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Blog Post 135 – The Magical Catholic

August 31, 2011

Good morning everyone!

Last time I touched briefly on the practice of curanderismo, which is a Hispanic system of folk magic centered upon healing, jinx removal, and protection/cleansing rituals. I also mentioned that it takes a lot of its magical cues from Catholicism, albeit in a syncretic and flexible form of that religion. I received a comment on that post, too, which raised a thoughtful question about Catholicism in the New World and why it might have been seen as ‘magical’ or why its presence can be felt so strongly within magical traditions on this side of the Atlantic. I think that much of this attitude appeared in the Old World after the Reformation, when the broad brush of ‘papism’ or ‘pope worship’ was being used to paint the embattled Catholic Church. Some of the best illustrations of the Protestant perception of ‘the magic Catholic’ come from a tome which has informed witchcraft studies for centuries, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. In the following passage, you can see how Scot—who associated superstitious beliefs in witchcraft with the foolish ‘superstition’ of Catholicism—clearly links the priest with the sorcerer:

A papisticall charme.

Signum sanctæ crucis defendat me à malis præsentibus, præteritis, & futuris, interioribus & exterioribus:

That is, The signe of the crosse defend me from evils present, past, and to come, inward and outward. (Book XII, Chapter IX)

Scot certainly thought little of such charms, saying later in his book, “HE that can be persuaded that these things are true, or wrought indeed according to the assertion of couseners, or according to the supposition of witchmongers & papists, may soone be brought to beleeve that the moone is made of greene cheese” (Book XV, Chapter V).

To be sure, a number of Catholics have spent years—centuries in fact—fighting against these perceptions and very few mainstream Catholics would cotton to having their religion identified with sorcery or witchcraft. From a perspective of official Church doctrine and approved dogma and praxis, it is vital to note that Catholicism does not condone magic or the use of enchantments and charms, and that they fall in line largely with other Christian groups when it comes to beliefs and religious operations. They believe in Jesus as God (as well as seeing him as part of a divine trinity made up of “Father, Son, & Holy Ghost/Spirit”), they require baptism, they expect remission of wrongdoings (and, in the case of confession, admission of wrongdoing), and believe in an afterlife in which they will be judged by God for the quality of their lives and the state of their souls. There are a number of fine-pointed theological differences between Catholicism and Protestant denominations, but in many ways they are deeply similar.

What we’re looking at here, then, is not the official, dogmatic, Vatican-approved version of Catholicism, but rather a phenomenon which might be termed as ‘folk’ Catholicism. Folk religions are not exclusive to this religion, of course. There are also folk Hindus, folk Daoists, folk Shintoists, and folk Jews, all with varying degrees of adherence to official practice and varying degrees of handed-down traditions from unofficial sources. Folk Catholicism is particularly relevant to New World esoteric studies, however, because it has appeared in several different places. It shows up in the spiritual and magical practices of New Orleans (such as in the work of author Denise Alvarado). It also appears prevalently in Italian-American communities, and occasionally within Irish-American communities.  Both the Foxfire books and Gerald Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery contain examples of Appalachian residents whose beliefs veer towards the enchanted from time to time via a connection with Catholicism. Milne cites the Swiss/German community of Randolph Co., NC, in one such illustration:

“In Randolph County, the Swiss/German Helvetia community observes Fastnacht prior to the beginning of Lent. It happened that in Helvetia, some of the original families were Catholic, and now their pre-Lenten observance is celebrated by all in a non-religious way. At Helvetia, an effigy of old man winter is burned on a bonfire” (SC&W, p. 195)

Milne also points out that festivals like this were a confluence of Catholic traditions (Lent) and non-Catholic ones (the midwinter effigy burning), which took on a mystical significance in their union. Probably one of the best places to look for Catholic folk magic, however, is within the context of the North (and South) American Hispanic communities, which have strong historical ties to more mainstream Catholicism, and yet which also have allowed a beautiful flowering of folk culture in tandem with Catholic expansion, resulting in a rich and fairly accessible magical storehouse.

In the previous post, I have already looked very generally at some of the techniques of curanderismo and brujeria. Both traditions draw heavily on folk Catholicism to provide their magic, including things like the Apostles Creed and Lord’s Prayer as charms against harmful magic, or using tools like holy water, scapulars (a type of loosely-worn ornament which contains religious icons or written prayers), and rosaries to effect change.  In my next post, I hope to get into the specific spells, charms, and tools used within Catholic folk magic. For now, though, I wanted to leave you with some sites and books which might be of interest to anyone pursuing the folk Catholic path.

  1. I highly recommend the Yahoo! Group Catholic Folk Magic, where curanderas, brujos, and a number of other folk magicians with a base in Catholicism share ideas and resources.
  2. You could always give The Discoverie of Witchcraft a good read. It may have been intended as satire and mockery, but it has a heck of a lot of good pseudo-Catholic magic in it, too.
  3. The moderators of the site fisheaters.com would probably balk at my reference to them here, because they mostly focus on actual Vatican-approved Catholicism. However, familiarizing yourself with these ideas and practices is good if you plan to work ‘within’ this stream, and there are actually several pieces of information that veer towards the esoteric which are worth checking out (such as “St. Anthony’s Brief” or “Holy Oils”) [A warning: this site is very traditional, and thus its viewpoints may be controversial; browse at your own risk]
  4. One book that a number of Catholics grow up with is Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints (or at least some version of it). Why do I recommend it here? For the same reason I recommend folk and fairy tales to any aspiring magician—there is more to these tales than what’s on the page. St. Lucy’s removal of her own eyes has a distinctly magical flavor to it, in my opinion, which may explain why her celebration in Scandanavia is laced with esoteric symbolism.
  5. Finally, I would highly recommend the Library Page of the Curious Curandera website, where you’ll find a number of free titles on magical Catholicism, including “How to Pray the Rosary,” “Saints and their Patronage,” and “Prayers for Different Needs.” There are a few (very good) pay titles, too, but it’s hard to beat the wonderful free texts.

That’s all for today! I’ll try to have another post up soon with some more practical elements for you (though it is always possible I’ll get distracted and have a tangential topic). Until then, though…
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 134 – Brujeria and Curanderismo: A (Very Brief) Overview

August 24, 2011

I’ve been combing back through a number of different posts lately, and seeing what areas we’ve covered in some detail (hoodoo, rootwork, and Pow-wow, mostly), which ones we’ve done some basic delving into (mountain magic and general witchcraft), and which ones we’ve only just barely touched upon (pretty much everything else). I was very surprised that I’d not covered today’s topic more, as it’s one of the topics with which I have a good bit of practical experience. But for some reason, I’ve only mentioned curanderismo and its ‘darker’ sister brujeria a few times.

And so today, I thought it might be good to remedy that deficiency somewhat. We’ll be giving these traditions only the most basic of examinations, as a deeper exploration of either could easily fill several dozen books and websites. Yet there are relatively few texts or webpages which look at these practices. Partly this may be a linguistic barrier (my Spanish is intermediate-level at best), but honestly I think this may just be an area where research is thin on the ground. I’d love to be proven wrong in that, though, so if you know of some good research on these traditions, please leave a comment and/or link.

To begin, let’s look a bit at curanderismo. This is a system of magical healing, blessing, and cleansing largely centered around Catholic prayers and rituals, with a heavy infusion of folk religion and magic and a bit of herb lore in some cases. A male practitioner is a curandero, while a female practitioner is a curandera. Many of the rituals within this tradition have to do with detecting and undoing evil witchcraft (which is called brujeria by curanderos, which gets a bit confusing…more on that later). In Mexico, where this practice is centered—though there are ever-increasing numbers of practitioners in other Central and North American locations, a person might call upon a curandero if a family member seems to be plagued with some uncommon illness, or if their house seems to be exhibiting symptoms of a haunting, or if they are feeling as though a general run of bad luck has settled onto them. One of the best resources on curanderismo on the internet is Dona Concha of the Curious Curandera website. In the introductory material for one of her many excellent courses, she includes this summary of the practice:

Curanderismo is not only a form of folk healing, it also includes the practice white magic, ritual, cleansings, energy work, spirit contact, divination, and a vast amount of prayer just to name a few. While some practitioners prefer to engage only in one area, others work in all areas.
Curanderismo is a very spiritual practice with strong religious faith. Practitioners use a variety of objects including herbs, spices, eggs, lemons, limes, Holy Water, Saints, Crucifixes, prayer, candles, incense, oils and divination tools. Most include spirit assistance. Not all practitioners work in the same way. For example, one person may perform a spiritual cleansing with a raw unbroken egg while another may employ a bundle of herbs for the cleansing tool.

While a curandera might perform rituals that help remove bad luck or might contact specific spirits (usually angelic or “holy” ones), they tend to shy away from any ‘dark’ magics.

Brujeria, on the other hand, means literally “witchcraft,” and is frequently perceived in a negative light. This system, however, is not entirely dissimilar from hoodoo, with a focus on practical, earthier types of magic: love, money, sex, etc. What gives brujeria its bad reputation is its association with “magia negra” or “black magic.” While both curanderismo and brujeria can work with “magia blanca” (“white magic”) to provide cures, healing, and good luck, only brujeria works with things like spirit summoning and necromancy to achieve its aims. Brujo Negro, who runs a fantastic site on brujeria (and whose name means “black witch”), explains magia negra as an extension of the grimoire magic imported by the Spaniards during the 16th century. He also points out that the native peoples of Mexico—the Nahua, the Xolotl, etc.—did not particularly have concepts of “good” and “evil,” and so the concept of a branch of magic entirely in the service of evil would have been alien to them. Instead, the “healer physician” figure (anthropologically referred to as a “shaman” in many circles) would use his or her knowledge of natural materials and forces—herbs, roots, stones, and animal parts—to craft specialized remedies for community members struck with strange illnesses. The Spaniards did not always understand what the natives were doing, and viewed them and their practices warily.

The use of grimoire magic, talismans, spirit invocations, and other spells which did not explicitly call upon Christian paradigms to accomplish their goals led to opposition between the brujos and the curanderos. This is not all that different than the supposed wars between the benandanti and the witches of Italy, which Carlo Ginzburg has catalogued incredibly well in his book The Night Battles. In truth, both groups were likely working—in general—for the good of their communities, though the brujos might occasionally use more aggressive magic to do their work and likely were a little saltier about the spiritual side of their practice. Another group of magical practitioners (which may be the equivalent of fairy-tale witches or malevolent wizards or folklore) may well have engaged in exclusively cursing practices and malevolent magic, in which case either a brujo or curandero might be called in to do battle with the wicked sorcerer, again demonstrating that the line between the two camps is a fuzzy one at best.

The historical presence of folk magic among Hispanic communities goes back centuries, and while it shares certain commonalities with the European colonial experience along the Atlantic, it also strongly resembles the African experience in America. Contact between native peoples and the new arrivals was relatively high, and cultural exchange was fluid, if not officially indulged:

New Mexico witchcraft cases reveal a variety of features of colonial life in New Mexico that did not exist in other colonized areas of North America. For example, they show the physical proximity in which the Indians and Europeans lived and the increasingly intertwined beliefs they shared—about power, about magic, about healing, and about witches. These characteristics of New Mexico society were especially pronounced after the Spanish returned to the colony in 1706. Witchcraft was so much a part of New Mexico in the eighteenth century that Ramon A. Gutierrez has suggested that it was one of the three main issues that affected life there…Nothing comparable exists among the surviving records in British or French North America, at least as far as indigenous people are concerned” (Games 34-5).

This is not to say that relations were necessarily sunny between the natives and the conquering Spaniards, but the level of integration between Old World and New World beliefs seemed to flow both ways, with people like the Xolotl eventually adapting to the Catholic pantheon of saints and the rituals of the church, while the Spaniards sought out community healers for their ethereal gifts. Witch trials can and did erupt, but seldom with the vigor found in New England (or even old England). The veneer of Catholicism covered a variety of magical practices and set them in an ‘appropriate’ religious context, though in practice healings were still being done through the agency of plants, spirits, and other magical tools.

So just what does a curandero or bruja do nowadays? Much of what brujos and curanderas do resembles another magical practice heavily rooted in Catholicism, that of stregheria (or, more specifically, the cousin tradition of streghoneria), which come from Italy. I hope to dig into this question a bit more in other posts, but it might be good to look at some earmark practices common to one or both traditions, so that you can recognize it when you see it. In both, you are likely to find:

  • Divinatory practices – Sometimes by cards, but just as often by very specific items like eggs broken into a glass of water or the ashes left by a smoldering cigar.
  • Saint magic – Calling upon the intercessory power of saints to accomplish specific tasks. This is usually accompanied by rituals such as candle-burning and prayer.
  • Statuary or charms – This goes hand-in-hand with saint magic for the most part, though other types of charms like milagros (little pewter, silver, or gold charms shaped like hearts, body parts, animals, etc. and used as devotional offerings) are also frequently used.
  • Ritual cleansing – Especially using holy water or natural elements, like eggs, limes, lemons, etc. This can be done on a person or on a specific place.
  • Liturgical prayers – These are used outside of the orthodox liturgy, and are usually repeated several times to gain their benefit in magical settings. Examples include the “Our Father,” or “Ave Maria” prayers.
  • Novena candles – These are easily found in places with large Hispanic populations, and usually have a pillar candle encased by glass with a picture of a saint, angel, or other holy being on them. On the back they typically have short prayers (often in Spanish and English) which are recited while burning the candle.

In the individual practices, the magic may lean more heavily towards one or another of these categories. Certain folk saints are deeply revered by one group and not the other, or sometimes revered by both groups in different ways. A great example of this different-but-the-same relationship is Santa Muerte (“Holy Death”), a powerful spirit both loved and feared throughout Mexico. She’s a big enough topic for her own post at some point, so I’ll just leave that mention as a tease for the moment. As I mentioned earlier, brujeria resembles hoodoo fairly strongly, so there are lots of roots, bones, and rusty nails found in it, while herbal preparations for healing and cleansing tend to be more heavily emphasized in curanderismo.

All of this is simply the lightest scratch across the surface of a very deep subject. I hope to provide more and more information through other posts at other times, and even then I’ll only really be getting at a fairly superficial understanding of this incredible set of traditions and practices. For now, though, I hope this has been a useful magical appetizer.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 133 – Summer Reading List

August 17, 2011

Hi there!

Today I thought I’d share some of the various books and other texts I’ve been reading over the summer, both for school and for pleasure. Most everything I’ve read has had something I could take from it and apply to magical or folkloric study, though in many cases the connection might be a bit tenuous.  What I hope to illustrate is that reading across broad categories (and, by extension, having broad experiences), can provide you with a lot of good material and insight. At the very least, I hope to wow you with my lexical engrossment. Women dig guys with big libraries, right?

All kidding aside, I hope you find this useful or interesting, and that I am able to show the relevance to New World Witchery. So here we go!

African American Literature

Knowing the culture from which a tradition or practice develops is important, and a large portion of my summer involved becoming deeply familiar with African-American literary culture, which in turn helped me better understand things like hoodoo.

Slave narratives: I read a number of these for my African American Literature course, and then even found myself reading additional titles in this genre as well. Nearly every one I read mentioned at least some magical practice, varying from the presence of a fortune-teller in William Wells Brown’s story to Frederick Douglass’ use of a magical root to keep from being beaten (according to Douglass, who was dubious of its powers, it did seem to work). The attitude in these texts varies pretty widely when it comes to magical practice. Some condone it, some treat it with ambivalence, and some are hostile towards it. Some of the works I read included:

Folklore: We read several authors renowned for their folkloric contributions, and several writers deeply influenced by folk tales. In nearly every case, some element of conjure or rootwork is present, though often only incidentally or tangentially (as in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon). Through studying these works I found new sources of magical lore which function as old fairy tales often do—preserving the folklife information in fictional form. A selection of suggested texts:

I’m sure there were dozens of references to conjure culture I missed in these as well as the other works I read for this class, but in each of them I found something of value related to my magical, spiritual, ancestral, or simply scholarly practice.

Bible as Literature

I’m planning on exploring the magical connections in the Bible elsewhere (it actually wound up being a major component of my final paper for the class, a 20-page monster that essentially argued “no magic=no Bible”). But I thought it might be good to list a few of the major sources I used on that paper, as they revealed a tremendous amount about historical magical practices related to this keystone cultural text.

There were plenty of scholarly articles on the topic, too, and a number of entries in reference books like The Cambridge Companion to the Bible and the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Trying to list all of those, however, would probably be tedious, so I’ll leave them be for the moment.

While I’m not one to say all North American folk magic is biblically based (in fact much of it is completely unrelated to the Bible), the Bible has had an impact on multiple magical systems here, and so I find learning more about it useful. I especially find learning more about it in a magical context useful!

Creative Non-Fiction

This was supposed to be my “fun” course, a writing class in a workshop-style setting. It was actually fairly reading-intensive, too, though. I wound up writing a piece on a somewhat famous conjure personality as part of the course, and got an excellent response to it. I can only think of one book, though, that falls into the New World Witchery camp of texts: Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington. This book is about snake handling churches in southern Appalachia, and the portions of it we read for class were eerily magical at times. The author of the book starts off as a non-believer, and even engages in the handling as a non-believer, but finds that a mystical power overtakes him when he’s ‘in the moment,’ so to speak. I definitely recommend it based just on the limited amount we read.

In addition to my school work, I was also spending time reading a number of books for fun, which I’ll hopefully get around to reviewing soon. I’ve already put up a review of Charles De Lint’s Promises to Keep over at the Pagan Bookworm site, and I’m working on reviews for about 3-4 other titles as well. I’m also planning to restart Moby Dick when the fall weather hits, and possibly re-read some Hawthorne, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

At any rate, I hope you’ve been having a fun and useful summer, too! What’s been on your reading list the past few months?

All the best, and thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 132 – The Value of Silence

August 1, 2011

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? But it’s good to see you all again, to get the chance to rejoin the conversation. Except that today, I’m going to be talking about silence, which makes for a rather one-sided discussion, right?

I thought this would be an appropriate topic as I’ve been away for over a month at this point, with very little feedback flowing towards our listeners and readers and almost no new material on the blog or podcast. We’ve been in a realm of silence here at New World Witchery, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, silence has its uses.

The famous “Witch’s Pyramid,” for example, contains the four sides of a (Wiccan) witch’s code of conduct: To know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. That’s a fairly modern code, of course, but because it is a complex system expressed in simple language, it taps into some fairly old ideas, including the keeping silent part. There are lots of interpretations of this idea; some say it means one should not discuss one’s magic after the working (one of Shivian Balaris’s interesting Twitter #WitchTips said “never sharing what magick you’ve done is felt to protect the spell so that it can complete properly; plus keeps ego in check,” for example-July 25, 2011). Others think that the silence is designed to insulate practitioners of the “Old Ways” from the persecutions they might suffer if their practices were openly discussed. Still more maintain that the silence in magical practice forms a core component of its spiritual nature; in other words, the silence maintains the mystery, which is very important in a Mystery tradition. I personally think elements of all three positions can be present in a magical practice, though not everyone agrees, of course (fellow podcaster Fire Lyte has mentioned on several shows that he does not like the secrecy and cloak-and-dagger-style mystery that accompanies some of these practices, as they create elitism and insulate seekers from knowledge, for example).

Turning to folklore (as you knew I would), there are several examples of silence serving one of the aforementioned functions. Of course there’s the common practice of observing a “moment of silence” in honor of a fallen hero or a significant event. Folk tales abound in quiet characters. In the story of “The Yellow Ribbon” from Minnesota (which I’ve also heard as “The Black Ribbon”), a woman’s silence guards a mystery that literally means life or death to her. An Old World fairy tale called “The Dwarfs’ Tailor” tells the story of a foolish and loquatious young tailor who must serve a group of dwarves in their enchanted mountain forest home in order to win the love of his old master’s daughter. The dwarves beat the tailor every time he tries to speak or ask questions, and so he learns to serve them in silence, and thus cures his foolish tongue-wagging and becomes a master tailor in his own right. And in the classic Grimm’s tale “The Six Swans,” a young princess must sew six shirts for her six brothers—enchanted into the shape of swans—during a six-year silence in order to release her brothers from the spell upon them. Other stories contain themes of silence, of course, from “The Little Mermaid” to “The Silent Princess” to the (creepy and captivating) episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled “Hush.”

Within the magical continuum, calls for silence or secrecy appear in several traditions. In the Pow Wow practice, you can find this spell:

A GOOD REMEDY FOR THE FEVER.
Good morning, dear Thursday! Take away from [name] the 77-fold fevers. Oh! thou dear Lord Jesus Christ, take them away from him! + + + [here make the sign of the cross three times]

This must be used on Thursday for the first time, on Friday for the second time, and on Saturday for the third time; and each time thrice. The prayer of faith has also to be said each time, and not a word dare be spoken to anyone until the sun has risen. Neither dare the sick person speak to anyone till after sunrise; nor eat pork, nor drink milk, nor cross a running water, for nine days. (from The Long-Lost Friend by J.G. Hohman)

Here the silence seems to be an integrated part of the spell, a purification of the operator in the same way avoiding pork or milk might work (as they are foods often associated with unclean spirits and witchcraft).  It might then be comparable to fasting, a way of conditioning the body to respond to magic, or of preparing it for magical action. Other spells use magical silence to maintain a solemness and help maintain focus, as in this one from the Ozarks:

Some hillfolk say that a girl can call up a phantom of the man she is to marry by wrapping a lock of hair with some of her fingernail clippings in a green leaf and thrusting them into the ashes in the fireplace. Then she sits down before the fire. When the hair and fingernails begin to get warm, the ghostly appearance of her future husband is supposed to rescue them from the fire. Sometimes several girls try this at once. The door must be left open, and everyone must maintain absolute silence (Randolph, OM&F, p. 177-8)

This particular spell is rather reminiscent of the Dumb Supper, of course, though much simplified. The Dumb Supper itself is fascinating as a ritual of silence, but is a topic too big to tackle here. And since I’ve already given a good overview of it in my Halloween article from last year, I’ll leave it be for now.

Still other magical performances use silence as a cipher for secrecy, maintaining that certain things must not be spoken of, or at least, not spoken of frequently. Another Ozark account describes the passing of a specific sorcerous power—fire-drawing (or burn healing)—as a ritual wrapped in secrecy:

A gentleman near Crane, Missouri, has enjoyed a great success in relieving the pain from superficial burns. He just blows gently upon the burned place, touches it with his finger tips, and whispers a little prayer. The prayer may be told to persons of the other sex, but never imparted to one of the same sex. This man said he had learned the magic from Mrs. Molly Maxwell, an old woman who lived in Galena, Missouri. Since he could not tell me, I asked a young woman to get the secret words from him. This is what she heard : ‘One little Indian, two little Indians, One named East, one named West, The Son and the Father and the Holy Ghost, In goes the frost, out comes the fire, Ask it all in Jesus’ name, Amen.’ In teaching this prayer to a member of the opposite sex, the healer said, one should whisper it three times and no more. If a person cannot learn the prayer after hearing three repetitions, I was told, “he aint fit to draw out fire nohow !” (Randolph, OM&F, p. 121-2).

This idea of passing on magical powers in secrecy, carefully revealing them only to the chosen, the initiated, or those otherwise deemed “right” by the magician (or whatever higher power is in charge of the spell/tradition) is central to some practices. Others disavow the entire idea of such secrecy, preferring to work almost entirely in the open. Both seem to have their reasons, and both seem to do effective magic, though I will say that as folk magic goes the rule of silence shows up too often for me to ignore it entirely. I prefer to circumvent it by the time-honored technique of trickery, so that if I pass on secret magical knowledge I do so not by telling a person, but by speaking to an object in the room in such a way that anyone who happens to be in the room might well eavesdrop in on the “secret.”

From what I understand, whoever is in charge of magic seems to appreciate trickery as much as he or she appreciates silence. So that works out well.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 131 – Miles to Go

June 10, 2011

[NOTE: This is a very long personal entry. It doesn’t really reveal any new information about North American Witchcraft. If you regularly read the blog for its information content, please feel free to skip this entry. Thank you!]

Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,—sharp underfoot
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs—
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

If you’ve been a long-time listener and/or reader of New World Witchery, you probably know that I have significant trouble remembering my dreams, or even gaining access to them at all. I’ve gotten plenty of great tips to help me with dreaming, particularly when it comes to the type of dreaming I crave most—dreams infused with magic and witchcraft. I’ve tried herbal pillows, a cup of mugwort tea before bed, mirrors under my pillows, prayer, and dreamcatchers. I’ve kept a journal by my bed to record the few and far between dreams I receive as best I can in the dark—a technique that does at least yield some results, though inevitably I wind up with gaps of several months from one page to the next.

I haven’t tried everything, of course. Deep breathing exercises, focused and guided relaxation to pre-recorded visualizations, Lunesta, and other options are still open.  But I have attempted a number of methods to get into the dream world and really use that space, only to find my marginal successes frustrating in their inconsistency.

Up to this point, I’ll admit, dreaming has bothered the hell out of me. I can’t seem to do it right, or to get what I really want out of the experience.

What I want, of course, is probably the big problem. I have seen for several years now a tendency among witches and magical practitioners to encounter their gods, daemons, spirits, fetches, fairies, and otherworldly entities of choice in dreams. Sometimes the dreams come unbidden—even unwelcome—and seem to be very nearly disastrous for the one having them. I recall Peter Paddon talking about an encounter with the Dark Mother figure which involved a series of terrifyingly bloodthirsty dreams that left him shaken to his core. Which was the point, yes, but it was also unnerving for him. Other very close friends have shared their dreams with the community involving scenes that could come from fairy tales or horror films or an amalgamation of the two.  And always, always, I read with envy their experiences and wonder when it will be my turn.  And ever I sense somewhere there’s a voice saying “Patience. You do not understand, yet.” Those gods, those spirits, those fairies, those beings of that Otherworld, they simply do not want to meet me in dream space. They have given me little fragments of dreams to appease me from time to time, but always I find myself holding me an empty plate, husks, shells, seed pods, or splinters.

Recently, Laine & I went out into the midnight woods to work a little witchcraft. As always, we high-stepped and staggered our way past the outermost portion of the dense tangled wall separating tightly-mown lawns and garden pavers from shin-deep undergrowth and the scratchy whisper of treetops moved by the lightest wind. We lost our way, though we’ve traveled the paths beyond the thicket several times in all seasons. We expected to lose our way because our destination in the woods is an old stone chimney in a small clearing carpeted with periwinkle vines that we both take to be enchanted. Every time we go visit—especially at night—it seems to move in time and space. This visit was no different, and we found that even though we were sure we were close, we couldn’t see the chimney until we turned off our flashlights, took a deep breath,listened to the woods around us, and turned our lights on again. Rising up before us not ten feet away we saw the chimney, waiting patiently. Had it been there all along?

Shortly after Laine and I started working together, we did a guided visualization in which I read a pathworking to her and she attempted to relax and go into a trance-space. For my part, I found the experience calming and pleasant, but not terribly magical. Laine, upon coming “back,” more or less confirmed the feeling. It had been a fine exercise, but not terribly resonant. I have had past-life regressions done by a professional hypnotist several times, and only one seemed to ever click. I’ve tried pathworkings from other magical workers—some of them brilliantly written and full of symbols and keys to spiritual insights—and found that they don’t strike the chord that simply reading a fairy tale from an Andrew Lang or Grimm’s book does.

I’m a very cerebral person, someone who enjoys being in my own headspace tremendously. On any given night when I finally get ready to go to bed, I’ll wash my dishes in the sink, put a few things aside for the next day, and then start thinking about something I’ve read, or seen, or experienced in the past day or two or twelve. I start muttering, framing a discussion with myself—ever a Devil’s advocate, and deeply in love with that role—until I’m finally at full-tilt and thirty minutes or an hour have slipped by. What was to be a midnight bedtime has suddenly slipped to 1 a.m. or later, just because I can’t stop talking to myself about some idea that won’t let go.

I dream of being a teacher, a professor particularly, and helping students make sense of folklore and stories and mythology in their own lives. I dream of making a living with words, of thinking about them and about how people use them. I dream about stacks of books piled high by my bed, poring over papers from pupils which contain threads of brilliance buried beneath mounds of “proper grammar,” and “technical skill.”  I dream of carrying my 1 a.m. conversations into a classroom, a room full of young devils waiting to catch me in a mistake, or catch some respectable author in a mistake, or catch themselves in a mistake. I dream of devilish intellects and diabolical minds which are hungry for new ideas, just as I am.

When it comes to witchcraft, however, the life of the mind falls short for me. Dreams are not the place where my witchcraft works. They help me from time to time, but mostly they only make me confident that I don’t really need dreams. I need real experiences, ones I can’t rationalize away, ones that happen and that jar me out of my perceptions of reality. Experiences that scare me a little, and remind me how much of witchcraft is just overcoming fear.

I’ve told the story before—probably several times—about my accidental meeting of the Black Man of the Crossroads. I had gone out to work a ritual for a completely unrelated entity, and after I emerged from behind my hiding spot, I was startled by the presence of a man in dark shadow, standing directly under a streetlight. I didn’t address him, and instead pretended not to notice who he was. I often look upon that experience as a failure of my own will and a giving in to fear, but at the same time it made me aware of something very profound: it’s all real. Witchcraft, magic, and sorcery are not simply psychological operations for me—they are true, actual experiences that can be fraught with physical danger and which can completely unhinge my notions of expected reality in a split second.

The night not long ago when Laine and I went to the woods, we worked our magic and prepared to go. At the last moment, we decided to do something else, a very particular bit of witchcraft which involved asking for a sign when we finished. Almost immediately the ground just around the chimney started to rustle with the sound of skittering feet. Some of the stones on the chimney started to glow—possibly with the faint moonlight, though I think something else was behind it. And a firefly, the only one we saw at all that night, came out of the dark forest straight towards us. It circled over our heads a while, then flew off again into the dark woods. The experience was immediate and real and we both recognized it as it happened, then continued to be awed by it for hours afterward.

I’ve heard from a number of folks lately who write regularly in the magical community—particularly bloggers—about how they see their experiences and practices being co-opted by casual readers who then turn around and write about the exact same incidents with nary a nod to their witchy progenitors. I understand that frustration. Many people in the magical community work incredibly hard to establish a functional practice of their own. Jumping in feet first without doing all the work of establishing such a practice, without making that journey independently, can lead to a shallow type of witchcraft. Something which may look mysterious and magical on the surface, but which ultimately crumbles when poked and prodded by more experienced and knowing fingers.

But I also understand the other side of the equation. For those who are—more or less—plagiarizing witchcraft from other witches, it may be because they finally found something that works for them. Or in many cases, it may be that they’ve found something that they think finally works for them, and in their enthusiasm they wind up stepping on a lot of toes putting this new-found practice into place. In those cases, however, I think what the new folks are really finding is their own starting point, a launching pad into deeper witchcraft. One day they may discover that they have gone in a completely different direction and now they are writing about practices which other newbies are co-opting to form their own loose foundations. It doesn’t make the plagiarism right, but it does put it into perspective.

I leave in a few days to continue the pursuit of a dream. I’ll be studying and reading and engaging in linguistic deviltry. I’ll be spending time in one of my favorite cemeteries anywhere (this article is peppered with photos from this gorgeous graveyard). I’ll be going into woods and waiting at darkened crossroads to see what turns up. I’ll be carrying mojos to help with study, personal mastery, and prosperity. I won’t be putting mirrors under my pillow, burning incense to help me astrally project, or playing pathworkings on my iPod. I will be looking for passionflowers and sassafrass roots in the woods. I won’t be invoking four elements, calling on a nameless God and Goddess, or using an athame. I will be asking my ancestors for help, and using my playing cards to find out what they say.

I will be practicing my witchcraft, which comes from my experiences.  It involves meeting a Man in Black at a crossroads, physically fighting my way through brambles and poison oak, looking a coyote or a buck dead in the eyes at twenty paces.  It relies little on dreams, which I have only recently come to understand.  It doesn’t bother me anymore that I don’t have dreams rife with witchcraft, because that doesn’t fit who I am. It works amazingly well for others, but not for me.  What works for me is going to real graveyards at midnight, real forests under the light of a full moon, real crossroads where unexpected visitors can turn up at any moment.  I’ve still got the kind of witchcraft that lives in my feet and hands, my eyes and breath, and it is my own brand and it is beautiful to me and it works for me and…

And if someone takes what I do and runs with it, if I see half a dozen blogs on North American folk magic appear in the next six months, if I read about people going into forests which seem to shift and change as in fairy tales, well that’s okay. We’re all making our way, and I’ve got miles to go before I sleep, too.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you all soon…

-Cory

[Special Thanks to those I consider my teachers. They have influenced me profoundly whether they know it or not: Sarah Lawless, Stephanie Palm, Morgaine, Janus, Mrs. Graveyard Dirt, Robin Artisson, Peter Paddon, Gar Pickering, Vance Randolph (& dozens of other folklorists), Cat Yronwode, Juniper Cox,  Zora Neale Hurston, Concha, Brujo Negro, and far too many others to mention here. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.]

Blog Post 130 – War Water

June 7, 2011

In my Spelled Out section of Podcast 30, I gave the recipe and basic uses of a conjure formula called War Water. For those who didn’t have a pen handy, I thought now would be a good time to provide a little of the provenance, process, and practice surrounding this mixture.

War Water, which is also commonly called Mars Water or Iron Water, is in its most essential form, simply water in which iron has been allowed to rust. The presence of iron in the water gives it a reddish-brown hue, looking a bit like blood even in some cases. Draja Mickaharic makes a good case for why iron’s presence in the water empowers it:

“Iron is the metal of the planet Mars, the planet astrologers credit with ruling warfare and combat, as well as sex. Used either for defense or attack, war water is a strong carrier of the negative emotional energy used in magical battles” (Century of Spells, p. 27).

Mickaharic also points out that the formula was originally used to treat anemia (an iron deficiency in the blood), though far better treatments are now available. Cat Yronwode notes on her site that the Martian association indicates that it is not originally an African recipe: “Since the Roman god Mars was the god of war and his symbolic metal was iron, it seems pretty clear that War Water is a European contribution to hoodoo” (“War Water” par. 1). Despite its origins, however, this particular magical mixture is firmly planted in hoodoo and conjure practice now.

So how does a person make War Water? Almost every source—except one—agree that the basic recipe involves putting cut iron of some type into a container, covering it with a bit of water, and letting it rust. There are plenty of variations, sometimes depending on the intent, and sometimes just depending on who’s telling you how to make it. Judika Illes breaks down the formula by intent:

Protective War Water

  • Iron nails (cut iron), ones that rust easily
  • Enough water to cover nails in a mason jar
  • Let rust for about 7-10 days (open periodically to allow oxidation)
  • Keep adding water as the rust builds
  • Strain and use as needed (but discard if bacteria form)

Malevolent War Water

  • Thunderstorm water in a jar
  • Rusty nails, sulfur, and urine

(Encylopedia of 5000 Spells, p. 1080)

This formulation is essentially the same as the one found in Draja Mickaharic’s Century of Spells, though Mickaharic’s version is a bit looser, calling for about 3/4 pound of cut iron nails in a 2 quart bottle. These are covered with tap water and allowed to rust. After the rust begins, more water is added, and the bottle is covered (though occasionally uncovered for rusting purposes).

The alternative recipe comes from the normally quite reputable Zora Neale Hurston’s “Hoodoo in America,” in which she describes War Water as “Oil of Tar in water (filtered)” (p. 412). Oil of Tar is essentially a thick distillate of creosote or burned pine resin—which is carcinogenic and dangerous. A reasonable substitution for Oil of Tar would be turpentine, another pine distillate with slightly less caustic properties. However, almost every formulary I found other than Hurston’s had separate distinctions for War Water and a formula called “Tar Water,” which is much more like Hurston’s recipe and which is used to remove psychic sludge from one’s life. I would then conclude that Hurston recorded the Tar Water recipe as a War Water recipe in error, or quite possibly an editor inserted this formula without knowing the difference (which commonly happened to Hurston’s work).

There are also additional ingredients that you can add to the water to help “flavor” it for your magical purposes. One of the most common additions is Spanish moss, a dense vegetal beard which covers trees in the Deep South. Once it begins to rot in the liquid, it turns the mixture black and gives it a decaying scent. Adding sulphur or gunpowder would also give it a powerfully aggressive and dangerous vibe. My teacher, Stephanie Palm, makes a formula that basically takes Mississippi River water and turns it into War Water with these sorts of additions in it, which she calls “Swamp Water.”

Once you have War Water, how do you use it? There are several methods for deploying this water, depending on just what your final intent might be. If you only intend to use the most basic rust-water formula for protective purposes, here are some ways you might apply it:

  • As an addition to a spiritual bath
  • As a wash for the outside of your home or business
  • As a sprinkle for any letters or papers you might be sending out to someone hostile to you (such as legal papers)

The most common use of War Water, however, is as a component of psychic warfare. Cat Yronwode says of it:

“To use it, you shake a bottle up and hurl it at the doorstep of your enemy, where it should break, leaving a rusty, dangerously sharp mess for him or her to step in. When i was a young woman coming up in the East Bay in the 1960s, War Water was used by fractious root workers to declare occult war on each other. Since these folks were already at odds to the extent that they could not simply walk into each other’s yards and smash the glass bottle on the doorstep, they would make “drive by” attacks, rumbling through the residential streets of Oakland in the midnight hour and tossing bottles of War Water into the yards of their enemies, like occult Molotov cocktails. Ah, those were the days …” (“War Water” par. 4).

In Jim Haskins’ Voodoo & Hoodoo, he says that to use War Water you should “obtain the nest of a dirt dauber, break it apart and mix it with graveyard dirt. Put the mixture in a bottle with War Water and shake it up. Smash it on the person’s walkway” (p. 130).  Hurston does not mention smashing the bottle, but she does call for sprinkling it in front of an enemy’s house. She also provides a secondary method which requires that you “take a fresh black hen’s egg, make a hole big enough to get the egg out and take the names, pepper sauce and mustard and fill the egg up and soak it in War Water for nine days and throw ito ver the house, and it will cross the house and they will have to move away” (“Hoodoo in America,” p. 375).

As a final note, if you are considering starting a psychic war, Draja Mickaharic makes a good case for having sturdy defenses in place before beginning any attack:

“If you are going to declare psychic war on someone you should mop your stairs, porch, doorway, and any outside surfaces of your home on which anything can be cast or thrown before you begin the war. This ensures that you will be protected when the other person’s inevitable counterattack comes. In most cases War Water will cause any spell which is placed on your doorstep to rebound instantly to the sender.” (Century of Spells, p. 28)

So that’s War Water. My own personal inclinations with this water would be to use a railroad spike, coffin nails, and urine in a jar for defensive and protective magic, while perhaps using coffin nails, goofer dust, red pepper, sulphur/gunpowder, and Spanish moss for a more aggressive formula. But that’s just me, and quite frankly I have yet to need either of these formulas. My only real experience with War Water thusfar is as a spiritual bath for protection, and in that case only in it’s iron-and-water form. It seemed to work fine, so unless the need for a more advanced concoction presents itself, that’s probably as far as I’d take it.

If you have used this formula or one like it and want to share, please do.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 129 – Upcoming Events

May 31, 2011

Good news everyone!

Today I have some very fun events to share with y’all about events coming up later in the year.  These will be opportunities to meet with one or both of your New World Witchery hosts, as well as to meet and greet other great people as well.

The Second Annual Pagan Podkin Supermoot
We mentioned this in our last episode, but both Laine and Cory will be attending the Second Annual Pagan Podkin Supermoot in Salem, MA, on the weekend of Sept. 17th, 2011.  This is a gathering of Pagan and witchy podcasters from across the continent (we even have Canadians coming!), and there will be a big meet-and-greet on Saturday, Sept. 17th, at the Omen store. Fans are encouraged to come out and meet us, ask questions, be horribly disappointed in how boring we really are, etc. Some of the other podcasters who will be there include:

Other podcasters may come, too, though they haven’t been able to confirm yet. There may be workshops and classes as well, though details are still being worked out at this point. We will probably also have a group lunch that day which fans will be able to attend, too.  If you want to stay up to date on happenings with this event, check out the PPSM2 Website, and watch for tags like #ppsm2 on Twitter and Facebook.

A note on this event: While we both want to meet our fans and get to know you all, we do please ask that you not take any photos of Laine—she is still in the broom closet and can’t risk exposure. We’ll try to come up with something clever to allow you to still get a photo (maybe Cory in a wig or a sock puppet of some kind), but we hope you’ll understand about this issue.

West KY Hoodoo Rootworker Heritage Festival
This event will be taking place the weekend following PPSM2, from Sept. 23-25, 2011. It’s going to be focused on Southern Conjure practices, with an emphasis on hoodoo, rootwork, Pow-wow, granny magic, Vodoun, and Santeria/Lukumi. Some of the guest presenters will be:

  • Jack Montgomery, author of American Shamans, NWW friend & interviewee
  • Stephanie Palm, owner of Music City Mojo and Cory’s conjure teacher
  • Temperance, owner of Temperance Alchemy and magician, healer, & interfaith minister extraordinaire
  • Cory, from New World Witchery (hey, that’s me!…still not sure what I’m going to teach, but I’ll post that as soon as I figure it out)
  • Telling Point, a musical act featuring a deep tribal rock sound

This festival is still in its early planning stages, but it will likely be growing and adding new guests, performers, and workshops between now and the end of summer.

The Heritage Festival is put on by the Spirit of the Earth Church and will take place near Hopkinsville, KY. It’s a multi-day camp-out type of festival, so be aware that you’ll need to bring your own tent or find a hotel nearby.  Cory will definitely be attending at least part of the weekend.  For more information, check out the event website. Updates will likely be made frequently, and we’ll try to mention it again as time gets closer for it.

There may be other events we mention or post as time goes on, but for now these are the two places you will be able to find at least one of us in person.

Hope to see you all soon!  As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory


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