Archive for the ‘Practice & Technique’ category

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

May 24, 2018

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

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

March 22, 2018

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

March 16, 2017

“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)

March 8, 2017

“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 200 – Am I a Witch?

June 3, 2016
Statue of a Witch, by Gegenbach (Public Domain)

Statue of a Witch, Gegenbach (Public Domain)

I’ve always liked the word “witch.” It carries with it a lot of connotations, sure, but so few words can evoke strong reactions across the spectrum, ranging from fear to excitement to anger to joy. Witches in folklore occupy a strange space; in many stories, they seem to be dangerous and do harm (e.g. “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Witch in the Stone Boat”), but then in so many other tales they are helpers, or benign catalysts for action (as in “Frau Holle” or “Finist the Bright Falcon”). We have tackled the question of “What is a Witch?” from a lot of angles here already: answering the question generally and rhetorically, looking at aspects of a witch’s practice, seeing what it takes to become a witch, and so on. But this weekend brings my birthday, so I’m going to turn that lens inward a bit, and ask the question, “Am I a Witch?” That may seem like a bit of a ridiculous question, coming from someone who talks about using folk magic on a regular basis, but it’s a question worth asking. There are many people from various backgrounds who would likely say I’m not, based on their personal definitions of witchcraft, whether they believe it to be a religion or a practice, or both, or neither. So how do I see it? If you read the articles here, you probably want to know if my own definition of witchcraft jives with yours, right? Today, I thought it might be good to clarify just who I am and what I do that might make someone think of me as a witch of one kind or another. In an upcoming post, I will use this as a bit of a launching pad to take a look at a few ways the figure of the witch appears in North American history and folklore, and see if I can find anything that I can use to create a broad sketch of what a “New World Witchcraft” practice might look like. This is, and must be, my own interpretation, so of course your interpretation may be quite different. But my hope is that by going through this question with some thought, maybe it will open up some doorways (or hedgerows) along the way for myself and others. If you’re interested in traveling this particular crooked road with me, read on.

A section of my personal altar.

A section of my personal altar.

 

Firstly, let me talk a little about the things I do. My basic spiritual practice (and please note I’m setting this apart with fancy italics) involves a few basic rituals: weekly lighting of candles to a mix of saints, ancestors, deities, spirits, and other entities, along with offerings of incense and water and sometimes food and drink. I offer evening prayers directed at a pantheon of spiritual forces, mostly in gratitude and asking for safe passage through the night for myself and my family. Monthly, I light candles representing the new and full moons. When the dark candle is lit, I do divinations with my cards—although I should note this is not the only time I do that, and here we have a practice which may be only quasi-spiritual overlapping with the spiritual ritual of lunar reverence. It’s complicated, right? On the full moon, I offer libations and light other candles, and say prayers to specific spiritual forces I feel are connected with the moon. And that’s the big stuff. Despite recent discussions of sabbats and the Wheel of the Year, I tend to get into holidays in a more community-oriented way, attending parades or local celebrations and not really focusing on the spiritual observance of the days (although that does sometimes happen, especially during the winter months).

Reading my mother's cards.

Reading my mother’s cards.

My magical practice (again, fancy tilty-letters here) involves the aforementioned card divination, which I do more frequently in ways dissociated from a particular spiritual observance, but which does involve me calling upon some spiritual aid. I also frequently cast spells for various wants, needs, and wills. Most are incredibly simple spells, such as the creation of a petition paper and the lighting of a candle, perhaps with some anointing oil and the recitation of a psalm or charm. I might create a mojo bag to carry around and draw in a specific need or want (most often, these bags are in the “success” area, although I also do some protection bags and others as well). Periodically, I will brew up batches of condition oils to have on hand for dressing candles and bags, but if I run out of those for some reason I don’t worry, because I can usually substitute something from the kitchen in a pinch—coffee, whiskey, olive oil, etc. If someone gets a sharp bang on their shin or a cut on their finger, I’m usually right there with my little Pow-wow-style charms to ease the pain, along with an ice pack, kiss, or chocolate-chip cookie as appropriate. A few times a year I do house-cleansing and protection work, adding written charms to door lintels and washing down my front door with—well, traditional protective formulae.

 

Is any of this witchcraft, though? When we look at stories of witches in North America—whether derived from European, African/African American, Native, or other sources—we see witches doing some of these things in one way or another, perhaps. Fortune-telling by cards and other means seems to appear nearly universally. Zora Neale Hurston recorded tales of African American conjure women and men rifling playing cards and seeing the future. Some of the accounts of Salem’s tumultuous sorceries involved tales of divination by “Venus glass,” or through the use of a special cake baked from urine and fed to a dog, or even some evidence that accused persons like Dorcas Hoar owned divination manuals and had practiced fortune-telling for years before the trial outbreak. Other tools, like the dowsing rod or the use of geomantic shells or coins, appear in other areas, and every cultural group in American history has had some means of divination or augury. Even in contemporary times, the Ouija board has become a popular trope of adolescent divinatory rites, and remains a popular “game” among American youth.

Brewing condition oils

Brewing condition oils

Witches also made use of prayers and psalms, sometimes in holy and sometimes in profane ways. Tales of Appalachian witch initiation rites discuss the use of prayers which reverse one’s baptism. In many European-derived traditions, the recitation in reverse of whatever charm had been used to blight someone would remove that curse. In tales where witches work with spirits, they may make contact with faery-creatures (see Emma Wilby’s Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits for a truly excellent rundown of that subject), or they may keep wee bug in a bottle to talk to (as in one Appalachian story). While we get a sense of their spiritual worldview—which is heavily populated and constantly interacting with the mundane world—we seldom get a sense that witches are denominational. They might act in non-Christian or even anti-Christian ways, up to and including signing pacts with the Devil, but just as often they make use of Christian prayers and charms, and may even be very religions—if a bit unorthodox. Having a rich spiritual life certainly seems to be found in most tales of folkloric witches, but there’s very little definition around that spiritual worldview. Instead, witchcraft seems to be—from the perspective of history and folklore—less about gods and goddesses and much more about muttering under one’s breath in a time of need, or knowing not to burn sassafras wood. It’s a practice and a way of acting which is shaped by spiritual understanding, but not completely defined by it. There’s much more to say on what witches do, based on folklore (and I should also note that I am increasingly aware of the fact folklore is not something from “back then,” but something alive and moving now, so perhaps we should spend some time on contemporary witchcraft from that angle, too). I will leave all of that for another day, however, and return to the question at hand.

witch-158095_960_720

Am I a witch? I suppose it depends on who is asking. I have a fairly unorthodox spiritual practice and worldview, especially for someone living after the Modern era of rationalism and scientific inquiry. I think that my spiritual life, however, does not inherently make me a witch. It makes me an animist, perhaps, or put in contemporary economic terms, someone with a diversified spiritual portfolio. That can be a good basis for witchcraft, but it can also be a good basis for a number of practices completely outside of witchcraft. Many Christians, Hindus, and even Buddhists see such a diversity in the spiritual landscape (although they may assign different values to non-deity spirits and might even avoid all but a very few of them). What I do, on the other hand…that is witchcraft. I am a witch in divination, in charming, in meeting my needs through my own actions, and in doing so by working outside of rational methods (and please note I did not say in spite of such methods or even without also using such methods—a proper My Little Pony bandage can be just as important as a magical healing charm and a kiss to a scraped knee). I am a witch in knowing some of the ways that the world around us is constantly in conversation—whether through the growth of certain plants or the movements of certain animals or the scent and taste of the air before a storm. I am a witch in holding in me a certainty that I can do something about my circumstances, and that I am responsible for my own fate—both finding it and bending it.

 

Yes. I am a witch.

 

I hope to go a bit further and expand upon some previous discussions of what a witchcraft practice in the New World might look like. I will be turning to folklore, history, and contemporary behaviors and actions to help define that, and in the end, I will probably satisfy no one, but perhaps get into a few good conversations with the points I raise. For now, though, I hope that this article—a little bit of me put out there for you to consider—will clarify my practices a bit. I am not a perfect witch, mind you, possibly not even a very good one. Nor are my practices solely definitive of all witches everywhere. But if this article speaks to you in some way, I’d love to know. I’d love to hear if you are a witch, too.

 

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 198 – Dolls

February 1, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References

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

Blog Post 197 – Shapeshifting

November 26, 2015

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

Sources:

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

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


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