Posted tagged ‘botanicals’

Blog Post 141 – Witch Hazel

October 27, 2011

Today’s entry is not about the crazed cartoon sorceress from Warner Bros. cartoons (voiced by the inimitable June Foray), but instead we’ll be looking at the remarkable fall-blooming witch hazel tree. Really, the Hamamelis virginiana is not exactly a tree, but a woody shrub which can be found growing near water sources or in forest undergrowth throughout the Eastern United States (as well as in parts of Europe). It bears gorgeous yellow flowers in fall which look almost like a deep yellow honeysuckle bloom or a spidery golden star. It has a number of medical applications (you can usually find an astringent extract of the same name in your pharmacy), and has been used as a tea, poultice, extract, and tincture to treat bleeding wounds for a long time, according to botanical.com.  The handy little book Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia names witch hazel as a topical treatment for hemorrhoids and sunburn, and mentions it as an infusion for treating menstrual discomfort.

But you’re probably not here for the medical qualities of the plant (although I should quickly make my regular disclaimer that nothing herein contained is intended as medical/legal advice and you should see professional guidance when using any herb, plant, or botanical). So let’s look at the folklore surrounding this plant.

The name is a good jumping-off point. Wikipedia (forgive me, please) indicates that the appellation of “witch” to this plant is related to an Old English word meaning “bendable” or “pliant,” due to witch hazel’s extremely flexible branches. It also tangentially relates it to its folkloric use as a dowsing tool. Since being able to dowse for water or other hidden substances is often referred to as “witching” for such things, connecting the tree name to its application makes some sense. Essentially this could be a chicken-and-egg argument about which idea came first, so I’ll just leave the question hovering in the ether for you to contemplate.

Since we’re mentioning witch hazel’s connection to dowsing, let’s look at one method of using it in this way, from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:

“Well, I just cut me a green fork off a peach tree some fellows use witch hazel or redbud, but peach  always works better for me and take one prong in each hand. Then I walk slowly back and forth, holding the fork in front of me, parallel with the ground. When I cross an underground stream the witch stick turns in my hands, so that the main stem points down toward the water. Then I drive a stake in the ground to mark the place, and that’s where I tell ’em to dig their well” (p.83)

In this example, the informant shows a preference to peach branches over witch hazel (which I found in several other sources as well, particularly those focused on the American Southeast). Another informant of Randolph’s, one Mr. A.M. Haswell of Joplin, Missouri, espouses a staunch preference for witch hazel. Regardless of the tree, the technique remains the same. This account does not mention the holding method, which usually involves a palms-up grip, with the thumbs pointing out and away from the body. The stick ‘turning’ is a violent bobbing action, and truly accomplished dowsers can count the bobs to indicate approximately how deep the well is (thirty bobs equals thirty feet, for example).

Witch hazel can be used for other magical applications, too. A technique which seems—to me, anyway—related to its pharmaceutical properties involves using hazel branches to cure warts, scars, or blemishes. The patient takes a hazel stick, cuts three notches into it, applies some blood from the afflicted body part, and casts it into running water (Folklore of Adams County, Hyatt). One version of this method recorded in Folk Medicine by William Black involves writing one’s name on the branch and filling those grooves with blood.

The plant can also be used in protection magic. Randolph mentions that Ozark hillfolk would tie hazel twigs into little crosses and hung on their walls to guard against disease, especially in barns to safeguard the animals (p.284). This is somewhat like the rowan tree charm, which involves crosses of rowan twigs bound by red thread used as protective aids.

So as you are out on your autumn evening walks, keep an eye out for this gorgeous and rather useful magical plant.  Try your hand at dowsing, or just make some healing or protective charms. But make friends with the poor, sweet witch hazel. She gets awfully lonely, and we don’t want her out hunting wabbits, do we?


Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 123 – Corn

April 12, 2011

[A note here:  This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions.  Leave me out of it.  Thank you!]

Today’s topic may not exactly pop out at you as a magical one (I beg forgiveness in advance for the bevy of bad puns this article may include), but corn is actually spiritually and magically significant in several parts of the North American continent.

Corn, or as most of the rest of the world knows it, maize (of the species Zea mays) is a crop which was domesticated by early Mesoamerican cultures and which has been a native staple food for thousands of years now (though its widespread use throughout all of North America may only be about one millennium old).  It has proven both extremely useful and occasionally problematic.  It is fairly easy to grow, and can be processed into any number of products, from food and food additives to industrial lubricants and even plastics.  I’m not going to get into the heavily heated debate about corn as a commodity crop and its place in modern economics and agriculture, as this is not a blog about either of those topics.  I will say, however, that while corn may have its downsides, it also has much to offer culturally and culinary, especially the homegrown sweet varieties (can’t imagine a summer barbecue without it!).

Native Americans depended greatly on corn for survival, and it figured in several native mythologies.  One of the best known stories is that of Kana’ti and Selu, the Hunter and the Corn Mother, from Cherokee mythology.  In this story, mother Selu tells her children that they must drag her body over the land when she dies and that corn will sprout wherever her corpse has been.  In this respect, her tale is not so very different than the John Barleycorn legend.  Folklorist James Mooney demonstrated that this story has parallels in Huron mythology as well (he also mentions that the Iroquois grow a specific type of magical tobacco, which is the subject of an upcoming post).

Picture of a Mid-Atlantic Cornfield with a Remnant Corn Offering, via listener Chet

Listener Chet wrote in with a bit of folklore regarding the Corn Mother from the Central Atlantic coast:

“I read an article, while researching the corn maiden aspect, that covered the offering and adoration of a field spirit not only in NA culture, but all over the world…what quite a few would do is, leave a section of the field uncut, as an offering to the Maiden. I had seen these areas, the past few years where I live, and really had no idea what the uncut areas were about until I read this article. So here we are at harvest time again, and I am seeing these areas once again. So I took a pic of one (see attached corn pic). I have a feeling these farmers are not actually making an offering to the Miaden per se, but the tradition seems to have carried over, so maybe it’s bad luck, to not leave part of the field uncut.”

Chet also included a bit of information on his own practices, including his practice of reburying part of any harvest as an offering to the Corn Mother.  Big thanks to him for the local lore and for the photo!

Moving into the Appalachians, corn becomes magical and medicinal, depending upon its application.  A variety of sources indicate that tea made from corn silk (the long, slightly sticky strands which jut out from the top of the ear and which serve as pollination conduits during the corn’s growth cycle) is excellent for clearing up kidney and urinary tract ailments.  This sentiment popped up in Foxfire 9, Anthony Cavendar’s Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, and even Karl Herr’s Hex & Spellwork (which indicates to me that it found a home with the PA-Dutch and the mountain folk alike).  Patrick Gainer shares an interesting West Virginian folk magical technique for healing warts.  According to his Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, warts are cured by making them bleed, rubbing the blood on corn kernels, and feeding the kernels to chickens.  This could be very similar to jinx-removing practices in hoodoo which also use chickens.

Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia rates corn as a top botanical panacea for mountain people:

“It may come as a surprise to some that Southern Appalahcians used cultigens like apples, corn, [etc.] as much as, if not more than, herbs for many illnesses.  The juice, silk, kernels, and shucks of corn, for example, wereused for a variety of illnesses” (p. 64).

Some of the cures listed in the book’s pages:

  • Corn milk/juice used to treat skin irritation
  • Warm cornmeal to treat sprains and mastitis
  • Corn fodder burned to smoke/sweat out measles

In the Ozark Mountains, Vance Randolph records a couple of bits of lore about corn, one of which is quite unique: “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist on sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before burial” (p. 315).  In light of Chet’s lore about burying corn as an offering to a Mother-figure and/or the land, I think this is pretty fascinating.  Is the corn an offering, and if so, is it for the actual deceased person, or for the land which will be surrounding that person soon?  Randolph also mentions a bit of weather lore, noting that the thickness of corn shucks indicates the severity of the coming winter.

Finally, I can’t discuss corn without at least mentioning the corn dolly which is so ubiquitous around Imbolc/Candlemas.  I won’t go into that particular association, as it seems to be well covered in other places, but I will say a corn dolly makes a very useful poppet for working figure magic, especially since it’s easy and cheap to find the basic materials you need (if you don’t have corn growing anywhere around you, look in the Hispanic portion of your local grocery—husks are almost always available there as tamale wrappers, and usually quite inexpensively as well).  Recent New World Witchery interviewee Dr. E mentioned the corn dolly poppet, if you’ll recall, and I think it’s an excellent way to craft a magical doll, especially one for burial or burning.  They tend to be easy to stuff with herbs and things like hair or fingernail clippings, and they can be made without requiring much skill (trust me on this, I know from experience, or rather, obvious inexperience). There are plenty of great places to learn dolly-making, but since I like the series so much I’ll go ahead and eagerly recommend the corn dolly tutorial found in Foxfire 3 (on pp. 453-460).

That’s it for corn (at least for now).  If you’ve got some magical lore regarding the use of corn, I’d love to read it!  Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory


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