Posted tagged ‘selling your soul’

Blog Post 155 – Radiolab and Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

April 17, 2012

Hi all!

I know this isn’t the botanical lore I was promising for the month of April, but don’t worry, there’s more of that coming. I just had to share something that my very dear and wonderful friend Kathleen alerted me to. One of my favorite non-magical podcasts in the world, Radiolab, just did a really interesting mini-show on a topic which intersects with our work here!

Please hop over and check out the 30 minute Radiolab short on the Crossroads, specifically the tangled crossroads legend surrounding blues players Robert Johnson (to whom the myth of selling his soul to become a great blues player is frequently ascribed) and Tommy Johnson (who may actually have done the crossroads ritual). There are fantastic interviews with music historians, blues experts, and even Tommy Johnson’s brother, all of which help shed light on the strange and gorgeous African American folk tale about gaining new power at the crossroads.

I should point out that they come at this from a scientific and historical perspective, and really are pursuing the true story about the musicians rather than doing much to get at the folkloric roots of the crossroads phenomenon. They specifically wind up ignoring the existence of the story in other African American literary and folklore sources, such as these:

  • The multiple incidents of crossoroads conjure recorded by Harry M. Hyatt between 1935-1939 (found at the bottom of the Lucky Mojo page linked above), which would have pre-dated the “creation” of this story as described in the Radiolab short
  • The numerous incidences of crossroads as places of healing, particularly trading things like a wart or a sty to a mysterious stranger, in Southern and African American folklore (which can be found in Hyatt’s work, the work of Vance Randolph, and Newbell Niles Puckett).
  • Puckett’s description of the crossroads ritual as an origin for folk hero Jack, which was published in 1926 and states:

Various legends are in vogue among the Negroes to account for the origin of this creature.  One illustrating the common theme, was told me by a root-doctor last summer.  Jack sold himself to the devil at the crossroads one night at twelve o’clock. For seven years all power was given to him to do as he pleased, but at the end of that period his soul belonged to the devil. [This eventually goes on to tell the story of Jack-o-Lantern, but the crossroads portion of it is given here as illustration of my particular point]

  • Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 article on African American folk magic, which has the following item in it:

How to Have a Slick Hand with People.

On the dark moon of any Friday night, dress yourself in black. Sit flat in the fork of a cross road at exactly twelve o’clock and sell yourself out to the devil. After which you shall have power to do anything you wish to do (“Hoodoo in America,” 392)

  • The appearance of crossroads in European folk magic (such as that found in Charles Leland’s Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune-telling, published in 1891, long before the legends being described in the blues tales)

There are so many other appearances of crossroads in folklore that it would be daunting to tackle them here (though I will probably try to do a bigger article on them some day). My real point is just to say that while I love the Radiolab story, they definitely overlooked a large amount of crossroads material so that they could focus more on the story of two real blues musicians, which is understandable.

I really do hope you’ll give this particular show a listen. It’s great, especially in its ability to untangle the two legends from one another, and you get to hear some really hauntingly good blues, too.  Let me know what you think of it!

All the best, thanks for reading, and see you down at the crossroads…

-Cory

Blog Post 127 – Summoning Devils

May 9, 2011

In Blog Post 126 we looked a little bit at the Devil as a folkloric figure in American witchcraft.  One of the questions I received in response to that post was, “but how do I meet him?”  Is the Devil an entity anyone can just summon up?  Do you have to be careful to call the “right” devil so as not to wind up with more on your plate than you can handle?  And if you do meet the Devil, how do you come away with your soul intact (assuming you want to)?

Today I thought I’d look at some of the ways, folklorically speaking, that people have been known to get into contact with the Devil or other “dark” spirits.  Some of these are based on old European folk traditions, and some call a figure which may or may not be the Devil, but which certainly shares traits with him (trickster nature, otherworldly knowledge, granting of gifts, etc.).  A word of warning before we dive in, though: Do NOT attempt any spiritual summoning work or diabolical contact without the proper precautions—while dark spirits can be powerful allies, they also can have a dangerous side and should be treated with respect and caution.

So, with that being said, let’s look at some of the main ways to meet your devil.

Invocation & High Magic

If you’ve ever read Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, you’ll be quite familiar with this method.  In this late 16th century play, Dr. Faustus (quite possibly based on a real person), learns the art of high magic and uses a magic circle to call forth a devil named Mephistopholes, who will act as his servitor on Earth in exchange for his soul.  He seals his pact with blood, and pretty much gets what he wants for a while (including Helen of Troy), then gets dragged off to hell for his final punishment.

In Marlowe’s version, the imp is a distinct entity, and in some versions of the legend he takes on the form of a dog or other animal to serve Faustus as a familiar.  Shakespeare, contemporary to Marlowe, also knew a bit about diabolic invocation through high magic.  In his Henry VI, part 2, Shakespeare demonstrates a different version of how such a meeting might go.  In Act I, scene iv, a conjurer named Bolingbroke summons the spirit of a devil named Asmath into a witch named Margaret Jourdain (based on a real woman and accused witch named Margery Jourdayne), then proceeds to interrogate the demon for information.  He dismisses the devil just before royal authorities break in and arrest everyone present for heresy and treason.

So here we have two methods inherited from the grimoire traditions of old Europe: direct appearance and possession.  Owen Davies gives an excellent overview of these traditions in his appropriately titled Grimoires: a history of magic books.  These late-antiquity and medieval methods of making contact with nefarious forces also found popularity in the New World, mostly through grimoires like the Grimoire Verum, Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets, and derivative texts drawn from such sources.  These tomes influenced magical systems like Pow-wow and hoodoo, though the specifically diabolic elements were often highly diminished by the time they reached the hands of folk practitioners.  The exception to this is that the seals found in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses were still used for magical purposes, and several of those seals are specifically designed to invoke diabolic aid from entities like Mephistopholes and Leviathan.

Should you get the urge to perform any of these types of invocations—and I reiterate my warning about being prepared and knowing what you’re doing first—here are several rituals you might try:

  • The Grimoire Verum – This text says that America is ruled by the devil Astaroth, whose sigils are included for your invocational purposes.  Please note that you should probably learn a little bit about basic Solomonic invocation and banishing from the Key of Solomon first, though the Grimoire Verum does give a little instruction in these areas as well.
  • The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses – There is a lot less instruction here than you would find in some of the other grimoires, so if you’re not versed in summoning and dispelling, you may need to look elsewhere.
  • Dr. Faustus – Here is the text used by Marlowe for his Faustian invocation.  Bear in mind that this was designed to be staged, so use it more as a guide than a rote ritual to be followed.
  • Henry VI, part 2 – Shakespeare’s text for invocation and bansishment.  Take with the same grain of salt you used with Marlowe’s work.

Meeting the Devil

On the more folkloric side of things, the common method for contacting a devil of some kind involves a journey to a liminal or wild place where he is thought to reside.  In most cases, the Devil can be found either at a crossroads or in a forest of some kind, though there are exceptions (many modern stories of meeting the Devil involve transportation or big cities, e.g. Robert Bloch’s Hell-Bound Train, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, and the cult film Rosemary’s Baby).  Probably the most famous ritual is the crossroads ritual, which I’ve mentioned here before.  As I’m planning to do an article on the crossroads as an independent magical space, I won’t go into great detail, but rather just say that Cat Yronwode has a great entry on the crossroads for those who are interested.

The forest or wild place meeting is a common folkloric theme across many cultures.  There are, of course, the Teutonic tales of meeting various wild spirits or devils in the forest, as in the Grimms’ tales of the Devil (see “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” or “The Devil’s Grandmother”).  There are biblical precedents for these sorts of meetings as well—Moses encounters the burning bush in the desert, which is at least terrifying if not outright diabolic.  Three of the gospels also recount the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert (an analog for wilderness in biblical terms).  American folklore picks up this thread, and stories of meeting the devil in wilderness are quite common.  “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, features such a meeting, and at least one scholar has brought the idea into the twentieth century by suggesting that “Men in Black” sightings associated with UFO’s in rural areas may be connected to devil lore.

The other alternative to the forest meeting is the graveyard meeting.  Usually in this version of the story, the person meeting the Devil must also do battle with him.  It can be a battle of wits, but just as often it is a physical wrestling match which parallels the interior struggle of the person confronting his or her fears by meeting the Devil in a graveyard in the firstplace.

So how does someone put this kind of meeting into practice?  Will devils always show up in graveyards after dark?  Will someone wandering in the forest or through a crossroads inevitably meet a Man in Black of some kind?  Sadly, I have no answers here.  All I can say is that if you’re truly moved to attempt these sorts of rituals, the Devil tends to show up in some form or fashion.  So if you’re interested in pursuing this line of contact, you could:

  • Attempt the Toad’s Bone ritual, which terminates with a graveyard wrestling session or a bout in a river
  • Give the Greased Plate method a try (mentioned in Blog Post 50 and found in The Silver Bullet, p.24)
  • See what happens if you do a Crossroads Ritual for a certain amount of time
  • Or, just wander to any of these kinds of places, swear yourself to the Devil (or in many cases, against God), and call out to the Devil to come and offer you terms of some kind—a new skill, riches, knowledge, etc. in exchange for service or something intangible like, oh, say, your soul.

One final thing I should mention is that the best-case scenario in many of these stories usually involves a person quick-witted enough to outsmart the Devil.  So always be aware of just what you say to any devil you meet, and make sure you leave loopholes for yourself if you promise them anything.  They seem to enjoy a good trick, so it’s a win-win if you can outsmart them.

Again, please be careful with this sort of magic. It has the potential to be dangerous, and at the very least it’s a little intense and can run you afoul of the law if you’re not cautious (loitering at crossroads or in graveyards tends to get the police rather grumpy).  If you do have any good experiences with this sort of work, though, please share!  I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 125 – Some Devils

April 27, 2011

One of the longest-standing charges against witchcraft in the New World (as well as the old) is its inherent alliance with diabolic forces.  A person simply could not be a witch without being bound in some way to the Devil or one of his minions, according to popular conceptions which remain strong even today.  The notion of witchcraft as a Satanic practice is, of course, inaccurate—many Satanists have nothing to do with witchcraft, and many witches have nothing to do with Satan (that name here being used for the Adversary of the Judeo-Christian God).  There are certainly Satanic witches, just as there are Jewish witches or Christian witches.

I prefer to draw a distinction, though, between Satan and the Devil (or devils in general, the capital “D” being used when referring to a singular entity).  In most cases, Satan appears in biblical lore as a being concerned with the overall cosmology of heaven and earth, leading wars against God, and presenting deep philosophical and theological complications into the story of Creation.  Devils, on the other hand, are creatures interested in particular individuals, usually offering them power or temporal gifts in exchange for a soul, a service, or as a reward for exemplary cleverness.  They stem from myriad sources, including the Teutonic Teufel, the trickster spirits of African and Native American mythology, the Norse Loki, and British devil-figures like “Old Nick.”  Today, I’ll be looking at the Devil and his role in American witchcraft, particularly his place as an Initiator and a Trickster.

Devil as Initiator

I’ve already somewhat covered this in our post on Initiation, but the Devil (or one of his guises) functions as a primary point of contact for aspiring witches looking for ways to join the Otherworld.  While this initiation does often feature some distinctly anti-Christian elements, such as the inverted recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Devil’s role in such inductions tends to take on the tenor of a patron or godfather.  The Devil “sponsors” the initiating witch, usually offering a physical or magical token in exchange.  Some of these gifts include a familiar imp, spirit, or animal – See “Devil beetle bleeding toe” by Davies, or

exceptional magical and/or physical ability (such as the tale of the crossroads by Tommy Johnson, or any of the accounts of gamblers using the crossroads ritual in Harry M. Hyatt).  What the witch herself offers the Devil varies a bit.  Some examples are:

  • The life of someone near to her – “I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).
  • Her family – As happens, for example, in the Appalachian story of Jonas Dotson, a young man whose granddaddy and daddy were both preachers who decides to become a witch.  A very specific ceremony is laid out in the book, involving the use of stolen rams, toad’s blood, a pewter plate, a silver bullet, and an incantation.  He undergoes the initiation rite three times before it “takes” and the Devil makes him a witch (or in the context of the story, a conjure man).  Basically, he must untie the bonds of family in order to become a magician, and each initiation separates him further and further from those family members.  (Davis, p. 22-25)
  • A bit of her own flesh or blood – “If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return.  This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).
  • Her immortal soul – This is probably the most common story, and is what is frequently meant by “selling yourself” to the Devil.  In Vol. 2 of Harry M. Hyatt’s magnum opus on hoodoo folklore, a ritual for meeting the Devil in the form of a tornado at the crossroads ends with “An’ when he [the Devil] gits dere he tells them [the person at the crossroads] exactly whut tuh do, an’ dey’ll dance with him. Dat’s whut chew call sellin’ yo’self to de devil” (Hyatt, p.1346)
  • A person’s soul even after death.  W.J. Hoffman recounts a Pennsylvania-Dutch legend about a miserly man known as “Old Kent” whose death was presaged by all manner of supernatural occurrences, such as a murder of crows rapping at the windows. After he died, his wife heard such rapping frequently, so often in fact that no guests would stay the night and eventually she had to abandon the house altogether (Hoffman p. 34-5)

In many of the tales of the Devil as initiator, he also takes the new witch’s name down with a pen in a great black book, signifying the entry of the witch into a long line of witches whose names fill the book’s pages.  He is often quite terrifying to those who encounter him.  One account of a witch’s initiation witnessed by a couple of country men out in the woods describes him thus:

“Neither me nor Jeff had ever seed the Devil, and we couldn’t believe our eyes, but it must’ve been him.  He had horns just above his ears, his feet had hoofs like a deer, he had a long tail like a cow, and fiery eyes that looked like two boiled eggs.” (Davis, p. 17)

Quite frightening, no?

The gifts gained by becoming a witch through compact with the Devil often must be exercised regularly in order to remain potent.  Lapsing in witchcraft seems to lead to torment on the witch’s part if the Devil finds that she’s not been keeping up her end of the bargain by using her powers.  I would posit that while the folklore here superficially portrays the Devil as a cruel master, he may instead be a necessary goad.  After all, what great musician or momentous artist ever became who they are without practice?  Again, the Devil may be a stern teacher at times, but one that provides the necessary impetus for improvement in one’s craft.

In all of these particular aspects—mentor/sponsor, gift-giver, book-keeper/librarian, school-master—the Devil rather reminds me of a faculty member at a university, taking a student under his wing, and helping the young witch succeed in her field of calling.  But that may just be thoughts spurred on by my gearing up for graduate school again.  Because imagining the Devil as some doddering old professor is foolhardy at best.  He is, of course, more dangerous than I give him credit for.

Devil as Trickster

Tricksters are common in a number of cultural mythologies, and often have somewhat unsettling or frightening sides.  Because of these attributes, the Devil makes a perfect candidate for chief trickster in many folk tales.  Just as often as he tricks someone, though, the Devil also gets tricked or outwitted in some way.  This flip-side to his role provides a number of amusing tales, but I tend to think there’s a subtle willingness to play the fool on the Devil’s part, making the whole scenario one big trick in the end.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The lore about trickster Devils is not a New World phenomenon, of course.  There are several tales from Europe and Africa which feature a Devil or a diabolical trickster figure of some kind, such as the Grimm’s tale “The Devil’s Sooty Brother” or the Ashanti tales about Anansi the Spider (see Podcast 26).  Native Americans, however, also seemed to latch on to the concept of the tricksy Devil, and either came to the campfire with their own Devil tales or allowed a Devil to be integrated into their storytelling at times.  A legend recorded by Charles M. Skinner in 1896 discusses a land dispute between the Devil and the Long Island Native tribes which resulted in the creation of a natural landmark (see “The Devil’s Stepping-Stones”).

Skinner also records another wonderful story which has become a tightly integrated piece of Americana.  In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the poor, bedraggled title character meets the Devil in a wood outside of Boston, where they have this exchange:

“Who are you?” he [Tom] asked.

“I go by different names in different places,” replied the dark one. “In some countries I am the black miner; in some the wild huntsman; here I am the black woodman. I am the patron of slave dealers and master of Salem witches.”

“I think you are the devil,” blurted Tom.

“At your service,” replied his majesty.

The Devil coaxes Tom with the promise of treasure, which he at first resists, instead sending his wife to collect it instead.  When she disappears, he enters into his Faustian bargain and uses the money to set up a usury business.  He attempts at every turn to outwit the Devil, keeping a Bible on him at all times and even burying his horse feet up so that if the world turns upside down on Judgment Day, he’ll have a running start in escaping his fate.  Of course, the Devil finally catches Tom and spirits him off to hell, leaving behind only cinders and ashes in place of all his money and possessions.

What interests me about this particular tale is that unlike the European Faust, Tom Walker has no interest in magical gain or supernatural powers—only money.  Well, money and getting rid of his wife, that is.

Sometimes the Devil’s trickster competitions are with angels, saints, or even God.  In these cases, the Devil almost always loses, but often whatever occurs in the story has some lasting impact on the world.  The catfish, according to one Southern folk tale, gets its distinct and ugly appearance from a brush with the Devil.  God created the fish, then took the evening off to go up to the “Big House” with his archangels and eat supper.  When he came back down to the river, the Devil was sitting there descaling the fish.  God demanded he put the catfish back and the devil agreed.  The catfish rolled in the mud to make up for its lack of scales but never grew them back again (Leeming, p. 59-60).

Sometimes, of course, people do get the better of the Devil.  In a piece of Maryland folklore which parallels the Ashanti story of Anansi and Anene which I told in Podcast 26, a woman (who is never quite identified as a witch, peculiarly enough), enters into a contract with the Devil and outwits him at every turn:

“Not many outwitted the devil, but Molly Horn was one.  She and the devil contracted to farm on the Eastern Shore together.  They agreed that on the first crop Molly would take what grew in the ground and the devil would take what grew on top.  Molly planted white potatoes and the devil came out shortchanged.  So for the next crop they decided to do it the other way round, the devil getting what grew in the ground.  This time Molly planted peas and beans and once more the devil got nothing.  A hot argument ensued on the bank of the North West Fork of the Nanticoke River in Dorchester County.  Molly struck the devil a terrific crack and skidded him across the marsh to the edge of the Bay.  When he stood up and shook the mud off himself, it formed Devil’s Island, then he dove overboard and made Devil’s Hole.” (Carey, p. 49)

Sometimes, though, people don’t quite get the best of the trickster Devil, and pay a gruesome price.  Zora Neale Hurston records the tale of High Walker in her book, Mules & Men, in which the titular Mr. Walker gains necromantic powers from the Devil only to eventually be tricked into losing his head, literally, in a graveyard.

As a final point about the Devil as a trickster, I’d like to look at the Devil’s music.  As most probably know, the Devil loves music, especially fiddle music, and can be lured into a fiddle contest on a moment’s notice.  If you’ve ever heard the Charlie Daniels Band perform “The Devil went down to Georgia,” you know this story (a Mariachi band once sing this to my wife and me at a large Mexican wedding, which was a pretty phenomenal experience).  While it is an entertaining song even on its own, it has precedents in folklore, too:

“It is a well-known old belief that fiddlers make pacts with the devil in order to obtain their talent.  Players of old-time fiddle music commonly kept (and still keep) rattlesnake rattles in their fiddles, perhaps unconsciously associating a symbol of the devil with the instrument.  The devil appears as a serpent in Genesis, and he is more modernly portrayed playing a fiddle…the instrument has been called the devil’s box, the devil’s riding horse, and similar terms” (Milne, p.153)

Milne also asserts a connection between the rattles placed in the instrument and a similar practice in West Africa, something I’ve not had time to research but which adds an intriguing layer to this particular custom.

Well that’s it for the Devil for today.  I have a feeling he’ll be coming back up periodically.  When he does, hopefully I’ll be ready for him.  Perhaps I should start some fiddle lessons?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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