The image of the fairy-tale witch often comes complete with a big, nasty wart perched at the end of her nose. The association of witches with warts could come from a variety of folk beliefs and superstitions: the close ties between warty toads and witches, the idea of a ‘devil’s mark’ which the witch uses to suckle her familiar, or even just a desire to make a something ugly out of something ‘evil.’ The association is not always a purely negative one, however. Folk magicians in the New World (as well as those in the old, though I’ll not be addressing them here) have a long-standing history of curing warts through magical means. In fact, that is frequently one of the most commonly found magical services provided by a community magician (or faith-healer, traiteur, pow-wow, etc.).
Today I thought it would be good to look at a few different methods, stories, and charms associated with wart-removal in American folk magic. I’d like to start in Pennsyvlania-Dutch country, with some of the wart charms found in Chris Bilardi’s The Red Church:
WARTS, CORNS (GEWECKS, GEWEX, WARZ)
[Do whole body Brauche treatment to eliminate any root causes of warts. Bilardi then gives an extensive treatment involving the mimicking of cutting the wart off using an imaginary knife, a process I will refrain from detailing here as it is somewhat lengthy and I’d rather encourage you to buy his book by leaving a little mystery to it…]
To remove warts using the moon: instruct the patient to go somewhere s/he can observe the moon. This is one of the very few wart charms that utilize the waxing moon. Once the moon in in sight, the afflicted wil say:
‘Was ich raib, nem ab; was ich sen, nem tsu.’
English, ‘What I rub, decrease; what I see, increase.’
The Brauche is done three nights in a row. This is begun two nights prior to the moon being full (251).
In the braucherei tradition, then, there is a sense that warts have a spiritual side, hence the full-body treatment before the specific attempt to cure the wart and the influence of lunar cycles on wart growth or removal. Yet they are also a practical matter, dealt with by simple folk magic and a relatively unassuming charm. Other methods listed in The Red Church:
- Rubbing warts with cloths that have touched a dead body
- Scratching a wart with a coffin nail
- Rubbing the wart with a freshly killed eel or rooster, then burying the body part under the eaves of one’s house
- Rubbing the wart with pebbles which are then thrown into a grave
- Using a red string with as many knots as there are warts, rubbing each wart with a knot, then burying the string under the house’s eaves (252-3):
Moving down into the Appalachians, there are a number of variant methods for dealing with warts that parallel—if they don’t exactly duplicate—the methods described by Bilardi. In the hills of West Vriginia, we find these wart cures from Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs:
- To cure warts, wash your hands in stump water.
- A ninth son can remove warts.
- Drop dirt from a newly-made grave on a wart and the wart will disappear.
- To cure warts, pick them with a pin and bury the pin.
- To cure warts, take a hair from the tail of a gray horse and wind the hair around the warts.
- To cure warts, steal a dishrag and rub it on the warts, then bury the dishrag. When it rots, the wart will disappear.
- To cure warts, cut as many notches in a stick as there are warts, throw the stick in a swamp, then bury the dishrag.
- To cure warts, rub a rock ovr the warts, wrap it in a neat package and throw it away. Whoever finds the package will get the warts.
Already we can see some patterns developing in wart cures. There are essentially three methods which appear over and over again: 1) Rubbing the wart with something and burying it to decay the wart, 2) Scratching or pricking the wart and disposing of either the scratching implement or something marked with blood from the wart, and 3) Passing the warts to someone else in a variant of magical commerce. There are exceptions or variations in each of these, of course. The corpse-touching method might be seen as a way of passing the wart to the corpse, but it may also be seen as symbolically burying it. The stump water method doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. And the notion of a ninth son removing warts is strange, as it does not indicate exactly how they are able to do this (I mentioned in the post on Coins that my brother-in-law’s grandfather could charm warts using pennies because he was the seventh son of a seventh son, but that may be more specific to our region). From these three methods, most other treatments become variants, though exceptions do still occur.
Exchanging the Appalachians for the Ozarks, we find more variants of this type, and a few new tricks. From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:
- He mentions the notched stick method referenced above, but also adds “bury the stick on the north side of the cabin and never mention it to a living soul”
- Suggests using an onion for a wart cure: cut the onion in half, rub the wart with one half and bury it, then eat the other half. When the onion rots, the wart disappears.
- Spitting on a hot stovelid, once for each wart, gets rid of them
- Letting a grasshopper or katydid bite a wart will make it go away
- Touching a wart with the hand of a corpse will remove them
Here again we have the burial method, the pricking/bleeding method (with the grasshoppers), and the transference method (with the corpse). But we also have the novel stove-top method, which is interesting to me because of the mixture of sympathetic and contagious magic it contains: the spittle on the hot stove looks like a wart sizzling away into nothingness (sympathetic) and it is the spit of the person with the wart which is evaporated (a sort of inverted contagious magic). Randolph also includes an interesting charm associated with the corpse method:
At the funeral of a close friend, a ‘warty feller’ is supposed to touch his warts and repeat the following jingle:
They are ringing the funeral bell,
What I now grasp will soon be well,
What ill I have do take away
Like jn the grave does lay.
This is believed to benefit tumors, sores, boils, and even cancers as well as warts. (131)
In my Apples post, I cited some Kentucky lore about using that fruit to do the rubbing-and-burial method. A reader mentioned that they had heard something similar to that technique, only using potatoes (which I’ve also heard as well, especially in relation to Irish folk magic or some Appalachian charms). The book I cited, Kentucky Superstitions, mentions the potato method, and also has these interesting variants on wart charming:
- There are a number of ‘burying’ charms, involving the interment of things like beans, steak, bacon, peach tree leaves, potatoes, walnuts, etc.
- ‘Picking’ cures are also popular, in which a wart is bled by puncturing it with a brass pin, corn kernels, needles, etc.
- A variety of substances, including cat’s blood, coffee grounds, dandelion juice, eggs, fish, goose feathers, chicken gizzards, etc. are also rubbed on warts to remove them
- One of the most popular and common cures involves bleeding the wart, dabbing the blood on corn kernels, then feeding those to chickens—especially a neighbor’s hens—to remove the offending blemish
- Lemon juice or milkweed are supposed to be good cures for warts
- Warts can be charmed off by some people with a gift for doing so; some are able to ‘count’ warts off, others can pray them off, and still others ‘buy’ the warts off of someone
- Warts can be magically passed to another person by leaving them at a crossroads; simply leave a paper spotted with blood from the wart in the middle of the crossing, and walk away without looking back; whoever picks up the paper picks up the warts
- The stick-notch method or knotted cord method are two popular remedies for warts in which the number of warts is counted by notching a stick or tying a cord, then the burying it or dropping it into running water (121-30)
The corn method is something I found in several places, including Harry M. Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams County. In many cases, the corn must be fed to a neighbor’s chicken, which makes me think it is another technique for passing the warts to someone else, just in a very roundabout way. Hyatt also mentions many of these cures in his books, and offers an interesting addition to the bark-notch method of curing: “I know this works, for my daughter had a wart. She tried several things, and this took her wart away: walk up to a young apple tree — if you have a wart — walk around to the opposite side and cut two notches in the bark, then rub your wart over the two notches, then walk back the same way you came; when the bark grows over the cut places, your wart will be gone” (146).
As always, there’s much more to say on the subject of charming warts, but hopefully this gives a nice broad look at the subject. I need to be very clear, of course, that none of the charms, lore, techniques, or superstitions here are presented as medical advice—a good doctor can freeze a wart off without making you go through the trouble of finding an eel to kill or figuring out which of your neighbors might have some hungry chickens around. But for those interested, wart charming seems to be a simple way to get into traditional folk magic, and who knows, you might just have a knack for it. At the very least, hopefully the warts on that old witch’s nose in the storybook won’t seem so scary anymore.
Thanks for reading!