It’s been a while, hasn’t it? But it’s good to see you all again, to get the chance to rejoin the conversation. Except that today, I’m going to be talking about silence, which makes for a rather one-sided discussion, right?
I thought this would be an appropriate topic as I’ve been away for over a month at this point, with very little feedback flowing towards our listeners and readers and almost no new material on the blog or podcast. We’ve been in a realm of silence here at New World Witchery, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, silence has its uses.
The famous “Witch’s Pyramid,” for example, contains the four sides of a (Wiccan) witch’s code of conduct: To know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. That’s a fairly modern code, of course, but because it is a complex system expressed in simple language, it taps into some fairly old ideas, including the keeping silent part. There are lots of interpretations of this idea; some say it means one should not discuss one’s magic after the working (one of Shivian Balaris’s interesting Twitter #WitchTips said “never sharing what magick you’ve done is felt to protect the spell so that it can complete properly; plus keeps ego in check,” for example-July 25, 2011). Others think that the silence is designed to insulate practitioners of the “Old Ways” from the persecutions they might suffer if their practices were openly discussed. Still more maintain that the silence in magical practice forms a core component of its spiritual nature; in other words, the silence maintains the mystery, which is very important in a Mystery tradition. I personally think elements of all three positions can be present in a magical practice, though not everyone agrees, of course (fellow podcaster Fire Lyte has mentioned on several shows that he does not like the secrecy and cloak-and-dagger-style mystery that accompanies some of these practices, as they create elitism and insulate seekers from knowledge, for example).
Turning to folklore (as you knew I would), there are several examples of silence serving one of the aforementioned functions. Of course there’s the common practice of observing a “moment of silence” in honor of a fallen hero or a significant event. Folk tales abound in quiet characters. In the story of “The Yellow Ribbon” from Minnesota (which I’ve also heard as “The Black Ribbon”), a woman’s silence guards a mystery that literally means life or death to her. An Old World fairy tale called “The Dwarfs’ Tailor” tells the story of a foolish and loquatious young tailor who must serve a group of dwarves in their enchanted mountain forest home in order to win the love of his old master’s daughter. The dwarves beat the tailor every time he tries to speak or ask questions, and so he learns to serve them in silence, and thus cures his foolish tongue-wagging and becomes a master tailor in his own right. And in the classic Grimm’s tale “The Six Swans,” a young princess must sew six shirts for her six brothers—enchanted into the shape of swans—during a six-year silence in order to release her brothers from the spell upon them. Other stories contain themes of silence, of course, from “The Little Mermaid” to “The Silent Princess” to the (creepy and captivating) episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled “Hush.”
Within the magical continuum, calls for silence or secrecy appear in several traditions. In the Pow Wow practice, you can find this spell:
A GOOD REMEDY FOR THE FEVER.
Good morning, dear Thursday! Take away from [name] the 77-fold fevers. Oh! thou dear Lord Jesus Christ, take them away from him! + + + [here make the sign of the cross three times]
This must be used on Thursday for the first time, on Friday for the second time, and on Saturday for the third time; and each time thrice. The prayer of faith has also to be said each time, and not a word dare be spoken to anyone until the sun has risen. Neither dare the sick person speak to anyone till after sunrise; nor eat pork, nor drink milk, nor cross a running water, for nine days. (from The Long-Lost Friend by J.G. Hohman)
Here the silence seems to be an integrated part of the spell, a purification of the operator in the same way avoiding pork or milk might work (as they are foods often associated with unclean spirits and witchcraft). It might then be comparable to fasting, a way of conditioning the body to respond to magic, or of preparing it for magical action. Other spells use magical silence to maintain a solemness and help maintain focus, as in this one from the Ozarks:
Some hillfolk say that a girl can call up a phantom of the man she is to marry by wrapping a lock of hair with some of her fingernail clippings in a green leaf and thrusting them into the ashes in the fireplace. Then she sits down before the fire. When the hair and fingernails begin to get warm, the ghostly appearance of her future husband is supposed to rescue them from the fire. Sometimes several girls try this at once. The door must be left open, and everyone must maintain absolute silence (Randolph, OM&F, p. 177-8)
This particular spell is rather reminiscent of the Dumb Supper, of course, though much simplified. The Dumb Supper itself is fascinating as a ritual of silence, but is a topic too big to tackle here. And since I’ve already given a good overview of it in my Halloween article from last year, I’ll leave it be for now.
Still other magical performances use silence as a cipher for secrecy, maintaining that certain things must not be spoken of, or at least, not spoken of frequently. Another Ozark account describes the passing of a specific sorcerous power—fire-drawing (or burn healing)—as a ritual wrapped in secrecy:
A gentleman near Crane, Missouri, has enjoyed a great success in relieving the pain from superficial burns. He just blows gently upon the burned place, touches it with his finger tips, and whispers a little prayer. The prayer may be told to persons of the other sex, but never imparted to one of the same sex. This man said he had learned the magic from Mrs. Molly Maxwell, an old woman who lived in Galena, Missouri. Since he could not tell me, I asked a young woman to get the secret words from him. This is what she heard : ‘One little Indian, two little Indians, One named East, one named West, The Son and the Father and the Holy Ghost, In goes the frost, out comes the fire, Ask it all in Jesus’ name, Amen.’ In teaching this prayer to a member of the opposite sex, the healer said, one should whisper it three times and no more. If a person cannot learn the prayer after hearing three repetitions, I was told, “he aint fit to draw out fire nohow !” (Randolph, OM&F, p. 121-2).
This idea of passing on magical powers in secrecy, carefully revealing them only to the chosen, the initiated, or those otherwise deemed “right” by the magician (or whatever higher power is in charge of the spell/tradition) is central to some practices. Others disavow the entire idea of such secrecy, preferring to work almost entirely in the open. Both seem to have their reasons, and both seem to do effective magic, though I will say that as folk magic goes the rule of silence shows up too often for me to ignore it entirely. I prefer to circumvent it by the time-honored technique of trickery, so that if I pass on secret magical knowledge I do so not by telling a person, but by speaking to an object in the room in such a way that anyone who happens to be in the room might well eavesdrop in on the “secret.”
From what I understand, whoever is in charge of magic seems to appreciate trickery as much as he or she appreciates silence. So that works out well.
Thanks for reading!