Posted tagged ‘brujeria’

Blog Post 183 –Lost in the Supermarket (Part II)

November 20, 2013

Last time, I looked at a few of the standard products found in a typical supermarket which could be easily used within a folk magical context. I’m continuing that theme today, and while I’ll still be doing my best to stay out of the ubiquitous enchanted spice aisle, I will be touching on a few ingestibles. Please note, however, that as I frequently say: THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE SHOULD BE TAKEN AS MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE. Before you start popping things into your mouth or rubbing them on your skin, you should make sure with your doctor that doing so will not lead to genetic mutation, pestilence, plague, or ennui of any kind.

supermarket_herbs_spices

I’m going to start in what my part of the country likes to think of as the “ethnic foods” section, which generally speaking involves a portion of the produce area and an aisle with Asian, Hispanic, and perhaps Italian meal ingredients. It’s where I found the candles I showed in the previous post, but in most of the grocery stores around here, despite the obviously oblivious marginalization that comes with a label like “ethnic” or “international” cuisine, the diversity of the consumer population has made a lot of once-rare items much easier to find. The section of these stores directed at Hispanic consumers provides a number of tools for folk magic that fall under the practices of curanderismo and/or brujeria. I’ve covered supermarket staples like eggs already, so today I thought I’d look at three somewhat more distinctive items: corn husks, hot peppers, and coconuts.

Corn Husks

The papery, stiff-but-pliant corn husk is absolutely essential for making really good tamales. Usually these come in huge packs (because if you’re going to go to the trouble of making tamales, you may as well make a lot of them), and they’re often dirt cheap. In fact, in the late summer, I frequently fine freshly stripped corn husks in buckets next to the corn displays, and few grocery store managers care if you grab a sackful to take home with you for free. So what sorts of magical mischief can you get up to with all those husks?

Corn dolly folk art (via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re not making ensorcelled tamales, you might consider saving a few husks and turning them into doll babies for working various kinds of poppet magic. In some cases, the husks would be bound to the cob, along with various herbs and things like hair or clothing from the intended target to work a spell on them. Texan rootworker Starr Casas describes one such baby in The Conjure Workbook, vol. 1:

“When I was caring my daughter [sic] I was very ill. I was put on bed rest for five months. My Grandma knew this lady and asked her to come to my house and help me during the week. She treated people who were ill. I think that due to her efforts my daughter is alive today. I trusted her because my Grandma trusted her…She prayed over me every day; one day she asked if she could have some of my hair. She could have just taken the hair from my brush, at this time my hair was very long. She told me the hair needed to come from the crown of my head.

A few days later she came with this Dollie. This was the first time I had ever seen a doll like this. The body of the doll was a corn cob and the doll was covered in corn husk. When I asked her what it was for all she told me was to keep me and my baby safe. After I had my daughter the Dollie disappeared. When I asked her about the missing doll she told me the doll wasn’t needed anymore. I have never seen another Conjure doll like that one again” (Casas 246-7).

Starr’s encounter with this type of doll is not typical of conjure practice, something even she notes, but the use of doll baby magic is fairly common and corn husks make a simple, cheap, easy-to-make-and-destroy sort of doll. One reason that Starr may not have seen them since is that they are less directly associated with hoodoo and more directly associated with mountain crafts, particularly the crafts of the Appalachians. In fact, you can find wonderfully detailed instructions and step-by-step photos on constructing corn dollies in Foxfire 3, which records the folk practices of the southern Appalachians (a later compendium called The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Toys & Games also discusses the corn dolls, but doesn’t give the detail the actual anthology book does).  That’s not to say that such dolls are not found in any version of conjure—Dr. E mentions them in his article on doll making, found in The Black Folder, for example—but that they very likely drifted in from non-African sources. Their provenance matters not, though, because they are incredibly useful magical tools in any case.

Hot Peppers

Have you ever seen the sheer plethora of peppers available in a bodega? Even at the chain supermarkets, you can now find dozens of choices, ranging from fresh jalapenos and big, fat Anaheims to the huge sacks of tiny dried japones peppers and the small-but-potent habaneros. So what to do with all those peppers?

Of course, the obvious answer would be hot-foot work in hoodoo, but you can also get a little more creative than that. Using the peppers as a vessel, it takes very little effort (but a good bit of practice and caution) to slit open a habanero, stuff someone’s name inside and bind it back up. Doing that works sort of like a vinegar jar cranked up to eleven, in that it puts a lot of unpleasantness into someone’s life. Peppers don’t have to be all bad, either, as cooking them with something like chocolate creates a very different effect—a good hot cocoa with a hint of chili pepper makes an enlivening winter beverage, and a heck of an aphrodisiac! A little rum in that latter option helps, too, of course.

Speaking of rum, one of the more interesting uses for all those hot peppers in magic—and here I’m stretching the term to incorporate a certain degree of magical religion—is to soak the peppers into an alcohol like rum until it is nigh undrinkable. Why would you do that, you ask? Maya Deren explains the use of the drink during a Vodoun rite in her book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti:

“As Lord of Eroticism, he [Ghede] embarrasses men with his lascivious sensual gestures; but as God of the Grave he terrifies them with the evidence of the absolutely insensate: he will not blink even when the most fiery liquid is sprayed into his eyes, and only Ghede can swallow his own drink—a crude rum steeped in twenty-one of the hottest spices known. Thus he may alternately remind men that he is their past, their present and their future, that he is master of their compulsive drive to life and the inevitability of their death” (Deren 104).

Deren also notes that anyone claiming possession by Ghede is subject to both of the tests she mentions: having the hot rum sprayed in their eyes and being told to drink it. A truly possessed devotee will have no problem doing so (and likely be able to down the entire bottle of rum and show no effects after the possession ends).

Coconuts

If you ever need to pretend to ride a horse, you will probably automatically feel the need to buy a coconut and bang the two empty halves together to simulate the sound. At least if you grew up watching a lot of Monty Python that’s probably what you’d do. The coconut is good for more than equine simulations, however, and you can use the whole fruit/nut and its liquid for several magical functions.

“Retrato de una señora principal con su negra esclava,” by Vicete Alban (via Wikimedia Commons)

Drilling holes in the coconut will allow you to do two things: firstly you can get at the precious liquid, coconut milk, inside. It’s delicious and a wonderfully refreshing drink, but if you can resist the urge to down it all in one go, save some for later. Now that you have a semi-empty coconut with holes in it, why not stuff it full of name papers, sweet things like raw turbinado sugar (also available in the Hispanic section usually) and create a natural honey-jar spell? This sort of spell will, of course, not last as long as an actual honey-jar, but it has the advantage of being very quick and due to the sympathetic magic connected to the coconut’s skull-like density and shape, it works right on the minds of the folks targeted with the spell.

Speaking of heads, if you saved that liquid, you can turn that into a powerful magical formula as well. An African-derived magical practice known alternately as “feeding the head,” or in Vodoun as a lave tet ceremony (literally “head washing”) involves using a coconut wash on the head and hair during a ritual setting in order to fill it up with good spiritual forces. The feeding usually follows a simple head washing, either with natural water (sea water, spring water, etc.) or a number of aqueous formulae found in various traditions. Then comes the feeding:

“The process of feeding the head is simplicity itself. The coconut milk or cream is scrubbed into the head, just like the head-washing compound or a shampoo. Once the compound has been worked into the head, the hair may be combed out again. However, unlike a head-washing compound, the coconut compound should be left to dry on the head—preferably, overnight. A scarf or towel may be wrapped around the person’s head to insure this…In the morning, the coconut compound may be rinsed out and the person’s hair washed with a shampoo and dried, as it would normally be” (Mickaharic, Spiritual Cleansing, 101).

The richness of the coconut milk causes the spirits which guard a person (frequently though to be connected to a person’s head in African tradition) to be refreshed and take a renewed interest in the person’s well-being. It’s sort of like bribing a guardian angel with a good pina colada, which would be another fun way to use that coconut milk if you’re so inclined.

Of course, you don’t even have to open the coconut up to use it magically. I’ve seen a house cleansing method which involves simply kicking a coconut around a new home, through every room from top to bottom and back to front. You might say a psalm as you go, or repeat the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. Other traditions use other incantations, songs, or words, but the point is the same: get the coconut all over the house, kicking it as you go, letting it soak up bad vibes like a sponge. When you finish you can either pick it up in your left hand and take it to a far away tree, where you crack it open and leave it at the roots, or you can drop it into running water heading away from your home. It essentially functions as an egg cleansing for a domicile, but coconuts tend to be less messy than eggs when kicked (Mickaharic has a variant on this practice using a head of lettuce in his Spiritual Worker’s Spellbook).

There’s an entire pharmacopeia in a well-stocked bodega, with everything from aloe vera gel (and the live plants) to nopales (prickly pear cactus, sometimes used in curanderismo for treating diabetes) to chicken feet and cattle tongues (both edible, but also both used in various hoodoo spells as well) available to an informed shopper. I mention these three ingredients solely as a way to begin to see the shelves as stocked with more than marketing gimmicks and high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden beverages. While having a good local witch shop is invaluable for many reasons, the grocery store may be your best friend when it comes to simple, practical magic.

I know this article barely scratches the surface of the subject, and I highly encourage you to look at some other sources on making the most of a grocery store’s shelves for your spell work. As I said before, much of my own inspiration came from Sarah Lawless’ post on the topic and Cat Yronwode’s compilation The Black Folder, which features not only an article on grocery store magic (covering things like onions and lemons) by Cat herself, but other useful tidbits such as Norwegian bread charms (from Dr. Johannes Gardback) and an article on “kitchen witchery” by Sister Robin Petersen. Of course there are probably dozens of books on this subject, many of which I’ve sadly neglected here. Do you know of any good grocery-store spells? If so, please feel free to post them to the comments below!

I may eventually come back to this topic another time, but for now I hope this has been a useful glimpse beneath the barcodes into the magic of the market.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Advertisements

Blog Post 175 – Obsidian

May 8, 2013

Obsidian blade (picture via Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t normally post on stones or gems, as they aren’t a major component of historic folk magic in North America, but some stones do appear and are extremely important. Sometimes the stones in question will be a generic type of stone—one with a natural hole worn in it or sea glass of some kind—but every once in a while we find a North American magical practice which makes specific use of a particular type of mineral.

Today I want to briefly look at the dark, beautiful volcanic glass known as obsidian. It is a very special sort of mineral, because its edge can be sharpened finer than surgical steel and cuts incredibly smoothly, and its glassy black surface seems to be endlessly deep. Both of these attributes have influenced obsidian’s place in folk magic.

Blades made of obsidian have been around for a very long time. They were used as part of Aztec sacrificial rituals as well as implements of war, as you can see from this fragment of Aztec poetry glorifying the role of the sacrificial offering/victim:

O Giver of Life!
Your sacrifice is like emeralds and turquoises.
It is the happiness and wealth of princes
To die at the edge of the obsidian,
To die in war (Kelly 525)

Obsidian was sometimes carved into funerary ornaments as well, and placed with corpses along with other grave goods. The precedents set by native ancestors has translated into the use of obsidian in Hispanic magical work today, such as the practices of curanderos and brujos. The cutting edge of the stone has kept its significance, albeit adapted to an era in which human sacrifice is not common practice.

Dr. Timothy Knab’s War of the Witches mentions flaked obsidian blades as something used for protection:

As soon as the door was closed, we barred it, and then Rubia opened her reed box. Inside, wrapped in an embroidered cloth, were the same dozens of parches of fur, buzzard beaks, and claws from different animals, but there wer also some flakes of obsidian and potsherds that I hadn’t seen in Inocente’s bag. I asked her about those objects first, and she told me they were from the ancestors and that they would help me see and talk with those who still lived in the world of darkeness (Knab 91)

Knab also notes that Rubia told him to use an obsidian blade to help locate his friend in the Otherworld. The ancestral connection and the link to the dead is important. Obsidian is not typically used as a gravestone by itself, yet its dark color and the ease with which it can be used to kill (not to mention that some obsidian even has blood-red flecks and streaks in it) seem to tie it to the realm of death.

A chapbook on prayers to the Holy Death (Santa Muerte) also has a specialized spell focusing on blessing obsidian blades to be placed over the doorways to the home (razor blades or knives can also be used, but it seems obsidian was the original form):

To Protect the Home (Shielding Blades)

Lady of the darkness

Watch over the space and destiny,

For your humble servant and keep the

Loved ones away from those of evil will,

Let them change their ways to please your will,

Let the light come after the dark

So that your kingdom is before us all day long.

Bless these blades,

Allow them to cut the evil winds before they eneter,

To give advice on how to push enemies away,

To keep away the fury of the elements,

Repel negative intentions

And fill my home with joy,

For all this is not possible without you.

(Place blades in the high parts of the doors and windows in places where they will not fall nor be reached by underaged kids. Every full moon they must be replaced. These blades can be small obsidian edges or shaving blades) (Casa 32)

Of course, if you’re using obsidian blades, throwing them away every month is wasteful—so is throwing away a shaving blade, really—so I would be interested to see if some lore may yet surface about recharging the existing blades, perhaps blessing and cleansing them prior to a second use.

While much of the lore of obsidian in magic ties it to Central American and Latin American cultures, I have been able to find it in other places and among other groups as well. One source notes that a California tribe called the Wiyot performed a jumping-dance while holding blades of obsidian (Sparkman 38).  The Pacific Northwest, which has its share of obsidian scattered across the region, also has some Native lore about the ink-dark mineral. The Hoh and Quileute tribes of Washington state have a folktale about “Obsidian Boy,” whose body is so hard it breaks the hands, feet, and heads of those who attempt to strike him (Reagan 333).

When I visited the British Museum a decade or so ago, I got to glimpse Dr. John Dee’s famed magic mirror, which is also said to be made of obsidian taken from the New World. He used it to communicate through his compatriot, Edward Kelley, with angels and discovered Enochian magic. I am not sure of how widespread obsidian’s use might have been in Europe, but Dee clearly valued it highly enough to make one of his primary tools out of the substance.

Obsidian’s sharpness and hardness make it symbolically very powerful for protection, and its murky luster adds to the sense of holiness and mystery. I can very well imagine that it might be used for all its purposes simultaneously, acting as a defensive weapon during shamanistic trance states. Obsidian is still easily found, and some surgeons even use it in place of steel due to its keen edge. Within modern contexts it has become a popular New Age stone, although I couldn’t begin to tell you what its applications are in modern metaphysics. Obsidian, born of fire and earth, used to sacrifice and protect, sacred and mysterious, certainly captures the imagination. If you have any lore regarding its use or meaning, I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Sources

  1. Casa, Calli. The Magical Powers of the Holy Death, 2010.
  2. Kelley, Patricia Fernandez. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” American Quarterly, Dec. 1974.
  3. Knab, Timothy J. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of Contemporary Aztecs, 1997.
  4. Reagan, Albert B., and L. V. Walters. “Tales from the Hoh and Quileute,” Journal of American Folklore, Winter 1933.
  5. Sparkman, P.S., et. al. “Notes on California Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Spring 1908.

Blog Post 167 – Corpses

November 26, 2012

To get everyone in the holiday spirit, today I thought we might head down the gruesome path to the graveyard and see what we can dig up (figuratively, of course). That’s festive, right? Deck the halls and all that? While I’ve talked recently about bones and their uses in magic, and we’ve touched on the idea of working with the dead in magical practice, too, you may not know that there is a very long and widely spread habit of using corpses—in whole and in macabre part—as magical tools in their own right. Of course, there are many societies, including some Native American tribes, with strong taboos against contact with dead bodies, yet even this geis reflects a sense of respect and awe at the power of the deceased. Sometimes the spirit of the dead person is the fuel behind the magic—in which case it can be seen as a form of necromancy—and sometimes it is simply the body voided of life—any body, really—which empowers the charm.

Probably one of the most famous and nefarious examples of corpse magic is the Hand of Glory, a special candle made from the severed and pickled hand of an executed criminal which supposedly had intense magical properties. One of its talents was its reputed ability to render anyone in a house near where it was lit unconscious, thus making them easy to rob and explaining why the Hand of Glory might have been sought after by eager thieves. Here is one of the brief-but-to-the-point recorded recipes for making a Hand of Glory, from one of my favorite spooky little tomes, Kathryn Paulsen’s Witches’ Potions & Spells (WARNING! THIS IS PROVIDED AS A FOLKLORIC EXAMPLE ONLY! DO NOT DESECRATE CORPSES—IT IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL!):

During an eclipse of the moon, sever the right hand of a corpse, preferably that of an executed murderer. Dry it and preserve it in a jar to which you have added foul smelling herbs. If you light the fingers of this hand as candles, the light can only be seen by yourself and other witches, and the light will not go out until you wish it. If you bring it into a house, sleep will reign over those within.  But you must let no one know that you posses the Hand of Glory. Use this hand to give light whenever you wish to obtain something from a graveyard (Paulsen 40).

Paulsen also mentions a variation on this spell which involves filling a human shin bone with tallow and carrying it as a candle to cause enchanted sleep. The Hand of Glory and its variants date back to at least the early Modern period, showing up in 18th century texts like the Petit Albert.

Across the Atlantic and on North American soil, corpses remained a morbid part of folk magic. Here they were granted powers of healing, crime-detection, secret-keeping, and other occult traits. The bodies of the dead figure into magical systems spanning multiple cultures, including those of Native Americans, the Pennsylvania Dutch, African Americans, and mountain folk in the Appalachians and Ozarks. First Nations practices vary between tribes, with alternating levels of prohibition and interaction when it comes to handling the dead. Randolph notes that “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist upon sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before the burial. This is done unobtrusively, without any noise or ceremony, and many whites have attended funerals where the rite was carried out without eve* noticing it. As the mourners shuffle past the body, here and there you see one drop a tiny pinch of meal into the coffin” (Randolph 316). Such a practice more rightly belongs to burial customs than necromancy, however. In general, contact with the dead can be a powerful—but frequently fearful—thing in Native societies. For example, “[o]ne of the most remarkable of Indian sacrifices was that practised by the Hurons in the case of a person drowned or frozen to death. The flesh of the deceased was cut off and thrown into a fire made for the purpose, as an offering of propitiation to the spirits of the air or water. What remained of the body was then buried near the fire” (Parkman 4). In the Pacific Northwest, there are accounts of tribes with magical groups that engaged in highly taboo behaviors to perform their roles as community sorcerors:  “There were also a number of secret societies—for example the Cannibal Society of the Kwakiutl, whose induction ceremony was believed to involve eating parts of a corpse” (Lowenstein 120). South American Natives have their own legends about how a group of witch-monsters from Chiloe, an archipelago south of the mainland, use a fearsome object called a macun. This is a leather bowl made from human skin taken from the corpse of a virgin which reveals the presence of human victims and can be used in some stories as a mode of transportation.  It can also help the evil brujos turn into animals, open locked doors, and become invisible.

Turning from the cultural backdrop of Native Americans, whose varied practices I have only skimmed in the previous paragraph, let us now look more at the specific applications of corpse magic in some of the non-Native societies of North America. In general, what follows is broken down by magical purpose into categories (legal work, divination, cures, and curses), with a few tidbits at the end. This is a far from complete examination of the topic, however, so I hope this provides an entryway into further study for those interested.

Legal Work
Fundamentally, these sorts of spells are either somewhat divinatory—helping to provide insight into crimes which remain unsolved, for instance—or make use of the dead body to provide legal aid. To this latter end, we can look in Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to find at least one instance in which the figure of the corpse is invoked to help in court-case work:

“TO RETAIN THE RIGHT IN COURT AND COUNCIL.
Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judeorum.
First carry these characters with you, written on paper, and then repeat the following words: “I (name) appear before the house of the Judge. Three dead men look out of the window; one having no tongue, the other having no lungs, and the third was sick, blind and dumb.” This is intended to be used when you are standing before a court in your right, and the judge not being favorably disposed toward you. While on your way to the court you must repeat the benediction already given above.” (Hohman #147)”

The use of actual corpses in legal work tends to be more in crime-detection, however. One piece of lore spread across several cultures describes leaving an egg in the hand of a murdered man when he is buried. The murderer will be compelled to some action, depending on the story, ranging from returning to the scene of the crime to confessing guilt to suffering illness and death himself. Sometimes the body will perform its own divination, unaided by other witnesses or participants. Kentucky lore says “If a corpse’s nose bleeds, it is a sign that the murderer is in the room” (Thomas #745). Puckett notes in African American lore that “the common Negro belief [is] that If you put your hand on the corpse the ghost will not harm you (or you will be afraid of no more dead people). This may be the remnant of an old ordeal, since the wounds are supposed to bleed if the murderer touches the corpse” (Puckett 88).

Dead bodies can predict a number of situations and conditions it seems, as we shall see in the next section.

Divination
A number of sources on African American lore mention that a corpse that “limber” corpses predict a death to follow them, and insist that mirrors and clocks be covered with cloth as soon as someone dies to prevent anyone else in the house from dying. Like Puckett’s note above about touching the body to prevent fear of dead people, the corpse can intrude upon the living. Touching the body can prevent both bad dreams and visits from an unruly spirit. Likewise, the suggestion of something corpse-like can announce important information (usually another death). Harry Hyatt had an informant who related a tale of ‘death-scent,’ for example:

“I started to eat my breakfast last week. I happened to put my hand to my face; it smelled like a corpse. I said, ‘I wonder who’s going to die.’ And the smell left right away; that is a sudden death. If the smell  stays, it will be longer. That day I had a call. My cousin died when I was eating my breakfast. If it is the left hand that smells, it’s a lady; right hand, a man” (Hyatt #8313).

The dead seem to know a lot about the affairs of the living, but they can also be entreated to hold their tongues. Zora Neale Hurston recorded a spell used for keeping secrets which required a corpse: “If you want a secret kept, put it in the care of the dead by writing it on a piece of paper and folding it small and slipping it into the hand of the corpse, of whispering it in the ear” (Hurston 361). In addition to catching criminals and revealing impending doom, corpses can also be employed in a variety of happier magics, such as healings.

Cures
The volume of cures ascribed to dead bodies is too voluminous to include in any book, so I will only briefly touch on it here.  One of the most popular healings ascribed to the dead is wart-charming, which we’ve looked at before.  In the Ozarks, “[t]here is a widespread belief that warts can be ‘charmed off’ by touching them with the hand of a corpse. I have seen this tried several times. The warts disappeared after a while, just as they generally do under any other treatment, or with no treatment at all. On the other side of the balance, I have met an undertaker who handles many bodies every year, and both his hands are covered with warts!” (Randolph 131). Similar to Randolph’s bit about wart-removal, this charm comes from Kentucky: “You may remove birth-marks by rubbing them with the hand of a corpse.” (Thomas #1067). It can supposedly treat other skin disorders like eczema as well. A variation on the birthmark-removal from Illinois contains a little verbal charm to accompany the act of touching the corpse: “A girl should visit the corpse of a boy and move his hand over her birthmark as she says What I have, take with you; In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A boy with a birthmark does this at the corpse of a girl.” (Hyatt #2685). Sometimes merely rubbing the mark or blemish with a rag and placing the rag in the coffin of a dead man is enough to remove the problem. Placing clothes and other objects from a sick person in the casket of the deceased supposedly removes everything from skin disorders to contagious diseases. Clothes taken from the corpse can also be healing: “To remove a swelling on the leg, bandage it with a piece of linen taken from a corpse” (Hyatt #5145).

Some of the other cures attributed to the dead:

  • “In other localities the body is placed on a ‘coolin’-board’ and covered with an arrangement of sheets, the one over the face being raised when the mourners address the corpse. Mourners may talk to the body to this effect: ‘Mandy, you gone an’ lef me. … I may be nex’ . . . Po’ Mandy! . . . Po’ John! .’ A plateful of salt and ashes is placed under the coolin’-board . . . whatever disease the body has goes into the ashes and salt. ‘Ashes takes up from de body de disease.’ These ashes are carried to the grave; and at the words, ‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,’ they are thrown into the grave.’” (Puckett 87)
  • “When in pain get some of this graveyard dirt from the breast of the corpse, cook it with lard, and make into a sort of pancake. Sprinkle this with turpentine and bind like a mustard plaster to the place that pains you. You will surely be cured.” (Puckett 287)
  • “Place in a coffin three lice from your head and the corpse will carry away the others.” (Hyatt #1438)
  • One of the more desecration-y methods for solving home problems with a little help from the dead comes from Harry Hyatt: “Pour some of the child’s urine into a bottle, hide this with a coffined corpse, and the child will stop wetting the bed. Sometimes a hole is punched through the stopper so that the urine can drip out — the cure being effected after the bottle becomes empty.” (Hyatt #6298)

In addition to being powerful curatives, bodies of the deceased can also cause tremendous harm.

Curses
It probably comes as no surprise that the use of dead bodies in magical rituals and spells generally gets a fairly negative portrayal. In the previous three sections, the spells were all designed to enact some positive change—albeit messy or sacrosanct in some cases—but now we shall look at a few of the nastier ways in which our dead friends can be used for magic. I’ll begin with a love spell, not because I inherently think love spells are evil curses (I don’t think that at all, actually), but rather because this one is exactly the kind of spell you could make a horror movie out of. It’s obsessive, possessive, and a little mean:

“A girl can take a needle which has been stuck into a dead body, cover it with dirt in which a corpse has been laid, and wrap the whole thing in a cloth cut from a winding sheet ; this is supposed to be a very powerful love charm, and a woman who owns such a thing can make any man fall in love with her. A needle which has been used to make a shroud is useful, too. If a girl thrusts such a needle into her lover’s footprint in her own dooryard, he is forced to remain with her whether he wants to or not. If he leaves the neighborhood he will get sick, and if he stays away long enough he will die.” (Randolph 169)

Randolph also examines witchcraft which falls in line with storybook expectations, harmful stuff perpetrated by willfully malevolent magical practitioners:

“Some witches are said to kill people with graveyard dirt, which is dust scraped from a grave with the left forefinger at midnight. This is mixed with the blood of a black bird; a raven or crow is best, but a black chicken will do in a pinch. The witch ties this mixture up in a rag which has touched a corpse and buries it under the doorstep of the person who is to be liquidated. The practice of burying conjure stuff under houses and doorsteps is well known. I have heard it said of a sick woman that she ‘must have stepped on somethin’ ‘ meaning that she was bewitched.” (Randolph 272)

Sometimes the negative effects of the corpse are inadvertent, however, and cursing is incidental. Several sources mentioned that pregnant women should not look upon a corpse, lest their child be marred in some way. Ozark lore says that using the comb of a dead person, particularly a comb that touched the deceased’s hair, will cause your own pate to go bald. Still other corpse curses seem related to harming the spirit of the departed him or herself. Kentucky lore says that you should “Put a lock of hair of a corpse into a hole in a tree to localize the spirit. If you remove the hair, the spirit will haunt you” (Thomas #741). Trapping a spirit seems like a dangerous game to me, but then, I’m not doing that particular spell anytime soon anyway. One of the quirkier ways of messing with the soul of the departed comes from Illinois: “As long as the funeral bill remains unpaid, the corpse will not rest in its grave” (Hyatt #15193).

In addition to the main methods discussed above, corpses also seem to have other magical uses. Here are a final pair from Hurston and Randolph involving some of the more unusual magic connected to the dead and their bodies:

“I. To Gain All Power. Go to the graveyard the night of All Saints at twelve o’clock. All of the blessed are gone from the cemetery at that time and only the damned are left. Go to a sinner’s grave1 and get nine hairs from his head and give the spirit in there a drink of whiskey. (They’ll do anything for a drink of whiskey.) Just leave a pint of liquor in there with the stopper out. Go home and burn nine red candles and the spirit will do anything you want.” (Hurston 361)

“When a backwoodsman dies, in certain sections of the Ozarks, it sometimes happens that one of his male relatives cuts a hickory stick just the length of the corpse. I have seen a hill farmer carrying one of these sticks on the day of his brother’s death, and I have seen one tied to the wagon which conveyed a corpse to the graveyard, but I have never been able to find out what became of them, or what their significance was. I first thought that the stick was simply to measure the body for a coffin, but it is something more complicated than that, and there is some sort of superstition connected with it.” (Randolph 314)

I hope this has been a worthwhile spin through the old boneyard to look at the dead from a more corporeal angle than we usually do in magic. None of this is to advocate any sort of desecration or anything illegal. While I imagine slipping a pinch of cornmeal into a coffin or wiping a handkerchief over a deceased family member’s hand before the casket is closed would at most raise some eyebrows, just about anything involving messing with the dead means legal problems. If you want to get a little help from the dearly departed, developing a relationship with them as spiritual beings is a much smarter way to go (I wrote about it recently on my other blog over at Witches & Pagans, if you’re interested).  If you have lore about dead bodies and the ways they have been used in magic, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks so much for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES & SOURCES

  1. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
  2. Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  3. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
  4. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois.  (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
  5. Lowenstein, Tom & Piers Vitebsky. Native American Myths & Beliefs (Rosen Pub. Group, 2011).
  6. Paulsen, Kathryn. Witches’ Potions & Spells. (Peter Pauper Press, 1971).
  7. Parkman, Francis. “Indian Superstitions.” North American Review (Univ. of Northern Iowa Press, 1866).
  8. Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
  9. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1926).
  10. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
  11. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).

Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

August 28, 2012

Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

Summary: In this episode, I’ll be telling stories from American folklore about how people learn witchcraft. We’ll hear tales of initiation and apprenticeship, solitary witches, witch apprenticeships, and find out just what witches do.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery Special – Learning Witchcraft

 

Stories:

 

Promos & Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com

All incidental music comes from the group Falling You, from the album Touch,  on Magnatune. Songs include:

  • “Sadness of the Witch”
  • “The Art of Possession”
  • “Less Likely to Believe”
  • “Something About Eve”
  • “Reading the Leaves”

Blog Post 135 – The Magical Catholic

August 31, 2011

Good morning everyone!

Last time I touched briefly on the practice of curanderismo, which is a Hispanic system of folk magic centered upon healing, jinx removal, and protection/cleansing rituals. I also mentioned that it takes a lot of its magical cues from Catholicism, albeit in a syncretic and flexible form of that religion. I received a comment on that post, too, which raised a thoughtful question about Catholicism in the New World and why it might have been seen as ‘magical’ or why its presence can be felt so strongly within magical traditions on this side of the Atlantic. I think that much of this attitude appeared in the Old World after the Reformation, when the broad brush of ‘papism’ or ‘pope worship’ was being used to paint the embattled Catholic Church. Some of the best illustrations of the Protestant perception of ‘the magic Catholic’ come from a tome which has informed witchcraft studies for centuries, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. In the following passage, you can see how Scot—who associated superstitious beliefs in witchcraft with the foolish ‘superstition’ of Catholicism—clearly links the priest with the sorcerer:

A papisticall charme.

Signum sanctæ crucis defendat me à malis præsentibus, præteritis, & futuris, interioribus & exterioribus:

That is, The signe of the crosse defend me from evils present, past, and to come, inward and outward. (Book XII, Chapter IX)

Scot certainly thought little of such charms, saying later in his book, “HE that can be persuaded that these things are true, or wrought indeed according to the assertion of couseners, or according to the supposition of witchmongers & papists, may soone be brought to beleeve that the moone is made of greene cheese” (Book XV, Chapter V).

To be sure, a number of Catholics have spent years—centuries in fact—fighting against these perceptions and very few mainstream Catholics would cotton to having their religion identified with sorcery or witchcraft. From a perspective of official Church doctrine and approved dogma and praxis, it is vital to note that Catholicism does not condone magic or the use of enchantments and charms, and that they fall in line largely with other Christian groups when it comes to beliefs and religious operations. They believe in Jesus as God (as well as seeing him as part of a divine trinity made up of “Father, Son, & Holy Ghost/Spirit”), they require baptism, they expect remission of wrongdoings (and, in the case of confession, admission of wrongdoing), and believe in an afterlife in which they will be judged by God for the quality of their lives and the state of their souls. There are a number of fine-pointed theological differences between Catholicism and Protestant denominations, but in many ways they are deeply similar.

What we’re looking at here, then, is not the official, dogmatic, Vatican-approved version of Catholicism, but rather a phenomenon which might be termed as ‘folk’ Catholicism. Folk religions are not exclusive to this religion, of course. There are also folk Hindus, folk Daoists, folk Shintoists, and folk Jews, all with varying degrees of adherence to official practice and varying degrees of handed-down traditions from unofficial sources. Folk Catholicism is particularly relevant to New World esoteric studies, however, because it has appeared in several different places. It shows up in the spiritual and magical practices of New Orleans (such as in the work of author Denise Alvarado). It also appears prevalently in Italian-American communities, and occasionally within Irish-American communities.  Both the Foxfire books and Gerald Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery contain examples of Appalachian residents whose beliefs veer towards the enchanted from time to time via a connection with Catholicism. Milne cites the Swiss/German community of Randolph Co., NC, in one such illustration:

“In Randolph County, the Swiss/German Helvetia community observes Fastnacht prior to the beginning of Lent. It happened that in Helvetia, some of the original families were Catholic, and now their pre-Lenten observance is celebrated by all in a non-religious way. At Helvetia, an effigy of old man winter is burned on a bonfire” (SC&W, p. 195)

Milne also points out that festivals like this were a confluence of Catholic traditions (Lent) and non-Catholic ones (the midwinter effigy burning), which took on a mystical significance in their union. Probably one of the best places to look for Catholic folk magic, however, is within the context of the North (and South) American Hispanic communities, which have strong historical ties to more mainstream Catholicism, and yet which also have allowed a beautiful flowering of folk culture in tandem with Catholic expansion, resulting in a rich and fairly accessible magical storehouse.

In the previous post, I have already looked very generally at some of the techniques of curanderismo and brujeria. Both traditions draw heavily on folk Catholicism to provide their magic, including things like the Apostles Creed and Lord’s Prayer as charms against harmful magic, or using tools like holy water, scapulars (a type of loosely-worn ornament which contains religious icons or written prayers), and rosaries to effect change.  In my next post, I hope to get into the specific spells, charms, and tools used within Catholic folk magic. For now, though, I wanted to leave you with some sites and books which might be of interest to anyone pursuing the folk Catholic path.

  1. I highly recommend the Yahoo! Group Catholic Folk Magic, where curanderas, brujos, and a number of other folk magicians with a base in Catholicism share ideas and resources.
  2. You could always give The Discoverie of Witchcraft a good read. It may have been intended as satire and mockery, but it has a heck of a lot of good pseudo-Catholic magic in it, too.
  3. The moderators of the site fisheaters.com would probably balk at my reference to them here, because they mostly focus on actual Vatican-approved Catholicism. However, familiarizing yourself with these ideas and practices is good if you plan to work ‘within’ this stream, and there are actually several pieces of information that veer towards the esoteric which are worth checking out (such as “St. Anthony’s Brief” or “Holy Oils”) [A warning: this site is very traditional, and thus its viewpoints may be controversial; browse at your own risk]
  4. One book that a number of Catholics grow up with is Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints (or at least some version of it). Why do I recommend it here? For the same reason I recommend folk and fairy tales to any aspiring magician—there is more to these tales than what’s on the page. St. Lucy’s removal of her own eyes has a distinctly magical flavor to it, in my opinion, which may explain why her celebration in Scandanavia is laced with esoteric symbolism.
  5. Finally, I would highly recommend the Library Page of the Curious Curandera website, where you’ll find a number of free titles on magical Catholicism, including “How to Pray the Rosary,” “Saints and their Patronage,” and “Prayers for Different Needs.” There are a few (very good) pay titles, too, but it’s hard to beat the wonderful free texts.

That’s all for today! I’ll try to have another post up soon with some more practical elements for you (though it is always possible I’ll get distracted and have a tangential topic). Until then, though…
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 134 – Brujeria and Curanderismo: A (Very Brief) Overview

August 24, 2011

I’ve been combing back through a number of different posts lately, and seeing what areas we’ve covered in some detail (hoodoo, rootwork, and Pow-wow, mostly), which ones we’ve done some basic delving into (mountain magic and general witchcraft), and which ones we’ve only just barely touched upon (pretty much everything else). I was very surprised that I’d not covered today’s topic more, as it’s one of the topics with which I have a good bit of practical experience. But for some reason, I’ve only mentioned curanderismo and its ‘darker’ sister brujeria a few times.

And so today, I thought it might be good to remedy that deficiency somewhat. We’ll be giving these traditions only the most basic of examinations, as a deeper exploration of either could easily fill several dozen books and websites. Yet there are relatively few texts or webpages which look at these practices. Partly this may be a linguistic barrier (my Spanish is intermediate-level at best), but honestly I think this may just be an area where research is thin on the ground. I’d love to be proven wrong in that, though, so if you know of some good research on these traditions, please leave a comment and/or link.

To begin, let’s look a bit at curanderismo. This is a system of magical healing, blessing, and cleansing largely centered around Catholic prayers and rituals, with a heavy infusion of folk religion and magic and a bit of herb lore in some cases. A male practitioner is a curandero, while a female practitioner is a curandera. Many of the rituals within this tradition have to do with detecting and undoing evil witchcraft (which is called brujeria by curanderos, which gets a bit confusing…more on that later). In Mexico, where this practice is centered—though there are ever-increasing numbers of practitioners in other Central and North American locations, a person might call upon a curandero if a family member seems to be plagued with some uncommon illness, or if their house seems to be exhibiting symptoms of a haunting, or if they are feeling as though a general run of bad luck has settled onto them. One of the best resources on curanderismo on the internet is Dona Concha of the Curious Curandera website. In the introductory material for one of her many excellent courses, she includes this summary of the practice:

Curanderismo is not only a form of folk healing, it also includes the practice white magic, ritual, cleansings, energy work, spirit contact, divination, and a vast amount of prayer just to name a few. While some practitioners prefer to engage only in one area, others work in all areas.
Curanderismo is a very spiritual practice with strong religious faith. Practitioners use a variety of objects including herbs, spices, eggs, lemons, limes, Holy Water, Saints, Crucifixes, prayer, candles, incense, oils and divination tools. Most include spirit assistance. Not all practitioners work in the same way. For example, one person may perform a spiritual cleansing with a raw unbroken egg while another may employ a bundle of herbs for the cleansing tool.

While a curandera might perform rituals that help remove bad luck or might contact specific spirits (usually angelic or “holy” ones), they tend to shy away from any ‘dark’ magics.

Brujeria, on the other hand, means literally “witchcraft,” and is frequently perceived in a negative light. This system, however, is not entirely dissimilar from hoodoo, with a focus on practical, earthier types of magic: love, money, sex, etc. What gives brujeria its bad reputation is its association with “magia negra” or “black magic.” While both curanderismo and brujeria can work with “magia blanca” (“white magic”) to provide cures, healing, and good luck, only brujeria works with things like spirit summoning and necromancy to achieve its aims. Brujo Negro, who runs a fantastic site on brujeria (and whose name means “black witch”), explains magia negra as an extension of the grimoire magic imported by the Spaniards during the 16th century. He also points out that the native peoples of Mexico—the Nahua, the Xolotl, etc.—did not particularly have concepts of “good” and “evil,” and so the concept of a branch of magic entirely in the service of evil would have been alien to them. Instead, the “healer physician” figure (anthropologically referred to as a “shaman” in many circles) would use his or her knowledge of natural materials and forces—herbs, roots, stones, and animal parts—to craft specialized remedies for community members struck with strange illnesses. The Spaniards did not always understand what the natives were doing, and viewed them and their practices warily.

The use of grimoire magic, talismans, spirit invocations, and other spells which did not explicitly call upon Christian paradigms to accomplish their goals led to opposition between the brujos and the curanderos. This is not all that different than the supposed wars between the benandanti and the witches of Italy, which Carlo Ginzburg has catalogued incredibly well in his book The Night Battles. In truth, both groups were likely working—in general—for the good of their communities, though the brujos might occasionally use more aggressive magic to do their work and likely were a little saltier about the spiritual side of their practice. Another group of magical practitioners (which may be the equivalent of fairy-tale witches or malevolent wizards or folklore) may well have engaged in exclusively cursing practices and malevolent magic, in which case either a brujo or curandero might be called in to do battle with the wicked sorcerer, again demonstrating that the line between the two camps is a fuzzy one at best.

The historical presence of folk magic among Hispanic communities goes back centuries, and while it shares certain commonalities with the European colonial experience along the Atlantic, it also strongly resembles the African experience in America. Contact between native peoples and the new arrivals was relatively high, and cultural exchange was fluid, if not officially indulged:

New Mexico witchcraft cases reveal a variety of features of colonial life in New Mexico that did not exist in other colonized areas of North America. For example, they show the physical proximity in which the Indians and Europeans lived and the increasingly intertwined beliefs they shared—about power, about magic, about healing, and about witches. These characteristics of New Mexico society were especially pronounced after the Spanish returned to the colony in 1706. Witchcraft was so much a part of New Mexico in the eighteenth century that Ramon A. Gutierrez has suggested that it was one of the three main issues that affected life there…Nothing comparable exists among the surviving records in British or French North America, at least as far as indigenous people are concerned” (Games 34-5).

This is not to say that relations were necessarily sunny between the natives and the conquering Spaniards, but the level of integration between Old World and New World beliefs seemed to flow both ways, with people like the Xolotl eventually adapting to the Catholic pantheon of saints and the rituals of the church, while the Spaniards sought out community healers for their ethereal gifts. Witch trials can and did erupt, but seldom with the vigor found in New England (or even old England). The veneer of Catholicism covered a variety of magical practices and set them in an ‘appropriate’ religious context, though in practice healings were still being done through the agency of plants, spirits, and other magical tools.

So just what does a curandero or bruja do nowadays? Much of what brujos and curanderas do resembles another magical practice heavily rooted in Catholicism, that of stregheria (or, more specifically, the cousin tradition of streghoneria), which come from Italy. I hope to dig into this question a bit more in other posts, but it might be good to look at some earmark practices common to one or both traditions, so that you can recognize it when you see it. In both, you are likely to find:

  • Divinatory practices – Sometimes by cards, but just as often by very specific items like eggs broken into a glass of water or the ashes left by a smoldering cigar.
  • Saint magic – Calling upon the intercessory power of saints to accomplish specific tasks. This is usually accompanied by rituals such as candle-burning and prayer.
  • Statuary or charms – This goes hand-in-hand with saint magic for the most part, though other types of charms like milagros (little pewter, silver, or gold charms shaped like hearts, body parts, animals, etc. and used as devotional offerings) are also frequently used.
  • Ritual cleansing – Especially using holy water or natural elements, like eggs, limes, lemons, etc. This can be done on a person or on a specific place.
  • Liturgical prayers – These are used outside of the orthodox liturgy, and are usually repeated several times to gain their benefit in magical settings. Examples include the “Our Father,” or “Ave Maria” prayers.
  • Novena candles – These are easily found in places with large Hispanic populations, and usually have a pillar candle encased by glass with a picture of a saint, angel, or other holy being on them. On the back they typically have short prayers (often in Spanish and English) which are recited while burning the candle.

In the individual practices, the magic may lean more heavily towards one or another of these categories. Certain folk saints are deeply revered by one group and not the other, or sometimes revered by both groups in different ways. A great example of this different-but-the-same relationship is Santa Muerte (“Holy Death”), a powerful spirit both loved and feared throughout Mexico. She’s a big enough topic for her own post at some point, so I’ll just leave that mention as a tease for the moment. As I mentioned earlier, brujeria resembles hoodoo fairly strongly, so there are lots of roots, bones, and rusty nails found in it, while herbal preparations for healing and cleansing tend to be more heavily emphasized in curanderismo.

All of this is simply the lightest scratch across the surface of a very deep subject. I hope to provide more and more information through other posts at other times, and even then I’ll only really be getting at a fairly superficial understanding of this incredible set of traditions and practices. For now, though, I hope this has been a useful magical appetizer.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 51 – Book Review

April 23, 2010

Happy Friday, all.  Today, to make up for a rather long post yesterday, I’m just doing a quick blurb on a book I’ve not referenced much here, but which will likely be cropping up as we get into discussions of things like curanderismo and brujeria.  The book I’m looking at is called Spiritual Cleansing by Draja Mickaharic.

Mickaharic was an immigrant from Central Europe who arrived in the U.S. just as World War II was dawning.  The occult seems to have interested him from a relatively young age, and he’s produced copious volumes on various magical themes.  What strikes me as unique is that despite his Old World roots, most of his magical writings focus on what I would call New World systems, such as Caribbean, Southern, and Mexican folk magic.

Spiritual Cleansing is, according to its subtitle, “a handbook of psychic self-protection.”  Much like Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense, this book is mostly aimed at beginning practitioners or those with little experience in occult topics.  It’s chief goal is to help a person who might be facing all sorts of spiritual afflictions to remove those problems and prevent future recurrences.  Mickaharic is very insistent in this text that his work is not to be taken as medical advice (which is a sound if common legal disclaimer in works like this), but also that it is only for basic spiritual cleansing and protection.  He advises those with serious afflictions to seek out the help of a professional spiritual practitioner, and therein lies some of his charm.  He takes his subject very seriously, and his tone comes across a bit like an admonition from a grandparent.  This is probably because he was nearly 70 when the book was first published in 1982.  A more recent edition came out in 2003 with additional material, including a chapter on “Quieting the Mind.”

Mickaharic’s work is incredibly practical.  He discusses a lot of different spiritual cleansing techniques without high-flown language.  Some of the topics he addresses are:

-Dealing with Malochio (the Evil Eye)
-Cleansing oneself with spiritual baths
-Using eggs to remove negative energy
-Burning incenses to fumigate oneself for protection
-The proper use of Holy Water

One thing that some readers may be turned off by is the matter-of-fact way he says to do things.  For example, of burning incense he says “If we burn incense with no real purpose, we may find the forces  [higher powers] decide we are calling a wrong number—and they will not act in harmony with our desires…To be able to use an incense properly we must first understand these rules” ( p. 78).  He then goes into the rules as he sees them.  In another passage, he advises against using rain water for spiritual cleansing because “Rain water is difficult to use as it has variable vibrations…[and] should not be used for any spiritual work except by those who have been specifically told to use it by a spiritual practitioner” (p. 67).  I know such “this is this and that is that” statements are a big turn-off for many magical folk (and I have a feeling Laine would strongly disagree with Mickaharic on his perspective concerning rain water).  But I’d like to offer up, as some small defense of this work, that it is written for an inexperienced magical practitioner.  Someone with a better understanding of magic very well may be able to bend his “rules,” but Mickaharic is more concerned with the well-being of the reader he’s never met and wants to make sure they don’t get into anything they can’t handle.

Many of the spells and workings in this book are wonderful.  Some bear striking similarities to hoodoo work (his home sweetening spells involve burning brown sugar, which is very common in hoodoo), and many are very close to curanderismo practices (the egg cleansings in particular strike this note with me).  Some things in this book seem a little pedantic to me, of course, but then again I’ve been reading magical books for a long time.  In the end, I still think the good of this book outweighs anything bad I can say of it, and so I’m recommending it to you.  If you have an interest in spiritual cleansing and protection, or in Mexican folk magic, hoodoo, and other natural magical systems, this is a book well worth tracking down.

Have a great weekend!  Thanks for reading!

-Cory


%d bloggers like this: