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.
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!