Blog Post 231 – Black Magic Matters (Literary Edition)

Hi there. Black Lives Matter. They still do, and we’d like to reiterate that (not just because it’s Black History Month, although that’s a good reason, too, but because it’s a core part of what we believe as well). 

Last year, we posted an article highlighting that Black Magic also matters, particularly in terms of the way Black people have deeply influenced the shape of North American folk magic for hundreds of years now. We highlighted a variety of practitioners, historical figures, and important community members we thought deserved some attention on our platform. We definitely encourage you to go back and check those folks out again, because their contributions only continue to grow in importance over time.

We decided this should also be a topic we revisit from time to time, not least because there are just so many crucial Black figures in the historical and contemporary practice of magic here (and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of those from Indigenous and other communities of Color who have been driving forces of magical creation and expression in North America, too, whom we hope to highlight more frequently as well).

This time, I’m going to share a series of deeply influential folks who have shaped not just my understanding of North American folk magic, but my understanding of literature. This list is focused on those who used the written word to preserve, share, document, enchant, and defend their magical worlds, and I have been extremely lucky to be able to read their work. This group is less focused on the practitioners of magic (although some here certainly do practice it), so I’ll likely have a more practical group to highlight the next time I post. But the words these authors have produced have been so important to me in terms of magic, history, and human feeling that I feel like they are very much worth your time to meet.

A quick note that I have endeavored here to use Bookshop.org links to benefit local bookstores where possible, and only added Amazon links when I had to. I also recommend looking to local Black booksellers to pick up these titles if you can. I should also note that the links here are affiliate links, so our site does benefit from you clicking on them (if that’s an issue please feel free to visit Bookshop.org and search for the titles instead).

And so, Black Magic Matters – Literary Edition:

 

Frederick Douglass 

Many people wind up reading Douglass because of his autobiographical narrative, which became a lightning rod for abolitionists and enabled him to advocate fiercely for the end of slavery during his lifetime. Douglass was a literary master and knew how to turn a phrase, as well as a fierce journalist (he started the paper The North Star, which featured a number of abolitionist articles and helped drive up interest in the subject prior to the Civil War, and later went on to run two other papers as well). 

One element of his narrative that people either completely miss or rabidly focus on is an account in an early edition that tells of a “root” he carries with him when dealing with the cruel slave-driver Covey:

“I found Sandy an old adviser. He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good. To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side. This was Sunday morning. I immediately started for home; and upon entering the yard gate, out came Mr. Covey on his way to meeting. He spoke to me very kindly, bade me drive the pigs from a lot near by, and passed on towards the church. Now, this singular conduct of Mr. Covey really made me begin to think that there was something in the root which Sandy had given me; and had it been on any other day than Sunday, I could have attributed the conduct to no other cause than the influence of that root; and as it was, I was half inclined to think the root to be something more than I at first had taken it to be.”

Douglass later gets into a knock-down drag-out fight with Covey and one of his assistants, but triumphs (although Covey seems to think he won, he then leaves Douglass alone following the incident). Is this folk magic? There are a number of scholars who identify this root as an element of rootwork or Hoodoo. Douglass himself is very dubious about it, and even in later writings essentially disavows the root as superstition. Still, this passage shows the way that magic entangled with the everyday life of African Americans, and also manages to bring a little of that magic to the reading lists of many young readers today.

To Read: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Also See: The collection of Frederick Douglass-edited newspapers at the Library of Congress website; Kameelah Martin’s Conjuring Moments in African American Literature

Illustration of Charles Chesnutt
Charles W. Chesnutt was an author of color who incorporated Black folk magic into his writing frequently. He is best known for stories like “The Goophered Grapevine.” (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2021)

Charles W. Chesnutt

The stories of Charles Wadell Chesnutt feature grapevines cursed by conjure-men to wither away, a man whose foot gets twisted backwards by rootwork, a fearsome wolf summoned by an evil witch to do her bidding, and all sorts of other magical goings-on as well. Chesnutt was unique as a late nineteenth-century writer who found success mining African American folklore for story ideas and incorporating them into often funny, sometimes frightening tales. He was also unique in that he identified as Black when he could “pass” as white due to his majority-white ancestry. He made racial issues a centerpiece of many stories, and very much looked to the dismantling of racism as a goal within his work and the work of other authors. His stories, often written in dialect, can feel off-putting at times and do not shy away from racially-charged language or topics, but the massive amounts of magical lore he incorporated into his fiction are captivating. 

To Read: The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales

Also See: Robert Hemenway’s article “The Functions of Folklore in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman,” which discusses the folkloric influences at the root (pardon the pun) of the stories.

 

Nalo Hopkinson

If you’ve never read Jamaican-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson, you’re missing out. Her work is phenomenally rich, absolutely dripping with magic and character on every page. I first bumped into her through a collection of stories she edited called Mojo: Conjure Stories, which also put me onto work by Tananarive Due, Nnedima Okorafor, and Sheree Renee Thomas. Her book, Brown Girl in the Ring, tells the story of Ti-Jeanne, a young woman struggling in a collapsing world of crime and violence while also balancing the traditions and history she inherits from her rootworking grandmother. Hopkinson frequently incorporates elements of fantasy and speculative fiction into her work, while also keeping it rooted in reality (I personally think she’s essentially a magical realist writer, although I don’t usually see her described that way). She builds on the folklore of her Caribbean heritage and draws the reader into worlds equal parts enchanting and haunting.

To Read: Brown Girl in the Ring; Skin Folk

Also See: Mojo: Conjure Stories (a collection edited by Hopkinson)

Illustration of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was a Nobel-prize winning author whose work exuded magic while confronting issues of Blackness and identity. (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2021)

Toni Morrison

If you’ve listened to our show much, heard me talk about magic and literature at all, then you’re going to know that Toni Morrison has had an outsized impact on my understanding of the universe. I love her writing and have devoured so many of her books. They are often very painful, marvelously uplifting, and incredibly potent because Morrison is a master wordsmith and storyteller. I cannot bring up enough this passage from Sula, which very much informs my sense of cosmology:

“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.

What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as “natural” as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall”

If you want books that incorporate Black history, magic, and culture along with incredible stories and unforgettable characters, Morrison is absolutely a must-read.

To Read: Sula; Beloved; Song of Solomon

Also See: “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” a lecture Morrison gave on African American literary legacies and the ways a reader should engage with a variety of authors 

 

Ishmael Reed

Okay, I know Reed is controversial, but that’s also because he’s bold and experimental, outspoken, brave, and loud on the page. His writing is unapologetic and nearly acidic in its satirical strength, and he takes on a lot of beloved cultural darlings in his work (most recently he wrote a scathing parody of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton with an eye to correcting some of its historical whitewashing, for example). One thing Reed is, however, is meticulous. He unearths pieces of history and culture with the tenacity of a scholar and the literary flourish of a poet. For example, one of his best-known novels, Mumbo Jumbo, is a freewheeling tour of Black history including real-life characters like Black Herman, Marcus Garvey, and President Warren G. Harding (who was sometimes rumored to have Black ancestry). Into that history, Reed injects Hoodoo, Voodoo, Moses, jazz music, spontaneous dance outbreaks, and so much more. His books are the sort of reading that makes you long for footnotes or at least sends you out Googling all the madcap figures and facts he includes to know more (or maybe that’s just me, but I enjoy it!). Reed destigmatizes the power of magic in Black history, and he’s worth your time for that alone (but there’s so much more to enjoy, too).

To Read: Mumbo Jumbo

Also See: Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (a “HooDoo Western” that is absolutely delightful to read)

 

Randall Kenan

I am incredibly sad that Kenan is no longer with us. I had the chance to correspond with him briefly, and he was a key part of my Master’s thesis (along with Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler on this list). If there’s an author I think many people haven’t heard of here, it’s Kenan, but that’s a real loss because his work is absolutely magnificent. He only published a few books in his life, but they were absolutely soaked in magic and folklore. Take, for example, this passage from his novel Let the Dead Bury the Dead, in which the history of the town of Tims Creek is interwoven with mythical stories of a devil-disguised-as-preacher who visited long ago:

“[T]he rumors were that these folk had had sexual congress with the Preacher-man. Said that his seed or whatever it was carried madness, and he had forced himself on them innocent youngens and animals and drove em mad…said in one sitting on Christmas Eve, he ate two whole chickens, an entire mess of greens, corn, cabbage, a whole hog, and a cake and a pie. He’d eat and they’d just keep bringing, wide-eyed and plumb put out by the site of it. Say somebody mumbled something bout gluttony and the Preacher just looked at him, mouth full of ham, just looked at him, and that man never said another mumbling word for the rest of his life. Said the Preacher kept a black snake and a big black bird. One woman say she heard the Preacher talking to the snake and the snake talked back. She went deaf.”

If talking snake familiars and ravenous devil-preachers don’t say “American folk magic” to you, I don’t know what to tell you. Kenan also infused his work with intersectional issues, including the difficulties of being both gay and Black in his Southern community. Kenan’s books are founded in occult ideas and make magic both intoxicating and dangerous, and I cannot recommend him nearly enough. We lost him far too soon.

To Read: Let the Dead Bury their Dead; A Visitation of Spirits

Also See: Kenan’s interview with speculative fiction author Octavia Butler in the magazine Callaloo

Illustration of Octavia Butler
The speculative fiction of Octavia Butler is world-shaking for both its bleakness and its hope. She frequently brought in deeply mythic and folkloric elements to her worlds and characters (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2021)

Octavia Butler

I include the interview with Kenan and Butler above because it’s absolutely fascinating to see them both unpacking her fiction and all its deep mythological roots. If you haven’t read Butler’s work, it’s dark, full of unpleasant situations and serious trauma. At the same time, it’s empowering and encouraging, as the key players in her speculative fiction dramas are trying to make better worlds. Sometimes they are ancient goddess-like figures literally changing their shapes as they live for centuries in a game of cat-and-mouse with other immortals, and sometimes they are teenage women seeking to put post-apocalyptic humans into the stars by combining science and religion in equal measure. Butler’s writing is a magic all its own, too, and she does a phenomenal job conjuring up images that will haunt you long after you turn the page.

To Read: The Parable of the Sower; Wild Seed

Also See: Kindred

 

Tracey Baptiste

So if I’m honest, I’ve only read two things by Tracey Baptiste: Jumbies and her Minecraft-inspired book, The Crash. That latter one is great, but not particularly magical. Jumbies, however, is loaded with magic. She pulls from her Trinidadian heritage and tells a story filled with folk magic, roots, soucouyants, witches, loup garous, and tricksy twins. The book, while aimed at younger readers, is magnetic in its storytelling and folkloric ties, and frankly pretty terrifying! My own children had to put it down because it got so spooky, and they aren’t the type to get that easily spooked. If you have a love of folklore and magic, her writing is absolutely worth checking out. She’s got two sequels (they’re on my to-read pile, I swear!) as well.

To Read: Jumbies (and also, I’m guessing, the sequels…I’ll get back to you on that!)

 

Jeremy Love

The last entry on my list this time is a bit of a mystery. Jeremy Love, a comics author who has worked on several titles including (based on his rarely-updated site) Batman, wrote a webcomic series called Bayou, which was then collected into print and e-book editions. The story is absolutely rife with Southern Black folklore, including a young woman setting off through an uncanny Otherworld populated by monsters and magic in order to save her father. Love then wrote a sequel as well, which seemed like it would be part of a trilogy. However, to date there’s been no third book, and almost a decade has passed. He’s also not easy to find online, and there haven’t been many updates about him or his work. Still, I include him here because 1) the first two books are great stories with a ton of folklore and folk magical elements woven in; 2) the artwork is simply beautiful; and 3) I’m hoping that by writing about a third book it will somehow come to be. 

To Read: Bayou #1 (generally easier to get as e-comics from DC directly) and Bayou #2 

 

That’s where I’m going to leave it for now. This is just a small sampling of Black authors who have written amazing work incorporating folklore and folk magic, and I know there are so many more out there I could get into. Hopefully, though, this introduces you to a few you might enjoy and also helps to demonstrate just how much Black writers contribute. We truly wouldn’t have New World Witchery without the contributions of many of these writers, and all of them make our literary landscape so much richer and better. 

If you have suggestions for Black authors for me to read (especially ones with lots of folklore in their work), I’d love to know! Please feel free to leave comments and point me in the direction of even more great Black magical writing! (Oh, but please note that once again any racist, misogynistic, or otherwise heinous comments will not be approved and may be reported as harassment. Please use the comments to lift up and elevate Black magic and Black writers). 

Thank you for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 230 – Changing Your Luck

Image of silhouetted animals including cat, skunk, and rabbit
Any number of animals crossing one’s path was considered bad luck and required turning around and beginning a journey again. (Image by author (c) 2021).

As we turn the page on the past year (and I think there are plenty of people who would agree that they’re ready to not just turn the page but rip the whole accursed chapter out of the book), I know many of us are going to make resolutions, plan to live a better version of our lives, and do any number of things to improve situations for ourselves and others. That is all well and good, but if there’s one thing that last year seems to have demonstrated time and again, it’s that at a certain level we also are operating at the hands of Fate. Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in folk magic, and if there’s one point that many branches of folk magic emphasize, it is that Fate is not a fixed, unshakable future, but something that we can influence through enchanted manipulations and the subtle weaving of our intentions through charms, talismans, and other tools.

Today I want to briefly visit a few of the magical ways in which people have sought to change their luck through folk magic in America. Some are focused on very specific forms of luck, such as gambling, while others are much broader. I’ve already written before about ways in which people can “eat their luck,” for example, as we see with widespread practices of consuming specific “good luck” foods on New Year’s Day. Black eyed peas and greens appear in African American and broader Southern traditions. Pork and sauerkraut are a must-have for those in German American communities, such as those of central Pennsylvania. Likewise, many Latinx people consume foods like grapes—one for each of the twelve days following New Year’s Day—as a method of ensuring prosperity and good fortune in the year to come. Some other food-based luck transformations include:

  • Kissing the cook after taking the last piece of bread to avoid having bad luck (Brown 370).
  • Don’t throw away broken dishes but keep them piled in the back yard/back of the house and they will keep you from going hungry (Hyatt 274)
  • Turning plates at the end of the meal before getting up ensures that any bad luck in the room will be reversed so long as everyone does it (but the same lore warns never to turn a plate during a meal, because it allows “the witches [to] partake of the meal” (Brown 370)
Image of salt shaker
Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper. (Image by author (c)2021)

Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper (a folk legend not directly recorded in biblical accounts, which only mentions “dipping into the bowl” at the same time as Jesus). The remedies for this failure of luck, however, are wide-ranging, including tossing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder—sometimes to chase away or blind the Devil. Other versions of this reversal say to throw a bit of salt over either shoulder, or even “on the hot stove” (although tossing salt directly in the fire is thought to cause you to become “very angry”) (Brown 372-74). Throwing food away, however, doesn’t seem very lucky, so fortunately there are also beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good (Hyatt 25).

Image of Grandpa Simpson telling rambling story about tying an onion to his belt
Beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good. So Grandpa Simpson may have been on to something. (Image from “The Simpsons,” (c)Fox Studios).

Beyond the culinary luck-changers, there are a number of other things a person could do to ensure favorable fortune. Gestures and behaviors that might protect one from bad luck and invite good luck include:

  • Catching a caterpillar, keeping it in your home until it hatches, then freeing it when it becomes a moth or butterfly. It should be noted that the lore is very insistent that you not kill the creature in any of its life stages, as that will bring bad luck (Hyatt 30).
  • Frederick Douglass famously carried a root given to him by a conjure man in his pocket as a way to deflect the “misfortune” of abuse by his overseer, a devil of a man named Covey. It’s possible this was a “master root” or even a “John the Conqueror” root (Douglass 111). Douglass later revised his account of this incident, downplaying the role of conjure and rootwork to distance himself from what was seen as a Black stereotype and the “tomfoolery of the ignorant” (Martin 57).
  • A bit of North Carolina lore says that if you have trouble with being a butterfingers and breaking dishware, you can find a shed snake skin and rub your hands with it to remove that condition (Brown 375) 
  • “It is considered lucky to keep a living plant in your bedroom at night” (Hyatt 21) but there are also admonitions that any cut flowers (or plants that are otherwise in the process of decay) should be removed before sleeping in a room to reverse any potential poor luck in health
  • Several sources indicate that you must restart a journey if a black cat crosses your path. Similarly, other black-completed animals such as skunks, rabbits, or squirrels can all require such a turning back and beginning again (Hyatt 53)
  • Related to the turning back is the idea that if you do turn back, you shouldn’t keep going the same day, but wait until the next day to ward off bad luck (this also ties into the belief that you shouldn’t watch someone’s plane take off). You can also wait until the animal crosses the path of another person, which cancels the bad luck (possibly for both of you)
  • Despite their bad rap as path-crossers, black cats can also reverse bad luck. A bit of lore says that stroking the tail of a (strange) black cat seven times is thought to reverse misfortune and bring good luck (Hyatt 54)
  • Snakes also get a bit of a bad reputation in the path-crossing department. Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. This is true whether you see the snake that left the tracks or just the tracks themselves. The cross is thought to cancel out the bad luck (and is likely related to the idea of the “cross” from a Christian context acting against the dangerous and “sinful” nature of the snake from the Garden of Eden story (Hyatt 34). A Kentucky variant, however, totally bypasses the snake and instead simply says that you can reverse bad luck by drawing a cross in the dirt and spitting on it (Thomas no. 1032)
Image of a snake
Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. (Image by author (c) 2021)

In many of these examples, animals and other living things (like the houseplant—which makes me glad for my spider plants all the more) are the impetus for the luck-changing magic at work, something I’ve also mentioned when writing about the very strange (and often quite racist) lore associated with lucky rabbits’ feet. Similar animal-bone talismans include the jawbone or breastbone of a frog or the familiar wishbone from a bird like a turkey, which can be carried as luck-giving charms.

Beyond the power of various living things to perform misfortune management, there is a whole cadre of lore connected to sharp and pointy things that are able to reverse the curse:

  • Accidentally crossing two knives brings bad luck, and it can only be undone by the person who crossed the knives picking them up again. Similarly, if a person finds a pair of open scissors, they close them right away, or else “she will quarrel with her dearest friend before the moon changes” (Randolph 58).
  • Another remedy from Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” (Brown v7 108)
  • Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck (Hyatt 273)
  • Similarly finding a pin or penny is potentially bad luck but is easily reversed by simply picking it up and carrying it with you (multiple variations found in Brown 437-38). 

Personally I’ve also often commingled this last charm with the belief that a penny found heads up is good luck, which is great until you find a tails-up penny but also need to pick it up. So my own response is to pick up these “bad luck” pennies and turn them over, then set them down on another surface (usually higher up than the ground), so that I fulfill the basic idea of the charm while also not carrying the bad luck with me. Also, in general I’d prefer not to carry change I pick up off the street for health reasons, but that may just be me.

Image of pocket knife
Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck. (Image by author (c) 2021)

Of course, you might also be suffering a run of bad luck because of something you did, or something someone else did. For example, you might have snubbed your local witch (a very bad idea) and thus have fallen under a curse. If the bad luck is the result of conjury or witchcraft, visiting the curse-caster’s front steps is a good way to deal with the problem. Several different traditions, but especially Hoodoo, mention remedies such as spitting on the front step, digging some dirt from under it, or leaving the broken charm under the stair (Brown v7 105-6). There are also long-standing beliefs from a number of cultures that implore you to be humble, because speaking too highly of yourself or your luck courts disaster. Speaking of any good fortune you’ve had recently can invite bad luck to follow, unless you knock or “peck” on wood to counteract that effect (Brown v7 167-8). There’s also a great deal of evil eye lore connected to beliefs like this, but that is its own (rather enormous) topic.

Image of nine pins
Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” to reverse bad luck. (Image by author (c) 2021).
Some of these reversal charms, spells, and beliefs may seem a bit esoteric to us today. Few of us are going around rubbing our hands with snakeskin or collecting piles of broken dishware in our back yards. But knocking on wood has managed to linger on in widespread use, along with a few other very common bits of magic (some of which people perform without ever even thinking of them as “magical”):

  • A bit of lore found in Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, and more says that in a time of danger a person should cross their fingers to prevent bad luck (Brown v7 169)
  • “The first dollar collected in a new business should be framed for good luck. 
  • (Mary E. Price from Bill Garrett)” (Penrod, New Mexico article). I know I have seen many businesses that do this and put it on display near the cash register or front door, probably not thinking about the idea that it keeps misfortune at bay and invites good financial luck in.
  • Superstitions about sneezing and luck are common, with many believing that wicked spirits or devils are about when someone sneezes. Hence, the “bless you” or its many variants that you might say are a way of reversing any potential harm, bad luck, or evil that might be close by (Brown v7 153). 

You can see that there are a LOT of options when it comes to luck-reversal, then. There are all sorts of ways that a person can cut their losses through magic, and those I’ve mentioned here are just the very tip of the iceberg (or the found pocket knife or pin, perhaps). I’m always interested in seeing what other rituals people have developed in contemporary times to change luck in their favor, too. Like the lore about not watching one’s loved ones off in an airport, newer technologies breed newer folklore and thus newer folk magic. Surely at some point we’ll have lore about reversing the bad luck of playing online casinos or sports betting apps by doing things like opening other apps first (perhaps ensuring that the betting app is the seventh one opened that day or something similar). Perhaps people will buy wooden phone cases so they can knock on wood more easily whenever they feel a streak of bad luck coming on. Or maybe they will have phone charms resembling rabbits or cats or four-leaf clovers to help them. I should also note that this isn’t strictly about gambling, either (and that gambling can be very addictive so please seek help if you’re worried about that getting out of control). As more of our lives move into the ether of online space, or we see technologies like Roombas running around our house, we may develop new responses to all of these things (perhaps we will begin believing that we must leave the room when our iRobot vacuum is cleaning so it doesn’t go under our feet, which would carry forward a belief about not having your feet “swept” from older lore). 

Wherever our life goes in response to new developments, we will likely always retain a little bit of magical thinking about how to make fortune favor us a little bit more. After the year so many of us have just had, I know there were lots of people who warned against the hubris of claiming 2021 as “your year” out of (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) fear that it would somehow invite another 2020 to rear its ugly head. But taking control through these little rituals—carrying a charm or putting a dollar bill up on the wall or even just tending to a little netted cage of butterflies in your home and then releasing them in the wild—this is something we have done for a long time. What magic do you bring to the table to change things for the better? I’d love to know!

Wishing you a bright and happy beginning to your 2021, and thank you for reading.

-Cory

 

REFERENCES

  1. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 6, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  2. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 7, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  3. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Publications, 1995.
  4. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935. 
  5. Martin, Kameelah L. Conjuring Moments in African American Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.
  6. Thomas, Daniel, and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Princeton Univ. Press, 1920.
  7. Penrod, James H. “Folk Beliefs about Work, Trades, and Professions from New Mexico,” in Western Folklore, vol. 27, no. 3 (Jul. 1968), pp. 180-83.
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover Publications, 1964.

Blog Post 227 – Bread

Stone figure of woman making bread
Neolithic stone figure of woman making bread. Louvre. (Wikimedia)

I have to admit something slightly shameful about my time during the pandemic. I have not undertaken the task of making my own sourdough starter. Now, before you judge me too harshly, I should note that it’s not as though I haven’t been baking anything, just that I tend to do most of my baking using store bought yeast, eggs, or leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder. Our area did run out of yeast in the stores for a while, but somehow I’ve managed to back-stock just enough of it to last us for the few months it took for yeast to begin appearing on our shelves again. I’ve made starter-based breads before (yummy Amish friendship bread that lasted a few loaves before I failed miserably as a fermentation parent, for example), but I just haven’t needed to do the sourdough yet so it remains off of my “pandemic skills checklist.”

However, the popularity of bread baking did spark one of my other skills: research! I have been looking into a few of the folklore collections I have access to and finding all sorts of doughy, yeasty, yummy notes about the uses of bread in North American folk magic. So I thought today I’d share a few of the notes I’ve gleaned with all of you! Hopefully if you’ve been doing some resting, rising, and toasting of your own you’ll see some things here that spark your witchy senses and maybe make the act of bread-baking a little more magical the next time you go to top up that bottle of starter in the corner of your pantry.

I’ve already written a bit on things like the magic of cakes before, but I’ll start here by mentioning a cake of a sort. This is the “witch cake” used during the Salem Witch trials (and also occasionally found in other places, as it seems to derive from some English antecedents). The basic idea, as found in historical accounts such as town church documents from the trial period and reprinted in George L. Burr’s Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, is that a bewitched person’s “water” (urine, as it always seems to come back to collecting someone’s pee here at New World Witchery) is added to a rough loaf of rye or barley, then baked and fed to a dog. If the dog grows ill, convulses, or dies, it indicates witchcraft, or alternatively may be able to reverse harm, causing the witch to suffer visibly and thus identifying them. Mary Sibley, the neighbor of the Parris family who recommended the magical loaf cure, was later intimidated into confessing that the cake was diabolical in nature, a sort of “using witchcraft to fight witchcraft” approach that was found throughout Colonial New England folk practices (see the excellent book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement by David Hall for more on these sorts of folk magical practices in wide circulation).

A witch cake could be fed to a dog to either diagnose or reverse harmful witchcraft. This dog seems particularly suspicious, probably because the cake is baked with the victim’s urine. [Image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020]
These sorts of curative bread recipes, even if they are a bit unappetizing to us today, were widely known across traditions in North America. Oftentimes, bread was used as a delivery method for a variety of unsavory magico-medical treatments, creating rolled “bread pills” to treat ailments using herbs, medicinal mixtures, or even insects like lice and spiders to fend off sickness (Brown v.6 #806). A similar remedy could be used when treating animals, feeding them medicine or folk remedies along with bread to ensure they took them, as evidenced by an entry in Hohman’s Pennsylvania Deitsch tome, The Long-lost Friend:

#91 – For vomiting and diarrhoea [sp] – Take pulverized cloves and eat them together with bread soaked in red wine, and you will soon find relief. The cloves may be put upon the bread.

Hohman also mentions a similar method of delivering a chickweed based rabies cure in that book.

While baking a magical loaf of dark bread is certainly an intense way to mingle witchcraft and daily baking, many other beliefs and rituals surrounding meal, dough, and a warm oven could be found throughout the continent and across a wide range of people. In terms of superstitions, a massive number exist surrounding everything from baking the bread to burning it to taking a piece of it:

Preparing

      • Set bread to rise before the sun rises (Brown v.6 #2771)
      • Make a cross in bread dough to make it rise right (Brown v. 6 #2772) (This ritual is also mentioned in Robert Herrick’s Charmes and cited in Kittredge’s book on witchcraft. Rhyme: “This Ile [I’ll] tell ye by the way,/ Maidens when ye leavens lay:/ Cross your dow [dough] and your dispatch/ Will be better for your batch.” In the US this was also done to keep “witches from dancing over the dough” and thus cursing it and keeping it from rising.)
      • Cutting an unbaked loaf of bread is bad luck (Brown v.6 #2774)

Baking

      • Bread that cracks down the middle while baking is a sign of bad luck (Appalachian Magazine)
      • Burning your bread is a sign of bad luck, especially because it is likely to cause a quarrel. Beliefs from North Carolina, Tennessee, and even California all have similar variations. Many say that if a girl burns her bread or biscuits, it’s a sign she’ll fight with her sweetheart, for example, while a married person who burns bread is likely to fight with neighbors (Brown, Randolph). 
      • Burning bread can also mean the preacher is coming to visit soon (which may or may not be bad luck or the sign of a quarrel about to start, I suppose) (Brown v.6 #4000). Intentionally burning bread by throwing it into the fire will result in punishment, as the Devil will make you pick out every piece from the coals of hellfire later, according to Kentucky lore (Thomas).

Eating

      • You should never turn bread upside down once it’s baked, or you will bring bad luck (Brown, Randolph, Hines)
      • It’s bad luck to take the last piece of bread (Brown, Hyatt). Taking the last piece has a number of folkloric meanings, as well. For example, there’s a very gender-biased set of beliefs that a girl who takes the last piece of bread will be an “old maid,” while a boy is simply obligated to kiss the cook! (Which makes me think it was a clever ploy by many a mother to get a kiss from a child when giving the last piece away, but that’s simply my supposition). One variation also says that a woman who takes the last piece will also marry rich, so I guess one rolls the dice and takes their chances? (Brown v.6 #4735–a Nebraskan tidbit of lore)
      • Taking bread while you have bread on your plate already will also cause someone to go hungry (usually the person who has done the taking, but sometimes it is treated more as a portent for someone else) (Brown, Randolph)
      • A bit of Ozark lore says “I know of several families near Big Flat, Arkansas, who have a strange notion that one should never allow a piece of bread to fall upon the ground–the idea is that to do so will somehow injure the next crop of corn” (Randolph 62). 
      • Another bit of Ozark folklore says that eating bread crusts makes one a better hunter or fisherman, and that it leads to curly hair! (Randolph).

This last bit about the curly hair is one of the strangest but most pervasive beliefs about bread I found while researching loaf-lore. A number of sources indicate that if a person eats bread crusts, it will cause the person’s hair to curl, which is usually presented as a desirable outcome (Brown, Randolph, Farr). Sometimes those curls are ringlets, and at other times more like curly bangs or forelocks. In other cases, the curly hair actually predicts something about the bread, as in one North Carolina belief that says a baby with two curls of hair on its forehead will eventually “break bread on two continents,” indicating a life of travel (Brown v.6 #259). This may have something to do with the fact that the crust is the outermost part of the bread and often what visually draws us in (although the smell is certainly a factor, too, as many realtors know). Similarly, the hair or outer appearance of a person could be linked to this visual enticement through the bread. Or, it could simply be a way for a frugal parent to convince a child to eat the crusts, too!

Cartoon of several bread items, pies, and cakes. One smokes a cigarette. A mouse with a gun approaches.
When good bread goes bad. (Image from A Little Book for a Little Cook by L.P. Hubbard (1905), Wikimedia)

Continuing the theme of good looks and good bread, several wart or blemish cures are connected to a well-baked loaf. Most of these depend upon the use of cornbread rather than other forms of grains, with cornbread “sweat” being invoked most frequently as a curative for things like warts, pimples, and freckles (for those that don’t know, “sweat” is the condensation layer that settles on top of cornbread as it cools). Cornbread factors into several other cures and rituals as well. An Ozark cure for bewitched cattle involves feeding the cow a combination of burnt cornbread, soot, and salt (Randolph). In parts of Appalachia, there are superstitions that say a person should never break cornbread from both ends, or else there will be bad luck (Brown). A Georgia folk ritual says to feed a dog cornbread that has been rubbed on his left hind-foot in order to get him to follow you or stay loyal to you (Steiner).

Bread features in a number of magical rituals beyond ensuring canine companionship, too. One of the better-known rites is probably the Dumb Supper, which we’ve covered a few times and even done as a story episode during our annual All Hallows Read. A specific version of the working from Watauga County, North Carolina, involved even baking the bread backwards:

“Cook bread backwards, by sifting with the flour sifter behind you, and the like; also eat it with your back toward the table, and you’ll dream of whom you will marry” (Brown v.6 #4296).

The “reversal” power of the Dumb Supper works magically by inverting the typical order of things, allowing the user of the spell to see an end result (a future partner) earlier in their life. However, there are also consequences to that working in many cases (as you hear in our spooky retelling of the tale). It may also be that the Supper works to sort of ‘short circuit’ the brain by making it do a rote task in an unfamiliar way, thus causing a sort of distorted reality reaction and an altered state of consciousness, which might make a person much more susceptible to things like visions. Bread, as a staple ingredient and something so ordinary and frequently made, would be a perfect base for that kind of rite. It also has long-standing associations with strength and body, which could be another reason it gets used to call forth a corporeal image of a future lover. This body association also makes bread a key component of the modern Traditional Witchcraft rite of the Housle or “Red Meal.” In that rite, dark bread is presented as part of a ceremonial meal shared with Otherworldy spirits or the Dead (Artisson). That association of bread with the land of the dead also plays out in many customs and folkways from cultures that have ancestral reverence as a part of their practice. For example, in Mexican American traditions, a sweet bread flavored with orange essence and anise seed called “pan muerto”/”pan de muerto,” or “bread of the dead” is offered to ancestors during holidays like Dia de Muertos (Fernandez Kelly).

Bread’s association with the strength also leads to a curious bit of lore from Georgia, which says that a knife with a “soft” blade can be strengthened by simply putting it into hot cornbread, then into hot water (Steiner).

Bread also features in a variety of other folklore as well, even metaphorically. For example, many people almost instinctively say the phrase “bread and butter” when passing someone on the street with a light pole or other object between them. This is thought to ward off bad luck (another variation has one party say “bread and butter” while the other says “come to supper,” as well) (Brown, Randolph). A Pennsylvania Deitsch idiom says that a person who can use braucherei magic or other supernatural gifts is someone that “Hot meh du kenne wie Brod esse,” or that “he knows how to do more than eat bread!” (Dorson 112n1). Even in dreams, bread can have significance, as evidenced by this interpretation from the well-known and widely available Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream-book from the early twentieth century: “To eat wheaten bread, gives great gain to the rich, but loss to the poor; to eat rye bread is the reverse” (9). The commonness of the bread seems to be underlying most of its metaphorical value in these folk beliefs, sayings, and symbols–a person who can do more than eat bread can do more than the ordinary, and a rich person who eats the sort of bread only available to rich people (the more expensive and finer-milled “wheaten” bread) will see their gains continue. 

Illustration of a house blessing using bread, salt, and a coin
A simple house blessing spell/ritual using bread, salt, and a coin. (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020).

A House Blessing Charm (with bread!)

Perhaps my favorite bread-based magical working is one that I’ve done for a lot of folks when they move into a new home. It’s a little house blessing that I learned from my mother, who claimed it derived from Polish customs (we have a section of our family who all come from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well as the Bialystok region of Poland). I’ve also seen this represented as a Jewish house blessing, as well as a few other ethnicities, but thus far I’ve not found a single “source” for it. My guess is that it builds upon some fairly widespread Central and Eastern European symbols, and may even have been widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean through the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (which still uses house blessings today). The basic practice involves taking a small jar and filling it partly with salt, then adding a piece of homemade bread (just a small, crouton-sized cube would be enough), and a single coin. You can say a blessing over this (such as the Catholic rite of house blessing or Psalm 122:7, “Peace be in thy walls, and prosperity in thy dwelling”), simply explain the symbolism when you give the gift, as well. The individual components each have a meaning:

        • Bread – that those who dwell in the house may never know hunger
        • A Coin – that they may never know poverty
        • Salt – that their lives may never lack for flavor (i.e. good experiences)

There are lots of magical variations you could make here, too, including selecting specific kinds of coins (or ones with significant minting years printed on them). A silver “Mercury” dime would be a very protective one to include. You might also make a special kind of bread using herbs that convey specific blessings (although you do want to make sure the bread is somewhat dry when fully baked–it will essentially “mummify” in the salt over time so it won’t spoil, but only if it’s not a particularly moist bread to begin with…no zucchini bread, please!). You might even mix in spices or herbs with the salt, or consider using black salt as a way to specifically repel evil.

Loaves of homemade bread
Loaves of homemade bread (Image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020)

However you slice it, there’s a lot of magic in the lore of bread! If you’re baking up a storm during these mad, mad days of plague and pandemic, I hope that this post will inspire you to mix in a little magic along with your leaven, and add some enchantment to your bread basket!

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

REFERENCES

  1. Appalachian Magazine. Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Superstitions, Ghost Stories, & Haint Tales (Independently Published, 2018).
  2. Artisson, Robin. The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill (Pendraig Publishing, 2009). 
  3. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Volume 6), Wayland Hand, ed. (Duke Univ. Press, 2018 [1961]).
  4. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore of the United States (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972) 
  5. Farr, T.J. “Riddles and Superstitions of Middle Tennessee,” in Journal of American Folklore 48:190, 1935.
  6. Fernandez Kelly, Patricia. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” in American Quarterly 26:5, 1974.
  7. Hall, David. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement (Harvard Univ. Press, 1990).
  8. Hines, Donald. “Superstitions from Oregon,” in Western Folklore 24:1, 1965.
  9. Hohman, John George. The Long-lost Friend, Daniel Harms, ed. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  10. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Witches Almanac/Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 2020 [1935])
  11. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
  12. Steiner, Roland. “Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia,” in Journal of American Folklore 12:47, 1899.
  13. Thomas, Daniel and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions (Franklin Classics, 2018 [1920]).

Blog Post 226 – Black Magic Matters

A short list of Black-owned bookstores from which to buy some of these suggestions

Black Lives Matter. I say that first, because it is the most important component of what I write today. To all those standing up for Black lives right now, thank you. 

In our recent Patreon newsletter, which we made public, we issued our position about valuing Black lives and Black contributions to our world. One of the points we made was this:

“To us, Black Lives Matter. Frankly, we wouldn’t exist without the numerous contributions and creations of myriad Black and Brown minds throughout our history, and we have sought to highlight those figures on the show and on our site when possible, and we know we can do even better in the future, too. We must. We will. American folk magic does not exist, does not thrive and grow, without People of Color. So again we say, Black Lives Matter.”

Today, I’m going to highlight a small number of the figures from Black magical history (particularly in the U.S.) that prove that statement true. American folk magic does not exist without the contributions made by these individuals, and in many cases it has thrived and grown only because of the efforts made by People of Color. I’ll be mentioning only a small handful of what could easily be a MASSIVE list, and I’ll be sharing resources and information where you can learn more about them (as often as possible in their own voices or from non-white sources). I also showcase several contemporary Black magical figures because it is important not only to see the foundations of American folk magic as rooted in African American soil, but to see what continues to grow and thrive here. I recommend listening to them, hearing their perspectives, buying their books, or supporting them in any way you can. (Note: Where possible, all books are linked to a Bookshop.org page, and I encourage you to order these books from one of the many excellent Black-owned bookshops throughout the U.S.; Amazon links are used ONLY when the book is not available through Bookshop).

So let’s get started.

Zora Neale Hurston. Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson (2020)

Zora Neale Hurston

To me, Zora Neale Hurston is the grande-dame of North American folk magic in so many ways. I know that’s a controversial opinion, but Hurston herself was no stranger to controversy. She was a key piece of the Harlem Renaissance, working on plays with the likes of Langston Hughes, while also doing advanced anthropological work at Columbia University. Hurston was prompted by her mentor, Franz Boas, to go out and document her own culture, to see it as equally valid and important, and through that she produced both fiction and non-fiction texts that are absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in folk magic. She documented Vodun and Obeah in Haiti and Jamaica, and produced a quintessential collection of stories and material on hoodoo by researching in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, as well as other parts of the Gulf Coastal South. She was sometimes accused of being accommodating to white folks (like one of her patrons, the paternalistically racist Charlotte Osgood Mason) or of embellishing her work, but it rings with poetry and life and as Hurston herself might say, “the boiled down juice” of living. She died in relative obscurity until her literary reputation was resurrected by Black scholar Alice Walker a decade-and-a-half later.

To read: Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography); Tell My Horse (Vodun/Obeah); Mules and Men (Hoodoo); “Hoodoo in America” (extensive folklore article); Their Eyes Were Watching God (gorgeous literature); Moses Man of the Mountain (fiction with strong magical elements).

Also see: Zora Neale Hurston official website; Zora Neale Hurston field recordings at the Library of Congress

 

Aunt Caroline Dye

She was known as the seer of Newport, Arkansas, and received visitors from hundreds of miles away. She was the subject of several blues songs, and was reputed to be able to find any lost or stolen object with her powers. When she died, it was said she had literally thousands of dollars hidden away on her property, making her one of the wealthiest women around. During the peak of her popularity and power, it was said that more Black folks knew her name than President Woodrow Wilson’s. 

To read: Statesmen, Scoundrels, & Eccentrics: A Gallery of Amazing Arkansans, by Tom Dillard (biography section); “The Hoo Doo Woman of Arkansas” (AR State Parks Dept.)

Also see: “St. Louis Blues” (blues song considered by some to be about Dye); “Hoodoo Women” (blues song about Dye)

Black Herman / Public domain photograph (via Wikimedia Commons)

Black Herman

Black Herman was both a stage magician and a practitioner of mystical and magical arts when the spotlights were off. He was born Benjamin Rucker in the late nineteenth century, but he took the name “Black Herman” to honor his teacher and partner, a stage magician named “Prince Herman,” when the latter died. Black Herman took over the show and toured it with incredible success from the time he was seventeen until his untimely death nearly thirty years later. He was best known for his legerdemain and escapist tricks in his act, including a stunt that saw him buried alive then miraculously resurrected days later (when he’d continue with his show). Herman also folded in a number of African American folk magical elements, too, including the curing of patients with “live things” in them like snakes or the expulsion of evil spirits. 

To read: Secrets of Magic, Mystery, & Legerdemain (the book he sold at his shows under his name, although it may have been ghost-written); “Black Herman” Rucker (bio article)

 

Dr. Buzzard

Stephany Robinson, known to most around St. Helena Island, South Carolina, often gets painted as a sort of villain or foil in the stories about him. He was well-known as a rootworker and conjurer in an area connected with the Gullah culture, specializing in “chewing the root,” which involved visiting a courthouse where a client was expecting a trial, sitting in the audience, and slowly chewing a “Little John” root (galangal) while spitting the juices on the floor. He would fix a judge with his gaze and in many cases get his clients off from their accusations just by showing up. He also provided medications to young Black men who were being drafted into military service that would make them fail qualifying draft tests. Eventually, his success ran him afoul of local law enforcement, particularly Jim E. McTeer, a sheriff who decided to start using rootwork on his own to combat Dr. Buzzard. The conjure war between them escalated for a few years until Buzzard’s son was killed in a car crash, devastating him. He soon after called a truce with the sheriff. I’ll admit that I often think of this more from McTeer’s perspective than Buzzard’s, but in truth Buzzard’s clients likely faced incredibly unfair circumstances and his roots and magic were invaluable to his community, while McTeer’s use of conjure was almost play-acting at times as he engaged in a form of psychological combat with the respected local root doctor.

To read: Conjure in African American Society, by Jeffrey Anderson (contains biographical info on Buzzard); Blue Roots, by Roger Pinckney (also contains biographical info on him)

See also: The Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor (for more on the region)

 

Frank Schneider, based on a (now lost?) painting by George Catlin. / Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

Marie Laveau

So much is written about Marie Laveau it’s hard to separate fact and fiction, but we do know that she existed and that she was one of the most powerful Black women of her day. She’s mostly associated with New Orleans Voodoo, although she likely also incorporated elements of hoodoo at times while maintaining a strongly Catholic public presence. I won’t belabor her story here, because of all the people on this list you’re probably going to be able to find the most information about Laveau, but she’s absolutely one of the core figures in North American magical history.

To read: Voodoo Queen, by Martha Ward (bio); The Magic of Marie Laveau, by Denise Alvarado (bio); A New Orleans Voudou Priestess, by Carolyn Morrow Long (bio).

 

Mama Lola

Less well-known than Laveau, but deeply influential in the Brooklyn community where she lived (and beyond), Mama Lola was a Haitian mambo overseeing a number of rituals for the immigrant community around her and acting as a social pillar for her neighborhood. One biographer gives her full name as Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, but everyone knew her as Mama Lola or Alourdes. While New Orleans Voodoo may have captured the imagination of many, in Brooklyn Alourdes/Lola kept the living spirit (and spirits) of her tradition going. She acted as a spiritual and social counselor for those around her, as well as providing childcare for her daughter and helping to financially support members of her community. She would meet with clients almost daily, stage elaborate birthday parties for the lwa spirits she honored, and offer initiation and teaching to talented students. 

To read: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, by Karen McCarthy Brown (bio)

 

Katrina Hazzard-Donald 

For some, Katrina Hazzard-Donald is controversial, because she insists that Hoodoo is its own traditional spiritual system, a religion that was essentially quashed during the late nineteenth century and which has only been revived as a commercial enterprise in the intervening years. Hazard-Donald’s scholarship on the subject, built on her years as a professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Rutgers University, is frequently compelling and points out that the specific rituals of Hoodoo as a religious phenomenon include things that derived from or mirrored existing African spirituality. She points to things like ritual dancing, water immersion, and divination as reflective of the African roots of the tradition. Her work shows that once the religion left its home soil in particular regional zones, it became nationalized and easily coopted and marketed by outsiders, including white and Jewish merchants in big cities. While I don’t always agree with every point she makes, her analysis of Hoodoo is absolutely mind-expanding and thought-provoking. Additionally, she also practices African Traditional Religion as an Ogun Olorisha in the Lukumi tradition. I had the absolute pleasure of getting to hear her speak at an academic conference a few years ago, and she is fiery, eloquent, and moving when she talks about African and African American spirituality.

To read: Mojo Workin’ (her seminal work on “Old Black Belt” Hoodoo)

 

Luisah Teish

The author of the deeply influential book Jambalaya: The Natural Women’s Book, Luisah Teish has been working with African and African American spiritual traditions for decades and connecting her knowledge of spirituality with healing for issues of both race and gender. She makes feminism a crucial part of her spiritual practice, and was advocating for self-care as a radical form of spiritual action back in 1985. She continues to act as a guide and teacher to people, particularly women, who know her as Yeye Teish. She’s an initiate (Iyanifa) and chief in the Yoruban spiritual tradition, and hosts workshops and international trips to places like Jamaica to connect with living African-derived spiritual and magical traditions.

To read: Jambalaya (her quintessential book); Carnival of the Spirit (a book of seasonal and personal rituals)

See also: Yeye Teish’s YouTube channel and her Official Website

 

Lilith Dorsey

If you haven’t heard of Lilith Dorsey, you’re doing yourself a disservice. She’s an incredibly cogent writer on the subject of a number of diasporic practices, especially Vodun, witchcraft, and Afro-Caribbean spirituality. She recently put out a magnificent-looking book on Orishas, and has written books looking at love magic and African American cooking as a form of spellcraft, too. Her blog over at Patheos is always thoughtful and points toward new sources and new ideas while also bringing in her anthropological background and rooting what she discusses in that field.To pile talent upon talent (which she has in abundance), she’s also a filmmaker, who made the documentary Bodies of Water: Voodoo Identity and Tranceformation

To read: Orishas, Goddesses, & Voodoo Queens (her most recent book); The African-American Ritual Cookbook (about food and ritual magic intersecting)

See also: Her website and her Patheos blog; Our interview with her

 

Lisa Jade

Lisa Jade is a Canadian witch with a keen eye for issues of environmentalism, social justice, and–of course–witchcraft. She’s also a Patheos blogger (like Lilith Dorsey above) who shares her insights into issues like locavore lifestyle witchcraft and the deep problems with capitalism for those who walk a crooked path. She also produced an EXCELLENT reading list of Black witchy authors a few years back including Black writers and magical workers that aren’t on this list (including people like the brilliant Khi Armand). 

To read: Her reading list, 100% for sure, because it will offer you a lot of new options to discover

See also: Her website (which also produces material for Patheos)

 

Juju Bae

The A Little Juju podcast is something I’ve only recently found, but it’s been going strong for a while now. It also has one of the best and catchiest theme songs I’ve heard on a magical podcast, and Juju Bae covers a wide range of topics that intersect with Black magical spirituality. She’s talked astrology, money magic (which she takes VERY seriously), reiki, and even why masturbation is a healthy expression of spiritual self. She offers a line of hoodoo-related oils and products as well as divinatory readings (including ancestral readings), and she teaches online courses as well.

To listen: Check out her A Little Juju podcast

See also: Her YouTube channel and her website

 

Stephanie Rose Bird

She’s a prolific author who shares her knowledge of hoodoo readily in her books, but who also writes about health and wellness as a Woman of Color and even has a debut novel in the works! She’s generous and supportive while also providing rigorous and careful instructions in her books, and she looks at places where magical practices and spiritualities overlap with a thoughtful eye. The ecological side of her writing runs deep, and she situates the hoodoo she knows and does within the framework of natural cycles and seasons, while also making it contemporary and accessible for anyone. 

To read: 365 Days of Hoodoo (a hoodoo-based daily practice book); Sticks, Stones, Roots, & Bones (her landmark work on her hoodoo-rooted practice); The Big Book of Soul (African American culture and spirituality)

See also: Her website

Via Hedera

My final member of the thirteen-person coven assembled here is someone that I think everyone should know. Via Hedera is one of my favorite writers on North American folk spirituality. She looks to the folklore and scours collections and practices to better understand and share a deeply-rooted, deeply-felt sense of folk magic here. She comes at the topic as someone who lives intersectionality, bringing a multi-ethnic perspective and elevating practices from a wide range of sources, connecting sources such as Indigenous and African American magical practices through her work. She’s a delight to read, and her forthcoming book is one that I’ve been lucky enough to preview and I will say it should be at the top of any New World Witchery fan’s reading list. Plus, she’s a crazy talented artist who makes gorgeous plant-spirit sculptures that will melt your brain with their beauty.

To read: Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Mulitcultural Experience (forthcoming, and you should definitely get it)

See also: Her amazing (and beautiful) site; Our interview with her; Her sculptures

* * *

This is truly just a sampling of the hundreds (of thousands) of Black/POC figures that have informed, shaped, guided, and continue to influence the magic of North America. There are no shortage of people I skipped or missed here, ones that I think deserve just as much praise and recognition as the ones I’ve highlighted. To that end, if you have figures that you think should be on this list, please feel free to share them in the comments (along with any links to relevant information). 

A note: any racist, misogynistic, or otherwise heinous comments will not be approved and may be reported as harassment. Please use the comments to lift up and elevate Black magic.

Black Lives Matter. Black Magic Matters. Rise together.

Thank you for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 214 – The Naked Witch

And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything;
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead;
-From Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland

Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Jean-Léon Gérôme 1896 [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of modern witchcraft intersects with our bodies. We expect to experience magic as a visceral force, dance ecstatically, use the remnants of bodies–both plant and animal–in our spells, or alternately slather or dab our bodies with magical concoctions to gain a little advantage in a harsh world. In particular, some branches of witchcraft religion, such as British Traditional Wicca, emphasize the importance of bodily acceptance and embrace the human body as a source of power. That power, according to Wiccan progenitor Gerald Gardner, is pulled from the freeing of an “electromagnetic field” by the removal of clothing (although Gardner did allow that he thought “slips or Bikinis could be worn without unduly causing loss of power,” for what that is worth (and please note, I’m not particularly taking Gardner to task here, nor disavowing the traditions he launched, but pointing out that his theories about nudity were influenced largely by his own ideas and experiences).

 

Recently, people engaged with magic–especially magic and ritual where engagement means contact with other people–have been raising their voices over systematic and ongoing abuse at the hands of elders and community members. Women and young people seem particularly vulnerable as targets of groping, unwanted pressure for sexual initiation, or having bodies simultaneously treated as sacred and sexualized as objects. I am not going to recapitulate the entire discussion of these abuses here, although I will highly recommend spending some time really processing posts like the tough-but-vital ones posted by Sarah Lawless in recent months. Her writing has been excellent and influential, and I have seen countless victims (including many men who experience abuse in neo-Pagan circles) step forward to talk about what has happened to them and insist that it stop (and stop it should!).

 

That is not my aim today, however, although my topic is tangled into the net of that discussion. I was curious about the role of the witch’s body, specifically the witch’s naked body, as a component of her power or her craft. I knew well the line from Leland’s Aradia quoted above, but I also know that Leland’s sources do not always speak to a broad experience (or even an historically verifiable one, although I value much of his work). Leland’s goddess insists that nudity is an unshackling from the bonds of slavery and a sign of freedom, and Gardner seems to have run with nudity as a liberating experience as well within his own coven. Yet we also see nudity being used to degrade witches, shame them, or force them into the role of living succubus or “red woman” seductress. Where does nudity fit into a New World magical practice? Are there precedents for nude practice, does nudity have any value in practical magic, and does nudity still matter today?

 

There are essentially two situations in which witches might practice nude in New World witchcraft: alone and in groups. However, even here there are some gray areas, because when a witch is “alone,” they are often not entirely alone. They may be meeting an Otherworldly entity for an initiation rite, for example, and be expected to offer their body up for sexual congress, or even a simple washing ritual. In Appalachian lore, however, the favors were not always sexual, as some initiation rites involved offering a literal piece of one’s body, where “the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return. This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger.”

 

Just as often, these initiation rites involve a solitary witch stripping bare, but only as a precursor to other solitary action: cursing or shooting at the moon or (more practically) wading into a river or stream to wash away a previous baptism in some symbolic way. The sexualization of the witch in these encounters is virtually nil, except as perhaps a titillating detail for the listener or a matter of practical necessity for the witch. The act itself is symbolic because the witch is abandoning a previous life–usually a Christian one–and the removal of clothing is much like the washing away of the baptism.

 

Other parts of the New World also held that witches might strip bare on their own as an abandonment of social order. That was the common perception in Puritan New England, where witches were believed to travel into the woods to meet with “devils” or “Indians” (who were sometimes regarded by European colonists as essentially interchangeable). The idea that witches practiced magic in the buff, however, varied immensely from place to place. Sometimes it is included as a detail in stories of hag-riding, for example, especially in cases where the witch needed to apply a flying ointment of some kind before taking off.

 

AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

Group rituals are often a mixed bag as well, since witches might work in conjunction with another witch at times or meet up with a number of other witches for special events (such as during Walpurgisnacht-type celebrations). In one Ozark story, a would-be witch undergoes her initiation when she “removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s [non-believer’s] tombstone.” This rite is witnessed by two other nude initiates, but the sexual congress is relegated solely to the witch and “the Devil,” and not any human initiates. One tale of a pair of sister-witches on Roan Mountain in the Smokies tells of two witches removing their clothing before greasing up and flying up the chimney, for example. Other accounts describe groups of women slipping out of their clothes–or more potently, their skins–before flying off to perform dances. Details of sexual congress appear in European accounts, but are often minimized in North American ones, and frequently even the more diabolical descriptions of group nudity tend not to emphasize sexuality. A number of African tales about witches do indicate that they might have traveled naked to do their work (which was often desecrating graves or hunting children, work that hopefully contemporary witches are not doing). In these cases, however, the nudity was often solitary and never sexual, as the emphasis was on the witch’s wildness and cannibalistic nature rather than her sexual one. I’d also note that in cases where groups of nude witches meet, they are often all one gender (with the exception being the presence of an Otherworldly figure like the Devil), and that when someone intrudes on magical nudity–as happens in the Roan Mountain story–that person is usually punished.

 

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules & Men, she recounts an initiation ceremony experienced at the hands of Louisiana conjure-man Luke Turner (who claimed a lineage with Marie Leveau). In that ritual, Hurston was indeed stripped of her clothing and required to lie on a couch with no food for three days while she waited for a spirit to claim her. Then she was carefully bathed and had a symbol painted upon her, and finally “dressed in new underwear and a white veil…placed over [her] head” after which no one was allowed to speak to her until the ritual was concluded. The nakedness here is again symbolic, but Hurston very much demonstrates that there is no sexual component to it. She is most powerful during the ritual when she is veiled, then eventually has the veil lifted and she is given a “crown of power.”

 

Some of the most sensational accounts that involve witchcraft-like practices and nudity are those that come out of places like New Orleans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or out of Europe in the early Modern period around the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In both cases, one group sought to exoticize another group and ascribing their rituals with depraved sexual fantasies made the stories of witchcraft all the more thrilling (in the same way that many horror films use flesh to both allure and repulse). Simply reading the Malleus Maleficarum opens up a realm of psychosexual fixations that reflect far more on the priest writing the stories than on any reported activities of witches. Scholar Ronald Hutton links some of these concerns to the long entanglement of witches as magic workers to night-stalking demons like succubi, who stole semen from sleeping men and tormented them with sexual dreams. The New Orleans press, in a similar vein, frequently featured stories of “primitive” African American “voodoo dances,” in which scores of naked or nearly-naked black men would dance. The scandal of these stories would escalate–often with particularly dire consequences to the black men–when papers reported white women joining the dances, again often nude. In these sensationalized accounts, the stripping of the body was highly sexualized and often showed the readers of such stories that magic, witchcraft, voodoo, or other forbidden topics would inevitably corrupt those who came too close. Those who know much about Vodoun as a religion, however, know that nudity is not typical to the formal celebrations and rituals to honor the lwa or invite them into a practitioner’s body. Clothing is often very specifically a part of the rites, with specific colors like white being appropriate when performing music or dance or offerings to invite divine interactions.

 

As often as there are stories of witches removing clothing, there are stories of witches slipping their skins off entirely–something I imagine most witches today won’t do readily–or donning animal skins as a precursor to shapeshifting, as often happened with the skinwalkers of Dine/Navajo tradition. Such practices were also echoed by those who hunted witches, as in Zuni rituals designed to help cleanse a community of witches when witch-hunters wore bear skins to enable them to track witches wearing the skins of creatures like coyotes. It’s worth noting as well that in the Zuni world, many of the accused witches were men, and contact with them required a special water-cleansing ceremony in which those afflicted with witchcraft would be stripped and bathed.

 

Albert Joseph Penot [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

So do witches go about in the nude? Absolutely. There’s no reason to think that they don’t. At the same time, do they have to go around in the nude? Absolutely not. Plenty of stories show witches putting on special clothing such as a fur or a veil in order to work witchcraft, and it does not seem to interfere at all with Gardener’s “electromagnetic field” (which, to be fair, even he conceded was not absolutely bound by clothing). Most crucially, except in sensationalized accounts, the nudity involved with witch stories is not particularly sexualized in the New World. There are many tales in which a magic worker might be bare but their nakedness is a symbolic act for them alone, and never an invitation for another person to violate their body. There are always exceptions, of course, but in most cases, we see examples like Hurston’s where a nude witch (or magical practitioner) is treated with extreme reverence and respect, rather than objectified for their body. Only when the nude witch is caught in the gaze of someone outside of her practice (and by someone untrustworthy) does her nakedness become a sexual problem, which seems to say much more about the one doing the gazing (and I, for one, am all for reviving a Euripedes-esque tearing asunder of those who would impose themselves on any gathering of witches in any state of undress).

 

Naked or not, the witch is powerful. Naked or not, the witch is not to be messed with. Naked or not, the witch does her work, and it is best to let her be.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References & Further Reading
  1. Breslaw, Elaine G., ed. Witches of the Atlantic World. NYU Press, 2000.
  2. Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Univ. of California Press, 2011 ed.
  3. Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. DaCapo Press, 1996.
  4. Darling, Andrew. “Mass Inhumation & the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest.” American Anthropologist 100 (3), 1998. 732-52.
  5. Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. McPherson, 1998 ed.
  6. Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Maria Tatar. The Annotated African American Folktales. Liveright, 2017.
  7. Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. Citadel, 2004 ed.
  8. Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules & Men. HarperCollins, 2009 ed.
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica. HarperCollins, 2008 ed.
  10. Leland, Charles. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. Witches’ Almanac, 2010 ed.
  11. Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2012 ed.
  12. Paddon, Peter. Visceral Magic. Pendraig, 2011.
  13. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover, 1964.
  14. Russell, Randy, and Janet Barnett. The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee. Blair, 1999.
  15. Sprenger, James, and Henry Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum. Public Domain (Sacred-texts.com)
  16. Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. Pelican, 1984 ed.