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

Episode 163 – Dreams

Summary:
This time we’re looking at dreamscapes and discussing sleep-based magic and folklore. We talk about lucid dreaming, dream interpretation, mara/nightmares, and ways to boost dreaming. We also discuss Air in our Cunningham Book Club (as well as the smugness of birds).
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: 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, Tim, Leslie, 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!
Play:
-Sources-
Much of our discussion comes from personal experiences, but we do discuss dreams a bit in one of our posts on Signs and Omens.
We also mention the phenomenon of lottery “Dream Books” in African American communities, and you can read more about those in Jeffrey Anderson’s Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Conjure: A Handbook and Yvonne Chireau’s Black Magic: Religion & the African American Conjuring Tradition. You can also download a copy of one of the better known dream books, Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream Book for free.
We discuss nightmares and the phenomenon of the mara/hag riding, which is the subject of a great book by David Hufford called The Terror that Comes in the Night. The lucid dreaming tips Cory mentions come from a great digital graphic project on Chaos Magick called The Psychonaut Field Manual (HIGHLY Recommended!).
Oh! And shout-out to the excellent Cursed! Podcast, who partly inspired this topic.
If you’re interested in participating in the book club, check out the post introducing it.
Image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson (2019 – CC 2.0 License).
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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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
Title and closing music are “Woman Blues,” by Paul Avgerinos, and is licensed from Audio Socket.
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!
Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Blog Post 217 – North American Winter Monsters

(Author as Winter Monster, 2016 Philadelphia Parade of Spirits)

To those who follow this site and my work, it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the Krampus. If you aren’t quite sure what that is, he’s the diabolical and fearsome companion to St. Nicholas found primarily in Alpine parts of Europe like Austria’s Bad Gastein. He travels with the Saint, often wearing chains to symbolize the triumph of the holy over the wicked (but also because they rattle and make noise, which is why many Krampussen also wear cow bells of ridculous sizes on their furry costumes). The Krampus–usually portrayed by a young man from the village, or several young men in the case of trooping Krampussen (“many-Krampus-ed”) groups–then threatens children for any naughtiness that might be in their wee permanent records, while the Saint hands out gifts and mercy, restraining his hellish compatriot.

The figure of the Krampus intrigues me, because I have always enjoyed the holiday season as both one of light and one of darkness. We often see the glitz of Christmas lights or Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, but we sometimes forget this is also the time of year for those “scary ghost stories” mentioned in the famous song about just where we are in the ranking of wonderful times of the year (hint: it’s the most). I even love Krampus so much that I essentially did my doctoral dissertation on him (well, the amazing Parade of Spirits in Philadelphia, which began as a Krampuslauf, or “Krampus procession” in its early years). I also love his other cousins in the European pantheon of winter terror: Pere Foutard from France or Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) from the Low Countries in North Central Europe. There are also figures like the belly-slicing Perchta (or Berchta) in German-speaking regions, or the Icelandic ogress Gryla. The Italian Christmas witch La Befana is always fun (unless you make her mad), and the trooping Tomten from Scandinavia or the Yule Lads from Iceland also bring a good bit of ruckus into the fray. These figures are all on the ascendancy in popular culture, too, with Krampus, Gryla, and the Yule Lads showing up in last year’s holiday episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a fairly popular (if somewhat off-kilter) film called Krampus released back in 2015, and references in shows like American Dad and Grimm. If you are interested in the history and variety of these creatures, I highly recommend both Al Ridenour’s The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas (2016) and Linda Raedisch’s The Old Magic of Christmas (2013). And, of course, you could always listen to our previous episodes on Krampus and Christmas monsters (which feature both of those authors).

Recently, however, I’ve seen an article from 2014 bouncing around various social media feeds discussing the lack of such holiday monstrosities on this side of the Atlantic. The write-up, from author Caitlin Hu on the Quartz site, claims that “Christmas in America has…lost its dark side,” pointing toward Puritan movements against the holiday and efforts to sanitize it over the past two centuries. Some of this she lays at the feet of Clement Clark Moore, widely believed to have been the author of the famed “Visit from St. Nicholas” poem more commonly known by its opening lines, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Hu specifically covers a lot of the monsters found in Europe (with some stellar photos of various Krampussen), and does mention a few candidates from North America, but here I would push back just a bit and say that our dance with the devils of December (and January) hardly ended with the appearance of Moore’s “jolly old elf.”

While it is largely true that our side of the pond has much less in the way of masked revelers parading in devilish costume during the holiday season (although not entirely true, as I will show in a moment), we still have our fair share of weird and wicked beasties roaming around in the cold and snowy months. In the sections below, I have outlined in very brief form a number of such winter creatures in our lands. They are quite different from their Old World counterparts in some cases, although in other examples the connections will be crystal clear (or at least clearer than a stocking full of coal). Before we get to the Old World, however, we should probably start with what was here to begin with.

Coyote – One of the big misses in the Quartz article is the wide swing around indigenous winter monsters. To be fair, Hu’s aim was much more squarely at the Christmas devils associated with European folklore of St. Nicholas, so it’s not really surprising that Native figures like the trickster Coyote was off of the radar. But Native storytellers from a vast variety of tribes have long-standing associations and taboos about telling tales in winter. Nations like the Ho-Chunk of the Wisconsin area or the Blackfoot in Central and Western Canada restrict certain stories to the months when snow is on the ground. The Acoma Pueblo people specifically hold their stories about the wily, tricksy, and sometimes extremely dangerous Coyote until those winter months. I’m actually avoiding linking any Coyote stories directly here because of those taboos, and even famed folklorist Barre Toelken destroyed many of his notes on Pueblo and Dine (Navajo) stories because of those restrictions once the time for reading them had passed. In general, Coyote’s character is one of cunning and deception, but also occasional help, and he is fanged and furry, which makes him a good candidate for a Winter Monster, if you belong to a cultural group that recognizes him.

The Wendigo – Another Native figure of snow-bound terror is the Ojibwe Wendigo. This is a monster a bit like a werewolf in some tellings, or a bit like a vampire or incubus in others. The Wendigo–sometimes found in variations among tribes like the Cree and Saulteaux–haunts wild places in the winter and is sometimes thought to have a heart of ice. It is enormous and gaunt, and usually represents a human who violated a cultural taboo (often cannibalism) to become a hunter of men in the frozen months. In this case the winter paucity of food may be what ironically creates the Wendigo, as it might drive a desperate person to consume their fellow humans. The Wendigo can often lure you by calling your name, as in perhaps the most well-known variation of the story found in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark called “Burning Feet,” itself based on Algernon Blackwood’s loose adaptation of Native folklore.

The Belsnickel – For fans of the hit TV show “The Office,” the Belsnickel will be immediately recognizable. Pennsylvania Dutch farmer Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) shows up for the office holidays dressed as the fur-clad, soot-covered creature, inquiring if all present have been “Impish” or “Admirable.” While the show plays the character for laughs, the Belsnickel was a fairly common figure in the Pennsylvania Dutch (or German-speaking) regions of the eastern and central United States. There is some speculation that he is essentially the merging of the Krampus-like devils of the Old World and St. Nicholas, with his name essentially deriving from pelz (meaning “furs”) and Nikolas (for the saint), thus making him a “furry St. Nick” of sorts. However, the path from the Old World to the new is not linear, and in many ways the Belsnickel is a distinctively North American figure and arguably the progenitor of our concepts of Santa Claus (with a little help from Moore’s poem, Dutch influences, and the work of commercial artist Thomas Nast in the nineteenth century). He often represents the phase of life between youth and adulthood, played by and older teen or young twenty-something boy who has outgrown other holiday activities but who still wants to participate (and get some alcohol on the side, since the houses he’d visit would usually buy his departure with a drink). Hu incorrectly asserts in her article that “the Belsnickel is practically extinct” (her italics). While he has seen a decline, the Belsnickel shows up in a number of places, including Canada, where folklorist Richard Bauman found people doing Belsnickel processions in Nova Scotia in the 1960s and 70s. Numerous accounts in regional newspapers and magazines like The Pennsylvania Dutchman recall Belsnickel encounters in the mid-twentieth century, and Gerald Milnes found evidence of Belsnickling groups in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia well into the twentieth century, where it was sometimes also called Kriss Kringling. While the figure is not as widespread as he once was, even where I live there are two Belsnickels operating out of local history museums in central Pennsylvania, and he’s a regular feature at the Philadelphia Parade of Spirits as well.

The Jersey Devil – I’m sure there are people already clutching their Snooki-designed pearls at this one, but hear me out. Much of the lore regarding the famed “Leeds Devil” situates its main activity during the winter months, especially December and January (I count January as the holiday season because a number of “Old Christmas” traditions extend into that month). There’s the famed (if unproven) encounter between the exiled Joseph Bonaparte and the Devil in the early nineteenth century, usually related as occurring while the ground is covered in snow. The most famous outbreak of sightings happened during the week of January 16th-23rd in 1909 all throughout the Delaware Valley, even as far as Philadelphia. These attacks also get the Devil associated with a Maryland Winter Monster called the Snallygaster. A Greenwich, New Jersey encounter apparently happened sometime in early December, based on the date it was reported (in a copy of the Dec. 15th Daily Times of Woodbury) and another run-in was reported “one winter night” in 1972.  There are certainly also non-winter encounters with this figure, but a lot of the lore seems to show it as most highly active during the winter months, so why not embrace the Jersey Devil as a Winter Monster, too?

The Beast of Bladenboro – In late December and early January of 1953-1954, the town of Bladenboro, North Carolina was terrorized by a “beast,” thought to be some kind of vampiric canine or feline, although plenty of people speculate it may have been a bear as well. Whatever the creature was, it managed to kill several pets and farm animals and raised the alarm among the townspeople. Most reports of the creature seemed to ascribe monstrous proportions to its shape, and when a local farmer eventually killed a large bobcat and claimed the terror was over, few believed that to be the case. The Beast of Bladenboro made only this one appearance, but has gone on to inspire a local celebration called Beast Fest, traditionally held late in October (yes, a bit early for “official” Winter Monster status, but between the Halloween and Christmas timing of the festival and the creature’s alleged attacks, it seems like at least a semi-viable candidate). The creature’s resemblance to a cat or a dog is also notable, as there are long-standing traditions of monstrous Yule Cats and sinister Christmas werewolf lore in the Old World as well (see Linda Raedisch’s book for a great section on both beasts).

These are hardly the only critters we could list, of course. Each region will have its variations and changes (for example, Snallygasters vs. Jersey Devils and the Belsnickels of Canada vs. the Belsnickels of Lancaster County, PA). Yet these monsters represent a long-held and lingering tendency for people to crave the darker side of the holidays, even as they are embracing the light. As Al Ridenour puts it when discussing the long-standing tradition of terrifying children with Krampussen, “A child’s delight in a certain measure of fear never goes out of style” (p. 248). It’s all well and good to have your tinsel and brightly-wrapped packages under the tree, but maybe consider hanging a local monster in the branches. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a glaring Jersey Devil nestled among the lights, after all.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

References

Photo by Author. CC Share-and-share-alike license. Illustrations: “The Jersey Devil,” from Philadelphia Post (1909) (Wikimedia) ; Illustration from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (Onderdonk, 1848). Both images in the Public Domain.

Episode 154 – Halloween

Summary:
As the spooky season is upon us, Laine and Cory decide it’s time to put on our masks, grab our pillow cases, and head out to do some trick-or-treating. It’s Halloween on New World Witchery, where we discuss the origins of the holiday both historical and folklorical, the value of spookiness for kids, favorite Halloween movies and traditions, and why Laine gives out full bars on her doorstep.
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: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Payton, Staci, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Clarissa, Leslie, Hazel, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Jennifer, Clever Kim’s Curios, Donald, Bo, Drew, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Play:
-Sources-
Some excellent sources on the origins of our contemporary Halloween practices include Halloween, All Around the Year and New Old-Fashioned Ways, by Jack Santino, and Consumer Ritesby Leigh Eric Schmidt. Cory also turned to his Holidays, Festivals, & Celebrations of the World Dictionary, edited by Helene Henderson for some of the information he shared.
We also mention Jake Richards’s book Backwoods Witchcraft, which has information on apple-head dolls.
In the realm of video, Cory mentions the documentary Halloween in a Box about the making and marketing of plastic masks. He also espouses his love for the Garfield Halloween Adventure and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!  They both discuss the Halloween-themed episodes of Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls as well.
Check out Cory’s town and the light kerfuffle over an IT-related prank, and learn more about the Teal Pumpkin Project.
Promotional image modified from image via Pixabay, public domain.
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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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
Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune. Incidental Music is     (Magnatune).
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!
Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Episode 150 – Tarot and Taoist Magic with Benebell Wen

Summary:
We talk about decks, divination, Taoist folk magic, and talismans with author and teacher Benebell Wen.
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: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding,  Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Payton, Staci, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Clarissa, Leslie, Hazel, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Jennifer, Clever Kim’s Curios, Donald, Bo, Drew, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Play:
 –Sources
Please check out Benebell’s website (www.benebellwen.com) which has loads of free downloads, video lessons, tarot deck reviews, and articles available, as well as some spectacular paid content and lessons. I also highly recommend her book, The Tao of Craft, her tarot deck The Spirit Keeper’s Tarot, and her Chinese Bone Oracle deck.
One of the essays that first brought me to Benebell was her article, “Pagan Practices and Chinese Folk Religions,” which I read a bit of  in this episode.
I read a few passages from the Tao Teh Ching, by Lao Tzu (Trans. by John C. H. Wu) and the I Ching, Trans. by Kerson and Rosemary Huang.
Promotional image modified from image created by Benebell Wen.
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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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
Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune. Incidental Music is “Cave,” by Anthony Salvo (Magnatune) and “Ambient Gourd,” by Canton Becker (CC Soundcloud License).
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!
Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Episode 148 – Exhibiting Witchcraft

Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch, 1720. Credit: Wellcome Library, London (CC Attrib. license)

Summary:
We’re taking a bit of a magical road trip and visiting a couple of witchy museum exhibits this time. We’ll stop by Cornell University to chat about the recent “The World Bewitch’d” exhibit there with one of the curators, then hop over to Cleveland, Ohio to visit the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick.

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: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding,  Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Payton, Staci, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Clarissa, Leslie, Hazel, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Jennifer, Clever Kim’s Curios, Donald, Bo, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

Play:

 –Sources
You should definitely check out the Cornell exhibit’s online site, where you can tour most of the artifacts and documents from the library’s archives. You can also check out Anne Kenney’s book, Moving Theory into Practice: Digital Imaging for Libraries and Archives if you want to know more about her or the process of digitally preserving things like the Cornell collection.

You can find out more about the Buckland Museum at its website, and find them on Twitter and Facebook as well. You can read about the museum at the Atlas Obscura writeup about them, too.

We also mention the Penn Museum exhibit “Magic in the Ancient World” (which we also mention in our “Magical Travel” episode) and the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in England.

And feel free to shop for a “Wish Dog” of your own, like the one mentioned in the episode.

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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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
Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune. Incidental Music includes “Cave” and “When” by Anthony Salvo (Magnatune), “Cycles,” by Doug Hammer (Magnatune), and “Sedativa I,” by DR (Free Music Archive)

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!

Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Episode 146 – Besom Stang and Sword with Chris and Tara

Summary:

We sit down and visit with old friends Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire about the evolution of their Black Tree tradition of magic, the ways folk magic and witchcraft fit into a contemporary world, how natural magic and climate change impact one another, and what being in the witchy publishing world is like.

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: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding,  Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Payton, Staci, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Leslie, Clarissa, Hazel, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Jennifer, Clever Kim’s Curios, Donald, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

Play:

Download: Episode 146 – Besom Stang and Sword with Chris and Tara

Play

 

 -Sources-

You can check out our previous episode with Chris and Tara from 2016: Episode 86 – Local Witchcraft with Chris Orapello. You should also totally check out their show, Down at the Crossroads (formerly The Infinite and the Beyond).

Their book, Besom, Stang, & Sword, is available from Weiser Books and just about everywhere else. We did a review of it on our site, too.

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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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

Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune. Incidental music is “Solitude,” by Julian Blackmore, also licensed through Magnatune. We also feature the song “Ask Me Anything,” by S.J. Tucker (used with artist permission)

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!

Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Blog Post 212 – Book Review: Besom, Stang, and Sword by Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire

If you listen to Down at the Crossroads (and you should, in fact, listen to that show, as it taps into some great magical wisdom and practice), you will find yourself quickly saying, “I know that rite!” when you get to Chapter One of Besom, Stang, and Sword. That is, of course, no accident, as the hosts of the podcast and the authors of the book are one and the same. Chris Orapello (going by Christopher Orapello in the book’s byline) and Tara-Love Maguire are already well-known to the magical community, but they have been weaving spells over the years that many of us are only just now seeing as the book emerges to laud and praise. That praise is rightly bestowed, as this book does a phenomenal job of conveying a real sense of the couple’s locally-rooted magical tradition while also inviting any and all readers curious about where to start with traditional witchcraft in a modern world to join them for a cup of…well, best not question the proffered cuppa too much.

 

With Besom, Stang, and Sword, Chris and Tara open the doors to their own practices, laying out the materials of magic for all to see. The results drive home the central point that magic—specifically witchcraft—is available to anyone, but that it requires time, effort, patience, and thought along with a dose of fate and a sizable amount of risk. They build a hexagram of approachable practices that asks anyone picking up this work to root their magic in the land surrounding them and their own personal history, rather than taking secondhand sorcery from others. Chris and Tara reveal their Blacktree tradition without pretense or artifice, but instead with clarity, insight, and acid wit, which testifies to their talents as both seasoned occultists and engaging writers. This is a book that will reshape a reader’s encounters with magic and the landscape around them. They make the point that the landscape is “hidden,” but not in any sense inaccessible. No, the landscape is there, has always been there, waiting to teach you, they say. All you need to do is take a breath and pay attention to the “flutter in the gut coming up through your own roots…and you will automatically know if the land there welcomes you with a friendly warmth, or if it is repulsed and angry at your intrusion” (158). That immediate connection to your surroundings defines the Blacktree tradition and the approach Orapello and Maguire take to all magic–it must be rooted and connected, but it must also have the freedom to grown in its own way (indeed, one of their crucial variations upon the Witches’ Pyramid is the addition of the dictum, “to grow”).

 

The book is broken into twelve official chapters (with an Introduction serving as the thirteenth member of their verbal coven). Each chapter lays out some fundamental aspect of their practice, complete with spells and rituals, incantations, tools, and techniques that they have tried and tested in their own lives. Within the first few chapters, you are creating a ritual cord, crafting a witches’ broom (the titular “besom”), acquiring a (genius loci-approved) Token of the Land, and raising an ancestral altar. Chapters conclude with a highly selective and generally very thoughtful “further reading” list to guide you deeper into topics that spark your interest the strongest, thus creating a practice rooted in history and the experiences shared by others but never restricting your own exploration and creation of magic. Techniques build upon one another–you access the Hidden Landscape of Chapter Seven by using the above-mentioned Token tool created in Chapter Two, for example. At the same time, once you read the first chapter of the book, the rest is generally readable in any order, and your own interests can guide you to the methods and tools they use in a winding, crooked path through traditional witchcraft (and the reference to Peter Paddon there is very much intentional, as his spirit lingers in many of the pages of this book). They draw influences from Robert Cochrane, Michael Howard, and Nigel Aldcroft Jackson, while also incorporating research from academics like Éva Pócs, Carlo Ginzburg, and Emma Wilby, giving it intellectual roots that run deep and hold tight.

 

In some ways, the book smirks a bit at tradition, too, by revising or reinventing it. One prime example is the way Orapello and Maguire reconfigure runes, pentagrams, and the oft-spun “wheel of the year” found in so many books on modern magical religion. There are frequent repetitions of sixes within the work: six points on their version of the World Tree (the Black Tree); six key ideas within the Witches’ Hexagram (to know, to will, to dare, to be silent, to go, to grow); six key holiday points in the annual cycle (leaving off the equinoxes in their version). Besom, Stang, and Sword bears some resemblance to Aidan Wachter’s  recent book Six Ways in that respect, but the two books approach the topic of witch-work differently. Wachter’s book looks inward to the author’s personal experiences and years of practice immersed in a sort of background radiation of magic (the “Field” as he describes it) and draws out a series of universalized principles, weaving them into the acts of breathing and the sound of poetry. Orapello and Maguire turn their own experiences into tools through which a magical practitioner connects their personal experience of enchantment to the very real and immediate landscape around them. That’s not to say either book is “right” or “wrong,” but rather that they have an almost eerie synchronicity in their approaches. They complement each other beautifully. Both demand real, dirt-under-the-nails work. Both honor tradition while also practicing the art of reverent improvisation based on particular circumstances. Tradition is not discarded here, but re-imagined in a way that takes it out of the past and situates it in a living, thriving continuum of practice.

 

Besom, Stang, and Sword combs through the materials of modern life and shows the reader how and where to poke to raise the dragons of sorcery wisely and well. One particularly memorable moment in the book guides the reader through the orgiastic sabbatic rites of the modern dance club and ties them to Dionysian revels while not attempting to diminish the ecstatic frenzy of either the rituals of Ancient Greece or the Saturday night sweat-and-sex of the discotheque (they thankfully do not use the word discotheque, by the way). As they build their own calendar of lunar magic with a Crow Moon in March or a Cricket Moon in August, they also make a subtle note that in a world continually being shaped by human influence on climate change, those moons may change as well. There are echoes of Peter Grey’s Apocalyptic Witchcraft here, but they do not dwell on witches as midwives of death and rebirth on a planetary scale. Instead, they show you how to root the adaptations you make to your own experience of the moon in your immediate landscape, even as that landscape shifts around you.

From the east, I go to west.

About to north.

And then to south.

Crossing roads as I go about.

Laying the ground for a witch’s work.

Down at the crossroads is where I vow,

To meet with she and he and they and thou

 

You’ve been greeted with those words for years in Chris Orapello’s lovely baritone if you’re a listener to the show he and Maguire have worked so hard on. The spell they weave is real, and as they lay each of their tools–a broom, a staff, and a blade–down across one another, they create six points, a star, a tree, a crooked path, a serpent, a year… They make a crossroads for you in this book, and then show you how to build your own. They meet you in the pages, and you get a very real sense of who they are and what they do, but then they send you off on your own way to make some witchcraft and lay some ground for others. They uncover a hidden landscape and in doing so, call up more mysteries than you could ever solve (but you’ll have great fun trying). They give you magic that works in a moonlit forest, a city full of humming concrete, a farmstead a century ago, or the flooded coastal plains of tomorrow. Besom, Stang, and Sword also creates a rune with roots running deep and branches that reach for the sky. Let it work its spell on you, and you will see traditional witchcraft in new ways every day.

 

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did, and thank you for stopping by and reading this review!

-Cory

 

*[Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review and as a potential endorser, and part of this review has been used in the opening endorsements of the book. I will also note that the authors are personal friends of mine. Chris and Tara did not pressure me for an endorsement, and I am proud to recommend their work, but in the interest of being completely transparent I wish to include this note]

Episode 128 – Borderlands Lore with David Bowles

Summary:

We look at the supernatural folklore and mythology of the Borderlands area along the Mexican-U.S. boundary in this episode. We talk to author, professor, and story collector David Bowles about his experiences growing up there, the legends that permeate the culture in that region, and we share one of the stories from his collections.

 

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: Heather, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Jody, Amy (the First), Amy (the Second), Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Montine, Josette, Carole, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea,The Trinket Witch, Victoria 1, Victoria 2, Sherry, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

Play:

Download: Episode 128 – Borderlands Lore with David Bowles

Play: 

 

 -Sources-

Please check out David Bowles’ website, where you can find out more about him and the (many, many) projects he’s working on. We’d also recommend picking up a few of his books, such as:

If you’re interested in knowing more about the history of migration and the borderlands in the United States, check out BackStory’s episode on the topic.

You may also be interested in some of our previous articles and episodes on the magic and lore of the Borderlands region:

Finally, we highly recommend reading Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” which can be found in her book, Borderlands/La Frontera.

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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too! 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

Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune.

Incidental music is “Were-Owl,” by S.J. Tucker, used with permission. Additional incidental music includes “Sedativa V,” by DR (FreeMusicArchive); “La Gitane,” by Eric Kamen (Magnatune); and “Soul’s Journey,” by Viviana Guzman (Magnatune).

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

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.”

sidebar-image

Witches Become Witches

In the time I’ve spent reading accounts of witchcraft in books of history and folklore, the time I’ve spent interviewing contemporary practitioners or examining specific magical artifacts, and the time I’ve spent consulting with other people who study this engrossing topic, I’ve learned that over-generalizations are not terribly useful when it comes to witchcraft. By reducing witchcraft into motifs and components, we tend to miss the highly individual experiences of the people actually practicing the magic. At the same time, it helps us a lot to look for patterns, and when it comes to just how witches gain their magical powers, we can see a set of patterns in the New World (or at least, specifically in North America) that point the way towards a better understanding of how these practices move between people. Tradition, as one of my folklore mentors has pointed out, comes from a Latin root having to do with “handing” things over, and witchcraft generally seems to be a “tradition” in that sense—it is handed over from one person (or entity) to another.

The exception to that rule is hereditary witchraft, although in this case I’m not referring to grandiose initiation stories of secret Granny Witches conducting rituals in their kitchens to initiate their grandchildren (looking at you here Alex Sanders). Rather, I’m referring to the wide body of lore that says that witches can often be “marked” from birth with special powers. For example, the presence of a caul around a newborn’s head is frequently noted as a source of spiritual power, and even when detatched the caul retains some magical abilities—sailors paid a pretty penny for dried cauls to stave off drowning, for example. In mountain lore inherited from European traditions, the seventh son of a seventh son is often reputed to have the ability to heal or do certain types of magic, setting him apart. Other birth-related demarcations of magical power include unusual moles, the presence of teeth in a newborn, extra fingers or toes, or a baby who is particularly hairy. One account of witchcraft among Pueblo Native Americans in the American Southwest showed that popular opinions claimed that witches often passed on their abilities to their children (albeit powers of malediction and harm in that example). A West Virginian herbal healer named Dovie Lambert who also “took off” bewitchments from others claimed that the passage of magical power occurred when secret words were transmitted across gender lines in families: father-to-daughter or mother-to-son, or even among aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Dovie believed that if the power didn’t get transmitted before the witch’s death, the power of that line of witchcraft would die out, although she herself believed that was unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Even in cases of a “witch from birth,” which is not always the same thing as these examples of magical “election,” the person has to choose to use their ability, and often develops it during a later point in life. This power was not solely limited to magic, however, but often reputed to impart special gifts to children based on birth order that might include a talent for medicine or a need for expanded education. Vance Randolph recorded some such beliefs in his examination of the Ozarks and their lore:

“If there are seven sons in a family, and no daughters, the seventh son is clearly intended to be a physician. The seventh son of a seventh son is a physician in spite of himself, endowed with healing powers which cannot be denied. Even if such a man does not study or practice medicine, he is very often called “Doc” or “Doctor” by common consent. However, small-time gamblers are often called “Doc” too, just as every backwoods auctioneer becomes a “Colonel.”

If there are ten sons in a family, and no daughters, the tenth son must be a preacher. “God meant it to be that-a-way,” an old woman once told me. “He knows how many preachers we need in this world.” She would not go so far as to say, however, that it is a mistake to call men who are not tenth sons into the ministry.

Many hillfolk believe that a third son is more intelligent than his brothers and should therefore be encouraged to “git more book-larnin’.” Others contend that, other things being equal, the fourth child has the brains of the whole family.”

Frequently the turning point in a “natural” magician’s life is adolescence or young adulthood, when the person’s power fully manifests for the first time and they learn the techniques of healing from someone else in their community, usually a family member. For example, West Virginian folk healer Johnny Arvin Dahmer spoke of inheriting a copy of The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus from his grandfather, who was also known as a folk magician and charmer. While a person may be predisposed to magical talent, then, their use of that talent comes only with guidance and training.

That instruction forms is very much the “marrow of tradition” that underlies almost all other forms of witches-becoming-witches. Just how involved that training is depends on the type of magic being transmitted, the cultural context in which it is found, and the particular individuals involved. In most cases, magical practitioners do not hang out shingles and advertise their services as instructors in witchcraft, but over the course of a long-standing and developed relationship with another person they may decide to share their secrets. In Dovie Lambert’s case above, that may happen as a matter of survivial of the magical tradition—if it is not transmitted it will “die out.” Lambert’s cross-gender transmission appears in a number of European-derived practices, including those from German-speaking, English-speaking, and French-speaking groups. A detailed study of powwowing magic in Pennsylvania Dutch communities by David W. Kriebel sums up a number of these ideas:

“Training procedures vary greatly, although one rule is nearly universal, namely, that only a woman can teach a man and only a man can teach a woman…training time can take anywhere from a few minutes to a year. The training procedure used by [one informant] and passed on to [two others] consisted of a ten-week program with all information imparted orally. When the initiate returned for the second session he (or she) had to repeat all the incantations and gestures perfectly, as a sign the initiate was meant to become a powwower.”

Kriebel’s account brings up the concept of a “calling” to do magic, which may be an echo of the idea of a hereditary practice or may signify the same kind of “calling” experienced by a religious or political leader. Kriebel also notes that one of his informants draws attention to the “price” of teaching magic, with one informant claiming “that when one powwower trains another the teacher gives up half his power to the student.” Several instances of this sort of transmission appear in folklore about witches who share their secrets or pass on their power only in the moments before their own death. A number of accounts make the claim that magical power can only be taught or transmitted at most three times within a person’s lifespan before the magic “runs out” or the practitioner dies.

Beyond the element of a calling to witchcraft, some witches may seek out their power in various ways. One Northern Mexican informant described the application of a special set of powders to his body, followed by a ritual bath, that gave him the ability to transform into animals. Notably, he learned the process by watching two other witches do the same in secret, and initially failed to do it correctly because he was wearing a scapular (a Catholid object designed to confer the blessings of Saints on the wearer). Only after removing the holy item was he able to begin his transformations. Many such initiations involve a renunciation of Christian practices or beliefs. Several accounts from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet note that witches become witches by “throw[ing] rocks at the moon and cuss[ing] God Almighty” or writing the Lord’s Prayer on a plate in grease paint, then washing it in a river or stream in an act of inverse baptism. Vance Randolph’s informants note that the initiation experience could be “a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion,” at least according to his sources.

In some cases of initiation, witches were expected to pay a price similar to the one noted in the accounts Kriebel found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That price might be an obligation to a specific spirit (most commonly framed in the American traditions as “the Devil,” although specific descriptions and formulations of diabolic initiation vary). It might also involve the death of a relative, or a period of intense sickness or near-death illness. Once initiated, however, a witch retained her power until her death or until she elected to pass it on to someone else. Other magical powers often followed this line of transmission: a calling or marking from birth followed by a powerful experience in young adulthood or adolescence that confirmed magical ability; the transmission of specific knowledge about witchcraft through the passage of oral lore or even the handing over of a book; and finally, the dispersal of that knowledge and power to another generation, often only in very limited quantities.

Contemporary practitioners tend to derive their magical knowledge in similar ways to the ones already outlined, but with some distinctions. For example, the emphasis on learning from books has become a de facto aspect of magical training. In some cases, the same books used in previous generations, like Egyptian Secrets, still hold sway, although in truth there are so many options available the older books are only a small sliver of the greater body of knowledge being used (I’m not complaining here, as I think many fantastic books have been produced in recent years, including some that surpass the older tomes in terms of breadth and depth of magical information). Several correspondents I’ve had have told me they look for “classes” in witchcraft, too, with structure and lesson plans and even homework. Some prefer classes focused on specific skills, as with Becky Beyer’s Appalachian wildcraft workshops, while others follow initiatory magico-religious traditions like Christopher Penczak’s Inner Temple structure. Training from groups directly (either in person or via postal correspondence) was the norm during the heyday of British Traditional Wicca in the 1970s and 1980s, but that is only a singular form of training now among many other forms available. Some practitioners still take on apprentices, especially in traditions like powwow or curanderismo, although both of those traditions are sometimes taught in whole or part within a class environment, too.

The one element that seems to have dissipated over time is the concept of the “price” paid for magical knowledge. The price has become the time and commitment required to learn the skills and magical techniques associated with a particular tradition. There are still some initiatory groups that do extract a price, such as requiring potential initiates to fast or wear special clothing for a certain length of time—something common in Lukumi traditions, for example. Occasionally the idea of the price being a loved one’s death surfaces, too, although that has become increasingly rare. So, too, has the idea of passing on the tradition before death as a matter of continuing a line of magical practice. Instead, practitioners often pass on their knowledge as more of a public service or as an aspect of their calling (some speak of being “called to teach” within a “training coven” structure, for example). Passing knowledge has also moved beyond rules about gender lines, too, instead becoming a more egalitarian and open-access approach.

Given the many roads into witchcraft, however, the road out is still in the transmission, even if the reasoning has changed. Witches become witches, and they do so because other witches make that possible. The stereotype of witches gathering in huge covens on Walpurgisnacht to engage in Satanic rites may be a medieval fabrication and fantasy, but in the act of sharing magical knowledge, there does seem to be a continuity of magical community. Almost like a family.

 

N.B: I will be doing one more entry in this series on the many and various talents of witches, but I am likely to set aside that post for a bit to cover a few other topics. This series has been rather grander in scope than I think I originally envisioned, but I hope it is useful to some of you. For now, I am so grateful to those of you sticking with me even with the longer gaps between posts.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory