We look at the supernatural folklore and mythology of the Borderlands area along the Mexican-U.S. boundary in this episode. We talk to author, professor, and story collector David Bowles about his experiences growing up there, the legends that permeate the culture in that region, and we share one of the stories from his collections.
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
Finally, we highly recommend reading Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” which can be found in her book, Borderlands/La Frontera.
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Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too! Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Incidental music is “Were-Owl,” by S.J. Tucker, used with permission. Additional incidental music includes “Sedativa V,” by DR (FreeMusicArchive); “La Gitane,” by Eric Kamen (Magnatune); and “Soul’s Journey,” by Viviana Guzman (Magnatune).
This post is part of my ongoing series trying to use folklore, history, and contemporary accounts of folk magic to paint a picture of what “New World Witchery” might look like. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read the previous post, “What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you. I have already said there what I will reiterate here: that my attempt to lay out some sort of shape that defines New World Witchcraft practices is likely to satisfy no one (not even me). I undertake this effort largely because I think it gives me a point of reference when I’m developing other articles and trying to see how distinctly “New World” certain practices are. There will always be exceptions, of course. Rules and witchcraft have a murky, complicated relationship, a thought which brings me to the subject of today’s section:
Witchcraft is an Amoral (not Immoral) Act
Despite a common popular conception in parts of early America, most witches are not interested in worshiping a literal Christian Devil or sending random blights over their neighbors’ crops. That doesn’t mean witches do no harm—they seem to do a lot of it, at least in accounts historical and folkloric. For instance, many witches will tie up a rag to an axe handle or fence post in order to steal milk from their neighbors’ cows, thereby stealing directly from the people around them. Seldom are those targeted by witches run into ruin or completely deprived because of the witch’s interference, although it may cause them some anxiety and trouble. The magical theft seems to be an extension of the pragmatism mentioned previously, though, offering the witches involved a way to sustain themselves. There are stories of people being tormented to the point of death, of course, but as in the famous Bell Witch case, much of the lore surrounding such attacks implies that the target has wronged the witch in some way, and that the witch is simply bypassing conventional justice for her own brand (see Keith Thomas’ essay on English witchcraft for a good outline of that argument, which applies equally in a number of Colonial-era witchcraft cases).
Witchcraft is not an act of evil unless it is being labeled that way by those not practicing it, but its applications are often morally ambiguous, verging on unethical. Take for example, the case of Mont and Duck Moore in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Duck would hex livestock within the community, and then Mont would remove the curse…for a fee, of course. This was an act of commerce far more than it was an act of evil. Or at least, it was evil in proportion to its pragmatic approach to earning a living. The case of Betty Booker mentioned previously provides an example with a bit less racketeering. At the far end of the spectrum we have the case of “The Witch of Pungo,” Grace Sherwood, who provided a variety of cures for her community in Virginia, only to end up being “swum” for her troubles (fortunately, she survived the experience). Sherwood reportedly stirred up the ire of some of her neighbors through her witchy ways, but seldom held back in her condemnation of those same neighbors when they leveled accusations against her. Folk magic and witchcraft, as we have seen already, are about meeting needs, and those needs are frequently morally dubious, much more so than the people who perform conjurations to help meet those needs. Cheo Torresnoted that he was once asked what people liked to ask curanderas to do for them by a reporter. He replied: “Well, I said, young men usually want something to help them get sex…[M]idle-aged women usually want something to make their husbands love them again, sine that spark has left their lives. Middle-aged men want something to help them deal with the old aches and pains of their arthritis or their old football injuries. Older women wanted something to help them win at bingo or the lottery. And older men usually wanted something to attract younger women.” Clearly, meeting the needs of those who come to them is what creates moral ambiguity, far more than a witch’s partnership with a particular imp or spirit (although we’ll be getting to that topic soon enough).
A New World Witch is accountable to herself, and answers to her own sense of morality. Some stories demonstrate a witch paying a price exacted later by a Devil, but for the most part any suffering they find is at the hands of those who work countermagic against them—for example in tales where a hexed butterchurn is used to reverse harm upon the witch who cast the curse in the first place. One informant shared a just such a reversal with me regarding the Evil Eye:
“If your infant is thought to have been given the Evil Eye, it will display tantrums, inexplicable fits, crying, fever, coupled with nausea out of nowhere. If this is determined to be the case, the one suspected of giving the Evil Eye to the child must be confronted in front of said child, and be asked to submit (pass along with their mouth or spit in a glass of water) their saliva to the infant for it to ingest… Giving of themselves a part of them, to queue [quell] its curse.”
The person who gave the Evil Eye was expected to be a person that could be confronted, negotiated with, a part of a community that operated by informal, unofficial, but very potent magical “rules” that could flex and adjust to particular circumstances.
Justice is negotiated in individual encounters rather than through uniform rules. Witches like Sherwood may have had tempestuous personalities but still acted as forces for good in their communities. Milk-stealing witches met their needs through magic, often because they had fallen through any social networks of support that were supposed to exist in their communities, and frequently paid an eventual price for their deeds at the hands of those they’d wronged. Some witches played a system, as in the case of Mont and Duck, and were tolerated by the community at least for a time. No one, it seems, in history or folklore, expects the witch to act in a morally “mainstream” manner, but to operate under her own code of right and wrong (and any shades of gray between).
Next time: Witches Have a Lot of Friends (You Just Can’t See Many of Them).
Thanks for reading!
Today’s episode is all about the traditional Hispanic-American healing system known as curanderismo. We speak with University of New Mexico Professor Eliseo “Cheo” Torres on the topic, hear about one of the folk saints form the tradition, and enjoy a bit of lore and music as well. NOTE: THIS EPISODE IS NOT INTENDED AS MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE. Please consult a physician or medical professional if you have medical needs.
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Shannon, Little Wren, and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
We should be launching our newest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, in the next few months as well.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Promos & Music
Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).
La Tab – “Fuego Fatal”
Sergei Cheriminsky – “Mother’s Hands”
Turtle – “Grow Grotesque”
Maria Pien – “Por me que lleva” and “Fruto prohibido”
The above songs can found at the Free Music Archive and Soundcloud and are used under a Creative Commons License. The song “Mariachi Dote” by Armando Palomas is from Archive.org, and used in the Public Domain.
“If your nose is itching, someone wants to kiss you.”
“Your feet itch? You must be about to go somewhere.”
I remember my mother often sharing the little bits of proverbial wisdom throughout my childhood.
Usually they were delivered with a wink or a wry smile, and I don’t think she took them particularly seriously, but then she also wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that any one of these tokens had borne some fruit in the real world. If you think about it, assumptions about the intimate connection between a person’s body and the world around him or her are not anything new or unusual. Plenty of people have an uncle whose bunions predict snowstorms, or a grandmother whose arthritis tells of coming rain, or headaches that detect heatwaves moving in. There are plenty of other ways one’s body might help one prepare for a day outdoors, according to American lore:
Beyond those sorts of weather-related phenomena, however, bodies are reputed to be in touch with all sorts of esoteric information. Of course, obtaining pieces of a person’s body is a primary way of gaining magical control over him or her, but that, I fear, goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this brief examination will focus on the body as a giver or receiver of information, rather than a source of spell ingredients. For example, often the physical features of a person imply certain characteristics about their intellect or psychology, according to American lore:
A fat person is believed to have a good disposition and a friendly nature
A big head can be the sign of great intelligence, provided it’s not too big (which would mean a person of no wit whatsoever)
A person with a “long head” is thought to be someone of dubious morality and “unscrupulous” character
A person with a broad face is thought to be warm and friendly, while a narrow face indicates shrewdness and insensitivity
“Dimple on the chin,/ Devil within” – A dimpled chin indicates a troublemaking personality
Long arms indicate someone with a “grasping” nature, someone who will do whatever it takes to geth what he or she wants
Trimming a baby’s fingernails will turn it into a thief
And of course, cold hands mean a warm heart.
What do all of these sorts of lore have in common, then? They all seem to operate off of the ever-present Doctrine of Signatures, which we’ve seen before, and which fundamentally states that like affects like. By that logic, we can see how things like “broad face” and “big head” can be indicators of abundance with regard to particular character traits (I can only assume that the same sort of logic applies to the “fat person,” in that they have general abundance in their figure and thus must have some in their disposition towards others as well). More interesting are the less direct connections between things like trimming fingernails and later thievery in life. I would suggest that because a baby is supposed to undergo very little “reduction” during the first year or so of life (a period when their hair, body, and in some cases, teeth, are all growing more abundant), that trimming something off of the baby’s hand will make it always look for something to fill the void. That, in turn, might lead the baby to fill it with other people’s things, and thus the fear of thievery is attached to the belief. Makes sense? Coming with me on that one? (It’s fine if you don’t, of course, as these sorts of lore-bits often can have multiple meanings and origins).
Some of my favorite bodily predictors come in the form of love (and lust) lore, because they seem so appropriate to connect to how we experience our fleshly existence. I always heard that if your nose itched, someone wanted to kiss you, as I noted above (which may indicate either a lustful flag of interest if one subscribes to the nose/penis symbolism that some folklorists do, or a simple sense of “rooting out” such a person, as indicated in the paragraph on itching below). Another fairly common bit of folklore says that “a hair in your mouth means someone wants to kiss you.” Hair can have very sexual connotations (which is why it frequently gets associated with sexuality in Abrahamic religions), so its presence in the mouth would be a very reasonable indicator of lustful intent. Another bit of lore deals more with what to do if your paramour wanders off: “Throwing nail parings into a fire is a way to call a lover back to you” (okay, so this is more of a spell, but it does seem as though the nail trimmings are communicating with the other person, so I’m calling it a fit).
Itches or burning sensations on the body are of particular importance, and seem to offer very particular meaning depending on where they occur. Some examples from Kentucky lore:
If your ears burn some one is talking ill of you, while if your hand itches you will receive a present, or shake hands with a stranger.
If your right foot itches, you are to go on a journey; if the left, you are going where you are not wanted.
When your nose itches, some one is coming. If it is when you are away from home, you may know you are wanted at home.
If your right eye itches, you will cry; if the left, you will laugh.
Again, we see elements of the Doctrine of Signatures, in that ears receive the voice of others in most circumstances, so if they act in an uncharacteristic manner, they must indicate an unheard voice somewhere out in the world. Feet carry us on journies, of course, so the interesting element in that superstition is the association with particular feet and the type of journey. With the long-standing stigma against “sinister” (the original meaning of that word being “left-sided”) use of limbs, the connection between the left foot and an unpleasant journey makes some sense. The less obvious one is the nose, although we may make some guesses about why a nose would be a barometer for upcoming human contact. We might think of proverbial phrases like “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong” or a “nosy person,” and understand that noses are believed to be the body part which roots for information, particularly about the lives of others, and so the nasal connection does have some precedent.
In Mexican-American folklore, bodily functions are often regulated by “hot” or “cold” natures (not dissimilar from Ayurvedic medicine). Because of those temperature associations, people can figure out important information about a person’s state of well-being based on whether small signs on the body indicate larger imbalances within the person. A great example would be hair, which is thought to be “hot” while it grows. A person whose “heat” dies away quickly, however, will likely begin to go gray, as though his or her vitality were turning to ash on his or her head. Having long hair can also help one lose weight in this estimation, because longer hair burns off more energy, thus depleting the body of its energetic fat stores.
Surprisingly few death omens connected to anything body related. This likely reflects an anxiety that bodily warnings are incredibly frequent and common, and that death should be a rare and unusual occurance, rather than anything commonplace. One of the few bits of bodily lore connected to death has to do with the loss of a limb and its disposal. Supposedly, if one loses a limb through combat or other misfortune, and fails to take off any shoes or other vestments on the detatched extension, the person will experience phantom pains so long as the problem is not corrected.
Vance Randolph collected some interesting lore which borders on a divinatory method using the appearance of spots on fingernails:
“White spots on fingernails are supposed to represent lies, and little boys often hide their hands to avoid betraying falsehoods. However, there is a fortunetelling rhyme children use when counting these white spots :
A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, A letter to come, a journey to go.
Some people say that a large white spot means a journey.”
These sorts of counting-out rhymes often figure in children’s play, sometimes as a means of selecting play partners and sometimes with more occult connotations, as in the spot-counting rhyme above. Why white spots should indicate lies remains open to interpretation, but if I had to guess I’d assume that the spots are thought to be the actual lies trapped beneath the glass-like surface of the nail, demonstrating that lies always come up for air, sooner or later.
I’ll close today with a little tidbit from a somewhat older book (originally published in England, but likely in circulation throughout the British colonies), which is devoted to divination via dreams and moles on the body. The entire second half of the pamphlet is about moles and their meanings, and often provides startlingly specific and inalienable interpretations of mole size, shape, and position. One such indicator: “If a Mole is on the crown of the head, it shews another on the nape of the neck, and the party witty, and to have good natural parts: but that he will die poor.” I would say that indicates that a pair of moles is a bit of a mixed bag, wouldn’t you? I think I’ll go back to being a bit heavyset and being perceived as friendly, then.
We begin 2015 wih a look at protection spells, as well as some talismans of interest. We also have an adorable background guest star visitng us. Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 73
Some of the various protective charms and talismans we discuss include: horsehoes, silver (including Mercury dimes), salt, iron, evil eye beads, the ojo de dios/God’s eye, dreamcatchers, gargoyles, the rowan cross, the SATOR and Abracadabra charms, and High John root.
I mention (and recommend) the Sweet Dreams oil from Mrs. Oddly
Tonight we have an interview with the magical Carolina Gonzalez, a curandera based in the Canary Islands. We’ll also have a brief overview of what curanderismo and brujeria are, and we announce a new contest!
Please send in contest entries to email@example.com! We are giving away a copy of 54 Devils (my book, in either digital or print form, whichever you prefer) and a digital copy of Carolina Gonzalez’s book on reading the Spanish cards as well. All you have to do is send us your weirdest or most unique piece of personal holiday lore, along with a name we can read on-air and a general location (‘Illinois’ or ‘the Midwest,’ for example).
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
In tonight’s episode (slightly belated, my apologies), we have an excellent discussion of Sacred Artistry and Enchanted Worldviews with the wonderful Bri Saussy. I bookend the interview with a pair of readings on the topic as well. Thanks for your patience, and I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did!
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.
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!
It’s not quite officially summer yet, technically speaking, but the days are longer and the air is warmer, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit a subject which I explored last summer and add a new chapter to the book of New World Witchery. Today I’ll be looking again at Saints, but veering away from the orthodox and the official and into the realm of popular or “folk” saints.
The process of canonization frequently involves a great deal of waiting and confirming and bureaucracy on the part of the Catholic church, and sometimes folk saints are simply people who are on the way to becoming official saints but who still lack whatever final paperwork might be required to get their membership card into the elect order. In other cases, folk saints have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and instead are simply incredibly popular figures who’ve developed devotional cults which make sacred pilgrimages or maintain shrines to a particular figure. Some of this was discussed on the Podcast Special on Magical Saints a while back, where I highlighted both official and unofficial saints, so some of the information below may be a bit repetitive, but it can’t hurt to have a little more information.
So what sets a folk saint apart from a revered ancestor, then? How is that “sainthood” bestowed, if not through the channels of a legitimizing body like the church? In general, the holiness of the saint empowers him or her—the saint is either directly in communion with the divine or is a transformed divinity him- or herself. Take for example, Teresa Urrea, whom we examine below in a bit more detail. She underwent a number of ecstatic ‘fits,’ during which she attended the court of God:
A mythology quickly grew up around each of the folk saints, attracting ever more adherents. The content of this cycle of stories is remarkably similar, although the parallels here are closer between Teresa and [folk saint Nino] Fidencio, than between these two and [San] Damian [of Sonora]. Teresa was thought to be in continual contact with supernatural beings during her ecstatic attacks. When these occurred, an immense multitude of people approached her, kneeling, praying, and weeping. When she returned to herself, she announced that she had been with God and his angels who gave her advice on morality (Macklin 94).
The divine actions of these saints frequently came at great personal expense. Some gave away worldly possessions, and others sacrificed their health and well-being for the aid of those who came to them:
These folk healers worked hard, sometimes seeing hundreds of people per day, and sometimes getting little sleep for long periods of time. Both El Nino and Teresita are conjectured to have died young partly as a result of exhaustion from years of labor. They also worked for little or no compensation. These old-time curanderos were regarded as folk saints while they were still alive—that is, they were recognized by la gente (the people) as holy beings, even while they were not officially canonized as such by the church (Torres 6).
Still, there are cases where a saint does not act particularly saintly and yet develops a strong following. Maximon, the Guatemalan folk saint who likely derives from a native deity very loosely wrapped in a Catholic guise—his name derives from the name San Simon, or St. Simon, but clearly even that name doesn’t stick—can be fickle and demanding, and generally provides assistance to people through wealth rather than health. Jesus Malverde works on behalf of the narcotraficantes and other outlaws. While Elvis certainly accomplished a lot in his lifetime, no one is making the case for his sainthood based on his receiving angelic lessons on morality during ecstatic trances.
The cult of folk saints is widely practiced and very popular among Hispanic populations, although it is not exclusively limited to them by any means. In some cases, the folk saint in question is a cultural hero of some kind (see Pancho Villa below), and the combination of exalted personality and the practice of Catholic ceremony merge to form the folk saint reverence tradition. In other situations, displaced native spirits have been overlaid with legitimate or semi-legitimate identities (see Maximon and La Guadalupe). However, any iconic figure can inspire intense devotion, and that devotion can eventually translate into folk sainthood.
The methods for revering folk saints can include anything from simply maintaining an image of that person to praying to them for intercession and making votive offerings to elaborate undertakings like pilgrimages. Most saints have likes and dislikes, preferences for particular appeasements, etc. Some are quite specific (Expedite requires a slice of Sara Lee pound cake for the performance of his brand of intercession, for example). Others seem happy with any heartfelt act of devotion.
The remainder of this article will be devoted to looking—very briefly—at half a dozen or so common folk saints based out of North America. This is hardly a complete list, nor are the entries here going into nearly enough detail on any of the saints mentioned, but hopefully it will provide a reasonable jumping-off point for learning more.
Teresita – “Teresita Urrea the curandera, who passed through New Mexico around the turn of last century and who left behind her the rumor of her great legend” (Torres 91). Apprenticed to a curandera named Huila, the woman born Teresa Urrea who became affectionately known as Teresita came from an aristocratic father and peasant mother. In addition to healing, she could heal and hypnotize. Photos of her performing healings can be found in the book Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing, by Eliseo ‘Cheo’Torres, and you can see one at this link as well. At a young age, she suffered a coma and near death after an attempted rape. Upon her recovery, she took up curanderismo and became famous for her tireless healings of the poor and marginalized communities in the Mexican-American borderlands. She was described as “[w]orking herself toward an early grave from the beginning” (Torres 97). Teresita befriended the Yaqui Indians, and was revered by many as a living saint within her lifetime. Known as the Saint of Cabora, she sought to heal anyone and right political wrongs done the native and mestizo peoples she worked with. She died in 1906 after working to the point of exhaustion. Cheo Torres acknowledges that “at least a couple of different versions of the story have circulated over the years” (Torres 101).
El Nino Fidencio – A deeply religious young man from Espinazo, Mexico, who performed a number of faith healings and miracles during his lifetime, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino showed promise in his calling from a very early age (which is why he was given the epithet “el nino,” or “the child”). His abilities were so great he was reputed to be able to perform miracles from miles away. He managed to do not just distance healing, but amputations and surgeries to remove illness. He had a variety of other unorthodox and alternative healing methods as well. He is said to have kept a garden with two hundred herbs which he processed into cures, and he frequently “prescribed herbal baths, nutritional therapy, and laughter. He rolled people in dirt. He sat the mentally ill on children’s swings and incorporated singing and dance into his cures” (Illes 285). The church where he is buried has “mementoes included such items as desiccated body parts in glass jars that El Nino had removed through amputation or excision, and the broken bottles that he had sometimes used to perform the surgeries” (Torres 21). El Nino Fidencio is sought in hopeless cases and has a highly active cult following. He died young, only about 40 years old. While he’s not officially recognized as a saint, his propensity for performing miraculous healings and his religious faith (he was a devout Catholic) make him resemble other canonized saints fairly closely. Some of his devotees keep “little boxes” through which his healing power is supposed to be channeled (“Nino Fidencio” Wikipedia).
Pancho Villa – This historical figure was seen as a military hero by some and a scandalous villain by others. He was a general who led the division del norte during the Mexican Revolution, and he had a very Robin Hood-esque reputation. While his guerilla tactics included train robbery and land confiscation, he frequently distributed his takings among his soldiers and the local poor, which made him—unsurprisingly—tremendously popular. He was born Jose Doroteo Villa (he and I share a birthday, which makes me like him even more), and he demonstrated a strong combination of political and military savvy very quickly in his career. In the United States, we know him best for his attacks in the Texas/New Mexico region, but his activity in Mexico was much wider, including governorship of the state of Chihuaha and serving a primary pro-democracy leader during the period of Mexican civil war. He was assassinated in his car in 1923, and was reportedly “found in the driver seat of the car, with one hand reaching for his gun” (“Pancho Villa” Wikipedia). “Give Pancho Villa cheap cigars, cigarettes, and tequila. The general despised the pretentious, overpriced, or refined. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have good taste. If you can offer him something cheap and good, all the better!” (Illes 553-4). It is said that he likes to grope or pinch women who attract his attention.
Maximon –This Guatemalan folk saint bears a striking resemblance to the “Man in Black” found in other traditions like African Amercican hoodoo. He is seen as a saint syncretized to St. Simon Peter, but any adoption into the Catholic assembly of saints is superficial and tenuous. He likely derives from “a pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld formerly known as Maam (‘grandfather’)” (Lucky Mojo 1). He is offered rum and cigarettes (statues of the saint frequently smoke the cigarettes as part of the offering ritual) and is thought to provide aid to his votaries in matters of love, health, and money, but also in exacting vengeance on enemies. His cult is particularly strong in the town of Santiago Atitlan, where his attendants remain constantly with his effigy. Judika Illes recommends washing the clothing from the Maximon “doll” with citronella and lemongrass oil, then keeping the rinse water to use in magical work (Illes 506).
St. Expedite – This saint inhabits a tenuous space in the heavenly assembly—no one is quite sure if he existed, or if he might just be the result of a shipping mistake in which another saint’s statue was labeled for fast delivery—in a box labeled ‘EXPEDITE’, or sometimes the Italian ‘SPEDITO’—and the name stuck to the figure (or in some versions, the body of an unknown saint) and became a holy helper in its own right. The official Catholic story of Expeditus (as he is sometimes known) places him in the fourth century CE, a late Roman imperial soldier whose iconography shows him stepping on a crow which calls out ‘cras!,’ a sound similar to a caw but which also means “tomorrow” in Latin, hence his reputation for getting things done today (Catholic Online 1). “Saint Expedite is controversial. He has a reputation for unscrupulousness. He is rumored to assist sorcerors with curses and revenge spells; although some devotees vociferously deny that this is true, insisting that he will only fulfill benign petitions” (Illes 281). Offerings for Expedite include a slice of Sara Lee pound cake or red carnations. He’s become incredibly popular in folk Catholicism and some branches of hoodoo, and his devotional images and candles are usually readily available.
Elvis – Being a southerner, I can’t help but mention Elvis. The King of Rock and Roll serves as a sort of patron saint to his fans, who embody their fantaticism with all the hallmarks of religious devotion, including pilgrimages to his home at Graceland in Memphis and by setting up altars with his image on them. He also has a folk mythology surrounding him, including appearances from beyond the grave, miraculous healings, and even the persistent myth that he is still alive. His cult is part kitsch and part true devotion, and it’s very distinct. Some dress like Elvis as a way to honor him or perpetuate his memory, and some leave out offerings of peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches (a favorite food of the King, though he appreciated just about any rich southern dish). He can be petitioned for any number of needs, including healing, musical and artistic inspiration, wisdom and guidance, and overcoming addictions. I think of Elvis as a very special sort of folk saint—one in living memory for many of his devotees and deeply flawed in his personal life, but one who provided joy for millions of people both during and after his time as a mortal. I was an enormous Elvis fan for much of my childhood, despite not having been born at the time of his death. The King has found an especial home in the Latin American community, where he is frequently depicted in skeletal form in Day of the Dead (dia de muertos) celebrations and decorations (Illes 267). Another recommended offering for him? Teddy bears.
Jesus Malverde – In the realm of controversial and unofficial saints, Jesus Malverde is right at the top, alongside a similar roguish hero, Pancho Villa. Known as a “narco-Saint,” this figure guards and protects those involved in illegal activities, particularly those working in the drug trafficking trade. His depictions make him look less like a Catholic Christ figure and far more like a landowning Hispanic gentleman from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is fitting, as one legend describes him as “a Robin Hood figure of the early 1900’s that was hanged by the governor. He himself did not traffic drugs, but after his death his reputation for working miracles drew faith strongest among Sinaloa’s poor and highland residents, the classes from which narco-traffickers emerged. Malverde has become the patron saint for many drug smugglers, though the local diocese says the Malverde chapel is an embarrassment. The priests lament the glorification of a man who robbed and killed, though citizens of Sinaloa have found it harder to have faith in a political system that enforces a drug war responsible for the many deaths of their own people. Historians cannot seem to find documentation of his existence, but even still miracles such as the healing of the blind and crippled, the returning of lost cattle, and the saving of a drowning man have been attributed to him” (U. Texas Library 1). In some ways he resembles the folk outlaw figure Zorro, but with less of a penchant for clean living. Malverde’s shrine is used by those who deal with the drug trade, not only those who transport the drugs but families who pray for his protection over loved ones facing criminal charges.
As you can probably guess, the practice of folk-saint veneration is strongest in communities with a heavy Catholic background, and all of the saints above either come from Hispanic backgrounds or have been added into Hispanic folk practices (as in the case of Elvis). There are many folk saints who do not have the strong Hispanic connections mentioned here, of course, and hopefully one day I’ll get around to some of them as well. For now, I hope this has at least whetted your appetite to know more about the intriguing and enchanting pantheon of folk saints in the Americas.
Thanks for reading!