Blog Post 58 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part I

Today, I thought I’d start to tackle in brief a subject which deserves its own book.  Or several books.  Perhaps even a library.  I’d like to do an overview of the loose collection of occult, healing, and divinatory practices practiced by the mountain folk found in the Appalachian range.  This is not going to be a comprehensive post, just a general snapshot of the different components of mountain magic, so if I don’t cover something in detail I will likely be coming back to it again eventually.  First, though, let’s start with a little bit about where this system comes from.

History
When European settlers moved into these mountains, they found that the lore and landscape they suddenly occupied was not entirely different than what they’d left behind in Europe.  Many of the Native American tribes like the Cherokee and Shawnee already associated these ancient mountains with magic and otherworldly power.  There were even beings which very much resembled fairies living in those ridges and valleys, as illustrated in the Cherokee tale of the “Forever Boy”:

“As he looked behind him, there they were, all the Little People. And they were smiling at him and laughing and running to hug him. And they said, ‘Forever Boy you do not have to grow up. You can stay with us forever. You can come and be one of us and you will never have to grow up… Forever Boy thought about it for a long time. But that is what he decided he needed to do, and he went with the Little People” (Native American Lore Index – Legends of the Cherokee).

The presence of fairies in the mountains would have been familiar to groups like the Germans and the Scots-Irish, the latter of whom had their own tradition of “fairy doctoring” which would eventually shape a portion of Appalachian magical practice.

Germans also brought in astrology, particularly astrology associated with things like planting, healing, and weather.  Despite a strongly Christian background (and strongly Protestant and Calvinist at that), most settlers accepted a certain amount of magical living in the mountains.  As George Milnes says in his Signs, Cures, & Witchery:

“Among the early German settlers in West Virginia, religion was thoroughly mixed with not only astrology but also esoteric curing practices tied to cosmic activity.  Folk curing bridged a gap between the religious and the secular mind-set.  And forms of white magic were not disdained; in fact, they were practiced by the early German clergy” (SC&W, p. 31).

The Scots and Scots-Irish who settled in the mountains were often displaced due to land struggles back home.  After long struggles with England for an independence which clearly would never be theirs, clan leaders traveled across the Atlantic and began building new territories.  The mountains running between Georgia and West Virginia were a perfect fit for them, according to Edain McCoy:

“The Scots found the southern Appalachians very remote, like their Highland home, a place where they could resume their former lifestyle and live by their ancient values without interference from the sassenach, or outsiders.  So isolated were they that many of the late medieval speech patterns and terms remained intact in the region until well into [the 20th] century” (In a Graveyard at Midnight, p. 6).

Once these various elements were situated in the mountains together, they began to merge and blend, mixing Native and European sources to create something else.  The introduction of hoodoo elements eventually changed the mixture again, though much later, and there are still old-timers in the hills practicing many of these techniques even now, though it is unlikely the entire system will remain intact for more than a generation or two as many mountain folk are being forced by poverty or circumstance to give up their highland homes.  Still, for the moment, there are lots of people trying to get Appalachian folkways recorded and preserved before they perish from the earth (this blog being one very infinitesimal drop in the bucket as far as that goes).   So for that, at least, we can be thankful.

Okay, I’ll stop here for today.  Tomorrow, I’ll be picking up with a little bit on each of the current components of Appalachian magical practice.  Until then…

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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4 Comments on “Blog Post 58 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part I”

  1. Colt Chaney Says:

    As a (55 y/o) male child of Appalachia I am very interested in the preservation, study, and practice of traditional Appalachian culture, with the mystical/magical apsect being a special interest. Could you please tell me where to find the additional articals mentioned?


  2. Hi Colt,

    It’s been a while since I posted this, so I’m not sure which additional articles you’re referring to. But I can definitely point you in the direction of a few good resources. Blogs like Appalachian History or The Blind Pig and the Acorn both have a great deal of information available. The Appalachian College Association has a number of libraries under its umbrella and would likely be a good source for original materials. Of course the Foxfire book series is excellent, too, and the Foxfire Museum in Georgia would be able to provide you with some great information.

    I hope those are helpful. If not, please feel free to ask for more specific information and I’ll be happy to give more detail.

    All the best!

    Cory

  3. Linda Null Says:

    Cory,

    I realize that it has been awhile since you posted this blog. I am hoping that you can direct me to the right place for an answer to my question since you have done so much research. My mother-in-law grew up in the high Virginia Mountains and back in the 40’s and 50’s she remembers her parents sitting at this one “end table” their hands hovering above it and the table lifting off the ground. She said she never heard them say anything, but they would sit there for hours. This was not spoken of in their home and no one ever thought to ask Granny about it. I was wondering if this sounds familiar to you at all and what it may be about. Thank you for any help you may be able to offer.

    Sincerely,

    Linda


    • Hi Linda!

      Sorry for the slow response to this question, but I’ve been swamped with home life lately. To answer your question, what you’re talking about sounds a lot like “table tilting,” which is one of the many types of mediumship that gained popularity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s linked to things like seances, crystal gazing, and using a psychic/medium to receive messages from the dead. Often the table tilting would be accompanied by rapping noises, which were thought to be the spirits/ghosts of loved ones trying to communicate. I’d recommend looking at books like Lily Dale by Christine Wicker or Occult America by Mitch Horowitz for more on Spiritism and mediumship during that time period.

      I hope that this helps! If not, please let me know and I’ll see if I can dig up more information.

      Thanks!
      -Cory


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