We talk with the Riverton Witch Via Hedera in this episode about folk magic on Turtle Island (North America), intersectional magic, what folk traditions we keep alive and which ones we leave behind, and how to weave magic into the things we make.
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Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, Jennifer, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Payton, Carole, Payton, Staci, Montine, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, AthenaBeth, Bo, Scarlet Pirate, Leslie, Bagga, Stephanie, Sherry, Jenna, Jess, Laura, & Clever Kim’s Curios (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
The main spot to check out is Via Hedera’s amazing website, full of articles on everything from “Rat Letters” to erotic apples, tarot reviews, book resources, and more! Also be on the lookout for her book, Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Multicultural Experience: A Crucible at the Crossroads, coming later this year from Moon Books.
We also mention a few folklore collections, such as the Frank C. Brown collection of North Carolina lore and American Regional Folklore, edited by Terry Ann Mood-Leopold that you might be interested in.
Image sourced from Via Hedera (copyright Via Hedera).
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Promos & Music
If you like us AND you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will love our new show: Myth Taken: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast, now available through all the podcatchers!
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- Lilith Dorsey’s Patheos blog is the best way to see her regular writing, and the article “Black Witches Talk Back” in response to the article in The Atlantic is a must-read companion to this episode.
- Dorsey has also written several books, including The African-American Ritual Cookbook and Love Magic: Over 250 Spells and Potions for Getting It, Keeping It, and Making It Last.
- We also mention Witchdoctor Utu, who we had on our show during the Great Lakes episode.
- We discuss several anthropologists whose work we find valuable, including Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Deren, and Margaret Mead.
- We mention Bri Luna (the Hoodwitch) and Chiquita Brujita in conjunction with the rising movement towards magical diversity and inclusion.
- Lilith mentions dancing for Dr. John, whose New Orleans music is a lot of fun to listen to
- We briefly touch upon the idea of sexual predation in neo-Pagan circles, a topic covered well by Sarah Lawless in some of her recent articles
This is the last post in a series in which I’ve attempted to outline a loose set of categorical criteria that might offer the hint of a shape to what I’ve termed “New World Witchery.” So far, 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, the physical “things” of North American witchcraft, and the processes by witches gain their magical experience and knowledge. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.
As I enter into this final segment, I should note that it will likely raise as many questions as it answers (if not more), but I believe that to be a good thing. If I say, for example, that witch-flight is a talent for some witches in the stories I cite, that inevitably leads to questions about which witches (hah!) do not fly, why some do and some don’t, and just what do I mean by “flight” anyway? The benefit to leaving these questions only loosely sketched out is that they invite further investigation. They prompt more reading, more interviews, more questions, more experiments, and more questions (again)! Those don’t have to be questions on my part alone, either, but can easily be questions that you explore for yourself (and hopefully share your findings with us, as that makes everyone’s knowledge a little bit better). Some of the points I raise below will be interesting to particular readers and less interesting to others. That’s fantastic, because it means you can explore just what interests you while still seeing it as part of a bigger whole. There’s room around the cauldron for just about every type of witch, I think Which brings me to the final point in my rather over-stuffed taxonomy of New World Witchery.
Witches Have a LOT of Talents
When you picture your example of a “witch” in your head, you are likely seeing something different than what others around you see in terms of precise elements, but at the same time you could likely extract that image (by magic if that’s one of your many skills) and show it to others, and at least a few people would say “Oh, yes! That’s most certainly a witch!” Leaving aside the potential aesthetic elements such as the black pointy hat or cat and cauldron, you could also likely describe a person “casting a spell,” “flying at night,” and “summoning the dead” (or other spirits as has already been discussed) and you would evoke something that others recognized as a “witch.” You might also mention full moon rituals, or the creation of herbal healing salves, or perhaps the dispelling of ghosts with piles of burning flora or a chant in an unfamiliar tongue and similarly draw forth the word “witch” from someone’s lips. A woman at a coffee shop, quietly reading tarot cards in the corner? A teenage woman lighting candles and whispering a spell to make herself feel beautiful? A young man inscribing circles and lines on the ground in chalk, muttering in Latin? The mother of a friend who leaves salt lines across her doorstep and a broom turned up in the corner when the landlord visits? Some of these may say “witch” to you, and some may skirt the edge of that word. Some of these examples may fully slide by without ever even registering as “witchy” to you, but you might be able to think of a friend who would instantly label them that way.
Whatever the case, we understand that witches do a lot of different things, even while we also understand that many of the things we see witches doing seem to be part of a spectrum of behaviors we identify as “witchcraft” or “magic.” In stories, witches do things like pass on secret magical artifacts or turn people into animals. In history, we find people called witches who told fortunes (like Dorcas Hoar in Salem), healed their neighbors (as in the case of Grace Sherwood), or even seemed to have no direct connection to magic at all until their death (as in the case of “Old Kate Batts,” better known as the Bell Witch). Trying to pin down every single talent we see in narratives about witchcraft would generate a list that grinds even the sharpest of pencils into a worn nub, while still leaving copious room at the bottom of the page for all that I’ve missed. Still, I can assemble a broadly inclusive set of practices that I have seen repeated in my research that might at least put a pin in key locations throughout the spectrum of witchy doings. So just what is a North American witch capable of?
- Casting Spells – This may seem obvious, but it really shouldn’t. There have been several examples where the active casting of spells has not been a main characteristic in a witch story (for example, several of the cases involved in the Salem trials were almost explicitly focused on demonic and spectral visitations that tormented victims, and so the accused “witches” were not necessarily seen as spell-casters but night-wraiths). Given those few exceptions, however, we do see the active use of intentional magic (a definition I will return to later) in myriad tales, legends, and accounts of witchcraft. Whether it’s the act of burning candles, rubbing someone with eggs, or even “fixing” a luck charm of some kind for someone else’s use, witches often work magic through specific spells (and as I’ve noted, those spells often involve “things” as well).
- Witch-Flight – Again, not all witches in not all stories share this characteristic. The use of the word “flight” is also tricky and will require further exploration but taking it to mean any form of travel through the air, whether in body or spirit, we do see a lot of witches participating in this kind of magic. Interestingly, lots of stories involve other non-witches gaining the power of flight by following the rituals of the witches they observe, only to find themselves in hot water when the effects wear off and they don’t know what to do (or how to get out of the wine cellar they’re suddenly trapped in).
- Using Magical Objects – I’ve touched on this extensively in the section on the physical “things” of witchcraft, and we’ve discussed the nature of magical objects in the everyday world quite a lot as well. Creating or empowering talismans or charms, using cards or coins or bones to read a future, or tying up someone’s good luck (or reproductive functions) with a bit of cord all feature in multiple narratives of witchcraft, so it’s worth repeating. Magical objects are often crafted, of course, in every sense of the word, but a number of witches also repurpose the objects around them or even purchase magical artifacts and tools for their use, none of which makes them any less of a witch.
- Harming and Cursing – If we are to listen to the stories and not simply dismiss them out of hand, a great number of witches are engaged in the practice of cursing, hexing, and magical theft. Crucially, they often have very good reasons for acting the way they do, including responding to a community’s failure to treat its members equitably or fairly, making witchcraft an informal method of “justice.”
- Healing and Blessing – We have simply massive quantities of stories in which witches do their worst to those who earn their ire, but we also have more stories than you can shake a black cat at featuring a witch doing something helpful or kind for someone (even if it is done in a somewhat grudging way). Witches may execute justice on behalf of someone left out of the community, or offer a healing ointment, or even remove curses placed by other witches. One of the most common talents of those practicing magic is finding lost objects or even treasure, for example, which is a service rather than a curse. The New World Witch has complex motivations and her actions require a lot of context, it seems.
- Suffering – If you think of the stereotypical folktale featuring a witch, she often winds up getting the bum end of the dea She gets shoved into an oven, hung on an old tree, burned in the town square, or swallowed up by the forces of hell. She loses a hand while transformed into a cat or gets tortured because she has a pet rat and people don’t understand that choice, or she gets scalded with hot liquid because she happened to be siphoning off some milk from a nearby farmstead (okay, that last one may be more about the repurcussions of theft than any particular act of cruelty by the neighboring farmers). Witches, however, seem to take the brunt of abuse in the stories where they are present. Their spells get reversed or undone, and they wind up the worse for casting them, even to the point of (frequent) death.
- Surviving – Even in death, however, witches carry on. They may engage with the dead and the spirit world their whole lives only to become one of those spirits in the beyond. Tales of witches returning from the grave to seek revenge, as reputedly happened in the case of the Bell Witch of Tennessee or Mother Hicks of Maine, are many. Witches don’t go away easily, and almost never go down without a fight.
As I stated earlier, this is hardly an exhaustive or even particularly detailed list, but it does provide some ideas about the ways we perceive witches in stories and the ways we understand what they do. A witch is likely to engage in an act of magical theft as a response to poverty, then be caught and punished for her spells, and finally return from the grave for vengeance. Or, she might quietly cast spells and divine fortunes with cards, finding lost goods and livestock as a nervous client sits in front of her.
Our understanding of witches is shaped by their actions and behaviors far more than by the pointy hat or the bubbly cauldron, even though we often signal the idea of “witch” with those sorts of symbolic cues. Seeing these behaviors in combination helps us to see the emerging “witch” of legend and history as an active participant in her own story rather than just a victim of mislabeling by the ignorant around her (although there are certainly plenty of cases of that happening, too).
As I move forward with this website and all its related projects, I hope that these posts will be ones that we can return to as to a crossroads, with a giant post full of various arrow signs giving us all sorts of potential directions to go. We have seen the ways witches engage with the world around them here. The problems they face, they face with practical—if not necessarily logical—approaches, using magic as a specialized tool for overcoming barriers including poverty or injustice (as well as exacting personal vendettas sometimes). They understand the world to be a wonderful one—not necessarily a “good” one, but a world inhabited by the uncanny and awe-inspiring. Witches engage with that wonder, form bonds with it and with the world it shows them. Witches go beyond wonder and belief, transforming their ideas into concrete reality through spells and charms, knotted cords, bones and skins from animals, and handfuls of gathered plants. They acquire their power and knowledge through struggle and effort, often developing it over a lifetime and passing it on to others sometime before they die. They do magic, cast spells, deal with curses, provide blessings, bewitch guns and cattle, find missing animals, brew love potions, get blamed when things go wrong (sometimes because they did, indeed, have something to do with it), transform into animals, suffer for their work, and often pay very high prices for the magic they do.
The life of a New World Witch, then, is one of action. Witches do work. Witches solve problems. Witches learn and grow. Witches make things. Witches talk to things that others don’t or won’t talk to. Witches see the world differently, and it changes them. Then, they change the world.
I look forward to seeing all the things that you all do with your magic. Please continue to share your own acts of witchery and enchantment with us and help all of us here to summon forth a little more New World Witchery in the years to come.
Thanks for reading!
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.”
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!
We discuss the role of hoodoo and folk magic in the African American community with our guest, Professor Yvonne P. Chireau.
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Jessica, Victoria, Daniel, Plum Deluxe Teas, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Montine, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, and Hazel (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
If you’re interested in hoodoo, check out our Resources-Magical Systems page under the heading “Hoodoo, Voodoo, Conjure, & Root Work” to find an extensive list of our posts and podcasts on the topic.
You should definitely check out Yvonne P. Chireau’s website, Academic Hoodoo, and her book Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. I also accidentally mix up her work with the work of Katrina Hazzard-Donald, who has another good book on the subject called Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System. Chireau’s mentor, Albert Rabetau, has also written some essential reading, called Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South.
The stories and songs interspersed in the episode are exerpts from the public domain recordings in the Library of Congress’ collection, Voices from the Days of Slavery. The voices you hear are “Uncle” Billy McCrae, Irene Williams, and Laura Smalley.
We’re also planning an excursion in early to mid-summer to see the ancient magical artifacts exhibit at the Penn Museum and we’d love for you to join us! You can find out about it in our Special Update post on it, or check out the Facebook Event page.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Promos & Music
I realize that my previous post promised a bit more exploration of the potential shape of a “New World Witchery” sort of practice, but during the drafting of that post, Ilvermorny was unveiled. I’ll get to what that means in a moment, but I wanted to just take a moment to say I am still working on the other post, and that this one may actually tie nicely into the longer discussion of New World magic (albeit from a more literary stance). I also want to note that there are most definitely *spoilers ahead* so consider this your chance to stop reading if you aren’t already somewhat familiar with what Ilvermorny is.
If you have managed to see the light of day at any point in the past two decades, you are probably familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Created by J.K. Rowling, the Potterverse (as all the collective official materials of the Harry Potter fictional fandom are known) has historically centered on the adventures of Harry, “The Boy Who Lived,” and his struggles against Voldemort (a.k.a. Tom Riddle), an evil and megalomaniacal wizard bent on the purge of all “impure” wizarding families and the subjugation of Muggles (as non-magical folk are known). The places most familiar to those who have read the seven primary tomes of the Potter series (and now, the eighth installment, which is actually a stage play called Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, but which even in its dramatological format has still sold more than two million copies during its first few days of release) are generally located in the United Kingdom: Platform 9 ¾, found at King’s Cross Station in the London Underground; the wizard-and-witch shopping mecca of Diagon Alley, hidden behind the Leaky Cauldron, both also in London; and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, located in and about Scotland, where Harry and his friends learn their trade along with hundreds of other students (I emphasize the number for reasons that I hope will be clear soon enough). Pottermania has permeated literary and popular culture for well over a decade now, and Rowling’s most recent endeavors in her magical world make it clear that the Potterverse is not going to remain stagnant, but expand even further.
Most recently, it has expanded with some detail into North America. Rowling wrote a short story that tells the history of the founding of the North American school of magic, known as Ilvermorny, in Massachussetts during the seventeenth century. I won’t do a complete recap of the events, as I encourage you to read it for yourself (it’s less than an hour’s read, really), but the gist of the tale is that an Irish witch descended from the Slytherin line named Isolt Sayre fled the Old World with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, and then high-tailed it into the woods to the west and eventually formed a magical family, adopting two boys (the Boot brothers) and marrying a kindly Muggle (or “No-Maj” as we apparently call non-magical people in North America, in a blinding fit of banality) named James Steward. Isolt befriends a number of North American mythical beasts and cryptids, including a river spirit in the form of a Horned Serpent and a pukwudgie whom she calls William. When she begins instructing other magical folk (including the local Native populations, mostly of the Wampanoag people), she establishes the school that eventually becomes Ilvermorny.
At a very basic level, the Ilvermorny story is a pleasant addition to the young-adult fictional world of Rowling’s imagination. Characters—despite not having much space in the narrative—generally have readily accessible personalities and even get a bit of development here and there. Rowling tries very hard to recreate the magic of Hogwarts in Massachussets, and at times, she gets pretty close to doing so, in my opinion. Given the heavy use of British and broadly European folklore and myth in the Potter series, however, her approach to North American lore and legend is strangely off-kilter. I can only really speak for North American cultural materials from the United States, here, but I imagine that Canadian and Mexican readers might also feel there is something “off” about the Ilvermorny tale. Below I will outline some of the key issues I found when reading Rowling’s backstory.
Ilvermorny’s problems often stem from a particularly British mindset transplanted into an environment that was fundamentally un-British. Firstly, very few schools in the U.S. use the “house” structure. There are certainly exceptions to that rule, notably a high school in Kentucky, but by and large even residential boarding schools do not favor house systems anymore. Of course, Ilvermorny was founded in the 1600s, so it is very likely that a house system might have been in place for a century or so, but I doubt it would have lingered there much past the public education and Sunday school movements of the nineteenth century. Instead, individual schools foster collective school pride in competition with other schools. In some instances, there might be fraternity-like divisions within a school, but they are seldom as intense as house divisions and rivalries are generally much shallower. In some cases, such divisions are even viewed with intense scrutiny: “[O]rganizations that enclose themselves in separate houses…carry the stigma of secret societies, [and] fraternities and sororities are subject to suspicion, restriction, reform, disparagement, suspension, and at many campuses, banishment” (Bronner 242). Even at colleges, where house-like divisions are more common, they seldom take on the definite shape of the divisions found in the more British antecedents. Additionally, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a founder, with a deeper backstory about why they came together to form the school Ilvermorny has a general set of founders, but they chose not to name the houses after themselves. Rowling even makes a point of joking about how the houses are not named after the individuals behind them: ”The idea of naming the houses after themselves, as the founders, was swiftly abandoned, because Webster felt a house called ‘Webster Boot’ had no chance of ever winning anything, and instead, each chose their favourite magical beast.” The author’s clever solution to the founder problem is to form the houses around the mascots, which brings us to…
The Menagerie of Beasts
Taken *mostly* from North American folklore and legend, the house creatures are essentially mascots for their houses. Yes, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a creature associated with it, but the creature is fundamentally linked to the founder—Gryffindor is a Griffin because a Griffin represents Godric Griffindor (and there’s a whole book about the “heir of Slytherin” and the relationship to snakes through his line). The beasts in Ilvermorny actually work better as mascots because the founders remain nominally distant from their houses (Rowling’s account of the naming of the houses makes it sound like an affable after-dinner conversation). In an American secondary education environment, however, you don’t have four mascots at one school. You have four schools, with four different mascots. I will return to that concept momentarily, but first we must discuss the mascots themselves.
The beasts are an odd mishmash of the North American legendary landscape. All of them are at least loosely linked to Native American or Amerinidian legends of one kind or another, but are lumped together in such a way that they don’t suggest the distinct or distinguishable Native tribes whence they come. Pukwudgies, for example, would be primarily associated with areas under the Northeastern portion of the Algonquin-speaking America—largely New England, where much of the Ilvermorny story takes place. So far, so good, right? There are similar creatures depicted in other areas—the Cherokee have legends about “Little People,” and the Cree tell tales of the Mannegishi, who are a lot like Pukwudgies (Mooney 335). Choosing to call them Pukwudgies links them to a region, however, and complicates things, because then Rowling introduces the idea of the”Horned Serpent,” a much more generic term for a figure found in various forms throughout the Plains, Lakes, and Southeastern American regions, as well as having some cousins in the “plumed serpents” of the Southwestern and Central American zones. Why make one specific, and one generic? Why not settle on a specific term, like Uktena or Mishi Kenepikwa to attach it to a region or tribal affiliation in some way, the way she did with Pukwudgie? Thunderbirds are similarly broad, although at least potentially more connected to the region in which Ilvermorny is founded (although not massively so, as they feature much more prominently in regions much further west) (Cohen 92-4; Erdoes & Ortiz 218-22). Perhaps the most confusing is the Wampus Cat, which is usually limited to the Southeast and occasionally Deep South (Mooney 324; Schlosser 92-8). Again, its name is potentially generic, but folklorically it has almost no connection to the area of Massachussets where Ilvermorny is located.
That doesn’t mean that Rowling is wrong to draw upon these figures—it is her fictional universe, after all. It does mean, though, that she’s not really put them into any context that makes sense given the folklore at hand. This is strange, because she is very good with British folklore and fairy tales, and incorporates them frequently into her Potter series. In the case of Ilvermorny, she has Hodags (a Wisconsin-based hoax beast) and Jackalopes (mostly in the Plains and American Southwest) mingling with the creatures of New England and the Mid-Atlantic (Brunvand 831-2; Cohen 239-44) . She does not seem to realize that a Hodag would have to travel nearly a thousand miles to romp with her pukwudgies, or that a Maryland Snallygaster would need to head northwest to the tune of about four hundred miles to play with Isolt’s friendly Horned Serpent. In the end, I think that she just does not quite grasp the size and scope of America, its peoples, and their mythologies. How anyone at Ilvermorny got Wampus Cat hair for making wands during the first years of the school is a mystery, and perhaps one we will examine as she expands the Potterverse over time. Which brings me to the last point…
America is Very Big
Let’s think about some numbers. We’ll start with Hogwarts. Based on what we’ve read in the Harry Potter book series, we can estimate an average of of 10 new students per house per year for 7 years = 280 students at any given time. The U.K. population is around 65 million, which means that about .000004 percent of people in the United Kingdom are likely to be selected for Hogwarts (and I am assuming that Hogwarts is the only place young wizards and witches are educated in the U.K., so that number is the high end estimate of new witches & wizards per year). To compare, the U.S. population is around 320 million, nearly five times the size of the United Kingdom, spread out over an area roughly forty times as large. If we assume that wizarding populations are roughly the same worldwide (as one astute listener pointed out, that idea is canon from the Pottermore site), then using approximate statistics, there should be at least 1,000 young wizards and witches per year (closer to 1,300-1,400, really) for the U.S. population. Enough to fill four or five schools, that is.
Ilvermorny is a very British way of doing things, and is very out-of-joint with the American people and landscape. There’s something very Colonial and Imperialist about the way Ilvermorny is portrayed, with its founder instructing the local Natives in magic (although to her credit, Rowling does make the education more of a magical exchange; most of the magic in the story, however, is the wand-waving type, and so European magic seems to be the most prominent and dominant form). Rowling seems to be trying to create a unified and cohesive narrative about American magic, and in some places she succeeds: the idea of the Magical Congress is very sharply perceived, as is the effort to avoid an aristocracy of houses and the inclusion of a Muggle-founded house. Her efforts to concentrate everything into one time and place, and her seeming lack of understanding of American historical movements and regional interactions, undercut the story she tells, however. It’s just sloppy to dump every possible magical being from Wampus Cats and Hodags to Jackalopes and even the Snallygaster into one place, especially without giving any context. She could just as easily have started bringing in Bigfoot or Little Green Men as a part of the Potterverse, since both creatures also have antecedents in Native lore, and are perhaps as disharmonious in her setting as some of the cryptids she does include.
My own reading of the situation tells me that Rowling would have been much better off dividing the school into the four mascots, and then having each mascot represent a different regional school. Ilvermorny could have been the Pukwudgie school of New England and potentially parts of the Mid-Atlantic. The Wampus Cat would then have been representative of the South (possibly started by a maroon/runaway slave community—although it would also be lovely to imagine such a school represented by the Loup Garou in Louisiana). The Thunderbird would have made much more sense somewhere in the Western Plains, the Pacific Northwest, or California. And the Horned Serpent could have represented either the Middle West and Great Lakes region effectively, or been a more “plumed serpent” creature in the Southwest. Alternatively, a fifth school would have been a good thing to add, maybe including a Jackalope to represent quick-wittedness and a bright intellect with a bit of a mischievous streak in the West or upper Southwest. Rowling’s Potterverse accounts for “skinwalkers” as a type of shapeshifting Animagus slandered by charlatan “No-Maj medicine men,” so perhaps even a school founded by such an Animagi would be appropriate—particularly as it would show the magical agency of Native sorcerors in founding their own school. A fifth school division would work because the numbers for the wizarding school in the UK—Hogwarts—are roughly one-fifth of the projected numbers in the United States (and this is not even touching Canada or Mexico, which might well have their own schools—I could easily envision one by a lake in British Columbia where Ogopogo lurked in the waters much as other mythic creatures do in the lake by Hogwarts, for example) (Cohen 136-41). These schools would likely have been founded by different witches and wizards over time and during the expansion of American westward migration, and so they would not all tie up into quite so neat a package as the Ilvermorny tale or the Hogwarts history, but America is big and messy and complicated.
Yes, it would have meant a less complete story for Ilvermorny. But it would also have meant room for more expansion later. Since Ilvermorny is repeatedly described as the Great North American School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, we are left to assume that it is likely the only one. Considering we are a competitive, diverse, and geographically expansive society, any school attempting to be the sole proprietor of magical knowledge on the continent is unlikely to succeed. As historian Daniel Boorstin notes, “There has never been an effective American movement for a national university. The numerous and diverse American colleges, separated by vast distances, never formed a self-conscious community of learned men”(and women, I would add) (180). Boorstin is obviously discussing higher education, but the principle of spatial separation and scholastic individualism is mirrored in secondary education, too. We just don’t do an Oxford or a Cambridge here—we prefer numerous schools representing regional identities, and that’s something the Ilvermorny story misses. Rowling has a big imagination, and this is all fiction and her universe; she can do as she pleases. From where I sit, though, it seems she has not been able to imagine just how big and diverse America can be in its landscape, peoples, and lore.
I’d like to note that Peter Muise of the New England Folklore blog has also tackled this topic, much more succinctly than I have here, and I highly recommend you check out his take on the subject. Also, Laine & I discussed this topic extensively on our latest episode. And, of course, this is really all just for fun anyway. While I’ve obviously taken a bit of (wait for it) Umbridge at certain folkloric pieces of Rowling’s story, really it’s just there to entertain us and she seems to do that pretty well. Plus, it gives us a place to work from when discussing things we should expect to find in New World magical practices (such as diverse forms spread over a wide set of regions, with a combination of widespread and geographically particular spirits/creatures to explore). I write what I do here with fondness for Rowling’s work (and let’s face it, she doesn’t need my approval for anything!), and in the hopes that her story might inspire deeper reading for those who are interested in American folklore.
Thanks for reading!
- Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience (Random House, 1964).
- Botkin, B.A. A Treasury of New England Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1947)
- —. A Treasury of Southern Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1949).
- —. A Treasury of Western Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1951).
- Bronner, Simon J. Campus Traditions (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012).
- Brunvand, Jan, ed. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing, 1996).
- Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Monsters (Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1982).
- Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964).
- Erdoes, Richard, & Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths & Legends (Pantheon Books, 1984).
- Leeming, David, & Jake Page. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).
- Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee (Charles Elder Books, 1982).
- Rowling, J.K. Pottermore site (updated 2016).
- —. The Harry Potter book series (Scholastic Press, 1997-2007)
- Schlosser, S.E. Spooky South (Globe Pequot Press, 2004).