The term “witch wars” comes up frequently in discussions about neo-Pagan community infighting, as shorthand for the feuding and vitriolic verbal sparring that happens periodically between rival groups. Such wars, however, have not always been barbs exchanged over message boards or smear campaigns between unfriendly covens. The nature of magical practice has almost guaranteed that so long as one witch could cast a spell, another could undo it.
So how do witches fight witches? With magic, of course, but so many of these tales involve what seems to be a battle of wills between two equally gifted magical workers. Strangely, while a witch might attack a person or family, when the witch-doctor enters the picture and counter-attacks the witch, the witch-doctor is seldom targeted back during the battle. Most of the witch-doctor’s services are more geared towards revealing the identity of a witch and providing victims a way to remediate their own problems. This is true in both New World and Old, as scholar Owen Davies demonstrates in his seminal text on English cunning folk, Popular Magic:
“The cure of witchcraft could be effected in three main ways: by going straight to the source and tackling the witch either physically or through the law courts; by breakin the spell at a distance via magical rituals; or by using a mix of herbs and charms to expel the witchcraft from the patient’s body. Cunning-folk were instrumental in facilitating all these methods,and they sometimes employed a combination of all three…the client saw what they wanted to see; in other words, the person they already suspected. The process was one of confirmation rather than detection…” (Popular Magic, Davies, 106-7)
The biggest step in fighting a witch was determining who he or she was. Then, a magical remedy would be applied to disrupt the spell which was affecting the victim. This might involve scalding milk from a bewitched churn, shooting an image of the witch with a silver bullet, etc. Then, in a critical step, the witch would attempt to come to the property of the victim and either enter the home or take something from the house. There seems to be a uniform understanding that such an act must be prevented, or else the witch’s power would remain or perhaps grow stronger over the victim. Davies gives one such example from England:
“In 1682 the parents of a bewitched girl named Mary Farmer were advised by ‘Dr Bourn’ to burn her clothes. He assured them ‘that then the witch which had done her the hurt, would come in.’ The parents testified in court that, having done this, a neighbor, Joan Butts entered their house, ‘and tumbled down, wallowing on the ground, making a fearful and dismal noise.’” (Davies, 109)
In this case, further magical action must be taken, including smoking a cow’s heart in the chimney, to break the witch’s spell.
The magical battles took place between malevolent witches and the community-sanctioned (or at least tolerated) ‘white witches’ or ‘witch-doctors’ indicate that those who could fight a curse were usually fairly well known to their community. A story from Hubert J. Davis’ The Silver Bullet tells of one such struggle, which occurred when a family sought to alleviate its suffering and bewitchment by calling in a man gifted at ‘overlooking’ or breaking curses. To break the curse placed on the family’s child, Tim and Ada consult with this ‘Quaker doctor’ (most likely a Pow-wow/braucher), who provides them with a stoppered bottle into which the family’s nail parings, hair, etc. are gathered, then left under the burning embers of the fire. Adding in some prayers, including a candle burning which ends with the traditional “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” (further indication of Pennsylvania Dutch magical practice), the “tall, stinguished looking man with thick white hair and a well-trimmed moustache [and] kindly blue eyes” forbids them from letting anyone into their house for three days. Sure enough, an old woman by the name of Old Betty Orts attempts to come in, revealing her as the witch. At that point, the father strikes her head, drawing blood (which immediately saps the power of a witch), and the curse is broken (“The Quaker Doctor and His Magic Bottle,” Davis, 56-8). The pattern of curse, diagnosis, prescription, attempted incursion, and final defeat of the witch is maintained.
In another account of Appalachian witch warring, an interesting and somewhat unusual battle occurs between two men (in most of these tales at least one of the magicians is female). Patrick W. Gainer recounts the battle between Uncle Johnnie and Uncle Jimmie Webb which took place over the use of a butterchurn. Uncle Johnnie, when denied use of the churn—and here it should be pointed out that the woman he wished to borrow from had two churns available, thus demonstrating the lack of social hospitality mentioned in my earlier post on the Witch’s Ire—enchants it so that he may steal her butter. Uncle Jimmie then helps the churn’s owner, Eliza Morris, to break the spell by whipping it with switches while churning with his left hand. This, in turn, causes Uncle Johnnie to suffer welts and undoes the enchantment (“Uncle Johnnie Bewitches the Cows,” Witches Ghosts & Signs, Gainer, 142-4).
This is not, of course, a wholly good vs. evil phenomenon. Scholar Emma Wilby notes that magical folk in England often employed their magic as the situation dictated, being neither entirely helpful nor entirely harmful:
“Although some cunning folk had a reputation for being wholly good, a large proportion of them were considered ambivalent, that is, they could employ their magical powers to both help and harm…The trial records of East Lothian cunning woman Beigis Tod, who was accused of witchcraft in 1608, echo this popular perception when they claim that Beigis was known to be skilled in both ‘on-laying and af-taiking of seiknes’. [Wilbiy’s italics, short for “laying on and taking off of sickness”].” (Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits, Wilby, 54)
These mixed talents were often set against each other, with one magical practitioner putting a spell on a person, place, or group of people, and another showing up to take it off. Sometimes this un-bewitching was done for free, but frequently a fee would be charged, which led some to suspect that the ‘bad’ witches and the ‘good’ witches were in league with each other and splitting the profits. One such example is the tale of “Mont and Duck” from Hubert J. Davis, in which an old couple moves into an area which suddenly begins experiencing oubreaks of illness. The community blames the newcomers, of course, but the response is interesting:
“[O]ne of their neighbors accused Mont and Duck of having cast a spell on their sick cow. Old Mont awed his accuser by readily admitting that his wife, Duck, had the power of evil, and that he could break the spells. Shortly after this, he began to offer to cure ailing animals by removing the spells on them in return for a bushel of potatoes or some other vegetables, or even a piece of meat” (“Mont and Duck,” The Silver Bullet, Davis, 214).
One family that refuses to pay for relief from magical attack experiences a death in this story, and the entire community takes their powers quite seriously. Mont is valued, but feared, for his powers as a witch-doctor, and the racket they have established continues for quite a while without any repercussion from the locals.
Yet there are certainly accounts of magical battles in which the side of ‘good’ seems to be operating from a mostly altruistic stance. Arguably one of the most famous magical battles in American lore is the account of sorcerous combat between Sherrif James E. McTeer and Dr. Buzzard (presented here in quoted abbreviated form from Low Country Voodoo, by Terrance Zepke, and also found in American Shamans by Jack Montgomery):
“One person who remained unimpressed with the root doctor [Dr. Buzzard, aka Stephaney Robinson] was Sheriff J.E. McTeer. He was elected in 1926 and saw many stgrange things that were attributed to Dr. Buzzard, such as people getting sick and dying or witnesses having seizure in the middle of testifying in court…The sheriff…began a lifelong study of conjuring so he could better understand it. In time he, he became known as a ‘white root doctor.’ …McTeer felt strongly that he was the one who could stop Dr. Buzzard once and for all…[he] issued a warning that if the witch doctor didn’t stop, he would eventually bring him to justice.
The infamous root doctor was not used to being threatened. To the contrary—most folks feared or respected him too much to even think about it. The sheriff’s warning mae him so mad that the witch doctor set out to ruin him. The spiritual warfare came to a halt after Dr. Buzzard’s son was killed in a car crash. The conjurer believed the wreck was was the High Sheriff’s doing and went to see his adversary. The root doctor told th sheriff that he respected his mantle and would leave him alone if McTeer would do the same. McTeer agreed, on the condition that Dr. Buzzard quit practicing sorcery. The conjurer thought about it for several seconds before nodding his head in agreement” (Low Country Voodoo, Zepke, 82-4)
In this fighting-fire-with-fire version of the witch war, ‘good’ triumphs in the form of McTeer, though Dr. Buzzard would eventually return to his old ways with diminished success.
So, in conclusion, the witch war has not always been the genteel affair that it is today. When sharp tongues trade barbs, it can be unpleasant, but thankfully no one is stealing anyone else’s butter, drawing blood from anyone else’s forehead, or causing the death of someone else’s child to prove a point. Or at least, I hope they’re not. I think I’ll go and recharge my house protection spells now…
Thanks for reading!