Blog Post 223 – Magic in the Time of Plague

A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.

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It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.

Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.

Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.

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Print of Plague in 1665, via Wikimedia

Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:

“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”

The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.

The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such). 

Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.

Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low. 

Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins: 

“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.

What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).

Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century. 

A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:

“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)

The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt). 

Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia: 

“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).

This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4). 

None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place. 

So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complement actual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).

Higo Amabie
Image of Amabie yokai from Edo Newspaper (1846) via Wikimedia

First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.

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Sigil for Managing Panic, designed by Laura Tempest Zakroff (2020)

These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.

Thank you for reading.

Be well,

-Cory

Blog Post 222 – Book Club Discussion #2


Time to open the dusty and ancient tomes once more! We continue with our Book Club, featuring the work of Scott Cunningham.

We’ve had a busy couple of weeks so our apologies that we haven’t gotten this up sooner, but we thought it would be better late than never to get some of the questions we had in our book club discussion onto the website.

This time around we were talking about Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Preface and Part I (Ch. 1-5), which pretty much covers the background and introduction of the book. Cory brought up a few points, noting for example, the very strong distinction Cunningham makes between a purely internal, “personal power” type magic and something that is channeled through these outside elements/objects/actions. This sort of ties into the recent interview with Mat Auryn, who works largely with what he calls Psychic Witchcraft. In EAFW we see something different, something gritty and earthed and a good bit messier and lived in than trying to operate solely in that “inner space” of the psyche (not that there’s a problem with that–just not Cory’s style). We’d love to know if you see that distinction, or if we are maybe missing some of the ways that Cunningham blends these two sides of witchery?

Laine let a friend borrow her copy, and got a really interesting note on the role of the moon in witchcraft versus that of the sun. The note says “perhaps the night holds a power/feeling because the sun is not present and we aren’t saturated by its power. We at night can feel our own power because the embodiment of the sun is reduced.” What do you think? Is the moon carrying the sun’s power in a different way, or do you feel it as something totally separate?

We also threw some questions out to our Patreon supporters and have had some good discussions circulating there, too. We thought we’d put a few of those questions here for you to ponder (and respond to in the comments if you want), too!

I wanted to throw out some questions for this second round of the book club, too, before I post up anything on the website. I’d love to hear about any of the following from anyone interested in discussing (as well as any topics you might want to bring up, too):
1. How do you feel about the “Akasha” thing? Does that enter into your practice at all? Does the idea of “cosmicness” play into your magical work somehow?
2. Do objects (esp. natural ones) help you to do magic, or is most of your magic internally driven? Are you more attuned to what Cunningham describes as “Natural Magic(k)” or more to what Mat Auryn describes as “Psychic Witchcraft” or both or neither or some other alternative?
3. How do you feel about his admonitions about evil and doing negative workings? Do you think those are a product of the time? How do you handle the idea of curses/hexes or similar magic?

Would love to hear what you have to say! Join in and discuss below!

And, as always, thanks for reading!
-Cory

Blog Post 221 – Magic Seen a Second Time

I know that many people come here for articles on folk magic with historical footnotes and sources, and don’t worry–more of those are in the works. But today I wanted to share a more personal post about my own family life and the magic we share. If that’s not your cuppa mugwort tea, though, I completely understand, and I will not be hurt if you wait for the next post reviewing books of magic or sharing a bit of lore from North America. If you are interested in the personal stuff, though, please read on.
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Over the past few years, one of the aspects of parenthood that I’ve enjoyed most is seeing both how my children reflect their parents and how they are different. We’ve done a few episodes on the idea of magical families and raising children within a magic-inflected world, but largely I have only been able to offer a bit of the magic I experience in abstract ways–nature walks and discussions of the spirits of plants or rivers we pass, small charms to help ward off nightmares, or a steady diet of Studio Ghibli films, for example. As they have come into their personalities and selves more and more, though, I’ve started to see them take up bits of magic on their own, or to seek it out from me in new ways that transcend the “kiss on a boo-boo” level of enchantment (not that a boo-boo kiss isn’t magical; I’d hate to be pitted against that level of magic unprepared, frankly!).
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Picking mulberries by our little creek
Some of this has coincided with an increasing awareness of the world around them, and some subtle and wonderful influences that have led them to magic. Today, I want to pause for a moment of personal reflection and look at the influences at play in my kids’ lives. I know this probably seems self-indulgent (“hey look at these pictures of my kiiiiiiids!!!”) but I also think that there’s a lot of pressure on parents with magical inclinations to somehow “raise” their kids in specific ways. I’m hoping that by illustrating the meandering magical path my children have followed–both with and without my direct involvement–it might help ease some of that strain. It’s also helpful to remember that as children grow, the nature of how we all relate to magic in our household has changed as well.
We have often said on the show that we believe in everyday magic, and that includes magic that exists apart from and outside of ourselves. Children are really good at tracking that magic back in the house with them (along with occasional muddy shoes). Those who know me know I’m a big fan of folklore (obviously), and my kids have certainly been marinated in a vast variety of folk tales and other lore from a very young age. Up until very recently, I read to my children every night, ranging from collections of fairy tales and folklore like Perrault’s eighteenth century assemblage to Jane Yolen’s masterful world lore tome and even individual retellings like Zora Neale Hurston’s The Six Fools. And, of course, all of Harry Potter and a great deal of Roald Dahl (both of which have some lovely embedded folk materials). They have listened to some of our All Hallows Read shows, too, during car trips, along with podcasts like Two Girls One Ghost and Spooked!. They have a great fondness for Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths (and several of his other books, too). Lately, though, the flow has been slowly reversing. They bring me tales of strange creatures and legends they hear from other kids, and keep an eye out for all things sasquatch related (because he reminds them of me, for reasons both flattering and unflattering). They share digital legend lore, too, telling me stories of the mythic Herobrine of Minecraft’s lands, and helping to expand my “landscape” of magic into spaces I hadn’t considered. I’ve also been making an effort to read the books that they select for me, too, as a way to understand their inner worlds, and in doing that they’ve given me Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies and Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, both of which are rich in lore.
We can’t deny the importance of other media as well. The Harry Potter movies (and one of my personal favorites, Willow) have certainly been in our world for a while now, and while the unrealistic flash-bang magic of Hollywood films isn’t an accurate presentation of how magic works, those are also not the ones they are most drawn to for magic. Instead, my daughter is deeply enamored of the film Song of the Sea, which retells Irish mythology and folklore of selkies in gorgeous ways (she often thinks of herself as a selkie, too). I mentioned the Ghibli films above, and many of their understandings of spirit-world interactions are shaped by films like Spirited Away. They see a little whirlwind carrying leaves down the street and make space for that spirit to go through, for example. YouTube has also provided surprising connection points to magic for them. Two of our family favorite channels, Illymation and Rebecca Parham’s Let Me Explain Studios, have recently done videos on magic-adjacent topics like using tarot as a form of therapy and seeing how slumber parties are like witch gatherings. It helps to normalize their own experiences of magic, and gets them interested in exploring on their own, too.
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My daughter turning tarot cards as a therapeutic practice (this deck is the Majors-only Steven Universe deck)
Some of those explorations are directions different than my own. My daughter’s fascination with selkies has also led her to take an interest in other creatures like mermaids and unicorns, to the point where she is learning worldwide folklore about both that are beyond my own scope (which is more focused on North America, of course). My son is getting fascinated by hypnotism (thanks in part to the amazing Uncle Pedro character in the Big Nate book series, who uses hypnosis to help the titular Nate with one of his problems). The Illymation video on tarot sparked an interest for both of them in reading cards. My daughter–who has anxiety and emotional control conditions–uses tarot as a way to talk about her inner life with me and for herself (the therapeutic nature of the cards is one reason that my wife–an Evangelical Christian–has been open to them, in fact). My son’s interest has been more on the “fortune-telling” side, but he still sees some value in thinking of them as patterns he can detect and put together, too. I couldn’t resist, of course, and got them each their own decks (with their input, of course)–the Kawaii Tarot for my daughter and the Happy Tarot for my son (both great and very easy to read).
Additionally, I see the way that magic is infusing their lives in exterior ways as well. I mentioned making way for wind spirits earlier, and an extension of that is the reverence my kids feel for our local spring-fed creek. We make a point as a family to go pick the mulberries on its banks in early summer, thanking the trees for their generosity. The kids love to make sure the birds along the creek trails are fed, and so we bring homemade bird cakes of seeds and nuts out to leave for them (although I think we’re just as likely feeding the squirrels as the birds). They have befriended the gang of local ducks, too, who follow them around and eat from their hands. They recognize that the creek and its denizens are connected and alive, and we do things like trash pick-ups along its banks to show our appreciation. To them, the world is very animistically alive. My son has developed a deeply animistic relationship with a whole bevy of succulents and cacti on his own, too, spending his allowance on new ones or better pots for them. He names and labels each one, talking to them, calling them his “children,” and has even gotten a reputation as the “plant dad” at one of our local shops.
Seeing them find these tendrils of magic in their world, especially on their own, has been its own sort of enchantment. There’s a line in a Brandi Carlile song called “The Mother,” in which she notes that all her friends are out doing things they want to do, but that her daughter allows her the chance to experience magic, twice, saying “All the wonders I have seen, I will see a second time, inside of the ages through your eyes.” That has been my own experience as well. New World Witchery–folk magic–lives because we pass it on, but we also pass it up, and around, and between. I learn new magic through my children, and offer them the magic I have to give as well. That magic changes over time, and it may not always be this way, but for the moment I am deeply grateful to share wonder with them.
Thanks for reading,
-Cory

Blog Post 220 – Book Club Discussion #1

Hello witchy reader-folk!
As I mentioned last week, we’ve embarked on a 2020 book club looking at two of the books that got Laine and I into witchcraft in the first place: Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, and Water by Scott Cunningham. If you haven’t checked that post, make sure to do so and see when we’re reading each segment. We have ongoing discussions and chats with our Patreon supporters who are reading the book through our Discord server, but we also want to open up the conversation more publicly, too. So each month we’ll be posting a brief rundown of some questions and ideas that came up either in the discussion between Laine and me on the show or through the Discord chat.
This month, we tackled: Earth Power – Preface, Introduction, and Part I (Ch. 1-4)
Some questions to ponder as you read or reflect:
  1. Cunningham often refers to what he’s doing as “natural magic,” and Cory thought that he was just using a different phrase to describe folk magic, which makes up the majority of the book. What do you think? Are there distinctions or differences between folk magic and natural magic? Are those differences present in Cunningham’s introduction, or is he using that term interchangeably?
  2. Cory and Laine both discussed the idea of different elemental systems beyond the four-parted (or sometimes five-parted if you are reading Aristotle) Greco-Roman system. For example, Chinese metaphysics recognize a different set of elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal), and other systems get more into “hot/cold/wet/dry/moving/stable” divisions (one of our Patreon folks pointed out in their tradition they have twelve different elements, and there’s a funny XKCD comic about someone being a “Polonium bender” and thinking of elements by way of the periodic table). What exactly are the elements to you? Are they fundamental building blocks in a very material way, or simply symbolic and thus subject to change based on who’s using them and how? What elemental systems do you work with, if any?
  3. Laine raised the point that a lot of what we see in the introduction has to be seen as a product of its time (not to excuse it, but just to give it context). One of the big points she brought up was the artificial way that elements sometimes get lumped with “masculine” or “feminine” descriptors. How do you deal with these sorts of outdated ideas when you encounter them in a book you like (especially an older one)? Do you simply dismiss the pieces that no longer work and move on, or do you process it another way? Are dichotomies (like gendered elements) even useful in an age where we understand better that gender is a spectrum rather than an either/or situation?
  4. One great discussion that came up on our patron chat was the question of “What books were your starting point for witchcraft?” Laine and I both had several, and Cunningham’s were among our earliest, but does the book (or books) you begin with for witchcraft studies have a defining effect on how and what you study? Or is the other way around, and what you’re interested in will lead you to certain types of books (other, non-dichotomous options are welcome, too!). What was your first book of magic or witchcraft?
  5. Finally, do we do too much idealizing of the past? Cunningham likes to paint rosy pictures at times of some sort of agrarian paradise in which nature and magic were all around the common folk (a bit like in the magic forest in Frozen II). Magic, however, always seems to be very adaptable to new situations and new eras. Some of it falls by the wayside when it’s not useful/appropriate (for example, there are some terribly racist folk charms involving stealing hair from an African American person but I don’t think anyone’s recommending those today….I hope). At the same time, while we can “yeet our woes unto the void” in a contemporary ritual, we also might still have uses for lucky horseshoes, even if we don’t ride horses regularly anymore). So what do you think? How much of the past informs your practice, and how ready are you to adapt your practice to contemporary needs?
(Mendeleev, Polonium-bending Master. Comic by XKCD)
We welcome (civil) discussions and deliberations on these points in the comments, and if you have a question raised by the episode or this post that you’d like to explore further, feel free to comment that as well!
Thanks for reading (along with us)!
-Cory

Blog Post 219 – New World Witchery Book Club 2020

My very weather-beaten copies of Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water by Scott Cunningham, which will be our books for the 2020 NWW Book Club

Greetings and salutations!

 

If you read this blog, then it’s probably safe to assume you like to read in general (and even if you don’t, maybe books of magic are a different story). We’ve hinted a bit at something we’re trying out for 2020 in a few episodes, and with the release of our latest episode (Episode 157 – Evolving Witchery), we began what we’re calling the “New World Witchery Book Club” for 2020. The basic idea is that we’ll pick a book (or a small series of books–we know everyone already has piles of books by their bedside so we don’t want to overburden you) and then read it in sections each month. We’ll discuss the writing, the actual information, historical context, practical applications, folkloric roots, and just about anything we can come up with.

 

For this year, we’re going back to our own roots and looking at a pair of books that greatly influenced both Laine and I as we were starting out: Scott Cunningham’s Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. These books are chock full of folk magic, albeit somewhat adapted through Cunningham’s eclectic Wiccan approach. We think we’re going to unpack some really good material here, especially as his focus on what he calls “natural magic” very much overlaps with the sorts of folk magic we find here in North America.

 

The basic breakdown for reading this book will be as follows:

 

Reading Plan for Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water

  • January: Earth Power – Preface, Introduction, and Part I (Ch. 1-4)
  • February: Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Preface and Part I (Ch. 1-5)
  • March: Earth Power – Ch. 5 (Earth Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 6 (Earth Power)
  • April: Earth Power – Ch. 6 (Air Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 7 (Air Power)
  • May: Earth Power – Ch. 7 (Fire Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 8 (Fire Power)
  • June: Earth Power – Ch. 8 (Water Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 9 (Water Power)
  • July: Earth Power – Ch. 9 (Stone Magic), Ch. 10 (Tree Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 10 (Stone Magic), Ch. 11 (Magnet Magic)
  • August: Earth Power – Ch. 11 (Image Magic), Ch. 12 (Knot Magic), Ch. 15 (Mirror Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 13 (Star Magic), Ch. 16 (Mirror Magic)
  • September: Earth Power – Ch. 13 (Candle Magic), Ch. 14 (Wax Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 12 (Candle Magic)
  • October: Earth Power – Ch. 16 (Rain, fog, & storm Magic), Ch. 17 (Sea Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 17 (Wishing Well Magic), Ch. 18 (Sea Magic)
  • November: Earth, Air, Fire & Water – Ch. 15 (Ice Magic), Ch. 14 (Snow Magic)
  • December: Earth Power – Afterword; Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 19 (Creating Your Own Rituals), Afterword

 

We will also try to put out little reading-related blog posts to offer ways to expand upon whatever we discuss and keep the conversation going each month.

 

These books were staples on our shelves growing up, but we also know that not everyone has a copy yet, so we’ve got some good news on that front, too! Firstly, Llewellyn Publications has agreed to offer our listeners and readers a 20% discount on any orders of Earth Power or Earth, Air, Fire, & Water you make between now and June 1st, 2020. All you have to do is go to www.llewellyn.com and pick up those books, then use the code “SCOTT20” at checkout for the discount (you must be logged into your Llewellyn account to use the code, but it’s an easy and free signup). They frequently have free shipping and other discounts going on, too, so check them out and stock up on some magic books!

 

The other way we want to make these available to you is, of course, a contest! We’ve got two copies of each of the two books we’ll be giving away (thanks Llewellyn!), with each winner receiving a copy of both Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. How do you enter?

  1. Support us on Patreon! If you’re already a Patreon supporter, great news, you get an automatic entry in the contest! 🙂
  2. Share this post on your social media (Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram especially) and tag us (or come back and leave a comment with a link where we can see your post)
  3. Share a picture/post showing and/or describing what “natural magic” looks like or means to you on Twitteror Instagram. Tag us if you can, and make sure to use the hashtag #newworldwitchery when you post so we can find what you’ve shared easily.

That’s up to three entries per person! All contest entries must be completed by midnight Eastern Standard Time on January 31st, 2020. We’ll pick two lucky winners on February 1st and send them their copies of the Cunningham books (as well as maybe a bonus item or two).

 

So that is the basic idea, and even a chance to win some books. Not a bad way to go into the new year!

 

We hope you’ll join us as we work our way through these books, and share your own thoughts and interpretations of the material as well.

 

Thanks so much for reading (all the books!),

-Cory

 

 

Blog Post 218 – My Year on the Shelf

I like the books to feel cozy and relaxed when I read them
Greetings all, and Happy New Year!
Lately I’ve been doing a good bit of cleaning and organization of my library and my altar spaces (all one in the same room) along with my annual New Year’s cleaning, and that has me in a reflective mood. I’m sure you’ve seen any number of “Best of 2019” lists or “Year/Decade in Review” sorts of posts, but I wanted to take a moment to look at what’s gone on in the past year or so for me in my study of witchcraft (as well as my broader witchy reading trends). I’ll also look a little bit forward to what’s coming this year for us at the end, so if you are sick of retrospectives, feel free to bounce to the last few paragraphs instead. Go on, I won’t mind, I promise!
If you are sticking around for the look back, I will say that many of the books I’ve read are not “new” in 2019, although some are. Some I also was lucky enough to read in advance of 2019, even though they came out this year officially (one of the perks of having lots of great, bookish occultists in my social circle is being asked to do advance readings sometimes). A few of these books I’ll want to review in more depth at some point, and several I’ve reviewed already (I’ll link to those reviews when I mention the books). So let’s pull some of those spines out and dog-ear some pages! (I know, I’m a monster).
In the category of practical witchy books, there were a few that really stuck with me this year. I got the opportunity to do advance readings for both Besom, Stang, & Sword, by Chris Orapello & Tara-Love Maguire, and Southern Cunning, by Aaron Oberon. We did shows and interviews with those authors this year, and I’ve got a full review of Besom as well (sorry, Aaron! I did mean to review your book, which is excellent, but just haven’t found the time–for those who haven’t read it, if you have any interest in Southern folk magic, it’s one to pick up posthaste!). Both of these books tackle personal systems of folk magic rooted in particular traditions, folklore, and practices. At the same time, the authors all write about these systems in ways that are flexible enough to offer insight into any practical system of witchery or magic a reader might be pursuing. I read several other books that do similar work this year, including Bri Saussy’s Making Magic, Lisa Marie Basile’s Light Magic for Dark Times, and Mallorie Vaudoise’s Honoring Your Ancestors. Saussy’s book takes the idea of magic as a daily practice and wraps that in an enchanted worldview, one informed by fairy tales, to transform personal and domestic spaces. The home becomes a locus of lived enchantment, with doorway altar spaces and connecting a magical kitchen with potential plant helpers and ingredients from the front and back yards. It’s very much written in a self-guided tutorial way, and governed by a retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” at its heart, which is a charming lens through which to view the work in the book. Basile’s Light Magic was something of a revelation when I read it, pulling from a type of contemporary feminist witchcraft rooted more in the inner world of the practitioner than the old dirt-and-bones magic I usually write about. Yet, I was very much impressed by the way Basile made rituals and spells action-driven rather than purely reflective exercises. Her “Make your own Underworld Spell” is one that will stick with me for a long time to come, I think. Finally, Vaudoise’s Ancestors may well be one of the best books I’ve read on a lived spiritual practice. I was absolutely thrilled by the combination of research, narrative, and practical work found in her pages. Her framework of ancestral practice is not condescending, but serious and thoughtful. She isn’t afraid to ask the reader to get a little uncomfortable and she doesn’t coddle them, but she also refuses to browbeat anyone for not doing things exactly as she does. Ancestral work happens on the reader’s time (and on their ancestors’ time, presumably), rather than by running through a checklist or exercise worksheet.
In a more historical and research-heavy vein, I also did a good deal of reading as I researched my own book (more on that in a bit), but a few new (or new-to-me) sources are worth mentioning here. Firstly, I should start with the Oxford Illustrated History of Magic & Witchcraft, which is exactly what it purports to be. Edited by one of my scholarly favorites in the field of witchcraft writing, Owen Davies, the book covers (mostly European) witchcraft studies from Antiquity to the twentieth century (it goes just a little bit beyond those markers in both directions, too, but the bulk of the book covers about 2,500 years of history). The material is dense, but useful, and while I quibble with a few specific points here and there (which I will hopefully get into with a fuller review sometime soon), as a handy reference it’s quite good. The “illustrations” are photo reproductions of various engravings, artifacts, and other similar ephemera, and it isn’t particularly heavy on images, but again, there are some real nuggets of gold in there, too. I was also absolutely bowled over by the truly excellent Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, by David Bowles (who we interviewed last year about borderlands lore). In this book, Bowles essentially weaves together the Mesoamerican mythology of the Olmecs, Aztecs, Mayans, and others to create a loosely unified story following two rival siblings as they pass from civilization to civilization in different forms. It reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology retelling, and while it’s not exactly a direct transcription of the Popol Vuh or any of the other surviving codices, it does a marvelous job of enlivening these often-overlooked myths. I also felt that way about sections of The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar. This is a collection of several major groups of folklore found in African American sources (both oral and literary) with some excellent notes by African American historian Gates, Jr. and fairy tale scholar Tatar. The section on Boo Hags is absolutely marvelous, and much of the material on Zora Neale Hurston made my heart sing. My only complaint with this book is that I want more of it, and a wider variety of tales, but truly this is essential to African American folklore studies in so many ways.
I’ll also note that I read Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages this year–a very old book dating back to the late nineteenth century and containing a wide variety of myths about everything from dowsing detectives to wandering Jews and hidden crusaders and kings. It was a bit out of my wheelhouse in some ways, and Baring-Gould is delightfully opinionated (one might even say salty) about some of the sources and stories he shares. It’s a fun read, however, and will reveal to a discerning mind just how long certain stories have been in circulation.
Somewhere between the researched witch study and the personal memoir falls Pam Grossman’s Waking the Witch. I’m sure a lot of people know Grossman for her podcast The Witch Wave, and she’s done a lot of good bringing contemporary feminist witchcraft to the forefront along with writers and social media personalities like Kristen Sollee and Bri Luna. Waking is an exploration of the witch as an icon more than any sort of deep historical dive or spellbook, although I definitely liked the way Grossman pulled from historical sources and connected them to literature and popular culture (and folklore at times). I’ll be doing more of a full review of this one at some point, but I can definitely say this book will have some impact and likely be cited and referenced a lot in future conversations on witchcraft.
Bridging to the world of fiction, I had the joy of reading several great pieces this year with an abundance of witchy ambiance. I already mentioned The Hidden Witch, by Molly Ostertag, when I wrote about graphic novels and witchcraft a few months ago, but if you want a brilliant illustrated story to connect folk magic, witchcraft, inclusion, diversity, and empathy (as well as something you can share with kids in your life), I’d highly recommend it. One of the best books I’ve read this year (and I know I’m late to the game here) is Children of Blood & Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s a fantasy novel, primarily geared at young adults but really for anyone, and it focuses on the quest of a magically gifted young woman named Zelie as she tries to restore magic to the land of Orisha. It’s heavily influenced by African religious, spiritual, and magical traditions, and both the telling and the world are completely engrossing (spells in Yoruban feel incredibly natural the way Adeyemi writes them). The sequel just came out, so I’m excited to continue in this series this year. I also cannot recommend The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste highly enough. Another work aimed at a younger audience but really ready for anyone to read, Baptiste’s book uses the Haitian tale of “The Magic Orange Tree” as its source, but manages to expand upon that story and make a marvelous story of a girl named Corrine who must defend her island from the local spirit beings known as “jumbies.” In the process, she learns a great deal about just how complicated spirit relationships (and human ones) can be. It’s rife with Caribbean folklore and a thrilling, sometimes even scary, read.
I also wandered into the pages of history with my fictional reading this year, too, and finally dug into Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson is probably best-known for writing “The Lottery,” about a small New England town with a hellish secret, but Castle is astounding. I don’t want to open up too much of the story here, because it is so twisted and subtle and strange, but I will say that if you are a fan of folk magic, this book is stuffed with it. The rituals and spells used by the narrator are hauntingly real. This book may well be one of my absolute favorites now.
Weirdo builds book fort. Film at 11.
So that’s the year that was, but what about the year yet to be? Well, we’ve got a lot of good things in store. Most of you probably know that I’ve been writing a book, which is due out from Llewellyn sometime later this year (probably sometime in Fall). I posted a photo of me with my enormous stack of research books on social media (see above), so you can probably guess this one is jam-packed with footnotes, and will be looking at North American folk magic from a folkloric, historical, and practical perspective. If you like the blog and the show, you’ll probably enjoy the book. With that coming, it’s likely I will also be showing up on a few other podcasts as the year wears on, so I’ll try to keep everyone up to date as that happens. We’ve also got a few authors on the docket for interviews in the coming months, ones with newly released books or books that will be released in the near future (and some of them are VERY exciting). I’ve also got a stack of books on my shelf that I plan to plow through in the next couple of months, and at that point I may start seeing if any of the authors are interested in coming on to talk about their work (I’ll put a little hopeful energy and a hint of who I might be asking in a photo of my “to read” stack below).
Finally, Laine and I have decided to add a fun segment to our show this year (it’s our ten-year anniversary of podcasting, so we’ve got a few fun things planned, so stay tuned for more in the coming months). We will be discussing Scott Cunningham’s books of folk magic–Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water–and reading through different sections of those books each month. We’ll post up a reading plan in the next week or two so you can join us if you like (and we’ll have a chance to win a copy of both books, plus a discount for ordering them, so definitely keep an eye out for that post). We chose Cunningham because he in many ways represents where Laine and I started, and we each grew in distinctly different but complementary ways from his roots, so looking more closely at his work feels like both a homecoming and a new frontier for us. You’ll hear all about that in our next podcast episode.
That’s a lot of words about things that are already full of words, so I’ll pause for now. We hope you’ve had some great witchy reads over the past year, and if you have any recommendations (or have read some of the ones I mention here), please leave us a comment below and let us know!
Thanks for reading,
-Cory

Blog Post 217 – North American Winter Monsters

(Author as Winter Monster, 2016 Philadelphia Parade of Spirits)

To those who follow this site and my work, it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the Krampus. If you aren’t quite sure what that is, he’s the diabolical and fearsome companion to St. Nicholas found primarily in Alpine parts of Europe like Austria’s Bad Gastein. He travels with the Saint, often wearing chains to symbolize the triumph of the holy over the wicked (but also because they rattle and make noise, which is why many Krampussen also wear cow bells of ridculous sizes on their furry costumes). The Krampus–usually portrayed by a young man from the village, or several young men in the case of trooping Krampussen (“many-Krampus-ed”) groups–then threatens children for any naughtiness that might be in their wee permanent records, while the Saint hands out gifts and mercy, restraining his hellish compatriot.

The figure of the Krampus intrigues me, because I have always enjoyed the holiday season as both one of light and one of darkness. We often see the glitz of Christmas lights or Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, but we sometimes forget this is also the time of year for those “scary ghost stories” mentioned in the famous song about just where we are in the ranking of wonderful times of the year (hint: it’s the most). I even love Krampus so much that I essentially did my doctoral dissertation on him (well, the amazing Parade of Spirits in Philadelphia, which began as a Krampuslauf, or “Krampus procession” in its early years). I also love his other cousins in the European pantheon of winter terror: Pere Foutard from France or Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) from the Low Countries in North Central Europe. There are also figures like the belly-slicing Perchta (or Berchta) in German-speaking regions, or the Icelandic ogress Gryla. The Italian Christmas witch La Befana is always fun (unless you make her mad), and the trooping Tomten from Scandinavia or the Yule Lads from Iceland also bring a good bit of ruckus into the fray. These figures are all on the ascendancy in popular culture, too, with Krampus, Gryla, and the Yule Lads showing up in last year’s holiday episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a fairly popular (if somewhat off-kilter) film called Krampus released back in 2015, and references in shows like American Dad and Grimm. If you are interested in the history and variety of these creatures, I highly recommend both Al Ridenour’s The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas (2016) and Linda Raedisch’s The Old Magic of Christmas (2013). And, of course, you could always listen to our previous episodes on Krampus and Christmas monsters (which feature both of those authors).

Recently, however, I’ve seen an article from 2014 bouncing around various social media feeds discussing the lack of such holiday monstrosities on this side of the Atlantic. The write-up, from author Caitlin Hu on the Quartz site, claims that “Christmas in America has…lost its dark side,” pointing toward Puritan movements against the holiday and efforts to sanitize it over the past two centuries. Some of this she lays at the feet of Clement Clark Moore, widely believed to have been the author of the famed “Visit from St. Nicholas” poem more commonly known by its opening lines, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Hu specifically covers a lot of the monsters found in Europe (with some stellar photos of various Krampussen), and does mention a few candidates from North America, but here I would push back just a bit and say that our dance with the devils of December (and January) hardly ended with the appearance of Moore’s “jolly old elf.”

While it is largely true that our side of the pond has much less in the way of masked revelers parading in devilish costume during the holiday season (although not entirely true, as I will show in a moment), we still have our fair share of weird and wicked beasties roaming around in the cold and snowy months. In the sections below, I have outlined in very brief form a number of such winter creatures in our lands. They are quite different from their Old World counterparts in some cases, although in other examples the connections will be crystal clear (or at least clearer than a stocking full of coal). Before we get to the Old World, however, we should probably start with what was here to begin with.

Coyote – One of the big misses in the Quartz article is the wide swing around indigenous winter monsters. To be fair, Hu’s aim was much more squarely at the Christmas devils associated with European folklore of St. Nicholas, so it’s not really surprising that Native figures like the trickster Coyote was off of the radar. But Native storytellers from a vast variety of tribes have long-standing associations and taboos about telling tales in winter. Nations like the Ho-Chunk of the Wisconsin area or the Blackfoot in Central and Western Canada restrict certain stories to the months when snow is on the ground. The Acoma Pueblo people specifically hold their stories about the wily, tricksy, and sometimes extremely dangerous Coyote until those winter months. I’m actually avoiding linking any Coyote stories directly here because of those taboos, and even famed folklorist Barre Toelken destroyed many of his notes on Pueblo and Dine (Navajo) stories because of those restrictions once the time for reading them had passed. In general, Coyote’s character is one of cunning and deception, but also occasional help, and he is fanged and furry, which makes him a good candidate for a Winter Monster, if you belong to a cultural group that recognizes him.

The Wendigo – Another Native figure of snow-bound terror is the Ojibwe Wendigo. This is a monster a bit like a werewolf in some tellings, or a bit like a vampire or incubus in others. The Wendigo–sometimes found in variations among tribes like the Cree and Saulteaux–haunts wild places in the winter and is sometimes thought to have a heart of ice. It is enormous and gaunt, and usually represents a human who violated a cultural taboo (often cannibalism) to become a hunter of men in the frozen months. In this case the winter paucity of food may be what ironically creates the Wendigo, as it might drive a desperate person to consume their fellow humans. The Wendigo can often lure you by calling your name, as in perhaps the most well-known variation of the story found in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark called “Burning Feet,” itself based on Algernon Blackwood’s loose adaptation of Native folklore.

The Belsnickel – For fans of the hit TV show “The Office,” the Belsnickel will be immediately recognizable. Pennsylvania Dutch farmer Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) shows up for the office holidays dressed as the fur-clad, soot-covered creature, inquiring if all present have been “Impish” or “Admirable.” While the show plays the character for laughs, the Belsnickel was a fairly common figure in the Pennsylvania Dutch (or German-speaking) regions of the eastern and central United States. There is some speculation that he is essentially the merging of the Krampus-like devils of the Old World and St. Nicholas, with his name essentially deriving from pelz (meaning “furs”) and Nikolas (for the saint), thus making him a “furry St. Nick” of sorts. However, the path from the Old World to the new is not linear, and in many ways the Belsnickel is a distinctively North American figure and arguably the progenitor of our concepts of Santa Claus (with a little help from Moore’s poem, Dutch influences, and the work of commercial artist Thomas Nast in the nineteenth century). He often represents the phase of life between youth and adulthood, played by and older teen or young twenty-something boy who has outgrown other holiday activities but who still wants to participate (and get some alcohol on the side, since the houses he’d visit would usually buy his departure with a drink). Hu incorrectly asserts in her article that “the Belsnickel is practically extinct” (her italics). While he has seen a decline, the Belsnickel shows up in a number of places, including Canada, where folklorist Richard Bauman found people doing Belsnickel processions in Nova Scotia in the 1960s and 70s. Numerous accounts in regional newspapers and magazines like The Pennsylvania Dutchman recall Belsnickel encounters in the mid-twentieth century, and Gerald Milnes found evidence of Belsnickling groups in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia well into the twentieth century, where it was sometimes also called Kriss Kringling. While the figure is not as widespread as he once was, even where I live there are two Belsnickels operating out of local history museums in central Pennsylvania, and he’s a regular feature at the Philadelphia Parade of Spirits as well.

The Jersey Devil – I’m sure there are people already clutching their Snooki-designed pearls at this one, but hear me out. Much of the lore regarding the famed “Leeds Devil” situates its main activity during the winter months, especially December and January (I count January as the holiday season because a number of “Old Christmas” traditions extend into that month). There’s the famed (if unproven) encounter between the exiled Joseph Bonaparte and the Devil in the early nineteenth century, usually related as occurring while the ground is covered in snow. The most famous outbreak of sightings happened during the week of January 16th-23rd in 1909 all throughout the Delaware Valley, even as far as Philadelphia. These attacks also get the Devil associated with a Maryland Winter Monster called the Snallygaster. A Greenwich, New Jersey encounter apparently happened sometime in early December, based on the date it was reported (in a copy of the Dec. 15th Daily Times of Woodbury) and another run-in was reported “one winter night” in 1972.  There are certainly also non-winter encounters with this figure, but a lot of the lore seems to show it as most highly active during the winter months, so why not embrace the Jersey Devil as a Winter Monster, too?

The Beast of Bladenboro – In late December and early January of 1953-1954, the town of Bladenboro, North Carolina was terrorized by a “beast,” thought to be some kind of vampiric canine or feline, although plenty of people speculate it may have been a bear as well. Whatever the creature was, it managed to kill several pets and farm animals and raised the alarm among the townspeople. Most reports of the creature seemed to ascribe monstrous proportions to its shape, and when a local farmer eventually killed a large bobcat and claimed the terror was over, few believed that to be the case. The Beast of Bladenboro made only this one appearance, but has gone on to inspire a local celebration called Beast Fest, traditionally held late in October (yes, a bit early for “official” Winter Monster status, but between the Halloween and Christmas timing of the festival and the creature’s alleged attacks, it seems like at least a semi-viable candidate). The creature’s resemblance to a cat or a dog is also notable, as there are long-standing traditions of monstrous Yule Cats and sinister Christmas werewolf lore in the Old World as well (see Linda Raedisch’s book for a great section on both beasts).

These are hardly the only critters we could list, of course. Each region will have its variations and changes (for example, Snallygasters vs. Jersey Devils and the Belsnickels of Canada vs. the Belsnickels of Lancaster County, PA). Yet these monsters represent a long-held and lingering tendency for people to crave the darker side of the holidays, even as they are embracing the light. As Al Ridenour puts it when discussing the long-standing tradition of terrifying children with Krampussen, “A child’s delight in a certain measure of fear never goes out of style” (p. 248). It’s all well and good to have your tinsel and brightly-wrapped packages under the tree, but maybe consider hanging a local monster in the branches. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a glaring Jersey Devil nestled among the lights, after all.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

References

Photo by Author. CC Share-and-share-alike license. Illustrations: “The Jersey Devil,” from Philadelphia Post (1909) (Wikimedia) ; Illustration from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (Onderdonk, 1848). Both images in the Public Domain.