In previous posts in this series, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just starting with this series here, you might want to flip back the pages of this dusty old tome on the bookshelf and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices, and the physical “things” of North American witchcraft. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.
This time, I’m addressing a topic I’ve addressed before in a few different ways: how witches learn to do the magic associated with them. I’m revisiting these points here because the other posts on them all go into more detail on specifics, and I believe that a more general summary of themes and methods is useful here. As you’re digging into this subject, feel free to spend some time in those older posts, too, as they do provide more depth than this one will. As you will likely see early and often through the following examples, witches can gain their magical prowess in a lot of different ways, and so it can be hard to compare one witch to another in folklore and history. At the same time, there are themes that do unite the different stories, or at least themes that overlap with one another, creating a sort of “spectrum.” What is certain, though, is that those who claim magical power develop it in some way to eventually become what people call a “witch.”
Witches Become Witches
In the time I’ve spent reading accounts of witchcraft in books of history and folklore, the time I’ve spent interviewing contemporary practitioners or examining specific magical artifacts, and the time I’ve spent consulting with other people who study this engrossing topic, I’ve learned that over-generalizations are not terribly useful when it comes to witchcraft. By reducing witchcraft into motifs and components, we tend to miss the highly individual experiences of the people actually practicing the magic. At the same time, it helps us a lot to look for patterns, and when it comes to just how witches gain their magical powers, we can see a set of patterns in the New World (or at least, specifically in North America) that point the way towards a better understanding of how these practices move between people. Tradition, as one of my folklore mentors has pointed out, comes from a Latin root having to do with “handing” things over, and witchcraft generally seems to be a “tradition” in that sense—it is handed over from one person (or entity) to another.
The exception to that rule is hereditary witchraft, although in this case I’m not referring to grandiose initiation stories of secret Granny Witches conducting rituals in their kitchens to initiate their grandchildren (looking at you here Alex Sanders). Rather, I’m referring to the wide body of lore that says that witches can often be “marked” from birth with special powers. For example, the presence of a caul around a newborn’s head is frequently noted as a source of spiritual power, and even when detatched the caul retains some magical abilities—sailors paid a pretty penny for dried cauls to stave off drowning, for example. In mountain lore inherited from European traditions, the seventh son of a seventh son is often reputed to have the ability to heal or do certain types of magic, setting him apart. Other birth-related demarcations of magical power include unusual moles, the presence of teeth in a newborn, extra fingers or toes, or a baby who is particularly hairy. One account of witchcraft among Pueblo Native Americans in the American Southwest showed that popular opinions claimed that witches often passed on their abilities to their children (albeit powers of malediction and harm in that example). A West Virginian herbal healer named Dovie Lambert who also “took off” bewitchments from others claimed that the passage of magical power occurred when secret words were transmitted across gender lines in families: father-to-daughter or mother-to-son, or even among aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Dovie believed that if the power didn’t get transmitted before the witch’s death, the power of that line of witchcraft would die out, although she herself believed that was unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Even in cases of a “witch from birth,” which is not always the same thing as these examples of magical “election,” the person has to choose to use their ability, and often develops it during a later point in life. This power was not solely limited to magic, however, but often reputed to impart special gifts to children based on birth order that might include a talent for medicine or a need for expanded education. Vance Randolph recorded some such beliefs in his examination of the Ozarks and their lore:
“If there are seven sons in a family, and no daughters, the seventh son is clearly intended to be a physician. The seventh son of a seventh son is a physician in spite of himself, endowed with healing powers which cannot be denied. Even if such a man does not study or practice medicine, he is very often called “Doc” or “Doctor” by common consent. However, small-time gamblers are often called “Doc” too, just as every backwoods auctioneer becomes a “Colonel.”
If there are ten sons in a family, and no daughters, the tenth son must be a preacher. “God meant it to be that-a-way,” an old woman once told me. “He knows how many preachers we need in this world.” She would not go so far as to say, however, that it is a mistake to call men who are not tenth sons into the ministry.
Many hillfolk believe that a third son is more intelligent than his brothers and should therefore be encouraged to “git more book-larnin’.” Others contend that, other things being equal, the fourth child has the brains of the whole family.”
Frequently the turning point in a “natural” magician’s life is adolescence or young adulthood, when the person’s power fully manifests for the first time and they learn the techniques of healing from someone else in their community, usually a family member. For example, West Virginian folk healer Johnny Arvin Dahmer spoke of inheriting a copy of The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus from his grandfather, who was also known as a folk magician and charmer. While a person may be predisposed to magical talent, then, their use of that talent comes only with guidance and training.
That instruction forms is very much the “marrow of tradition” that underlies almost all other forms of witches-becoming-witches. Just how involved that training is depends on the type of magic being transmitted, the cultural context in which it is found, and the particular individuals involved. In most cases, magical practitioners do not hang out shingles and advertise their services as instructors in witchcraft, but over the course of a long-standing and developed relationship with another person they may decide to share their secrets. In Dovie Lambert’s case above, that may happen as a matter of survivial of the magical tradition—if it is not transmitted it will “die out.” Lambert’s cross-gender transmission appears in a number of European-derived practices, including those from German-speaking, English-speaking, and French-speaking groups. A detailed study of powwowing magic in Pennsylvania Dutch communities by David W. Kriebel sums up a number of these ideas:
“Training procedures vary greatly, although one rule is nearly universal, namely, that only a woman can teach a man and only a man can teach a woman…training time can take anywhere from a few minutes to a year. The training procedure used by [one informant] and passed on to [two others] consisted of a ten-week program with all information imparted orally. When the initiate returned for the second session he (or she) had to repeat all the incantations and gestures perfectly, as a sign the initiate was meant to become a powwower.”
Kriebel’s account brings up the concept of a “calling” to do magic, which may be an echo of the idea of a hereditary practice or may signify the same kind of “calling” experienced by a religious or political leader. Kriebel also notes that one of his informants draws attention to the “price” of teaching magic, with one informant claiming “that when one powwower trains another the teacher gives up half his power to the student.” Several instances of this sort of transmission appear in folklore about witches who share their secrets or pass on their power only in the moments before their own death. A number of accounts make the claim that magical power can only be taught or transmitted at most three times within a person’s lifespan before the magic “runs out” or the practitioner dies.
Beyond the element of a calling to witchcraft, some witches may seek out their power in various ways. One Northern Mexican informant described the application of a special set of powders to his body, followed by a ritual bath, that gave him the ability to transform into animals. Notably, he learned the process by watching two other witches do the same in secret, and initially failed to do it correctly because he was wearing a scapular (a Catholid object designed to confer the blessings of Saints on the wearer). Only after removing the holy item was he able to begin his transformations. Many such initiations involve a renunciation of Christian practices or beliefs. Several accounts from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet note that witches become witches by “throw[ing] rocks at the moon and cuss[ing] God Almighty” or writing the Lord’s Prayer on a plate in grease paint, then washing it in a river or stream in an act of inverse baptism. Vance Randolph’s informants note that the initiation experience could be “a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion,” at least according to his sources.
In some cases of initiation, witches were expected to pay a price similar to the one noted in the accounts Kriebel found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That price might be an obligation to a specific spirit (most commonly framed in the American traditions as “the Devil,” although specific descriptions and formulations of diabolic initiation vary). It might also involve the death of a relative, or a period of intense sickness or near-death illness. Once initiated, however, a witch retained her power until her death or until she elected to pass it on to someone else. Other magical powers often followed this line of transmission: a calling or marking from birth followed by a powerful experience in young adulthood or adolescence that confirmed magical ability; the transmission of specific knowledge about witchcraft through the passage of oral lore or even the handing over of a book; and finally, the dispersal of that knowledge and power to another generation, often only in very limited quantities.
Contemporary practitioners tend to derive their magical knowledge in similar ways to the ones already outlined, but with some distinctions. For example, the emphasis on learning from books has become a de facto aspect of magical training. In some cases, the same books used in previous generations, like Egyptian Secrets, still hold sway, although in truth there are so many options available the older books are only a small sliver of the greater body of knowledge being used (I’m not complaining here, as I think many fantastic books have been produced in recent years, including some that surpass the older tomes in terms of breadth and depth of magical information). Several correspondents I’ve had have told me they look for “classes” in witchcraft, too, with structure and lesson plans and even homework. Some prefer classes focused on specific skills, as with Becky Beyer’s Appalachian wildcraft workshops, while others follow initiatory magico-religious traditions like Christopher Penczak’s Inner Temple structure. Training from groups directly (either in person or via postal correspondence) was the norm during the heyday of British Traditional Wicca in the 1970s and 1980s, but that is only a singular form of training now among many other forms available. Some practitioners still take on apprentices, especially in traditions like powwow or curanderismo, although both of those traditions are sometimes taught in whole or part within a class environment, too.
The one element that seems to have dissipated over time is the concept of the “price” paid for magical knowledge. The price has become the time and commitment required to learn the skills and magical techniques associated with a particular tradition. There are still some initiatory groups that do extract a price, such as requiring potential initiates to fast or wear special clothing for a certain length of time—something common in Lukumi traditions, for example. Occasionally the idea of the price being a loved one’s death surfaces, too, although that has become increasingly rare. So, too, has the idea of passing on the tradition before death as a matter of continuing a line of magical practice. Instead, practitioners often pass on their knowledge as more of a public service or as an aspect of their calling (some speak of being “called to teach” within a “training coven” structure, for example). Passing knowledge has also moved beyond rules about gender lines, too, instead becoming a more egalitarian and open-access approach.
Given the many roads into witchcraft, however, the road out is still in the transmission, even if the reasoning has changed. Witches become witches, and they do so because other witches make that possible. The stereotype of witches gathering in huge covens on Walpurgisnacht to engage in Satanic rites may be a medieval fabrication and fantasy, but in the act of sharing magical knowledge, there does seem to be a continuity of magical community. Almost like a family.
N.B: I will be doing one more entry in this series on the many and various talents of witches, but I am likely to set aside that post for a bit to cover a few other topics. This series has been rather grander in scope than I think I originally envisioned, but I hope it is useful to some of you. For now, I am so grateful to those of you sticking with me even with the longer gaps between posts.
Thanks for reading!