On Wednesday, I attended the Ash Wednesday mass at a Catholic church near my workplace, which begins the Lenten season. The pull of tradition sometimes brings me back to the church rituals of my childhood, and while I’m spiritually aligned else wise now, I take comfort in some of these practices, too. The ashes used in Ash Wednesday services are a powerful ritual tool, made from the palms left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, mixed with incense and holy water, and blessed by the priest. They mark the bearer as a member of the church, a mortal person living in a mortal world, and someone aware of death’s role in our lives. The ashes, which serve as a spiritual tool for unification with divinity and with mortality, got me to thinking about some of the other ways in which ashes can be used in folk religious or magical practices.
And so today, I thought we’d explore the very rich traditions of magical work which incorporate ashes. I shall endeavor to stay focused on the practical application of ashes, rather than the mere presence of ashes in a spell, but in some cases that line blurs (or smudges) a bit. In researching the topic, I was astounded to see how many different methods for working with ashes I found: banishing, cursing, healing, money work, omens about bad luck and loss, and even some quasi-magical gardening tips. This, to me, is an example of how an extraordinarily normal item—ashes—can be a useful magical tool if a practitioner knows a little about what to do with them. Truly, a clever witch or magical worker can read his or her environment and see it loaded with enchantment and possibility, but I digress. On to the ash spells!
One of the most common ways to counteract bewitchment was to burn the affected object—usually a cow, butter-churn, etc.—“to ashes” which would render the witch who cast the enchantment powerless or cause her tremendous pain. Often the ashes would have to be dispersed even more extensively by being scattered to the four winds to render the spellcaster completely impotent and/or destroyed. Similarly, feathers from black fowls could be burned and the ashes sprinkled or blown over a bewitched person to remove the bewitchment.
An account of a Bell Witch-style haunting in Wiltshire, North Carolina, noted that the wicked spirit “sprinkled ashes in the beds” (Cross 243). Some hoodoo spells deploy the ashes of particularly nasty spells in the way one might lay a magical powder, sprinkling at someone’s doorstep so that they must step in the baneful trick.
Cat Yronwode mentions rubbing alfalfa ashes on one’s money to improve business, especially if the money is in a cash register. She also has this excellent and interesting recipe for a floorwash designed to bring clientele to a cathouse:
To Draw Trade to a Whorehouse: On a Friday morning, build a fire outdoors and burn a man’s worn-out left SHOE with a pinch of SUGAR in it. Put the SHOE ashes, a tablespoonful each of AMMONIA, SALT, and SUGAR, plus your own URINE, into a bucketful of water. Mop from the sidewalk inward, to attract men (Yronwode 29).
Ashes can also be used in hoodoo love charms (perhaps in conjunction with the above business charm?), as in this method from Zora Neale Hurston:
Cut some hair from under your left arm-pit and some from the right side of the groin. Then cut some from the right arm-pit and from the left side of the groin. Burn this hair with a wish for this man to love you. Put the ashes – made into fine dust – in his food secretly and he will love you and do as you wish (Hurston 361-2).
A magical charm called the “Chinese Snake Stone” from an account of North Carolina witchcraft tells how the amulet could be used to draw poison and how ashes were used to re-charge it after its work was done:
Directions for using The Chinese Snake Stone. Scarify the wound before applying the Stone-take it off every morning and evening-put the Stone at each time, when taken off, into a glass of milk-warm water, and let it remain a few minutes, until it discharges itself of the poison-wash the wound in a strong solution of salt water, and scarify again, if necessary. After taking the Stone from the water, rub it dry in moderately warm ashes, and apply as before. This course should be repeated for the space of nine days, when a cure will be effected (Cross 264)
In some cases, ashes have to be handled carefully in order to prevent illness from getting worse. When someone in a family is sick, for example, removing the ashes from the fireplace and taking them out of the building is said to be very bad luck, possibly even fatal to the ailing person.
A Pow-wow hair removal charm taken from older European sources recommends burning a frog to ashes and mixing them with water to make an ointment “that will, if put on any place covered with hair, destroy the hair and prevent it from growing again” (Hohman 14). I also found the same cure echoed in witchcraft practices from North Carolina.
Curandera recipes sometimes call for white ashes, which are powdery and fine and must be sifted from the gray and black ashes. Mrs. Mercedes Castorena of Sonoma gave the following recipe for dealing with empacho, a stomach and intestinal ailment:
“You crack an egg and get the yolk, being very careful not to break the yolk, because it has to be all in one piece. Then lay the sick person on the bed, put the egg on his stomach and let the egg slide all over the stomach. Wherever the spot is (where the food is stuck), the egg yolk will break. You leave the egg here. Then you take some herb called rosa de castilla, and some ashes-just the white part of the ashes-and put this on the stomach and wrap a bandage around the stomach to keep it on. Then you give them a dose of Baby Percy (a patent medicine)” (Neighbors 251).
Mrs. Castorena also mentioned a cure involving mixing avocado seed ashes with oil to treat indigestion. Ashes are also used in other home remedies from other traditions: “To cure toothache, place a bag of warm wood ashes on the side of the face where the tooth is aching” (Farr 327). Vance Randolph mentions the Ozark method of treating an itch using a mix of gunpowder, wood ashes, and sweet cream. He also talks about a method of staunching a wound using the ashes of a man’s shoe.
In the garden, ashes can be mixed into soil around fruit trees to improve their growth. My mother used to have me take our fireplace ashes and put them around our blueberry bushes at the beginning of the spring to promote big, juicy berries later on. Supposedly, doing this on Ash Wednesday ensured a pest-free garden all year long (I don’t recall if I was usually enjoined to this particular chore in conjunction with the holiday or not, but our plants were not bug-free).
Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of beliefs about sprinkling ashes around a hen-house to prevent lice on the birds (and he also mentions the Ash Wednesday ritual for gardening success). Some of the other magical ash-lore he shared includes:
- “Epileptic attacks are checked, if you remove the person’s undershirt immediately after an attack, let it smolder on live coals, mix a teaspoonful of these ashes in a glass of holy water, and say In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. These ashes in holy water must be administered three times a day.”
- “An old shoe should be burned and the ashes used in washing out the mouth of a child with thrush.”
- Several of his informants recommended burying objects that have touched a wart in ashes in order to cure the growth
- Dreaming about ashes is very bad luck, usually foretelling a significant loss or a death in the near future
Strangely, dreaming of fire is frequently a good sign, but the ashes tend to be a bad-luck indicator.
As you can see, even the lowly ashes from your fireplace can become useful magical aids if you know what to do with them. I hope this little exploration is useful to you! Please feel free to share your own ash lore in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,
- Bivens, N.D.P. Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau (1994, new ed.)
- Cross, Tom. “Witchcraft in North Carolina.” Studies in Philology (Jul. 1919).
- Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1935)
- Hohman, John George. The Long Lost Friend (1820).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1931).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
- Neighbors, Keith A. “Mexican-American Folk Disease.” Western Folklore (Oct. 1969).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
- Snow, Loudell F. “Mail Order Magic: The Commercial Exploitation of Folk Belief.” Journal of the Folklore Institute (Aug. 1979)
- Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic (2002).