This episode is a season-appropriate discussion of toys in magic, particularly dolls. We’ll talk about how dolls and poppets get used magically, as well as why they tend to show up in folk and popular horror so often.
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Producers for this show: Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Catherine, AthenaBeth, & Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Podcast recommendation: Gordon over at Rune Soup has finally started putting out a podcast, which is definitely worth listening to. Subjects are often deeply philosophical and get at the roots of magical practices with an eye towards history as well. Good stuff!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
[A note here: This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions. Leave me out of it. Thank you!]
Today’s topic may not exactly pop out at you as a magical one (I beg forgiveness in advance for the bevy of bad puns this article may include), but corn is actually spiritually and magically significant in several parts of the North American continent.
Corn, or as most of the rest of the world knows it, maize (of the species Zea mays) is a crop which was domesticated by early Mesoamerican cultures and which has been a native staple food for thousands of years now (though its widespread use throughout all of North America may only be about one millennium old). It has proven both extremely useful and occasionally problematic. It is fairly easy to grow, and can be processed into any number of products, from food and food additives to industrial lubricants and even plastics. I’m not going to get into the heavily heated debate about corn as a commodity crop and its place in modern economics and agriculture, as this is not a blog about either of those topics. I will say, however, that while corn may have its downsides, it also has much to offer culturally and culinary, especially the homegrown sweet varieties (can’t imagine a summer barbecue without it!).
Native Americans depended greatly on corn for survival, and it figured in several native mythologies. One of the best known stories is that of Kana’ti and Selu, the Hunter and the Corn Mother, from Cherokee mythology. In this story, mother Selu tells her children that they must drag her body over the land when she dies and that corn will sprout wherever her corpse has been. In this respect, her tale is not so very different than the John Barleycorn legend. Folklorist James Mooney demonstrated that this story has parallels in Huron mythology as well (he also mentions that the Iroquois grow a specific type of magical tobacco, which is the subject of an upcoming post).
Listener Chet wrote in with a bit of folklore regarding the Corn Mother from the Central Atlantic coast:
“I read an article, while researching the corn maiden aspect, that covered the offering and adoration of a field spirit not only in NA culture, but all over the world…what quite a few would do is, leave a section of the field uncut, as an offering to the Maiden. I had seen these areas, the past few years where I live, and really had no idea what the uncut areas were about until I read this article. So here we are at harvest time again, and I am seeing these areas once again. So I took a pic of one (see attached corn pic). I have a feeling these farmers are not actually making an offering to the Miaden per se, but the tradition seems to have carried over, so maybe it’s bad luck, to not leave part of the field uncut.”
Chet also included a bit of information on his own practices, including his practice of reburying part of any harvest as an offering to the Corn Mother. Big thanks to him for the local lore and for the photo!
Moving into the Appalachians, corn becomes magical and medicinal, depending upon its application. A variety of sources indicate that tea made from corn silk (the long, slightly sticky strands which jut out from the top of the ear and which serve as pollination conduits during the corn’s growth cycle) is excellent for clearing up kidney and urinary tract ailments. This sentiment popped up in Foxfire 9, Anthony Cavendar’s Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, and even Karl Herr’s Hex & Spellwork (which indicates to me that it found a home with the PA-Dutch and the mountain folk alike). Patrick Gainer shares an interesting West Virginian folk magical technique for healing warts. According to his Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, warts are cured by making them bleed, rubbing the blood on corn kernels, and feeding the kernels to chickens. This could be very similar to jinx-removing practices in hoodoo which also use chickens.
“It may come as a surprise to some that Southern Appalahcians used cultigens like apples, corn, [etc.] as much as, if not more than, herbs for many illnesses. The juice, silk, kernels, and shucks of corn, for example, wereused for a variety of illnesses” (p. 64).
Some of the cures listed in the book’s pages:
Corn milk/juice used to treat skin irritation
Warm cornmeal to treat sprains and mastitis
Corn fodder burned to smoke/sweat out measles
In the Ozark Mountains, Vance Randolph records a couple of bits of lore about corn, one of which is quite unique: “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist on sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before burial” (p. 315). In light of Chet’s lore about burying corn as an offering to a Mother-figure and/or the land, I think this is pretty fascinating. Is the corn an offering, and if so, is it for the actual deceased person, or for the land which will be surrounding that person soon? Randolph also mentions a bit of weather lore, noting that the thickness of corn shucks indicates the severity of the coming winter.
Finally, I can’t discuss corn without at least mentioning the corn dolly which is so ubiquitous around Imbolc/Candlemas. I won’t go into that particular association, as it seems to be well covered in other places, but I will say a corn dolly makes a very useful poppet for working figure magic, especially since it’s easy and cheap to find the basic materials you need (if you don’t have corn growing anywhere around you, look in the Hispanic portion of your local grocery—husks are almost always available there as tamale wrappers, and usually quite inexpensively as well). Recent New World Witchery interviewee Dr. E mentioned the corn dolly poppet, if you’ll recall, and I think it’s an excellent way to craft a magical doll, especially one for burial or burning. They tend to be easy to stuff with herbs and things like hair or fingernail clippings, and they can be made without requiring much skill (trust me on this, I know from experience, or rather, obvious inexperience). There are plenty of great places to learn dolly-making, but since I like the series so much I’ll go ahead and eagerly recommend the corn dolly tutorial found in Foxfire 3 (on pp. 453-460).
That’s it for corn (at least for now). If you’ve got some magical lore regarding the use of corn, I’d love to read it! Until next time, thanks for reading!