of existence. It is also a life in which fear becomes secondary to strength and wisdom—fear may be present, but it does not dominate.

All of this hardly captures the gorgeous conversation that those attending the class provided. They were deeply engaged and we had some incredibly sharp minds present. What I present here reflects more of my opinion than it does the dynamics of the group, but I hope that perhaps the conversation can continue. What are your thoughts on omens, signs, and fate? I’ve asked about such things before, of course, but it’s been a while, and perhaps you differently about them now, or perhaps not. Either way, feel free to leave comments below, or to email me and tell me about your interpretations of an “omen-ic” life.

Finally, I can’t resist the opportunity to share some more signs and omens from other sources. Here are some of the more common, and some of the most unusual, examples I’ve found (these were included in the class handout):

A Short List of Typical Signs & Omens of the Americas

1.  If you cut your nails on a Saturday, you’ll see your sweetheart on Sunday.

2. The accidental crossing as four people shake hands together means that one of them will soon marry.

3. A baby smiling in its sleep has an angel speaking to it.

4. When passing a wagon-load of hay, you should grab a handful—it will bring good luck if you do, and bad luck if you don’t.

5. If the stars are thick, it is a sign of rain.

6. Lightning in the south means dry weather.

7. If you find an inch-worm on your clothes, you will soon have new garments.

8. You should never watch a friend walk out of sight, or you will never see him/her again.

9. If two persons say the same thing at the same time, they must lock their little fingers without saying a word and make a wish.

10. Dream of a funeral and attend a wedding.

11. It is bad luck to tell a dream before breakfast.

12. Cutting a baby’s hair before it is a year old will give it bad luck (also said of letting a baby look in a mirror).

13. A baby born with a caul over its face will be a prophet or a seer.

14. A whippoorwill which alights on a house and calls is announcing a death to come.

15. Misfortunes always come in threes.

16. A bride should not look at her complete wedding attire in the mirror until after she is married, or else the marriage will end badly.

17. If sparks from a fire favor someone (move towards him/her in unnatural ways or numbers) he/she has significant magical powers.

18. Hearing raps, knocks, bells, chimes, or ticking with no apparent cause announces a death in the near future.

19. The seventh son of a seventh son will be a naturally gifted healer, seer, or witch.

20. A cat, coiled up with its head and stomach showing, means bad weather is coming; if it yawns and stretches, good weather is not far behind.

21. A rooster crowing at night brings rain in the morning.

22. Seeing a “sundog” (a halo around the sun) indicates either a drought or a radical change in weather soon.

23. Fogs in August are snows in winter.

24. If you are walking or riding at night and feel a sudden warmth or chill, it is a spirit, and you should turn your pockets inside out to keep it from doing you harm.

25. Stepping over a broom forwards is bad luck, but you can reverse it by stepping over the broom backwards.


Some Unusual Signs, Omens, & Superstitons

1.  People with short fingernails are tale-bearers.

2. If the first snake you see in spring is already dead, you will conquer your enemies.

3.  For hot-peppers to prosper, they must be planted by a red-headed or hot-tempered person.

4. You shouldn’t cut a baby’s nails in the first year of life; you should bite them off.

5. If you catch a butterfly and bite off its head, you will soon have a dress the same color as the butterfly.

6. If a bird builds a nest in your shoe or pocket, you will die within a year.

7. If you find a hairpin in the road, you shall soon have a new friend. If the pin’s tines are of equal length, the friend will be a girl; unequal means a boy.

8. It is very bad luck to be photographed with a cat.

9. If you kiss a witch, all the silver in your pockets will turn black.

10. You can’t swear and catch fish.


That’s it for today! Thanks so much for reading!


Blog Post 129 – Upcoming Events

May 31, 2011

Good news everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blog Post 74 – Sassafras

July 30, 2010

While passing by the cemetery on campus one day, I noticed a few little sprouted saplings with very particularly-shaped leaves.  I got very excited when I moved in closer and saw the definitive “mitten” shape of some of the leaves.  I pinched one and sniffed, smelling a strong spicy aroma almost immediately.  I knew at that point I was dealing with sassafras.

Sassafras is one of those herbs that you can’t avoid in the South.  It grows in all sorts of adverse environments:  roadsides, hedgerows, waste spaces, etc.  It can be short and bushy in its early years of development, but becomes a full-sized tree given enough time.  The roots and bark have long been used in culinary and medicinal applications.  If you’ve ever had a root beer, there’s a chance that you have tasted this plant, as sassafras and sarsaparilla were the two primary flavors in that drink for a long time.  In recent years (since 1960), active ingredient in sassafras, called safrole, has been officially banned by the USDA as potential carcinogen.  So most of the root beer sold now uses artificial flavors to reproduce the sassafras and sarsaparilla taste.  The leaves of sassafras also feature in Cajun cooking; dried and powdered, they become file powder, which is used to thicken stews like gumbo.

Medicinally, sassafras is a tricky root to use.  According to, “Oil of Sassafras is chiefly used for flavouring purposes, particularly to conceal the flavour of opium when given to children. In the United States of America it is employed for flavouring effervescing drinks…Aromatic, stimulant, diaphoretic, alterative. It is rarely given alone, but is often combined with guaiacum or sarsaparilla in chronic rheumatism, syphilis, and skin diseases.”  It also seems to have a strong effect on women’s reproductive systems, easing menstrual pain, but also potentially causing abortions.  Several health problems have been connected to consuming overdoses of safrole, including vomiting, collapse, pupil dilation, and cancer.  WARNING!  Consult a physician before taking ANY herb or root internally!  Sassafras is NO EXCEPTION!

Sassafras bark and root have long been made into teas in the Appalachians.  In Foxfire 4, informant Pearl Martin showed students Bit Carver and Annette Sutherland how to gather the herb and make the drink:

“Sassafras is a wild plant that grows in the Appalachians…The spicy, distinct flavor of sassafras makes the tea a popular beverage, served hot or cold…Pearl told us that she could gather roots any time of the year without affecting the taste of the tea.  However, the roots should be gathered young, so they will be tender…She chops the roots from the plants, then washes the roots in cold water.  Next she scrapes off the outer layer of bark and discards it.  Either the roots or the bark can be used in making the tea, but Pearl prefers the roots.  They can be used dried or green.  She brings the roots to a boil in water.  The longer they are boiled, the stronger the tea.  To make a gallon of tea, she boils four average-sized roots [which appear to be about a foot long and an inch thick] in a gallon of water for fifteen to twenty minutes.  She then strains it, and serves it either hot or iced, sweetened with either sugar or honey” ( p. 444).

While the safrole content of the tea is relatively low, again you should consult with a physician before drinking this tea.

Magically speaking, sassafras is a money root.  It attracts business success and material wealth.  Putting a little sassafras root in one’s wallet or purse keeps money from running out.  Catherine Yronwode has several good charms in her Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic book, including a business attracting sidewalk scrub made from sassafras, allspice, and cinnamon (which has the added bonus of a pleasant aroma), and this powerful little Money-Stay-with-Me mojo hand:

“Jam a silver dime into an alligator foot [available from Lucky Mojo and other botanicas and curiosity shops] so that it looks like the ‘gator is grabbing the coin.  Wrap it tightly with three windings around of red flannel, sprinkling sassafras root chips between each layer as you wind, and sew it tight.  Just as the alligator foot holds the coin and won’t let go, so will you be able to save instead of spend” (p. 179).

Sounds like a pretty wonderful charm to know, in my opinion.  I’ve not seen anything particularly about burning sassafras as incense, but I did find a book called A Collection of Folklore by Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University edited by Thomas G. Burton and Ambrose N. Manning which records a bit of superstition claiming that bad luck comes if you “burn sassafras wood” (p. 74).  The lore in this particular collection is all from first-hand sources, so I tend to think it’s got some weight.  A similar folklore collection from Kentucky elaborates on this point, saying, “If you burn sassafras wood or leaves, a horse or a mule of yours will die within a week” (from Kentucky Superstitions, #2993).  I tend to think this refers to burning wood in a fire or fireplace as opposed to using a little bit of it as incense, but take your chances as you see fit.  Particularly if your horses or mules are dear to you.

I hope this post has been of some use to you!  Enjoy the slowly waning summer, and get out in the woods to find some sassafras and other plants!

Thanks for reading,


Blog Post 50 – A Witch’s Initiation

April 22, 2010

For my 50th blog post, I thought I’d do something special, something that really tickles my fancy.  I’ll be talking about the various types of witch initiations found in New World folklore.   I’ve already touched on this in Blog Post 45 – Witches, but today let’s expand a little bit on the concept.

In general, witch initiations in North American folklore share a few commonalities:

  • The renunciation of Christianity, often through a ritual like repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards
  • The giving of oneself to an otherworldly entity, such as the Devil or a “Man in Black” in exchange for magical powers
  • An act of exposure, such as being naked or sexual union of some kind, though in some cases this is not necessary
  • A sign or omen of the candidate’s acceptance as a witch
  • The transmission of magical knowledge in a ceremonial way, and/or the presentation of a familiar or fetch animal

Not all of these components are found in every case, of course, and the nature of the witch may be such that he or she is not an “initiated” practitioner, but merely someone who has picked up magic throughout his or her life.  This last circumstance is often found in places where magic is prevalently mixed with Christian practice, such as in the Appalachians (Granny magic) or among the Pennsylvania-Dutch (Pow-wow).  Of course, in these cases, the magical worker is seldom called a “witch,” though sometimes the term “witch doctor” is used.  It’s funny, to me anyway, to think about how a witch is “made” through initiation, much like someone can be “made” in the Mafia.  But I digress…

Now let’s take a look at how witches were/are initiated according to specific folklore examples.  From German Appalachian lore, there are stories of witches being initiated by obtaining a “Black Bible.”  Scholar Gerald C. Milnes links this tome to the Key of Solomon, a grimoire with many reputed magical properties and a host of instructions  on how to accomplish various magical tasks.  One of his informants outlines the basic ritual thusly:

“Now say you’re going to be a witch.  Okay, now I don’t know where you get ‘em, but they call e’m the little Black Bible.  Take that little Bible and you go to a spring where it’s a-running from the sun…not towards the sun, away from the sun…Take that little Black Bible and go to that stream, strip off, and wash in there—take a bath in that water—and tell God you’re as free from him as the water on your body” (Signs, Cures, & Witchery, p. 162).

Milnes also describes a similar Appalachian rite of this nature involves taking dirt and shaking it off of a plate or dish while stating aloud that you are as clear of Jesus Christ as the dish is of dirt.  Something more is added to this folklore:

“If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return.  This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).

Such a “sacrifice” is not uncommon in witch-lore, with the physical offering being anything from a bit of blood to sign a pact to a body part like a finger or toe to—at the extreme end—the death of a loved one.  This is a story commonly applied to many chthonic cult deities or spirits.  Santa Muerte in the Latin-American magical traditions has also been accused of this sort of thing.

I outlined one type of witch-initiation culled from Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet in Blog Post 45, an initiation which involved a type of blood offering in exchange for the presentation of a magical imp.  That version of initiation is only one of many methods presented by Davis.  Here’s another one, from Wise County, Virginia:

“She [Granny, the narrator of the tale] began: ‘I’ve been told thet annuder way to git to be a witch is to fust go to the top of a high mountain, throw rocks at the moon and cuss God Almighty.  Then, go find a spring where the water runs due east.  Take a brand new knife and wash hit in the spring just as the sun rises.  Say, “I want my soul to be as free from the savin’ blud of Jesus Christ as this knife is of sin.”  Do this fer twelve days in a row.  Effen on the thirteenth day the sun rises a drippin’ blud, hit’s a shore sign thet you’re becomin’ a witch’” (TSB, p. 11).

This variant is interesting, to me, because of a few elements.  First, in this initiation, the spring must flow east (or towards the rising sun, though against the natural path of the sun), which seems to be different than in the Milnes version.  In this initiation, too, the witch isn’t naked, but a new knife is washed in the stream while a renunciation is made.  Finally, the bloody sunrise is a sign to the witch indicating acceptance or denial of the initiation—this feature is common in several variations of the rite.  Davis also mentions another witch-making method which bears some of the trademarks of the process:

“He [the potential witch] then waited until Friday the thirteenth and returned to the spring as the morning turned gray over the ridge.  He dipped some water from the spring with his ram’s horn and poured it over the pewter plate.  He did this seven times and repeated the verses Liz [a witch] had taught him:

‘As I dip the water with a ram’s horn,
Cast me cruel with a heart of thorn,
As I now to the Devil do my soul lease…
May my black and evil soul be
Of Christian love and grace free
As this plate is of grease’ (TSB, p. 24).

This, to me, bears a strong similarity to the dirt-and-plate version of the ritual outlined in Signs, Cures, & Witchery.

I mentioned a ritual involving the reversed Lord’s Prayer from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore in my post the other day.  Randolph discusses several other ways of becoming a witch in that work, some simple, and some more complicated:

  • A woman could fire a silver bullet at the moon and “mutter two or three obscene old sayin’s” (p. 265)
  • Repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon will do the trick
  • Magical information can only passed across gender lines (man-to-woman or vice versa), or between partners united by sexual intercourse
  • Widows were the best candidates for becoming witches, as they only had to learn “the Devil’s language,” whatever that might be.

Randolph goes on to say that the transformation of a person into a witch was a moving one, and often one with a morbid downside:

“I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).

In this case, the lost loved one is called a “Witch’s sixpence,” and is the “price” paid for the witch’s powers.  This is not a universal belief, however, as many witches do not lose anyone close to them, and instead gain a new friend:  the familiar, fetch, or imp.  I’ll be doing something more extensive on this aspect of witchcraft in the future, so for now, I will just say that the familiar of the witch is a big subject with as much (often conflicting) information floating around about it as, well, the subject of initiation.

Finally, here are some examples of witch-induction from Kentucky.  I’ve gleaned these from the book Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel and Lucy Thomas.

  • To become a witch, go to a mountain top at dawn, shoot through a handkerchief at the rising sun, curse Jehovah three times, and own the Devil as master. When you shoot through the handkerchief, blood will fall from it (Mountains, #3773)
  • To become a witch: the candidate goes with the Devil to the top of the highest hill at sunrise nine successive days and curses God; the Devil then places one hand on the candidate’s head and one on his feet, and receives the promise that all between his hands shall be devoted to his service.  (Mountains, #3774)
  • To become a witch, you shoot at the moon nine times with a silver bullet, cursing God each time (Mountains, #3775)
  • You can become a witch by taking a spinning-wheel to the top of a hill, giving yourself up to the Devil, and waiting until the wheel begins to turn. The witches will then come to instruct you (Mountains, #3776)

These are similar to other folkloric initiation ceremonies already discussed, with the exception of the last one.  The inclusion of the spinning wheel here is interesting to me, because it seems to be connected to an idea I find very witchy: the threads of Fate.  It also reminds me of the Irish folktale “The Horned Women,” which is a story I glean much in the way of witchery from.  In this case, the wheel’s turning is much like the rising of a bloody sun—it provides an omen that the witch has been accepted into the fold of witches before her.

So what do I make of all of this?  Well, my own opinion (and I stress that it is only my take on the phenomenon of witch initiations, and no one else’s) is that each of these stories contains little pieces of initiatory lore, but always with a layer of sensationalism on top.  These folk tales were intended to amuse and spark curiosity, after all, so it doesn’t surprise me that a small offering of blood, say on an new witch’s cingulum or a few drops in a cup of wine poured out to the god, gods, or spirits to which the witch is binding herself, has become exaggerated into the death of a family member or the withering of a limb.  I think that initiations have a profound impact on those that undergo them, and that many of the common elements (the renunciation, the vow to serve a witch-god/goddess/devil/etc., and the granting of magical gifts like certain charms or familiars) are profound acts that may well belong in an initiation ceremony. Many of these features are also found in other initiation ceremonies and Traditional Witchcraft works, such as Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft or Nigel Jackson’s Call of the Horned Piper. I also think that some elements are overlooked in these sorts of folkloric imaginings of “witch-making”.  For instance, one thing Sarah at Forest Grove mentioned in her post on initiations is that once one becomes a witch (or takes initiation), one finds “Growth and strength of abilities and experiences the more one practices and keeps their promises.”  Most stories about witches seem to either end at the oaths taken upon becoming a witch, or to start in medias res of a witch’s career, showing a witch operating in one way, unchanging, until she is (inevitably) defeated.  That makes for good storytelling, but perhaps not for so much good practical witchery.  Witchcraft is wonderful in that the more you do it, the better it gets!

In the end, I like this topic, but I should say one more thing.  I don’t think that a person-to-person initiation is necessary to practice witchcraft.  If you’ve not taken an initiation, or don’t ever plan to, but find you are good at witchcraft anyway, keep doing it.  You certainly don’t need anyone to validate your magic if it’s working, and if whatever forces you draw your magic from one day choose to initiate you, I have a feeling that much like Don Corleone, they’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.

My apologies if this post has been overlong, but I hope it’s useful to somebody out there.   If nothing else, you’ve worked out your scrolling finger for today.

All the best, be well, and thanks for reading!



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