Posted tagged ‘animals’

Blog Post 95 – Critters (Magical Animals, Part I)

October 5, 2010

Hi everyone!

A recent episode of 5-Star Spells discussed the use of animals in magic.  The Lovely Sarah over at Forest Grove also did an excellent post on the use of bones in magic (a topic I’m also working on but which will probably not be nearly as comprehensive as her fantastic article).  Gillian’s creature-feature over at Iron Powaqa has also gotten me thinking more and more about animals and their use or place within magical work.

I’ve covered animals a bit before (see my post on Snakes for example) and I’ll likely continue to explore those individual species in other articles, but today I thought I’d tackle the topic generally.  When animals appear in American magical lore, which ones crop up most often?  Are they alive or dead?  Are their parts used in magic (like the Rabbit’s Foot), or do they themselves represent something more significant as whole, intact creatures?

American Magical Animals

There are a number of animals that show up repeatedly in North American magical lore.  In fact, there are few animals which are not associated in some way with magic.  For the sake of keeping this entry simple, however, let’s look at some of the most common and popular creatures:

Cat – The ubiquitous black cat of magical lore appears in all sorts of stories.  Patrick W. Gainer relates a tale about a witch who turns herself into a cat and then murders the men her father hires to work in his mill.  In Spooky South, S. E. Schlosser describes a blacksmith whose wife slips in and out of a catskin every night until he outwits her by salting her human skin while she’s away.  There’s also the story of the Wampus Cat, a fearsome cat-like beast which terrified Native Americans and early colonists in the Southern Appalachians.  And of course, the powerful magical charm of the black cat bone has been discussed on the blog and podcast before.  There are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of cat-related stories connected to witchcraft and magic in North America, and while having a black cat weaving about one’s feet certainly isn’t a requirement for witchery, it does seem to be encouraged.

Dogs/Coyotes/Wolves – Everyone knows about Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, with their requisite images of the faithful companion to the bold pioneers and adventurers on the frontier.  So it should come as little surprise that dogs and their relatives show up in magical lore here, too.  The Native American trickster spirit, Coyote, remains a popular figure in storytelling (and as fodder for Roadrunner cartoons).  Black dog hair is used in hoodoo spells, sometimes in conjunction with black cat hair.   The famous “Man in Black” at the crossroads in hoodoo lore sometimes appears as a black dog, too:

“Well, people say yo’ meet de devil, but tell de truth ’bout de thing, ah don’t know if it wus de devil or not. It wus a black something othah jes’ ’bout dat high — sorta mind me of a dog. He had han’s lak a dog when ah fus’ seen him but fust and last his han’ wus jes’ lak mine only it wus jes’ as hot as could be.” From the work of Harry M. Hyatt [Fayetteville, North Carolina, (1438), 2581:1.]

There are also a number of stories from all around the country related to ghostly black or white dogs who presage death or misfortune.  These seem to be similar to the “Black Shuck” dogs found in English folklore (and which served as a roundabout inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Hound of the Baskervilles”).  Wolves show up from time to time in Northern and Pacific Northwestern lore, though they usually do not have the fearsome associations found in European stories but rather serve as guides or helpers to lost or wounded folks.  Though the element of danger sometimes hovers around the magical canine, for the most part they seem to act as allies to magical folk in North America.

Snakes – As I said earlier, I’ve posted on snakes before, but a quick rehash can’t hurt.  The reputation of the serpent in North America seems to have been tainted by the negative impressions of it transmitted through Christianity.   Yet it remains one of the most significant magical animals in American magic, too.  Even some Christians engage in ceremonies with snakes, handling them as a test of faith in accordance with Mark 16: 17-18.  Marie Laveau was known to dance with a large snake called Zombi during her famous St. John’s Eve celebrations in New Orleans (described in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men), thus cementing the serpent into the NOLA Voodoo tradition.  Snake parts are common in magical practice, with rattlesnake rattles being lucky and the shed skins and eggs being useful for cursing and negative work.  I like using snakes myself, as I enjoy their chthonic symbolism and ambivalent quality.  I remember making a rather nice Damballah altar jar for a friend containing a long snakeskin and bones, inscribed with the lwa’s veve on the front—it was beautiful and felt like it radiated power when I finished it.  So yeah, I’ve got a fondness for the slithery beasts.  At least, when I’m wearing boots I do.

Spiders/Insects– Moving from one creepy-crawlie thing to another, bugs show up a bit in the magical lore of North America, too.  In The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis, one witch uses a little black beetle as her familiar, traveling with it in and out of keyholes.  Much like snake eggs, spider eggs are used to create the “Live Things in You” spells so greatly feared in hoodoo work, as described in Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root MagicAnansi, a powerful spirit and/or deity imported from West Africa, appears in the magical lore of places like Florida and the Coastal South, where he was sometimes transformed into another magical creature on this list—the rabbit.  This shift in emphasis may be explained by several factors.  According to Newbell Puckett:

Only the spider, a great favorite in African folk-lore, has been almost entirely dropped from the folk-tales of the Negro, and this may perhaps be due to a falling away of African religious beliefs, since on the Gold Coast the spider is regarded as the Creator of all men, and is supposed to speak through the nose as the local demons are said to do. It also may be that the spiders of the South, being smaller and less terrifying than the African type, have caused that creature to lose its prestige.  (Folk Beliefs, p.34)

Vance Randolph also mentions spiders and insects as being connected to weather lore:  they either swarm into the house before a big storm, or if a spider is crushed in the home it can cause a dry spell of seven days.  Finally, there’s a curious little rhyme mentioned by Patrick W. Gainer which can help one find lost objects:

“Spitter, Spitter, spider, tell me wher that (name of the article) is and I’ll give you a drink of cider” (p. 125).

There are plenty of other little bits of lore regarding six-and-eight-legged creatures, but I’ll save those for a longer entry sometime in the future.

I’m going to stop here for today, but we’re not done with magical creatures yet, by any stretch of the imagination.  If you have animal lore you’d like to share about any of the creatures mentioned so far, though, please do!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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Podcast 11 – Magical Tools

June 3, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 11-

Summary
Today we announce the upcoming break due to Cory’s grad school (don’t worry, we’ll be back sooner than you think!).  Then we talk about magical tools in American witchcraft, and we have our WitchCraft and Spelled Out segments.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 11

-Sources-
Mules & Men, by Zora Neale Hurston – mentioned in the show
Lucky Mojo site – particularly rabbits’ feet, gator parts, and raccoon bones
Hoodoo Root & Herb Magic, by Catherine Yronwode – lots of info on magical curios
Mojo:  Conjure Stories, by Nalo Hopkinson – the book I’m reading now which I mentioned when discussing gator heads

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – Iron Powaqa
Promo 2-  Witches’ Brewhaha

Blog Post 49 – Snakes

April 21, 2010

I hope you’ve got your good boots on today, because we’re getting into the tall grass and looking for snakes!  Snakes have had a place in magical lore for a very long time.  In Ancient Greece, Artemis and Apollo were sometimes associated with snakes.  Apollo was famous for slaying the great serpent Python (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I), and his priestesses were ever afterwards known as the Pythia.  Artemis, offended by King Admetus’s oversight of an offering due her, filled his bed with serpents.  In Vodoun tradition, the Creator figure is a great serpent, Damballah.  Stories of creation and snakes seem to go hand in hand across many cultures.

In the New World, snakes have a mixed significance.  On the one hand, the biblical story of Eden in Genesis lays a lot of the blame for humanity’s disobedience on the serpent in the garden.  At the same time, humanity would be without knowledge without the snake, so there’s more than one way to look at the story.  However, if you ask many Christians today who the snake was, they will answer “the Devil” or “Satan,” so for all intents and purposes, mainstream culture takes a fairly negative view of these slithering creatures.  That does not mean, however, that all snakes are viewed as little devils, and many folks actually like them.  Farmers like snakes because they keep rodent populations down in barns and fields, for example.

In magic, snakes are one of the most potent animals you can use.  There are several different magical traditions surrounding snakes or their various parts and pieces.  Catherine Yronwode notes that “the blood, eggs, heads, flesh, sheds, and skins of all species of snakes are used in jinxing and crossing” and the manufacture of various hoodoo mixtures, like Goofer Dust or Live Things In You poisons (HHRM p. 186).  She also mentions that the sheds can be used to calm one’s mind.  Other hoodoo-related uses of snake sheds and bones include situations where cunning might be needed, or for luck and power.  In this last case, rattlesnake bones and rattles are often used.  Musicians who wish to play well and win contests often keep a rattle with their instruments, according to Yronwode.

In the case of the Live Things In You curse, powdered snake parts—usually eggs or sheds—are mixed into a victim’s food.  The target then feels as though the creature is wriggling around in his body, causing him pain and distress, as well as the feeling that he might be going crazy.  You can read more about this kind of baleful working in Superstitions & Folklore of the South, by Charles W. Chestnutt, at the University of Virginia website.

Vance Randolph recorded several bits of magical lore concerning snakes in his Ozark Magic & Folklore:

  • To cause a rain, a snake could be hung belly-up on a fence (p. 30)
  • Burning shoes in the fireplace will drive away snakes (p. 68)
  • Snake-skin soaked in vinegar is applied to boils to reduce them (p. 101)
  • Snake-bites treated by doctors will always ache on the anniversary of the bite (p. 159)

Randolph also mentions the snake-handling “Holy Roller” churches sometimes found in rural areas of the South.  These churches base their practice on an admonition in Mark 16: 17-18:   “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (KJV).

A final tale from the Ozarks concerns a family that had a secret method of dealing with snakes:

“Miss Jewell Perriman, of Jenkins, Missouri, tells me that her Uncle Bill had a secret method of curing snake bite, and people came from miles around for treatment. Uncle Bill belonged to a family of which it was said ‘them folks don’t kill snakes.’ This is very unusual in the Ozarks, where most people do kill every snake they see. When a large copperhead was found in the Perriman house, Uncle Bill caught it with the tongs, carried it out into the orchard, and released it unharmed. His cure for snake bite was known in the family for at least a hundred years…The secret is lost now, for Uncle Bill is long dead, and his son died suddenly without issue. All that Miss Perriman knows of the snake-bite cure is that the snake must not be injured, and that Uncle Bill had a strip of ancient buckskin in which he tied certain knots as part of the treatment. She showed me the buckskin. It was about half an inch wide, perhaps twelve inches long, carefully rounded at the ends. Three knots had been tied in it, one in the middle and one at either end” (Randolph, Ozark Magic & Folklore, p. 159).

Wouldn’t you love to know what that secret was?  I sure would!

I suspect that snakes will always have a place in magical lore.  They have the ability to slide between upper and lower worlds easily.  Some can kill with a bite, but also provide useful services to us in many ways.  They seem to show up everywhere in the world (except Ireland…but that’s a completely different subject) and they always connect to something primal in us: fear, knowledge and gnosis, or even sexuality.  I’ll be keeping my good boots on when dealing with them, but I definitely have a particular love for these critters.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 28 – Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign…

March 12, 2010

Do I date myself by referencing that song in the title of this blog post?  Oh well…
I thought I’d wrap up the week with a few more examples of signs, tokens, and omens from American folklore.  We’ll be up in the mountains today, both the Appalachians and the Ozarks.
From the Appalachian History blog:

News Bees

“In both Appalachian and Ozarks folklore, news bees appear as omens to those wise enough to read them.”

News bees are not actually bees, but flower flies from the Syrphidae family.  They are marked with bands of black and yellow, much like bees, but are harmless.  They do look an awful lot like sweat bees, however, which can sting a person (though not as severely as other bees or wasps).

News bees, which also go by names like “sand hornets,” “sweat flies,” or “Russian hornets” derive their folk name from the belief that these hovering insects watch the events of humanity unfold, then fly off to deliver their news to others.  According to the folklore, “There are yellow news bees, which mean that good things are in the offing– it’s good luck if you can get one to perch on your finger–and black news bees, which warn of imminent death. The black news bees fly in the windows and out again, and fly straight for the nearest cemetery; they hover making a sound like a human being talking.” (Tabler, par.2)

From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore:

Some Animal Lore

“It is very generally believed that the appearance of an albino deer is a bad sign ; some hillfolk think it has something to do with witches’ work, others that it is an indication of disease among the deer, and that venison will be unwholesome for seven years” (p. 241)

“Groundhogs are hunted by boys with dogs, and young groundhogs are very good eating. But some of the old-timers frown on the modern practice of shooting groundhogs. They don’t mind if city sportsmen do it but often forbid their own children to shoot groundhogs, because it is supposed to bring bad luck” (p. 243)

Household Signs & Omens

“The Ozark housewife seldom begins to make a garment on Friday never unless she is sure that she can finish it the same day. Many a mountain man is reluctant to start any sort of job on Saturday, in the belief that he will ‘piddle around’ for six additional Saturdays before he gets it done” (p. 69)

“It is bad luck to burn floor sweepings or shavings that have been produced inside the house. An old-time Ozark housewife seldom sweeps her cabin after dark, and she never sweeps anything out at the front door” (p. 70)

The fantastic Appalachian blog Blind Pig and the Acorn has a fascinating entry on a death omen called a “belled buzzard.”

Belled Buzzards

According to the site, which cites a newspaper story about this phenomenon, in King George County, VA, a buzzard was observed flying low by houses with a bell around its neck and streamers tied to its body.  Similarly adorned birds figure in tales from the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas.  According to the blog’s author:

“Most of the sightings or ‘hearings’ caused folks to believe the belled buzzards foretold death. One legend even tells the story of a belled buzzard harassing a man after he killed his wife-to the point of the man turning himself in for her murder” (Tipper par.2).

So if you happen to see any big birds around your neighborhood with bells, chimes, or any musical instrument on their person, take heed!

Personal Lore

Finally, today, I thought I’d share a few of the things I was brought up believing.  Most of this information is from my mother.

  • When cooking soups, stews, and sauces, she’d often include a bay leaf in the pot.  Whoever found the bay leaf was thought to be in for some good luck.
  • If rain broke out of a clear sky, my mother always said that “the Devil is beating his wife.”
  • She taught me that if your ears burn, someone’s talking about you.  If your nose itches, someone wants to kiss you.  And if your hands itch, money’s coming your way soon.
  • You should never kill a spider or a frog indoors, as it will bring bad luck, she always said.  Unless the spider was a black widow or brown recluse.  Then it seemed to be okay.
  • She always kept an aloe plant in her kitchen window, both for an easy source of bug-bite and sunburn treatment and to bless the house in general with good fortune.

Okay, that will do it for today, I think.  Please feel free to share your own lore.  I’m always eager to hear it!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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