Entry 237 – Mushrooms

Fungi in folklore and folk magic

Animated GIF of mushrooms growing and decaying
image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson
(use under CC 2.0 license)

Readers, I am probably not the person you want to invite to parties. Unless you happen to be playing Trivial Pursuit at your gathering, I’m inclined to become unnecessarily excited by any subject an unwary guest might bring up in a casual manner, and then—well, it’s all over. I’ll go on an infodumping share that can be, frankly, a lot. 

One of the topics that’s sure to send me on such a tear is mushrooms. I have had a long-standing love of fungi ever since my youth. They were a favorite food growing up (along with spinach, and again, I am quite an oddity I know). They went into Italian pasta sauces, topped mashed potatoes in sautéed form, were a prime pairing on my favorite pizzas (along with pepperoni), and made a perfect substitute for French fries when fried and served with a horseradish cream sauce.

A little over a year ago, I read Merlin Sheldrake’s astoundingly good book, Entangled Life, which looks at the simply unfathomable ways that fungi impact the world in which we live. They are essentially why plants can and do live on land, provide a sort of organic internet between organisms of vastly different species, reshape our brains in both positive and terrifying ways, and lead to violent conflicts among truffle hunters in France (please do not kill dogs over mushrooms, even fancy ones). 

I’ve also long known there were a few connections between fungi and the world of witchcraft. One of my favorite witch stories, “Meadowsweet’s Red Chaplet,” by Robin Artisson, is sparked by an experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms. The best example of this is the Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric or red-cap mushroom. It’s ubiquitous in fairy tale illustrations with its ruddy top and white spots (and even makes a major pop culture appearance in video games via the Super Mario franchise, which does make you wonder just how real our favorite plumber’s adventures are). There are speculations that Amanita was an ingredient in witches’ flying ointments (and I’ve used some very good flying oil made by Sarah Lawless which included it as an ingredient–you should also consider listening to our interview with her on folklore and fungi from last year, too). It most certainly produced hallucinogenic effects in those who consumed it (although it can also cause violent vomiting, too). Some research suggests it was a major component of the shamanistic practices of the Northern European indigenous tribes like the Sami, too, although it is worth remembering that many of the claims about fly agaric’s ubiquitous use and powers are overstretched or impositions from the present onto the past. But red-capped agaric mushrooms do make appearances in witch lore at times. For example, I’ve identified a pair of stories from Irish and Appalachian lore that seem to point to the use of fly agaric in witch flight there, too (I write about it in my book, New World Witchery, as well).

Today, though, I want to look at some of the other mushrooms that show up in folk magic and lore, because when is it not a good time to talk about fungi? (the answer is: trick question, it is always a good time to talk about fungi).

Probably the mushroom most directly associated with folklore and magic other than the fly agaric/Amanita red-cap would be the “toadstool.” This is a bit of a misnomer, as a toadstool is a folk name given to several different broad-capped mushrooms (including Amanita at times). The name, which implies an affinity with toads of course, may also contribute a bit to some toadstool lore. In fact, a bit of lore from the Frank C. Brown collection notes that “The handling of large species of toadstool, sometimes popularly called ‘wart-toadstool,’ will cause warts to grow on the part of the hand coming in contact with it” (p. 311).  Toadstools and toads are not particularly likely to give you warts, but the shaggy wart-like appearance of toadstool spots likely influences the sympathetic magical thinking here. 

Toadstools also appear frequently in fairy lore, often influenced by Victorian ideas about fairies as diminutive creatures who might use such natural items as tables, umbrellas, or, of course, stools to sit on. Seventeenth century proto-science fiction author Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish once wrote a poem in which the Queen of Fairies used a toadstool as a banquet table, for example. Dancing or laying in a fairy ring of mushrooms was a surefire way to end up in the Otherworld, or catch the attention of the Good Folk. One of the most famous “Otherworld” journeys in literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass) feature the use of mushrooms to change size, although it is possible that author Lewis Carroll did not intend any psychedelic or magical connotations in his stories. 

One other bit of lore about toadstools, however, gives them a slightly divinatory property. According to lore found in the mountainous regions of southeastern North America (such as the Ozarks and Appalachians), the appearance of toadstools predicts rain. Vance Randolph even says that the “sudden appearance” of such mushrooms is a “sure sign” that rain will come within the next twelve hours (p. 17).

Illustration of four puffball mushrooms
The common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), sometimes called “devil’s snuffbox” in folklore
image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson
(use under CC 2.0 license)

Another mushroom that makes frequent folkloric appearances is one known as a “puffball” or sometimes a “devil’s snuffbox.” This is usually the common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), although it can be one of a few look-alike species as well. One account of lore collected in Georgia links the term “toadstool” with this mushroom, showing how folk terminology can sometimes apply to a wide variety of species:

“A toadstool is called the Devil’s snuff-box, and the Devil’s imps come at midnight to get the snuff. In the morning you can tell when the imps have been for the snuff, as you will find the toadstool broken off and scattered about. The snuff is used as one of the ingredients of a ‘cunjur-bag.’” 

The “snuff” here are the powdery spores from within the puffball mushroom. If you’ve ever touched a mature puffball, you’ll know these spores can spray out in jets of powdery dust, which is the fungus trying to make more of itself. The snuff-powder clearly draws the influence and attention of devils and imps, which makes me think that the implication here is that these spirits will treat the conjure bag like a kitten would a catnip filled toy. By offering them something they want, they might be compelled to do whatever task the bag was created for.

Another bag-based spell makes use of a toadstool called “frog bread” (possibly also “frog’s bread” or “frog’s breath” based on a later entry in the same volume of lore, which also seems to indicate this is an immature form of the puffball mushroom, too). This fungus gets sewn into a sack with a frog (possibly alive, but most likely dead/preserved) along with a few other ingredients like pins, hair, and finger or toenails. In the narrative account, this bundle was then put into the bed of a woman who was suffering from a wasting sickness of some kind, and it evidently revived her enough that she was “jumping” from the bed (although this may just be the informant having some fun at the expense of Hyatt and playing off the idea of a “frog” cure making someone jump).  (pp. 72-3).

Mushrooms also have a place within the healing work of at least one curandera, a woman known as Maria Sabina from Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico. She used psilocybin mushrooms during nighttime rituals, referring to both the mushrooms and the spirits with whom they connected her as “spirit children.” These rituals would likely have involved dealing with disorders such as susto, a sort of semi-catatonic state requiring a person’s soul to be reintegrated with their body. Unfortunately, Maria Sabina was “discovered” by an American anthropologist named R. Gordon Wasson, who then drove a sort of frenzy of celebrities in the 1960s to her doorstep, eventually overwhelming her and destroying her ability to do her curandera work with the fungi any more. 

Illustration of mushroom growing kit from North Spore company
My family has no idea what they’ve done…
image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson
(use under CC 2.0 license)

Fungi have a lot to offer us, but they remind us that every boon comes with its potential bane, too. In my case, my obsession with mushrooms has grown more intense since reading Sheldrake’s book, and I’ve started identifying wild mushrooms on walks. I’ve had the privilege to read an advance copy of Nathan Hall’s The Path of the Moonlit Hedge in which the author recommends a ritual for connecting with local fungi as an animistic practice, something I’m deeply interested in trying. My family, in what can only be described as a fit of folly which they will almost certainly regret, purchased some at-home growing kits for oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms over the holidays. Already I speak to my beautiful boxes of inoculated sawdust and mycelia daily. This will not end well, I fear (although hopefully with less mind control and zombification than in other mycelium-laced stories like Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us video game series).

But possibly I will convince a few of you to give mushrooms a second look when it comes to magic. They are a part of the deep history of earth, and they transcend the boundaries imposed on them. They connect with the realms of dreams and madness and death and hunger, and send shivers of flight and transformation through us (if they don’t kill us first). They are, in a word, magic.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

REFERENCES

  1. Artisson, Robin, ed. “Meadowsweet’s Red Chaplet,” in The House that Cerrith Built (CreateSpace, 2016). 
  2. Dugan, Frank M. “Fungi, Folkways, & Fairy Tales.” North American Fungi. January 2008.
  3. Hand, Wayland, ed. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Vol. VI (Duke Univ. Press, 1961).
  4. Hyatt, Harry M. Hoodoo–Conjuration–Witchcraft–Rootwork, vol.I (Witches Almanac Press, 2021).
  5. Jay, Mike. “Fungi, Folklore, & Fairyland.The Public Domain Review. 7 October 2020.
  6. Lawless, Sarah. BaneFolk (website). Accessed 3 January 2023.
  7. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover Pub., 1964).
  8. Serflac (username). “Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico.” Atlas Obscura. 8 September 2011.
  9. Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life (Random House, 2021).
  10. Steiner, Roland. “Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia.” Journal of Americal Folklore, vol. 12, no. 47 (1899), pp. 261-71.

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Blog Post 236 – Chocolate

It’s getting to be the time of year when we start stockpiling a hoard of sugary treats, most of which will be making it into the plastic pumpkin pails of princesses, pigmen, and pirates. Alternatively, many sweet delights will soon be festooning gingerbread constructions as roof tiles or patio pavers, as well. By which I mean it is, of course, Halloween-to-Yuletide season, a prime time for candy, especially CHOCOLATE!

This holiday gets a lot of attention for its connection to various death festivals, guising, and deals with the darkness, but I thought I’d briefly look at an aspect of the shadowy season with a sweeter side. I’m mostly going to focus on chocolate—largely because it’s a food indigineous to the Americas but also because it’s just yummy—but I will also detour a bit into sugar-based folk magic and lore as well. We covered some of these elements on a special episode for our Patreon followers a year or so ago (a sort of “dessert” episode for our Cornucopia of Magic show), but there’s still lots of good stuff I had to leave on the plate even back then.

Image of a cup of hot cocoa surrounded by cocoa beans and a molinillo
In Mesoamerican culture, cocoa was used as a ceremonial drink and was almost exclusively brewed by women.

I’ll start with a bit of the better-known but still endlessly fascinating lore of the cocoa bean. Many people know that it was used as a strong drink even long before we started piling tiny marshmallows into steamy mugs. The Aztecs and Mayans both brewed it for use in domestic life and rituals, often using a specific device called an molinillo to stir the unsweetened beverage into a heated froth. Importantly, in parts of Mesoamerican civilization, the brewing of cocoa was reserved for women, and through that association (and the frail fears of insecure men) sometimes accusations of witchcraft would surface. In one case, a construction worker believed his wife was using magical poisons on him to make him more complacent, because he suddenly found himself compelled to make the morning chocolate drink for both himself and his wife. He went to local Inquisition authorities, also noting that he could no longer, um, “stir his cocoa” in other ways, and they responded by claiming “All this cannot be a natural thing,” and sending his wife, Cecilia, to jail. Mixing magical ingredients into cocoa seems to have been a common fear, but not without foundation, as at least one recorded curandera recommended that a woman named Doña Luisa de Gálvez wash her nether regions and then use the water to brew her husband’s cocoa. She had a good reason, though, since Doña Luisa’s husband was apparently physically abusive.

In another case, a woman named María de Santa Inés (also called “La Panecito,” or “the little bun/pastry”) was thought to serve her enemies with pastries stuffed with chocolate, leading them to act out of character.

Chocolate was long regarded with fascination and suspicion by Europeans, and eventually became associated with concepts of decadence and luxury. Through that connection, it also became associated with concepts of “sin,” as evidenced by treats such as “death by chocolate cake” or “devil’s food cake” (Watts).  That connection between the indulgent nature of chocolate was also what led to suspicions among Catholic priests and Church officials during the days of Colonial subjugation of the Indigenous peoples. As the Inquisition spread among these Colonizers, the connections between women, chocolate, and poisoning and magic became a frequent focal point of legal and ecclesiastical trials, such as the cases of Cecila, Doña Luisa, and Maria de Santa Ines.

Illustration of two women in a dorm. One feeds fudge to another. A Vassar pendant hangs on the wall behind them.
Women attending colleges like Vassar in the 19th and early 20th centuries were known to have illicit “fudge parties” where they socialized and made pans of chocolate fudge.

Mesoamerican women weren’t the only ones to be associated with wrongdoing because of chocolate, either. It turns out that a number of young women at schools like Vassar in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would hold illicit “fudge parties,” at which they would use heating lamps to bake up trays of fudge in their dorm rooms. There are legends that link Vassar alum Emelyn Battersby Hartridge (class of 1892) to the creation of fudge in the first place. The late-night snacking was officially forbidden but the young ladies made so much fudge that eventually, schools like Vassar became famous for their chocolatey treat. The fudge parties had the air of a seance at times, with one New York Times article describing them as “sitting on sofa cushions…in a mystic circle around an alcohol stove, from which the odor of ‘fudge’ rises like incense.” The food became a symbol of education and liberation among college women during the late Victorian period.

The power of chocolate is not only in its taste, however, as any realtor knows. Frequently, they will bake a tray of chocolate chip cookies in a home they are trying to sell. It provides a nice treat during an open house, of course, but the scent of sugar and chocolate in the air adds a sense of domestic bliss and is thought to stimulate feelings of joy and pleasure among prospective buyers. Draja Mickaharic mentions a similar trick in his Spiritual Cleansing and recommends burning a blend of sugar (usually brown sugar) along with spices like cinnamon and clove to create a happy atmosphere in a home. Using a bit of brewing cocoa could help add a sense of uplift, warmth, and coziness to a space relatively easily. That meaning also appears in the lore of dreams, with the famed Aunt Sally’s Policy Player’s Dream Book saying that a nighttime vision of chocolate “fortells good health and a happy life.” I’ve found that drinking an infusion of cocoa, cinnamon, and chili peppers with a touch of honey before bed seems to stimulate dreaming for me (although your magical mileage may vary).

Halloween is hardly the only holiday we associate with sweets and chocolate, either. We all know about the cookies of Yuletide or the candy in heart-shaped boxes on Valentine’s, or even the molded chocolate bunnies (shudder) we find at Eastertide. In 1922, however, Cleveland, Ohio began observing another sugar-infused holiday called “Sweetest Day.”  The story goes that an employee of a local candy company thought there needed to be a day when people would take treats and spend time with the “forgotten” of society in order to add some sweetness to their lives. The employee, allegedly a man named Herbert Birch Kingston, would visit the elderly or orphans and bring them little tokens and treats to lighten up their day. The holiday caught on and became a local favorite for a while. Even silent screen starlet Theda Bera got in on the act, reportedly delivering ten thousand boxes of chocolates to hospital patients. It’s celebrated on the third Saturday in each October, which puts it right up against Halloween, but adds an element of community care to the mix that makes it quite sweet indeed (Watts).

Because of chocolate’s status as a luxury item introduced late to Europe, the magical lore connected with it among Europeans and European Americans tends to be more recent. A widespread belief among people in the twentieth century (and even today) claims that chocolate is a potent aphrodisiac. While some investigations have found it can have stimulating and circulatory-improving effects (which might indirectly influence some people’s sexual interest or performance), there’s not a direct 1:1 connection that is scientifically observable. That doesn’t stop it from being associated with sex and romance, of course, and we still see plenty of people offering up their paramours decadent chocolate treats to cap off a sensual meal (and there’s always the traditional heart-shaped cardboard box stuffed with a variety of filled chocolates on Valentine’s Day, although you can frankly keep that weird mint flavored one).

Illustration of three chocolate kiss-type candies. Their labels say SATOR, AREPO, and TENET. The background resembles chocolate bar pieces.
Chocolate’s extreme moldability makes it ideal for figural magic.

One of chocolate’s other advantages is its extreme moldability. Acquiring a silicone or plastic mold in almost any shape makes creating magical effigies very simple, and if you’re using chocolate to make a magical treat the shape can be matched to the intention very easily. Similarly, filling a piping bag with chocolate makes for an easy way to write magical words that can then be consumed by the intended subject of the spell. Thus, if you were trying to bring some romance into your life, you might create a heart shape, fill it with your name and a few words describing an ideal lover or partner, and consume that before heading out on the town for the night (or, in more recent years, before browsing your Tindr or Grindr app). You could also try carrying little “kiss” style chocolates with your phone number on the paper flag (or other interesting spells) as something to hand out to potential partners.

And, of course, if you just want to make your words a little sweeter, having a bit of chocolate before any situation seems to help. Because at least you just had chocolate, right?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 234 – Folk Magic on the Job

Occupational folklore and magic from jobs including athletes, merchants, sailors, sex workers, actors, and more

Or, “Occupational Folk Magic”

Recently a friend of mine (Kathleen Borealis of Borealis Meditations) shared this image on Twitter:

Screen capture saying “This is 100% @newworldwitchery Is there a study of these?” Further screen capture features two posts:
1. Sometimes people try to tell me that scientists are paragons of rationality and I have to break it to them that I have yet to work in a lab that didn’t have at least one secret shrine in it.”
2. “New guy: why is all of the equipment in this room covered in toys?
me: don’t touch those
New guy: says nothing
Me: they need the toys to function. If they don’t all have toys they get jealous.”


Even the most supposedly rational among us—scientists—are, in the end, human. That means that we are prone to seeing the world through the lens of our own beliefs and folklore even when we don’t rationally believe something. We hedge our bets, because it can’t hurt to treat the electron microscope like a finicky child or say “good morning” to the Petri dishes or explain our problems to the rubber coding duck on our workstation. We might not sincerely believe any of that has a real effect, but we do at least *do* those actions, because they mean something to us at some level.

I also recently wrote a mini piece on Instagram about the importance of recognizing who the “folk” were in the folk communities from which you dip the bucket of your magic. I talked about the communities of “kinship,” which are the ones we most often think of because they relate to family, ethnicity, and even geography to some extent. But it’s important to remember that when we share an occupation with others, that makes us a part of a folk group as well. Those folk ties are called communities of “practice,” because we all share actions and behaviors. Think here of being in school—you very likely had a LOT of folklore you shared with classmates about school legends (what was in that lunch meat, anyway?), games (such as fortune-telling folded paper “cootie catchers”), and even nicknames (whether you wanted them or not). You weren’t likely related by blood to most of your classmates, although you may have had a cousin or two, perhaps. You did share geography, so there’s a bit of kinship, but what bonded you was your status as a “student,” which also separated you from other folk groups in the school like “teachers” or even “parents.” Likewise, the “students” might subdivide into groups like “athletes” or “theatre kids” (my group). And even then, there might be “swim team” versus “cheerleaders” or “actors” versus “tech crew.”

So what do these divisions have to do with magic? Well, each folk group generally comes up with its own folk beliefs, and those folk beliefs are often the root of the practices that become magic in the group. When you have an occupation that takes up a good quarter to a third of your waking hours, those groups become incredibly important and the magic you share with those groups can be some of the most relevant magic you do.

Today, I wanted to look at a couple of occupations and their folk magic, so we can see how membership in these folk groups shapes the way the magic works.

Illustration of a baseball mitt next to a cheese sandwich

Athletes
Since I mentioned school athletes already (and we happen to be in the midst of an Olympic season), let’s begin there. One of the best academic explorations of folk magic in occupations is George Gmelch’s essay “Baseball Magic,” in which the anthropologist looks at the superstitions and rituals of various baseball players. For example, one infielder maintained a ritual of keeping a cheese sandwich in his back pocket in order to ensure his performance would remain consistent throughout a game. This might seem strange, but usually these rituals are borne from observing when a particularly remarkable streak of luck strikes and asking “what was different this time?” So when Wade Boggs noticed that he got multiple hits in his rookie season on the days he ate chicken before a game, he adopted that as a magical practice and ate chicken as often as possible before games. Objects in baseball and other sports can also be seen as animate and empowered. Honus Wagner believed, for example, that every bat only had one hundred hits (he admittedly played when wooden bats were the norm). If batting was going poorly, managers might rattle the bats in the dugout in an effort to “wake them up.” Even the hats players wear can become magical, as seen in the “rally cap” ritual where players off the field will turn their hats upside down and inside out (or “bill up”) to reverse bad luck during a game. Hats are also a central concern of rodeo riders, who won’t wear a new hat for a competition for fear of bad luck. Many also have a preferred “lucky hat” they wear only when riding competitively. Racing drivers have rules about not turning wheels in a parked car (similar to rules about not rocking an empty cradle) and not thing a picture right before a race, as either could lead to a dangerous or deadly crash. There are some sexist practices about racers’ wives not being allowed in the pit or being forbidden to wear green to a race to stave off bad luck, too, but then they also generally avoid eating peanuts in the pit for the same reason (Penrod). Some other magical beliefs in the world of athletics:

  • Most athletes won’t shave right before a game, for fear it will remove their luck
  • Batters (in baseball) and boxers will both spit in their hands to increase their strength during a game or match
  • Some athletes will wear a snakeskin around their waist to add strength or agility to their performance during a game (this is easier in the era of wearing snakeskin belts)
  • Seeing white horses or white cars before a ball game is usually good luck
  • Taking crossed game gear (such as bats or golf clubs lying crossed on the ground) leads to bad luckWearing lucky clothes is fairly common in a lot of sports, but many athletes have a pair of socks or an article of clothing that is lucky and washing it is forbidden (for fear of washing away the luck) (Brown, vol 6)
Illustration of sailor’s compass next to a gold coin

Sailors and Fishers
I’ve covered a lot of maritime beliefs and superstitions, as well as some of the magical rituals associated with life on the sea, in other posts and podcast episodes. But there is never a shortage of folk magic in this field, largely because being out on the open ocean is a very risky occupation, and as both Gmelch and his predecessor anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski have noted, superstition and magic are often proportional to the risk associated with any particular task. Some of the lore associated with working the sea:

  • It’s bad luck for a new ship or a freshly painted one to scratch its paint along the dock
  • Many people know the phrase “rats leave a sinking ship,” so sailors would often pay attention to the behavior of rodents on board for signs and omens of what was coming
  • Whistling on a ship was bad luck, especially because a sailor could accidentally whistle up a gale-force wind
  • The albatross is a well-known omen on boats and should be treated with respect (think only of the woes that befall the titular character in Coolridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), but it’s also considered very bad luck to kill a dolphin or porpoise, because they were thought to be hosts to the souls of lost sailors.
  • If a bird lands on your boat while you’re on a fishing run, you should return to shore and try again another day (Mullen)
  • Fishing trips should never start on a Friday or they will come to a bad end (either a poor catch or worse)
  • Both Catholic and Protestant fishers may carry a medal or token of St. Andrew to ensure a good catch
  • It is thought that fishing between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m. is unlucky, because that is the ‘fishes’ time’ (Shearer)
  • Coins are often installed at various spots throughout the boat to bring good luck. For example, a silver dollar or fifty-cent piece is frequently placed under the main mast for this purpose
  • Two rather strange taboos are found among Texas fishers: carrying a black suitcase onboard and saying the word “alligator,” both of which are thought to bring extraordinary bad luck (I bet Captain Hook at least would agree with the latter custom)
Illustration of a Resurrection Plant (Rose of Jericho)

Merchants & Retail Workers
While retail and merchandise sales is a fairly broad category, it’s also one that has a good bit of superstition, folk magic, and ritual associated with it. Many people have gone into a business to find a framed piece of currency somewhere behind the cash register or along the entry wall, the “first dollar” made by the business. It is honored and never spent, so as to prevent the business from going under at some point in the future. There are lots of other folk beliefs and workings that have to do with increasing business and staving off bad luck (or bad customers):

  • Anything done to grow a business during the waxing moon is more likely to come to fruition, according to Ozark belief (Weston)
  • Making the first sale of the day was vital. Jewish merchants held the belief that the first customer of the day must be sold, even if at a loss or something insignificant, so as to provide good sales the rest of the day.
  • Business deals should not be done on Friday or they will come to a bad end, and working on Sunday is also bad luck (if you’ve worked retail or service industry, you already know this is true given how many people seem to come straight from church to undertip or demand special treatment from cashiers)
  • Sweeping dirt out the back door of a business is sweeping away all of its luck (Penrod). Similarly sweeping after dark was considered unlucky for business (Brown vol. 6)
  • Money stolen from a business could carry a curse, especially if the business owner was honest. One story from Zora Neale Hurston’s fieldwork reports of a woman who ran a little cigar shop so honestly she usually just left the money out on the counter. A sailor came in and stole the money, then returned to his ship. She rowed out in a dinghy to warn the captain and the sailor that if the money wasn’t returned it would do the thief great harm. They couldn’t find where he’d stashed it so they sent her away, but the sailor failed to show up for his next watch. They found him dead in his cabin, the money clenched in his hand. The captain, of course, immediately sent the money back to the woman as quickly as possible
  • If a man’s beard is of a different color than his hair, the shopkeep should expect shady dealing
  • If someone rattles money in their pocket while shopping or haggling, they aren’t to be trusted either (both of these last two are Ozark beliefs)
  • Sprinkling alfalfa and Irish moss in the corners of the shop is thought to bring in business. Similarly, keeping a Rose of Jericho behind the cash register counter and sprinkling the water over the doorstep of the business is thought to spur more customers to come in and spend
  • Zora Neale Hurston notes that a mixture of water, honey, and Japanese Fast Luck powder could be sprinkled at the entrance to the business in the morning or at midnight to draw large crowds of customers
  • Putting a golden coin (like a golden dollar) somewhere where the sun can shine on it is thought to bring more money your way; silver money shown to the moon will do the same
Illustration of a lipstick tube and a wrapped condom

Sex Workers
If risk and reward breed magic, it’s not surprising that sex work has a number of enchantment rituals within it. Those can range from ways to attract customers and clients to ways to protect oneself in dangerous situations or retain the money earned. Some things, like wearing red clothes or keeping red lights or lanterns on a front porch, are fairly well-known because they are thought to inspire lustful feelings and also to identify potential sex workers to interested clients. Other magical lore associated with sex work:

  • A sex worker should tear the corners of any cash money received, both to avoid any unwanted bad luck and as a way to magically stave off pregancy (NOTE: this is NOT scientifically sound birth control, but a folkloric tidbit…please listen to medical advice about preventing pregnancy and STIs first and foremost)
  • One recipe found in Hurston’s notes says a mixture of lavender, geranium, and Van Van (a spicy sweet blend involving lemongrass and ginger or galangal) could be sprinkled in the house or bed where sex work was to take place to help generate more clients
  • The evergreen boldo leaf can be sprinkled around the space where sex work is performed in order to prevent harm coming to those within; similarly carrying a buckeye was thought to stave off STIs as well (but again, this is NOT medical advice)
  • Carrying a Jezebel Root (a variety of iris), especially one dressed with sexual fluids, allows a sex worker to draw in the type of clients they like best and keep them docile and satisfied
  • Burning a shoe sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar would help draw customers to a house of sex workers (yronwode)
Illustration for drama and comedy masks

Actors
Perhaps one of the most superstitious professions is the world of the stage and screen. Plenty of people know about various taboos behind the footlights, such as avoiding the name of a certain Shakespearean “Scottish play” while in the actual theatre or avoiding the phrase “good luck!” in favor of the more dismal “break a leg!” Plenty of other acting-based folk practices might fall under the heading of “magic” as well:

  • Not only the “Scottish play” brings misfortune. Unless you’re actually performing Shakespeare, even quoting the Bard can bring bad luck in a theatre!
  • Like race car drivers, actors shouldn’t eat peanuts backstage (although there are probably sanitary reasons for this, plus if you’ve ever had a salty peanut stuck in your throat you can probably imagine how difficult a soliloquy might be)
  • There are lots of clothing-based taboos: ostrich feathers on a costume are bad luck, as are leaving your shoes or hat on a bed or dressing table
  • Spitting on your makeup brushes before using them ensures good performances and audiences
  • There’s a ritual of lighting a candle in the dressing rooms just before going onstage and leaving it burning during the opening night performance (obviously dangerous, but if you’ve got an awesome stage manager who can spare a tech to keep things safe, it might work out)
  • Those who are so inclined might carry a medal or card for St. Genesius for luck and blessing during the run of a play

There are no shortage of job-related spells, beliefs, charms, and lore, of course. Some additional occupational magical beliefs:

  • Electricians will carry marjoram and feverfew as a way to deflect potential electrocution (yronwode p. 132).
  • Nurses and public safety service workers often swear that full moons bring out the wildest, strangest, and most intense cases (or at least the largest quantity of ER or imperiled people each month)
  • Coal miners will burn the hat of someone who has recently become a new parent to provide protection and blessing to their family; there are also sexist beliefs similar to those found at race tracks about keeping women away from the mines/workplace
  • Pilots—like racers—won’t take photos right before a flight, and they usually avoid allowing their spouse or significant other watch them take off to prevent any accidents or crashes
  • Seamstresses and tailors won’t do repairs on their own clothes, especially not while they are wearing them, for fear of bringing bad luck (even death)
  • Cooks and chefs won’t keep parsley growing indoors because it can invite death into the kitchen or restaurant
Illustraon of a bag of popcorni

There are probably hundreds of bits of folk magic applicable to every job or occupation you could imagine. I recall working at a movie theater and having beliefs about playing movies to empty theaters inviting spirits to be there, for example (so we’d often let someone clock out and watch at least part of a movie if they wanted to so we could avoid that situation). There are also things like “cursed films” that inevitably bring disaster when screened (The Exorcist and The Omen both have reputations like this, although the curses associated with them tend to focus more on the curses on those involved with making the film).

And all of this isn’t even tapping into the numerous magically-oriented occupations from fairy tales: bakers, spinners, soldiers (who we cover in one of our earlier posts), and so forth. We’ve tackled a number of those occupations in a couple of podcasts previously, but even then we could easily fill another several episodes discussing the topic.

What about your occupation? Do you have any magical lore associated with your profession or job? We’d love to hear it if you do! Feel free to share in the comments or send us an email if you’d like to share!

Whatever work you do, we hope you make it magical! Thanks so much for reading!
-Cory

REFERENCES

Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of the Folklore of North Carolina, Wayland Hand, ed. Vol. 6 (1961).

Gmelch, George. “Baseball Magic,” in Elysian Fields Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 25-36 (1992).

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” in The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 44, no. 174, pp. 317-417 (1931).

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922).

Mullen, Patrick B. “The Function of Magic Folk Belief among Texas Coastal Fishermen,” in The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 82, no. 325, pp. 214-25 (1969). 

Penrod, James H. “Folk Beliefs about Work, Trades, & Professions from New Mexico,” in Western Folklore, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 180-83 (1968).

Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1947).

Shearer, P. “Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore,” from Center for Penn. Studies Archives (4 June 1981).

Weston, Brandon. Ozark Folk Magic (2021).
yronwode, catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic (2002).

Blog Post 233 – Getting into Folk Magic (Videos)

The videos I’ll be sharing here are focused on getting started with folklore and folk magic research. I’m actually going to present them slightly out of order from how I posted them over on YouTube because I think they’ll make more sense in this order. The main idea here is that these videos will let you start pursuing your own line of research into folk magic and finding all sorts of great books like Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet and Aaron Oberon’s Southern Cunning, among so many others!

Greetings all!

A number of you probably know this already, but we’ve got a YouTube channel for New World Witchery. I had intended to make sure I was posting here every time I released a new video there, but I’ve actually been so active with the videos I have sort of let them slide here.

But fear not! Because most of the more recent videos have been themed on the same topic, and so I can share them with you here in sort of a cartulary fashion (for those who don’t remember us doing the cartulary posts, they are essentially collections of interesting ephemera and notes from my readings and research…we really need to bring those back!).

The videos I’ll be sharing here are focused on getting started with folklore and folk magic research. I’m actually going to present them slightly out of order from how I posted them over on YouTube because I think they’ll make more sense in this order. The main idea here is that these videos will let you start pursuing your own line of research into folk magic and finding all sorts of great books like Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet and Aaron Oberon’s Southern Cunning, among so many others!

The first video I’m sharing is a general orientation into folklore studies. It will give you a high-level overview of what the field is, some guiding principles and definitions, and then go into what magic is as related to folklore a bit as well:

Next, I’m going to point you away from the theory and heady stuff a bit and let you see some of the books I’d consider “101” or beginner books for those interested in both studying and practicing folk magic (and please note, these are all just my opinions):

And next I’m going to point you to the latest video, which looks at some books that cover folk magic in North America from a historical and regional perspective (note: these do look primarily at the post-Colonial history of folk magic here, as Indigenous Peoples’ magic is a much bigger subject that I’m not qualified to write extensively on).

And finally, since we’re talking about books and all that, I’ll throw in a video promo I did for my own book, New World Witchery (because shameless self promotion is really sexy, right?).

There are going to be a lot more videos coming in the future, including more on books and folk magic research, as well as practical topics such as those from our “Everyday Magic” series. If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, please feel free to subscribe to the channel! And if you really enjoy it, comments and shares are definitely welcome!

Thank you so much for reading (and watching)!
Be well!
-Cory

Blog Post 230 – Changing Your Luck

Image of silhouetted animals including cat, skunk, and rabbit
Any number of animals crossing one’s path was considered bad luck and required turning around and beginning a journey again. (Image by author (c) 2021).

As we turn the page on the past year (and I think there are plenty of people who would agree that they’re ready to not just turn the page but rip the whole accursed chapter out of the book), I know many of us are going to make resolutions, plan to live a better version of our lives, and do any number of things to improve situations for ourselves and others. That is all well and good, but if there’s one thing that last year seems to have demonstrated time and again, it’s that at a certain level we also are operating at the hands of Fate. Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in folk magic, and if there’s one point that many branches of folk magic emphasize, it is that Fate is not a fixed, unshakable future, but something that we can influence through enchanted manipulations and the subtle weaving of our intentions through charms, talismans, and other tools.

Today I want to briefly visit a few of the magical ways in which people have sought to change their luck through folk magic in America. Some are focused on very specific forms of luck, such as gambling, while others are much broader. I’ve already written before about ways in which people can “eat their luck,” for example, as we see with widespread practices of consuming specific “good luck” foods on New Year’s Day. Black eyed peas and greens appear in African American and broader Southern traditions. Pork and sauerkraut are a must-have for those in German American communities, such as those of central Pennsylvania. Likewise, many Latinx people consume foods like grapes—one for each of the twelve days following New Year’s Day—as a method of ensuring prosperity and good fortune in the year to come. Some other food-based luck transformations include:

  • Kissing the cook after taking the last piece of bread to avoid having bad luck (Brown 370).
  • Don’t throw away broken dishes but keep them piled in the back yard/back of the house and they will keep you from going hungry (Hyatt 274)
  • Turning plates at the end of the meal before getting up ensures that any bad luck in the room will be reversed so long as everyone does it (but the same lore warns never to turn a plate during a meal, because it allows “the witches [to] partake of the meal” (Brown 370)

Image of salt shaker
Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper. (Image by author (c)2021)

Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper (a folk legend not directly recorded in biblical accounts, which only mentions “dipping into the bowl” at the same time as Jesus). The remedies for this failure of luck, however, are wide-ranging, including tossing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder—sometimes to chase away or blind the Devil. Other versions of this reversal say to throw a bit of salt over either shoulder, or even “on the hot stove” (although tossing salt directly in the fire is thought to cause you to become “very angry”) (Brown 372-74). Throwing food away, however, doesn’t seem very lucky, so fortunately there are also beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good (Hyatt 25).

Image of Grandpa Simpson telling rambling story about tying an onion to his belt
Beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good. So Grandpa Simpson may have been on to something. (Image from “The Simpsons,” (c)Fox Studios).

Beyond the culinary luck-changers, there are a number of other things a person could do to ensure favorable fortune. Gestures and behaviors that might protect one from bad luck and invite good luck include:

  • Catching a caterpillar, keeping it in your home until it hatches, then freeing it when it becomes a moth or butterfly. It should be noted that the lore is very insistent that you not kill the creature in any of its life stages, as that will bring bad luck (Hyatt 30).
  • Frederick Douglass famously carried a root given to him by a conjure man in his pocket as a way to deflect the “misfortune” of abuse by his overseer, a devil of a man named Covey. It’s possible this was a “master root” or even a “John the Conqueror” root (Douglass 111). Douglass later revised his account of this incident, downplaying the role of conjure and rootwork to distance himself from what was seen as a Black stereotype and the “tomfoolery of the ignorant” (Martin 57).
  • A bit of North Carolina lore says that if you have trouble with being a butterfingers and breaking dishware, you can find a shed snake skin and rub your hands with it to remove that condition (Brown 375) 
  • “It is considered lucky to keep a living plant in your bedroom at night” (Hyatt 21) but there are also admonitions that any cut flowers (or plants that are otherwise in the process of decay) should be removed before sleeping in a room to reverse any potential poor luck in health
  • Several sources indicate that you must restart a journey if a black cat crosses your path. Similarly, other black-completed animals such as skunks, rabbits, or squirrels can all require such a turning back and beginning again (Hyatt 53)
  • Related to the turning back is the idea that if you do turn back, you shouldn’t keep going the same day, but wait until the next day to ward off bad luck (this also ties into the belief that you shouldn’t watch someone’s plane take off). You can also wait until the animal crosses the path of another person, which cancels the bad luck (possibly for both of you)
  • Despite their bad rap as path-crossers, black cats can also reverse bad luck. A bit of lore says that stroking the tail of a (strange) black cat seven times is thought to reverse misfortune and bring good luck (Hyatt 54)
  • Snakes also get a bit of a bad reputation in the path-crossing department. Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. This is true whether you see the snake that left the tracks or just the tracks themselves. The cross is thought to cancel out the bad luck (and is likely related to the idea of the “cross” from a Christian context acting against the dangerous and “sinful” nature of the snake from the Garden of Eden story (Hyatt 34). A Kentucky variant, however, totally bypasses the snake and instead simply says that you can reverse bad luck by drawing a cross in the dirt and spitting on it (Thomas no. 1032)

Image of a snake
Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. (Image by author (c) 2021)

In many of these examples, animals and other living things (like the houseplant—which makes me glad for my spider plants all the more) are the impetus for the luck-changing magic at work, something I’ve also mentioned when writing about the very strange (and often quite racist) lore associated with lucky rabbits’ feet. Similar animal-bone talismans include the jawbone or breastbone of a frog or the familiar wishbone from a bird like a turkey, which can be carried as luck-giving charms.

Beyond the power of various living things to perform misfortune management, there is a whole cadre of lore connected to sharp and pointy things that are able to reverse the curse:

  • Accidentally crossing two knives brings bad luck, and it can only be undone by the person who crossed the knives picking them up again. Similarly, if a person finds a pair of open scissors, they close them right away, or else “she will quarrel with her dearest friend before the moon changes” (Randolph 58).
  • Another remedy from Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” (Brown v7 108)
  • Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck (Hyatt 273)
  • Similarly finding a pin or penny is potentially bad luck but is easily reversed by simply picking it up and carrying it with you (multiple variations found in Brown 437-38). 

Personally I’ve also often commingled this last charm with the belief that a penny found heads up is good luck, which is great until you find a tails-up penny but also need to pick it up. So my own response is to pick up these “bad luck” pennies and turn them over, then set them down on another surface (usually higher up than the ground), so that I fulfill the basic idea of the charm while also not carrying the bad luck with me. Also, in general I’d prefer not to carry change I pick up off the street for health reasons, but that may just be me.

Image of pocket knife
Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck. (Image by author (c) 2021)

Of course, you might also be suffering a run of bad luck because of something you did, or something someone else did. For example, you might have snubbed your local witch (a very bad idea) and thus have fallen under a curse. If the bad luck is the result of conjury or witchcraft, visiting the curse-caster’s front steps is a good way to deal with the problem. Several different traditions, but especially Hoodoo, mention remedies such as spitting on the front step, digging some dirt from under it, or leaving the broken charm under the stair (Brown v7 105-6). There are also long-standing beliefs from a number of cultures that implore you to be humble, because speaking too highly of yourself or your luck courts disaster. Speaking of any good fortune you’ve had recently can invite bad luck to follow, unless you knock or “peck” on wood to counteract that effect (Brown v7 167-8). There’s also a great deal of evil eye lore connected to beliefs like this, but that is its own (rather enormous) topic.

Image of nine pins
Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” to reverse bad luck. (Image by author (c) 2021).
Some of these reversal charms, spells, and beliefs may seem a bit esoteric to us today. Few of us are going around rubbing our hands with snakeskin or collecting piles of broken dishware in our back yards. But knocking on wood has managed to linger on in widespread use, along with a few other very common bits of magic (some of which people perform without ever even thinking of them as “magical”):

  • A bit of lore found in Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, and more says that in a time of danger a person should cross their fingers to prevent bad luck (Brown v7 169)
  • “The first dollar collected in a new business should be framed for good luck. 
  • (Mary E. Price from Bill Garrett)” (Penrod, New Mexico article). I know I have seen many businesses that do this and put it on display near the cash register or front door, probably not thinking about the idea that it keeps misfortune at bay and invites good financial luck in.
  • Superstitions about sneezing and luck are common, with many believing that wicked spirits or devils are about when someone sneezes. Hence, the “bless you” or its many variants that you might say are a way of reversing any potential harm, bad luck, or evil that might be close by (Brown v7 153). 

You can see that there are a LOT of options when it comes to luck-reversal, then. There are all sorts of ways that a person can cut their losses through magic, and those I’ve mentioned here are just the very tip of the iceberg (or the found pocket knife or pin, perhaps). I’m always interested in seeing what other rituals people have developed in contemporary times to change luck in their favor, too. Like the lore about not watching one’s loved ones off in an airport, newer technologies breed newer folklore and thus newer folk magic. Surely at some point we’ll have lore about reversing the bad luck of playing online casinos or sports betting apps by doing things like opening other apps first (perhaps ensuring that the betting app is the seventh one opened that day or something similar). Perhaps people will buy wooden phone cases so they can knock on wood more easily whenever they feel a streak of bad luck coming on. Or maybe they will have phone charms resembling rabbits or cats or four-leaf clovers to help them. I should also note that this isn’t strictly about gambling, either (and that gambling can be very addictive so please seek help if you’re worried about that getting out of control). As more of our lives move into the ether of online space, or we see technologies like Roombas running around our house, we may develop new responses to all of these things (perhaps we will begin believing that we must leave the room when our iRobot vacuum is cleaning so it doesn’t go under our feet, which would carry forward a belief about not having your feet “swept” from older lore). 

Wherever our life goes in response to new developments, we will likely always retain a little bit of magical thinking about how to make fortune favor us a little bit more. After the year so many of us have just had, I know there were lots of people who warned against the hubris of claiming 2021 as “your year” out of (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) fear that it would somehow invite another 2020 to rear its ugly head. But taking control through these little rituals—carrying a charm or putting a dollar bill up on the wall or even just tending to a little netted cage of butterflies in your home and then releasing them in the wild—this is something we have done for a long time. What magic do you bring to the table to change things for the better? I’d love to know!

Wishing you a bright and happy beginning to your 2021, and thank you for reading.

-Cory

 

REFERENCES

  1. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 6, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  2. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 7, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  3. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Publications, 1995.
  4. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935. 
  5. Martin, Kameelah L. Conjuring Moments in African American Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.
  6. Thomas, Daniel, and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Princeton Univ. Press, 1920.
  7. Penrod, James H. “Folk Beliefs about Work, Trades, and Professions from New Mexico,” in Western Folklore, vol. 27, no. 3 (Jul. 1968), pp. 180-83.
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover Publications, 1964.

Blog Post 229 – Frogs and Toads

Illustration of woman spitting frogs and snakes from her mouth to illustrate fairy tale
“As she spoke, vipers and toads fell from her open mouth.” – from “Diamonds and Toads (or, The Fairies)” (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson 2020)

“Just then there came a second knock at the door, and a voice called out:

Youngest daughter of the king,
Open up the door for me,
Don’t you know what yesterday,
You said to me down by the well?
Youngest daughter of the king,
Open up the door for me.

The king said, “What you have promised, you must keep. Go and let the frog in.”

-From “The Frog Prince, or Iron Heinrich” from the Grimms’ fairy tales collection

Witches go together with frogs and toads almost as readily as they do with broomsticks and pointy hats in the popular imagination. In the story “The Frog Prince, or Iron Heinrich” from the Brothers Grimm collection, a handsome prince has been transformed into a frog by a “wicked witch,” although we pointedly do not get her side of the story. The story “Diamonds and Toads (or The Fairies),” found in the pre-Grimm French collection done by Charles Perrault, reveals that while a good sister is rewarded by precious jewels dripping from her mouth when she speaks, an ill-mannered girl is punished by a fairy (sometimes a fairy tale proxy for a witch), who curses the girl to spew toads and vipers when she speaks.

Beyond the fairy tales, however, several folk magical practices are woven into the webbed toes of frogs and toads. This post will share a few of those bits of magical lore from North American sources and practices. I will note that there are some gruesome spells herein, including some that involve harm or death coming to these marshy denizens, and I am in NO WAY ADVOCATING that you actually do anything hurtful to frogs or toads. They are a valuable part of our ecology and virtually any spell can be adapted in ways that avoid harming them (although I have nothing against the respectful collection of their remains after their demise). In fact, I’ll even begin with this bit of North Carolina folklore to help warn you away from such cruelty:

-Every frog you kill makes your life shorter (or killing a frog or toad will lead to the death of your mother, father, or another kinsperson) (Brown, p. 54). 

Another series of entries from that collection mentions that killing a frog or toad will lead your livestock to give bloody milk (p. 437-38), but conversely it recommends that an ill animal be fed a live frog in order to cure it (p. 449). That may very well have to do with the sympathetic nature of the magic, and the belief that a frog might have been used to initiate the curse, so forcing the frog into the animal is a way of doubling the hex back on itself and thus purging it from the animal’s system (we see a similar logic in the flogging of bewitched milk over hot coals, which is thought to return the harmful spell to the witch who cast it). 

Along that same vein of logic, we see in a number of folkloric instances the ways in which frogs or toads are sympathetically linked through magic to the world around them. They serve as familiars to witches in many stories (including as the representations of the witch’s power in tales like “The Frog Prince” and “Diamonds and Toads”). In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth we also get a reference to a toad as a witch’s familiar, or spirit companion, an idea commonly echoed in popular accounts of witchcraft. One sixteenth-century witch named Joan Cunny from Essex, England, for example, was associated with a pair of familiars that looked like black frogs and another Essex witch named Margery Sammon kept a pair of toads named Tom and Robin as familiars (Wilby, p. 230, p. 109). These creatures could also hold familiar bonds with other living things, such as trees. For example, some American lore states that killing a tree frog in its tree is thought to also kill the tree, also indicating the “familiar” like nature of them (Brown, p. 499). 

Both toads and frogs seem to operate between worlds, making them liminal agents that can run between either the land and water or between our world and the underworld. What they did in that underworld realm made them even more fearful in the folk imagination. For example, one bit of lore says that because they are thought to eat coals of fire (possibly also hellfire, given their traffic with the underworld), toads and frogs can be venomous or toxic. There are indeed toxic species of these creatures, so the belief about their dangers is not entirely untrue in the case of some poison-skinned frogs, but their dangers do not seem to be caused by the ingestion of brimstone (Brown, p. 409). A similar belief prevails about frogs eating buckshot, too, linking them to fire and iron, weapons, danger, and death. Their toxicity, however, might also be a connection to their witchier lore, especially as some frogs and toads secrete substances that can cause psychedelic reactions in humans (as evidenced by the minor fad–massively overplayed in popular media–with “licking frogs” among college students a few decades ago and even portrayed on The Simpsons). 

Frogs and toads also had more positive qualities (although admittedly these qualities didn’t do much to benefit the animals themselves). For example, an oft-repeated claim seems to indicate that some medieval physicians recommended placing a live frog in one’s mouth to remove a sore throat or other ailments, a supposition that has been dubiously linked to the phrase “a frog in one’s throat” (in reality, the phrase derives from an American lozenge rather than any medieval phraseology). Transferring diseases to animals by touch or by holding them in the mouth was not all that uncommon as a folk remedy or cure, and we see it come up in folklore about maladies such as warts quite frequently. That brings me to one of the other common bits of lore about toads and frogs, which are often accused of causing warts in anyone that holds them. This is essentially bunk, but the belief in magical transference of the disease makes some sense as it is a sort of “contagious” magic. Considering just how many folk wart cures and spells there are, it’s probably not a real crisis for someone to touch a frog or toad even if there were a risk of warts (which, again, there really isn’t).

Illustration of a witch's finger touching a frog
A popular folk belief says that touching frogs or toads causes warts (although that is not scientifically accurate). (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson 2020)

Curing the magical or venomous maladies of the Anuran order (which, frankly, sounds like the kind of club I’d like to join–”I’m a member of the Anuran Order, Bufo Chapter, Horned Toad House”) include the use of the “toadstone,” a type of secret gem or mineral deposit thought to be carried in the head or body of a toad and which could dispel any number of ailments. Specifically it was believed to be good against poisons, and is mentioned both in Roman lore and once again in Shakespeare as well (it may well be that this stone was actually a type of fossil).

The idea that a toad might carry in its body a powerful magical object was not limited to the toadstone, however, for within witchcraft lore a widely pervasive rite known as the “Toad’s Bone” ritual has captivated occultists for centuries and received a recent uptick in popularity due to the late Andrew Chumbley’s essay, “The Leaper Between.” Historical witchcraft writer Nigel Pennick discusses how in many parts of rural England and the British Isles, the toad’s bone rite was associated with a secret society known as the Horseman’s Word. Reputedly, those who were part of this group were a society of horse whisperers who could calm wild horses and easily help to break them, as well as treating them for certain problems. While they were esteemed for their equine skills, they were also suspected of witchcraft in many cases. They were thought to be brought into the fraternity by completing a toad’s bone rite of some kind, one that mirrored similar rites in witch lore, such as this one:

“The Norfolk witch Tilley Baldrey had her techniques published in The Eastern Counties Magazine in 1901. She tells how she became a witch through the toad-bone ritual. In standard English, ‘you catch a hopping toad and carry it in your bosom until it has rotted away to the back-bone,’ then, ‘you take it and hold it over running water at midnight until the Devil comes to you and pulls you over the water.’ This is the initiation as a witch.” (Pennick loc. 1154).

This initiatory rite resulted in the possession of the toad’s bone, which was carried as a token of power and a symbol of initiation, much in the same way that the black cat bone appears in other witch lore. Similar rituals involved crucifying a toad with thorns (usually blackthorn, although it could be hawthorn in some variants) on top of an ant hill and waiting until the ants had devoured the toad’s flesh. The bones would then be taken to a stream and submerged, and whichever floated against the current was the fabled toad’s bone.

I should note once again that I adamantly do NOT encourage the use of animal torture for the procurement of magical tools. These rites may have some significance in the historical context, but you are just as likely to be able to get many of these tools–even toad and frog bones–from sources that do not require the animals to suffer (given how popular frogs’ legs are in parts of the South, contacting a frog-gigger who hunts for restaurant fare might be a better way to handle this). Waiting to find a frog skeleton is just as good, and comes with a sense of feeling like the bones were meant for you rather than extracted through cruelty and malice.

A desiccated frog skeleton found in my in-laws’ house hidden in the back of a cabinet; you never know when you’ll find these sorts of things!

As a final note about the magic of these lovely amphibians, I should note that they are also thought to be harbingers of changing weather and seasons. A belief found throughout the eastern half of the United States says that the croaking of frogs is thought to signal the end of winter (Brown, p. 323). If you’ve ever been in the South in the early summer, you’ll know the sound of “peepers” out in any even mildly wetland area pretty well. Seeing a large number of frogs (and potentially hearing them as well), is also thought to be a sign of coming rain. In this way we can see the deep connections between the watery world of the pond and the stormy sky as connected, with the toads and frogs acting as those “leapers between” as Chumbley phrased it. 

This is been only a webbed toe dipped into the very deep pond of frog and toad lore, but hopefully it gives you a sense of just how much enchantment can be found in these creatures. Perhaps if the spoiled princess in the story of the golden ball had known that, she might not have been so quick to run away or fear her froggy beau. I’d still prefer not to have them jumping out of my mouth every time I speak, though. It would make teaching pretty awkward.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

References:

Video: Everyday Magic – Nuts

Check out our latest Everyday Magic video, featuring the folklore of nuts! You can also check out more food-related magical lore at some of our previous episodes and posts:

Blog Post 123 – Corn
Blog Post 143 – Apples
Blog Post 144 – Walnuts
Blog Post 157 – Peaches
Blog Post 192 – Eating Your Luck
Blog Post 227 – Bread
Episode 170 – Food and Folk Magic with Gwion Raven
Episode 178 – A Cornucopia of Magic

Images and videos from this video via Pixabay, used under a CC 2.0 license. Some photos by author.

Video: Everyday Magic – Apples

We’ve got another in our Everyday Magic playlist series available! This time we’re taking a brief look at some of the folklore and magic surrounding apples.

Find out more at our blog post: Apples.

Thanks to Peter Muise of the New England Folklore blog for the story of Roger Williams

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Image/Video/Sound Sources: -Pixabay (www.pixabay.com) -Author’s original work (Cory Thomas Hutcheson) -AudioSocket (www.audiosocket.com) All media used under purchased license (AudioSocket), Creative Commons license, or public domain use Created with Wondershare Filmora

Blog Post 227 – Bread

Stone figure of woman making bread
Neolithic stone figure of woman making bread. Louvre. (Wikimedia)

I have to admit something slightly shameful about my time during the pandemic. I have not undertaken the task of making my own sourdough starter. Now, before you judge me too harshly, I should note that it’s not as though I haven’t been baking anything, just that I tend to do most of my baking using store bought yeast, eggs, or leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder. Our area did run out of yeast in the stores for a while, but somehow I’ve managed to back-stock just enough of it to last us for the few months it took for yeast to begin appearing on our shelves again. I’ve made starter-based breads before (yummy Amish friendship bread that lasted a few loaves before I failed miserably as a fermentation parent, for example), but I just haven’t needed to do the sourdough yet so it remains off of my “pandemic skills checklist.”

However, the popularity of bread baking did spark one of my other skills: research! I have been looking into a few of the folklore collections I have access to and finding all sorts of doughy, yeasty, yummy notes about the uses of bread in North American folk magic. So I thought today I’d share a few of the notes I’ve gleaned with all of you! Hopefully if you’ve been doing some resting, rising, and toasting of your own you’ll see some things here that spark your witchy senses and maybe make the act of bread-baking a little more magical the next time you go to top up that bottle of starter in the corner of your pantry.

I’ve already written a bit on things like the magic of cakes before, but I’ll start here by mentioning a cake of a sort. This is the “witch cake” used during the Salem Witch trials (and also occasionally found in other places, as it seems to derive from some English antecedents). The basic idea, as found in historical accounts such as town church documents from the trial period and reprinted in George L. Burr’s Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, is that a bewitched person’s “water” (urine, as it always seems to come back to collecting someone’s pee here at New World Witchery) is added to a rough loaf of rye or barley, then baked and fed to a dog. If the dog grows ill, convulses, or dies, it indicates witchcraft, or alternatively may be able to reverse harm, causing the witch to suffer visibly and thus identifying them. Mary Sibley, the neighbor of the Parris family who recommended the magical loaf cure, was later intimidated into confessing that the cake was diabolical in nature, a sort of “using witchcraft to fight witchcraft” approach that was found throughout Colonial New England folk practices (see the excellent book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement by David Hall for more on these sorts of folk magical practices in wide circulation).

A witch cake could be fed to a dog to either diagnose or reverse harmful witchcraft. This dog seems particularly suspicious, probably because the cake is baked with the victim’s urine. [Image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020]
These sorts of curative bread recipes, even if they are a bit unappetizing to us today, were widely known across traditions in North America. Oftentimes, bread was used as a delivery method for a variety of unsavory magico-medical treatments, creating rolled “bread pills” to treat ailments using herbs, medicinal mixtures, or even insects like lice and spiders to fend off sickness (Brown v.6 #806). A similar remedy could be used when treating animals, feeding them medicine or folk remedies along with bread to ensure they took them, as evidenced by an entry in Hohman’s Pennsylvania Deitsch tome, The Long-lost Friend:

#91 – For vomiting and diarrhoea [sp] – Take pulverized cloves and eat them together with bread soaked in red wine, and you will soon find relief. The cloves may be put upon the bread.

Hohman also mentions a similar method of delivering a chickweed based rabies cure in that book.

While baking a magical loaf of dark bread is certainly an intense way to mingle witchcraft and daily baking, many other beliefs and rituals surrounding meal, dough, and a warm oven could be found throughout the continent and across a wide range of people. In terms of superstitions, a massive number exist surrounding everything from baking the bread to burning it to taking a piece of it:

Preparing

      • Set bread to rise before the sun rises (Brown v.6 #2771)
      • Make a cross in bread dough to make it rise right (Brown v. 6 #2772) (This ritual is also mentioned in Robert Herrick’s Charmes and cited in Kittredge’s book on witchcraft. Rhyme: “This Ile [I’ll] tell ye by the way,/ Maidens when ye leavens lay:/ Cross your dow [dough] and your dispatch/ Will be better for your batch.” In the US this was also done to keep “witches from dancing over the dough” and thus cursing it and keeping it from rising.)
      • Cutting an unbaked loaf of bread is bad luck (Brown v.6 #2774)

Baking

      • Bread that cracks down the middle while baking is a sign of bad luck (Appalachian Magazine)
      • Burning your bread is a sign of bad luck, especially because it is likely to cause a quarrel. Beliefs from North Carolina, Tennessee, and even California all have similar variations. Many say that if a girl burns her bread or biscuits, it’s a sign she’ll fight with her sweetheart, for example, while a married person who burns bread is likely to fight with neighbors (Brown, Randolph). 
      • Burning bread can also mean the preacher is coming to visit soon (which may or may not be bad luck or the sign of a quarrel about to start, I suppose) (Brown v.6 #4000). Intentionally burning bread by throwing it into the fire will result in punishment, as the Devil will make you pick out every piece from the coals of hellfire later, according to Kentucky lore (Thomas).

Eating

      • You should never turn bread upside down once it’s baked, or you will bring bad luck (Brown, Randolph, Hines)
      • It’s bad luck to take the last piece of bread (Brown, Hyatt). Taking the last piece has a number of folkloric meanings, as well. For example, there’s a very gender-biased set of beliefs that a girl who takes the last piece of bread will be an “old maid,” while a boy is simply obligated to kiss the cook! (Which makes me think it was a clever ploy by many a mother to get a kiss from a child when giving the last piece away, but that’s simply my supposition). One variation also says that a woman who takes the last piece will also marry rich, so I guess one rolls the dice and takes their chances? (Brown v.6 #4735–a Nebraskan tidbit of lore)
      • Taking bread while you have bread on your plate already will also cause someone to go hungry (usually the person who has done the taking, but sometimes it is treated more as a portent for someone else) (Brown, Randolph)
      • A bit of Ozark lore says “I know of several families near Big Flat, Arkansas, who have a strange notion that one should never allow a piece of bread to fall upon the ground–the idea is that to do so will somehow injure the next crop of corn” (Randolph 62). 
      • Another bit of Ozark folklore says that eating bread crusts makes one a better hunter or fisherman, and that it leads to curly hair! (Randolph).

This last bit about the curly hair is one of the strangest but most pervasive beliefs about bread I found while researching loaf-lore. A number of sources indicate that if a person eats bread crusts, it will cause the person’s hair to curl, which is usually presented as a desirable outcome (Brown, Randolph, Farr). Sometimes those curls are ringlets, and at other times more like curly bangs or forelocks. In other cases, the curly hair actually predicts something about the bread, as in one North Carolina belief that says a baby with two curls of hair on its forehead will eventually “break bread on two continents,” indicating a life of travel (Brown v.6 #259). This may have something to do with the fact that the crust is the outermost part of the bread and often what visually draws us in (although the smell is certainly a factor, too, as many realtors know). Similarly, the hair or outer appearance of a person could be linked to this visual enticement through the bread. Or, it could simply be a way for a frugal parent to convince a child to eat the crusts, too!

Cartoon of several bread items, pies, and cakes. One smokes a cigarette. A mouse with a gun approaches.
When good bread goes bad. (Image from A Little Book for a Little Cook by L.P. Hubbard (1905), Wikimedia)

Continuing the theme of good looks and good bread, several wart or blemish cures are connected to a well-baked loaf. Most of these depend upon the use of cornbread rather than other forms of grains, with cornbread “sweat” being invoked most frequently as a curative for things like warts, pimples, and freckles (for those that don’t know, “sweat” is the condensation layer that settles on top of cornbread as it cools). Cornbread factors into several other cures and rituals as well. An Ozark cure for bewitched cattle involves feeding the cow a combination of burnt cornbread, soot, and salt (Randolph). In parts of Appalachia, there are superstitions that say a person should never break cornbread from both ends, or else there will be bad luck (Brown). A Georgia folk ritual says to feed a dog cornbread that has been rubbed on his left hind-foot in order to get him to follow you or stay loyal to you (Steiner).

Bread features in a number of magical rituals beyond ensuring canine companionship, too. One of the better-known rites is probably the Dumb Supper, which we’ve covered a few times and even done as a story episode during our annual All Hallows Read. A specific version of the working from Watauga County, North Carolina, involved even baking the bread backwards:

“Cook bread backwards, by sifting with the flour sifter behind you, and the like; also eat it with your back toward the table, and you’ll dream of whom you will marry” (Brown v.6 #4296).

The “reversal” power of the Dumb Supper works magically by inverting the typical order of things, allowing the user of the spell to see an end result (a future partner) earlier in their life. However, there are also consequences to that working in many cases (as you hear in our spooky retelling of the tale). It may also be that the Supper works to sort of ‘short circuit’ the brain by making it do a rote task in an unfamiliar way, thus causing a sort of distorted reality reaction and an altered state of consciousness, which might make a person much more susceptible to things like visions. Bread, as a staple ingredient and something so ordinary and frequently made, would be a perfect base for that kind of rite. It also has long-standing associations with strength and body, which could be another reason it gets used to call forth a corporeal image of a future lover. This body association also makes bread a key component of the modern Traditional Witchcraft rite of the Housle or “Red Meal.” In that rite, dark bread is presented as part of a ceremonial meal shared with Otherworldy spirits or the Dead (Artisson). That association of bread with the land of the dead also plays out in many customs and folkways from cultures that have ancestral reverence as a part of their practice. For example, in Mexican American traditions, a sweet bread flavored with orange essence and anise seed called “pan muerto”/”pan de muerto,” or “bread of the dead” is offered to ancestors during holidays like Dia de Muertos (Fernandez Kelly).

Bread’s association with the strength also leads to a curious bit of lore from Georgia, which says that a knife with a “soft” blade can be strengthened by simply putting it into hot cornbread, then into hot water (Steiner).

Bread also features in a variety of other folklore as well, even metaphorically. For example, many people almost instinctively say the phrase “bread and butter” when passing someone on the street with a light pole or other object between them. This is thought to ward off bad luck (another variation has one party say “bread and butter” while the other says “come to supper,” as well) (Brown, Randolph). A Pennsylvania Deitsch idiom says that a person who can use braucherei magic or other supernatural gifts is someone that “Hot meh du kenne wie Brod esse,” or that “he knows how to do more than eat bread!” (Dorson 112n1). Even in dreams, bread can have significance, as evidenced by this interpretation from the well-known and widely available Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream-book from the early twentieth century: “To eat wheaten bread, gives great gain to the rich, but loss to the poor; to eat rye bread is the reverse” (9). The commonness of the bread seems to be underlying most of its metaphorical value in these folk beliefs, sayings, and symbols–a person who can do more than eat bread can do more than the ordinary, and a rich person who eats the sort of bread only available to rich people (the more expensive and finer-milled “wheaten” bread) will see their gains continue. 

Illustration of a house blessing using bread, salt, and a coin
A simple house blessing spell/ritual using bread, salt, and a coin. (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020).

A House Blessing Charm (with bread!)

Perhaps my favorite bread-based magical working is one that I’ve done for a lot of folks when they move into a new home. It’s a little house blessing that I learned from my mother, who claimed it derived from Polish customs (we have a section of our family who all come from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well as the Bialystok region of Poland). I’ve also seen this represented as a Jewish house blessing, as well as a few other ethnicities, but thus far I’ve not found a single “source” for it. My guess is that it builds upon some fairly widespread Central and Eastern European symbols, and may even have been widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean through the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (which still uses house blessings today). The basic practice involves taking a small jar and filling it partly with salt, then adding a piece of homemade bread (just a small, crouton-sized cube would be enough), and a single coin. You can say a blessing over this (such as the Catholic rite of house blessing or Psalm 122:7, “Peace be in thy walls, and prosperity in thy dwelling”), simply explain the symbolism when you give the gift, as well. The individual components each have a meaning:

        • Bread – that those who dwell in the house may never know hunger
        • A Coin – that they may never know poverty
        • Salt – that their lives may never lack for flavor (i.e. good experiences)

There are lots of magical variations you could make here, too, including selecting specific kinds of coins (or ones with significant minting years printed on them). A silver “Mercury” dime would be a very protective one to include. You might also make a special kind of bread using herbs that convey specific blessings (although you do want to make sure the bread is somewhat dry when fully baked–it will essentially “mummify” in the salt over time so it won’t spoil, but only if it’s not a particularly moist bread to begin with…no zucchini bread, please!). You might even mix in spices or herbs with the salt, or consider using black salt as a way to specifically repel evil.

Loaves of homemade bread
Loaves of homemade bread (Image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020)

However you slice it, there’s a lot of magic in the lore of bread! If you’re baking up a storm during these mad, mad days of plague and pandemic, I hope that this post will inspire you to mix in a little magic along with your leaven, and add some enchantment to your bread basket!

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

REFERENCES

  1. Appalachian Magazine. Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Superstitions, Ghost Stories, & Haint Tales (Independently Published, 2018).
  2. Artisson, Robin. The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill (Pendraig Publishing, 2009). 
  3. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Volume 6), Wayland Hand, ed. (Duke Univ. Press, 2018 [1961]).
  4. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore of the United States (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972) 
  5. Farr, T.J. “Riddles and Superstitions of Middle Tennessee,” in Journal of American Folklore 48:190, 1935.
  6. Fernandez Kelly, Patricia. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” in American Quarterly 26:5, 1974.
  7. Hall, David. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement (Harvard Univ. Press, 1990).
  8. Hines, Donald. “Superstitions from Oregon,” in Western Folklore 24:1, 1965.
  9. Hohman, John George. The Long-lost Friend, Daniel Harms, ed. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  10. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Witches Almanac/Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 2020 [1935])
  11. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
  12. Steiner, Roland. “Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia,” in Journal of American Folklore 12:47, 1899.
  13. Thomas, Daniel and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions (Franklin Classics, 2018 [1920]).

Blog Post 225 – Button Button

Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish…One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish. (image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson)

Or, Notions of Magic.

We often mention that magic–folk magic, especially–is an everyday sort of affair. It lives in places like loose change and decks of playing cards, and we find spells using eggs or walnuts tucked into the corners of North American witchery.

Recently, I received a gift from a friend in the form of the Five Cent Tarot (thank you Heather!). It has fast become one of my absolute favorite decks to read with, as it has a number of symbols to draw from (and keywords pointing to meanings woven into the images, which helps with those of us who don’t do tarot quite as often as we do other systems). In this deck, the minor arcana are essentially the objects you might find in a junk drawer: sewing needles for swords, matches for clubs, buttons for discs, and teacups for, well, cups. We have already put up a post on the use of pins and needles, and matches are really more suited to their own post or one dealing with other aspects of fire magic. I’m so enamored of this deck, however, that I had to take some inspiration from it, and so the remaining suits put the idea in my head that I should look at some of the folk magic around buttons, thimbles, and other sewing notions. Given the burst of sewing going on as people make masks and other vital items during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also seemed like at least a semi-relevant topic. So let’s take the lid off grandma’s old butter cookie tin and see what sorts of lore and spells we find!

We start with buttons, which have a great deal of luck folklore associated with them. Widespread folk belief says that finding a button brings good luck to follow, somewhat similar to finding a lucky penny or other coin. In fact, one variant of this belief from North Carolina indicates that any button found and carried for luck should be smaller than a penny (or other lucky coin) (Brown). The kind of button found can also have magical significance. A button with two eyes is good luck, while a button with five eyes is bad (ibid.). A button from a coat might indicate that a letter is forthcoming soon, while a white button foretells a lawsuit (so maybe leave those where they are) (Daniels & Stevans). In the Ozarks, finding a black button indicates misfortune to follow (Steele).

A number of other notions like thimbles and ribbons have similar lore associated with them:

  • To find  a collar signifies that you will make an enemy…
  • To find a piece of lace, signifies that you will be ill…
  • To find a darning needle, signifies a disappointment in love…
  • To find a hat-pin signifies a quarrel…
  • To find a ribbon, a string, piece of silk or anything with color, especially if it be new and fresh will portend, signifies if red, good fortune, prosperity, successful love
  • To find scissors or knives, signifies that you should beware of enemies (ibid.)

Buttons are also the focus of a number of folk spells and rituals, such as these found in Henry Middleton Hyatt’s collection Folklore from Adams County, Illinois:

  • Buttons strung on a thread can be put around a baby’s neck to aid in teething. Some say the buttons should be cut from a man’s shirt for this purpose (NOTE: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING LIKE THIS AROUND A BABY’S NECK!). 
  • You can “sell” your wart to someone for a button, and as long as you keep the button the wart will go away
  • Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish. Other sources also indicate that you can do this ritual with any button you find so long as you pick up the button and place it in your shoe (which would be most comfortable if you were wearing penny loafers, I imagine). One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish (Brown).

Horn 'hunting' buttons with shanks
Buttons made of animal horn (photo by Tyranny Sue / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

One particularly neat divination found in Hyatt’s collection is similar to the “calling circle” sometimes performed to discern a baby’s future on its first birthday. This time, however, the button is one of a set of objects that can be used to determine your future at any age:

“Into a pan of water on the table drop a button, coin, nut, ring and stone; then blindfold yourself and with a spoon attempt to scoop out one of the articles from the pan — three trials being allowed: if you lift out the button, you will live in single blessedness; if the coin, you will acquire wealth; if the nut, you will toil for a living; if the ring, you will marry; and if the stone, you will travel a rocky road. Halloween is the usual time for this divination.”

This sort of divination game is similar to other party games, and the Halloween setting of this ties it to similar occult play such as the use of “nutcrack night” fire rituals or even the slightly more spin-the-bottle-esque game of snap apple (or, in a similar vein, bobbing for apples).

Thread is another good source of folklore and folk magic. Most people reading this likely know about the general idea of “knot magic,” (something we’ll be covering through our Cunnigham Book Club in the show as well). Using threads for magical work is something both old and incredibly contemporary, as even children are frequently doing magic like this. Just think of the many friendship bracelets young kids make for one another, and the way those are designed to “bind” them together in the bonds of friendship forever. One of my favorite presentations of this is in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, where Chihiro/Sen’s friends make her a little friendship bracelet-like hair tie, the only physical object she gets to keep when she exits the spirit world later.

One long-standing superstition that I personally hold to is trying to save all my trimmed thread ends. I keep them in a jar in the top-most room of my house (which also happens to be my library room where I’m writing this at the moment. The tangles in the jar are thought to help prevent harm from coming to a household, much in the way that “counting objects” like beans or salt scattered by a door might. Since my wife is a knitter and I do a good bit of sewing and darning there are few weeks in a year I don’t add to the jar, yet somehow it never quite gets full. Almost like magic.

Jar full of thread and yarn ends to protect family and house from harm. Photo by Cory Thomas Hutcheson. Image in background by Rima Staines.

Knotting thread, especially red thread, around someone’s wrist with a certain number of knots–usually seven–was used as a magical ward against headaches and other ills (Hand) (Randolph). Cunning folk traditions from England also suggest using bits of rope from a hangman’s noose can alleviate these sorts of aches and pains (Baker). We also see the use of knots and threads in the form of a “witch’s measure,” a concept adopted in a number of occult systems like Wicca (where it is often called a cingulum and can be used to “bind” an initiate to their coven). In Hoodoo, a similar use of a measure involves taking red thread or yarn and measuring a partner’s genitals, then wetting them with sexual fluids and knotting them to prevent a partner from straying (Hurston). A similar principle was used when taking two pieces of clothing, one from each partner (preferably worn and unwashed), then knotting them together to ensure fidelity.

Untying knots also has occult power in several bits of folklore. For example, in the Appalachians and Ozarks, women were sometimes advised to unbind their hair as a way to ease birthing pains (during birth, not necessarily all the time) (Illes). Sailors heading out to sea might acquire a cord made by a local witch with a series of knots in it. If their ship were becalmed and unable to move, they could untie each knot to raise a different degree of wind. One knot could bring about a light breeze, while all the knots might summon a hurricane. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “buying the wind” using coins thrown overboard (Dorson). 

The Witch’s Ladder is a charm made from rope or thread knotted around objects, usually including feathers, as a way to create a long-term curse or spell on a person (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020)

And, of course, how could we talk about threads and strings and witchcraft without mentioning the popular (and often nefarious) witch’s ladder? This is a magical talisman made by braiding three cords together and knotting them nine times while placing an object into each knot. Usually, these objects were bones or feathers from birds, often geese, which may connect the charm mythologically to figures like Frau Holle. While each knot was tied, the witch would curse the intended target, then hang the ladder secretly in the home of their victim with the intent of causing them to suffer and eventually die unless the knots are unbound or the ladder is destroyed somehow. Late twentieth-century Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (mentioned above as part of our book club) revised the witch’s ladder a bit for more positive purposes, turning it into the “wishing ladder,” which uses similar magical structures to create charms that get a witch what she wants out of life.

There are so many other magical crafts and lore associated with things like strings, buttons, thimbles, and ribbons, too. Crafts like the ojo de dios or the oft-appropriated Ojibwe dreamcatcher use the concepts of threads and knots to create talismanic spells, for example. I’ve also been delighted to see the enthusiasm for needlecraft among contemporary feminist witchcraft practitioners, who cross-stitch their intentions into spell-like wall hangings with phrases like “hex the patriarchy” on them. As someone who frequently darns my own clothes and does a good bit of sewing on the side to repair the damage done to clothes by growing children (and frankly, we adults are not terribly careful either), the eager embrace of sewing and knot magic and a jar full of magical buttons makes me quite happy (you can tell I’m the life of every party, can’t you?). There’s even a new book recently released that I’m hoping to check out at some point all about contemporary needlework-and-button-bound magic called Sew Witchy, by Raechel Henderson (if you’ve read it or tried out any of the crafts in it, I’d love to hear about those below in the comments, along with any other notion-based magical work you do!). 

That’s only a small bit of a much bigger line of magical work. Weaving has its own spell associations, and I’m not even touching prayer shawls at the moment, which can have an intense magical protective connection. Still, in this time when we see people making dozens or hundreds of cloth masks for public health and safety or needing to stretch their clothing’s lifespan a bit longer due to newly-tightened economic belts, it’s good to know we can still find magic and witchcraft in the very stitches, thimbles, measures, and buttons we’ve been hiding in butter cookie tins the whole time.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References:

  1. Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
  2. Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
  3. Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
  4. Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
  5. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
  6. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
  7. Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
  9. Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).
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