For my 50th blog post, I thought I’d do something special, something that really tickles my fancy. I’ll be talking about the various types of witch initiations found in New World folklore. I’ve already touched on this in Blog Post 45 – Witches, but today let’s expand a little bit on the concept.
In general, witch initiations in North American folklore share a few commonalities:
- The renunciation of Christianity, often through a ritual like repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards
- The giving of oneself to an otherworldly entity, such as the Devil or a “Man in Black” in exchange for magical powers
- An act of exposure, such as being naked or sexual union of some kind, though in some cases this is not necessary
- A sign or omen of the candidate’s acceptance as a witch
- The transmission of magical knowledge in a ceremonial way, and/or the presentation of a familiar or fetch animal
Not all of these components are found in every case, of course, and the nature of the witch may be such that he or she is not an “initiated” practitioner, but merely someone who has picked up magic throughout his or her life. This last circumstance is often found in places where magic is prevalently mixed with Christian practice, such as in the Appalachians (Granny magic) or among the Pennsylvania-Dutch (Pow-wow). Of course, in these cases, the magical worker is seldom called a “witch,” though sometimes the term “witch doctor” is used. It’s funny, to me anyway, to think about how a witch is “made” through initiation, much like someone can be “made” in the Mafia. But I digress…
Now let’s take a look at how witches were/are initiated according to specific folklore examples. From German Appalachian lore, there are stories of witches being initiated by obtaining a “Black Bible.” Scholar Gerald C. Milnes links this tome to the Key of Solomon, a grimoire with many reputed magical properties and a host of instructions on how to accomplish various magical tasks. One of his informants outlines the basic ritual thusly:
“Now say you’re going to be a witch. Okay, now I don’t know where you get ‘em, but they call e’m the little Black Bible. Take that little Bible and you go to a spring where it’s a-running from the sun…not towards the sun, away from the sun…Take that little Black Bible and go to that stream, strip off, and wash in there—take a bath in that water—and tell God you’re as free from him as the water on your body” (Signs, Cures, & Witchery, p. 162).
Milnes also describes a similar Appalachian rite of this nature involves taking dirt and shaking it off of a plate or dish while stating aloud that you are as clear of Jesus Christ as the dish is of dirt. Something more is added to this folklore:
“If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return. This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).
Such a “sacrifice” is not uncommon in witch-lore, with the physical offering being anything from a bit of blood to sign a pact to a body part like a finger or toe to—at the extreme end—the death of a loved one. This is a story commonly applied to many chthonic cult deities or spirits. Santa Muerte in the Latin-American magical traditions has also been accused of this sort of thing.
I outlined one type of witch-initiation culled from Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet in Blog Post 45, an initiation which involved a type of blood offering in exchange for the presentation of a magical imp. That version of initiation is only one of many methods presented by Davis. Here’s another one, from Wise County, Virginia:
“She [Granny, the narrator of the tale] began: ‘I’ve been told thet annuder way to git to be a witch is to fust go to the top of a high mountain, throw rocks at the moon and cuss God Almighty. Then, go find a spring where the water runs due east. Take a brand new knife and wash hit in the spring just as the sun rises. Say, “I want my soul to be as free from the savin’ blud of Jesus Christ as this knife is of sin.” Do this fer twelve days in a row. Effen on the thirteenth day the sun rises a drippin’ blud, hit’s a shore sign thet you’re becomin’ a witch’” (TSB, p. 11).
This variant is interesting, to me, because of a few elements. First, in this initiation, the spring must flow east (or towards the rising sun, though against the natural path of the sun), which seems to be different than in the Milnes version. In this initiation, too, the witch isn’t naked, but a new knife is washed in the stream while a renunciation is made. Finally, the bloody sunrise is a sign to the witch indicating acceptance or denial of the initiation—this feature is common in several variations of the rite. Davis also mentions another witch-making method which bears some of the trademarks of the process:
“He [the potential witch] then waited until Friday the thirteenth and returned to the spring as the morning turned gray over the ridge. He dipped some water from the spring with his ram’s horn and poured it over the pewter plate. He did this seven times and repeated the verses Liz [a witch] had taught him:
‘As I dip the water with a ram’s horn,
Cast me cruel with a heart of thorn,
As I now to the Devil do my soul lease…
May my black and evil soul be
Of Christian love and grace free
As this plate is of grease’ (TSB, p. 24).
This, to me, bears a strong similarity to the dirt-and-plate version of the ritual outlined in Signs, Cures, & Witchery.
I mentioned a ritual involving the reversed Lord’s Prayer from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore in my post the other day. Randolph discusses several other ways of becoming a witch in that work, some simple, and some more complicated:
- A woman could fire a silver bullet at the moon and “mutter two or three obscene old sayin’s” (p. 265)
- Repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon will do the trick
- Magical information can only passed across gender lines (man-to-woman or vice versa), or between partners united by sexual intercourse
- Widows were the best candidates for becoming witches, as they only had to learn “the Devil’s language,” whatever that might be.
Randolph goes on to say that the transformation of a person into a witch was a moving one, and often one with a morbid downside:
“I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).
In this case, the lost loved one is called a “Witch’s sixpence,” and is the “price” paid for the witch’s powers. This is not a universal belief, however, as many witches do not lose anyone close to them, and instead gain a new friend: the familiar, fetch, or imp. I’ll be doing something more extensive on this aspect of witchcraft in the future, so for now, I will just say that the familiar of the witch is a big subject with as much (often conflicting) information floating around about it as, well, the subject of initiation.
Finally, here are some examples of witch-induction from Kentucky. I’ve gleaned these from the book Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel and Lucy Thomas.
- To become a witch, go to a mountain top at dawn, shoot through a handkerchief at the rising sun, curse Jehovah three times, and own the Devil as master. When you shoot through the handkerchief, blood will fall from it (Mountains, #3773)
- To become a witch: the candidate goes with the Devil to the top of the highest hill at sunrise nine successive days and curses God; the Devil then places one hand on the candidate’s head and one on his feet, and receives the promise that all between his hands shall be devoted to his service. (Mountains, #3774)
- To become a witch, you shoot at the moon nine times with a silver bullet, cursing God each time (Mountains, #3775)
- You can become a witch by taking a spinning-wheel to the top of a hill, giving yourself up to the Devil, and waiting until the wheel begins to turn. The witches will then come to instruct you (Mountains, #3776)
These are similar to other folkloric initiation ceremonies already discussed, with the exception of the last one. The inclusion of the spinning wheel here is interesting to me, because it seems to be connected to an idea I find very witchy: the threads of Fate. It also reminds me of the Irish folktale “The Horned Women,” which is a story I glean much in the way of witchery from. In this case, the wheel’s turning is much like the rising of a bloody sun—it provides an omen that the witch has been accepted into the fold of witches before her.
So what do I make of all of this? Well, my own opinion (and I stress that it is only my take on the phenomenon of witch initiations, and no one else’s) is that each of these stories contains little pieces of initiatory lore, but always with a layer of sensationalism on top. These folk tales were intended to amuse and spark curiosity, after all, so it doesn’t surprise me that a small offering of blood, say on an new witch’s cingulum or a few drops in a cup of wine poured out to the god, gods, or spirits to which the witch is binding herself, has become exaggerated into the death of a family member or the withering of a limb. I think that initiations have a profound impact on those that undergo them, and that many of the common elements (the renunciation, the vow to serve a witch-god/goddess/devil/etc., and the granting of magical gifts like certain charms or familiars) are profound acts that may well belong in an initiation ceremony. Many of these features are also found in other initiation ceremonies and Traditional Witchcraft works, such as Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft or Nigel Jackson’s Call of the Horned Piper. I also think that some elements are overlooked in these sorts of folkloric imaginings of “witch-making”. For instance, one thing Sarah at Forest Grove mentioned in her post on initiations is that once one becomes a witch (or takes initiation), one finds “Growth and strength of abilities and experiences the more one practices and keeps their promises.” Most stories about witches seem to either end at the oaths taken upon becoming a witch, or to start in medias res of a witch’s career, showing a witch operating in one way, unchanging, until she is (inevitably) defeated. That makes for good storytelling, but perhaps not for so much good practical witchery. Witchcraft is wonderful in that the more you do it, the better it gets!
In the end, I like this topic, but I should say one more thing. I don’t think that a person-to-person initiation is necessary to practice witchcraft. If you’ve not taken an initiation, or don’t ever plan to, but find you are good at witchcraft anyway, keep doing it. You certainly don’t need anyone to validate your magic if it’s working, and if whatever forces you draw your magic from one day choose to initiate you, I have a feeling that much like Don Corleone, they’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.
My apologies if this post has been overlong, but I hope it’s useful to somebody out there. If nothing else, you’ve worked out your scrolling finger for today.
All the best, be well, and thanks for reading!