Posted tagged ‘witch of forest grove’

Blog Post 180 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 4

August 20, 2013

Greetings and salutations! It has been a phenomenally busy end-of-summer around here. We’ve got a show in the works, and I’ve got articles brewing for the website, the Witches & Pagans site, and several print publications as well, so keep an eye out for those. Today I thought it would be good to have a brief cartulary post, though, so that while you’re waiting on tenterhooks for more New World Witchery (and you are waiting on those tenterhooks, aren’t you?), you won’t get too bored.

First of all, it’s the birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the noted author of some of the best weird and horror fiction of the twentieth century. If you’ve ever heard of Cthulhu or the Necronomicon, those are Lovecraft’s brainchildren, as are so many modern horror elements. What makes him of interest here is that he blends the occult with the scientific, creating a strange but wonderful mythology that is very easy to get sucked into. Much of his work has entered the public domain, and you can frequently find good collections of it cheaply, such as this Kindle collection of his work for less than a dollar. If you want to spend a little more, pick up the truly excellent Library of America collection, which also contains a chronology of Lovecraft’s life and a thorough annotation to the stories. If you’re a podcast listener, you should also definitely check out the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, who record dramatized versions of the author’s eerie tales.

I recently reviewed a couple of books on conjure, both of which fall into the non-fiction camp, but since we’re talking about weird tales, I think a few recommendations of conjure fiction would be worthwhile. First, I have to recommend the collection Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by the wonderful Nalo Hopkinson. I’ve reviewed this book before, so I won’t say more than it is definitely worth a read. Fire Lyte sent me a wonderful collection of late 19th and early 20th century conjure tales called Voodoo: Strange & Fascinating Tales & Lore, edited by John Richard Stephens. The editor unfortunately bowdlerized a number of the stories, but you can find a number of great tales in here anyway, by authors like H.G. Wells and Charles Chesnutt. If you’re looking for a great collection of hoodoo stories just by Chesnutt, I received the marvelous Norton Critical Edition of his Conjure Stories back at Christmas, and it definitely rewards a reader with an interest in folkways , magic, and good literary storytelling.

I can’t recall if I mentioned it or not, but I recently watched a few classic “voodoo” films via Netflix and/or Amazon Instant that may be of interest to folks here. The classic White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi and features all sorts of ridiculous fun. The 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow was more enjoyable than I thought it would be at first. It’s based on a book of the same name by anthropologist Wade Davis, who theorized that the “zombie powders” of Vodoun might be a form of bufotoxin or tetradotoxin found in poisonous animals which induced corpse-like comas in victims. The movie obviously mangles the research a bit in the name of good storytelling (well, storytelling of some kind, anyway), but it still makes for a harrowing look at the political and spiritual life of Haiti under the dictatorship of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier.

Finally, I wanted to mention a few musical items of interest. Firstly, I picked up a really fun compilation CD put out by the Lucky Mojo Company called cat yronwode’s Hoodoo Jukebox. It’s part of a 2-CD set which includes a CD-ROM full of hoodoo-related graphics (mostly in the Lucky Mojo style). The music CD is basically a collection of old country or backwoods blues tunes by the likes of the Memphis Jug Band, Johnnie Temple, and Blind Willie McTell. It’s essentially all tunes coming from public domain sources, so I’m not sure if any of the proceeds go to the artists’ families, but I imagine with Yronwode’s usually ardent position on intellectual property and copyrights she’s found some way to do good things with the funds. Most of these songs you could find by digging around in archives or on the internet long enough, but Cat has done a marvelous job assembling them in one place and providing a really rich commentary on them in the liner notes. If you like blues or even just music about magical things (and I’m looking at you and your upcoming Halloween episode, Velma Nightshade), this is a good collection to have.

I also cannot help but shamelessly plug a friend of mine’s latest release. If you’ve not heard of Amanda Shires, you probably will, and soon. Her new CD, Down Fell the Doves, is the deeply haunting sort of alt-country record I can’t resist. It’s relevant here because several of the tracks have deeply folkloric elements. “Bulletproof” talks about animal curios given to Shires by a man named “Tiger Bill” with the assurance “That’ll make you bulletproof.” The song “Deep Dark Below” speaks of a devil who plays a fiddle with a bow made of bone that “sounds like your deepest desires.” If you like good, spooky music touched by rock, blues, country, and folk influences (somewhat similar to the marvelous band Devil Makes Three, which Sarah Lawless introduced me to), give Down Fell the Doves a listen.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 168 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 2

November 29, 2012

Today we’re rounding up another group of links that readers of this blog might find interesting or enjoyable and sending them out into the world. I’ve not had as much time to write for the blog or record for the show as I’m knee-deep in the process of thesis-writing and researching places for PhD research, but I do continually find myself reading new posts, articles, and information that pertain to the various branches of folk lore, folk magic, and folk belief. Here’s a brief list that will hopefully give you some things to peruse while you’re waiting upon tenterhooks for the next riveting New World Witchery post or show.

I’ll start today in the realm of Pennsylvania-Dutch magic. There’s a brand new edition of the pow-wow classic The Long Lost Friend available from Llewellyn, edited and annotated by Daniel Harms.  Hohman’s text is presented here in several formats, including the original 1820 edition (with the German language version) and in an expanded 1856 English translation. Many of the spells are pulled from a third edition, the 1837 “Skippacksville” version. It’s a surprisingly stuffed text with a tremendous amount of folkloric value, and if you have any interest in American folk magic at all I highly recommend getting it.

In the same vein, if you enjoy braucherei, hexerei, and pow-wow, but want to explore it in a Pagan/Heathen context, I cannot recommend enough that you hurry over to Urglaawe. This is Rob Schreiwer & Co.’s site which helps collect—in English and PA-German—the vast stores of Germanic magic which exist on both sides of the Atlantic (with a heavy emphasis on the beliefs and practices of the Pennsylvania-Dutch in America). Schreiwer will be part of an upcoming episode of the show, and he’s a brilliant mind with a tremendous amount of information in his head, so please take a look at the work he’s doing. If you’re a schuler of things Deitsch, you won’t regret it.

In a final nod to the Germanic cultures of America, I was recently introduced by SilverShadow and Dr. Hob to the fascinating phenomenon of courting candles. These little spiral-shaped candle holders would be lit and adjusted to provide light for suitors to visit their sweethearts. When the candle burned out, the beau had to leave. If a father liked a suitor, he’d adjust the candle to provide more time in the light; if not, he’d move the little key to make the candle burn out more quickly. I’m always fascinated by things like this, as I can see plenty of ways they can be used magically in addition to their more mundane applications.

Speaking of Dr. Hob, he’s been very active on his own website lately, Pennies for the Boneyard, with phenomenal posts on topics ranging from his relationship with Christianity and conjure work to a review of ConjureMan Ali’s Santisma Muerte book to a rather flattering and kindly review of our own cartomancy guide. If you’ve not come across his blog before, give it a visit and tell him we sent you.

You should also check out the fun and informative show he and SilverShadow are doing together, called Lamplighter Blues.

I’m reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for the first time as part of a book club, and if you haven’t read it, it’s worth the time. The story gives you a wonderful portrait of the strange, beautiful, and eerie city of Savannah, Georgia, as well as a specific murder trial that occurred there in the 1980s. A major portion of the story takes place in cemeteries, and a conjure woman whom the author names “Minerva” becomes somewhat crucial in the narrative. This is essentially a non-fiction book, though, and Minerva is actually Valerie Fennel Boles, widow to one of the Dr. Buzzards of Beaufort, South Carolina. Boles carried on Buzzard’s conjure work until her death in 2009, and the portrayals of her practice in the book—despite the appellate of “voodoo” which author John Berendt uses to describe what she does—are incredibly vivid and authentic.  You can read more about Dr. Buzzard in Jack Montgomery’s American Shamans, too, which we’ve mentioned here before.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Sarah Lawless’ latest venture has gone live. Go take a peek at the Poisoner’s Apothecary, and check out some of the projects she’s working on. I’m particularly excited about the range of pipes she’s carving for smoking rituals.

I think that will just about do it for today. If you enjoy these links, let them know who sent you and let us know what you like best in the comments section. And feel free to share what you’re reading/writing/learning these days, too!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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!

-Cory

REFERENCES & SOURCES

  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 126 – Walpurgisnacht 2011

May 3, 2011

A Hornie Fellow

Stones and bones, brooms and fire.  In the olden days, the night before May 1st was spent burning brooms or effigies of witches in big bonfires to ward off evil.  Witches were thought to gather at the Brocken, a mountain in Germany where they held their strange revels around infernal fires of their own.  Dead things might come galloping up out of their graves to follow the witches and join in their wicked revelry.  Wild storms preceded and followed the witches and the Wild Hunt on their nighttime gallivants.

It’s terrifying stuff, but like most fairy tales, people don’t really believe in it anymore.  But maybe they should.

I’ve loved Walpurgisnacht since I first started observing it as a complementary holiday to the more often observed Beltane or May Day.  I even did a post on it last year, which has been one of my most popular posts to date, actually.  This year, the group I do my social witchcraft with celebrated Walpurgisnacht together, and it may have been one of my favorite gatherings to date.

It started with a bonfire in a park about 500 feet from a big Boy Scout campout.  Or, rather, it really started the day before when I am sure I piqued the curiosity of a few neighbors by hiking into our local woods, dropping handfuls of something powdery and muttering to myself at certain locations on the forest perimeter, then emerged moments later with a big, heavy object under my arm.  I spent the rest of the day piecing together all of the elements I would need to fulfill my duties at Walpurgisnacht—sorting candles, making magical gifts for my co-coveners, bringing the appropriate skulls and bones and broom and stang down to my car under cover of darkness so I wouldn’t have to drag them out the next day while the neighbors looked on (they already had enough reason to look at me funny, why add to that?).

When I pulled into the camp, the scouts were swarming.  As I struggled to gather some firewood from a rather flooded site, a number of the boys approached, waving glo-sticks and flashlights and demanding (in a charmingly pirates-and-lost-boys way) “Who goes there?!”  Apparently some older kids had been running around trying to scare them earlier, so I had to vouch that I was not, in fact, a “robber” as they put it.

New Brooms Against an Old Tree

By the time our leader  had arrived, the scouts had pretty much removed themselves to the far side of the camp and were engaged in what looked like a snipe hunt (bless ‘em). We  got the fire going and arranged everything we would need for the night.

I can’t say too much about what happened next, but I will say that the following things may have been involved:

  • Black-strap Molasses Rum offerings
  • Leaping the fire on a broom
  • Hedge-Crosser’s Smoke from Forest Grove Botanica
  • An exchange of several magical gifts
  • I may have worn lipstick at one point

Because it's just not a party until someone breaks out the ram's skull...

Walpurgisnacht proved to be a great night for a few witches to gather around a bonfire, calling upon the dead, riding brooms, leaping through flame, and generally doing all the things the fairy tales say.  We may not have had storms on the Brocken, but the winds definitely started rising before all was said and done.  At one point, I very seriously had to say, “If you hear the sound of horses’ hooves, drop to the ground and don’t look up.”  Maybe it was just my imagination at that point, but the air certainly seemed ripe with witchery.

So, what did you do on Old May Eve? (Or the next day, for that matter.)

-Cory

Blog Post 118 – Four Thieves Vinegar

February 2, 2011

Greetings everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 112 – 5…4…3…2… (New Year’s Traditions)

December 29, 2010

With one set of holidays just behind us, we still have a little more celebration left before the deep, dark, quiet winter sets in.  Today, I’ll be sharing some of the New Year’s traditions from North America (and to some extent, from around the world).  New Year’s has a lot of obvious components: a sense of rebirth, optimism, setting goals for improvement, and even a little romance.  Let’s look at some of the big traditions associated with this glittering and festive affair.

1)      Fireworks – These are a common component of New Year’s festivals worldwide, including the Chinese New Year which occurs later in the winter.  Aside from being a celebratory demonstration of light and wonder, the noise and fire from these explosives may serve to frighten away any lingering demons or bad spirits.  And, of course, they help keep everyone awake until the crucial midnight hour.  This also ties into other noise-making activities on New Year’s Eve, such as singing, banging cymbals, and other loud demonstrations of the party spirit.

In the Appalachians, this sometimes mixed with the mumming traditions of the Christmas season and became something known as a Shanghai Parade.  Gerald Milnes describes the practice in his book, Signs, Cures, & Witchery:

“The shanghai tradition once included music played on violins, flutes, horns, and drums in the Valley [of Greenbriar Co., West Virginia].  There is even a fiddle tune called ‘Shanghai’ that is known in West Virginia and may be connected to the shanghai ritual…people also cross-dress and put on exotic, mostly homemade costumes.  Reversal is a theme, and they generally whoop it up in the spirit of old midwinger revelry” (p. 192)

Jack Santino also describes similar uses of noise-makers, including guns, in his All Around the Year:  “In Hawaii, the custom involves the traditional beliefs of the native Hawaiians, who say that the fireworks scare off demons.  In Ohio, they are used as noisemakers, often instead of a gun, since ‘shooting in the New Year’ is the tradition” (p. 13).

2)      Kissing at Midnight – This tradition is related to others more regionally or culturally specific (such as “First Footing,” discussed below), but has become a broader practice among Occidental celebrants of the New Year.  The Snopes.com page on New Year’s superstitions has this to say on the subject:

“We kiss those dearest to us at midnight not only to share a moment of celebration with our favorite people, but also to ensure those affections and ties will continue throughout the next twelve months. To fail to smooch our significant others at the stroke of twelve would be to set the stage for a year of coldness.”

The idea of setting the stage for the coming year based on what one does on New Year’s Day ties into a lot of the other superstitions and customs related to this holiday.  With kissing, the idea seems to be that if you start the New Year off with someone you love, or at least by kissing someone attractive, you will invite positive romance into your life over the coming year.

3)       First Footing – To those of Scottish extraction, this is probably a very familiar practice.  The Scottish New Year is called Hogmany, and involves several key rituals, including house-cleaning, preparing traditional meals (see “New Year’s Food” below), and First Footing.  Sarah at Forest Grove has written an excellent entry on the Hogmany traditions, and describes First Footing thusly:

“First footing is a divinatory folk tradition where the first person who sets foot in your house in the wee hours of the New Year determines the luck and happenings of the year ahead. A man is preferred over a woman, and a man of dark hair and eye over a man of light hair and blue or green eyes. Redheads are especially unlucky to be the first to set foot across your threshold in some areas of Scotland.”

In some cases this practice requires that the first-footer be not of the household.  We received several pieces of lore in our Winter Lore Contest related to the New Year, including a bit about First Footing from listener/reader Akia: “Some of her [grandmother’s} holiday superstitions included: not letting anyone out of the house or enter until an unrelated male came into the house on New Years Day.”

4)      New Year’s Food – There are a lot of traditions about just what to eat on New Year’s Day.  Some of the most common components of a New Year’s meal are:

      • Black-Eyed Peas
      • Cabbage
      • Collard Greens
      • Ham or Pork
      • Lentils
      • Whiskey (or good, strong booze in general)
      • Potato Pancakes

Most of the foods associated with the New Year are related to prosperity and wealth in some way.  For instance, lentils and potato pancakes are shaped like coins.  Black-eyed peas have fertility and abundance going for them.  Cabbage and collards look like wads of bills waiting to be spent, etc.  Some folks recommend the addition of non-edible components to the meal, such as coins for prosperity.  Patrick W. Gainer says, “It will bring good luck if on New year’s Day you cook cabbage and black-eyed peas together and put a dime in them” (p.123).   Listener and podcaster Aria Nightengale shared her New Year’s food lore during our recent contest, saying, “[W]e always eat pork and cabbage on new year’s day.  According to my Momaw, we eat pork because pigs eat moving forward not backwards, so pork will help you move forward through the new year.  I don’t know the specific purpose of the cabbage…but Momaw cooks it with a silver dollar in it for prosperity.”

There’s a distinctly Southern dish called Hoppin’ John made from black-eyed peas, onions, and ham which can usually be found simmering away on most stovetops during the New Year.  It’s so important to our traditions that many restaurants also offer some version of it on New Year’s Day.  My wife and I have a tradition of going to one specific restaurant every year where we can get good potato pancakes and hoppin’ john to help bring in the New Year with a couple of our friends.  It makes for a nice way to spend the day, and ensures that we get our black-eyed pea requirement taken care of.

There are still many more traditions we could discuss (and I hope to!), such as cleaning practices, taboos, whether or not to give gifts, etc.  But for now, I hope this has been a nice introduction to the wonderfully lore-rich practices of New Year’s celebration.  Here’s wishing you a great day, and a great ending to the year!

All the best, and thanks for reading,

-Cory

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

November 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 97 – Shop Recommendations

October 12, 2010

While we get our Etsy shop slowly up to speed (there are more products on the way soon, I promise!), I thought I’d take today to recommend a couple of sites where you can find fantastically witchy supplies.  I’ve had good, long conversations with both shop owners and found them to be incredibly knowledgeable about their products and about magic in general.  Without further ado, here they are:

Forest Grove Botanica – The store of Sarah, the Witch of Forest Grove, whom we’ve had on our show before.  Now, I’ve linked to her shop in the past, but as of yesterday, she launched her site independently, so it no longer relies on Etsy to provide transactions and listings.  And it looks like she has really been expanding her wares, too.  She’s including all sorts of wonderful products, like Witches’ Salves, herbal smokes, oils, potions, and incenses.   I’ve already placed my first order, and I’m sure I’ll be getting lots more from her in the future (especially once she gets her Art section up and running).

Alchemy Arts – This is the store I mentioned from the Chicago-land area in Podcast 17 (and which I incorrectly called “Alchemy Works,” sorry!).  I seriously spent a lot of time and money in this shop, and I wish I could have spent more of both there.  This was a phenomenal place, and the owner really knows his stuff.   If you’re in the area, stop by.  Or you can call him and he’ll help you get exactly what you need at a fair price.

If you have favorite shops you’d like to recommend, please comment and do so (if you can provide links, that’s helpful, too)!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 75 – A New Look!

August 4, 2010

Hi everyone!

So you may have noticed a subtle change or two to our page today.  We have a new look here at New World Witchery, which hopefully makes us look a little more interesting.  Our fantastic web designer is none other than the lovely Sarah, Witch of Forest Grove (and The Pagan Bookworm and Hedgefolk Tales and proprietress of Forest Grove Botanica)!  Many many thanks to her for putting together such a neat design (especially that banner at the top—the old one was kind of sad looking).

If you run into pages or buttons that don’t work, please let me know so we can get those fixed.  Likewise, if you suddenly find one of your comments missing from a previous post, let me know that, too.  Some of them wound up being sent back into “hold” status during the update.

Again, a thousand thousand thanks to Sarah, and we hope you like our new look!

Thanks for browsing!

-Cory

Blog Post 45 – Witches

April 14, 2010

Stories about witches in the New World are plentiful.  Early historical accounts of witch trials in America show that the belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout the colonies, though the degree to which each colony acted on those beliefs varied quite a bit (see Blog Post 3 and Blog Post 6 for some good background on these).

Often, it seems that the stories about witches that appeared in the New World were linked to Old World roots.  Tales of witch-flights in the Appalachians parallel similar stories from the British Isles.  German stories about witches casting spells on hunters’ guns show up in the Ozarks.  In general, many of these stories can be broken up into a few key categories:  how to become a witch, what witches do, and how to deal with witches.

How to Become a Witch

There are several different ways a person (usually a woman in folklore) becomes a witch.  The act of initiation usually involves a pledge of some kind to a dark figure—usually the Devil, though I would argue that this “Devil” is something other than Satanic.  But I digress, and will address this topic further in another post.  In Vance Randolph’s excellent book, Ozark Magic & Folklore, he outlines how the mountain folk thought a witch was initiated:

“Some parts of the witches’ routine are well known, even to people who deny all acquaintance with such matters. The trick of reversing the Lord’s Prayer is a case in point… When a woman decides to become a witch, according to the fireside legends, she repairs to the family buryin’ ground at midnight, in the dark of the moon. Beginning with a verbal renunciation of the Christian religion, she swears to give herself body and soul to the Devil. She removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s tombstone, and delivers her body immediately to the Devil’s representative, that is, to the man who is inducting her into the ‘mystery.’  The sexual act completed, both parties repeat certain old sayin’s, terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead and end by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards.  This ceremony is supposed to be witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude, and must be repeated on three consecutive nights.  After the first and second vows the candidate is still free to change her mind, but the third pledge is final. Henceforth the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity” (Randolph pp. 266-67)

In Appalachia, another witch-making process is described in Foxfire 2:

“JIM EDMONDS:  I heard about a man—a witch said he’d make a witch out a’him if he followed him.  They come to this door and th’witch said ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho!  In th’keyhole I go.’  He went on in and got all he wanted.

Th’old witch came and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! Out th’keyhole I go,’ and went on out.

Th’old man came and thought he’d do what th’other did and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho!  Up th’high hole I go,’ and fell t’th’floor!

You just had t’pay no ‘tention t’witches.  They can put a spell on you, but they can’t turn you into a witch if you pay them no mind.”  (p. 355)

Hubert J. Davis, in his astoundingly good compilation of American witch-lore entitled The Silver Bullet, outlines another method of becoming a witch:

“’Fust, he’d [the potential witch] have to climb to the top of the highest knob on Witch Mountain and tote either a black cat or a black hen.  Then, he’d have to find the Indian graveyard at the place nigh where two Indian trails cross.  There, he’d have to draw a big ring in the dust ‘bout fifteen feet acrost, and dance in this circle each morning at break of day for eight mornings in a row.  Then, on the ninth morning, he’d have to put one hand on the top of his head and ‘tother on the sole of his foot and say ‘ I give all betwixt my two hands to the Devil…Then the Devil comes…and nips him on the shoulder so hit bleeds.  Then, the Devil tells him to wet his finger in the blood and sign an X to this pact…the Devil will same some magic words over the cat or the hen and change hit into an imp [another name for a familiar]” (Davis pp.14-15)

Various other methods of becoming a witch are recounted in these texts, too, including firing a gun nine times at a full moon, shooting at the rising sun and watching to see if it “bleeds,” or simply being taught the ways of the witch by a family member of the opposite sex.  On this last point, I will note that the writers generally say cross-gender transfer of information is de rigeur, and just because one learns the spells and ways of a witch doesn’t make one an initiate of witchcraft.

I think I should point out that Sarah at Forest Grove did an amazing blog post on initiation recently which I recommend reading.  Particularly because I think there are some pretty strong parallels between the folklore I’m presenting here and the steps towards initiation she mentions in her post.  Let me know what you think, though.

What Witches Do

Having a witch in the neighborhood was a mix of good and bad for early settlers.  On the one hand, witches tended to be able to make potions and counter-charms to help with curses and bad luck, among many other talents.  But on the other hand, a local witch meant that there was a good chance your livestock would end up cursed or dead or both.

A common curse witches could use involved bewitching cattle so that they would not produce milk.  Or rather, the only person who could milk the cow was the witch—she would usually use an axe-handle or an old rag tied to a fence post held over a bucket.  She’d squeeze the object, and milk would pour out, while the cow’s udders slowly drained in a distant pasture.  In one of the stories from The Silver Bullet called “No Milk on Saturday,” Hubert Davis recalls a story about a witch who put a spell on a cow so it would only give bloody milk.  The cow’s owner consulted a witch doctor (see “Dealing with Wicked Witches” below) and figured out how to reverse the curse, eventually.

Witches also had the power to curse people.  One of the main methods of performing such a curse involved the creation of a “witch ball.”  This was a little ball made of black hair from a dog, cat, horse, etc. and wax, which was then thrown or “shot” at the target.  If the victim didn’t get magical remediation immediately, the witch ball could lead to his or her death in fairly short order.  From Ozark Magic & Folklore:

“I have been told of another Ozark witch who killed several of her enemies by means of a “hair ball” just a little bunch of black hair mixed with beeswax and rolled into a hard pellet. The old woman tossed this thing at the persons whom she wished to eliminate, and they fell dead a few hours later. It is said that the fatal hair ball is always found somewhere in the body of a person killed in this manner. In one case, according to my informant, the little ball of combings was taken from the dead girl’s mouth” (Randolph pp.271-272).

Some of the many other sinister tasks a witch might do included bewitching butter churns or soap tubs, causing them to fail to produce any butter or soap.  They could also summon storms and blight crops, as well.  In Randolph’s work, he mentions that one witch ruined a tomato crop by simply drawing a circle inscribed with a cross in the dirt, then spitting in the center.

Of course, the witch could also shapeshift, turning into her animal self easily and slipping off to Sabbaths, into the homes of innocent farmers and their families, or into the bed of a lover while her husband dozed dumbly in bed.  Common shapes for witches included the ubiquitous black cat, the hare, mountain lions, and dogs.  There are plenty of stories about a hunter being unable to shoot a particular animal until he manages to get a silver bullet in his gun.  Then, he mortally wounds the beast, which gets away, and later hears that some local woman is lying in bed missing a hand or a foot—the very part shot off by the hunter!

I’ll refrain from offering too much commentary here on these ideas (though I will be revisiting them at a later date), but I would like to say that many of these common elements have a place in modern witchcraft, albeit not a literal one.  Understanding these stories metaphorically, or understanding the basic kernels of practical witchcraft embedded in these tales, is an exercise worth the undertaking for an aspiring New World witch.

Dealing with Wicked Witches

Randolph makes a key point in his text on Ozark magic that many clairvoyants, mediums, card readers, conjure men, etc. get called “witches” by outsiders, but the Ozark resident made a distinction between them.  Witches were almost always nefarious in purpose, according to Randolph, though he himself revealed that out of nearly two dozen witches he’d interviewed, almost twenty of them reported working against evil rather than for it.

In the Old World, these counter-cursing magical folk were often known as fairy doctors, cunning folk, or pellars.  In the New World, these names sometimes surface, but just as often, they are called witch doctors or conjure folk (which is confusing when you realize that hoodoo and witchcraft cross cultural boundaries in many places, and thus this term may have had different meanings to different people).  In a Works Project Administration report about Tennessee, the folklorist makes the following observation:  “Cunjur [sic] doctors will sell you ‘hands’ or ‘tobies’ enabling you to detect witches and ward off their spells” (Ch. 14, par. 19).  Here, the line between hoodoo (or “cunjur”) and what is typically thought of as European witchcraft is heavily blurred, and the magic of one is used to affect the magic of the other.

Undoing the harm caused by a witch could involve a number of different techniques.  In Hubert Davis’s work, he talks about how the unfortunate farmer with the bloody milk dealt with his problem:

“Steve milked his cow, brought the milk into the cabin and put it in a big flat pan.  Then, he went out on a ridge and cut three birch withes and tied them together.  He built a big fire under the pan of milk and, as it boiled, he flailed as much milk as he could out of the pan into the fire with the birch withes.  As the milk burned with a blue-green flame, Steve saw Granny Lotz’s face in the flames and he knew that it was indeed she who had witched the cow” (Davis p.35)

In the case of a bewitched butter churn, placing a piece of silver under the cursed object would stop the magic sometimes, or burning some of the butter with hot coals would do the trick too.  Other curse-breaking methods included using witch bottles to reverse a curse and shooting an image of the witch with a silver bullet.  This last method could theoretically kill the witch, and often was performed in the nick of time (at least as far as the folklore goes), just before a witch could complete a particularly nasty curse.  Other methods of removing a witch’s curse involved “scoring her” above her eyes, or making her bleed on her forehead.  If that happened, or if you could make her see her own blood in some cases, her powers would be broken.

Another common enchantment involved the bewitching of a hunter’s gun.  A hunter who normally did well would suddenly find he couldn’t hit a thing he aimed at.  In many cases, an elaborate ritual had to be performed to remove such an bewitchment.  As Foxfire informant Jim Edmonds relates:

“Old Billy Jesse claimed he was a witch.  Ol’Gran’daddy couldn’t shoot a thing.  Somebody put a spell on his gun.  He went over to Billy Jesse t’take th’spell off.  He lived in what they call Bitter Mountain Cove.  Told him he wanted him t’take th’spell off him.  Somebody had witched his gun.

So Billy loaded that gun and went t’every corner of th’house and shot sayin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’  Run t’every corner and shot—never did load it but once—hollerin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’

Billy then said, ‘Now th’next thing you will see will be a great covey of quail.  Now don’t you shoot at nothin’.  Then th’next thing you see will be a big buck.  You can kill him.  Just shoot nothin’ else.

Gran’daddy done just like he told him, and here come a big drove a’birds.  He just held still.  He went on and there was this big ol’ buck.  Shot and killed him.  Th’spell was off his gun.” (Foxfire 2, p.333)

All of this folklore may just be storytelling.  Or it may be a way of hiding secrets in plain sight.  Or it may be to-the-letter true, for all I know.  But at the very least, I know that I enjoy these stories.  And personally, I get a lot out of them that isn’t just related to campfire entertainment.  Though I don’t mind mixing s’mores and witchcraft, should the occasion call for it.

Okay, a long post today, but hopefully a useful one!  Thanks for sticking with it, and as always, thanks for reading!

-Cory


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