Cory sits down with Asheville’s Village Witch, H. Byron Ballard, to talk about folkways, storytelling, magic, community, and “tower time.”
Summary: Cory sits down with Asheville’s Village Witch, H. Byron Ballard, to talk about folkways, storytelling, magic, community, and “tower time.”
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As we turn the page on the past year (and I think there are plenty of people who would agree that they’re ready to not just turn the page but rip the whole accursed chapter out of the book), I know many of us are going to make resolutions, plan to live a better version of our lives, and do any number of things to improve situations for ourselves and others. That is all well and good, but if there’s one thing that last year seems to have demonstrated time and again, it’s that at a certain level we also are operating at the hands of Fate. Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in folk magic, and if there’s one point that many branches of folk magic emphasize, it is that Fate is not a fixed, unshakable future, but something that we can influence through enchanted manipulations and the subtle weaving of our intentions through charms, talismans, and other tools.
Today I want to briefly visit a few of the magical ways in which people have sought to change their luck through folk magic in America. Some are focused on very specific forms of luck, such as gambling, while others are much broader. I’ve already written before about ways in which people can “eat their luck,” for example, as we see with widespread practices of consuming specific “good luck” foods on New Year’s Day. Black eyed peas and greens appear in African American and broader Southern traditions. Pork and sauerkraut are a must-have for those in German American communities, such as those of central Pennsylvania. Likewise, many Latinx people consume foods like grapes—one for each of the twelve days following New Year’s Day—as a method of ensuring prosperity and good fortune in the year to come. Some other food-based luck transformations include:
Kissing the cook after taking the last piece of bread to avoid having bad luck (Brown 370).
Don’t throw away broken dishes but keep them piled in the back yard/back of the house and they will keep you from going hungry (Hyatt 274)
Turning plates at the end of the meal before getting up ensures that any bad luck in the room will be reversed so long as everyone does it (but the same lore warns never to turn a plate during a meal, because it allows “the witches [to] partake of the meal” (Brown 370)
Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper (a folk legend not directly recorded in biblical accounts, which only mentions “dipping into the bowl” at the same time as Jesus). The remedies for this failure of luck, however, are wide-ranging, including tossing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder—sometimes to chase away or blind the Devil. Other versions of this reversal say to throw a bit of salt over either shoulder, or even “on the hot stove” (although tossing salt directly in the fire is thought to cause you to become “very angry”) (Brown 372-74). Throwing food away, however, doesn’t seem very lucky, so fortunately there are also beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good (Hyatt 25).
Beyond the culinary luck-changers, there are a number of other things a person could do to ensure favorable fortune. Gestures and behaviors that might protect one from bad luck and invite good luck include:
Catching a caterpillar, keeping it in your home until it hatches, then freeing it when it becomes a moth or butterfly. It should be noted that the lore is very insistent that you not kill the creature in any of its life stages, as that will bring bad luck (Hyatt 30).
Frederick Douglass famously carried a root given to him by a conjure man in his pocket as a way to deflect the “misfortune” of abuse by his overseer, a devil of a man named Covey. It’s possible this was a “master root” or even a “John the Conqueror” root (Douglass 111). Douglass later revised his account of this incident, downplaying the role of conjure and rootwork to distance himself from what was seen as a Black stereotype and the “tomfoolery of the ignorant” (Martin 57).
A bit of North Carolina lore says that if you have trouble with being a butterfingers and breaking dishware, you can find a shed snake skin and rub your hands with it to remove that condition (Brown 375)
“It is considered lucky to keep a living plant in your bedroom at night” (Hyatt 21) but there are also admonitions that any cut flowers (or plants that are otherwise in the process of decay) should be removed before sleeping in a room to reverse any potential poor luck in health
Several sources indicate that you must restart a journey if a black cat crosses your path. Similarly, other black-completed animals such as skunks, rabbits, or squirrels can all require such a turning back and beginning again (Hyatt 53)
Related to the turning back is the idea that if you do turn back, you shouldn’t keep going the same day, but wait until the next day to ward off bad luck (this also ties into the belief that you shouldn’t watch someone’s plane take off). You can also wait until the animal crosses the path of another person, which cancels the bad luck (possibly for both of you)
Despite their bad rap as path-crossers, black cats can also reverse bad luck. A bit of lore says that stroking the tail of a (strange) black cat seven times is thought to reverse misfortune and bring good luck (Hyatt 54)
Snakes also get a bit of a bad reputation in the path-crossing department. Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. This is true whether you see the snake that left the tracks or just the tracks themselves. The cross is thought to cancel out the bad luck (and is likely related to the idea of the “cross” from a Christian context acting against the dangerous and “sinful” nature of the snake from the Garden of Eden story (Hyatt 34). A Kentucky variant, however, totally bypasses the snake and instead simply says that you can reverse bad luck by drawing a cross in the dirt and spitting on it (Thomas no. 1032)
In many of these examples, animals and other living things (like the houseplant—which makes me glad for my spider plants all the more) are the impetus for the luck-changing magic at work, something I’ve also mentioned when writing about the very strange (and often quite racist) lore associated with lucky rabbits’ feet. Similar animal-bone talismans include the jawbone or breastbone of a frog or the familiar wishbone from a bird like a turkey, which can be carried as luck-giving charms.
Beyond the power of various living things to perform misfortune management, there is a whole cadre of lore connected to sharp and pointy things that are able to reverse the curse:
Accidentally crossing two knives brings bad luck, and it can only be undone by the person who crossed the knives picking them up again. Similarly, if a person finds a pair of open scissors, they close them right away, or else “she will quarrel with her dearest friend before the moon changes” (Randolph 58).
Another remedy from Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” (Brown v7 108)
Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck (Hyatt 273)
Similarly finding a pin or penny is potentially bad luck but is easily reversed by simply picking it up and carrying it with you (multiple variations found in Brown 437-38).
Personally I’ve also often commingled this last charm with the belief that a penny found heads up is good luck, which is great until you find a tails-up penny but also need to pick it up. So my own response is to pick up these “bad luck” pennies and turn them over, then set them down on another surface (usually higher up than the ground), so that I fulfill the basic idea of the charm while also not carrying the bad luck with me. Also, in general I’d prefer not to carry change I pick up off the street for health reasons, but that may just be me.
Of course, you might also be suffering a run of bad luck because of something you did, or something someone else did. For example, you might have snubbed your local witch (a very bad idea) and thus have fallen under a curse. If the bad luck is the result of conjury or witchcraft, visiting the curse-caster’s front steps is a good way to deal with the problem. Several different traditions, but especially Hoodoo, mention remedies such as spitting on the front step, digging some dirt from under it, or leaving the broken charm under the stair (Brown v7 105-6). There are also long-standing beliefs from a number of cultures that implore you to be humble, because speaking too highly of yourself or your luck courts disaster. Speaking of any good fortune you’ve had recently can invite bad luck to follow, unless you knock or “peck” on wood to counteract that effect (Brown v7 167-8). There’s also a great deal of evil eye lore connected to beliefs like this, but that is its own (rather enormous) topic.
Some of these reversal charms, spells, and beliefs may seem a bit esoteric to us today. Few of us are going around rubbing our hands with snakeskin or collecting piles of broken dishware in our back yards. But knocking on wood has managed to linger on in widespread use, along with a few other very common bits of magic (some of which people perform without ever even thinking of them as “magical”):
A bit of lore found in Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, and more says that in a time of danger a person should cross their fingers to prevent bad luck (Brown v7 169)
“The first dollar collected in a new business should be framed for good luck.
(Mary E. Price from Bill Garrett)” (Penrod, New Mexico article). I know I have seen many businesses that do this and put it on display near the cash register or front door, probably not thinking about the idea that it keeps misfortune at bay and invites good financial luck in.
Superstitions about sneezing and luck are common, with many believing that wicked spirits or devils are about when someone sneezes. Hence, the “bless you” or its many variants that you might say are a way of reversing any potential harm, bad luck, or evil that might be close by (Brown v7 153).
You can see that there are a LOT of options when it comes to luck-reversal, then. There are all sorts of ways that a person can cut their losses through magic, and those I’ve mentioned here are just the very tip of the iceberg (or the found pocket knife or pin, perhaps). I’m always interested in seeing what other rituals people have developed in contemporary times to change luck in their favor, too. Like the lore about not watching one’s loved ones off in an airport, newer technologies breed newer folklore and thus newer folk magic. Surely at some point we’ll have lore about reversing the bad luck of playing online casinos or sports betting apps by doing things like opening other apps first (perhaps ensuring that the betting app is the seventh one opened that day or something similar). Perhaps people will buy wooden phone cases so they can knock on wood more easily whenever they feel a streak of bad luck coming on. Or maybe they will have phone charms resembling rabbits or cats or four-leaf clovers to help them. I should also note that this isn’t strictly about gambling, either (and that gambling can be very addictive so please seek help if you’re worried about that getting out of control). As more of our lives move into the ether of online space, or we see technologies like Roombas running around our house, we may develop new responses to all of these things (perhaps we will begin believing that we must leave the room when our iRobot vacuum is cleaning so it doesn’t go under our feet, which would carry forward a belief about not having your feet “swept” from older lore).
Wherever our life goes in response to new developments, we will likely always retain a little bit of magical thinking about how to make fortune favor us a little bit more. After the year so many of us have just had, I know there were lots of people who warned against the hubris of claiming 2021 as “your year” out of (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) fear that it would somehow invite another 2020 to rear its ugly head. But taking control through these little rituals—carrying a charm or putting a dollar bill up on the wall or even just tending to a little netted cage of butterflies in your home and then releasing them in the wild—this is something we have done for a long time. What magic do you bring to the table to change things for the better? I’d love to know!
Wishing you a bright and happy beginning to your 2021, and thank you for reading.
We talk with author and conjure worker Jake Richards about folk magic in the Southern Highlands, the many magical-cultural influences found throughout the mountains, and what people get right and wrong about Appalachia.
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I have to admit something slightly shameful about my time during the pandemic. I have not undertaken the task of making my own sourdough starter. Now, before you judge me too harshly, I should note that it’s not as though I haven’t been baking anything, just that I tend to do most of my baking using store bought yeast, eggs, or leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder. Our area did run out of yeast in the stores for a while, but somehow I’ve managed to back-stock just enough of it to last us for the few months it took for yeast to begin appearing on our shelves again. I’ve made starter-based breads before (yummy Amish friendship bread that lasted a few loaves before I failed miserably as a fermentation parent, for example), but I just haven’t needed to do the sourdough yet so it remains off of my “pandemic skills checklist.”
However, the popularity of bread baking did spark one of my other skills: research! I have been looking into a few of the folklore collections I have access to and finding all sorts of doughy, yeasty, yummy notes about the uses of bread in North American folk magic. So I thought today I’d share a few of the notes I’ve gleaned with all of you! Hopefully if you’ve been doing some resting, rising, and toasting of your own you’ll see some things here that spark your witchy senses and maybe make the act of bread-baking a little more magical the next time you go to top up that bottle of starter in the corner of your pantry.
I’ve already written a bit on things like the magic of cakes before, but I’ll start here by mentioning a cake of a sort. This is the “witch cake” used during the Salem Witch trials (and also occasionally found in other places, as it seems to derive from some English antecedents). The basic idea, as found in historical accounts such as town church documents from the trial period and reprinted in George L. Burr’s Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, is that a bewitched person’s “water” (urine, as it always seems to come back to collecting someone’s pee here at New World Witchery) is added to a rough loaf of rye or barley, then baked and fed to a dog. If the dog grows ill, convulses, or dies, it indicates witchcraft, or alternatively may be able to reverse harm, causing the witch to suffer visibly and thus identifying them. Mary Sibley, the neighbor of the Parris family who recommended the magical loaf cure, was later intimidated into confessing that the cake was diabolical in nature, a sort of “using witchcraft to fight witchcraft” approach that was found throughout Colonial New England folk practices (see the excellent book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement by David Hall for more on these sorts of folk magical practices in wide circulation).
These sorts of curative bread recipes, even if they are a bit unappetizing to us today, were widely known across traditions in North America. Oftentimes, bread was used as a delivery method for a variety of unsavory magico-medical treatments, creating rolled “bread pills” to treat ailments using herbs, medicinal mixtures, or even insects like lice and spiders to fend off sickness (Brown v.6 #806). A similar remedy could be used when treating animals, feeding them medicine or folk remedies along with bread to ensure they took them, as evidenced by an entry in Hohman’s Pennsylvania Deitsch tome, The Long-lost Friend:
#91 – For vomiting and diarrhoea [sp] – Take pulverized cloves and eat them together with bread soaked in red wine, and you will soon find relief. The cloves may be put upon the bread.
Hohman also mentions a similar method of delivering a chickweed based rabies cure in that book.
While baking a magical loaf of dark bread is certainly an intense way to mingle witchcraft and daily baking, many other beliefs and rituals surrounding meal, dough, and a warm oven could be found throughout the continent and across a wide range of people. In terms of superstitions, a massive number exist surrounding everything from baking the bread to burning it to taking a piece of it:
Set bread to rise before the sun rises (Brown v.6 #2771)
Make a cross in bread dough to make it rise right (Brown v. 6 #2772) (This ritual is also mentioned in Robert Herrick’s Charmes and cited in Kittredge’s book on witchcraft. Rhyme: “This Ile [I’ll] tell ye by the way,/ Maidens when ye leavens lay:/ Cross your dow [dough] and your dispatch/ Will be better for your batch.” In the US this was also done to keep “witches from dancing over the dough” and thus cursing it and keeping it from rising.)
Cutting an unbaked loaf of bread is bad luck (Brown v.6 #2774)
Burning your bread is a sign of bad luck, especially because it is likely to cause a quarrel. Beliefs from North Carolina, Tennessee, and even California all have similar variations. Many say that if a girl burns her bread or biscuits, it’s a sign she’ll fight with her sweetheart, for example, while a married person who burns bread is likely to fight with neighbors (Brown, Randolph).
Burning bread can also mean the preacher is coming to visit soon (which may or may not be bad luck or the sign of a quarrel about to start, I suppose) (Brown v.6 #4000). Intentionally burning bread by throwing it into the fire will result in punishment, as the Devil will make you pick out every piece from the coals of hellfire later, according to Kentucky lore (Thomas).
You should never turn bread upside down once it’s baked, or you will bring bad luck (Brown, Randolph, Hines)
It’s bad luck to take the last piece of bread (Brown, Hyatt). Taking the last piece has a number of folkloric meanings, as well. For example, there’s a very gender-biased set of beliefs that a girl who takes the last piece of bread will be an “old maid,” while a boy is simply obligated to kiss the cook! (Which makes me think it was a clever ploy by many a mother to get a kiss from a child when giving the last piece away, but that’s simply my supposition). One variation also says that a woman who takes the last piece will also marry rich, so I guess one rolls the dice and takes their chances? (Brown v.6 #4735–a Nebraskan tidbit of lore)
Taking bread while you have bread on your plate already will also cause someone to go hungry (usually the person who has done the taking, but sometimes it is treated more as a portent for someone else) (Brown, Randolph)
A bit of Ozark lore says “I know of several families near Big Flat, Arkansas, who have a strange notion that one should never allow a piece of bread to fall upon the ground–the idea is that to do so will somehow injure the next crop of corn” (Randolph 62).
Another bit of Ozark folklore says that eating bread crusts makes one a better hunter or fisherman, and that it leads to curly hair! (Randolph).
This last bit about the curly hair is one of the strangest but most pervasive beliefs about bread I found while researching loaf-lore. A number of sources indicate that if a person eats bread crusts, it will cause the person’s hair to curl, which is usually presented as a desirable outcome (Brown, Randolph, Farr). Sometimes those curls are ringlets, and at other times more like curly bangs or forelocks. In other cases, the curly hair actually predicts something about the bread, as in one North Carolina belief that says a baby with two curls of hair on its forehead will eventually “break bread on two continents,” indicating a life of travel (Brown v.6 #259). This may have something to do with the fact that the crust is the outermost part of the bread and often what visually draws us in (although the smell is certainly a factor, too, as many realtors know). Similarly, the hair or outer appearance of a person could be linked to this visual enticement through the bread. Or, it could simply be a way for a frugal parent to convince a child to eat the crusts, too!
Continuing the theme of good looks and good bread, several wart or blemish cures are connected to a well-baked loaf. Most of these depend upon the use of cornbread rather than other forms of grains, with cornbread “sweat” being invoked most frequently as a curative for things like warts, pimples, and freckles (for those that don’t know, “sweat” is the condensation layer that settles on top of cornbread as it cools). Cornbread factors into several other cures and rituals as well. An Ozark cure for bewitched cattle involves feeding the cow a combination of burnt cornbread, soot, and salt (Randolph). In parts of Appalachia, there are superstitions that say a person should never break cornbread from both ends, or else there will be bad luck (Brown). A Georgia folk ritual says to feed a dog cornbread that has been rubbed on his left hind-foot in order to get him to follow you or stay loyal to you (Steiner).
Bread features in a number of magical rituals beyond ensuring canine companionship, too. One of the better-known rites is probably the Dumb Supper, which we’ve covered a few times and even done as a story episode during our annual All Hallows Read. A specific version of the working from Watauga County, North Carolina, involved even baking the bread backwards:
“Cook bread backwards, by sifting with the flour sifter behind you, and the like; also eat it with your back toward the table, and you’ll dream of whom you will marry” (Brown v.6 #4296).
The “reversal” power of the Dumb Supper works magically by inverting the typical order of things, allowing the user of the spell to see an end result (a future partner) earlier in their life. However, there are also consequences to that working in many cases (as you hear in our spooky retelling of the tale). It may also be that the Supper works to sort of ‘short circuit’ the brain by making it do a rote task in an unfamiliar way, thus causing a sort of distorted reality reaction and an altered state of consciousness, which might make a person much more susceptible to things like visions. Bread, as a staple ingredient and something so ordinary and frequently made, would be a perfect base for that kind of rite. It also has long-standing associations with strength and body, which could be another reason it gets used to call forth a corporeal image of a future lover. This body association also makes bread a key component of the modern Traditional Witchcraft rite of the Housle or “Red Meal.” In that rite, dark bread is presented as part of a ceremonial meal shared with Otherworldy spirits or the Dead (Artisson). That association of bread with the land of the dead also plays out in many customs and folkways from cultures that have ancestral reverence as a part of their practice. For example, in Mexican American traditions, a sweet bread flavored with orange essence and anise seed called “pan muerto”/”pan de muerto,” or “bread of the dead” is offered to ancestors during holidays like Dia de Muertos (Fernandez Kelly).
Bread’s association with the strength also leads to a curious bit of lore from Georgia, which says that a knife with a “soft” blade can be strengthened by simply putting it into hot cornbread, then into hot water (Steiner).
Bread also features in a variety of other folklore as well, even metaphorically. For example, many people almost instinctively say the phrase “bread and butter” when passing someone on the street with a light pole or other object between them. This is thought to ward off bad luck (another variation has one party say “bread and butter” while the other says “come to supper,” as well) (Brown, Randolph). A Pennsylvania Deitsch idiom says that a person who can use braucherei magic or other supernatural gifts is someone that “Hot meh du kenne wie Brod esse,” or that “he knows how to do more than eat bread!” (Dorson 112n1). Even in dreams, bread can have significance, as evidenced by this interpretation from the well-known and widely available Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream-book from the early twentieth century: “To eat wheaten bread, gives great gain to the rich, but loss to the poor; to eat rye bread is the reverse” (9). The commonness of the bread seems to be underlying most of its metaphorical value in these folk beliefs, sayings, and symbols–a person who can do more than eat bread can do more than the ordinary, and a rich person who eats the sort of bread only available to rich people (the more expensive and finer-milled “wheaten” bread) will see their gains continue.
A House Blessing Charm (with bread!)
Perhaps my favorite bread-based magical working is one that I’ve done for a lot of folks when they move into a new home. It’s a little house blessing that I learned from my mother, who claimed it derived from Polish customs (we have a section of our family who all come from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well as the Bialystok region of Poland). I’ve also seen this represented as a Jewish house blessing, as well as a few other ethnicities, but thus far I’ve not found a single “source” for it. My guess is that it builds upon some fairly widespread Central and Eastern European symbols, and may even have been widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean through the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (which still uses house blessings today). The basic practice involves taking a small jar and filling it partly with salt, then adding a piece of homemade bread (just a small, crouton-sized cube would be enough), and a single coin. You can say a blessing over this (such as the Catholic rite of house blessing or Psalm 122:7, “Peace be in thy walls, and prosperity in thy dwelling”), simply explain the symbolism when you give the gift, as well. The individual components each have a meaning:
Bread – that those who dwell in the house may never know hunger
A Coin – that they may never know poverty
Salt – that their lives may never lack for flavor (i.e. good experiences)
There are lots of magical variations you could make here, too, including selecting specific kinds of coins (or ones with significant minting years printed on them). A silver “Mercury” dime would be a very protective one to include. You might also make a special kind of bread using herbs that convey specific blessings (although you do want to make sure the bread is somewhat dry when fully baked–it will essentially “mummify” in the salt over time so it won’t spoil, but only if it’s not a particularly moist bread to begin with…no zucchini bread, please!). You might even mix in spices or herbs with the salt, or consider using black salt as a way to specifically repel evil.
However you slice it, there’s a lot of magic in the lore of bread! If you’re baking up a storm during these mad, mad days of plague and pandemic, I hope that this post will inspire you to mix in a little magic along with your leaven, and add some enchantment to your bread basket!