Today we’re tackling a hodgepodge of springtime symbols, including rabbits, eggs, maypoles, and flowers. We’ll discuss some of the myths and folklore surrounding these icons of spring, as well as some of the spells and magic that use these elements.
Big thanks again to Atticus Hob, who recently announced that his show is indefinitely off the air, but who did a marvelous job as our co-host last month. Check out his Orphan’s Almanac site for updates.
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”
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.
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.
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!
Today we’ll be looking at birds and their place as divinatory aids in the New World, something we touched on briefly in the second post on Magical Animals. Birds have historically been turned to by humans for secret knowledge, largely owing to their unfettered freedom to fly from place to place. Virtually all mythologies have some tale of a great mythic bird: the Roc in the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Zeus’s swan-form, the Thunderbird of some Native American stories, and the haunting Crane Dance of Japan are some of the better-known examples. A creation myth of the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands says that a raven, lonely in his long flight, spit upon a clam and opened it up, freeing the first humans (see Magical Creatures by E. Pepper & B. Stacy for more on this). What have birds to do with divination, though? Many readers probably already know about the branch of fortune-telling known as augury, but for those who haven’t heard of it, it simply means predicting fate by observing the flights of birds.
So how does one go about performing augury? Here things get a bit fuzzy—in some cases, the future comes as a vision released by a relaxed mind observing with detachment the loops and turns of soaring birds. Portuguese writer Paulo Coelho incorporates this type of augury into his novella, The Alchemist when he has a young shepherd accidentally catch a glimpse of coming war while he watches two hawks diving over desert sands. The other method, and the one which makes up a good bit of North American lore, simply involves noting the behavior of birds and interpreting it by means of known connotations. This sort of augury has numerous manifestations, and is especially prominent in Appalachian lore. Folklorist W. L. McAtee recorded a number of bird-related divinations in an essay from 1955:
“[I]f ever a bird builds in your shoe or pocket, or any of your clothes, you may prepare to die within the year.”
“The loon, a favorite with folklorists, is called ‘Bad Luck Bird’ by the natives [of the Sea Islands of Georgia], who will not speak of it, or if possible even look at it when they meet it in a journey by water.”
“While recording the common beliefs as to the storm petrels, that ‘Their appearance portends bad weather,’ Mrs. Simcoe [McAtee’s informant] adds: ‘To kill them is unlucky. Each bird is supposed . . . to contain the soul of a dead sailor.’
“The Reverend J. H. Linsley in his Birds of Connecticut (1843) noted that the cry of the bittern is a cause of superstitious fear and recorded that one man hearing it ran a mile, saying, that the Devil was after him.”
“’A token,’ said Archibald Rutledge [another informant], writing of the Santee Country, South Carolina, ‘is an apparition foretelling death,’ and cites as examples an eagle feeding with black vultures, a wild turkey standing alone under a certain great oak tree, and an albino robin.”
“[An] Abundance of people here look upon [whip-poor-wills] . . . as birds of ill omen, and they are very melancholy if one of them happens to light upon their house, or near their door, and set up his cry (as they will sometimes upon the very threshold) for they firmly believe one of the family will die very soon after.”
“Canada Jays are supposed to embody the souls of hunters or lumbermen who die in the north woods and it, therefore, brings bad luck to kill them.”
“In western North Carolina, it means seven years of bad luck to kill a raven.”
“To end this section on a more cheerful note, we cite the Ozark fancy that ‘If a redbird flies across a girl’s path . . . she will be kissed before night.’”
Other mountain lore about birds tends to focus on weather prediction (a subject we’ve covered in our posts on Signs & Omens to some extent, but you can never have enough weather-prediction lore). Patrick Gainer observes: “When the geese wander on the hills and fly homeward squawking, there will be a storm within twenty-four hours,” and “When the red birds call in the morning, it will rain before night.” Vance Randolph records some Ozark lore along the same lines:
Chickens or turkeys standing with their backs to the wind and with ruffled feathers mean a storm’s coming.
A rooster crowing at nightfall portends rain through the dark hours.
A sudden burst of robin-song foretells of bad weather.
Kingfishers nesting near the water mean a dry season to come.
Birds seem indelibly linked with concepts of luck and death, too. Anyone who’s seen the 90’s cult film The Crow probably remembers the voice-over at the movie’s opening telling a pseudomyth about how people once believed that a crow ferried souls between the land of the living and the land of the dead, and occasionally allowed one to come back for vengeance (I call this a pseudomyth not because there’s no truth in it, but rather that I’ve never been able to find exactly that myth borne out in folklore, though there are certainly close correlatives to it—corvids are often associated with death). There are many other pieces of Appalachian lore in this vein:
Barn swallows bring good luck where they nest, and it is bad luck to shoot one. (Randolph, OM&F)
Redbirds or roosters lingering near one’s doors or windows tend to mean tragedy will come soon after. (Randolph, OM&F)
Whippoorwills nesting at a home mean death will soon come to it. (Randolph, OM&F)
If a bird flies in the window, someone in the family will die. (Gainer, WG&S)
“Owls are omens of great ill. If you spot one nearby while you are inside your home, the direction in which it flies away is an indication of the fate of your household. If it flies off to the left of the cabin, very bad luck can be expected, but if it flies off to the right, it indicates an evil influence has chosen to pass you by.”(Edain McCoy, In a Graveyard at Midnight)
“Many western occult traditions regard peacocks as omens of ill fortune and their feathers as tokens of bad luck.” (Pepper & Stacy, MC)
Finally, in the category of “Odds & Ends,” there are some really spectacularly unique bits of North American folklore about birds which come from all over:
Buzzards will vomit upon anyone guilty of incest. (Randolph, OM&F)
“When you hear the first robin sing in the spring, sit down on a rock and take off your left stocking. If there is a hair in it, your sweetheart will call on you soon.” (Gainer, WG&S)
“If a bird flies down and gets tangled in your hair, it is an indication that the bird has linked itself with your soul, and whatever befalls the bird is likely to befall you also.” (McCoy, IaGaM)
Richard Dorson records a legend in Buying the Wind found amongst Illinois “Egyptians” (or what many would call “Gypsies”) about a mouse, a bird, and a sausage who all keep house together until the sausage is eaten and the mouse accidentally kills himself that feels like it must have some embedded magical meaning, though I’ve yet to figure it out.
That’s it for our bird-watching entry. If you’ve got lore you’d like to share about birds, we’d love to hear it! It certainly gives me a good reason to keep watching the skies, so please feel free to comment with any augury methods you’ve got.
This is a continuation from the last post about magical animals, so you may want to look at that one before diving into this one. Or not. It’s up to you really. Either way, here’s some more on North American animals showing up in magical folklore.
(More) American Magical Animals
Deer – Legends about magical deer are hardly new, nor are they limited to the New World. White stags appear in Arthurian legends, and the label of Jagermeister liqueur bears the image of an enchanted cervid. Charlemagne also had a stag legend associated with him. In American folktales, they retain similar significance, though often they lead hunters astray or into mischief. In a tale from Gilmer Co., WV, a normally gifted hunter encounters a doe he can’t shoot, even at close range when he knows he should be able to. He decides to try shooting it with a silver bullet and succeds in hitting it in the leg, and then follows the blood trail back to a cabin where an old woman is nursing her bleeding leg, thus revealing her as a shape-shifting witch (Gainer p.157). In New York State, there’s also the tale of “Auntie Greenleaf and the White Deer,” which bears a strong resemblance to the Gainer tale. The Huichol natives of Mexico engage in a type of spiritual quest called the Peyote Hunt in which the peyote (a type of hallucinogenic cactus) is treated as a magical deer to be caught:
The Hunt is a symbolic re-creation of “original times” before the present separation occurred between man, the gods, plants and animals; between life and death; between natural and supernatural; be-tween the sexes. On the Peyote Hunt, the men who return to their homeland become the gods, and at the climatic moment of the ceremony, they slay and eat the peyote, which is equated with the deer and with maize (“The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex…” by Barbara G. Myerhoff, Anthropological Quarterly, Apr. 1970)
It’s not surprising that a continent whose inhabitants until only fairly recently depended upon deer for food would assign it such a high mythical value, and there are plenty of good stories about witch deer or helper deer to be found in every region.
Rabbit/Hare – This is the animal most associated with witches in folklore (other than perhaps the black cat). North American magical tales are no exception, and there are a plethora of rabbit-related witch stories out there. As I mentioned in the Spiders/Insects section, Anansi has an avatar in the form of a rabbit in the New World, a form probably best known and realized through his appearance in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. The Trickster Rabbit of these tales became so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we turned him into an icon recognized worldwide, even though he is distinctly American in attitude: Bugs Bunny. Native American legends also provide Trickster Rabbit stories, such as “Rabbit Plays Tug-of-War” from the Creek tribe. Hares could also be less mirthful magical creatures, and often appear in American folklore as witches in disguise. Richard Dorson records a tale in Buying the Wind of a witch-hare that could not be caught or killed by anyone. Even when they trapped it and set everything around it on fire, the rabbit still managed to escape. Finally a hunter thought that perhaps this hare might be a witch in disguise, and so drew a picture of it and shot it in the leg with a silver bullet. Not long after, he found out that a local woman with a rather witchy reputation had fallen and broken her leg while sweeping the floor. The hare was not seen again (Dorson, p. 316-17). Stories like this are echoed in the Deer and Cat stories mentioned above and other tales of witches becoming hares can be found in the collections from Patrick W. Gainer and Hubert J. Davis, too.
Bear – The figure of the Bear is a mainstay in several traditions of American lore. He appears as Brother/Brer Bear in the aforementioned Uncle Remus tales, where he comes off as a bit of a brute. The bear is a key figure in Native American lore, appearing as a spiritual totem animal for chiefs and warriors, as in the tale of the “Spirit Lodge” from the Nariticong people in the northeastern U.S. A curious tale from the Pacific Northwest features a comical (and obviously fictional) encounter between a Sasquatch, a black bear, and a river boat captain. In northern Mexico, the story of “The Bear’s Son” describes a mytho-magical quest undertaken by a brave young man. The repeated motif of strength and battle seems to be the bear’s primary contribution to North American folklore. Yet occasionally bears appear as guides or wise teachers as well—even unintentional ones, as in the Maine tale of “The Fisherman and the Bear,” in which a clever ursine demonstrates a remarkably effective method of fishing to a hungry human.
Birds – This is a pretty broad category, and there are many different types of birds which appear in American magical tales. The most common appearances of birds are as magical omens or forerunners of good and bad luck. We touched a bit on this in our Weather Lore posts, but we also had to leave a number of bits out, so I’ll share a couple of them here:
A bird building a nest out of your hair will cause madness or headaches.
A bird building a nest in any piece of your clothing (shoes, hat, pockets, etc.) means you should prepare to die within the year.
Loons portend bad weather (because they are the souls of dead sailors).
Whippoorwills calling indicate death or bad luck soon to follow (I prefer Gillian’s interpretation of this, which is that a whippoorwill call means that you’ve done a good day’s work).
Killing barn swallows will cause your cows to give bloody milk.
To cure a backache, wait until you hear a whippoorwill call then roll on the ground three times.
There are truly endless numbers of folk spells, omens, signs, stories, and legends regarding animals in North America. And there are plenty of animals I didn’t cover here that probably deserve some attention. Critters like possums, raccoons, gators, eagles, buffalo, cattle, sheep, pigs, mountain lions, and any number of other animals all have abundant magical lore surrounding them, which I will hopefully be able to cover someday. For now, though, I hope this couple of posts has helped open up some areas for you to explore with regards to animals and magic. I’m hoping to get at least one more post out this week or early next week focusing on animal parts in magic, so stay tuned for that, too. And if you have animal lore you’d like to share, feel free to comment on the blog or email us!