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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

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

February 27, 2016

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

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

Title page woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

Title page woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

witch-hare1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

 

References

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

Update – Aidan Wachter’s Talismanic Jewelry

December 4, 2015

Talismanic Jewelry by Aidan Wachter (Photo from http://www.aidanwachter.com)

If you haven’t seen Aidan Wachter Talismanic Jeweler‘s magnificent Pagan- and magical-themed creations in silver (http://www.aidanwachter.com/), you should absolutely look at what he’s got to offer. The jewelry is hand-made in his workshop, and he’s constantly working on new designs from a variety of magical sources, including angelic work, grimoires, folk magic, and runestaves. He also does work to empower and enchant his creations, which is right up our alley.

He’s even offered a special sale (his first ever!!!) to our supporters and listeners. Simply use the code “Witchery” (without the quotation marks) when you check out at his site and get 10% off of your order. Do be aware that since this is work of a highly personalized nature he is currently turning orders around to ship in about 8 weeks.

A big Thank You to Aidan for making this available to our listeners!

Blog Post 193 – Book Review: Strange Experience, by Lee R. Gandee

February 10, 2015


Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister—Personal Encounters with Hauntings, Magic and Mysticism (Prentice-Hall: New Jersey, 1971). 355pp. Illustrations.

 

Let me begin by saying I have wanted to review this book for a long time. Primarily, that is because I have wanted to read this book for a long time, at least in something beyond excerpted form, which is the best I’d been able to do. The book itself seems to be out-of-print, and runs upwards of seventy-five dollars on the second-hand market, and I have always just told myself that when I find a copy for less than fifty, I’ll grab it then. Thankfully, my friend Atticus Hob did a sort of book exchange with me, and let me borrow his copy, and so I have finally been able to dive fully inot Gandee’s text and join him on his meandering journey through his mystically charged coming-of-age tale of sexual awakening, spirit contact, and magic.

I knew of this book for a long time before I read it, largely because one of the people whom I consider a teacher and friend, Jack Montgomery, studied with Gandee during the seventies. Jack included stories of his experiences in his own work, American Shamans, which has already been mentioned before (and we interviewed Montgomery in an earlier episode, too). What I knew the most about was Gandee as an adult, living a hexenmeister’s life and dispensing his perspective for an eager grad student. Strange Experience lives up to its title, showing that Gandee’s youth and development—both magically and personally—were extremely unusual, yet not at all unfamiliar to anyone who has struggled with identity at some point in his or her life.

The book is broken into nineteen chapters and an introduction, with titles such as “A Dead Man’s Treasure” and “The Strangest Prayers are Painted.” Each chapter is introduced with a hex sign—a Pennsylvania German art design frequently seen on barns in Lancaster and Berks Counties. Some of the signs are essentially reproductions of old barn signs, but a number of them are Gandee originals, and all have short explanations about their significance and attributed powers (such as “perpetual watchful protection and guidance” or “man’s power to create through mental and spiritual action”) (pp. 27, 115). He begins with his childhood, which launched on a turbulent evening and never seems to have settled down much. He regularly saw his mother in his tender years, but was largely raised by other relatives, mostly his grandmother. The book explains that Lee’s childhood was full of demons, ghosts, hauntings, and apparitions, but that most people he knew simply accepted those as part of the world in which they lived.

Gandee quickly shifts gears into a bit of a sweet if emotionally confounded romance with a boy named Stud, whom Gandee clearly regards as the love of his life, although he goes to great lengths to account for this love as something other than homosexual. The struggle for sexual identity dominates the book, at least as much as any aspect of magic or regional culture, and Gandee eventually recounts a past life in which he was a sort of sacred prostitute named Zaida, and Stud was a sailor with whom she fell in love. The romance was doomed by jealousy in the past, and in their reincarnated state the two boys don’t fare much better.

Much of the book recounts the simply mind-boggling spiritual world of Gandee, which ranges from the native hexenmeister-craft he practices (including the aforementioned chapter on painting prayers through hex signs) to working with Christian Science methods and encountering ferocious ghosts in Mexico (in the chapter “Ni; Uari! Go!; Die!”). Gandee runs a group of spiritual mediums in college, helps find lost things, manifest desires for his friends and neighbors through art, and studies the powers of animal magnetism and hypnosis along the way. He generally tries to rationalize what he experiences in a blithe, worldly tone, although in many spots he is clearly as swept away by circumstances and wonder as any reader might be.

The information on hexerei and Pennsylvania Dutch magic is incredibly interesting, and shows a tremendously syncretic, vibrant faith-based practice. A student of the pow-wow/braucherei culture would gain a great deal from a close study of the many charms and stories shared by the author, and a student of folk magic generally might see some of the potential inner workings of well-known spells in the book, too. When reading Strange Experience, however, any reader would do well to remember that the experiences are only those of Gandee, and do not speak for a larger culture generally. Gandee was certainly a distinct individual, and the things he writes about are connected to very old practices and traditions, but he quite openly acknowledges the changes he has made over time as well.

Because of the paucity of good, first-hand accounts of this sort of folk magic, Gandee’s book stands out in its field. It hardly reads as a dissection of Pennsylvania German religious or magical culture, and Gandee himself is hard to pin down at times (which is largely the point of his text). I feel that the questions about magical ethics, regional distinction, and social dynamics for sorcerors and their communities all make for good intellectual fodder, even if Lee’s conclusions about such things seem, well, strange. I do hope that others will read this book as well and that Gandee’s place in the pantheon of American magicians might receive a restoration of sorts. What he manages to accomplish in this book is far different than any magical how-to manual, because Strange Experience highlights the humanity of a man with feet in two worlds, belonging to none.

Thanks for reading,
-Cory

Blog Post 191 – Book Review: The Voodoo Doll Spellbook, by Denise Alvarado

September 30, 2014

[Author’s disclaimer: I received this book as a review copy from Red Wheel/Weiser Books. They have neither paid nor coerced me in any way to write this review, and the opinions stated herein are my own, and do not reflect the position of the publisher.]

 

I am absolutely certain that a number of people will see the title of Denise Alvarado’s latest title from Red Wheel/Weiser Books and simply ignore its existence. That is a downright shame, because the book proves to be a personal and anthropological tour through an area of magic that can be very easy to misunderstand, work with dolls and effigies. Alvarado confronts the issue of the ‘Voodoo doll’ early in her text, laying its negative cultural cache at the feet of “Hollywood and the media” and noting that despite its origins as a “fusion of folk-lore with science fiction…the image of the pin-stuck doll is so embedded in the collective psyche of the general public that the thought of using a Voodoo doll any differently seems to defy all logic” (p. 2). Alvarado’s book is a repository of doll magic, some of it very interesting and useful, some merely edifying or even occasionally confusing, but it certainly deserves consideration beyond its titular associations.

The book is broken up into twenty-one chapters, generally grouping spells by expected outcome, not much different than other spellbooks in the genre, really. There are chapters on “Money Spells,” “Spells for Good Luck, Success, & Gambling,” and of course, “Spells for Love & Romance.” Alvarado really sets herself apart with the amount of space she devotes to the less savory workings of doll magic, with chapters like “Bend-Over Spells,” “Binding Spells,” “Break Up Spells,” and most especially an extensive chapter on “Curses, Hexes & Spells for Revenge.” Her work draws upon myriad traditions, not solely Vodoun, hoodoo, or Southern Conjure—the fields she clearly connects with best, at least personally. She also brings in chapters on doll magic from the Ancient world, such as dream dolls drawn from Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. One of the truly standout chapters is a section called “Japanese Voodoo Spells,” which actually looks at two types of effigy magic found in Japanese practice, even connecting them to the popular youth culture there: “Aggressive marketing campaigns advertising Ushi no Koku Mairi [Japanese cursing dolls] kits that contain a straw doll, a hammer, a couple of candles, and fifteen-centimeter-long nails are targeted to the young Japanese demographic” and she notes an increasing presence of these dolls in “anime episodes, online games, and videos that promote cyber cursing” on sites like YouTube (p. 172). Alvarado brings in Goetic spells involving dolls, and influences from Christian magical practice via Catholic and Psalm workings. She even includes a doll spell to prevent pets from getting lost.

Sources for The Voodoo Doll Spellbook range from the scholarly to the questionable (ghost hunting websites and a book on Mexican magic which tenuously reframes Hispanic folk ceremonies in a Wiccan context, for example), but generally speaking, Alvarado speaks authoritatively and presents her material well. Several spells are guest-contributed by conjure worker Carolina Dean, which prove to be some of the high points in the text. In some cases, the reason for lumping some spells into separate chapters is unclear, as in the “Binding Spells” section, of which a reprint of Psalm 94 takes up a full twenty percent of the pages. Still, when she is on-target, as with her two Mississippi cursing dolls (pp. 36-38), the quality of the work is apparent, and the spells make a useful compendium of doll magic.

The relatively few other doll-baby work books available (Starr Casas’ slim-but-potent one comes to mind, which seems to be out of print, sadly) mean that Alvarado’s book fills a major niche in practical magical writing. In many ways, what she accomplishes with The Voodoo Doll Spellbook is quite similar to work done by Judika Illes in her books—this is the notebook of a collector of spells. What plagues the text the most is its title, which seems to relegate it to a very specific subcategory of magical work, and which undermines its authority in the minds of educated readers. The material contained within is useful, if occasionally uneven (I’m currently working with one of her money doll spells, for example—I’ll let you know how that goes). While I could consider this book neither a definitive text nor a weak entry in the field, I can certainly point to its utility and some of its unusual offerings as a recommendation to read it and be satisfied.

If you’ve read this book, or have others to recommend on the topic of doll magic, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 189 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 6

May 20, 2014

Cartulary6

Greetings everyone,

It’s been almost five months since my last cartulary post, so I thought I’d touch base a bit on the various magical, folkloric, and otherwise quirky corners of the world that have caught my attention (and my be of interest to my readers).

I’ll start with a little shameless self-promotion and note that the upcoming Three Hands Press anthology, Hands of Apostasy, will have my essay on witchcraft initiation rituals of the Southern mountains in it. It’s edited by Daniel A. Schulke (Magister of the Cultus Sabbati) and Mike Howard (editor of The Cauldron), and contains eighteen essays on historical and traditional witchcraft, both from a practical and scholarly perspective. Some of the phenomenal authors contributing to this tome include David Rankine, Cecil Williamson, and even a posthumous essay by Andrew Chumbley. There will likely be more information on the Three Hands Press website as the release date approaches (sometime in the next few months).

As a side-note, I’ve been placing essays with The Cauldron for some time now, covering a variety of topics in North American folk magic, and frequently alongside art and articles by some top-notch folks (the aforementioned Howard, Chris Bilardi, Sarah Lawless, and Emma Wilby, for example). If you have any interest in folklore, magic, and little-or-big-P paganism, it’s worth subscribing.

Moving on from shameless self-promotion to the fine work of others, I’ve recently been getting very into botany and horticulture (I can’t have a garden this year since we’re moving, so that might explain it). I completed a really lovely little book called The Drunken Botanist, which looks at the plant kingdom through a shot glass, providing history, growing tips, and drink recipes along the way. I’ve also been reading The Founding Gardeners, a book which places Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and other notable American patriarchs in the context of their horticultural interests, which were plentiful and various. It turns out Washington was an excellent farmer (in no small part due to slave labor, it should be noted), and Jefferson was more theoretical (and also extensively used slave labor). I also read Bill Bryson’s At Home, a microhistory of Anglo-American culture as seen through a series of rooms in his house, which featured a nice chapter on the garden—it put me on the scent of Wulf’s Founding Gardeners, in fact. And if you can’t get enough botany, I’m going to very highly recommend a favorite book entitled Botany in a Day, which is a wonderful introduction to plant taxonomy and identification that teaches you how to build an understanding of plants intuitively based on stem and leaf shape, color, size, petal count, etc. If you are at all interested in identifying wild plants, this is a great foundational text.

Since we’re already in the garden, I’m also going to recommend you stop and smell the roses with my dear friend Jen Rue on the latest episode of Lamplighter Blues, where Hob, Dean, and Jen talk about working with what’s around and growing your own supplies. Sarah Lawless also recently (well, as recently as possible considering she did just have a baby and all) looked at the idea of what’s immediately available to magical and shamanic practitioner in an extensive article on ‘Bioregional Animism’ which I highly recommend.

In the world of gratuitous pop-culture witch-fluff, the Season of Witch continues. A recent, if unnecessary, television remake of Rosemary’s Baby aired over a few weeks recently, which I’ve not seen but which is on my watch list. I won’t say I’m particularly excited about it, as I love the original Polanski film, but if this one turns out all right, I may change my tune. A decadently dark and occult series called Salem has been airing on WGN, and while I cannot recommend it for historical accuracy (of which there’s none), its tone and deep-and-dark witchy atmosphere is just very hard to turn away from. It will do absolutely nothing to improve the image of witches, folk magicians, or really anyone, but if you want to get a little jolt of wickedness it is a lot of fun. The second season of Witches of East End will also be airing starting in July on Lifetime—the first season was another fun and guilty pleasure like Salem, so I imagine I’ll give round two a try. Oh, and Maleficent is coming out, apparently (if I’m being honest, it’s one of the few magical enchantress stories I’m not interested in, but I’ll probably see it anyway).

Moving away from the inaccuracies of popular television and back to the realm of folklore, I had a listener recently write in to ask about why our Dark Mother tribute episode featured the somewhat more docile version of the fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree,” from the Brothers Grimm. In truth, I mostly chose that version because it was at hand and fit the time frame of the show nicely, but I am absolutely at fault for not pointing out that there is a much darker (and possibly more enjoyable because of it) version of the tale. You can read it at the Sur La Lune fairy tale site if you want to get a glimpse of a very Dark Mother. While you are there, you should also check out their versions of a few of the other tales I considered for that episode, but ultimately decided against due to time, including “Snow White & Rose Red,” and “Hansel & Gretel.”

Finally, I generally try to keep these cartularies more centered on things I’m reading, doing, and so forth, but I do want to take a moment to forward a request from a friend of our site and show, Mrs. Oddly, who is dealing with some difficult legal and financial situations centering on a custody battle. She’s set up a crowdfunding campaign which needs support, so if you have a few dollars you can spare, please consider helping her out. She’s brought some real magic to my world, and she is asking for whatever help we can give.

We’ve got a number of guests lined up for upcoming shows, and I’ve got a few one-off shows I’m hoping to do as well that might be fun, too, so stay tuned to the podcast! I’ll do my best to keep adding things to the website as well, for those that like reading the articles on folk magic here.

Thanks for Reading!
-Cory

Blog Post 185 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 5

January 13, 2014

Happy New Year to you!

Today I thought I might share a few of the things from my holiday stocking, as well as other treats and delights I’ve been enjoying lately. I got a very lovely and eclectic selection of books & music, some of which might be of interest to folks here, so if you find something among the pile that you like, I’d love to know!

The first thing I want to mention is a beautiful copy of Crossway’s Four Holy Gospels. It’s the English Standard Version (ESV) of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John illuminated using contemporary art by Makoto Fujimura. It’s a big, gorgeous clothbound edition and conveys a great deal of the mystical nature of these texts. I know it’s a bit odd to recommend a Bible of sorts on a site with so much magic and all, but if you’ve been around us for a while you know that we’re equal opportunity when it comes to mysticism and magic. So if you’re looking for a good heirloom version of the gospels with a little artistic magic, this is a good one to have.

In addition to the gospels, I got a copy of an excellent book called Kanaval: Vodou, Politics, & Revolution on the Streets of Haiti. It’s a photojournalistic look at the Haitian carnival costumes, parades, and traditions, and it will be of extreme interest to anyone captivated by the rituals of Vodou(n) or other African Traditional Religions. A number of lesser-known loa show up in the text, and there are oral histories from participants in the celebrations that are simply unmatched in recent history. In addition to the book and its magnificent photos, there are two accompanying CDs (one of which I received along with the gospels from my in-laws—I have an amazing family). One is called Spirits of Life, which has a number of ritual songs, and the other is Rara in Haiti and plays some of the more celebratory carnival jazz-style music.  I also bought myself a simply wonderful new magical psalter from Troy Books:  The Charmer’s Psalter, by Cornish witch Gemma Gary. It has fast become one of my favorite magical books and travels with me everywhere now.

Shifting from the authentic to the entertaining, I’ve been very much enjoying this year’s run of American Horror Story, subtitled Coven and set in a world of New Orleans Voodoo and witchcraft. I actually introduced Laine to the show, and she’s taken off running with it, consuming the first two seasons as well (subtitled Murder House and Asylum). I’m sure we’ll wind up discussing it more elsewhere, and it’s generating some controversy around the Pagan blogosphere, but if you’ve not checked it out and enjoy good, immersive horror, it’s fun to watch, in my opinion.

In that same vein, I’ve also been enjoying the kitschy-but-witchy antics of Witches of East End on Lifetime. I can’t say it’s a must-see, but the episodes I’ve seen have been enjoyable and if you’re a fan of things like Charmed, this might be fun, too. Might.

A lot has been going on in the podcasting universe lately, too. I’ve been tuning in to a couple of new shows, including The Kindle Witch with Faelyn, Pagan Life Radio with Brent/Raven, and one called Disney Story Origins. The first two offer some nice new elements to the Pagan podcasting world. Faelyn uses her show to explore books in a sort of book-club format, while also sharing a lot of neat moments from her own practice. Brent/Raven uses his show to create a really neat community space for talking to Pagans working on specific goals, or just get into good discussions about the role of Paganism in contemporary society. The Disney origins podcast is a gem, where the host compares and contrasts the stories that inspired Disney movies to the films and explores how that translation happens. The most recent episode gets into the excellent recent film Frozen and its inspiration, “The Snow Queen,” by Hans Christian Andersen (a section of which was included in our Yule show this year).

I’m also sad to say we’re losing at least one of our podkin for a while. Gillian at Iron Powaqa recently announced she’s taking an open-ended break from recording to focus on other projects. I completely understand her reasons, but she will definitely be missed. I fear this will be a trend, as several podcasters have disappeared this year.  On a happier podkin note, Fire Lyte has published his first book of poetry, The Playground, which is available in several formats now. If you’re a fan of his poetry, this is definitely a book to get (plus it supports Pagan podcasting, which is always a noble cause).  Finally, if you’ve not been listening to Peter Paddon’s revitalized podcast, do so! It’s the reason New World Witchery even exists, and he’s an absolutely charming fellow (all puns intended).

That’s all the news that’s fit to print for me this week! What was under your tree this year?

Don’t forget to enter our contests! We’ve got a NOLA Swag Bag contest finishing this Friday, and a Three Questions contest which will finish up next week. Give ‘em a go, and maybe win something fun!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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