Blog Post 7 – Into the Woods

I don’t get out into the woods as often as I like anymore.  I have an infant son to help care for, and a steady 9-to-5 job that eats up most of the best time for tramping through the forest.  Still, when I have the opportunity, I love to put on some old shoes and jeans (and a heavy coat in our current weather) and wander out into the thickest parts of the brush.  In summer, I have to carry a walking stick, as we are in rattlesnake country here (a rake works even better but is a bit more unwieldy), but in winter I can just bring a satchel for collecting things that I find out there.

I generally don’t go out expecting to find anything, though I do bring offerings and hand shears in case anything strikes my fancy.  Sometimes I get lucky and find a good set of fir or juniper branches for making incense or smudge sticks.  Often, I simply find animal trails and follow those to see where they lead.  Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of interesting wildlife near our home, including bobcats, wild pigs, turkeys, deer, and—on one memorable occasion—a gorgeous smoke-colored owl.  It’s a great way to spend a day, getting lost in the winding trails and then finding my way home again when I can feel the sun starting to set.

Forests can be frightening, too, though.  Nature, red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson wrote, is not a gentle place.  There are many stories from around the world which use the forest motif to represent a “dark night of the soul” or a period of primal self-transformation, from which the heroes of the tales emerge stronger and wiser than before:  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Gawain and Dame Ragnell (itself based on the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Chaucer).  From even a simply physical standpoint, the woods can be frightening simply because there are truly wild animals there, some of which are very hungry.

Part of being a witch, in my opinion, is overcoming fear.  If a person fears the woods, that is fine, because a little fear is healthy and may keep him or her alive for another day.  But a witch should know that taking a deep breath and stepping off the path and into the woods is an act of fearlessness that can be rewarded by gifts greater than mere survival.  I’m not advocating that everyone must immediately go out into the forest and start poking at badgers with sticks, mind you—wisdom should temper boldness.  If one has no experience in traipsing about the wild places of the world, then hiking the nature trails in the local national park is a good place to start; at least, it’s a better place than wandering off into a bobcat’s den and surprising the rather toothy and claw-y beast unawares.

However, for the witch who can walk the wilds and follow an animal trail, there are often rewards for that fearlessness if he or she keeps eyes wide open.  This past weekend, while following a deer trail in the woods near my home, I was given a little gift for my efforts:

I found the skull and bones of what looks like a juvenile deer (I can’t tell the species exactly because some of the bone has been chewed away and there are no antler buds to go by either).  The bones were picked clean, likely at least 6 months old, and had only been partially buried by leaf litter.  I said a prayer of thanks to the spirits there, and poured out an offering before proceeding.  I had brought plastic bags in my satchel, so I used those to pick up and wrap the skull, some leg bones, what appears to be a piece of the sternum, and some vertebrae.  They were muddy, but partially sun-bleached, and when I got them home I managed to clean them off with a mild soap-and-water combination.  They still need to be set to soak in a peroxide solution to finish the bleaching, and then I will have to decide if I want to seal them or carve them first.  I’m thinking I may use the skull for some Otherworld workings, and I will probably try to carve the two leg bones into tools of some kind.  The vertebrae will likely be used for candle-holders.

I should note I wore gloves during the cleaning process, and until I have bleached them in peroxide, I probably won’t touch the actual bones—bacteria can be present for a long time in a dead animal’s remains.

I have deep reverence for the animal which has been gifted to me, and a fine appreciation of the wild place in which I found its bones.  I have to keep this respect front and center, because there’s always a chance that one day my own bones will be out there, buried in leaves and picked clean by wild things.  I can certainly think of worse fates than that, but for now I’ll be bold only so far as it is wise.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 6 – More Colonial Witchcraft

I couldn’t resist the urge to share a few more witchy stories and spells from the early American period.  Let’s start with a little history.  Most folks know about the famous Salem, MA (or rather, Danvers, MA to be more accurate) witch trials.  While these were certainly a major phenomenon in our collective history, Massachusetts was only one colony among thirteen.  So what about witchcraft in the other colonies?

Generally speaking, witchcraft was not treated with such a hard nose nor such an iron fist in other parts of Colonial America.  Witchcraft was generally frowned upon, true, but only in that the term “witchcraft” meant intentional magical malfeasance against one’s neighbors.  Any such bad behavior—stealing, slandering, etc.—was met with equal disdain.  There were witchcraft trials, but these were mostly settled with civil penalties rather than criminal punishments, and religious insurrection did not seem to enter into the argument.  Gerald C. Milne, in his tome, Signs, Cures, & Witchery, describes one a Pennsylvania witch trial as overseen by state founder William Penn himself:

“Penn dismissed the charge of bewitching cattle…and suggested (tongue in cheek)that there was no law against ‘riding a broom’ in Pennsylvania.  He found her guilty onlyof having a ‘witch’s reputation’ and ordered her to practice good behavior.”

In Pennsylvania, the growing tradition of Pow-wow meant that most settlers in that area were at least familiar with the idea of magic, and recognized that it could be used to heal as well as harm.  Chris Bilardi, in his excellent book The Red Church, discusses braucheri, or German-American folk magic and healing.  He makes the point that in many communities, a braucher was an essential part of local life, and would no more have been thought of as a “witch” than a country doctor or veterinarian.

In Virginia, by 1706 it was a crime to accuse someone of being a witch at all, as it was a form of slander to a person’s character.  No acts of witchcraft after that time were brought to capital trial in that state.  In North Carolina, a similar legal precedent was set when a case was dismissed against a woman in 1712, despite her clear confession to the practice of witchcraft.  More is available on these incidents here and here.

Still, despite the leniency of most colonies, the chief impressions of American witchcraft from the early days of the Republic have been drawn from those dark days in Salem.  To that end, I thought it would be worth looking at a literary example of witch-lore.

Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (I like this version myself, as it is a PDF, but a quick Google search of the title will yield webpage versions of the tale).

I’ll not reprint the entire story here, but I do recommend reading this chilling—and weirdly funny at times—tale of witchcraft in a Puritan village.  Hawthorne had a conflicted relationship with witches (his great-great grandfather was a judge at the Salem trials, a fact young Nathaniel would do his best to overcome).  The entire tale portrays the spectral encounter of its title character with a town full of occult and devilish witches, and doesn’t make the witches particularly sympathetic at first glance—in fact, the witches seem to be primarily interested in corrupting Goodman Brown and turning him into a diabolical reveler.  However, I tend to take the story’s “wicked witch” bent as being critical of the Puritan society to which Hawthorne was so embarrassed to have been connected.  There are MANY elements of traditional witchcraft embedded in this piece of fiction, including:

  • Meeting a fetch-self/”devil” on a crooked road
  • Crossing thresholds (forest boundaries or doorways, for example)
  • A serpentine staff, not entirely unlike a stang
  • A “flying ointment” recipe, of sorts
  • “Staff-riding” to travel great distances quickly
  • A Witches’ Sabbath, and an initiation (sort of)

In the end, Goodman Brown is unsure if his encounter was a dream or reality, but it leaves him changed anyway, which can be said for many witches and their experiences between the worlds, I think.

Finally, I thought another witchy (and somewhat less grave) story set in those early days might be a good way to end this post.  This one is from Rhode Island, and is recorded in In Old Narraganset, by  Alice Morse Earle-1898 (a word of warning, this tale is recorded from an earlier time, and the author clearly did not have a problem portraying racial stereotypes in the broadest and most demeaning fashion…I present the tale here because its magical significance is real, not because its characters or authorial tone are worthy of emulation).  From archive.org:

“The Witch Sheep” by Alice Morse Earle.

There are a few things I like about this story.  Firstly, that the magical aspects of the tale are fully integrated with daily life—no one questions Tuggie’s abilities, and her occult power doesn’t lead others to shun her unless she’s actually doing a working against them.  That the wife actually likes to have Tuggie around during soap-making because she can charm the project and make it work is particularly noteworthy to me.  Secondly, I think it’s interesting that “Voodoo” (which sounds more like hoodoo in this story) was a part of the magical landscape up in Rhode Island at this point, and that there are several types of spells with good hints as to how they might be executed in this tale.  The rabbit’s foot that Tuggie boils in the pot to work her “project” on Mum Amey makes me think that she was trying to cause her lots of little accidents and stumbles, but nothing seriously harmful.  Well, that or there was some kind of Fatal Attraction thing going on.  And the final thing I enjoy about this tale is that it is funny.  For all the magic in the story, and the hexing and witchery and other toil-an-trouble, in the end it’s a story about a sheep in drag, and that’s downright amusing.  At least to me.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 5 – Podcast Recommendation

I’d like to take just a minute to heartily recommend a new podcast which has just put forth its first episode.  Hedgefolk Tales is the latest endeavor by the very busy and very informative Sarah, the Witch of Forest Grove.  In her show, Sarah will be presenting stories and tales from history, mythology, and folklore, and then sharing some witchcraft-related exegeses with us.  From listening to the first show alone I can already tell this is going to be one of my new favorite podcasts.

Some out there may know Sarah from her appearances on The Wigglian Way as The Pagan Bookworm.  She has a great sense of style and a fantastic voice for this kind of work, so please do go check out Hedgefolk Tales.

Oh, and in the interest of fair disclosure, I should say that we’re planning to have Sarah as a guest on an upcoming episode of New World Witchery, too.  How we lucked out lining her up as a guest, I’ll never know.  Maybe a candle or two was burned just to help things along…but I’ll never tell.

Be well!

-Cory

Blog Post 4 – Quick Update & Apology to T. Thorne Coyle

Hi all,

I just wanted to take a moment and apologize to anyone who subscribed to this feed and got an episode of T. Thorne Coyle’s podcast included with blog post #2.  I had included a direct link to a podcast of hers I was referencing in that post, and that, unfortunately, made it look to my feed writer like I had another podcast up.  I corrected the link so it wouldn’t go directly to the audio file, but I think it may have been too late.

While I certainly recommend listening to that episode of Ms. Coyle’s podcast (among many other episodes of her show), I did not intend to hijack that file into my feed, and I apologize.  I most especially apologize to Ms. Coyle, and hope this does not sour her sentiments towards this site or its owners.  I’m trying to figure out how to make that audio file stop feeding, but I have not been able to as of yet, so any suggestions are most welcome. Podcasting is still a fairly new thing to me, so please bear with me/us as we make mistakes.

Thanks for reading & listening!

-Cory

Blog Post 3 – Some Examples of Colonial Magic & Witch-lore

Magic in America has been around for a long time.  Today I thought I’d present a few examples of magical lore and charms as practiced in America from its first contact with European culture through around the early 19th century.  Note that this is not an attempt to create any kind of authenticated, unbroken lineage for the practice of religious witchcraft, but rather some illustrations of American witchcraft in its practical and literary forms.  I hope you enjoy!

“[T]his way of discovering Witches [by forcing a confession or demonstration of witchcraft], is no better than that of putting the Urine of the afflicted Person into a Bottle, that so the Witch may be tormented and discovered: The Vanity and Superstition of which practice I have formerly shewed, and testified against. There was a Conjurer his name was Edward Drake who taught a Man to use that Experiment for the Relief of his afflicted Daughter, who found benefit thereby; But we 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.”

-From The Wonders of the Invisible World, by Cotton & Increase Mather, 1693

In the passage above, taken from a text by two rather notorious witch-hunters in Colonial history, there are a couple of things well worth noting.  First, there’s a good broad reference to the famous witch-bottle, about which there are plenty of theories.  Generally a witch-bottle is a glass or ceramic jar filled with pins, nails, bits of iron and glass, and other unpleasant things.  Urine is then added to the bottle (depending on who you talk to, it may be one’s own urine or the urine of a “target;” some modern witches use spit instead of urine).  The bottle is the buried, again depending on the lore you find, in either one’s yard or far, far away from one’s home.  It then acts to tear apart any harmful spells or spirits that come against the bottle’s creator, or in some cases it may cause a particular wicked witch physical torment, thereby revealing her.  I tend to go with the protective interpretation of it, and the burial on my own property.  In that way it works sort of like a “ward” to me.  But I could go on forever about witch-bottles, and might spend some time on a future podcast discussing them.  For now, their existence in Colonial New England is enough to go forward.  The second point of interest in this passage is the reference to the “White healing Witch” near the end of the entry.  This relates back to the Cunning Folk of Merry Olde England, who were known to repel the spells and works of “Black and Bloody” witches (their “repelling” power earned them the nickname “pellars” or “pellers,”  a term which is sometimes used by modern Wiccans as a derogatory epithet).

Next, let’s look at some of the charms used in rural New England pre-20th century:

“For generations back the Gloucester [Rhode Island] farmers have believed in wizardry.  They will do much of their work only during the full of the moon.  Otherwise they would expect to die or have very bad luck.  Planting must not be done until the signs of the zodiac are propitious, and gardens must never be plowed on Fridays.  Even a tooth must not be pulled unless the stars are right; if it is, it will come hard and cause great suffering.

Pork, if killed during the small of the moon [waning], will shrink to nothing in cooking, while that butchered at the full moon will continue white and firm.  To insure luck in the management of domestic animals, the sign of the zodiac must be in the leg.  The wishbones of all fowls are preserved on sticks.  Some families keep hundreds on hand all the time.  When the zodiacal sign is in the head, then the Gloucester people believe that one can do the most at catching pickerel and can hook the biggest fish.  Hence the almanac hung by the kitchen fireplace in all Gloucester houses is a thing that settlers could not live without.  Its study, if one would reap good harvests, ‘catch’ good clamming tides, and avoid misfortune, is imperative.

These people also believe that if you take up a black snake and bite it your teeth will never decay; that if the nails are pared on a Friday, toothache will be prevented, and that a child born in the heat of the day can see into the future, and will be exempt from the influences of witchcraft.  A ship that has such a one on board they say will never sink.”

-From “Ghosts and Witchcraft:  A region in New England where superstition thrives,” New York Times.  6 April 1889

This little entry—which dates from the late 19th century but relates traditions likely stretching back to pre-Revolutionary times—is loaded with interesting magical lore.  Much of it relates to the practice of farming according to the phases of the moon or the signs of the zodiac (see the excellent first volume of the Foxfire book series for more information on this concept).  The inclusion of healing by the zodiac is also interesting, and I believe that it also shows up along with farming by celestial design in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore.  The basic idea behind this practice is that the influence of the moon—and to some extent the stars—on the natural cycles of earth and people can be predicted and used to improve conditions.  For example, one would plant root crops and tubers in the dark of the moon because they grow in darkness.  There are many who swear by this kind of farming.

The other scatterings of folk charms and remedies, such as biting a black snake to carry away tooth rot, are based more on the principle of sympathetic magic.  The black snake carries the black rot into the black earth, where it will dissipate and never harm the person again.

What has all this to do with witchcraft, then?  Well, a good witch is usually aware of natural cycles (even if he or she is not an astrologer, a witch should be able to tell you the phase of the moon and pick out a couple of constellations in the sky, in my humble opinion).  And, as a witch would likely be sought out to help bring prosperity or to heal certain afflictions, having this kind of knowledge certainly can’t hurt from a magical standpoint.  Again, in my opinion.

Finally, I thought I’d leave you today with a little bit of lore from rural New York:

CATSKILL GNOMES

Behind the New Grand Hotel, in the Catskills, is an amphitheatre of mountain that is held to be the place of which the Mohicans spoke when they told of people there who worked in metals, and had bushy beards and eyes like pigs. From the smoke of their forges, in autumn, came the haze of Indian summer; and when the moon was full, it was their custom to assemble on the edge of a precipice above the hollow and dance and caper until the night was nigh worn away. They brewed a liquor that had the effect of shortening the bodies and swelling the heads of all who drank it, and when Hudson and his crew visited the mountains, the pygmies held a carouse in his honor and invited him to drink their liquor. The crew went away, shrunken and distorted by the magic distillation, and thus it was that Rip Van Winkle found them on the eve of his famous sleep.

-From Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner, [1896], at sacred-texts.com).

There are lots of lovely craft-related bits to unpack in this tiny tale:  metal-working, shape-changing liquors, supposedly long-dead men cavorting with the living, etc.  But I’ll leave it to the attentive reader to make of this story what he or she will, because I’m just a wee bit diabolical that way.

I will go ahead and point out that Skinner’s story was published in 1896, and while some of his stories in that same volume have precedents dating back to at least the early 19th century, I’ve also seen some indications that he elaborated his tales occasionally, too.  The connection to the Washington Irving tale of “Rip Van Winkle,” however, makes me feel that this story is at least connected to the same folklore that Irving (who published around the 1820’s) was drawing from.

That’s it for today!  Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 02 – Book Review

Cory review’s Chas S. Clifton’s Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca & Paganism in America.

Her Hidden Children, by Chas S. Clifton

I’ve just finished reading Chas S. Clifton’s Her Hidden Children:  The Rise of Wicca & Paganism in America this morning, and I thought that as his topics and my own intersect somewhat I might offer my take on his work.  First of all, I only recently learned who Mr. Clifton was through another podcast, T. Thorne Coyle’s Elemental Castings.  She was part of a panel discussion at the Florida Pagan Gathering in 2009, and Mr. Clifton was on that panel as well (other guests included Gavin and Yvonne Frost and Margot Adler).  The entire discussion can be heard at Ms. Coyle’s website, here.  What convinced me to read Clifton’s book was that in the panel, he spoke as an academic, but also a participant, and he did both with great skill.

After reading his book, I am inclined to think that his personality on the podcast is very much the same personality he puts forth in his writing—albeit a bit homier and less formal when he is speaking than writing.  He manages to provide a good, simple survey of the modern Pagan and Neo-Pagan movement in America, without resorting to overbold brush-strokes when he does so.  He doesn’t take the Gardnerian history at purely face value, but he also doesn’t simply dismiss it out of hand.  Rather, he takes the scholarly approach of examining the texts available and presenting the most reasonable conclusions he can based on those texts (or in some cases, media or personal correspondences).  Like Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (which I feel Clifton’s book is greatly informed by), this book is not trying to make any fanciful claims about Paganism’s place in America (he makes the point repeatedly that there’s not a census of religion in America which can present a reliable number of “earth-based religious practitioners” in the US—he instead cites an independent survey which ranges from the upper hundreds of thousands to the low millions).  His examination of the various branches of Paganism in America is particularly noteworthy, as he gives short histories of each segment sourced not only from the branches themselves but from external documentation as well.

I enjoyed learning about the various areas of American Paganism with which I was only marginally familiar:  Feraferia and the Church of All Worlds (CAW), for example.  I also learned a lot about branches I was completely ignorant of, such as the Church of Aphrodite (the first Pagan religious group recognized in America) and the Psychedelic Venus Church.  Some of the better information in the book is about the interaction between various groups which may not always have been apparent.  The Church of Aphrodite, for example, had a great deal of influence on Feraferia because of a shared member, and the influence of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land on not only the CAW, but groups like the Psychedelic Venus Church.

The book did leave me a little disappointed in some areas:  Clifton relies heavily on certain sources, such as Margot Adler, and on some information which is not particularly accessible (such as the aforementioned personal correspondences).  The largest drawback is that the work really only looks at the mid-to-late twentieth century in America with any great detail, other than to draw a few parallels between Transcendentalism and the modern Neo-Pagan movement.  I would have been greatly interested in finding out what influence movements like Spiritualism and Theosophy had on the Occult revival in America, and what effect in turn that revival had on Wicca and Paganism later on.  But I can also understand that the point of this book may not have been to dig back so far.  The bibliography and footnotes alone make the book worth purchasing or borrowing from the library, and the work certainly doesn’t disappoint in its stated purpose of chronicling the rise of modern Paganism in America.

In the end, while I wanted more, perhaps that is the best recommendation I can give.  This book is great for whetting an appetite for more information on American witchcraft and Paganism, and it certainly can provide a springboard into other areas of discovery.

-Cory

Podcast 1 – Introduction

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 1-

Summary

For Episode 1 of New World Witchery, Cory and Laine try to come up with a quick and simple definition for New World Witchery, including a brief overview of the traditions we consider to be under the umbrella of American Witchcraft.

We talk a bit about ourselves, our path to witchcraft, and how it has brought us to where we are today. And later on, Cory will give you a little bit of history on witchcraft in America.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 01

-Sources-

Websites

An extensive and very interesting list of witchcraft trials in America can be found at: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~Marc-Carlson/witchtrial/na.html.  This site also does the reader a service by providing direction to original source material and making it clear when details are too vague to make definitive statements about the trial.

Two websites which reveal a great deal about Hispanic magical practices are the Curious Curandera and Brujo Negro.   While they may seem diametrically opposed in some ways, they actually have quite a lot in common, and a good overview of Hispanic magical traditions can be worked out between the two.

Lilith’s Lantern, a site dedicated to the Feri  & Vicia branches of Anderson’s witchcraft, is a wonderful resource for learning more about this tradition.

Books

Narratives of the witchcraft cases, 1648-1706, ed. by George Lincoln Burr.  Dover, 2002.

Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald C. Milnes.  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2007.

Her Hidden Children, by Chas S. Clifton.  AltaMira Press, 2006.

Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1-The Irish & Celtic Music Podcast

Promo 2-The iPod Witch

Promo 3-Witchery of One

Blog Post 01 – Introductions

A general introduction to the blog and podcast, plus a brief outline of New World Witchery.

Hello!

Welcome to New World Witchery, the Search for American Traditional Witchcraft.  This is a show/blog about magic, specifically the magic practiced in North America.   Your hosts are Cory & Laine, practicing witches who work with several New World systems.  If you like magic, particularly American folk magic, this is the show for you.

What is this Podcast/Blog About?

This project is—hopefully—going to help all of those magical practitioners out there who identify with their New World roots make sense of magic as it happens on the American landscape.

Some of the magical praxes we’ll be covering include (but are not limited to):

  • Hoodoo/rootwork
  • Pow-wow (PA Dutch Magic)
  • New Orleans-style Vodou
  • Appalachian Granny Magic
  • Ozark Mountain Magic
  • Brujeria/Curanderismo
  • Victor Anderson’s Feri Tradition/Vicia
  • New England Witchery

In addition, we’ll be having discussions about things like:

  • Effective spell crafting
  • Spell crafting successes and failures
  • Magic for oneself and magic for others
  • Magical terminology
  • Hexing
  • Being in or out of the “broom closet”

This show will be semi-monthly, with (hopefully) one podcast early in the month and one closer to the end of the month.  One podcast will be our regular discussion & banter, plus a segment on lore, history, and/or practice of New World Witchery.  The second podcast will have more discussion & banter, then an interview segment with a notable witch, scholar, or expert on some aspect of American traditional witchcraft.

We’ll also be trying out segments from time to time which we think might enhance the show.  Some of the ideas we’re kicking around are a handicrafts segment, poetry or stories related to American witchcraft, book recommendations, and highlights on magical ingredients and tools.  If you have a suggestion for one of these short segments, please contact us.  We’d love to hear from you!

The blog will be updated more frequently than the podcast, probably once or twice per week.  It will have show notes, short essays, links, and various odds and ends that we think might be worth a look. Again, suggestions are welcome.