In this show, we spend some time trying to pin down that elusive word, “witch,” and figure out just what makes a person fit that term. Then, in the second half of the show we have an excellent pair of guests, Dr. Brendan Myers and Juniper from the Standing Stone and Garden Gate Podshow. Plus, we have a reminder about our current weather-lore contest.
Hello! Today I’m going to take a look at some of the coastal magic found in Northeastern America and Canada (Southern coastal magic will be in a later post, I hope). In the early days, American colonies and states depended greatly on foreign trade for supplies. The wealth of natural resources here were valuable to people across the sea as well, and so much of the commercial backbone of North America during those years depended on seaports and sailing vessels and all those men and women who operated them.
I’ve always found that folks involved in seafaring business are a superstitious lot (and I mean that as a compliment, as I find superstition fascinating and useful in many cases). At the very least, the vast ocean inspires people to consider their own smallness and to take precautions against their mortal end at the sea’s merciless whim. With that said, let’s look at some stories, anecdotes, and practices from the Northeastern coasts of North America.
Some stories from Maine:
“The Cursing of Colonel Buck”, as retold by S. E. Schlosser. In this story, an unscrupulous colonel takes advantage of one of his maids, then turns her out when she bears his sadly misshapen child. In order to prevent any claims on his name, he accuses her of witchcraft and has her burned at the stake. She curses him (perhaps his claims of witchcraft were not so unfounded) as she dies, and her leg falls from the pyre, where her son gathers the leg and runs away. After the colonel dies, his tombstone develops a funny leg-shaped mark on it, which embarrasses the townsfolk. They toss it in the ocean, but it comes back ashore. Then they smash it and put up a new stone, but the leg-mark comes back.
So where’s the New World Witchery in this story? Well, this tale is probably extremely exaggerated. The main clue is that the witch is burned at the stake, a holdover from European witch-lore, but not a punishment found in the New World. However, there’s one small fragment of worthwhile witchery in this tale: the first reaction of the townspeople is to throw the stone into the sea. The idea that natural water sources, especially moving ones like oceans and rivers, can cleanse cursed objects is solidly founded in other magical lore (see Albertus Magnus or hoodoo trick deployment practices).
Buying the Wind, by Richard M. Dorson, contains several excellent bits of Maine magical lore. For example, in the title passage, the practice of “buying wind” is discussed. Captains and crewmembers on becalmed ships would often be tempted to throw money overboard in order to purchase a quantity of wind from God/nature/the sea/etc. The problem arises in that the quantity purchased is always vastly more than one expected to buy. As one of Dorson’s informants puts it:
“Never buy wind when you’re on a boat. You’re daring God Almighty, and he won’t stand for that. You’ll get all the wind you want.”
In one tale, a captain tosses a quarter overboard, and immediately such a gale rises that it tears off the sails and mast from the ship and pushes it into shore, where it barely holds together as the crew disembarks. The captain remarks that if he’d known God sold wind so cheaply he’d only have got a nickel’s worth.
Is this witchcraft? Well, no, not exactly. But the practice of buying something to control the weather is fairly common witch-lore. Many tales exist of sailors buying cauls (the membrane which sometimes covers a newborn’s head after emerging from the womb) from dockside witches to prevent drowning at sea. And those same dockside sorceresses sometimes sold knotted cords to help sailors call up wind as needed—each knot, when undone, would release an increasing amount of wind. So buying the wind is certainly a magical maritime practice, if not outright witchery.
“An old sailor who spent his life as a deep-sea fisherman around the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland told of a great iron chest that was buried just beneath the water, so that its outline could be seen very distinctly. Every time the crew tried to work around it and, raise it up, thousands of crows, one of which was headless, would swarm around them, so that it was impossible for them to get at it. These crows they believed to be helpers of the decapitated guarding spirit.”
This tale is interesting, to me, because of the clear association of spirit allies with a sacred duty (such as guarding a treasure). I can’t think of many witchier images than a murder of crows—including a headless one—swarming all over treasure-grabbers.
The same volume has several good bits of weather-lore, too:
“If Candlemas day be fine and fair, The half of the winter’s to come an’ mair.”
“Mackerel skies and mare’s tails, Make lofty ships carry low sails.”
“A rainbow in the morning the sailor’s warning, A rainbow at night is the sailor’s delight.”
“Heavy winds kick up a rain.”
The first of these is an old tradition which most people now know as a component of Groundhog Day. I plan to do a post specifically on some of the traditions associated with early February sometime soon, so I’ll save further exposition on it here. The second proverb refers to cloud patterns in the skies. If high wispy clouds (“mare’s tails”) were seen along with clumpy scale-like cloud patterns (“mackerel skies”), then it was a good indication a storm would be coming soon and the sails should be lowered. The third bit of wisdom is fairly common, though sometimes in different iterations (I know it as “red skies at morning, sailor take warning; red skies at night, sailor’s delight”). Basically it just means that the weather conditions at dawn or dusk foretell the weather to come. And the fourth quote is a logical enough assertion that where high winds blow at sea, rain is sure to follow.
Again, are these witchy? Only insofar as the astute witch would know such proverbs and make use of them in his or her daily practice. Reading the signs Nature provides has a lot to do with the mentality of witchcraft, which is constantly looking to the natural-and-other-worlds for guidance, instruction, and wisdom.
A Sailor’s Treasury, by Frank Shay, also supposedly provides a good many of early American sailors’ tales and charms (I cannot give a full recommendation as I have only been able to view snippets online, and no nearby library seems to have a copy of this out-of-print text).
Whew! I’ve only presented a fragment of the nautical witchcraft out there, and already it’s a lot. So I’ll save more seaside witchery for another day.