Blog Post 3 – Some Examples of Colonial Magic & Witch-lore
Magic in America has been around for a long time. Today I thought I’d present a few examples of magical lore and charms as practiced in America from its first contact with European culture through around the early 19th century. Note that this is not an attempt to create any kind of authenticated, unbroken lineage for the practice of religious witchcraft, but rather some illustrations of American witchcraft in its practical and literary forms. I hope you enjoy!
“[T]his way of discovering Witches [by forcing a confession or demonstration of witchcraft], is no better than that of putting the Urine of the afflicted Person into a Bottle, that so the Witch may be tormented and discovered: The Vanity and Superstition of which practice I have formerly shewed, and testified against. There was a Conjurer his name was Edward Drake who taught a Man to use that Experiment for the Relief of his afflicted Daughter, who found benefit thereby; But we ought not to practice Witchcraft to discover Witches, nor may we make use of a White healing Witch (as they call them) to find out a Black and Bloody one.”
-From The Wonders of the Invisible World, by Cotton & Increase Mather, 1693
In the passage above, taken from a text by two rather notorious witch-hunters in Colonial history, there are a couple of things well worth noting. First, there’s a good broad reference to the famous witch-bottle, about which there are plenty of theories. Generally a witch-bottle is a glass or ceramic jar filled with pins, nails, bits of iron and glass, and other unpleasant things. Urine is then added to the bottle (depending on who you talk to, it may be one’s own urine or the urine of a “target;” some modern witches use spit instead of urine). The bottle is the buried, again depending on the lore you find, in either one’s yard or far, far away from one’s home. It then acts to tear apart any harmful spells or spirits that come against the bottle’s creator, or in some cases it may cause a particular wicked witch physical torment, thereby revealing her. I tend to go with the protective interpretation of it, and the burial on my own property. In that way it works sort of like a “ward” to me. But I could go on forever about witch-bottles, and might spend some time on a future podcast discussing them. For now, their existence in Colonial New England is enough to go forward. The second point of interest in this passage is the reference to the “White healing Witch” near the end of the entry. This relates back to the Cunning Folk of Merry Olde England, who were known to repel the spells and works of “Black and Bloody” witches (their “repelling” power earned them the nickname “pellars” or “pellers,” a term which is sometimes used by modern Wiccans as a derogatory epithet).
Next, let’s look at some of the charms used in rural New England pre-20th century:
“For generations back the Gloucester [Rhode Island] farmers have believed in wizardry. They will do much of their work only during the full of the moon. Otherwise they would expect to die or have very bad luck. Planting must not be done until the signs of the zodiac are propitious, and gardens must never be plowed on Fridays. Even a tooth must not be pulled unless the stars are right; if it is, it will come hard and cause great suffering.
Pork, if killed during the small of the moon [waning], will shrink to nothing in cooking, while that butchered at the full moon will continue white and firm. To insure luck in the management of domestic animals, the sign of the zodiac must be in the leg. The wishbones of all fowls are preserved on sticks. Some families keep hundreds on hand all the time. When the zodiacal sign is in the head, then the Gloucester people believe that one can do the most at catching pickerel and can hook the biggest fish. Hence the almanac hung by the kitchen fireplace in all Gloucester houses is a thing that settlers could not live without. Its study, if one would reap good harvests, ‘catch’ good clamming tides, and avoid misfortune, is imperative.
These people also believe that if you take up a black snake and bite it your teeth will never decay; that if the nails are pared on a Friday, toothache will be prevented, and that a child born in the heat of the day can see into the future, and will be exempt from the influences of witchcraft. A ship that has such a one on board they say will never sink.”
-From “Ghosts and Witchcraft: A region in New England where superstition thrives,” New York Times. 6 April 1889
This little entry—which dates from the late 19th century but relates traditions likely stretching back to pre-Revolutionary times—is loaded with interesting magical lore. Much of it relates to the practice of farming according to the phases of the moon or the signs of the zodiac (see the excellent first volume of the Foxfire book series for more information on this concept). The inclusion of healing by the zodiac is also interesting, and I believe that it also shows up along with farming by celestial design in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore. The basic idea behind this practice is that the influence of the moon—and to some extent the stars—on the natural cycles of earth and people can be predicted and used to improve conditions. For example, one would plant root crops and tubers in the dark of the moon because they grow in darkness. There are many who swear by this kind of farming.
The other scatterings of folk charms and remedies, such as biting a black snake to carry away tooth rot, are based more on the principle of sympathetic magic. The black snake carries the black rot into the black earth, where it will dissipate and never harm the person again.
What has all this to do with witchcraft, then? Well, a good witch is usually aware of natural cycles (even if he or she is not an astrologer, a witch should be able to tell you the phase of the moon and pick out a couple of constellations in the sky, in my humble opinion). And, as a witch would likely be sought out to help bring prosperity or to heal certain afflictions, having this kind of knowledge certainly can’t hurt from a magical standpoint. Again, in my opinion.
Finally, I thought I’d leave you today with a little bit of lore from rural New York:
Behind the New Grand Hotel, in the Catskills, is an amphitheatre of mountain that is held to be the place of which the Mohicans spoke when they told of people there who worked in metals, and had bushy beards and eyes like pigs. From the smoke of their forges, in autumn, came the haze of Indian summer; and when the moon was full, it was their custom to assemble on the edge of a precipice above the hollow and dance and caper until the night was nigh worn away. They brewed a liquor that had the effect of shortening the bodies and swelling the heads of all who drank it, and when Hudson and his crew visited the mountains, the pygmies held a carouse in his honor and invited him to drink their liquor. The crew went away, shrunken and distorted by the magic distillation, and thus it was that Rip Van Winkle found them on the eve of his famous sleep.
-From Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner, , at sacred-texts.com).
There are lots of lovely craft-related bits to unpack in this tiny tale: metal-working, shape-changing liquors, supposedly long-dead men cavorting with the living, etc. But I’ll leave it to the attentive reader to make of this story what he or she will, because I’m just a wee bit diabolical that way.
I will go ahead and point out that Skinner’s story was published in 1896, and while some of his stories in that same volume have precedents dating back to at least the early 19th century, I’ve also seen some indications that he elaborated his tales occasionally, too. The connection to the Washington Irving tale of “Rip Van Winkle,” however, makes me feel that this story is at least connected to the same folklore that Irving (who published around the 1820’s) was drawing from.
That’s it for today! Thanks for reading!