Archive for the ‘History & Lore’ category

Blog Post 201 – Ilvermorny

August 16, 2016

I realize that my previous post promised a bit more exploration of the potential shape of a “New World Witchery” sort of practice, but during the drafting of that post, Ilvermorny was unveiled. I’ll get to what that means in a moment, but I wanted to just take a moment to say I am still working on the other post, and that this one may actually tie nicely into the longer discussion of New World magic (albeit from a more literary stance). I also want to note that there are most definitely *spoilers ahead* so consider this your chance to stop reading if you aren’t already somewhat familiar with what Ilvermorny is.

Platform 9 & 3/4 Sign, Kings Cross Station, London. Picture taken by fr:Steff via Wikimedia Commons.

If you have managed to see the light of day at any point in the past two decades, you are probably familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Created by J.K. Rowling, the Potterverse (as all the collective official materials of the Harry Potter fictional fandom are known) has historically centered on the adventures of Harry, “The Boy Who Lived,” and his struggles against Voldemort (a.k.a. Tom Riddle), an evil and megalomaniacal wizard bent on the purge of all “impure” wizarding families and the subjugation of Muggles (as non-magical folk are known). The places most familiar to those who have read the seven primary tomes of the Potter series (and now, the eighth installment, which is actually a stage play called Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, but which even in its dramatological format has still sold more than two million copies during its first few days of release) are generally located in the United Kingdom: Platform 9 ¾, found at King’s Cross Station in the London Underground; the wizard-and-witch shopping mecca of Diagon Alley, hidden behind the Leaky Cauldron, both also in London; and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, located in and about Scotland, where Harry and his friends learn their trade along with hundreds of other students (I emphasize the number for reasons that I hope will be clear soon enough). Pottermania has permeated literary and popular culture for well over a decade now, and Rowling’s most recent endeavors in her magical world make it clear that the Potterverse is not going to remain stagnant, but expand even further.

Photo of Mt. Greylock, MA, by By Ericshawwhite via Wikimedia Commons. Mt. Greylock is the home of Rowling's Ilvermorny school.

Photo of Mt. Greylock, MA, by By Ericshawwhite via Wikimedia Commons. Mt. Greylock is the home of Rowling’s Ilvermorny school.

Most recently, it has expanded with some detail into North America. Rowling wrote a short story that tells the history of the founding of the North American school of magic, known as Ilvermorny, in Massachussetts during the seventeenth century. I won’t do a complete recap of the events, as I encourage you to read it for yourself (it’s less than an hour’s read, really), but the gist of the tale is that an Irish witch descended from the Slytherin line named Isolt Sayre fled the Old World with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, and then high-tailed it into the woods to the west and eventually formed a magical family, adopting two boys (the Boot brothers) and marrying a kindly Muggle (or “No-Maj” as we apparently call non-magical people in North America, in a blinding fit of banality) named James Steward. Isolt befriends a number of North American mythical beasts and cryptids, including a river spirit in the form of a Horned Serpent and a pukwudgie whom she calls William. When she begins instructing other magical folk (including the local Native populations, mostly of the Wampanoag people), she establishes the school that eventually becomes Ilvermorny.

 

At a very basic level, the Ilvermorny story is a pleasant addition to the young-adult fictional world of Rowling’s imagination. Characters—despite not having much space in the narrative—generally have readily accessible personalities and even get a bit of development here and there. Rowling tries very hard to recreate the magic of Hogwarts in Massachussets, and at times, she gets pretty close to doing so, in my opinion. Given the heavy use of British and broadly European folklore and myth in the Potter series, however, her approach to North American lore and legend is strangely off-kilter. I can only really speak for North American cultural materials from the United States, here, but I imagine that Canadian and Mexican readers might also feel there is something “off” about the Ilvermorny tale. Below I will outline some of the key issues I found when reading Rowling’s backstory.

 

Thunderbird on Totem Pole By Dr Haggis via Wikimedia Commons. The Thunderbird is one of the four house creatures for the Ilvermorny school.

House Divisions

Ilvermorny’s problems often stem from a particularly British mindset transplanted into an environment that was fundamentally un-British. Firstly, very few schools in the U.S. use the “house” structure. There are certainly exceptions to that rule, notably a high school in Kentucky, but by and large even residential boarding schools do not favor house systems anymore. Of course, Ilvermorny was founded in the 1600s, so it is very likely that a house system might have been in place for a century or so, but I doubt it would have lingered there much past the public education and Sunday school movements of the nineteenth century. Instead, individual schools foster collective school pride in competition with other schools. In some instances, there might be fraternity-like divisions within a school, but they are seldom as intense as house divisions and rivalries are generally much shallower. In some cases, such divisions are even viewed with intense scrutiny: “[O]rganizations that enclose themselves in separate houses…carry the stigma of secret societies, [and] fraternities and sororities are subject to suspicion, restriction, reform, disparagement, suspension, and at many campuses, banishment” (Bronner 242). Even at colleges, where house-like divisions are more common, they seldom take on the definite shape of the divisions found in the more British antecedents. Additionally, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a founder, with a deeper backstory about why they came together to form the school Ilvermorny has a general set of founders, but they chose not to name the houses after themselves. Rowling even makes a point of joking about how the houses are not named after the individuals behind them: ”The idea of naming the houses after themselves, as the founders, was swiftly abandoned, because Webster felt a house called ‘Webster Boot’ had no chance of ever winning anything, and instead, each chose their favourite magical beast.” The author’s clever solution to the founder problem is to form the houses around the mascots, which brings us to…

 

The Menagerie of Beasts

Taken *mostly* from North American folklore and legend, the house creatures are essentially mascots for their houses. Yes, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a creature associated with it, but the creature is fundamentally linked to the founder—Gryffindor is a Griffin because a Griffin represents Godric Griffindor (and there’s a whole book about the “heir of Slytherin” and the relationship to snakes through his line). The beasts in Ilvermorny actually work better as mascots because the founders remain nominally distant from their houses (Rowling’s account of the naming of the houses makes it sound like an affable after-dinner conversation). In an American secondary education environment, however, you don’t have four mascots at one school. You have four schools, with four different mascots. I will return to that concept momentarily, but first we must discuss the mascots themselves.

 

The beasts are an odd mishmash of the North American legendary landscape. All of them are at least loosely linked to Native American or Amerinidian legends of one kind or another, but are lumped  together in such a way that they don’t suggest the distinct or distinguishable Native tribes whence they come. Pukwudgies, for example, would be primarily associated with areas under the Northeastern portion of the Algonquin-speaking America—largely New England, where much of the Ilvermorny story takes place. So far, so good, right? There are similar creatures depicted in other areas—the Cherokee have legends about “Little People,” and the Cree tell tales of the Mannegishi, who are a lot like Pukwudgies (Mooney 335). Choosing to call them Pukwudgies links them to a region, however, and complicates things, because then Rowling introduces the idea of the”Horned Serpent,” a much more generic term for a figure found in various forms throughout the Plains, Lakes, and Southeastern American regions, as well as having some cousins in the “plumed serpents” of the Southwestern and Central American zones. Why make one specific, and one generic? Why not settle on a specific term, like Uktena or Mishi Kenepikwa to attach it to a region or tribal affiliation in some way, the way she did with Pukwudgie? Thunderbirds are similarly broad, although at least potentially more connected to the region in which Ilvermorny is founded (although not massively so, as they feature much more prominently in regions much further west) (Cohen 92-4; Erdoes & Ortiz 218-22). Perhaps the most confusing is the Wampus Cat, which is usually limited to the Southeast and occasionally Deep South (Mooney 324; Schlosser 92-8). Again, its name is potentially generic, but folklorically it has almost no connection to the area of Massachussets where Ilvermorny is located.

By author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Quetzocoatl, an example of a “plumed serpent” figure.

That doesn’t mean that Rowling is wrong to draw upon these figures—it is her fictional universe, after all. It does mean, though, that she’s not really put them into any context that makes sense given the folklore at hand. This is strange, because she is very good with British folklore and fairy tales, and incorporates them frequently into her Potter series. In the case of Ilvermorny, she has Hodags (a Wisconsin-based hoax beast) and Jackalopes (mostly in the Plains and American Southwest) mingling with the creatures of New England and the Mid-Atlantic (Brunvand 831-2; Cohen 239-44) . She does not seem to realize that a Hodag would have to travel nearly a thousand miles to romp with her pukwudgies, or that a Maryland Snallygaster would need to head northwest to the tune of about four hundred miles to play with Isolt’s friendly Horned Serpent. In the end, I think that she just does not quite grasp the size and scope of America, its peoples, and their mythologies. How anyone at Ilvermorny got Wampus Cat hair for making wands during the first years of the school is a mystery, and perhaps one we will examine as she expands the Potterverse over time. Which brings me to the last point…

 

America is Very Big

Let’s think about some numbers. We’ll start with Hogwarts. Based on what we’ve read in the Harry Potter book series, we can estimate an average of of 10 new students per house per year for 7 years = 280 students at any given time. The U.K. population is around 65 million, which means that about .000004 percent of people in the United Kingdom are likely to be selected for Hogwarts (and I am assuming that Hogwarts is the only place young wizards and witches are educated in the U.K., so that number is the high end estimate of new witches & wizards per year). To compare, the U.S. population is around 320 million, nearly five times the size of the United Kingdom, spread out over an area roughly forty times as large. If we assume that wizarding populations are roughly the same worldwide (as one astute listener pointed out, that idea is canon from the Pottermore site), then using approximate statistics, there should be at least 1,000 young wizards and witches per year (closer to 1,300-1,400, really) for the U.S. population. Enough to fill four or five schools, that is.

 

Ilvermorny is a very British way of doing things, and is very out-of-joint with the American people and landscape. There’s something very Colonial and Imperialist about the way Ilvermorny is portrayed, with its founder instructing the local Natives in magic (although to her credit, Rowling does make the education more of a magical exchange; most of the magic in the story, however, is the wand-waving type, and so European magic seems to be the most prominent and dominant form). Rowling seems to be trying to create a unified and cohesive narrative about American magic, and in some places she succeeds: the idea of the Magical Congress is very sharply perceived, as is the effort to avoid an aristocracy of houses and the inclusion of a Muggle-founded house. Her efforts to concentrate everything into one time and place, and her seeming lack of understanding of American historical movements and regional interactions, undercut the story she tells, however. It’s just sloppy to dump every possible magical being from Wampus Cats and Hodags to Jackalopes and even the Snallygaster into one place, especially without giving any context. She could just as easily have started bringing in Bigfoot or Little Green Men as a part of the Potterverse, since both creatures also have antecedents in Native lore, and are perhaps as disharmonious in her setting as some of the cryptids she does include.

Mounted taxidermy “jackalope,” near Death Valley, CA. By SedesGobhani (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The jackalope is a creature found in Rowling’s Ilvermorny story (albeit strangely out-of-place)

My own reading of the situation tells me that Rowling would have been much better off dividing the school into the four mascots, and then having each mascot represent a different regional school. Ilvermorny could have been the Pukwudgie school of New England and potentially parts of the Mid-Atlantic. The Wampus Cat would then have been representative of the South (possibly started by a maroon/runaway slave community—although it would also be lovely to imagine such a school represented by the Loup Garou in Louisiana). The Thunderbird would have made much more sense somewhere in the Western Plains, the Pacific Northwest, or California. And the Horned Serpent could have represented either the Middle West and Great Lakes region effectively, or been a more “plumed serpent” creature in the Southwest. Alternatively, a fifth school would have been a good thing to add, maybe including a Jackalope to represent quick-wittedness and a bright intellect with a bit of a mischievous streak in the West or upper Southwest. Rowling’s Potterverse accounts for “skinwalkers” as a type of shapeshifting Animagus slandered by charlatan “No-Maj medicine men,” so perhaps even a school founded by such an Animagi would be appropriate—particularly as it would show the magical agency of Native sorcerors in founding their own school. A fifth school division would work because the numbers for the wizarding school in the UK—Hogwarts—are roughly one-fifth of the projected numbers in the United States (and this is not even touching Canada or Mexico, which might well have their own schools—I could easily envision one by a lake in British Columbia where Ogopogo lurked in the waters much as other mythic creatures do in the lake by Hogwarts, for example) (Cohen 136-41). These schools would likely have been founded by different witches and wizards over time and during the expansion of American westward migration, and so they would not all tie up into quite so neat a package as the Ilvermorny tale or the Hogwarts history, but America is big and messy and complicated.

 

Yes, it would have meant a less complete story for Ilvermorny. But it would also have meant room for more expansion later. Since Ilvermorny is repeatedly described as the Great North American School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, we are left to assume that it is likely the only one. Considering we are a competitive, diverse, and geographically expansive society, any school attempting to be the sole proprietor of magical knowledge on the continent is unlikely to succeed. As historian Daniel Boorstin notes, “There has never been an effective American movement for a national university. The numerous and diverse American colleges, separated by vast distances, never formed a self-conscious community of learned men”(and women, I would add) (180). Boorstin is obviously discussing higher education, but the principle of spatial separation and scholastic individualism is mirrored in secondary education, too. We just don’t do an Oxford or a Cambridge here—we prefer numerous schools representing regional identities, and that’s something the Ilvermorny story misses. Rowling has a big imagination, and this is all fiction and her universe; she can do as she pleases. From where I sit, though, it seems she has not been able to imagine just how big and diverse America can be in its landscape, peoples, and lore.

 

I’d like to note that Peter Muise of the New England Folklore blog has also tackled this topic, much more succinctly than I have here, and I highly recommend you check out his take on the subject. Also, Laine & I discussed this topic extensively on our latest episode. And, of course, this is really all just for fun anyway. While I’ve obviously taken a bit of (wait for it) Umbridge at certain folkloric pieces of Rowling’s story, really it’s just there to entertain us and she seems to do that pretty well. Plus, it gives us a place to work from when discussing things we should expect to find in New World magical practices (such as diverse forms spread over a wide set of regions, with a combination of widespread and geographically particular spirits/creatures to explore). I write what I do here with fondness for Rowling’s work (and let’s face it, she doesn’t need my approval for anything!), and in the hopes that her story might inspire deeper reading for those who are interested in American folklore.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

References

  1. Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience (Random House, 1964).
  2. Botkin, B.A. A Treasury of New England Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1947)
  3. —. A Treasury of Southern Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1949).
  4. —. A Treasury of Western Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1951).
  5. Bronner, Simon J. Campus Traditions (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012).
  6. Brunvand, Jan, ed. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing, 1996).
  7. Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Monsters (Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1982).
  8. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964).
  9. Erdoes, Richard, & Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths & Legends (Pantheon Books, 1984).
  10. Leeming, David, & Jake Page. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).
  11. Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee (Charles Elder Books, 1982).
  12. Rowling, J.K. Pottermore site (updated 2016).
  13. —. The Harry Potter book series (Scholastic Press, 1997-2007)
  14. Schlosser, S.E. Spooky South (Globe Pequot Press, 2004).

Blog Post 199 – Film Review: The Witch (Spoilers)

February 27, 2016

triptych-1-1024x512

I am sure I am not the only person in the witchcraft blogosphere who will be venturing an opinion on Robert Eggers’ New England folk horror film, The Witch. The movie’s stylistic and narrative gravity has been pulling critics from many backgrounds into its orbit to venture commentary. It is a fine film, to be sure, and if you are looking for a recommendation, I am among dozens of others who will give one—the film currently seems to be holding a mid-to-upper-80s percentage and “Certified Fresh” rating on movie review amalgamator RottenTomatoes.com. If you’re a fan of horror movies (or at least can stomach horror genre frights), the movie is beautiful to look at and riveting from its first moment until its surprising finish. For visual impact alone, it is worth seeing in the theater. Other critics with a deeper background in film studies can and have said much more about Eggers’ diretorial debut as an artistic work, and so I will leave my simple recommendation here in the first paragraph.

Instead, I would like to comment on the elements of the film upon which I may be more uniquely qualified to offer an opinion. As a student of folklore and history, as well as someone with a more-than-passing interest in witchcraft as a particular subject, I will take a couple of paragraphs to talk about how the film uses those elements to tell a story that lingers long after a viewer departs the theater. Fair warning: while I do not wish to spoil anything, I won’t be able to discuss how history and folklore shape the narrative without referencing very specific moments in the movie. So, that is to say, many potential spoilers ahead.

Title page woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

Title page woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most widely acclaimed elements of the film is its historical accuracy. Director Eggers spent four years doing intensive research, drawing upon primary source documents from the 17th century to build up the authenticity of his world. The film’s coda notes that the themes, some narrative elements, and much of the dialogue is taken directly from diaries, pamphlets, and other period materials, and that attention to detail shows. The film’s language has an immersive quality. Its costumes and physical spaces do as well, from the community plantation abandoned by the Separatist family at the beginning of the film (filmed at Plimoth Plantation) to the wild wood which hems in the clearing where they attempt to build a farm and a life. The family, led by father William (Ralph Ineson), manage to eke out a first season’s crop of corn only to have it struck by blight. Soon after, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) loses the youngest child to something which mysteriously—and with uncanny swiftness—appears from and disappears into the woods. William attempts to comfort his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), by reminding her how lucky they are to have so many children survive in the capricious Early Modern period, and that the loss of one is tragic, but understandable in a world where God must continually test his children’s faith. Katherine is broken, however, fearing her infant has been taken to Hell since William refused to have it baptized in the plantation church due to his disagreements with its less rigid brand of Puritanism. The pre-adolescent boy of the family, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), receives religious lessons from his father in the woods as they attempt to set traps to catch wild game for the winter, lessons about his corrupt and sinful nature. Caleb finds himself caught in a moral compromise after his father reveals that he sold a family heirloom without telling Katherine, a crime for which Thomasin receives the blame until the boy steps in with a protective lie, and imprecating all of them in violations of Calvinist theology.

All of this is not to spoil the film’s plot elements—these fragments do not reveal anything terribly important, and most happen within the first third of the film. I bring these details up to make the point that the film has an air of authenticity about it, both historically and psychologically. That is not to say that the historicity of The Witch is somehow above reproach. It is not. As Peter Muise of the blog New England Folklore has pointed out, “many of the film’s later images are drawn not from New England witch narratives but instead from continental European myths and narratives, which had more sexual content. Continental witch stories were quite lurid, full of orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. The New England witches, malevolent though they were, were demure Puritans at heart.” So Puritan were 17th-century witches, in fact, that their notorious leader—the Devil—frequently wore the guise of a Puritan minister. Historian Richard Godbeer notes that the inversion of specifically religious images had nothing to do with Puritanical obsessions with chastity, but with the intentional choices of the accused in connecting their religious leaders with satanic influences:

“The subversive equation of godly and diabolical communities in descriptions of witchcraft at Salem explains the almost complete absence of sex from those accounts. That absence was not due to Puritan success in ridding New England of sexual license, or any reluctance on the part of townsfolk to mention such transgression as did occur. The court records of early New England contain thousands of cases relating to sex crimes…Had deponents in 1692 wanted to fill their descriptions of witch gatherings with illicit sex, they could have drawn on the local reports and gossip…That deponents did not include sex in their descrptions of the diabolical community at Salem was, therefore, a matter of choice…[and] give the impression that layfolk in New England were imprisoned by the covenantal discourse of Puritan theology” (Godbeer 69).

That Puritan theology is something the film gets very right. At one point, William leads his son out into the woods to check some game traps, and leads him through a Calvinist catechism of sorts, which has the child confessing his debased and sinful nature and the failure of anything but God’s grace to save him. William also has to explain that Caleb’s younger brother may very well be in Hell, because only God can know the ultimate disposition of someone’s soul. William’s disagreement with his local church’s theology is very much based on this world-view, and like many Puritans, he believes the wilderness and all its trials are a godly sign of righteousness. The wilderness, and the things dwelling within it, sorely test the goodness of the family, and find it wanting.

Yet it is not just in the wild places where dangers pursue Thomasin and her kin. Even on the little farm, corrupting influences creep in. The twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), display remarkably little regard for their parents or older siblings. They play strange games with the family’s dark-hued goat, Black Phillip, and are visited by spectral fits during an attempt to exorcise the influence of witchcraft on one of the family members. Thomasin’s budding sexuality threatens the family’s stability, too, very much putting her in the line of fire for witchcraft accusations. Women were seen as particularly susceptible to witchcraft and the Devil—one part of the famous witch-hunting manual known as Malleus Maleficarum contains a section entitled “Why It is That Women Are Chiefly Addicted to Evil Superstitions.” Thankfully, the film does not oversimplify the accusations into pure psychosexual drama, but instead shows how the family begins to devour itself from the inside, with the twins just as suspect for diabolical malfeasance as their older siblings.

All of that is to say that the historical aspects of the film generally ring true, even if they muddle a bit of the Old World into the New. The language particularly crackles, immersing the audience without dumbing it down for them (and it is taken directly from trial records and journals, as mentioned above, which Eggers had to sift and stitch together into something cohesive). If the film were called Accursed Little House on the Damnéd Prairie, however, I likely would not be examining it here (although I’d still absolutely watch it). The history in the film is heavily served by its reliance on folklore, which is what makes it truly terrifying.

Almost from the very beginning, the folk world of The Witch absorbs its audience. The titular witch seems like a potential allegory or psychological symbol for only the briefest of moments, and then suddenly becomes very real within the story. To be clear, this witch is NOT an herbal healer or midwife living at the edge of a village who gets accused of crimes in some land-grab or out of fear over her quirky and peculiar ways. When Eggers gives his audience a witch, he gives them exactly what that word meant to a 17th-century audience: a wicked, dangerous, wild woman (yes, okay, sometimes witches were men, too), bent on doing harm and destruction to those that threatened her. Or, you know, just for fun, since the film is not completely clear on why the witch singles out this family for her torments beyond the possible encroachment upon her space.

So just what folkloric signs of witchcraft pepper the film? As a wise man once asked, “How do you know she’s a witch?” Well, as the answer goes, she looks like one—wild and disheveled, crone-like (except when she isn’t), and often working naked under the cover of darkness. She uses a wild-caught animal—of sorts—and turns its fat into a flying ointment, with which she anoints a staff and rides before a full moon. While much of this lore betrays the more European-style lore which Eggers admits influenced him significantly, there are a number of pieces here that absolutely get echoed in American magical and witchcraft practices. The animal-fat ointment, for example, has several parallels, including a story of “Greasy Witches,” from Roan Mountain on the Tennessee/Carolina border, and the Appalachian folkways series, Foxfire, has references to rendering all kinds of animal fat into useful cures, ointments, and greases.

As the film is a horror movie of sorts, blood is also in the mix. Animals give bloody milk as a sign of bewitchment, a theme paralleled in a number of stories from New England and the mid-Atlantic. Sadly, the family does not seem to know any of the traditional cures against witchcraft, such as scalding the milk in the fire or beating it with brambles to reverse the harm upon the witch. But then, as they are devout in their Puritan faith, they likely would agree with Cotton Mather that “[W]e ought not to practice Witchcraft to discover Witches, nor may we make use of a White healing Witch (as they call them) to find out a Black and Bloody one” (Mather 265). Black and bloody this witch can be, almost vampirically draining blood and life from the livestock and even people on the little farmstead, and leaving sickness and madness in her wake. While a more modern interpretation of this sort of story might be tempted to associate illness with a natural cause and leave witchcraft as a psychological function, Eggers resists that urge, and clearly implies the uncanny in the family’s woes. During a particularly eerie moment, a family member suffering from the witch’s influence coughs up a bloody, partially gnawed crabapple as a sign of his malefic infection, not unlike cases in which pins or stones are vomited in folk tales.

witch-hare1

The animals in the story also play a significant role in the witchcraft. A wild-eyed hare seems to taunt the family. William’s attempt to kill the thing results in a misfire of his rifle, which in turn causes him injury. Stories of bewitched guns are found in a number of tales in collections like Patrick Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs or Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet. The animal form of the witch—a hare—seems more in line with British and Scottish lore, but the concept of shapeshifting is hardly unknown on American soil (we did a pair of shows and an article on the topic recently, in fact). The other eerie beast in the film is Black Phillip, the family billy goat, with whom the twins cavort and make up rather diabolical stories. The goat seems harangued by the children, and the father struggles to catch and pen him at one point, demonstrating his tremendous physical strength. Black Phillip nearly steals the show when he’s on screen, with his strange dancing and bucking when the members of the family get too close. Animal familiars also appear in the film, such as a raven which pecks at one person’s breast, drinking blood as recorded in some of the testimonies of 17th-century witches. The deposition of New Hampshire witch Eunice Cole, for example, accused of nursing her familiar with a witch’s teat: “[L]ookeing upon hir brests under one of hir brests (I thinke hir left brest) I saw a blew thing like unto a teate hanging downeward about three quarters of an inche longe not very thick” (Demos 485). Stories from Salem also spoke of witches suckling animals, such as hairless cats.

Perhaps the darkest and finest connection to folklore is the presence of both the Devil and the Devil’s book, in which a person might sign her or his name and gain diabolical power at the cost of her or his soul. The trope of this infernal deal appears in European records, too, but became a major feature of witchcraft legends, tales, and trials in the North American colonies and states. Folklore from Maine down into Virginia and the Carolinas made mention of these dealings (which is not to exclude points outside of that range—Canada had some similar legends, as did areas south and west of the New England/Mid-Atlantic corridor). These books would frequently be signed in blood, and in the case of an illiterate person, an “X” in her or his blood would suffice for a compact. We’ve written about the subject here before, but these “Devil’s Books” and their contractual bond with Satan (or at least with a “man in black,” who often looked a great deal like a Puritan minister) made concrete the fears of Puritans—the Devil was really out to get them, and was ready and waiting to enlist any human into his service who did not keep constant vigilance. What did people hope to gain from signing on with the Devil? One witch, Mary Marston, found release from pain and grief after her mother’s death by signing the book and becoming a witch, while accused witch Mary Lacey “confessed that the Devil told her ‘we should have happy days and then it would be bett’r times for me’” (Hall 145). One witch, Mary Barker, even believed that compacting with the Devil for a witch’s powers would earn her pardon from her sins (ibid.). Frequently, witches compacted for the sole and deeply personal purpose of vengeance upon enemies whom they could not defeat through legal or licit means. Accused Salem witch Rebecca Eames explained that the Devil agreed to give her “powr to avenge her selfe on them that offended her” (Hall 192).

Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch with a great beast. Woodcut, 1720. 1720 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Woodcut, 1720. (via Wikimedia Commons)

All of these reasons come into play through the course of Eggers’ The Witch, as tragedy turns into motivation and the fallen family comes to grips with its graceless state. When piety has been exhausted, power becomes a deeply motivating incentive. Crucially, the film does not linger on any sexual compacts with the Devil, although the witches in the film are generally nude or sexualized in other ways. Instead, the embrace of witchcraft becomes a choice, indeed an almost entirely reasonable one, given the circumstances of the collapse of Puritan morality in the face of a wilderness clearly beyond the control of any Calvinist God.

Eggers has invested in this film, emotionally and intellectually, and he asks that his audience do so as well. While he is attracting a lot of attention for his detail-oriented and historical approach, the feelings conveyed by the filim have as much or more authenticity as the choice to use period costume or building materials. The folk elements of the film—which is subtitled “A New England Folk Tale”—connect it to the raw nerve of the cultures in which witches seemed to be under every dark bush or tree. As a specimen of American folk horror, the movie packs a punch, and does not attempt to explain away its terrifying elements through a single lens, like psychology or the supernatural. Instead, it lets all the pieces come together to support a story that can break your heart as easily as it makes you jump out of your seat.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the historical or folk elements which shaped The Witch, please check out the bibliography at the end of this article.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

 

References

  1. Barden, Thomas E. Virginia Folk Legends (Charlottesville, VA: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1991).
  2. Benes, Peter, ed. Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900 (Boston: Boston University/Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1992).
  3. Breslaw, Elaine G. ed. Witches of the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader & Primary Sourcebook (New York: NYU Press, 2000).
  4. Botkin, Benjamin. A Treasury of New England Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1984). Reprint.
  5. Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Publishers, 1975).
  6. Demos, John. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft & the Culture of Early New England (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004).
  7. Demos, John. “Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England,” in Witches of the Atlantic World, Elaine Breslaw, ed. (New York: NYU Press, 2000).
  8. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972). Reprint.
  9. Eggers, David. The Witch (A24, 2015).
  10. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs: Folklore in the Southern Appalahcians (Morgantown, WV: Vandalia Press, 2008).
  11. Games, Alison. Witchcraft in Early North America (American Controversies) (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
  12. Godbeer, Richard. “Chaste & Unchaste Covenants: Witchcraft & Sex in Early Modern Culture,” in Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900, Peter Benes, ed. (Boston: Boston University/Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1992).
  13. Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989).
  14. Mather, Cotton, & Increase Mather. Wonders of the Invisible World (London: John Russell Smith, 1862). Reprint.
  15. Muise, Peter. The New England Folklore Blog. 2008-2016.
  16. Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage Books, 2002).
  17. Olson, Ted, & Anthony Cavendar, eds. A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selected Readings from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin (Knoxville: Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2009).
  18. Russell, Randy, & Janet Barnett, eds. The Granny Curse, and other Ghosts & Legends from East Tennessee (John F. Blair Publishers, 1999).
  19. Wigginton, Eliot, ed. The Foxfire Book (Series). (Anchor Press, 1972-2009)

Blog Post 198 – Dolls

February 1, 2016

In one of our recent holiday episodes, we discussed the way that toys, dolls in particular, seem to embody the uncanny. Dolls, doll babies, dollies, poppets—whatever you call them, figural toys seem to have the power to evoke fear in people and act as powerful proxies for magical work. I decided to cover the topic in part because several podcasts I frequently download (namely LORE and Stuff You Missed in History) have recently mentioned Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Robert’s story is full of creepy twists and turns, but nicely captures how dolls can be both innocent (as Robert is when he acts as a best friend to his young owner, Gene) and terrifying (as Robert is when he shows up on a subsequent owner’s bed, brandishing a kitchen knife). Still, most tales of dolls and magic in the New World are not as spectacular as Robert’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very interesting uses for dolls in American folk magic. There most definitely are, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the ones that I find most interesting.

Robert the Doll, in Key West, Florida. Creepy, right? By Cayobo from Key West, The Conch Republic (Robert The Doll Uploaded by LongLiveRock) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We can start in Salem, during the famous witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. A slave from Barbados named Candy was the focus of one early investigation (although her fate was not, as far as we know, the gallows). Candy confessed her use of folk magic, including the use of a handkerchief which she transformed into a doll:

“Candy stated that her knowledge of witchcraft came from her experience in Salem and not from her home in Barbados. The magical items possessed by Candy bear closer analysis and provide evidence for a possible connection to African or Afro- Caribbean beliefs. The knotted handkerchief was obviously a doll to stick with pins or to rend to inflict pain on others. The pieces of cloth were possibly shreds of clothing to be used to identify the dolls with a particular victim, as is common in the sympathetic magic which makes up part of voodoo belief” (McMillan 104-5)

Comments about “voodoo belief” aside (here I think McMillian is simply conflating “voodoo” with the folk magic of African Caribbeans), Candy’s use of the knotted handkerchief gets at some of the main reasons that doll magic seems to be popular and widespread. Firstly, it involves easily found or acquired resources—in this case cloth from the intended target, making the materials doubly enticing. Secondly, doll magic is sympathetic magic, and the connection is easy to see. If I make a piece of someone’s long johns look like a person, particularly the person whose backside the doll so recently covered, it seems likely that those two things will share a connection.

This point, that something that looks human but isn’t has uncanny powers, gets echoed in a lot of folklore as well, some of which connects to the folk magical systems of early Americans. Imported stories, such as tales about Anansi, refer to the use of dolls as agents of trickery. One account of Anansi tells how he tricked Tiger, and Tiger avenged himself on Anansi by putting a gumdoll in a field. Anansi gets angry when the doll won’t respond to him, and strikes it, becoming stuck to it. This tale is likely best known by American audiences as the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, of course, which replaces Anansi with the wily trickster rabbit and uses tar in place of tree gum. An Apache tale recasts the narrative as Coyote fighting with a lump of pitch, placed in a field by a “white man” to catch the sneaky food thief. The story keeps reappearing across different cultural backdrops, with new characters but the same basic structure. In all cases, the doll in question does nothing—that is one of the reasons Brer Rabbit and his compatriots dislike the thing—but still manages to get the best of its target.

Illustration of Brer Rabbit & the Tar Baby. A. B. Frost [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dolls, much like the Tar Baby or gumdoll, don’t necessarily have to do anything to be effective in folk magic, either. Jason Miller recounts a story in his Protection & Reversal Magic in which a doll’s effect is clearly psychological, but nonetheless potent:

“A santera I know was having problems with her neighbor being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night and leaving garbage on her lawn. She asked her madrina (her teacher) what she should do. The madrina told her to make a doll that looked like the neighbor, blindfold it, tie its arms and legs, and nail it to the tree in her yard facing her neighbor’s front door. My friend was a bit shocked and said, “Good Lord! I don’t want to hurt him! What will happen?”

“Nothing” replied her madrina, “but it will scare the living crap out of him!”” (Miller 30)

Miller’s account of the santera’s doll experience resembles other accounts in American folk history. Newbell Niles Puckett references a similar incident in his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. In the cases Puckett describes, the dolls may or may not actually have a magical effect, or they might simply convey the sender’s sentiments about how they wish to see the recipeient suffer: “Very common also was the practice of putting small black caskets, often with skull and crossbones upon the cover, in front of a person’s door. Sometimes these would contain a small doll with pins run through the heart and with a burned-out candle at the head and another at the foot, doubtless a case of sympathetic magic, indicating a desire that the person be “laid out” according to the Catholic rites.” (Puckett 227-8).

Dolls that do nothing, however are not as much fun as dolls that do something. Fairy tales like “Vasalissa the Beautiful” from Russian lore offer dolls that seem to do little, but in fact act as powerful fetishes of protection to those that carry them. Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s doll, which carries a maternal blessing and performs tasks while the young girl and the old witch Baba Yaga are sleeping at night. Baba Yaga is always disappointed by Vasilissa’s completion of her tasks, which she knows must be done by magic but cannot figure out. Eventually the ancient cannibal witch decides not to eat the girl and instead sends her away with a magical gift when she learns that Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s blessing (although she never does puzzle out the secret of the doll).

Just as in fairy tales, dolls can have powerful magical agency, according to folklore. Several authors, including the aforementioned Jason Miller, suggest using dolls or poppets in spells, just as Candy was said to have done in Salem. Miller recommends a mirror box spell using a doll which will turn any harmful magic back on its sender or protect one from magical attack. Dorothy Morrison makes similar suggestions in her book on baneful magic, and even talks about using dollar store Barbie knockoffs stuffed with personal materials or herbs as a way of simplifying the doll-making process.

When it comes to making dolls, however, kids seem to have a knack for doing it with whatever’s at hand, which as I mentioned above, may be part of why dolls are both so ubiquitous and so powerful. Coming from materials which are already familiar to the doll-maker through use and contact, the relationship with the doll itself can be very deep once the figure has been created. Adults do sometimes craft dolls and other toys with what is around, but they are also likely to purchase materials:

“Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper, fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or “found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”). Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric).” (Leeds-Hurwitz 1477)

The fabrication of toys and dolls, including ones used for ritual or magical purposes, is not limited to post-European contact in the New World, either. According to scholar Yvonne Milspaw, Native cultures would create paper-type dolls out of natural materials with magic in mind: ““Other reported uses of paper and bark cutting among Native Americans include carefully worded reports of sorcery and cut-paper dolls among some Mexican people like the Otomi” (MIlspaw 1134). Some of these traditions may have shaped latter-day practices like the creation of skeletal papier mache dolls for Day of the Dead/Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.

So dolls can be made from lots of materials, and can be active or passive in the use of magic, as we’ve seen. They also frequently come with their own rules or taboos about how they can be used, deployed, or even simply treated. When it comes to folk magic, African American conjure traditions emphasized the choice of materials as a matter of import. Dolls are often crafted with local flora (and occasionally fauna) for a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. Spanish moss is frequently used to stuff or wrap doll babies in Delta-area conjure practices both because it grows ubiquitously on trees in the region and because as a plant it acts semi-parasitically (it doesn’t actually feed off of the oak trees it grows upon directly, but it can limit their growth), thereby sharing life with a host as a doll is supposed to. Even more potent than Spanish moss, however, are doll components that come directly from the intended target, such as pieces of their clothing, as illustrated by this example from African American folklore:

“My husband was very jealous of me, he was just insane jealous. He was always telling me he was going to put a spell on me. I was afraid of him. I went to a house where he didn’t want me to go, because a man was at that house he was jealous of. He was going away to get work…and told me not to go there. He went and took a piece of my bloomers and made a rag doll out of them, stuff it, worked black eyes like mine with silk thread; then put in the head — a needle, some of my hair, pins, rain water and a shingle nail, then sewed up the head. After that he took a small picture of me and put it on the left side of the rag doll, about where my heart is; then he filled the doll just full of pins and needles all over. He then put it in a pint jar and buried it under that house, where he didn’t want me to go — without anyone knowing it — and left town. I started to getting sick just as soon as he left, was sick all the time, could not find out what was wrong. I would start over to the house, but I could not make it. Something kept me from going. I went on this way for about a month, I was getting weaker and weaker, when one day some children playing around this house, digging, dug up this rag doll. They [the people at the house] knew right away it was to cast a spell over me, because they knew my picture was on the doll, and he was always saying he was going to make me suffer. We took the rag doll, jar and all, put it on the fire and burnt it all up; and I started to getting better right away and got well. And my husband got stab in about a month time; we threw the spell back on him by burning up everything, and he died and I am well.” (Hyatt 456)

A number of writers on conjure similarly describe the use of clothing from the intented target, including Yvonne Chireau, Starr Casas, Denise Alvarado, and Jefferey Anderson. While a doll sculpted from scratch certainly seems to be preferred in many magical practices, it is not the only way to operate. Much as Dorothy Morrison mentions using dollar-store plastic dolls to do work, Zora Neale Hurston records the repurposing of children’s toys for magical purposes in Southern African American hoodoo:

“To Keep a Person Down. Write name on paper with black ink. Rip open back of a doll and put the names in it. Sew it up with black thread. Put aloes, cayenne pepper in doll along with names. Tie the hands of the doll behind her and place her in a kneeling position in a corner, and keep her there where nobody will interrupt. They will be frustrated as long as she is not disturbed. Tie a black veil on her face and knot it in the back, so that the person will be blind and always do the things to keep himself from progressing” (Hurston 384).

"Voodoo Doll," featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

“Voodoo Doll,” featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the lore of creepy dolls and the lore about how to use dolls magically, there seem to be a few taboos about dolls which thread through different American cultural landscapes as well. For instance, many Amish communities have strict rules about children’s dolls, insisting that they cannot have faces on them for fear of violating the “graven images” commandment in the Bible (the rule also extends to things like snowmen and usually paintings as well). Hyatt notes that one superstition about dolls involves naming: “If a girl changes the name of her doll, the doll will break.” (Hyatt, p.268). He also records a much more sinister taboo about dolls which I cannot help but share here:

“A little girl died that was three years old, and her mother put a doll and a little horse in the coffin that she always played with. I said to the mother, ‘I would not do that, for there is an old saying, never bury anything with a corpse.’ And in a few weeks this little girl’s mother and sister died.” (Hyatt 374)

This last bit of folklore is fascinating to me simply because it seems to be a powerful impulse in human beings to bury toys with children when they are tragically lost. Many early human graves contain burial goods, and children’s burial goods often seem to be toys. Dolls, though, might have a special exemption from burial because of their close resemblance to a living person, although that does not seem to be a universal taboo.

Dolls today have a lot of the same stigmas attached to them: they are objects of fear and superstition as well as simple objects of play. Magically, they can be used for a number of purposes which resemble and also modify the traditional folk uses I’ve outlined here. One of our readers shared a story with us about a sloth doll she uses to overcome issues with chronic lethargy, letting the doll absorb any feelings of laziness from her (she also shared her very terrifying experiences with an American Girls doll, so that tradition is alive and well, too). The film Toy Story and its many sequels and similar movies all play upon the idea of toys having a “secret life,” which involves humans not being around, but being the prime object of the dolls’ attention. In theaters as of the date of this post, one can also see the film The Boy, about a very Robert the Doll-esque figure which seems to have a (sinister) life of its own.

All of which is to say, dolls are a big part of magical lore and practice, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And they watch you while you sleep. So sweet dreams and all.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References

  1. Alvarado, Denise. The Day of the Dead Handbook (CreateSpace Publishing, 2012).
  2. The Voodoo Doll Spellbook: A Compendium of Ancient Spells and Rituals (Weiser Books, 2014).
  3. Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society (LSU Press, 2008).
  4. Casas, Starr. The Conjure Workbook, Vol. 1: Working the Root (Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
  5. Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2006).
  6. Crowley, Daniel J. “Anansi.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 50-1.
  7. Goldberg, Christine. “Witchcraft.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1560-64.
  8. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” In Journal of American Folklore (Fall 1931). 317-417.
  10. Kirkland, James W. “Folk Medicine.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 983-89.
  11. Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. “Toys, Folk.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1477-80.
  12. McMillan, Timothy. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, & Resistance in Colonial New England.” In Journal of Black Studies (Sept. 1994). 99-117.
  13. Miller, Jason. Protection & Reversal Magick (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books), 2006.
  14. Milspaw, Yvonne J. “Paper Cutting.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1132-35.
  15. Morrison, Dorothy. Utterly Wicked: Curses, Hexes, & Other Unsavory Notions (St. Louis: WillowTree Press, 2010.
  16. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York: Dover, 1970).
  17. R. D. Personal correspondence via email. 23 Dec. 2015.
  18. Yolen, Jane, ed. “Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch.” In Favorite Folktales from Around the World (New York: Random House, 1986).

Blog Post 197 – Shapeshifting

November 26, 2015

“Loup-Garou,” from The Werewolf Delusion, by Ian Woodward (1979) (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

[N.B. Please also check out our podcast episode on this phenomenon as well: Episode 82 – Shapeshifting]

 

One of the talents attributed to witches in a number of cultures is self-transformation. If you’ve plunged more than ankle-deep into witchcraft research, you’ve likely run across famed Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie’s charm, which she reputedly used to transform into a hare, which begins “An I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and sighing in mickle care…” Gowdie was not alone in her belief that through the force of her magic and her will (and perhaps some psychoactive botanical substances or a judicious application of rendered animal fat), she could change her form to that of an animal. Perhaps the most famous example of this power is the werewolf, which sometimes changes of its own volition, but more often is a victim of the shiny moonlight’s powers.

In the New World, plenty of witches also had the power of transformation. This article will look at a few key tales of shapeshifting from New World lore, and ask questions about what the stories could mean for a magically inclined person with an interest in exchanging human form for an animal’s.

Perhaps the best-known and most widespread incarnation of the shapeshifting legend east of the Mississippi is the story of the loup-garou (sometimes also rou-garou, rugaru, or a similar variation). The beast can be found just about anywhere which saw frequent contact with French Colonial influences, such as in Canadian border zones or Louisiana. Often the loup-garou is essentially a werewolf, a human being who can—through magical means often diabolical in nature—become a wolf-like beast. Some versions of the story, recorded by University of Louisiana professor Barry Ancelet, describe the beast as more of a thief than a predator for humans, stealing fishermen’s clams while they sleep. The exact nature of the creature is also indeterminate, since depending on one’s location, it can “range from the rougarou as a headless horseman to a wolf that prowls the forest at night” (Lugibihl). The actual transformation may be permanent (or even ghostly, as some accounts tell of the beast as the remnant of a cruel old man), or may only last for 101 days, after which time the loup-garou transfers its curse to another person through a bite or drinking his or her blood. A person under the curse seems to know whether he or she is suffering from the transformation, and becomes rather wan and unhealthy, but usually remains silent about the condition with others. A major variation on the loup-garou is the bearwalker, about which Richard Dorson recorded several stories in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the mid-20th century. As you can probably guess, the assumption of a bear form (or at least an animal form which resembles a bear more than a wolf) is more common in the lore of the borderlands on the north of the Great Lakes.

In the mid-section of the United States, particularly from the mid-Atlantic down to the upland South and across into the Midwest, the power of transformation is far less canine in nature. While the loup-garou certainly fell into the purview of New World magical lore (albeit lore largely imported from Europe), the tales of transformation one finds in places like Appalachia skew distinctly witchy in flavor. Several stories, including one which we’ve recorded here before called “The Black Cat Murders,” talk about witches transforming into cats in order to visit harm on prospective victims. Patrick Gainer recorded his version of the tale in West Virginia from Mrs. Robert Pettry, whose account included a man with a pet bear that struck off the witch-cat’s paw only to have it transform into a human hand once it was severed. This is a very common feature of witch transformation tales, and often once a witch has been injured in her animal state, she bears the marks of her injury in human form as well (which proves helpful to neighbors in identifying her). One of the remarkable points about these transformations remains that in many cases the witch has a physical human body in one place and a spectral body (with some corporeal aspects, as in the case with the bear above) that can travel around at her behest while remaining deeply linked with her. That trait appears throughout North America (again, with some Old World antecedents, including Africa as well as Europe). A tale from Virginia recorded in The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis, tells of women who turns into a cat only to have her hand whacked off with a knife. The next day, when the man who did the whacking tries to shake hands with the suspected witch, she refuses because her hand is now missing. Davis also reports a tale of a witch who becomes a cat only to be caught by a lonely mountain man, and transformed back into a woman, she marries him and bears him two children. When he begins drunkenly telling someone how they met, she turns herself and the kids into cats and kittens and they disappear forever through a hole in the wall.

Of course, not all witches turn into cats, and not al were-cats are witches, exactly, either. In Utica, New York, Davis found a tale of a witch who turned herself into a black colt that would appear in neighbors’ fields and graze among their horses. When a man sneakily catches the colt and has it shod at the blacksmith’s (I’d note the importance of iron to this story, by the way), the colt then gets put into a pasture, then disappears. However, a neighbor-woman is seen with bandages on all her hands and feet the next day. New York is also the home of famed witch Aunty Greenleaf, who reportedly would turn herself into a white deer rather than a cat or a horse. She managed to elude hunters constantly until one hunter got the idea to use melted silver for bullets and struck her in her transformed state. She, of course, took ill and died (Schlosser 2005). Another famed shapeshifting creature, however, is not a witch at all, but a Native woman who has been cursed into cat form known as the Wampus Cat (Schlosser 2004). Lest you think that all those who are animagi (to steal a term from Harry Potter) are female, an African American tale speaks of a male witch whose form is that of a boarhog, and who uses his powers of magic and transformation to gain a pretty wife with lots of land. Interestingly, a little boy in the story—often called the “Old Witch Boy”—knows the boarhog witch’s secret and reveals it to the girl’s father, resulting in the death of the hog-witch (Leeming & Page).

Some of the most pervasive and powerful witch-stories of transformation come from the American Southwest. Navajo skinwalker tales abound with narratives about evil witches who could use the pelts of animals to take on different shapes, usually to terrorize outsiders or those they did not like on the reservations. Some accounts claim that the witch who could take on the skin of another creature was the most powerful type of witch, and had mastered what was known as “The Witchery Way.” Such a creature was to be greatly feared, and trade in certain skins and furs was severely limited within Navajo culture. Skinwalkers could be recognized by some of their supernatural abilities, but more especially by their eyes: in animal form, their eyes looked human, and vice versa when in their human form. Nasario Garcia recorded many tales in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and California from people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who reported knowing about or having seen witches that had taken on animal forms, just as skinwalkers do. One story related by a a man who recalled the events of the tale from when he was eight years old told of how his father had been driving an oxcart on a dark night with his son (the narrator) and a few farmhands along with him. Suddenly, two sheep appeared alongside the cart, one white and one black, and simply followed them, always matching pace with the cart. Eventually, they simply disappeared. Many others recorded by Garcia spoke of witches taking on owl forms to travel out by night, or occasionally coyote or dog forms, in which case they seemed to want to bite errant travelers (although never in such a way as to cause permanent injury or death, although most who see these creatures report being terrified).

So just what do witches do once they are transformed? In many of the stories, they seem to be up to no good. The tales of witch-cats often speak of numerous murders or unexplained deaths attributed to the shapeshifting sorcerers in the area. In some tales, witches take on cat forms to sneak into the houses of children and steal their breath (which is obviously related to the superstition about cats stealing babies’ breath). In some cases, the witches seem to be up to mischief, as in the case of Aunty Greenleaf, who likes to lead hunters on wild chases and get them lost, or cause their guns to fail. The loup-garous steals food, or worse, passes its curse on to others, sometimes even drinking the blood of another person to accomplish its nefarious task. The near-universal terror of skinwalkers in the Southwest is attributed to their powers to cause sickness and death as witches, although they seldom seem to kill or even severely maim while in animal form (although there are often reports of animal mutilation later connected to them). Richard Dorson records one tale from the Southwest in which shapeshifting witches seem to threaten each other more than the average person. He speaks of a pair of witches who make a bet about which one is faster in horse form. The loser has to stay a horse, which is accomplished by means of a magical halter. The winning witch sells the loser to a man, whose son accidentally removes the halter, and the witch transforms into a fish and swims away in a nearby river, then continues to transform until he’s a coyote. The coyote is tracked and killed by dogs in the end, and notably the witches have done no harm to anyone but themselves.

Why do shapeshifting witches get a bad rap, then? I would like to suggest that the real uneasiness among those who tell the stories is a fear that witches can be anywhere, and anyone, and just about anything. You never know when you might offend a hidden witch, who could be the cat twitching its tail by the fire or a horse in a pasture across the road. A healthy show of respect (even one tinged with fear) makes for a good insurance policy against the witch’s other fearful talents. Of course, being able to take on animal forms also means that the witch knows just how well you treat the lower orders of species, which might also inspire one to act a little better around the flocks and fields, or to pass an extra dog biscuit to the pooch curled up at your feet. Who knows, that might just be all that stands between you and a rather nasty hex, right?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

Sources:

  1. Davis, Hubert J. 1975. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. Jonathan David Publishers.
  2. Dorson, Richard. 1964. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore. Univ. of Chicago Press.
  3. Dorson, Richard. 1972. Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers. Harvard Univ. Press.
  4. Gainer, Patrick W. 2008. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. West Virginia Univ. Press.
  5. Garcia, Nasario. 2007. Brujerias: Stories of Witchcraft & the Supernatural in the American Southwest & Beyond. Texas Tech Univ. Press.
  6. Leeming, David, and Jake Page. 1999. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America: An Anthology. Oxford Univ. Press.
  7. Lugibihl, Steve. 2001. “The Rougarou: A Louisiana Folklore Legend.” The Nichollsworth. 26 April. Louisiana State University.
  8. Navajo Skinwalker Legend.” 2015. Navajo Legends Website.
  9. Pitre, Glen. 1993. Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. Louisiana State Univ. Press.
  10. Schlosser, S. E. 2004. Spooky South. Globe Pequot Press.
  11. Schlosser, S. E. 2005. Spooky New York. Globe Pequot Press.

Wilby, Emma. 2010. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft, & Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press.

Blog Post 196 – Body Lore & Magic

October 22, 2015

Hans van Hayek, The Fortuneteller, 1892 (via Wikimedia)

“My ears are burning; who’s talking about me?”

“If your nose is itching, someone wants to kiss you.”

“Your feet itch? You must be about to go somewhere.”

I remember my mother often sharing the little bits of proverbial wisdom throughout my childhood.

Usually they were delivered with a wink or a wry smile, and I don’t think she took them particularly seriously, but then she also wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that any one of these tokens had borne some fruit in the real world. If you think about it, assumptions about the intimate connection between a person’s body and the world around him or her are not anything new or unusual. Plenty of people have an uncle whose bunions predict snowstorms, or a grandmother whose arthritis tells of coming rain, or headaches that detect heatwaves moving in. There are plenty of other ways one’s body might help one prepare for a day outdoors, according to American lore:

Beyond those sorts of weather-related phenomena, however, bodies are reputed to be in touch with all sorts of esoteric information. Of course, obtaining pieces of a person’s body is a primary way of gaining magical control over him or her, but that, I fear, goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this brief examination will focus on the body as a giver or receiver of information, rather than a source of spell ingredients. For example, often the physical features of a person imply certain characteristics about their intellect or psychology, according to American lore:

  • A fat person is believed to have a good disposition and a friendly nature
  • A big head can be the sign of great intelligence, provided it’s not too big (which would mean a person of no wit whatsoever)
  • A person with a “long head” is thought to be someone of dubious morality and “unscrupulous” character
  • A person with a broad face is thought to be warm and friendly, while a narrow face indicates shrewdness and insensitivity
  • “Dimple on the chin,/ Devil within” – A dimpled chin indicates a troublemaking personality
  • Long arms indicate someone with a “grasping” nature, someone who will do whatever it takes to geth what he or she wants
  • Trimming a baby’s fingernails will turn it into a thief
  • And of course, cold hands mean a warm heart.

What do all of these sorts of lore have in common, then? They all seem to operate off of the ever-present Doctrine of Signatures, which we’ve seen before, and which fundamentally states that like affects like. By that logic, we can see how things like “broad face” and “big head” can be indicators of abundance with regard to particular character traits (I can only assume that the same sort of logic applies to the “fat person,” in that they have general abundance in their figure and thus must have some in their disposition towards others as well). More interesting are the less direct connections between things like trimming fingernails and later thievery in life. I would suggest that because a baby is supposed to undergo very little “reduction” during the first year or so of life (a period when their hair, body, and in some cases, teeth, are all growing more abundant), that trimming something off of the baby’s hand will make it always look for something to fill the void. That, in turn, might lead the baby to fill it with other people’s things, and thus the fear of thievery is attached to the belief. Makes sense? Coming with me on that one? (It’s fine if you don’t, of course, as these sorts of lore-bits often can have multiple meanings and origins).

Some of my favorite bodily predictors come in the form of love (and lust) lore, because they seem so appropriate to connect to how we experience our fleshly existence. I always heard that if your nose itched, someone wanted to kiss you, as I noted above (which may indicate either a lustful flag of interest if one subscribes to the nose/penis symbolism that some folklorists do, or a simple sense of “rooting out” such a person, as indicated in the paragraph on itching below). Another fairly common bit of folklore says that “a hair in your mouth means someone wants to kiss you.” Hair can have very sexual connotations (which is why it frequently gets associated with sexuality in Abrahamic religions), so its presence in the mouth would be a very reasonable indicator of lustful intent. Another bit of lore deals more with what to do if your paramour wanders off: “Throwing nail parings into a fire is a way to call a lover back to you” (okay, so this is more of a spell, but it does seem as though the nail trimmings are communicating with the other person, so I’m calling it a fit).

Itches or burning sensations on the body are of particular importance, and seem to offer very particular meaning depending on where they occur. Some examples from Kentucky lore:

  • If your ears burn some one is talking ill of you, while if your hand itches you will receive a present, or shake hands with a stranger.
  • If your right foot itches, you are to go on a journey; if the left, you are going where you are not wanted.
  • When your nose itches, some one is coming. If it is when you are away from home, you may know you are wanted at home.
  • If your right eye itches, you will cry; if the left, you will laugh.

Again, we see elements of the Doctrine of Signatures, in that ears receive the voice of others in most circumstances, so if they act in an uncharacteristic manner, they must indicate an unheard voice somewhere out in the world. Feet carry us on journies, of course, so the interesting element in that superstition is the association with particular feet and the type of journey. With the long-standing stigma against “sinister” (the original meaning of that word being “left-sided”) use of limbs, the connection between the left foot and an unpleasant journey makes some sense. The less obvious one is the nose, although we may make some guesses about why a nose would be a barometer for upcoming human contact. We might think of proverbial phrases like “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong” or a “nosy person,” and understand that noses are believed to be the body part which roots for information, particularly about the lives of others, and so the nasal connection does have some precedent.

In Mexican-American folklore, bodily functions are often regulated by “hot” or “cold” natures (not dissimilar from Ayurvedic medicine). Because of those temperature associations, people can figure out important information about a person’s state of well-being based on whether small signs on the body indicate larger imbalances within the person. A great example would be hair, which is thought to be “hot” while it grows. A person whose “heat” dies away quickly, however, will likely begin to go gray, as though his or her vitality were turning to ash on his or her head. Having long hair can also help one lose weight in this estimation, because longer hair burns off more energy, thus depleting the body of its energetic fat stores.

Surprisingly few death omens connected to anything body related. This likely reflects an anxiety that bodily warnings are incredibly frequent and common, and that death should be a rare and unusual occurance, rather than anything commonplace. One of the few bits of bodily lore connected to death has to do with the loss of a limb and its disposal. Supposedly, if one loses a limb through combat or other misfortune, and fails to take off any shoes or other vestments on the detatched extension, the person will experience phantom pains so long as the problem is not corrected.

Vance Randolph collected some interesting lore which borders on a divinatory method using the appearance of spots on fingernails:

“White spots on fingernails are supposed to represent lies, and little boys often hide their hands to avoid betraying falsehoods. However, there is a fortunetelling rhyme children use when counting these white spots :

A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, A letter to come, a journey to go.

Some people say that a large white spot means a journey.”

These sorts of counting-out rhymes often figure in children’s play, sometimes as a means of selecting play partners and sometimes with more occult connotations, as in the spot-counting rhyme above. Why white spots should indicate lies remains open to interpretation, but if I had to guess I’d assume that the spots are thought to be the actual lies trapped beneath the glass-like surface of the nail, demonstrating that lies always come up for air, sooner or later.

I’ll close today with a little tidbit from a somewhat older book (originally published in England, but likely in circulation throughout the British colonies), which is devoted to divination via dreams and moles on the body. The entire second half of the pamphlet is about moles and their meanings, and often provides startlingly specific and inalienable interpretations of mole size, shape, and position. One such indicator: “If a Mole is on the crown of the head, it shews another on the nape of the neck, and the party witty, and to have good natural parts: but that he will die poor.” I would say that indicates that a pair of moles is a bit of a mixed bag, wouldn’t you? I think I’ll go back to being a bit heavyset and being perceived as friendly, then.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Sources:

  1. Bronner, Simon J. Explaining Traditions. 2011.
  2. Bronner, Simon J. American Children’s Folklore. 2006.
  3. “Dreams & Moles, with their Interpretation & Signification.” Published by the Royal Society of London, 1750.
  4. Dundes, Alan. Interpreting Folklore. 1980.
  5. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois. 1935.
  6. Ingham, John M. “On Mexican Folk Medicine.” American Anthropologist. 17, (1): 76-87.
  7. Price, Sadie F. “Kentucky Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore. 14, (52): 30-38.
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. 1964.
  9. Smith, Grace. “Folklore from ‘Egypt.’” Hoosier Folklore. 5, (2): 45-70.

Blog Post 195 – Old Betty Booker and Witch Bridles

July 13, 2015

John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1781 – via Wikimedia)

Author’s Note: This post is largely based on material I gathered for an entry in the upcoming ABC-CLIO three-volume series, American Myths, Legends, & Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore. The views and lore presented here, however, do not explicitly reflect the views of that publisher, and are entirely my own.

American history—and more generally, legend—contains its share of witches. In most cases, we hear or read about a witch at the receiving end of a lot of harsh accusations: milk stealing, poisoning livestock, and so forth. Not infrequently, however, a witch’s story takes a slightly different turn, and she becomes something more like a protagonist than a villain, albeit one with shades of gray around her morals. One of the best examples of just such a story is from rural nineteenth-century Maine, and it tells of a woman named “Old Betty Booker,” who gets a bit of a raw deal from a local captain and brings the full brunt of her witchcraft to bear on him for a bit of gleeful justice. The account below is found in Benjamin Botkin’s collection, A Treasury of New England Folklore:

HOW OLD BETTY BOOKER RODE SKIPPER PERKINS DOWN TO YORK

These two skippers, Mitchell and Perkins, were both Kittery salts, but of the two Skipper Perkins was the worst curried. Old Betty Booker wanted some fish, and she suggested her need to the skipper, “Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper, when you git in—.”

“Show me your sixpence, ma’am,” was the thrifty reply.
And with an ill-boding scowl, and a shake of—
“Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
And nose of a hawk, and eyes like a snake,”

She watched the skipper sail away. The sea beat him up and down. The gale tore his sails, and the fish sheered away from his trawls. His men got sick, and his schooner came home poorer than she went. Then it got bruited about that Betty Booker was making a witch-bridle for the skipper, and was going to ride him down to York some wild night, whereat, the skipper, when it came to his ears, got into a mortal terror. He was sure to be at home, always, before dusk; and his doors were barred double, and he quaked and shivered and shook until the sun came up. Finally Betty sent the skipper word that the first stormy night she would ride him to York…

[H]e waited for Betty Booker; nor was she long in coming. An unearthly wail came down the wind, and there was a scratching of a hundred witch-claws on his door, and above all sounded the cracked notes of Betty Booker’s voice—

“Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper!”…

With the cry of the hag, the gale rose higher, and with rougher buffetings it smote the old door that was built to look out on the sea; and then it began to open so the skipper felt a spatter of rain on his face. He heard the wild chatter of the witches, but he still held to his pushing, until he felt himself sliding along the rough floor. He made a leap for his bed, winding himself about in its coverings; the door flew open and in trooped the witches. They pounced upon the skipper, and stripped him to his skin; and while he cowered in his fear, old Betty bridled him and got upon his back, while the other witches climbed upon hers, and off they raced through the gale to York Harbor. When he lagged, they pricked him with their claws to make him go faster; and so they rode him as long as they wished, to get him back to Kittery before cock-crow, more dead than alive.

“Don’t say sixpence, skipper, to a poor old woman again,” was Betty booker’s parting admonition, as she and her familiars vanished into the mists of the darkest part of the night.

After that the skipper took to his bed, where for three weeks he nursed his wounds and told his story to his neighbors.

Botkin reports that the legend of Old Betty Booker may have been in some part based in real witchcraft performed in the York area, or at least in the practice of regional and maritime folk magic. He notes that one of the Kittery houses was torn down and inside a “witch-bridle” was found, composed of horsehair, tow, and yellow birch. Witch-bridles were thought to be a tool essentially similar in design a horse’s bridle, which a witch could slip over the head and into the mouth of a person or animal to force it to do her bidding. Accounts from both sides of the Atlantic describe situations in which witches use the bridles to force someone (or in some instances, a neighbor’s horse or other livestock) to become a mode of transport for the witch. Belief in witch-bridling was widespread during the Colonial era, and the phenomenon even appeared during the infamous witch trials of Salem. As a mode of transportation, they are coequal to flying ointments and broomsticks in most accounts. In the collection of Irish folktales assembled by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, similar stories of spectral bridling pepper legends of witches. George Lyman Kittredge’s Witchcraft in Old and New England contains an account of a man bridled in the same way as Skipper Perkins. In almost all instances, the victim remains aware of what is happening throughout the ride, but his or her memories of the event quickly fade in the morning, leaving only bruises and a battered, weary body as proof of any supernatural occurrence. The folk phenomenon of “hag riding,” which has been linked to sleep apnea and sleep paralysis in modern medical diagnosis, may offer some explanations to the stories behind the malady, if one is inclined to make such connections (I personally tend to keep the two ideas only loosely connected for my purposes, and try not to make assumptions about medical conditions two centuries hence without at least entertaining the supernatural explanation with equal credence). A person under the influence of the witch-bridle felt no control of his or her body, but remained lucid and felt the pressure of someone on top of him or her. In the medical phenomenon of sleep paralysis, sufferers report a feeling like a great weight on their bodies and an inability to control their limbs, which very much resembles the conditions described in the folklore (see Baughman motif G241.2 “Witch rides a person”).

Possibly my favorite element of the Betty Booker story is its clear assumption that Booker is not out of order for her treatment of Perkins. The story seems to recognize that Booker is in a vulnerable position in the community, and that Perkins is not doing his duty by acting in such a miserly way. Women like Old Betty provided social good in some ways, selling outbound sailors magical charms to raise winds or prevent drowning. For example, cords with knots tied in them could be used to raise winds on a becalmed ship, and dried cauls (amniotic sacs which sometimes surround a baby’s head after birth) taken from newborn infants were alleged to protect sailors from drowning. Widowed women and social outcasts were particularly susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft. In stories like that of Old Betty, witches were seen as a form of moral enforcement. The sailor’s miserly behavior goes counter to acceptable standards, and even the structure of the narrative seems to blame him for the misfortunes that follow. Maine witches in other stories often have righteous retribution as motivation for their occult activities. In one tale, a witch named Emma Alley gets slighted by a fish boat skipper in much the same way as Old Betty Booker, and curses him for his stinginess, which results in him not catching anything else for the remainder of the season.

Old Betty is associated with several other witches who lived in the “Brimstone Hill” area of Kittery, namely Mary Greenland and a woman named “Aunt” Polly Belknap. She may also have taken on other names during her tenure as resident witch, including Betsy Booker, Easter Booker (who is also referred to as Esther Booker and associated with a woman named Betty Potter, further adding to the confusion) or a character called “Black Dinah,” who reputedly used weather-pans in her magic and dowsed for buried treasure. According to George Alexander Emery, Old Betty’s home was on the land between Kittery and York, marked by “a stone wall extending north-west and south-east,” on which she and a companion raised a meager patch of vegetables and some chickens. An 1896 newspaper account from the Boston Evening Transcript recounts the Skipper Perkins story, but attributes the storm-raising and subsequent torments directed against the captain to a witch named Hetty Moye, and relocates the narrative to within fifty miles of Boston (to be fair, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820, so the fine line between one state and the other can be muddled in tales from the early-to-mid nineteenth century).

Witch Woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

None of this is to say that Old Betty comes out with a completely clean nose in all narratives. Other tales associate her firmly with diabolical activities. In one story, she allegedly dances with the devil out on the village green to fiddle music on moonlit nights. Additionally, witches were believed to have control over weather and storms by using devices such as “weather-pans,” which a sorceress would heat up over a fire to release a tempest out at sea.

In at least one account, however, I find it extremely heartening that a witch comes out very well, even dispensing a bit of needed justice without doing too much serious harm in the process. That seems much better than days spent stealing milk or blighting cattle, in my opinion, which are often ways in which a witch might express her ire in folklore. What do you make of Old Betty? Is she the sort of witch you would include in your spiritual ancestry as an American witch? Or do you see her story as just another sensational portrayal with a slightly positive twist?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES:

  1. Beck, Horace P. 1957. The Folklore of Maine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  2. Bliss, William Root. 1893. The Old Colony and Other Sketches. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  3. Botkin, Benjamin, ed. 1947. A Treasury of New England Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers.
  4. Dorson, Richard M. 1946. Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
  5. Dorson, Richard M. 1964. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
  6. Emery, George Alexander. 1873. The Ancient City of Georgiana and the Modern Town of York (Maine) from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Boston: G.A. Emery.
  7. Gregory, Isabella Augusta, and William Butler Yeats. 1988. A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, & Folklore. New York: Gramercy.
  8. Kittredge, George Lyman. 1956. Witchcraft in Old and New England. New York: Russell & Russell.
  9. Muise, Peter. “The Witch Bridle: Ride ‘Em Cowgirl!” New England Folklore Blog. April 10, 2010.
  10. Sylvester, Herbert M. 1909. Maine Pioneer Settlements: Old York. Boston: W.B. Clarke Co.

“Witchcraft Today: The Belief in Supernatural Feats in a New England Town.” Oct. 10, 1896. Boston Evening Transcript.

Blog Post 194 – Plugging (Healing with Trees)

March 30, 2015

Kirkridge Shelter sign, Appalachian Trail near Fox Gap, Monroe and Northampton Counties. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli (Wikimedia)

Exploring American folk magic means looking under lots of stones, poking about in the weeds on the roadside, and scaring furry little critters out of their hiding spots as we try to discover the methods that have been used to solve problems throughout the years. Whether it’s using potatoes to cure warts or making your spare change break an incoming hex, the techniques of folk magic demonstrate a masterful application of resources at hand to get the results a body needs. Which brings me to the subject of this article, the practice of “plugging” to heal disease.

Largely found in the mountain regions of America, although it also appears in a few other places as well, the basic practice of plugging consists of measuring a person against a tree, boring a hole in the tree, then filling and stuffing the hole (or “plugging” it, obviously). Some folks also call the practice “pegging” rather than “plugging,” since the bored out chunk of tree forms a natural peg (and since the image of a peg may have a more biblical connotation to some practitioners, since a tent peg is used in the Book of Judges to kill an enemy of the Israelites). Once the person measured against the tree grows past the height of the hole, he or she should be cured of the disease. Of course, this means that the person must still be growing, which essentially means this method is used to help children with chronic illness rather than adults. There are a few variants in the practice, which we’ll get to, and some of those provide relief for adults, but for now let’s look at some of the typical examples:

“Drill a hole in a black oak or sourwood tree just above the head of the victim [of asthma], and put a lock of his hair in the hole. When he passes that spot in height, he will be cured. (Another person told us that if the person died, the tree would also.)” –Foxfire Book, p. 231

This is probably the most basic version of the method, although it is more specific about the tree than many versions. For the most part, the remedies simply say “a tree,” although some will indicate a preferred species to affect a cure. One Southern spell says that “chills can be driven away by boring a deep hole in the sunny side of an oak tree, blowing your breath into it, and plugging up the hole, with the result that the tree dies” (Botkin, Treasury of Southern Folklore, p. 630). Variants from the Foxfire 40th Anniversary book also say you can do the remedy with a black gum tree, and interestingly, you can use a detached form of the plugging remedy: “Take a sourwood stick the size [height] of the child when he’s two or three years old. Put it in the top of the house where it won’t get wet. When the child outgrows the stick, the asthma will be gone. This also works for hay fever, and some say it can be done with any “dry stick” by placing it “under the doorstep” (p. 349). The last examples show that the power to heal is not directly tied to a living tree, but simply to the qualities of wood, since the twigs are detached form their trunk before use in the spell.

Plugging is hardly an Appalachian phenomenon, however. A bit of lore from Indiana is very similar to the mountain method: “Measure the baby’s height on a tree and make a hole at this point in the tree. Then cut off a lock of the baby’s hair and put it in the hole. When the bark of the tree grows so as to cover the place, the baby will be well” (Grace Smith, “Folklore from ‘Egypt’,” p. 70). John George Hohman reports a version of plugging which resembles the detached plugging in the sourwood stick example above: “Cut three small twigs from a tree — each to be cut off in one cut — rub one end of each twig in the wound, and wrap them separately in a piece of white paper, and put them in a warm and dry place” (Hohman, Long-lost Friend). One collection of lore from Louisiana is rife with examples of plugging:

379. To cure a child of asthma stand him up by a post and lay a knife on his head and run it into the post. When the child grows above this knife he will no longer have asthma.
380. Negroes cure asthma by taking some of the victim’s hair, tying it up in red flannel, and putting it in the crack of the door.
381. To cure a child of asthma stand him up against a tree and bore a hole just above his head. Into this hole put some of the child’s hair and then stop it up. When the child grows above the hair he will no longer have the asthma.
382. To cure a child of croup stand him up against a tree and run a knife through his hair into the tree burying some of his hair. When the child grows above the hair he will no longer have the croup…
385. A way to cure croup is to bore a hole in the wall behind a door at the height of the child’s head. Put some of the child’s hair into the hole and cork it up. The child will no longer have croup…
389. To keep a child from having whooping-cough take him to a house that is just being built, stand him against the wall, and bore a small hole in it just above his head. Then put some of his hair into it, plug up the hole, and cut the hair off. As he grows above this he will not have the whooping-cough. (Hilda Roberts, “Louisiana Superstitions”)

Many of these are in “Superstitions from Oregon,” by Donald Hines, demonstrating that the practice is hardly a unilocal one. Henry Middleton Hyatt recorded dozens of incidents of plugging in his “Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois” collection. One such example somewhat resembles the practice of plugging without the use of a tree mentioned in the collection above:

  1. “If you have asthma, take and stand the person up against a door — the door must be an outside door — bore a hole in the door at the top of their head, save the sawdust, then put a lock of their hair in this hole, then the sawdust, then the plug. When the person grows above that hole, they will be well. Do you see that hole in the kitchen door over there? Well, that is where we tried this on my niece, and she got well.” (Hyatt).

The use of the wall or door as a substitute for a tree may stem from the fact that—at least in most homes prior to very recent times—these objects would have all been made of wood, and so might have retained the general properties of trees. Since it is unlikely that those doing the boring would know exactly what wood their walls or doors are made of (although in some older cases they might have known), I think this demonstrates the point that the type of tree used for the cure was less important than the fact that it was a tree.

While a number of these techniques do specifically apply to children, in some cases the practice was extended to adult patients as well. In several of Hyatt’s examples, plugging is used to cure excessive bleeding without any relationship to the patient’s growth:

  1. Profuse bleeding in a horse is stopped by boring a hole into a tree, putting in it some of the blood, and plugging up the hole with a wooden peg.”
  2. To check a bleeding caused by a cut, bore a hole into a soft maple tree and plug up in this hole some of the blood”

In this pair of examples, we can see a general sympathetic magical principle at work, since the stopping of the hole represents the stopping of the wound, and the symbolic transfer of the hurt to the tree. In many cases, the plugging action creates a symbiotic enchantment between the patient and the tree. Several accounts claim that if the tree sickens and dies at some point in the future, so will the person healed by its intervention.

Healing is not always the aim of the plugging, either. One Appalachian plugging says, “When you pull a tooth, drive it in an apple tree, and good luck will follow” (Gainer, 125). Likewise, the healing accomplished in some cases may not be physical, but mental. Some Appalachian lore says that putting hair from a recent haircut under a rock will prevent headaches, a sort of form of plugging (probably because birds can’t get the hair and weave it into their nests, which is believed to cause headaches or madness). Surprisingly, plugging has received little attention as a magical practice (although I somewhat suspect that its lack of marketability and a general inclination against drilling holes in things in the modern age have something to do with that). I hope this brief glimpse into the practice gives readers a chance to explore plugging a bit further, as we really only have the very tip of a rather large iceberg here. If you have additional information on plugging you’d like to share, we’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory


%d bloggers like this: