Shownotes for Podcast 62 – Pregnancy and Birth Lore
In this episode we’re trying out the wedding ring test, asking about spicy foods, and trying not to scare any birthmarks onto Laine’s baby as we talk about the lore and folk customs surrounding pregnancy and childbirth.
Greetings and salutations! It has been a phenomenally busy end-of-summer around here. We’ve got a show in the works, and I’ve got articles brewing for the website, the Witches & Pagans site, and several print publications as well, so keep an eye out for those. Today I thought it would be good to have a brief cartulary post, though, so that while you’re waiting on tenterhooks for more New World Witchery (and you are waiting on those tenterhooks, aren’t you?), you won’t get too bored.
First of all, it’s the birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the noted author of some of the best weird and horror fiction of the twentieth century. If you’ve ever heard of Cthulhu or the Necronomicon, those are Lovecraft’s brainchildren, as are so many modern horror elements. What makes him of interest here is that he blends the occult with the scientific, creating a strange but wonderful mythology that is very easy to get sucked into. Much of his work has entered the public domain, and you can frequently find good collections of it cheaply, such as this Kindle collection of his work for less than a dollar. If you want to spend a little more, pick up the truly excellent Library of America collection, which also contains a chronology of Lovecraft’s life and a thorough annotation to the stories. If you’re a podcast listener, you should also definitely check out the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, who record dramatized versions of the author’s eerie tales.
I recently reviewed a couple of books on conjure, both of which fall into the non-fiction camp, but since we’re talking about weird tales, I think a few recommendations of conjure fiction would be worthwhile. First, I have to recommend the collection Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by the wonderful Nalo Hopkinson. I’ve reviewed this book before, so I won’t say more than it is definitely worth a read. Fire Lyte sent me a wonderful collection of late 19th and early 20th century conjure tales called Voodoo: Strange & Fascinating Tales & Lore, edited by John Richard Stephens. The editor unfortunately bowdlerized a number of the stories, but you can find a number of great tales in here anyway, by authors like H.G. Wells and Charles Chesnutt. If you’re looking for a great collection of hoodoo stories just by Chesnutt, I received the marvelous Norton Critical Edition of his Conjure Stories back at Christmas, and it definitely rewards a reader with an interest in folkways , magic, and good literary storytelling.
I can’t recall if I mentioned it or not, but I recently watched a few classic “voodoo” films via Netflix and/or Amazon Instant that may be of interest to folks here. The classic White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi and features all sorts of ridiculous fun. The 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow was more enjoyable than I thought it would be at first. It’s based on a book of the same name by anthropologist Wade Davis, who theorized that the “zombie powders” of Vodoun might be a form of bufotoxin or tetradotoxin found in poisonous animals which induced corpse-like comas in victims. The movie obviously mangles the research a bit in the name of good storytelling (well, storytelling of some kind, anyway), but it still makes for a harrowing look at the political and spiritual life of Haiti under the dictatorship of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier.
Finally, I wanted to mention a few musical items of interest. Firstly, I picked up a really fun compilation CD put out by the Lucky Mojo Company called cat yronwode’s Hoodoo Jukebox. It’s part of a 2-CD set which includes a CD-ROM full of hoodoo-related graphics (mostly in the Lucky Mojo style). The music CD is basically a collection of old country or backwoods blues tunes by the likes of the Memphis Jug Band, Johnnie Temple, and Blind Willie McTell. It’s essentially all tunes coming from public domain sources, so I’m not sure if any of the proceeds go to the artists’ families, but I imagine with Yronwode’s usually ardent position on intellectual property and copyrights she’s found some way to do good things with the funds. Most of these songs you could find by digging around in archives or on the internet long enough, but Cat has done a marvelous job assembling them in one place and providing a really rich commentary on them in the liner notes. If you like blues or even just music about magical things (and I’m looking at you and your upcoming Halloween episode, Velma Nightshade), this is a good collection to have.
I also cannot help but shamelessly plug a friend of mine’s latest release. If you’ve not heard of Amanda Shires, you probably will, and soon. Her new CD, Down Fell the Doves, is the deeply haunting sort of alt-country record I can’t resist. It’s relevant here because several of the tracks have deeply folkloric elements. “Bulletproof” talks about animal curios given to Shires by a man named “Tiger Bill” with the assurance “That’ll make you bulletproof.” The song “Deep Dark Below” speaks of a devil who plays a fiddle with a bow made of bone that “sounds like your deepest desires.” If you like good, spooky music touched by rock, blues, country, and folk influences (somewhat similar to the marvelous band Devil Makes Three, which Sarah Lawless introduced me to), give Down Fell the Doves a listen.
This seems to be a great time to work with American folk magic. Not only have a number of people begun working with the systems that have evolved here (like hoodoo, pow-wow, and all the other flavors of North American magic you probably come to this site to investigate), but the vast amount of information on the various branches has become legion. Thanks very much to author-teachers like Cat Yronwode, Conjureman Ali, and Denise Alvarado, the opportunity to learn folk magic has expanded beyond a few internet sites and hard-to-find instructors to entire shelves of books and even folk magic festivals where students can gather together and learn from a bevy of the brightest minds in practical magic today.
Keeping up with the tremendous reading list available to someone interested in folk magic is no easy task. My current pace is roughly a book a week to a book every two weeks, and that includes the books I review for the Journal of American Folklore, texts on folk magic, books on literature and criticism, science writing, etc. Occasionally I manage to squeeze one in for fun, too!
The Black Folder is the assembly of a number of workshop handouts from a variety of events and educational opportunities presented by Yronwode’s Lucky Mojo Curio Company and Missionary Independent Spiritual Church over the past decade or so. Many of the entries, particularly the early ones, are by Yronwode herself. Her section on working hoodoo based on items you can pick up at the grocery store or pull from your pantry is first-rate, and doesn’t simply focus on the spice rack but includes work with onions and other produce as well. Other top-notch contributors include Conjureman Ali, Sindy Todo, Robin York, Dr. E, Starr Casas, and many others. Topics range from the oft-covered bottle spells and honey jars to very detailed and unique pieces on foot-washing, the use of skulls in magic, and even some Swedish troll-magic courtesy of Dr. Johannes Gardback. The design of the book really looks like a collection of newsletters that have been bound up in a black cover (it is, however, a trade paperback version of the original Black Folder, which Yronwode used to keep up with all the informational pamphlets used by teachers in Lucky Mojo’s courses). Reading through this book provides a bit of a biography of Lucky Mojo as well, as the evolution of the company and its teaching role can be seen in the more-or-less chronological progression of the pamphlets. The work provided varies in quality according to the author, with some authors giving standout spells and methods, and some which focus more on theory than technique. I found a few entries that seemed more conjectural and less based on inherited practices or research, but for the most part the book is an absolute treasure-trove of information. While it does not replace the opportunity to learn from these folks in person, it certainly does a phenomenal job of feeling like field notes from working magicians. It is published by Lucky Mojo, so you can buy it directly from them or through Amazon and other booksellers. Because of the difficult layout work that must be required to piece together all those pamphlets, it seems like the kind of text that will not likely ever appear in eBook format, so a physical copy is the only way to go, but highly worth the purchase price.
In The Conjure Workbook, Casas—who contributed to The Black Folder as well, noted above—also does a tremendous amount of assembly, piecing together essentially an entire lifetime of conjure knowledge in a little under 300 pages. Casas has been teaching and writing for several years, and has formerly produced texts on doll baby work, money magic, basic Southern conjure, and Blackhawk independently. For this endeavor, however, she has joined up with Pendraig Publishing (Peter Paddon’s company). At the very outset, I will say the biggest problem with the book has nothing to do with the work presented, but rather the frequent typos, spelling errors, and odd edits that plague the text. Hopefully future volumes and editions will corret those issues, though, because this book is highly valuable and informative. Starr’s workbook reads like a master class with a highly skilled and practiced conjure worker. She makes no bones about the type of work she does, which she labels as specifically Southern conjure and ties to working with the Bible (please note, she does not say one must be a Christian to do this work, but that one must be comfortable with the Bible as a source of spellwork and power—this point frequently gets misunderstood in her writing). She has been practicing within a Catholic strain of the work for many years, so the Saints make a strong entry into this book. She doesn’t shy away from the darker side of saints like St. Lucy and St. Ramon, and includes work with Mary and several of the prophets, too—which are spirits that receive relatively little attention in other works on Biblically-framed folk magic despite their powerful natures. Casas puts the work first in this book, and if you’re looking for actual spells to do, this is certainly the kind of text to keep handy. She also does not regurgitate anyone else’s spellwork (at least as far as I can see) and gives the reader a piece of her own history and philosophy in between the spells. More than anything, this book reads like a conversation with her, and provides loads of new conjure projects to an aspiring worker, including doll babies made with shrunken apple heads, medicine bottle spells, and even a good reason to invest in getting a box of chalk from the dollar store to keep handy. Starr has put together a book that, despite its proofreading issues, manages to be absolutely invaluable to anyone who likes to get their hands a little dirty in folk magic.
Both of these books are born from years of practical experience, and they both have more of a classroom feel than most titles on folk magic do, which may make them more accessible than other texts on similar subjects. It is highly likely both books will be the initial entries into multi-volume series as well, which hopefully means that classes will continue, so to speak, for a long time to come.
Yronwode and Lucky Mojo have also begun producing a number of smaller books, like The Art of Hoodoo Candle Magic in Rootwork (by Ms. Cat) and Hoodoo Honey & Sugar Spells (by Deacon Millet), but I’ve yet to read most of those. Casas also has released a small book on reading “conjure cards,” and she’s put out a deck and a special deluxe set that includes the cards, book, and blessing oil through Pendraig. They look absolutely stellar, though I’ve not laid hands on a set yet, only seen the online previews. I mention these because both Pendraig and Lucky Mojo seem to be strong contenders in terms of putting out useful texts on folk magic now, and I’m very happy to see them expanding their offerings. Hopefully that means an ever-growing source of knowledge and spellwork for all of us.
There are plenty of other texts I’d love to explore (including one that I’ll try to get to with a bit of fanfare soon, called Fifty-Four Devils, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, who seems a rather promising fellow, if a bit silly at times), but for now I hope you’ll check out The Black Folder and Working the Root and let me know what you think.
Tonight we’re looking at the concept of “magical Catholicism,” or folk magic using Catholic symbols. We’ll have a couple of saint stories, a brief history of the traditions, and a bevy of practical applications.
I didn’t mention it in the episode, but I’d HIGHLY recommend the new release The Conjure Workbook: Working the Root, vol.1, by Starr Casas—it’s conjure and rootwork, but heavily influenced by the author’s Catholicism and very useful stuff, to boot!
The site fisheaters.com which has 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]
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. Her courses are marvelous, too!
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Now hear the word of the Lord.
-from “Dem Dry Bones,” Traditional Spiritual based on Ezekiel 37
With Halloween just past, I thought it might be a good day to briefly look at one of the most commonly used magical tools in folk sorcery: bones (and their companion skulls as well). I recently received a letter asking specifically about the practice of “Tapping the Bone,” which I will touch on briefly here or in another post, though I will likely not delve too deeply into it as that ritual performed under that name belongs to the general heading of “Traditional Witchcraft.” There are many better resources on that topic than this website, so I’ll stick primarily to the magical folk practices of North America here.
Bones as magical tools have been around for at least 12,000 years, and likely longer than that. In the Paleolithic era (‘Old’ Stone Age), figures carved out of animal bone were likely used in religious ceremonies designed to ensure a good hunt, survival in adverse circumstances, tribal fertility, or any number of other goals. The people making such carvings were hardly ignorant of natural processes, as Alexander Marshack’s discovery of lunar calendars etched into animal bones in the late twentieth century demonstrates. Some estimates place such carvings at around 30,000 years old, so people have been using bones for magic for a while now, to say the least.
Instead of spending several paragraphs exploring the history of bones in magic—which would be easy to do, but would essentially involve me repeating over and over again that skeletal remains have been a part of sorcerous operations for a very long time and are still used today—let’s instead look at how these tools were put to use in the New World. In a very broad sense, bones serve a few very specific (and sometimes overlapping) magical functions: spirit vessels, divinatory tools, healing specimens, and charm curios.
The use of bones and skulls as a gateway to the land of the dead, or even in some cases to underworlds not inhabited solely by the dead, seems like a natural place to start a discussion. This is very much what “Tapping the Bone” is about, in that a witch or sorcerer can use a skull to summon up a dead person’s spirit or to travel into the otherworld and gain insight or information. A number of good examples can be drawn for this practice. Mexican American families, for instance, use sugar skulls as a way of interacting with their deceased loved ones during Dia de (los) Muertos celebrations. While such a celebration is hardly necromantic, it does seem to be a popular way to facilitate a relationship with the departed. The idea that bones harbor a connection to the dead and their realms also appears in Palo Mayombe, with the phenomenon of the nganga. This is essentially a pot filled with a variety of natural objects including bones which serves as a home for a patron spirit (nkisi). In Native American traditions of the Arikara, musical instruments made from human arm bones are used as a method for summoning the fearsome ancestral spirits known as Buffalo People (James Howard, “The Arikara Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle,” Plains Anthropologist (1974)). I have also seen references to the need to keep a skull on the altar of a working houngan, or Vodoun priest.
Whatever the specific application, the theory behind bones as gateways to the otherworld seems generally clear: they are the last remaining physical link between someone or something that has died and the world of the living. Using bones to house spirits also makes a great deal of sense, as their liminal nature (caught between life and death) makes them a comfortable space for the two worlds. The bones do not have to be human to facilitate communication, either. In The War of the Witches, narrator Timothy Knab mentions one of the curanderos with whom he is training bringing out a reed box full of “patches of fur, buzzard beaks, and claws from different animals,” which represent ancestral connections of various types, and which could be employed for divinatory and protective purposes (91).
If the remains of dead things are houses for the long-gone, keeping house is very important. Bones treated irreverently can cause all sorts of spiritual havoc. In Roger Pinckney’s Blue Roots, he mentions how African burial practices involved two funerals: one right after the death, and one several years later when bones would be disinterred, lovingly reverenced by the family of the departed, then put to a final rest to give them peace. When slaves could not perform the required funerary rites due to white sensibilities about the exhumation of the dead, it resulted in a lot of “trabblin’ spirits,” or ghosts roaming the land—which may explain why the South is so haunted (59-60).
With so many traditions recognizing the connection between ancestral and unseen spiritual forces and a pile of femurs, tibia, and clavicles, it should hardly be a surprise that the use of bones to communicate with the dead frequently leaves the altar and enters the hands of thesoothsayer.
If you’ve ever heard of someone “throwing the bones,” you know already that a little bundle of claws, teeth, and bones can be scattered to read events of the past, present, and future. If you’ve heard of the slight variation in phrase which goes “rolling the bones,” you may instead associate the items tossed with dice and not perceive anything divinatory, but rather a game of chance played for money, like craps. Yet the two different practices and phrases are very closely related. Both rely on fate to reveal an outcome, for example. The “bones” of the dice phrase is not metaphorical, either, as dice were frequently carved from bone until the twentieth century presented cheaper alternatives like plastic. The ankle-bones of sheep have a naturally dice-like shape, and were frequently used as substitute dice in medieval times. Likewise, dominoes were once carved from bones and can also be used for both gambling and fortune-telling purposes. Raymond Buckland, for example, alleges that Travelers (essentially the UK variant of “Gypsies,” though they are not always ethnically linked) had a domino oracle used for fun and divination.
One of the finest books on the use of bones in divination only came out in the past year or so. Cat Yronwode, who runs the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, put out a small chapbook-sized work called Throwing the Bones, which provides a brief survey of bone-based divination practices ranging from dominoes to dice to Sangoma-style bone casting. Yronwode makes a good case for understanding “bones” as including things like coins, buckeyes, doll hands, and even a stone or two. You can even buy a set of “starter bones” with the book as a kit, and learn some basics of bone-throwing that way. Another book with a good reputation (I’ve not read it myself, but have seen it recommended by a few reputable diviners) is Carlos G. Poenna’s Yoruba Domino Oracle. Juniper over at Walking the Hedge also has a great article on crafting your own “bone” system using a variety of objects (including, of course, bones).
Using bones for divination is a very old practice—it almost certainly was done in Ancient Greece and Rome, and may have been done even in Ancient Egypt. The “casting lots” found in the Bible (as in Psalm 22 or during the crucifixion of Jesus) would likely have been done with bone dice or something similar. While doing bone-based divination may seem to be a fairly simple way to work, it can also take on complex methodologies. An article published in the Journal of Experiential Education describes a Native American system called “The Bone Game,” which was used to settle disputes between warring tribes without resorting to outright violence. In this “game,” each tribe would establish high stakes (like potentially a large number of horses or weapons), then form teams which would circulate different bones (here used in Yronwode’s sense to mean small, deeply personal natural objects, including things like nuts or seeds in some cases). Each team would try to determine which object best represented them, and then engage in a very elaborate geocaching/hide-and-seek/scavenger-hunt like ritual which resulted in one team having a victory and claiming all the stakes.
And of course, how can I talk about rolling bones without mentioning the lovely Dolly Parton song about a bone-casting hill witch called “These Old Bones,” from her album Halos & Horns?
I’ll pause here for today, and next time (hopefully) we’ll look at some of the healing methods and simple charms based on bones. I do hope that this very brief look at bones in their spirit-contact/divinatory capacity is useful. I’m sure there’s much more I could write on the topic (I have not addressed systems like runes, which may involve inscribing symbols on bone or antler pieces for fortune-telling purposes, for example), but for now I will just hope that this short article sparks your own curiosity on the subject of magical bone-picking.
I love a good summer peach. Or peach cobbler. Or homemade peach ice cream. And I can’t tell you how much I miss my mother’s homemade brandied peaches (which were amazing over some hand-churned vanilla). If you live in North America, it’s likely you’ve encountered peaches everywhere from grocery stores to roadside stands to neighbors’ backyards. They’re ubiquitous, which also means they’ve been a major player in the foodways of America.
Today I’m going to briefly look at the peach from another folkloric perspective, focusing on its relevance in magical lore as opposed to its purely culinary uses (though I imagine the two are not ever to be completely disentangled from one another).
The flesh of the peach is frequently regarded as a nearly sacred food in its homeland of China, where it is thought to aid immortality. The lore of the peach is extensive there, with every part of the tree and fruit making an appearance. Peach pits are worn as amulets to ward off demons, while blossoms are used to enhance love, luck, & beauty. Peaches are left in family shrines, and feature prominently in the literature and art of China. You can read a good deal more about the role of the peach in Chinese lore here and here.
Peaches were highly valued in places like the Appalachian Mountains, too. According to the third Foxfire book, one of the most common varieties was the Indian peach, a shrubby variety with small, firm peaches:
“Indian peaches are small trees, spreading with scraggly branches, said to be descendants of those trees planted by the Cherokees around their villages…The fruit of the Indian peach is white with a rosy cheek, white-meated with a red heart…All have a most delicious flavor, raw or cooked. Peaches are rich in iron, and peach leaf tea was a medicine for bladder troubles or used as a sedative” (Foxfire 3 303)
In North American folklore, all parts of the peach have their value as well. In Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, one of the author’s informants says this of the peach tree: “The peach tree was justifiably described by herbalist Tommie Bass of northern Alabama as ‘a drugstore on its own’ in recognition of its many medicinal uses” (Cavender 64-5). Below you’ll see a sampling of the many different magical and/or medicinal uses of the peach and its parts:
“A baby that refuses to come can be brought at once and the labor pains will stop, if the woman drinks tea made from bark scraped downwards off a young peach tree.” (Hyatt #2972) Hyatt also states in several other places that peach branches were used to help bring a baby into the world by magical means.
“Peach tree root or bark was also commonly used [to treat diarrhea]” (Cavender 88)
Peach wood can be used in a magical cure for warts by cutting as many notches in a peach branch as one has warts (Thomas #1493) (see also “Leaves”)
Peach wood is one of the reputed choices for making dowsing forks, according to many sources (Thomas #105; Brunvand 432, Steiner 271, Randolph 83)
Ozark lore specifies that peach bark scraped upward prevents vomiting and/or diarrhea, but scraped downward it is a strong emetic (Randolph 95)
“A mess of peach roots, ground up and mixed with lard, is said to cure the seven-year itch” (Randolph 109)
A piece of Kentucky lore states that twinned peaches found together indicate that you will be married soon (Thomas #593)
Eating a peach pecked by a bird is said to lead to poisoning (Steiner 267)
John George Hohman mentions the use of “peach-stones” as a cure for “gravel” (kidney stones). He attests to it especially because it cured him of his own gravel (Long-Lost Friend#84)
Hohman attests that peach pits can also be taken to remedy drunkenness (#185)
The seeds reputedly can help stimulate hair growth in some people (Todd 55)
Vance Randolph describes an Ozark love charm consisting of a carved peach stone filled with “some pinkish, soap-like material” which he could not identify (Randolph 166)
Both Randolph and Newbell Niles Puckett mention the peach-pit charm as a powerful one, akin to the lucky rabbit’s foot charm (Puckett 437)
Peach leaves were thought to be a Colonial-era cure for worms (Black 199)
Cat Yronwode mentions using dried peach leaves in wisdom oil blends to help students focus on studies (HHRM 143)
Kentucky lore says that rubbing warts with peach-leaves, then burying them will remove warts (Thomas #1492)
The leaves were frequently made into a poultice, which could be used to treat headaches, bruises, and “pumpknots (bumps caused by a blow or knock to the head)” (Cavender 98, 109)
One of the Foxfire informants recommended a peach leave poultice mixed with salt and cornmeal to treat an abscessed tooth (Foxfire 9 70).
Herbalist Jude C. Todd recommends the use of peach leaves as a part of a dandruff treatment (Todd 53)
Hohman says that “The flowers of the peach-tree, prepared like salad, opens the bowels, and is of use in the dropsy” (Long-Lost Friend #185)
Hohman also recommends the use of the flowers as a cure for worms and constipation (#185)
Girls in the Ozarks pierce their ears when peaches are in bloom, believing that piercing them any other time will lead to infection (Randolph 164)
Vance Randolph has a great bit of lore regarding the planting of peaches as well:
“In planting peach trees, it is always well to bury old shoes or boots near the roots. Not far from Little Rock, Arkansas, I have known farmers to drive into town and search the refuse piles for old shoes to be buried in peach orchards. The older and more decayed the leather, the better it works as fertilizer” (Randolph 39)
From my own perspective, I really like the dowsing power of the peach, but I also have a great fondness for the carved peach pit charms. They seem like they would be beautiful and incognito ways of carrying natural amulets about on one’s person. I can also easily see using the flesh of a peach like the flesh of an apple, carving things into it before eating to absorb those qualities. The peachy pulp, which bears such a strong resemblance in so many ways to human flesh, also suggests a use as a makeshift dolly. When the “heart” of the peach, its stone, is considered, this is likely a very apt application of magic to the rosy-golden fruit.
I thought I’d finish up today with something non-magical, but which certainly has an enchanting power: brandied peaches like my mother used to make (I sadly do not have her exact recipe anymore, so the one I’m sharing is adapted from the excellent Putting Food By, by Greene, Herzberg, & Vaughan). We used to have a spoonful of these over ice cream after dinner sometimes, and they were simply otherworldly. They’re not as sweet as you might think, but that’s part of their charm. Plus, you can’t go wrong with a little booze in your dessert. I hope you enjoy!
Peaches (1 lb.)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Whole cloves (optional)
Whole cinnamon sticks (optional)
Clean & dry your one-pint canning jars. Score skin of peaches, then blanch them in boiling water and dunk them into an ice bath. Slip the skins off and slice the peaches into halves and quarters (removing stones).
Make a simple syrup by boiling the cup of sugar with the water. Cook the peaches in the sugar syrup for about 5 minutes, then transfer peaches into individual jars. To each jar add 1-3 cloves (optional), 1 cinnamon stick (optional), and 2-3 tablespoons of brandy. Seal jars and process in a hot water bath for about 20-25 minutes, then carefully remove the jars and allow them to seal.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at peaches. If you have any other ideas about using peaches in magic, please leave them in here or drop us a line.
Greetings blog subscribers (and casual readers, too)!
When I first stumbled on today’s gorgeous botanical subject in the hilly areas around Chattanooga, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The passionflower is one of the most outlandish, garish, over-the-top, and beautiful blooms I’ve encountered in the wild. It looks as thought it would be more at home in a tropical nursery than growing in the foothills of the Appalachians, and yet this clinging vine with big, showy blossoms is right at home among sweetgum trees, sassafras, and tulip poplars.
The flower is sort of ‘leveled,’ with a base of beautiful petals which come in vibrant colors like purple and pink upon which rest elevated pistils and soaring stamens in a delicate (and highly symbolic) pattern. The passionflower goes by several names, including the maypop, herb of the Cross, and maracuja. The latter name comes from Spanish-speaking localities in which the twining vine blooms, and the flower has definitely found a home in the folklife of Hispanic herbalists. But before I get ahead of myself with all of that, let’s look briefly at some of the Old World lore about this lovely bit of flora.
Here’s a description of how the passionflower got its name, from perennial (pardon the pun) favorite, T. F. Thiselton-Dyer’s The Folk-lore of Plants:
“The passion-flower has been termed Holy Rood flower, and it is the ecclesiastical emblem of Holy Cross Day, for, according to the familiar couplet:—
‘The passion-flower long has blow’d
To betoken us signs of the Holy Rood.’ (CH XVII)”
“A plant closely connected by tradition with the crucifixion is the passion-flower. As soon as the early Spanish settlers in South America first glanced on it, they fancied they had discovered not only a marvellous symbol of Christ’s passion, but received an assurance of the ultimate triumph of Christianity. Jacomo Bosio, who obtained his knowledge of it from certain Mexican Jesuits, speaks of it as ‘the flower of the five wounds,’ and has given a very minute description of it, showing how exactly every part is a picture of the mysteries of the Passion. ‘It would seem,’ he adds, ‘as if the Creator of the world had chosen it to represent the principal emblems of His Son’s Passion; so that in due season it might assist, when its marvels should be explained to them, in the condition of the heathen people, in whose country it grew.’”  (CH XIX)
The passionflower naturally fits into a schema of religious botany, then, and would seem to be a sort of pinnacle representation of the Doctrine of Signatures, which essentially states that every plant (or creatrure, for that matter) bears certain visual, olfactory, or other cues indicating what the divine intends us to do with it.
Medicinally, this plant has a powerful sedative effect, though not one so strong as something like valerian root. This can be seen as a sort of ‘peace,’ bestowed by the plant as its creator would bestow divine peace. You can read a good bit about its medicinal qualities here and here, where they are able to get much more into the hows and whys of passionflower’s sedative effects. [Though I will note here, as I always do, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND I DO NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. PLEASE CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN FOR MEDICAL INFORMATION ABOUT HERBS, SUPPLEMENTS, OR ANY OTHER TREATMENTS YOU ARE CONSIDERING].
Moving into passionflower’s magical side, there is surprisingly little to do with its ability to inspire religious faith, offer any kind of divine protection, or even be used as a decoration on altars to holy saints, which greatly surprises me. I would think those uses would be nearly the first use I’d put them to, but wiser workers than I would note that passionflower’s real power is not just in its blossom, but in its less showy bits: the tangly and highly clinging vine which supports the gorgeous floral display.
Cat Yronwode describes the passionflower as an ingredient in the Chuparrosa (or “hummingbird” in Spanish) charm, which is used to foster feelings of love and attachment (hence the clinging-vine quality):
“Dried Passion Flower leaves or pieces of the root may be carried in a red flannel bag dressed with Love Me Oil. Mexicans are known to add such a bag a charm to the Divine Hummingbird, or Chuparrosa. In the old days this would have been dried hummingbird heart, but it is illegal to kill hummingbirds or to possess their body parts in some states now—and with good reason, as the birds are under tremendous habitat destruction pressure from human beings. A metal charm of a hummingbird sewn to the bag or carried inside will do just as well” (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, 142)
Beyond its love-bringing and binding qualities, the flower also seems to bring feelings of peace and contentment between lovers and members of a household, likely due to its soporific effects in its medical applications.
In Latin American countries, the passionflower has similar applications, including use as a love-binder and spiritual sedative. It’s also used in a Brazilian floral horoscope, where it represents the month of June. Again, I’m surprised at its limited appeal as a holy or divine flower, as I think it would likely be an excellent addition to offering altars to Marian incarnations or to do work with Jesus in various forms. But that’s merely speculation on my part, so I digress.
If you’ve had any experiences, magical or otherwise, with this amazing bloom, we’d love to hear about them! Feel free to leave a comment below or email us if you know more about this beautiful, intriguing addition to American flora.
I know this isn’t the botanical lore I was promising for the month of April, but don’t worry, there’s more of that coming. I just had to share something that my very dear and wonderful friend Kathleen alerted me to. One of my favorite non-magical podcasts in the world, Radiolab, just did a really interesting mini-show on a topic which intersects with our work here!
Please hop over and check out the 30 minute Radiolab short on the Crossroads, specifically the tangled crossroads legend surrounding blues players Robert Johnson (to whom the myth of selling his soul to become a great blues player is frequently ascribed) and Tommy Johnson (who may actually have done the crossroads ritual). There are fantastic interviews with music historians, blues experts, and even Tommy Johnson’s brother, all of which help shed light on the strange and gorgeous African American folk tale about gaining new power at the crossroads.
I should point out that they come at this from a scientific and historical perspective, and really are pursuing the true story about the musicians rather than doing much to get at the folkloric roots of the crossroads phenomenon. They specifically wind up ignoring the existence of the story in other African American literary and folklore sources, such as these:
The multiple incidents of crossoroads conjure recorded by Harry M. Hyatt between 1935-1939 (found at the bottom of the Lucky Mojo page linked above), which would have pre-dated the “creation” of this story as described in the Radiolab short
The numerous incidences of crossroads as places of healing, particularly trading things like a wart or a sty to a mysterious stranger, in Southern and African American folklore (which can be found in Hyatt’s work, the work of Vance Randolph, and Newbell Niles Puckett).
Puckett’s description of the crossroads ritual as an origin for folk hero Jack, which was published in 1926 and states:
Various legends are in vogue among the Negroes to account for the origin of this creature. One illustrating the common theme, was told me by a root-doctor last summer. Jack sold himself to the devil at the crossroads one night at twelve o’clock. For seven years all power was given to him to do as he pleased, but at the end of that period his soul belonged to the devil. [This eventually goes on to tell the story of Jack-o-Lantern, but the crossroads portion of it is given here as illustration of my particular point]
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 article on African American folk magic, which has the following item in it:
How to Have a Slick Hand with People.
On the dark moon of any Friday night, dress yourself in black. Sit flat in the fork of a cross road at exactly twelve o’clock and sell yourself out to the devil. After which you shall have power to do anything you wish to do (“Hoodoo in America,” 392)
The appearance of crossroads in European folk magic (such as that found in Charles Leland’s Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune-telling, published in 1891, long before the legends being described in the blues tales)
There are so many other appearances of crossroads in folklore that it would be daunting to tackle them here (though I will probably try to do a bigger article on them some day). My real point is just to say that while I love the Radiolab story, they definitely overlooked a large amount of crossroads material so that they could focus more on the story of two real blues musicians, which is understandable.
I really do hope you’ll give this particular show a listen. It’s great, especially in its ability to untangle the two legends from one another, and you get to hear some really hauntingly good blues, too. Let me know what you think of it!
All the best, thanks for reading, and see you down at the crossroads…
I imagine that I’ll get a sharp increase in visitors from Ohio with this article. Today’s featured botanical is the buckeye, which is both the name of the tree and the fruit (or nut) of that tree. It grows in a wide variety of locations, including all over Europe and North America, and is also frequently referred to as a “horse chestnut” (which is actually a very specific species within the bigger buckeye family). Since you can find a great deal of botanical information on the tree elsewhere (like at the USDA Plants database), I’ll narrow my focus here to the folklore and magical uses of the nut.
T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, author of the botanical mythography classic The Folk-lore of Plants, makes the following observations about the horse-chestnut:
“A Worcestershire name for a horse-chestnut is the ‘oblionker tree.’ According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th Ser. x. 177), in the autumn, when the chestnuts are falling from their trunks, boys thread them on string and play a ‘cob-nut’ game with them. When the striker is taking aim, and preparing for a shot at his adversary’s nut, he says:—
My first conker (conquer).’
The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the fruit itself.” (CH XVIII)
Already I love this plant, don’t you? Essentially they seem to be used as marbles in children’s games (give them one point for that), and they also have a nice phonetic connection to the powerful hoodoo charm, John the Conqueror root, which is frequently called John de Conker (and that’s another point to the buckeye!). They actually look llike smoother versions of High John roots in some ways, so it doesn’t surprise me to find that they sometimes get substituted in for their powerful underground counterpart:
“Buckeye nuts are believed by some hoodoo “doctors” to increase a man’s sexual power. Shaped like miniature testicles, they are sometimes carried in the pants pockets as charms to bring men “good fortune in sexual matters.” In the southern and eastern regions of the United States, buckeyes are carried in mojo bags to cure or prevent such ailments as arthritis, rheumatism, and migraine headaches” (Gerina Dunwich, Herbal Magic, 86).
Cat Yronwode similarly cites buckeyes as charms for increasing male potency. Both Yronwode and Dunwitch, however, make it clear that a buckeye’s primary powers are to aid as a gambling charm and to help stave off aches and pains—particularly rheumatism and headaches. This view is heavily supported by a number of folklore sources:
Where the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, a buckeye, a horse chestnut, and a luck bone from a pig ham are put together for good luck [A charm for good luck] (316)
A buckeye carried in the pocket will surely bring one good luck (314)
A buckeye carried in the left pocket is generally supposed to work a cure for rheumatism as well as for piles, a belief apparently English (360)
Red pepper rubbed up and down the back ‘warms up de system,’ as does also a new domestic sack half full of salt into which nine grains of red pepper and four buckeyes have been put. Wear this around your waist and you will never again be bothered with chills (366)
In Mississippi and Alabama it is believed that if one carries buckeyes in the pocket he will have no chills through the year (366)
1328. “My brother always carries a buckeye in his pocket to get money.” (28)
1329. “I always carry three buckeyes in my pocket to always have money. My grandfather did this through the Civil War, my mother did this, and I am carrying three buckeyes too.” (28)
4534. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never becomes sick. (99)
4688. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never suffers from backache. (103)
5233. A buckeye carried in your pocket or the band of your hat prevents headache. (118)
5588. As a treatment for piles, a buckeye is worn: in the pocket (usually the left), or one in each pocket, or one pinned to the underclothes, or one round the neck, or one rolled in the top of each stocking. (126)
5684. One buckeye is worn in one of several places as a rheumatism remedy: about the neck, on the breast, in a pocket (especially a hip pocket), round the waist, and under the bend of the knee. Sometimes, they say buckeyes are ineffective for rheumatism, unless you begin by using an unripe one. Moreover, it is occasionally said, to lose this nut in the process of curing yourself brings bad luck. And finally, because a buckeye is also called a horse chestnut, the real chestnut is worn as a substitute, but this seems to be rare. (129)
5685. Buckeyes used for curing rheumatism should always be carried in pairs. This also makes you lucky at the same time. (129)
5686. “If you carry three buckeyes in a sack so they will be on your skin, good for rheumatism; if the buckeyes dry all up when wearing, then they are doing you good; but if they don’t dry all up, they are doing you no good.” (129)
11073. It is lucky to keep a buckeye in your purse, on your person, or in your house. (262)
13443. Keep a buckeye in your pocket while playing baseball and you will have good luck. (310)
13984. You obtain good luck for a card game, if a buckeye is worn in your right pocket. (319)
2889 – If one eats a buckeye, his head will turn around (219)
Vance Randolph devotes a sizeable amount of space to the folklore of buckeyes among the hillfolk of the Ozarks, also pointing out their strong associations with healing and protection from painful diseases. He relates an excellent story about just how deeply ingrained the belief in buckeye powers was in the mountains:
There is an old saying that no man was ever found dead with a buckeye in his pocket, but this is not to be taken seriously. Most people who carry buckeyes regard them as a protection against rheumatism, or hemorrhoids. One of the most successful physicians in southwest Missouri always carries a buckeye ; when it was mislaid once he was very much disturbed and let an officeful of patients wait until his pocket piece was recovered. It is very bad luck to lose a buckeye. I asked this doctor about it once. “No, I’m not superstitious,” he said grinning, “I just don’t want to get the rheumatism!” (Ozark Magic & Folklore, 153)
There is some excellent lore about the buckeye and just why it became the namesake for Ohio from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. They mention the lucky association, likening it to a four-leaf clover or rabbit’s foot, and links the state nickname to William Henry Harrison or alternatively to Col. Ebenezer Sproat (a simply fantastic name), both Ohioans of historic and heroic stature.
Probably my favorite bit of folklore concerning the lovely horse-chestnut comes from an online forum I found while researching this topic. You can read the full thread here, but I simply cannot fail to mention this fantastic tidbit:
There is a belief by some that only half the buckeye is poisonous, and that only squirrels know which half that might be in a particular nut. Squirrels do sometimes eat a part of the nut.
There you have it: squirrels are smarter than we are. But I’ve known that for a while (at least in my case it’s true).
At any rate, the buckeye can be carried as a lucky charm or worked into other magical preparations, and it has a huge body of lore associated with it. So much, in fact, that I’ve barely (prepare for pun) cracked the shell here. If you know of great buckeye lore and magic, I’d love to hear about it! Or if you just want to pelt me with horse-chestnuts for making bad puns, I’ll be here all day.
“As soft as silk,
As white as milk,
As bitter as gall,
A strong wall,
And a green coat covers me all”
Walnut riddle from H.M. Hyatt, Adams Co., Entry No. 14379
Continuing with the Thanksgiving ingredient theme (i.e. Apples), I thought today it would be good to look at a fairly common tree and nut that has been woven into magic for hundreds of years. I’m speaking of course of the unassuming but delicious walnut which tops brownies, finds its way into salads, and makes a delicious candied treat. Don’t worry, though, my next topic will not be mayonnaise and I am not subtly leading up to any kind of enchanted Waldorf salad.
I’d like to briefly start in the Old World and mention a legend which had some influence on 19th-century occult folklorist Charles Leland. In “Neopolitan Witchcraft” by J.B. Andrews and James Frazer, a rhyme appears which translates roughly:
Beneath the water and beneath the wind,
Beneath the walnut trees of Benevento,
Lucibello bring me where I need to go.
This charm would help a witch magically fly to her Sabbat, supposedly. The idea of witches gathering beneath a walnut tree in Benevento, Italy clearly impacted Leland, who includes a tale in his “witch gospel” Aradia called “The House of the Wind” (which is what Benevento means in English). [EDIT: See comments below for a correction on this translation] Myth Woodling, who runs a marvelous set of pages on Italian folk magic and witchcraft, has this to say about the walnut:
Walnut shells, in Italian fairy tales, were often used to contain something precious or magical. A walnut branch was said to protect one from lightening. There were stories of witches and spirits gathering under walnut trees”
In the New World, walnuts gained a number of powers and attributes, while the lore about walnuts and lightning becomes reversed, as found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, where he tells how black walnuts are now thought to draw lightning and hillfolk refuse to plant these trees near their homes for that reason (72). Some of Randolph’s other interesting tidbits about walnuts are here:
“A big crop of walnuts indicates cold weather to come” (26)
A good season for tomatoes is a bad season for walnuts (39)
Fresh walnut leaves scattered about the house can deter insects (68)
Walnut shells must not be burned, or bad luck will come (71)
The juice of a green walnut can help cure ringworm (110)
“The shell of a black walnut is supposed to represent the human skull, and the meat is said to resemble the brain, therefore people who show signs of mental aberration are encouraged to eat walnuts. I know of one case in which an entire family devoted most of the winter to cracking walnuts for a feebleminded boy. They kept it up for years, and I believe the poor fellow ate literally bushels of walnut goodies” (114)
“A mountain girl of my acquaintance placed a lock of her hair under a stone in a running stream, believing that the water would make her hair glossy and attractive. Another way to promote the growth of hair is to bury a “twist” of it under the roots of a white walnut tree, in the light of the moon” (165)
Similar lore exists in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, with the addition of magical wart charming ascribed to the humble walnut. Daniel & Lucy Thomas, in their Kentucky Superstitions, say that green walnuts can be rubbed on warts, then buried to charm the wart away. This makes for an interesting variant on the standard wart-charming method of cutting a fruit or vegetable in half before using it to cure the wart (but I’ll address those ideas in a different post entirely). Heading into Illinois, Henry Hyatt reports a mix of magical and medical uses for walnuts:
Thin walnut shells mean a light winter, while thick shells mean a heavy one
A black walnut carried at all times prevents headaches
A mixture of boiled walnut leaves, water, and sulphur makes a powerful anti-itch wash
Dreaming of opening or eating walnuts means money is coming soon
In this latter example, we can see the walnut being used as a divinatory aid, which makes sense when we think of the strong ‘brain’ association with the little wrinkled nut (since it has a brain, it must know something, so why not the future, right?). Hyatt also shares a lovely little love divination with walnuts:
9033. Her future husband’s occupation can be learned by a girl who grates three nuts — a hazelnut, nutmeg and walnut — mixes these grated nuts with butter and sugar, makes pills of this paste, and swallows nine of them on going to bed: if she dreams of wealth, she will marry a gentleman; of white linen, a clergyman; of darkness, a lawyer; of noises, a tradesman or laborer; of thunder and lightning, a soldier or sailor; and of rain, a servant
This sense of a walnut as a ‘knowing’ curio seems to be tied again to its brain-like appearance, but also with the idea of the little nut containing some special knowledge the way it contained magical charms in an Old World context. The tree even seems to know what is growing around it in some cases. Patrick Gainer says that the presence of a white walnut tree indicates ginseng growing underneath it (120).
Another key use of the walnut in magic has to do—or at least I think it does—with its bitterness and perhaps the deep blackness of the flesh surrounding the nut. Walnuts can strip away negativity nearly as well as eggs, lemons, salt, or any of the other major magical cleansing agents. Draja Mickaharic includes a cleansing bath which uses walnuts in order to sever ties with an unwanted person or influence. He warns that it can only be used once, and that going back to the person after ties are severed will have dire results. The basic formula involves boiling six unshelled walnuts in a pot for three hours, adding water if needed. After that time, there will be a black broth that should be added to a bathtub, and the person using the bath should immerse themselves seven times in it, saying prayers as appropriate (Spiritual Cleansing 58).The dark color absorbs all negativity, and the galling nature of the fruit works the way a lemon does to sever evil from one’s person. Cat Yronwode suggests a similar bath to Mickaharic, adding the important step of disposing of the used bathwater at a crossroads. She also indicates that walnut leaves can be used in a spell to hurt an enemy’s luck (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic 205).
One use for a walnut I’ve never seen but which I really think would be interesting to try would be as a head for a doll baby working. Considering the brain associations and the fleshiness of the fruit, I’m not sure why this is not a common-place use of the walnut, but c’est la vie. If you happen to know why they’re not used in doll magic, I’d love to hear it! Or if you have any other uses of walnuts in New World folk magic, please feel free to share!