Posted tagged ‘ancestors’

Episode 99 – Checking Our Owls

September 19, 2016

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Summary:

We tackle listener feedback this episode, addressing topics like discovering magical heritage, mojo bags, seasonal festivals, and adapting spells for others.

 

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time.  Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

 

Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, The Witches View Podcast,  Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Shannon, Little Wren, Michael M., Victoria, and Jessica (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 99 – Checking Our Owls

 

 -Sources-

We draw very much upon emails from you, our listeners, for this episode. Thank you! Some of our other sources, influences, and points of interest include:

  • Peter Paddon’s work, particularly on the process of recovering ancestral lore (such as that found in his Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk).
  • Seriously, check out the Patreon page, because there are some cool perks to being a sponsor
  • We announced we’ll be hosting a get-together of sorts in Philadelphia in March 2017 to see the Penn Museum’s “Magic in the Ancient World” exhibit (along with other fun stuff). We are hoping to do this along with Chris & Tara from Down at the Crossroads, because they’re awesome people and will add a very magical touch to the event
  • We have a couple of posts on mojo bags, and there’s also a book on them called The Hand Book, by Talia Felix (I’ve not read it, but it looked the most interesting of the possible options available on Amazon).

We very much want your ghost stories! We’ll be doing a live Mixlr broadcast in October, and we’d love for you to join us for that and share your spookiest and ghastliest tales. If you can’t be with us live, feel free to email us your stories, or leave us a voice mail at (442)-99-WITCH (which is 442-999-4824).

We should be launching our newest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, this month. If you like folklore, this show will be connecting the dots between folk tales, science, nature, pop culture, literature, and more.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).

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Blog Post 176 – Summer Saints, part III (Folk Saints)

June 13, 2013

Shrine to Elvis, by theogeo, from Flickr (used under Creative Commons license)

It’s not quite officially summer yet, technically speaking, but the days are longer and the air is warmer, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit a subject which I explored last summer and add a new chapter to the book of New World Witchery. Today I’ll be looking again at Saints, but veering away from the orthodox and the official and into the realm of popular or “folk” saints.

The process of canonization frequently involves a great deal of waiting and confirming and bureaucracy on the part of the Catholic church, and sometimes folk saints are simply people who are on the way to becoming official saints but who still lack whatever final paperwork might be required to get their membership card into the elect order. In other cases, folk saints have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and instead are simply incredibly popular figures who’ve developed devotional cults which make sacred pilgrimages or maintain shrines to a particular figure. Some of this was discussed on the Podcast Special on Magical Saints a while back, where I highlighted both official and unofficial saints, so some of the information below may be a bit repetitive, but it can’t hurt to have a little more information.

So what sets a folk saint apart from a revered ancestor, then? How is that “sainthood” bestowed, if not through the channels of a legitimizing body like the church? In general, the holiness of the saint empowers him or her—the saint is either directly in communion with the divine or is a transformed divinity him- or herself. Take for example, Teresa Urrea, whom we examine below in a bit more detail. She underwent a number of ecstatic ‘fits,’ during which she attended the court of God:

A mythology quickly grew up around each of the folk saints, attracting ever more adherents. The content of this cycle of stories is remarkably similar, although the parallels here are closer between Teresa and [folk saint Nino] Fidencio, than between these two and [San] Damian [of Sonora]. Teresa was thought to be in continual contact with supernatural beings during her ecstatic attacks. When these occurred, an immense multitude of people approached her, kneeling, praying, and weeping. When she returned to herself, she announced that she had been with God and his angels who gave her advice on morality (Macklin 94).

The divine actions of these saints frequently came at great personal expense. Some gave away worldly possessions, and others sacrificed their health and well-being for the aid of those who came to them:

These folk healers worked hard, sometimes seeing hundreds of people per day, and sometimes getting little sleep for long periods of time. Both El Nino and Teresita are conjectured to have died young partly as a result of exhaustion from years of labor. They also worked for little or no compensation. These old-time curanderos were regarded as folk saints while they were still alive—that is, they were recognized by la gente (the people) as holy beings, even while they were not officially canonized as such by the church (Torres 6).

Still, there are cases where a saint does not act particularly saintly and yet develops a strong following. Maximon, the Guatemalan folk saint who likely derives from a native deity very loosely wrapped in a Catholic guise—his name derives from the name San Simon, or St. Simon, but clearly even that name doesn’t stick—can be fickle and demanding, and generally provides assistance to people through wealth rather than health. Jesus Malverde works on behalf of the narcotraficantes and other outlaws. While Elvis certainly accomplished a lot in his lifetime, no one is making the case for his sainthood based on his receiving angelic lessons on morality during ecstatic trances.

The cult of folk saints is widely practiced and very popular among Hispanic populations, although it is not exclusively limited to them by any means. In some cases, the folk saint in question is a cultural hero of some kind (see Pancho Villa below), and the combination of exalted personality and the practice of Catholic ceremony merge to form the folk saint reverence tradition. In other situations, displaced native spirits have been overlaid with legitimate or semi-legitimate identities (see Maximon and La Guadalupe). However, any iconic figure can inspire intense devotion, and that devotion can eventually translate into folk sainthood.

The methods for revering folk saints can include anything from simply maintaining an image of that person to praying to them for intercession and making votive offerings to elaborate undertakings like pilgrimages. Most saints have likes and dislikes, preferences for particular appeasements, etc. Some are quite specific (Expedite requires a slice of Sara Lee pound cake for the performance of his brand of intercession, for example). Others seem happy with any heartfelt act of devotion.

The remainder of this article will be devoted to looking—very briefly—at half a dozen or so common folk saints based out of North America. This is hardly a complete list, nor are the entries here going into nearly enough detail on any of the saints mentioned, but hopefully it will provide a reasonable jumping-off point for learning more.

Teresita – “Teresita Urrea the curandera, who passed through New Mexico around the turn of last century and who left behind her the rumor of her great legend” (Torres 91). Apprenticed to a curandera named Huila, the woman born Teresa Urrea who became affectionately known as Teresita came from an aristocratic father and peasant mother. In addition to healing, she could heal and hypnotize. Photos of her performing healings can be found in the book Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing, by Eliseo ‘Cheo’Torres, and you can see one at this link as well. At a young age, she suffered a coma and near death after an attempted rape. Upon her recovery, she took up curanderismo and became famous for her tireless healings of the poor and marginalized communities in the Mexican-American borderlands. She was described as “[w]orking herself toward an early grave from the beginning” (Torres 97). Teresita befriended the Yaqui Indians, and was revered by many as a living saint within her lifetime. Known as the Saint of Cabora, she sought to heal anyone and right political wrongs done the native and mestizo peoples she worked with. She died in 1906 after working to the point of exhaustion. Cheo Torres acknowledges that “at least a couple of different versions of the story have circulated over the years” (Torres 101).

El Nino Fidencio – A deeply religious young man from Espinazo, Mexico, who performed a number of faith healings and miracles during his lifetime, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino showed promise in his calling from a very early age (which is why he was given the epithet “el nino,” or “the child”). His abilities were so great he was reputed to be able to perform miracles from miles away. He managed to do not just distance healing, but amputations and surgeries to remove illness. He had a variety of other unorthodox and alternative healing methods as well. He is said to have kept a garden with two hundred herbs which he processed into cures, and he frequently “prescribed herbal baths, nutritional therapy, and laughter. He rolled people in dirt. He sat the mentally ill on children’s swings and incorporated singing and dance into his cures” (Illes 285). The church where he is buried has “mementoes included such items as desiccated body parts in glass jars that El Nino had removed through amputation or excision, and the broken bottles that he had sometimes used to perform the surgeries” (Torres 21). El Nino Fidencio is sought in hopeless cases and has a highly active cult following. He died young, only about 40 years old. While he’s not officially recognized as a saint, his propensity for performing miraculous healings and his religious faith (he was a devout Catholic) make him resemble other canonized saints fairly closely. Some of his devotees keep “little boxes” through which his healing power is supposed to be channeled (“Nino Fidencio” Wikipedia).

Pancho Villa taking Zacatecas, by Angel Boliver (via Wikimedia Commons)

Pancho Villa – This historical figure was seen as a military hero by some and a scandalous villain by others. He was a general who led the division del norte during the Mexican Revolution, and he had a very Robin Hood-esque reputation. While his guerilla tactics included train robbery and land confiscation, he frequently distributed his takings among his soldiers and the local poor, which made him—unsurprisingly—tremendously popular. He was born Jose Doroteo Villa (he and I share a birthday, which makes me like him even more), and he demonstrated a strong combination of political and military savvy very quickly in his career. In the United States, we know him best for his attacks in the Texas/New Mexico region, but his activity in Mexico was much wider, including governorship of the state of Chihuaha and serving a primary pro-democracy leader during the period of Mexican civil war. He was assassinated in his car in 1923, and was reportedly “found in the driver seat of the car, with one hand reaching for his gun” (“Pancho Villa” Wikipedia). “Give Pancho Villa cheap cigars, cigarettes, and tequila. The general despised the pretentious, overpriced, or refined. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have good taste. If you can offer him something cheap and good, all the better!” (Illes 553-4). It is said that he likes to grope or pinch women who attract his attention.

Maximon –This Guatemalan folk saint bears a striking resemblance to the “Man in Black” found in other traditions like African Amercican hoodoo. He is seen as a saint syncretized to St. Simon Peter, but any adoption into the Catholic assembly of saints is superficial and tenuous. He likely derives from “a pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld formerly known as Maam (‘grandfather’)” (Lucky Mojo 1). He is offered rum and cigarettes (statues of the saint frequently smoke the cigarettes as part of the offering ritual) and is thought to provide aid to his votaries in matters of love, health, and money, but also in exacting vengeance on enemies.  His cult is particularly strong in the town of Santiago Atitlan, where his attendants remain constantly with his effigy. Judika Illes recommends washing the clothing from the Maximon “doll” with citronella and lemongrass oil, then keeping the rinse water to use in magical work (Illes 506).

 

St. Expedite Shrine on Reunion Island, by David Monniaux (via Wikimedia Commons)

St. Expedite –  This saint inhabits a tenuous space in the heavenly assembly—no one is quite sure if he existed, or if he might just be the result of a shipping mistake in which another saint’s statue was labeled for fast delivery—in a box labeled ‘EXPEDITE’, or sometimes the Italian ‘SPEDITO’—and the name stuck to the figure (or in some versions, the body of an unknown saint) and became a holy helper in its own right. The official Catholic story of Expeditus (as he is sometimes known) places him in the fourth century CE, a late Roman imperial soldier whose iconography shows him stepping on a crow which calls out ‘cras!,’ a sound similar to a caw but which also means “tomorrow” in Latin, hence his reputation for getting things done today (Catholic Online 1).  “Saint Expedite is controversial. He has a reputation for unscrupulousness. He is rumored to assist sorcerors with curses and revenge spells; although some devotees vociferously deny that this is true, insisting that he will only fulfill benign petitions” (Illes 281). Offerings for Expedite include a slice of Sara Lee pound cake or red carnations. He’s become incredibly popular in folk Catholicism and some branches of hoodoo, and his devotional images and candles are usually readily available.

Elvis – Being a southerner, I can’t help but mention Elvis. The King of Rock and Roll serves as a sort of patron saint to his fans, who embody their fantaticism with all the hallmarks of religious devotion, including pilgrimages to his home at Graceland in Memphis and by setting up altars with his image on them. He also has a folk mythology surrounding him, including appearances from beyond the grave, miraculous healings, and even the persistent myth that he is still alive. His cult is part kitsch and part true devotion, and it’s very distinct. Some dress like Elvis as a way to honor him or perpetuate his memory, and some leave out offerings of peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches (a favorite food of the King, though he appreciated just about any rich southern dish). He can be petitioned for any number of needs, including healing, musical and artistic inspiration, wisdom and guidance, and overcoming addictions. I think of Elvis as a very special sort of folk saint—one in living memory for many of his devotees and deeply flawed in his personal life, but one who provided joy for millions of people both during and after his time as a mortal. I was an enormous Elvis fan for much of my childhood, despite not having been born at the time of his death.  The King has found an especial home in the Latin American community, where he is frequently depicted in skeletal form in Day of the Dead (dia de muertos) celebrations and decorations (Illes 267). Another recommended offering for him? Teddy bears.

Jesus Malverde – In the realm of controversial and unofficial saints, Jesus Malverde is right at the top, alongside a similar roguish hero, Pancho Villa. Known as a “narco-Saint,” this figure guards and protects those involved in illegal activities, particularly those working in the drug trafficking trade. His depictions make him look less like a Catholic Christ figure and far more like a landowning Hispanic gentleman from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is fitting, as one legend describes him as “a Robin Hood figure of the early 1900’s that was hanged by the governor. He himself did not traffic drugs, but after his death his reputation for working miracles drew faith strongest among Sinaloa’s poor and highland residents, the classes from which narco-traffickers emerged. Malverde has become the patron saint for many drug smugglers, though the local diocese says the Malverde chapel is an embarrassment. The priests lament the glorification of a man who robbed and killed, though citizens of Sinaloa have found it harder to have faith in a political system that enforces a drug war responsible for the many deaths of their own people. Historians cannot seem to find documentation of his existence, but even still miracles such as the healing of the blind and crippled, the returning of lost cattle, and the saving of a drowning man have been attributed to him” (U. Texas Library 1). In some ways he resembles the folk outlaw figure Zorro, but with less of a penchant for clean living. Malverde’s shrine is used by those who deal with the drug trade, not only those who transport the drugs but families who pray for his protection over loved ones facing criminal charges.

As you can probably guess, the practice of folk-saint veneration is strongest in communities with a heavy Catholic background, and all of the saints above either come from Hispanic backgrounds or have been added into Hispanic folk practices (as in the case of Elvis). There are many folk saints who do not have the strong Hispanic connections mentioned here, of course, and hopefully one day I’ll get around to some of them as well. For now, I hope this has at least whetted your appetite to know more about the intriguing and enchanting pantheon of folk saints in the Americas.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

SOURCES

  1. Illes, Judika. The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages (HarperOne, 2011).
  2. Jesus Malverde: El Narco-Santon,” U. Texas Library – Narcocorridos site.
  3. Knab, Timothy J. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of Contemporary Aztecs (Harper San Francisco, 1997).
  4. Macklin, Barbara J. and N. Ross Crumrine. “Three North Mexican Folk Saint Movements,” Comparative Studies in Society & History (Cambridge UP, Jan. 1973).
  5. Mestizo & Indigineous Culture Pinterest board: Teresa Urrea (photo credit).
  6. Nino Fidencio,” from Wikipedia.
  7. Pancho Villa,” from Wikipedia.
  8. St. Expeditus,” Catholic Online.
  9. Torres, Eliseo ‘Cheo.’ Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2005).
  10. Yronwode, Catherine. “Maximon,” from the Lucky Mojo webpage.

Blog Post 166 – Dem Bones, part II

November 14, 2012

The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.

Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.

Healing Specimens
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:

  • To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
  • You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
  • The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay.  Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).

In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.”  What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page:  “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.”  Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.

After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:

  • TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
  • To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
  • To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
  • As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
  • If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
  • To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)

Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.

With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

Charm Curios
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:

  • Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
  • The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
  • When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
  • A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
  • Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
  • “Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)

Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).

Other methods for using bones as magical curios:

  • A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
  • Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
  • Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
  • You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
  • Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)

Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one:  the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:

To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).

Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:

“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).

I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.

With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!

Thanks as always for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES & SOURCES

  1. Anderson, Jeffery D. Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook. (Greenwood Press, 2008).
  2. Artisson, Robin. “The Toad Bone Treatise.” Self-published (2008).
  3. Brown, Michael H., Ed.S. “The Bone Game: A Native American Ritual for Developing Personal Power or Tribal Consciousness.” Journal of Experiential Education (1990).
  4. Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Book of Gypsy Magic: Travelers’ Stories, Spells & Healings. (Weiser, 2010).
  5. Chumbley, Andrew. “The Leaper Between: An Historical Study of the Toad-bone Amulet.” The Cauldron (UK) (2001).
  6. Davies, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. (Jonathan Davis Publishers, 1975).
  7. Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore.  (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1935).
  8. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
  9. Hoadley, Michael. A Romany Tapestry. (Capall-Bann, 2001).
  10. Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  11. Howard, James H. “The Akira Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle.” Plains Anthropologist. (Plains Anthropological Soc., 1974).
  12. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
  13. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois.  (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
  14. Knab, Timothy. The War of the Witches: A Journey into the Otherworld of Contemporary Aztecs. (Westview Press, 1997).
  15. Martin, Kameelah L. “Conjuring Moments & Other Such Hoodoo: African American Women & Spirit Work.” Dissertation. Dept. of English, Florida State Univ. (2006).
  16. McAtee, W. L. “Odds and Ends of North American Folklore on Birds.” Midwest Folklore.  (Indiana UP, 1955).
  17. Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
  18. Poenna, Carlos G. The Yoruba Domino Oracle. (Red Wheel Weiser, 2000).
  19. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
  20. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).
  21. —. Throwing the Bones. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2012).

Blog Post 165 – Dem Bones, part I

November 7, 2012

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Now hear the word of the Lord.
-from “Dem Dry Bones,” Traditional Spiritual based on Ezekiel 37

From the Ossuary in Sedlec, Czech Republic. My wife took the photo! Isn’t it cool?!

With Halloween just past, I thought it might be a good day to briefly look at one of the most commonly used magical tools in folk sorcery: bones (and their companion skulls as well). I recently received a letter asking specifically about the practice of “Tapping the Bone,” which I will touch on briefly here or in another post, though I will likely not delve too deeply into it as that ritual performed under that name belongs to the general heading of “Traditional Witchcraft.” There are many better resources on that topic than this website, so I’ll stick primarily to the magical folk practices of North America here.

Bones as magical tools have been around for at least 12,000 years, and likely longer than that. In the Paleolithic era (‘Old’ Stone Age), figures carved out of animal bone were likely used in religious ceremonies designed to ensure a good hunt, survival in adverse circumstances, tribal fertility, or any number of other goals. The people making such carvings were hardly ignorant of natural processes, as Alexander Marshack’s discovery of lunar calendars etched into animal bones in the late twentieth century demonstrates. Some estimates place such carvings at around 30,000 years old, so people have been using bones for magic for a while now, to say the least.

Instead of spending several paragraphs exploring the history of bones in magic—which would be easy to do, but would essentially involve me repeating over and over again that skeletal remains have been a part of sorcerous operations for a very long time and are still used today—let’s instead look at how these tools were put to use in the New World. In a very broad sense, bones serve a few very specific  (and sometimes overlapping) magical functions: spirit vessels, divinatory tools, healing specimens, and charm curios.

Spirit Vessels
The use of bones and skulls as a gateway to the land of the dead, or even in some cases to underworlds not inhabited solely by the dead, seems like a natural place to start a discussion. This is very much what “Tapping the Bone” is about, in that a witch or sorcerer can use a skull to summon up a dead person’s spirit or to travel into the otherworld and gain insight or information. A number of good examples can be drawn for this practice. Mexican American families, for instance, use sugar skulls as a way of interacting with their deceased loved ones during Dia de (los) Muertos celebrations. While such a celebration is hardly necromantic, it does seem to be a popular way to facilitate a relationship with the departed. The idea that bones harbor a connection to the dead and their realms also appears in Palo Mayombe, with the phenomenon of the nganga. This is essentially a pot filled with a variety of natural objects including bones which serves as a home for a patron spirit (nkisi). In Native American traditions of the Arikara, musical instruments made from human arm bones are used as a method for summoning the fearsome ancestral spirits known as Buffalo People (James Howard, “The Arikara Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle,” Plains Anthropologist (1974)).  I have also seen references to the need to keep a skull on the altar of a working houngan, or Vodoun priest.

Whatever the specific application, the theory behind bones as gateways to the otherworld seems generally clear: they are the last remaining physical link between someone or something that has died and the world of the living. Using bones to house spirits also makes a great deal of sense, as their liminal nature (caught between life and death) makes them a comfortable space for the two worlds. The bones do not have to be human to facilitate communication, either. In The War of the Witches, narrator Timothy Knab mentions one of the curanderos with whom he is training bringing out a reed box full of “patches of fur, buzzard beaks, and claws from different animals,” which represent ancestral connections of various types, and which could be employed for divinatory and protective purposes (91).

If the remains of dead things are houses for the long-gone, keeping house is very important. Bones treated irreverently can cause all sorts of spiritual havoc. In Roger Pinckney’s Blue Roots, he mentions how African burial practices involved two funerals: one right after the death, and one several years later when bones would be disinterred, lovingly reverenced by the family of the departed, then put to a final rest to give them peace. When slaves could not perform the required funerary rites due to white sensibilities about the exhumation of the dead, it resulted in a lot of “trabblin’ spirits,” or ghosts roaming the land—which may explain why the South is so haunted (59-60).

With so many traditions recognizing the connection between ancestral and unseen spiritual forces and a pile of femurs, tibia, and clavicles, it should hardly be a surprise that the use of bones to communicate with the dead frequently leaves the altar and enters the hands of thesoothsayer.

Divinatory Tools
If you’ve ever heard of someone “throwing the bones,” you know already that a little bundle of claws, teeth, and bones can be scattered to read events of the past, present, and future. If you’ve heard of the slight variation in phrase which goes “rolling the bones,” you may instead associate the items tossed with dice and not perceive anything divinatory, but rather a game of chance played for money, like craps. Yet the two different practices and phrases are very closely related. Both rely on fate to reveal an outcome, for example. The “bones” of the dice phrase is not metaphorical, either, as dice were frequently carved from bone until the twentieth century presented cheaper alternatives like plastic.  The ankle-bones of sheep have a naturally dice-like shape, and were frequently used as substitute dice in medieval times. Likewise, dominoes were once carved from bones and can also be used for both gambling and fortune-telling purposes. Raymond Buckland, for example, alleges that Travelers (essentially the UK variant of “Gypsies,” though they are not always ethnically linked) had a domino oracle used for fun and divination.

One of the finest books on the use of bones in divination only came out in the past year or so. Cat Yronwode, who runs the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, put out a small chapbook-sized work called Throwing the Bones, which provides a brief survey of bone-based divination practices ranging from dominoes to dice to Sangoma-style bone casting. Yronwode makes a good case for understanding “bones” as including things like coins, buckeyes, doll hands, and even a stone or two. You can even buy a set of “starter bones” with the book as a kit, and learn some basics of bone-throwing that way. Another book with a good reputation (I’ve not read it myself, but have seen it recommended by a few reputable diviners) is Carlos G. Poenna’s Yoruba Domino Oracle.  Juniper over at Walking the Hedge also has a great article on crafting your own “bone” system using a variety of objects (including, of course, bones).

Using bones for divination is a very old practice—it almost certainly was done in Ancient Greece and Rome, and may have been done even in Ancient Egypt. The “casting lots” found in the Bible (as in Psalm 22 or during the crucifixion of Jesus) would likely have been done with bone dice or something similar. While doing bone-based divination may seem to be a fairly simple way to work, it can also take on complex methodologies. An article published in the Journal of Experiential Education describes a Native American system called “The Bone Game,” which was used to settle disputes between warring tribes without resorting to outright violence. In this “game,” each tribe would establish high stakes (like potentially a large number of horses or weapons), then form teams which would circulate different bones (here used in Yronwode’s sense to mean small, deeply personal natural objects, including things like nuts or seeds in some cases). Each team would try to determine which object best represented them, and then engage in a very elaborate geocaching/hide-and-seek/scavenger-hunt like ritual which resulted in one team having a victory and claiming all the stakes.

And of course, how can I talk about rolling bones without mentioning the lovely Dolly Parton song about a bone-casting hill witch called “These Old Bones,” from her album Halos & Horns?

I’ll pause here for today, and next time (hopefully) we’ll look at some of the healing methods and simple charms based on bones. I do hope that this very brief look at bones in their spirit-contact/divinatory capacity is useful. I’m sure there’s much more I could write on the topic (I have not addressed systems like runes, which may involve inscribing symbols on bone or antler pieces for fortune-telling purposes, for example), but for now I will just hope that this short article sparks your own curiosity on the subject of magical bone-picking.

Thanks for reading!
-Cory

Podcast 28 – Altars

April 22, 2011

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 28-

Summary
In today’s New World Witchery, we look at different types of altars.  We’ll examine Ancestral altars, Devotional altars, and practical or spellwork altars.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 28

-Sources-
The book which Laine mentions is The Big Little Book of Magick, by D.J. Conway.

Here are some of our various altars:
Cory’s Ancestral Altar
A Devotional Altar from Cory
A practical divinatory altar space from Cory
A kitchen Devotional Altar in Cory’s home
The “indoor crossroads” altar space we mentioned

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – The Wigglian Way
Promo 2 – Borealis Meditations
Promo 3 – Inciting a Brewhaha

Podcast 17 – Ancestors

October 11, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 17-

Summary
This episode is all about the Ancestors—who they are and why they are important.  In WitchCraft, Laine gets her hands dirty with pumpkin carving.  And in Spelled Out, Cory looks at methods of Ancestor contact.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 17

-Sources-
Interpreting Folk Lore, by Alan Dundes – This book has a good description of the Dumb Supper on p. 165
Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph – This also mentions the Dumb Supper
The Magical Power of the Saints, by Ray T. Malbrough – The source of the Ancestor Prayer Cory mentions in his segment
Witching Way of the Hollow Hill, by Robin Artisson – This book has a great description of the Red Meal
Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk, by Peter Paddon – This one has good information on Tapping the Bone.
Alchemy Arts – The great witchy store in Chicago (which I incorrectly call “Alchemy Works” in the show)
Witchy Wearables – The great store that hosted the Podkin Super Moot
Pumpkin Bread – Recipe from Simply Recipes
Pumpkin Seeds – Recipe from Simply Recipes


Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – Lakefront Pagan Voice
Promo 2 – Standing Stone & Garden Gate
Promo 3 – Inciting a Riot


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