Blog Post 207 – What is New World Witchery?, Part V (Witches Become Witches)

In previous posts in this series, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just starting with this series here, you might want to flip back the pages of this dusty old tome on the bookshelf and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices, and the physical “things” of North American witchcraft. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.

This time, I’m addressing a topic I’ve addressed before in a few different ways: how witches learn to do the magic associated with them. I’m revisiting these points here because the other posts on them all go into more detail on specifics, and I believe that a more general summary of themes and methods is useful here. As you’re digging into this subject, feel free to spend some time in those older posts, too, as they do provide more depth than this one will. As you will likely see early and often through the following examples, witches can gain their magical prowess in a lot of different ways, and so it can be hard to compare one witch to another in folklore and history. At the same time, there are themes that do unite the different stories, or at least themes that overlap with one another, creating a sort of “spectrum.” What is certain, though, is that those who claim magical power develop it in some way to eventually become what people call a “witch.”

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Witches Become Witches

In the time I’ve spent reading accounts of witchcraft in books of history and folklore, the time I’ve spent interviewing contemporary practitioners or examining specific magical artifacts, and the time I’ve spent consulting with other people who study this engrossing topic, I’ve learned that over-generalizations are not terribly useful when it comes to witchcraft. By reducing witchcraft into motifs and components, we tend to miss the highly individual experiences of the people actually practicing the magic. At the same time, it helps us a lot to look for patterns, and when it comes to just how witches gain their magical powers, we can see a set of patterns in the New World (or at least, specifically in North America) that point the way towards a better understanding of how these practices move between people. Tradition, as one of my folklore mentors has pointed out, comes from a Latin root having to do with “handing” things over, and witchcraft generally seems to be a “tradition” in that sense—it is handed over from one person (or entity) to another.

The exception to that rule is hereditary witchraft, although in this case I’m not referring to grandiose initiation stories of secret Granny Witches conducting rituals in their kitchens to initiate their grandchildren (looking at you here Alex Sanders). Rather, I’m referring to the wide body of lore that says that witches can often be “marked” from birth with special powers. For example, the presence of a caul around a newborn’s head is frequently noted as a source of spiritual power, and even when detatched the caul retains some magical abilities—sailors paid a pretty penny for dried cauls to stave off drowning, for example. In mountain lore inherited from European traditions, the seventh son of a seventh son is often reputed to have the ability to heal or do certain types of magic, setting him apart. Other birth-related demarcations of magical power include unusual moles, the presence of teeth in a newborn, extra fingers or toes, or a baby who is particularly hairy. One account of witchcraft among Pueblo Native Americans in the American Southwest showed that popular opinions claimed that witches often passed on their abilities to their children (albeit powers of malediction and harm in that example). A West Virginian herbal healer named Dovie Lambert who also “took off” bewitchments from others claimed that the passage of magical power occurred when secret words were transmitted across gender lines in families: father-to-daughter or mother-to-son, or even among aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Dovie believed that if the power didn’t get transmitted before the witch’s death, the power of that line of witchcraft would die out, although she herself believed that was unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Even in cases of a “witch from birth,” which is not always the same thing as these examples of magical “election,” the person has to choose to use their ability, and often develops it during a later point in life. This power was not solely limited to magic, however, but often reputed to impart special gifts to children based on birth order that might include a talent for medicine or a need for expanded education. Vance Randolph recorded some such beliefs in his examination of the Ozarks and their lore:

“If there are seven sons in a family, and no daughters, the seventh son is clearly intended to be a physician. The seventh son of a seventh son is a physician in spite of himself, endowed with healing powers which cannot be denied. Even if such a man does not study or practice medicine, he is very often called “Doc” or “Doctor” by common consent. However, small-time gamblers are often called “Doc” too, just as every backwoods auctioneer becomes a “Colonel.”

If there are ten sons in a family, and no daughters, the tenth son must be a preacher. “God meant it to be that-a-way,” an old woman once told me. “He knows how many preachers we need in this world.” She would not go so far as to say, however, that it is a mistake to call men who are not tenth sons into the ministry.

Many hillfolk believe that a third son is more intelligent than his brothers and should therefore be encouraged to “git more book-larnin’.” Others contend that, other things being equal, the fourth child has the brains of the whole family.”

Frequently the turning point in a “natural” magician’s life is adolescence or young adulthood, when the person’s power fully manifests for the first time and they learn the techniques of healing from someone else in their community, usually a family member. For example, West Virginian folk healer Johnny Arvin Dahmer spoke of inheriting a copy of The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus from his grandfather, who was also known as a folk magician and charmer. While a person may be predisposed to magical talent, then, their use of that talent comes only with guidance and training.

That instruction forms is very much the “marrow of tradition” that underlies almost all other forms of witches-becoming-witches. Just how involved that training is depends on the type of magic being transmitted, the cultural context in which it is found, and the particular individuals involved. In most cases, magical practitioners do not hang out shingles and advertise their services as instructors in witchcraft, but over the course of a long-standing and developed relationship with another person they may decide to share their secrets. In Dovie Lambert’s case above, that may happen as a matter of survivial of the magical tradition—if it is not transmitted it will “die out.” Lambert’s cross-gender transmission appears in a number of European-derived practices, including those from German-speaking, English-speaking, and French-speaking groups. A detailed study of powwowing magic in Pennsylvania Dutch communities by David W. Kriebel sums up a number of these ideas:

“Training procedures vary greatly, although one rule is nearly universal, namely, that only a woman can teach a man and only a man can teach a woman…training time can take anywhere from a few minutes to a year. The training procedure used by [one informant] and passed on to [two others] consisted of a ten-week program with all information imparted orally. When the initiate returned for the second session he (or she) had to repeat all the incantations and gestures perfectly, as a sign the initiate was meant to become a powwower.”

Kriebel’s account brings up the concept of a “calling” to do magic, which may be an echo of the idea of a hereditary practice or may signify the same kind of “calling” experienced by a religious or political leader. Kriebel also notes that one of his informants draws attention to the “price” of teaching magic, with one informant claiming “that when one powwower trains another the teacher gives up half his power to the student.” Several instances of this sort of transmission appear in folklore about witches who share their secrets or pass on their power only in the moments before their own death. A number of accounts make the claim that magical power can only be taught or transmitted at most three times within a person’s lifespan before the magic “runs out” or the practitioner dies.

Beyond the element of a calling to witchcraft, some witches may seek out their power in various ways. One Northern Mexican informant described the application of a special set of powders to his body, followed by a ritual bath, that gave him the ability to transform into animals. Notably, he learned the process by watching two other witches do the same in secret, and initially failed to do it correctly because he was wearing a scapular (a Catholid object designed to confer the blessings of Saints on the wearer). Only after removing the holy item was he able to begin his transformations. Many such initiations involve a renunciation of Christian practices or beliefs. Several accounts from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet note that witches become witches by “throw[ing] rocks at the moon and cuss[ing] God Almighty” or writing the Lord’s Prayer on a plate in grease paint, then washing it in a river or stream in an act of inverse baptism. Vance Randolph’s informants note that the initiation experience could be “a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion,” at least according to his sources.

In some cases of initiation, witches were expected to pay a price similar to the one noted in the accounts Kriebel found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That price might be an obligation to a specific spirit (most commonly framed in the American traditions as “the Devil,” although specific descriptions and formulations of diabolic initiation vary). It might also involve the death of a relative, or a period of intense sickness or near-death illness. Once initiated, however, a witch retained her power until her death or until she elected to pass it on to someone else. Other magical powers often followed this line of transmission: a calling or marking from birth followed by a powerful experience in young adulthood or adolescence that confirmed magical ability; the transmission of specific knowledge about witchcraft through the passage of oral lore or even the handing over of a book; and finally, the dispersal of that knowledge and power to another generation, often only in very limited quantities.

Contemporary practitioners tend to derive their magical knowledge in similar ways to the ones already outlined, but with some distinctions. For example, the emphasis on learning from books has become a de facto aspect of magical training. In some cases, the same books used in previous generations, like Egyptian Secrets, still hold sway, although in truth there are so many options available the older books are only a small sliver of the greater body of knowledge being used (I’m not complaining here, as I think many fantastic books have been produced in recent years, including some that surpass the older tomes in terms of breadth and depth of magical information). Several correspondents I’ve had have told me they look for “classes” in witchcraft, too, with structure and lesson plans and even homework. Some prefer classes focused on specific skills, as with Becky Beyer’s Appalachian wildcraft workshops, while others follow initiatory magico-religious traditions like Christopher Penczak’s Inner Temple structure. Training from groups directly (either in person or via postal correspondence) was the norm during the heyday of British Traditional Wicca in the 1970s and 1980s, but that is only a singular form of training now among many other forms available. Some practitioners still take on apprentices, especially in traditions like powwow or curanderismo, although both of those traditions are sometimes taught in whole or part within a class environment, too.

The one element that seems to have dissipated over time is the concept of the “price” paid for magical knowledge. The price has become the time and commitment required to learn the skills and magical techniques associated with a particular tradition. There are still some initiatory groups that do extract a price, such as requiring potential initiates to fast or wear special clothing for a certain length of time—something common in Lukumi traditions, for example. Occasionally the idea of the price being a loved one’s death surfaces, too, although that has become increasingly rare. So, too, has the idea of passing on the tradition before death as a matter of continuing a line of magical practice. Instead, practitioners often pass on their knowledge as more of a public service or as an aspect of their calling (some speak of being “called to teach” within a “training coven” structure, for example). Passing knowledge has also moved beyond rules about gender lines, too, instead becoming a more egalitarian and open-access approach.

Given the many roads into witchcraft, however, the road out is still in the transmission, even if the reasoning has changed. Witches become witches, and they do so because other witches make that possible. The stereotype of witches gathering in huge covens on Walpurgisnacht to engage in Satanic rites may be a medieval fabrication and fantasy, but in the act of sharing magical knowledge, there does seem to be a continuity of magical community. Almost like a family.

 

N.B: I will be doing one more entry in this series on the many and various talents of witches, but I am likely to set aside that post for a bit to cover a few other topics. This series has been rather grander in scope than I think I originally envisioned, but I hope it is useful to some of you. For now, I am so grateful to those of you sticking with me even with the longer gaps between posts.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 205 – What is New World Witchery?, Part IV (Witches Make Things (Happen))

In previous posts, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just jumping in here, you might want to turn back the hands of time with an enchanted pocketwatch (which seems a very Romantic or Steampunk sort of notion) and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.

Witchcraft Makes Things (Happen): The Physicality of New World Magic

Thinking about witchraft academically is fun (well, for me, at least). Here, however, we turn from the realms of intellect and ether to the dirt-under-the-fingernails side of witchcraft in North America. Magical author Peter Paddon was fond of saying that a good sorcerer can do magic stark naked in a concrete bunker, and I certainly agree that on some level that is true. However, for most people practicing magic in an everyday way, the “stuff” of witchcraft is vitally important. Again and again, we see that the physicality of magic plays a crucial role in how that magic operates, how those who perform the magic perceive the world around them, and how magic shapes the actual spaces around both practitioners and those with whom they have contact. The objects and spaces of magical action, the artifacts of witchcraft as they might be called, are often both a highly attractive element of the practice and one of the ways in which magic reaches beyond the individual and into the broader community. Even those who don’t practice any form of formalized witchcraft might be found carrying a rabbit’s foot in their pocket, or hanging a horseshoe above their door, or even standing a broom in the corner. Witches take these magical actions a step further and combine, amplify, augment, or otherwise expand upon individual talismans or amulets. Witches are the ones who can make the potions or charms needed to guarantee luck or repel evil. They are at a very fundamental level crafters in multiple, layered senses of that word—they overlay a magical craft onto handicrafts, and recognize the process of creation as a form of ritual unto itself.

Often, the process of crafting and creation goes beyond the boundaries of familiar and everyday use. Something used in one way for mundane needs experiences a transformation through magical operation, and becomes an object of power. One of the most readily apparent examples is the humble broom. Whether the broom is used for sealing a marriage (“jumping the broom”) or sweeping luck around the room, it functions as both a mundane tool and a magical one. It can even become the source of magical supplies, as broom straws are used to treat conditions like warts or the evil eye in folk healing rituals.

Broom and Broomstick in Oostende, Belgium (via Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly, we can see other physical objects that jump from their mundane contexts into magical ones, even busting the barriers that separate overt purpose from magical reinterpretation. One practitioner, who follows a generally Druidic path but draws upon folk magical influences, explained via correspondence in 2016 that she had created a “honey jar” type spell, which involves putting select ingredients—sometimes herbs, but frequently paper, images, or even personal objects like hair and fingernails—into a sweet mixture like honey, syrup, or sugar in order to obtain a favorable outcome. She wrote that she had been attempting to secure a mortgage, and decided to do a working on one of the bank officials involved in the approval process. After putting the jar together, she “tracked down his name and a picture and performed the…spell.  Guess it tipped things in my favor because the mortgage was approved the very next day!” While not every spell meets with success like this, the physical contact with ingredients and the ability to hold something magical in one’s hands surfaces again and again in practical witchcraft. Even witchcraft-adjacent magic, such as the treasure-finding work that Joseph Smith did before he founded Mormonism, required the use of physical props (in Smith’s case, special stones called “peep stones” that enabled him to find treasure and later decipher angelic writings).

The physical forms used depend on personal preference, traditional background, and local availability. In some cases, folk magicians lean heavily on the exotic or the unusual, even going so far as to procure incenses and herbs from mail-order or internet supply houses that offer things like dragon’s blood resin or frankincense. Just as often, however, a magical worker can find virtually everything she or he needs simply by walking through the doors of the local supermarket.

Seriously, who wouldn’t want a ouija board umbrella? (Made by Etsy shop StuffoftheDead)

We can get very drawn into the aesthetics of witchcraft, because they are quite frankly pretty awesome. Who doesn’t want to bedeck themselves in black and silver and bones and fill their house with candles, incense, and stones? That aesthetic, however, is only a surface one, something we have reclaimed from pop culture in many ways (and an aesthetic which continues to inspire even in recent years). The physical manifestations of magical practice are oh-so-frequently a well-stocked spice cabinet, a drawer full of pins and bent nails or old wishbones or loose change, and a broom turned up behind a doorway.

And, if I’m being honest, a library a little overburdened with books of folklore.

The physicality of witchcraft is intimately tied with its effectiveness. Spells done naked in a bunker can be effective, but even Peter Paddon wrote a book on the viscerality of magic because he knew, as most who practice magic do, that spells aren’t pure abstraction or thought experiments. They are fleshy, and dirty, and sexy, and painful, and fun, and scary, and sticky, and…well, physical.

 

Next time: Witches Become Witches

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 204 – What is New World Witchery?, Part III (Witches Have a Lot of Friends (You Just Can’t See All of Them))

“Tituba and Giles Corey,” by John W. Ehninger. Public Domain. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome! If you’re just starting here, you should know that this post is part of my ongoing series trying to use folklore, history, and contemporary accounts of folk magic to paint a picture of what “New World Witchery” might look like. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read the first post, “What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” Then, at least logically, you might want to read the second post, which looks at how Witchcraft is an Amoral (not an Immoral) Act. But who needs logic? Start here if you please, or go back, or divine the content of future posts through by throwing bones, pulling cards, or shaking a Magic 8 Ball. I am just happy you’re here. Please note: my attempt to lay out some sort of shape that defines New World Witchcraft practices here is likely to satisfy no one (not even me). I undertake this effort largely because I think it gives me a point of reference when I’m developing other articles and trying to see how distinctly “New World” certain practices are. So let’s see where that leads us today (or perhaps, let’s not see…there’s a good bit of shapeshifting and invisibility ahead).

Witches Have a Lot of Friends (You Just Can’t See All of Them)

Anyone familiar with British cunning-folk practices has probably run across the concept of the “fairy familiar” through the works of scholars and authors like Owen Davies, Emma Wilby, and Ronald Hutton. English magical folk frequently entered into short- and long-term relationships with otherworldly beings. Sometimes these relationships were straightforward and reciprocal, and sometimes they seemed to be nearly unwanted but inevitable for the person selected by a fairy for contact and assistance. These are not elvish shoemakers doing a day’s work for a kindly cobbler, but often beings who seem to be able to impact the human world without fully understanding it, and beings who sometimes exact steep prices for their services. Wilby notes the phenomenon in her book, citing several well-known cunning folk and their fairy familiars:

“Susan Swapper (Wales, 1607), for example, claimed that she had been told by a companion that if she knelt to the queen of the fairies the latter would give her ‘a living’ while Joan Tyrry (Somerset, 1555) claimed that the fairies ‘taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’…Jonet Rendall (Orkney, 1629) was told by her fairy familiar ‘Walliman’ that ‘He sould learne yow to win almiss be healling of folk’, while Anne Jeffries (Cornwall, 1645), by virtue of the healing powers she gained as a result of her liaison with the fairies, had ‘monies, at all times, sufficient to supply her wants.”

These fairy relationships enabled many magical folk to get by, and even do some good, although one could also turn the power to do harm as well.

“Examination of a Witch,” by Thompkins H. Matteson (1853-Peabody Collection, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commoons)

In the New World, relationships with spiritual folk from other realms has almost always been suspect, even diabolical. Trial records from Salem show accused practitioners of magic confessing to secret meetings in the woods with devils (although there are also potential readings that might suggest meetings with local Indian tribespeople, who were often viewed as satanic savages by English settlers). During the examination of Tituba, for example, the accused slave confessed to meeting with a Devil-figure in the home of her master, Samuel Parris. She claimed to have signed the Devil’s book and to have been forced into doing ill to the children of the household. In another round of examination, she described the familiar spirits of another accused witch, Sarah Good, as a “yellow bird” that drank blood from Good’s hand and which had “wings and two legs and a head like a woman.” The foundation of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which made the Salem trials so particularly heinous, was the permission granted by the court to allow “specral evidence,” or the suffering of the victims at the hands of unseen spirits, as concrete proof of witchcraft. Of course, many of these details derive from European witchcraft beliefs inherited from earlier trials and confessions, and we should not lay too much stock by them, but they do illustrate an interesting transition within the New World context. In many cases, the concept of “fairy” spirits who aided witches and magical practitioners shifted towards animal familiars (often uncanny animals) and spectral beings that could take the witch’s shape or work on the witch’s behalf (even if it was not in the witch’s best interest, as the specters often “attacked” Salem witchcraft victims in open court as the accused witches tried to defend themselves as innocent).

 

Witches in North America seemed to spend a lot of time either communicating with their spiritual allies (often in transfigured shapes) or gallivanting around in spirit form themselves. A common motif of “spirit flight” would allow witches to grease themselves up with a flying ointment to travel to distant towns and steal from the local larders and dry goods stores (or, even more often, the wine or whiskey stores of the well-to-do—perhaps another incarnation of the class equity balancing act I’ve already mentioned). Keeping witches out of such places involved spreading salt grains or mustard seeds on the porch or roof, hanging a sieve over the door handle, or otherwise forcing the witch to count some minute object like seeds or holes in order to frustrate her entry. Witches were thought to cavort with devils and wicked spirits in their invisible and insubstantial forms, or to go out working all kinds of mischief. A story from the Mississippi Delta region speaks of a “boo hag” that would travel out at night and leave her skin behind. Only when a young man put salt and hot pepper into her skin before she returned could she be defeated. The mindset of diabolical worship and revelry lingered in the popular imagination about witches well past the Colonial period. In the mid-nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne published his story, “Young Goodman Brown,” which was riddled with such witch lore. In more recent times, magical practitioners such as self-proclaimed “hexenmeister” Lee Gandee reported the constant presence of spirits, who he called his “boys.” Such spirits heightened or enabled magical practices for those who knew them and worked with them, even without the pretext of diabolical pacts.

 

Of course, not all spirits were unseen by those around the witch. Just as often, the witch’s companions would be animals like Sarah Good’s alleged yellow bird. A Virginia tale about a witch named Rindy Sue Gose tells of her diabolical pact to become a sorceress, for which she received a little black beetle in a medicine bottle, which she fed with blood from her shoulder. The sucking familiar was a trope widely found in European witch tales, and many believed that the animal would do the witch’s bidding by carrying out her orders or doing dark deeds on her behalf. The Southern tale of “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” describes a witch whose prized razorback hog is slaughtered by local ne’er-do-wells only to be resurrected by her magic to seek vengeance on those who took her friend away from her (again, a form of justice and rebalancing). A subtler way of viewing the animal relationship, however, might suggest that the witch did not so much employ the creature as a servant, but as a second self. Many witches in stories engaged in forms of shapeshifting, turning into black cats, large hares, insects, or other beasts in order to travel swiftly and unseen throughout their portion of the world. In shapeshifted form, witches were particularly vulnerable, and any harm that came to them—being cut with a silver knife or shot by a silver bullet—would leave a mark upon their human body that allowed them to be identified later or kill them outright.

“Superstition Mountain Sentinel (Coyote Sundial),” By Mikesanchez1109 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

 

They could transform others as well, using them has horses (as Betty Booker did to the old Skipper). One legend from Acoma describes two evil “warlocks” who used a magic hoop to turn themselves into coyotes in order to kidnap a beautiful girl from a nearby tribe. Interestingly, the medicine man of the tribe tracks them through the help of animals, telling the braves following him “Listen to the bird singing in yon bush. It is warning us of the great danger we ace. It says to hurry for Isleta [the girl] will be abused if she is not rescued soon.” Animal friends with spiritual connections appear to help both “good” and “bad” magicians, and the Acoma tale reads much like European fairy tales that feature animal helpers warning of danger.

 

Speaking of fairies, did they all disappear in the New World? Not quite. The unseen powers of fairies do linger on in parts of North America, although many of the tales involving them seem to emphasize the need to counteract their work. The concept of being “elf-shot” or attacked by fairy magic seems to have transferred into areas where large Irish and English populations thrived, including parts of the Ozarks and Appalachians. Vance Randolph speaks of “power doctors,” which are remarkably similar to the “fairy doctors” found in Irish folklore, for instance. There are also plenty of tales of “little people” in the New World, often from Native American sources, although the close interactions noted between cunning folk and fairies are largely absent. In more recent years, however, fascination with fairies and similar beings has captivated American imaginations. There are fairy-oriented gatherings, such as FaerieCon and Mythic Worlds, that seek to connect fairy beings with spiritual identity (and have a rollicking good time doing so). Threads of Traditional Witchcraft in North America have made much of connecting with a “fetch beast,” which is similar to but distinct from the familiar spirits seen in earlier periods of American witchcraft. The broad picture of North American witchcraft certainly has room for the fairy brides and husbands and teachers of British lore, of course, but on the whole North American witchcraft seems to lean more towards the animal kingdom, tales of diabolical meetings, and invisible specters than the Good People Under the Hill. Perhaps much of that has to do with the aversion to aristocracy and courtly systems in North America—the fairies of Europe often seem to organize themselves in ways that parallel the human nobles around them. North Americans are largely removed from such formal aristocracies (although they certainly still exist in the forms of social classes, as evidenced by cotillions and debutante balls). We turn, instead, to wilder things—beasts and haints and devils—to connect to magic.

 

Next time: Witchcraft Makes Things (Happen)

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 203 – What is New World Witchery?, Part II (Witchcraft is an Amoral (not Immoral) Act)

“Tituba and Giles Corey,” by John W. Ehninger. Public Domain. (via Wikimedia Commons)

This post is part of my ongoing series trying to use folklore, history, and contemporary accounts of folk magic to paint a picture of what “New World Witchery” might look like. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read the previous post, “What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you. I have already said there what I will reiterate here: that my attempt to lay out some sort of shape that defines New World Witchcraft practices is likely to satisfy no one (not even me). I undertake this effort largely because I think it gives me a point of reference when I’m developing other articles and trying to see how distinctly “New World” certain practices are. There will always be exceptions, of course. Rules and witchcraft have a murky, complicated relationship, a thought which brings me to the subject of today’s section:

Witchcraft is an Amoral (not Immoral) Act

Despite a common popular conception in parts of early America, most witches are not interested in worshiping a literal Christian Devil or sending random blights over their neighbors’ crops. That doesn’t mean witches do no harm—they seem to do a lot of it, at least in accounts historical and folkloric. For instance, many witches will tie up a rag to an axe handle or fence post in order to steal milk from their neighbors’ cows, thereby stealing directly from the people around them. Seldom are those targeted by witches run into ruin or completely deprived because of the witch’s interference, although it may cause them some anxiety and trouble. The magical theft seems to be an extension of the pragmatism mentioned previously, though, offering the witches involved a way to sustain themselves. There are stories of people being tormented to the point of death, of course, but as in the famous Bell Witch case, much of the lore surrounding such attacks implies that the target has wronged the witch in some way, and that the witch is simply bypassing conventional justice for her own brand (see Keith Thomas’ essay on English witchcraft for a good outline of that argument, which applies equally in a number of Colonial-era witchcraft cases).

Witchcraft is not an act of evil unless it is being labeled that way by those not practicing it, but its applications are often morally ambiguous, verging on unethical. Take for example, the case of Mont and Duck Moore in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Duck would hex livestock within the community, and then Mont would remove the curse…for a fee, of course. This was an act of commerce far more than it was an act of evil. Or at least, it was evil in proportion to its pragmatic approach to earning a living. The case of Betty Booker mentioned previously provides an example with a bit less racketeering.  At the far end of the spectrum we have the case of “The Witch of Pungo,” Grace Sherwood, who provided a variety of cures for her community in Virginia, only to end up being “swum” for her troubles (fortunately, she survived the experience). Sherwood reportedly stirred up the ire of some of her neighbors through her witchy ways, but seldom held back in her condemnation of those same neighbors when they leveled accusations against her. Folk magic and witchcraft, as we have seen already, are about meeting needs, and those needs are frequently morally dubious, much more so than the people who perform conjurations to help meet those needs. Cheo Torres noted that he was once asked what people liked to ask curanderas to do for them by a reporter. He replied: “Well, I said, young men usually want something to help them get sex…[M]idle-aged women usually want something to make their husbands love them again, sine that spark has left their lives. Middle-aged men want something to help them deal with the old aches and pains of their arthritis or their old football injuries. Older women wanted something to help them win at bingo or the lottery. And older men usually wanted something to attract younger women.” Clearly, meeting the needs of those who come to them is what creates moral ambiguity, far more than a witch’s partnership with a particular imp or spirit (although we’ll be getting to that topic soon enough).

Statue of Grace Sherwood on Witchduck Rd., Virginia Beach, VA. By Lago Mar [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A New World Witch is accountable to herself, and answers to her own sense of morality. Some stories demonstrate a witch paying a price exacted later by a Devil, but for the most part any suffering they find is at the hands of those who work countermagic against them—for example in tales where a hexed butterchurn is used to reverse harm upon the witch who cast the curse in the first place. One informant shared a just such a reversal with me regarding the Evil Eye:

“If your infant is thought to have been given the Evil Eye, it will display tantrums, inexplicable fits, crying, fever, coupled with nausea out of nowhere. If this is determined to be the case, the one suspected of giving the Evil Eye to the child must be confronted in front of said child, and be asked to submit (pass along with their mouth or spit in a glass of water) their saliva to the infant for it to ingest… Giving of themselves a part of them, to queue [quell] its curse.”

The person who gave the Evil Eye was expected to be a person that could be confronted, negotiated with, a part of a community that operated by informal, unofficial, but very potent magical “rules” that could flex and adjust to particular circumstances.

Justice is negotiated in individual encounters rather than through uniform rules. Witches like Sherwood may have had tempestuous personalities but still acted as forces for good in their communities. Milk-stealing witches met their needs through magic, often because they had fallen through any social networks of support that were supposed to exist in their communities, and frequently paid an eventual price for their deeds at the hands of those they’d wronged. Some witches played a system, as in the case of Mont and Duck, and were tolerated by the community at least for a time. No one, it seems, in history or folklore, expects the witch to act in a morally “mainstream” manner, but to operate under her own code of right and wrong (and any shades of gray between).

Next time: Witches Have a Lot of Friends (You Just Can’t See Many of Them).
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 202 – What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism)

“Tituba and Giles Corey,” by John W. Ehninger. Public Domain. (via Wikimedia Commons)

It has taken nearly seven years, two hundred articles, over one hundred podcast episodes, and the formation of an interactive community of people all interested in the systems and traditions of various magic-practicing people in North America (and beyond), but now here we are. Based on the title of this post, you may be imagining that I’m about to lay out a complete definition of “New World Witchery.” One that locks down all these various strands we’ve been chasing. Or you may be thinking nothing of the sort, and instead be stumbling upon this article first and trying to decide if the rest of the material here would ever be of interest to you. I think, then, that I am bound to disappoint, because attempting to cage “New World Witchery” in one place, form, or time will never work—it seems that so long as there is still a “New World” with practicing witches in it, that definition is going to have to remain somewhat flexible and fluid.

In one of my last posts, I attempted to answer the question of whether or not I am a witch, and in doing so I covered several key points: practical (although not entirely logical), wondrous (in the sense that the world is full of strange, marvelous, and sometimes terrifying things), and traditional (in the most literal sense of the word). I realize in attempting to create some sort of categorical definition of “New World Witchery,” I’m going to at best satisfy but a very few, but hopefully if you’ve been along for the ride thusfar, you’ll at least come on the journey with me and see what makes sense to you, or what you might change or improve. I will also note that while I am drawing on sources from history and folklore, I will not only be turning to the past. Witchcraft seems to be alive and well today, so I’m inclined to pull from contemporary sources, too. Your mileage with those sources may vary.

This article will be divided into multiple posts, mostly due to length. I’m going to link to material within each part, but the full references will be added retroactively to the posts when they have all been completed, for the sake of practicality. Speaking of which, that takes us to our first major point, and the subject of this initial post.

Hamsa Hand (via Wikimedia Commons)

Irrational Pragmatism: Witchcraft Gets the Job Done (Even if No One Knows How)

I mentioned in the previous article that in many cases, witchcraft seemed to be less about formal religion than “muttering under one’s breath in a time of need, or knowing not to burn sassafras wood.” What I see repeated over and over again in witch tales is a deeply pragmatic approach to problems. A person is marginalized by their community, or denied a favor, or needs to get some milk to keep from going hungry. The only unusual aspect of the problem-solving is that it involves magic, which operates in highly irrational ways. Dorcas Hoar and Bridget Bishop in Salem both existed at the fringes of their town’s social structure, women who needed to survive without adherence to rigid Congregational conformance and who did not have the typical family structure of the community to support them. Dorcas Hoar’s husband had died the year before the trials began, but she had been engaged in acts of divination during the decade before the trials as well, and was reputed to own magical texts. Bishop was known to be strongly opinionated and ran an unofficial tavern out of her home. Hoar managed to escape the trials with a conviction but lived to tell the tale for nearly twenty more years, but Bishop was not so lucky.

Within folkloric cases of witchcraft, those who perform magic may be accomplishing their own ends, but they are also serving a bigger social function, too. I’ve mentioned Betty Booker here previously, and her case shows that a witch can stand in for a judge and jury against those who behave shamefully in a community, as Booker does by “riding” the old skipper after his miserly behavior. In a more contemporary setting, the application of folk magic might be a way to bridge the gap of personal connection (especially in an age where we tend to communicate from behind a screen). One person communicated a bit of lore to me regarding infants and the evil eye that illustrates this point: “My mom said that if someone wants to touch/hold your baby and you don’t let them then there is a chance that person will leave casting ‘mal de ojo’ (evil eye) on your baby causing them a lifetime of bad luck, conversely, she said that letting others hold your baby is good luck.” While it is always a good idea to wash one’s hands before handling a newborn, it’s also important to integrate the new child into a community, which seems to be one of the underlying themes of this lore of baby-passing. Whatever the case, New World witchcraft meets needs, and it meets them where they are without hesitation.

 

Next time: Witchcraft as an Amoral (not Immoral) Act

 

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 201 – Ilvermorny

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

Platform 9 & 3/4 Sign, Kings Cross Station, London. Picture taken by fr:Steff via Wikimedia Commons.
If you have managed to see the light of day at any point in the past two decades, you are probably familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Created by J.K. Rowling, the Potterverse (as all the collective official materials of the Harry Potter fictional fandom are known) has historically centered on the adventures of Harry, “The Boy Who Lived,” and his struggles against Voldemort (a.k.a. Tom Riddle), an evil and megalomaniacal wizard bent on the purge of all “impure” wizarding families and the subjugation of Muggles (as non-magical folk are known). The places most familiar to those who have read the seven primary tomes of the Potter series (and now, the eighth installment, which is actually a stage play called Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, but which even in its dramatological format has still sold more than two million copies during its first few days of release) are generally located in the United Kingdom: Platform 9 ¾, found at King’s Cross Station in the London Underground; the wizard-and-witch shopping mecca of Diagon Alley, hidden behind the Leaky Cauldron, both also in London; and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, located in and about Scotland, where Harry and his friends learn their trade along with hundreds of other students (I emphasize the number for reasons that I hope will be clear soon enough). Pottermania has permeated literary and popular culture for well over a decade now, and Rowling’s most recent endeavors in her magical world make it clear that the Potterverse is not going to remain stagnant, but expand even further.

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The Menagerie of Beasts

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

 

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

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

 

America is Very Big

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

witch-hare1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

 

References

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