Blog Post 149 – Witch Wars

The term “witch wars” comes up frequently in discussions about neo-Pagan community infighting, as shorthand for the feuding and vitriolic verbal sparring that happens periodically between rival groups. Such wars, however, have not always been barbs exchanged over message boards or smear campaigns between unfriendly covens. The nature of magical practice has almost guaranteed that so long as one witch could cast a spell, another could undo it.

So how do witches fight witches? With magic, of course, but so many of these tales involve what seems to be a battle of wills between two equally gifted magical workers. Strangely, while a witch might attack a person or family, when the witch-doctor enters the picture and counter-attacks the witch, the witch-doctor is seldom targeted back during the battle. Most of the witch-doctor’s services are more geared towards revealing the identity of a witch and providing victims a way to remediate their own problems. This is true in both New World and Old, as scholar Owen Davies demonstrates in his seminal text on English cunning folk, Popular Magic:

“The cure of witchcraft could be effected in three main ways: by going straight to the source and tackling the witch either physically or through the law courts; by breakin the spell at a distance via magical rituals; or by using a mix of herbs and charms to expel the witchcraft from the patient’s body. Cunning-folk were instrumental in facilitating all these methods,and they sometimes employed a combination of all three…the client saw what they wanted to see; in other words, the person they already suspected. The process was one of confirmation rather than detection…” (Popular Magic, Davies, 106-7)

The biggest step in fighting a witch was determining who he or she was. Then, a magical remedy would be applied to disrupt the spell which was affecting the victim. This might involve scalding milk from a bewitched churn, shooting an image of the witch with a silver bullet, etc. Then, in a critical step, the witch would attempt to come to the property of the victim and either enter the home or take something from the house. There seems to be a uniform understanding that such an act must be prevented, or else the witch’s power would remain or perhaps grow stronger over the victim. Davies gives one such example from England:

“In 1682 the parents of a bewitched girl named Mary Farmer were advised by ‘Dr Bourn’ to burn her clothes. He assured them ‘that then the witch which had done her the hurt, would come in.’ The parents testified in court that, having done this, a neighbor, Joan Butts entered their house, ‘and tumbled down, wallowing on the ground, making a fearful and dismal noise.’” (Davies, 109)

In this case, further magical action must be taken, including smoking a cow’s heart in the chimney, to break the witch’s spell.

The magical battles took place between malevolent witches and the community-sanctioned (or at least tolerated) ‘white witches’ or ‘witch-doctors’ indicate that those who could fight a curse were usually fairly well known to their community. A story from Hubert J. Davis’ The Silver Bullet tells of one such struggle, which occurred when a family sought to alleviate its suffering and bewitchment by calling in a man gifted at ‘overlooking’ or breaking curses. To break the curse placed on the family’s child, Tim and Ada consult with this ‘Quaker doctor’ (most likely a Pow-wow/braucher), who provides them with a stoppered bottle into which the family’s nail parings, hair, etc. are gathered, then left under the burning embers of the fire. Adding in some prayers, including a candle burning which ends with the traditional “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” (further indication of Pennsylvania Dutch magical practice), the “tall, stinguished looking man with thick white hair and a well-trimmed moustache [and] kindly blue eyes” forbids them from letting anyone into their house for three days. Sure enough, an old woman by the name of Old Betty Orts attempts to come in, revealing her as the witch. At that point, the father strikes her head, drawing blood (which immediately saps the power of a witch), and the curse is broken (“The Quaker Doctor and His Magic Bottle,” Davis, 56-8).  The pattern of curse, diagnosis, prescription, attempted incursion, and final defeat of the witch is maintained.

In another account of Appalachian witch warring, an interesting and somewhat unusual battle occurs between two men (in most of these tales at least one of the magicians is female). Patrick W. Gainer recounts the battle between Uncle Johnnie and Uncle Jimmie Webb which took place over the use of a butterchurn. Uncle Johnnie, when denied use of the churn—and here it should be pointed out that the woman he wished to borrow from had two churns available, thus demonstrating the lack of social hospitality mentioned in my earlier post on the Witch’s Ire—enchants it so that he may steal her butter. Uncle Jimmie then helps the churn’s owner, Eliza Morris, to break the spell by whipping it with switches while churning with his left hand. This, in turn, causes Uncle Johnnie to suffer welts and undoes the enchantment (“Uncle Johnnie Bewitches the Cows,” Witches Ghosts & Signs, Gainer, 142-4).

This is not, of course, a wholly good vs. evil phenomenon. Scholar Emma Wilby notes that magical folk in England often employed their magic as the situation dictated, being neither entirely helpful nor entirely harmful:

“Although some cunning folk had a reputation for being wholly good, a large proportion of them were considered ambivalent, that is, they could employ their magical powers to both help and harm…The trial records of East Lothian cunning woman Beigis Tod, who was accused of witchcraft in 1608, echo this popular perception when they claim that Beigis was known to be skilled in both ‘on-laying and af-taiking of seiknes’. [Wilbiy’s italics, short for “laying on and taking off of sickness”].” (Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits, Wilby, 54)

These mixed talents were often set against each other, with one magical practitioner putting a spell on a person, place, or group of people, and another showing up to take it off. Sometimes this un-bewitching was done for free, but frequently a fee would be charged, which led some to suspect that the ‘bad’ witches and the ‘good’ witches were in league with each other and splitting the profits. One such example is the tale of “Mont and Duck” from Hubert J. Davis, in which an old couple moves into an area which suddenly begins experiencing oubreaks of illness. The community blames the newcomers, of course, but the response is interesting:

“[O]ne of their neighbors accused Mont and Duck of having cast a spell on their sick cow. Old Mont awed his accuser by readily admitting that his wife, Duck, had the power of evil, and that he could break the spells. Shortly after this, he began to offer to cure ailing animals by removing the spells on them in return for a bushel of potatoes or some other vegetables, or even a piece of meat” (“Mont and Duck,” The Silver Bullet, Davis, 214).

One family that refuses to pay for relief from magical attack experiences a death in this story, and the entire community takes their powers quite seriously. Mont is valued, but feared, for his powers as a witch-doctor, and the racket they have established continues for quite a while without any repercussion from the locals.

Yet there are certainly accounts of magical battles in which the side of ‘good’ seems to be operating from a mostly altruistic stance. Arguably one of the most famous magical battles in American lore is the account of sorcerous combat between Sherrif James E. McTeer and Dr. Buzzard (presented here in quoted abbreviated form from Low Country Voodoo, by Terrance Zepke, and also found in American Shamans by Jack Montgomery):

“One person who remained unimpressed with the root doctor [Dr. Buzzard, aka Stephaney Robinson] was Sheriff J.E. McTeer. He was elected in 1926 and saw many stgrange things that were attributed to Dr. Buzzard, such as people getting sick and dying or witnesses having seizure in the middle of testifying in court…The sheriff…began a lifelong study of conjuring so he could better understand it. In time he, he became known as a ‘white root doctor.’ …McTeer felt strongly that he was the one who could stop Dr. Buzzard once and for all…[he] issued a warning that if the witch doctor didn’t stop, he would eventually bring him to justice.

The infamous root doctor was not used to being threatened. To the contrary—most folks feared or respected him too much to even think about it. The sheriff’s warning mae him so mad that the witch doctor set out to ruin him. The spiritual warfare came to a halt after Dr. Buzzard’s son was killed in a car crash. The conjurer believed the wreck was was the High Sheriff’s doing and went to see his adversary. The root doctor told th sheriff that he respected his mantle and would leave him alone if McTeer would do the same. McTeer agreed, on the condition that Dr. Buzzard quit practicing sorcery. The conjurer thought about it for several seconds before nodding his head in agreement” (Low Country Voodoo, Zepke, 82-4)

In this fighting-fire-with-fire version of the witch war, ‘good’ triumphs in the form of McTeer, though Dr. Buzzard would eventually return to his old ways with diminished success.

So, in conclusion, the witch war has not always been the genteel affair that it is today. When sharp tongues trade barbs, it can be unpleasant, but thankfully no one is stealing anyone else’s butter, drawing blood from anyone else’s forehead, or causing the death of someone else’s child to prove a point. Or at least, I hope they’re not. I think I’ll go and recharge my house protection spells now…

Thanks for reading!


Blog Post 147 – Reviews and Recommendations

Hi all!

I’ve been reading a lot lately (but then, when am I not?). I’ve also managed to catch a couple of great movies as well. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on them with you! The excerpts below are the slightly abridged versions of the full reviews found over at Pagan Bookworm, so head over there if you want the full report.

1)      The Book of English Magic – by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate (Overlook, 2010)

If you have spent much time studying occult literature, you know that Great Britain is rife with magical lore: fairies, Arthurian legends, druidry, cunning folk, etc. In The Book of English Magic, Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate make the not-too-audacious claim that Britain’s magical history is one of the richest—perhaps the richest—in the world. They approach their subject by examining a mix of history, folklore, and modern practices to attempt to piece together a portrait of Britain as an enchanted isle. While I think that they succeed in presenting a magical portrait of a magical land, I also think that the authors are by turns too broad and too narrow. They do a wonderful job looking into subjects like English alchemy and dowsing, providing a number of excellent resources to discover more about each topic. They also dwell overlong on the concept of druidry (not surprising considering it is one of Carr-Gomm’s chief fields of interest—he is also the author of Druid Mysteries, the Druid Plant Oracle, and the Druid Animal Oracle). The paucity of sources supporting some of their research means that while some chapters seem tight and focused, others seem only loosely woven together. They hardly plumb the depths of what is called Traditional Witchcraft, and the concept of cunning folk is given surprisingly short shrift considering how close to contemporary some of that material is. The inclusion of practical exercises gives a slightly ‘workbook’ feel at times, which deflates the momentum of the book in some places, but really does seem to serve the overall work.That being said, if one were looking for a good coffee-table introduction to the myriad magical traditions available to the student of British history, this would be an excellent starting point.

2)      The Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbookby Denise Alvarado (Weiser, 2011)

This book is about what author Denise Alvarado calls “Voodoo-Hoodoo,” a term which irks some as the continuing inaccurate jumble of two terms which should remain distinct (Voodoo being a religion and hoodoo being a folk magical practice). However, if one takes the time to read Alvarado’s passionate book on the topic, the Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook, one can see that she is merely sticking to the terminology most people are familiar with and that the dog of diction has no teeth to bite when it comes to New Orleans-style magic. Instead, Alvarado presents a tradition which blends elements of Haitian Vodoun, folk Catholicism, Southern root work and hoodoo, and a touch of New Age spirituality to create a vibrant, current practice. She uses a number of good resources, often primary ones, to support her understanding of a practice she has lived with her whole life (according to her). She also frequently slips away from the facts and into personal experience, but does so in a non-authoritarian way. Her history of Mardi Gras and the magical folklore associated with them is captivating, as is her heartfelt look at the Seven African Powers. When she does slip off of the scholarly or personal track the book can get a bit messy. Her correspondence tables are not a strength, and her inclusion of New Age style tumbled gemstones in her work almost undermines her traditionalism (as it seems fairly obvious that slaves doing similar work in the 19th century would not have had polished rose quartz to work with). She is flexible and fluid towards Christianity, though here it should be pointed out that she neither says one must work with Christianity nor one must work with African Traditional spirituality. People are looking for spells, and this book definitely has those. There are spells for love, luck, money, protection, and half-a-dozen other needs. Hundreds of spells and workings are contained in this book, as well as recipes for conjure oils and powders, instructions for candle working, and a discussion of poppets and dolls in magical work. Some of them seem totally reasonable within the context of her presented practice, and some seem a little forced. This book fits nicely on the shelf next to other “hoodoo 101” texts, while offering a few doors to open for a reader looking to go deeper.

3)      Old World Witchcraft – by Raven Grimassi (Weiser 2011)

Don’t buy this book. I’m not even bothering providing a link to it. I’ve done a full review at Pagan Bookworm, but let me just say this text is badly researched, mis-cites or fails to cite sources, argues with scholars without presenting their actual point of view/argument, claims that graveyard dirt is just the powdered ash of tree leaves gathered in a cemetery, and says that you can become deeply knowledgable about a plant by studying its sigil. It’s bad history, bad herbalism, and bad witchcraft. All in all, this is a book which suffers from broken clock syndrome (as in, “a broken clock is right twice a day”). He occasionally hits on interesting ideas or brings up worthwhile concepts, but mostly he seems to be posing an elaborate fantasy as a pseudo-historical reality, with very little scholarly backbone to support his claims. When someone prods the gear works, the whole contraption just seems to fall apart.

4)      American Mystic, directed by Alex Mar (Empire 8 Productions, 2010)

Director Mar turns the camera on three different but spiritually similar people: Kublai, an African American man who belongs to the Spiritualist Church; Chuck, a Lakota Sioux sun dancer; and Morpheus, a pagan witch and Feri tradition priestess. The director captures the challenges of these faiths, including both internal and external struggles. While there is an element of novelty to the practices of each film subject, the director never lets curiosity turn into spectacle. The Sun Dance, which can be grueling for participants, is not simply a show of blood and muscle, but rather connects Chuck to his family in a powerful way. Kublai seems to struggle with just how much he believes in his own spiritual gifts. And Morpheus senses her displacement in the modern world, while at the same time she does not shy away from the society of other people.  The film does have its flaws, but keeps a sensitive and intelligent lens focused on these subjects and their deeply-felt spiritualism. This is a rare and lovely documentary on mysticism as seen at the ground level. Available on Netflix.

5)      All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, directed by Tim Rutili (IndiePix Films, 2010)

In this outstanding independent film from director (and bit player/musician) Tim Rutili, a lonely fortune-teller and magical worker named Zel (played by the radiant Angela Bettis) lives in an old country house inhabited by a wide range of unusual ghosts that only she can see. There are dead flappers, priests, blind musicians, and a strange, child-like woman named Nyla (Molly Wade) who cannot speak. Zel is not merely a medium, she is also a deeply talented magical worker. She smartly lays down a salt line in front of her bedroom door every night to keep her ghost-friends out. The director cleverly bookends each section of the film with bits of folk magic, title cards with things like “A wish made while burning onions will come true,” which lends to the overall enchantment of the piece. This is such a lovely and exceptional film that I easily overlooked its flaws in favor of being bespelled by these characters. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Go, watch it now! Available on Netflix.

Whew! So that’s been my reading and watch list (at least, that all the ones I could write reviews about lately). What have you been getting into?

Thanks for reading!


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