Blog Post 59 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part II

Today, I’m continuing the look at Appalachian mountain magic by focusing on a few of the specific “jobs” performed by mountain magicians.

Grannys, Dowsers, and Yarb Doctors

In general, the current incarnation of Appalachian magic is broken into a few categories.  Mountain witches may do only one “magical” thing all their lives, or they may perform a broad array of tasks for their communities, some magical and some not.  Often, the word “witch” never enters the picture or has a negative connotation (with one very key exception, explained below).  But the basic functions of a mountain magician can be broken down into a set of roles, as follows.

Granny Women
This is probably the best known and most ambiguously defined magical “job” in the mountains.  Granny women filled several roles in the community:

  • They acted as healers in communities where trained doctors were scarce, nonexistent, or deeply distrusted.
  • They assisted doctors when professional medicine was required, and often during childbirth.
  • They acted as midwives and postpartum caretakers for new babies and mothers.
  • They might be called upon to perform blessings for livestock or land before planting, owing to their roles as birth-helpers (thus helping the earth and one’s livestock birth the food one would eat for the coming year).
  • In some cases, they might also perform basic divinations, like determining the sex of a baby by dangling a wedding ring over the woman’s palm or belly.

Often the work done by these women was broader in scope than mere medicine.  It took into account a patient’s whole state, including spiritual or psychological.  Sometimes the work done by Grannies baffled the doctors performing the births, though they obviously were a great comfort to the mothers:

“Granny-women might perform a number of rituals which doctors found silly and irrational. Some were designed to give the mother psychological, if not physical, relief from her pain. She might give the woman her husband’s hat to hold during the ordeal, thus bringing him symbolically into the delivery room. If the labor were particularly severe, she would place an axe or knife under the bed to “cut” the pain in two. Sometimes, weather permitting, she would throw open every door and window in the house, in a symbolic representation of opening the birth canal” (from “In Defense of Granny Women,” by Janet Allured)

The term “Granny women” isn’t exactly accurate, either.  Many women were not particularly old when they learned about midwifery from their own female relatives, and even some men were known to assist during childbirth.  While much of the training to become a Granny was on-the-job, there were surprisingly sophisticated teaching materials as well:

“To train them [potential midwives], we had a very large wooden box.  At the bottom and on the top, there was a simulated abdomen and perineum—just like the mother—so we could actually teach them the mechanism of labor, and so we could teach them what was going on inside” (Foxfire 2, p.277)

Payment for a Granny woman’s services varied, often depending on the economic state of those she helped (which was usually fairly poor).  A passage from Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, by Anthony Cavender, illustrates the point:

“A typical fee charged by a physician in Kentucky for delivering a baby in the latter part of the nineteenth century was about $10, a substantial sum for an average farming family.  Physicians were often paid in commodities, such as corn, timber, pigs, cows, and corn mash whiskey, or labor in kind.  Some granny women charged a modest fee of a dollar or two or its equivalent in materials, but many did not” (FMSA, p.129)

These women served a vital role in their communities, and while some of them were labeled as “witches,” they seldom endured physical persecution as they were far too valuable.

Dowsers
The exception to the rule of bad “witches” were the dowsers, often called “water witches.”  These were people—most often men, though women were certainly known to perform water witching as well—who could locate underground streams through the use of various magical techniques.  The most common method was to use a forked branch cut from a witch hazel tree (some sources list other trees, like willow) and to walk slowly along a piece of property until the rod reacted by bobbing up and down or giving some other sign.  Despite being called “water witches,” there were seldom any negative connotations to the profession, as it was an absolutely necessary service in a time when digging wells was costly and difficult business.  Vance Randolph describes them thusly:

“Nearly all of the old settlers…believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks. These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers, and the forked switches they carry are known as witch sticks. Despite this sinister terminology, the waterfinder has no dealings with the Devil, is not regarded as dangerous by his neighbors, and has  nothing to do with witchcraft proper…Nearly all of the really old wells…were located by witch wigglers. Even today there are many substantial farmers who would never think of drilling a well without getting one of these fellows to witch the land” (OM&F, p.82)

In addition to locating underground water currents, dowsers could also locate other materials, like oil or precious metals.  Some practiced what is called “map dowsing,” where a map would be laid out in front of the dowser and he or she would use a pendulum to figure out where to start the search for whatever material was being sought.  This practice is very well accepted in the mountains and throughout the rural parts of North America.  In Signs, Cures, & Witchery, Gerald C. Milnes  examines the widespread nature of dowsing, as well as some of its history:

“Water witching (rhabdomancy) is very common in West Virginia.  According to a study done about fifty years ago, at that time there were twenty-five thousand practicing water witches in this country.  The actual practice of divining with a forked stick, as we know it, began in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century in Germany.  Martin Luther believed the practice violated the first commandment.  Through the ages it has been roundly denounced as the devil’s work and praised as a remarkable aid to a basic necessity of rural life—finding water.  It is often categorized with such rural customs as planting by the signs” (SC&W, p.133)

There have been many efforts to scientifically prove or disprove dowsing, all with varying degrees of success and failure.  It seems that there is something to it, but that it may have a great deal more to do with the person doing the dowsing than the actual practice itself, at least as far as science is concerned.  However, from my personal point of view, the practice of water witching is akin to pendulum divination of any kind and something worth adding to a witch’s repertoire.  In one of Peter Paddon’s Crooked Path episodes, for example, he talks about ley lines and the currents of magical energy flowing through the world.  Dowsing is a great way to help detect those currents and to tap into and work with them to improve one’s witchcraft (again, in my opinion).

Whew!  This is already getting to be a long post, so I’m going to stop here for today and save the last little bit of this topic for tomorrow.  Please feel free to add any comments or questions, and if you have any family stories about Grannies or dowsers, I’d love to hear them!

As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

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6 Comments on “Blog Post 59 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part II”

  1. Karen Says:

    Hello Cory,

    You should check out my book Orlean Puckett: The Life of a Mountain Midwife, 1844-1939. This is a biography about an incredible granny woman who lived along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. She gave birth to 24 babies before becoming a midwife. Sadly, none of her own babies lived past infancy. There is one thing that “Aunt” Orlean sometimes did while at a birthing. It is a practice called “feathering the mother.” To induce a birth, she sometimes took a smoking feather and placed it beneath the expectant mother’s nose. Inhaling the smoke sent the mother into a fit of sneezing and coughing, which, according to Aunt Orlean, pushed the baby through the birth canal. Feel free to use this bit of info in your writings.


    • Thanks Karen!

      For anyone who’s interested, you can find Orlean Puckett by Karen Cecil Smith at Amazon through the link. I’ve added it to my wishlist, so hopefully I’ll be able to get a copy at some point and read about her.

      Thank you also for the folklore about the feather burning! I’ve read something similar to that (I think in the Foxfire books), so that may be a particularly Appalachian practice.

      Thanks again for the comment and the suggestions and lore!

      All the best,
      -Cory

  2. Julia C. Says:

    Thanks for posting this! My great-grandfather “talked out fire” and “talked off warts,” and he also used old time folk magic to cure my grandmother of asthma, among other things. My great-grandmother was well-known among her neighbors for reading tea leaves and having extremely reliable visions. (Both were from eastern Tennessee.) It’s refreshing to see a post about granny women and their magic that doesn’t mention Wicca, Gardener, or McCoy. Both my great-grandparents identified strongly as Christians (though I do not). I am currently doing research for a book that I would like to write about granny women and folk doctors in Appalachia.

    I, myself, came to magic in a different way as both died when I was a child and none of the adults around us bothered to learn their “old fashioned stuff”, but I like to think that I am carrying on a family tradition, albeit in a different way. I am also currently in nursing school with the hopes of becoming a nurse-midwife. 🙂

    Bright blessings to you and yours! Thank you again for writing this post!


    • Thanks so much for your response, Julia! I love hearing about people’s family history and traditions! It’s wonderful to think of those practices being active and alive even within living memory (though I sincerely hope that they continue on for future generations, too). Also, many thanks for the kind words about the blog 🙂 I try to focus mostly on what I find in history and folkloric texts (though I actually have quoted McCoy a time or two…hopefully that won’t send you completely running for the hills, lol). I think that it’s important to remember, as you said, that most folks doing magical work in the Appalachians would not have called themselves anything but Christian, and to respect how important that faith was to them.

      I’ll be incredibly interested in your book when you finish it! Please let me know how it goes! And feel free to cite anything from this site if you want to, too.

      Best wishes and be well to you!

      -Cory

  3. Ames Says:

    My mother often mentioned that there was a town “witch” (Mrs. Schoonover) to whom all of the mothers would take their kids to have warts removed magically, but I haven’t heard of her being consulted for any other reason. I think this was a very common thing- somehow the wart removal process was acceptable, since it was usually induced by some magical method… touching a toad or otherwise. – any other resources or discussion?


    • Hi Ames,

      I’ve seen several different places where the “buying” or “charming” of warts is extremely common. In both the Appalachians and Ozarks, such practices are commonplace, and usually performed by someone who has a “gift” for them, though the basic method is well-known enough that almost anyone could at least try it. I know it’s very common in Pennsylvania and Ohio as well. It’s sometimes linked to being the seventh son of a seventh son (or seventh daughter, etc.). It’s also not frowned upon by most Christians in those communities (though some do have a problem with it). It’s a lot like the practice of dowsing or “water witching” in that respect.

      At some point I’ll try to put together a post specifically on this practice to see if I can organize all these threads of thought. Until then, thanks for the great question!

      -Cory


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