Blog Post 176 – Summer Saints, part III (Folk Saints)

Shrine to Elvis, by theogeo, from Flickr (used under Creative Commons license)

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 taking Zacatecas, by Angel Boliver (via Wikimedia Commons)

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 Shrine on Reunion Island, by David Monniaux (via Wikimedia Commons)

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!

-Cory

SOURCES

  1. Illes, Judika. The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages (HarperOne, 2011).
  2. Jesus Malverde: El Narco-Santon,” U. Texas Library – Narcocorridos site.
  3. Knab, Timothy J. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of Contemporary Aztecs (Harper San Francisco, 1997).
  4. Macklin, Barbara J. and N. Ross Crumrine. “Three North Mexican Folk Saint Movements,” Comparative Studies in Society & History (Cambridge UP, Jan. 1973).
  5. Mestizo & Indigineous Culture Pinterest board: Teresa Urrea (photo credit).
  6. Nino Fidencio,” from Wikipedia.
  7. Pancho Villa,” from Wikipedia.
  8. St. Expeditus,” Catholic Online.
  9. Torres, Eliseo ‘Cheo.’ Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2005).
  10. Yronwode, Catherine. “Maximon,” from the Lucky Mojo webpage.

Blog Post 175 – Obsidian

Obsidian blade (picture via Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t normally post on stones or gems, as they aren’t a major component of historic folk magic in North America, but some stones do appear and are extremely important. Sometimes the stones in question will be a generic type of stone—one with a natural hole worn in it or sea glass of some kind—but every once in a while we find a North American magical practice which makes specific use of a particular type of mineral.

Today I want to briefly look at the dark, beautiful volcanic glass known as obsidian. It is a very special sort of mineral, because its edge can be sharpened finer than surgical steel and cuts incredibly smoothly, and its glassy black surface seems to be endlessly deep. Both of these attributes have influenced obsidian’s place in folk magic.

Blades made of obsidian have been around for a very long time. They were used as part of Aztec sacrificial rituals as well as implements of war, as you can see from this fragment of Aztec poetry glorifying the role of the sacrificial offering/victim:

O Giver of Life!
Your sacrifice is like emeralds and turquoises.
It is the happiness and wealth of princes
To die at the edge of the obsidian,
To die in war (Kelly 525)

Obsidian was sometimes carved into funerary ornaments as well, and placed with corpses along with other grave goods. The precedents set by native ancestors has translated into the use of obsidian in Hispanic magical work today, such as the practices of curanderos and brujos. The cutting edge of the stone has kept its significance, albeit adapted to an era in which human sacrifice is not common practice.

Dr. Timothy Knab’s War of the Witches mentions flaked obsidian blades as something used for protection:

As soon as the door was closed, we barred it, and then Rubia opened her reed box. Inside, wrapped in an embroidered cloth, were the same dozens of parches of fur, buzzard beaks, and claws from different animals, but there wer also some flakes of obsidian and potsherds that I hadn’t seen in Inocente’s bag. I asked her about those objects first, and she told me they were from the ancestors and that they would help me see and talk with those who still lived in the world of darkeness (Knab 91)

Knab also notes that Rubia told him to use an obsidian blade to help locate his friend in the Otherworld. The ancestral connection and the link to the dead is important. Obsidian is not typically used as a gravestone by itself, yet its dark color and the ease with which it can be used to kill (not to mention that some obsidian even has blood-red flecks and streaks in it) seem to tie it to the realm of death.

A chapbook on prayers to the Holy Death (Santa Muerte) also has a specialized spell focusing on blessing obsidian blades to be placed over the doorways to the home (razor blades or knives can also be used, but it seems obsidian was the original form):

To Protect the Home (Shielding Blades)

Lady of the darkness

Watch over the space and destiny,

For your humble servant and keep the

Loved ones away from those of evil will,

Let them change their ways to please your will,

Let the light come after the dark

So that your kingdom is before us all day long.

Bless these blades,

Allow them to cut the evil winds before they eneter,

To give advice on how to push enemies away,

To keep away the fury of the elements,

Repel negative intentions

And fill my home with joy,

For all this is not possible without you.

(Place blades in the high parts of the doors and windows in places where they will not fall nor be reached by underaged kids. Every full moon they must be replaced. These blades can be small obsidian edges or shaving blades) (Casa 32)

Of course, if you’re using obsidian blades, throwing them away every month is wasteful—so is throwing away a shaving blade, really—so I would be interested to see if some lore may yet surface about recharging the existing blades, perhaps blessing and cleansing them prior to a second use.

While much of the lore of obsidian in magic ties it to Central American and Latin American cultures, I have been able to find it in other places and among other groups as well. One source notes that a California tribe called the Wiyot performed a jumping-dance while holding blades of obsidian (Sparkman 38).  The Pacific Northwest, which has its share of obsidian scattered across the region, also has some Native lore about the ink-dark mineral. The Hoh and Quileute tribes of Washington state have a folktale about “Obsidian Boy,” whose body is so hard it breaks the hands, feet, and heads of those who attempt to strike him (Reagan 333).

When I visited the British Museum a decade or so ago, I got to glimpse Dr. John Dee’s famed magic mirror, which is also said to be made of obsidian taken from the New World. He used it to communicate through his compatriot, Edward Kelley, with angels and discovered Enochian magic. I am not sure of how widespread obsidian’s use might have been in Europe, but Dee clearly valued it highly enough to make one of his primary tools out of the substance.

Obsidian’s sharpness and hardness make it symbolically very powerful for protection, and its murky luster adds to the sense of holiness and mystery. I can very well imagine that it might be used for all its purposes simultaneously, acting as a defensive weapon during shamanistic trance states. Obsidian is still easily found, and some surgeons even use it in place of steel due to its keen edge. Within modern contexts it has become a popular New Age stone, although I couldn’t begin to tell you what its applications are in modern metaphysics. Obsidian, born of fire and earth, used to sacrifice and protect, sacred and mysterious, certainly captures the imagination. If you have any lore regarding its use or meaning, I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Sources

  1. Casa, Calli. The Magical Powers of the Holy Death, 2010.
  2. Kelley, Patricia Fernandez. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” American Quarterly, Dec. 1974.
  3. Knab, Timothy J. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of Contemporary Aztecs, 1997.
  4. Reagan, Albert B., and L. V. Walters. “Tales from the Hoh and Quileute,” Journal of American Folklore, Winter 1933.
  5. Sparkman, P.S., et. al. “Notes on California Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Spring 1908.

Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

Summary: In this episode, I’ll be telling stories from American folklore about how people learn witchcraft. We’ll hear tales of initiation and apprenticeship, solitary witches, witch apprenticeships, and find out just what witches do.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery Special – Learning Witchcraft

 

Stories:

 

Promos & Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com

All incidental music comes from the group Falling You, from the album Touch,  on Magnatune. Songs include:

  • “Sadness of the Witch”
  • “The Art of Possession”
  • “Less Likely to Believe”
  • “Something About Eve”
  • “Reading the Leaves”

Blog Post 158 – The Doctrine of Signatures

Greetings everyone!

In this entry, I want to talk a little bit about a concept that can get very sticky, and which may very well put me at the outer limits of credibility. Before I dig into the meat of the subject, however, I think I should remind everyone that THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG. NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE IS INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE FOR ANY ILLNESS, AILMENT, OR CONDITION. IF YOU HAVE A MEDICAL NEED, PLEASE SEE YOUR PHYSICIAN OR QUALIFIED HEALTH PROVIDER. ALL INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN IS STRICTLY IN THE INTEREST OF PRESENTING FOLKLORE AND PERSONAL OPINION.

Now that the big, scary, all-caps part of the post is done, let’s talk about the Doctrine of Signatures. I was actually rather surprised after our last episode to hear from several people that the concept of the DOS was unfamiliar to them. I realized at some point that the ideas founding the DOS were so internalized, and I was assuming that most people who worked with herbs had heard of those concepts. Now I’m thinking that I may have just been sort of lucky to have picked that information up early on (I know my mother shared a bit of that with me based on herbs she grew and I learned a lot of it from my first few years as a practicing neo-Pagan hanging around rock and herb shops).

So what is the Doctrine of Signatures? In this case, I think I’ll leave the general explanation to better folklorists than myself. First, I’m going to quote a somewhat neutral (though erring on the side of skepticism) article by folklorist Wayland D. Hand:

“Advocates of nature’s way in natural and organically grown foods, probably still have a lingering belief in the doctrine that for every illness with which man is afflicted God himself has provided a healing agent. All one has to do is to learn to seek out these wondrous plants. It was on this essential premise that the Doctrine of Signatures was enunciated by Paracelsus, Giambattista Porta and the early botanists. This theory is most ably stated by William Turner, an English botanist, who in his The New Herbal of 1551, wrote: ‘God hath imprinted upon plants, herbs, and flowers, as it were, a hieroglyphic, the very  signature of their vertues, as on the nutmeg, which, being cut, resembles the brain.’ Writing a half a century later, Johannes Franck, one of the leading German botanists of his day, compiled a book which  he called Signature, that is, a Basic and True Description of Plants Created by God and Nature. This doctrine went somewhat beyond the shape and color of plants to their activity and function. One of the earliest examples of this kind of sympathetic connection is found in the writings of Pliny the Elder who flourished in the first century, A.D. Calcifrage was recommended to combat the stone. This prescription  comes form the fact that this hardy plant which could penetrate the fissures of the hardest face of a cliff, would certainly be able to break up kidney and gallstones, as the name of the plant itself suggests:  calci-frage, ‘stone breaking.’” (Hand, “Magical Medicine,” Western Folklore)

Next, let’s look at a much older (and much more cynical) opinion about this idea, from plant folk-lorist T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, whose Folk Lore of Plants is something of a classic:

“The old medical theory, which supposed that plants by their external character indicated the particular diseases for which Nature had intended them as remedies, was simply a development of the much older notion of a real connection between object and image. Thus, on this principle, it was asserted that the properties of substances were frequently denoted by their colour; hence, white was regarded as refrigerant, and red as hot. In the same way, for disorders of the blood, burnt purple, pomegranate seeds, mulberries, and other red ingredients were dissolved in the patient’s drink; and for liver complaints yellow substances were recommended. But this fanciful and erroneous notion ‘led to serious errors in practice,’ and was occasionally productive of the most fatal results.” (Dyer, TFLOP, Chapter XVI)

The idea of plants bearing the divine mark which indicated their use is a very old concept. Hand notes that Pliny the Elder recorded such an idea, and it was debated even in his time with question to the validity of this method.  The idea—in one form or another—appears in herbal medicinal systems throughout the world, including Chinese traditional herbalism and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.  Many people swear by it, and a number of ‘yarb doctors’ have treated ailments with it for centuries with relative success. Yet at the same time, the doctrine has been misused, misapplied, or just plain wrong in some cases and has caused an increase in illness or injury.

I bring up the DOS at all because it’s so fundamental to New World magical concepts. The idea that God, the Creator, or some other spiritual force has set in motion a world which bears hallmarks of its design seems to have been taken as de facto truth among many early settlers in America, particularly poor folks with limited access to medical treatment. An entire profession of folk herbalism, or “yarb doctors” arose in the Appalachians, and similar practices (such as curanderismo in the Southwest) appeared elsewhere. In most cases, these medicine men and women did not make their primary living off of their knowledge of herbs and plants, but rather in many cases refused payment for such services, feeling that it was their God-given duty to render help when help was needed. Of course, such high-mindedness was not universal, but even in cases where money or goods changed hands, yarb doctors cost less than a typical doctor in most instances.

Determining which plants have which signatures is a strange and murky process. For instance, an herb with heart-shaped leaves might be good for treating a physical heart problem, an emotional disorder, working a love charm, etc. The hairy stems of mint might indicate that it has the ability to ‘prickle’ the lungs and stimulate respiration, or they might signal that rubbing mint on one’s scalp would stimulate hair growth. The tall and showy joe pye weed, which has the nickname ‘gravel root,’ is used to treat kidney stones—frequently referred to as ‘gravel’—but its hollow stems might signal a use in treating sore throats as well as problems of the urinary tract, which both feature hollow tubes leading to external orifices. In this latter case, we can see another important aspect of the Doctrine, in which many plants receive their folk names based on their folk medical uses (boneset, feverfew, eyebright, etc.). Critics of the DOS sometimes point out that the retroactive ascription of signs to the plants, such as noticing that joe pye weed has hollow stems and therefore would be good for urinary problems, does not indicate a heavenly marking of use, but rather makes for an easy mnemonic device for remembering what plants are good for what ailments.  Further complicating the matter, some signatures are not visual markings, but rather based on sounds the plant makes when shaken, for example, or perhaps on a specific odor the plant emits.

There are also potential problems separating out a ‘signature’ from a legendary or mythical ascription of plant demarcation. Passionflower, which I’ve written about previously, is a good example of layered interpretation, with the numerical and color symbology of the plant being so closely linked to Christian mythology that the flower essentially contains a sermon. Was passionflower marked, given its unusual structure by a Creator to illustrate a story? Likewise, a number of plants are reputed to have some tie to the Crucifixion in Christian myth, such as the holly berry. Thiselton-Dyer also records a similar blood-staining myth related to poppies, in which they have been dyed by the blood of St. Margaret. In these cases, the plants are ‘marked,’ but not necessarily for use. They bear the signs of an interested and involved divine power, but are not strictly Doctrine of Signatures material since those signs illustrate a story and not a practical application. Yet, by a stretch of imagination, one could link the poppy’s use as an opiate and intoxicant to the story of St. Margaret, who famously battled a dragon. Since the use of poppy-derived-opium (and its relative, heroin) was known for a time as “chasing the dragon,” the connection does, by a bizarre happenstance, make some degree of sense. But was the flower marked with foreknowledge of the phrase, and thus was it pre-figurative? Or is all of this just strange coincidence?

It’s probably time for me to come clean, as I’ve been sort of dancing around my opinion on the Doctrine of Signatures. I’m a believer. Not a hard-and-fast, every-plant-bears-a-signature-and-medical-science-is-quackery kind of believer, but I tend to think that the DOS has some validity. My personal work with herbs and plants has led me to see the connections between their form and their functions. I don’t think that we necessarily understand every signature in every plant, and I do think that we frequently misinterpret the signs we see, but I do think that there’s an element of deliberate design within most flora that has to do with its use. This probably hedges a bit close to the Intelligent Design argument for some folks, and I don’t want to get bogged down in that discussion. I don’t make claims as to who marked the plants—perhaps they mark themselves in some way, for all I know. And I don’t necessarily think that I could wander into a meadow, find a foot-shaped plant, and use it to treat bunions and corns. I tend to agree with the skeptics about the retro ascription of plant signatures that human understanding of the plant signatures comes after we figure out what they are used for. But that does not diminish—to me—the idea that the design is implicitly connected to the use. It only emphasizes that we should be paying much more attention to what plants have to teach us, and to the hidden language of the world working around us.

So that’s my nutshell version of the Doctrine of Signatures. There are many authors who discuss this concept more handily than I have here, so please do some research and see what you think of the whole thing. Have you ever noticed signatures in plants (or even in animals, weather phenomena, etc., which are sometimes included in an extended version of this doctrine)?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 156 – Passionflower

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.’” [21] (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.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 153 – American Ginseng

Hello dedicated (and not abandoned!) readers!

This month, I’m going to be spending a lot of time looking at various botanicals found throughout North American magical practice. What with it being springtime and all, I thought a little stroll through our native meadows, forests, fields, and fens would be a good way to get back in the swing of things, and might even open up some new avenues of exploration for somebody. As always let me emphasize that THIS IS NOT A  MEDICAL BLOG, AND THE INFORMATION HERE IS NOT INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE MEDICALLY PROVIDE FOR ANY ILLNESS OR AILMENT. ALL INFORMATION IS PROVIDED AS FOLKLORE ONLY!!!

I’m starting with a plant that may or may not be familiar to most people: American Ginseng (panax quinquefolia).  This plant can be found throughout the mountainous regions of North America ranging from Canada down to the Southern states. It’s long been highly valued in Chinese medicine, and has been considered a panacea (hence its botanical Latinate name of panax) for a wide variety of complaints. You can read a good bit about the botanical and medical side of the plant at its Botanical.com entry, so I’ll focus today more on the folklore side of this incredibly useful root.

When I was growing up in the rural South, I had a good friend in high school whose father would regularly take him ginseng hunting (or “sanging”) in the hills and mountain areas a few hours away. It was a profitable side business for them, as it has been for mountain folk for nearly three centuries. In the Foxfire Book #3, which includes a whole chapter dedicated to ginseng, there’s a history dating back to the early 18th century in which Father Joseph Lafitau had local Mowhawk tribes in Canada begin gathering and curing native ginseng for sale on the Chinese market (244). At one point, ginseng was reputed to be worth its weight in gold, literally. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies includes this tidbit about the economic value of the root: “Even Daniel Boone gathered it [ginseng] to sell because it was more profitable than hunting and trapping” (18). Unfortunately this demand led to an overzealous glut of wild harvesting, and ginseng’s botanical population dwindled steadily into the early 20th century. It’s made something of a comeback in the last 50-60 years due to stricter laws governing its harvesting, but as my story about my friend’s family demonstrates, it’s still a very common practice and hard to regulate.

Mountain communities have long known the curative and tonic value of ginseng root. Looking again to Foxfire #3, we find the following:

“The early colonists not only gathered ginseng for sale, but used it in tea to encourage the appetite or strengthen the digestion, especially of elderly persons or puny children. Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey. An early herbal suggested gathering ginseng root and steeping it with chamomile flowers for fainting females” (247)

Its primary powers are to enhance male vigor, and its described as a potent aphrodisiac in a number of sources. This may be due to either its stimulant effect on the circulatory system or the distinctively humanoid shape of the root (a factor which has earned aphrodisiac and potentcy attributions for other roots like mandrake and ginger). Preparations vary from chewing slices of the fresh root to brewing teas to even more unorthodox decoctions. One informant’s method:

“‘You can take the roots that are dry and take a sausage mill or something and grind’em up and drop a pretty good little handful down into your vial of conversation juice [moonshine]. Take this ginseng and liquor and pour out just a small little amount of that ina teacup and set it afire. Strike a match to it, you know, and it’ll burn. And I mean burn it good. And then turn it up and drink it. It’s an awful bitter dose to swallow, but if it don’t do you some good you better get to a doctor and pretty durn fast. It really is good for that [male vigor]. And it’s also good for female disorders. Very good, they tell me, for that’”(Foxfire #3 250-1)

In one example I found, the act of finding ginseng has its own value. From Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia: “For some, the pursuit of ‘sang’ and other herbs is a therapeutic activity in itself. A ninety-year-old woman from eastern Tennessee said: ‘When I feel down in the dumps, I go sangin’” (60).

Therapeutic uses of ginseng in modern preparations reflect its historical value. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies recommends it as a tonic and aphrodisiac, and gives this recipe for a male tonic:

“TONIC FOR MEN: Mix ½ ounce each of ginseng, shepherd’s purse, corn silk and parsley. Mix well and add 1 teaspoon of the mixture to 1 cup of boiling water. Let steep 15 minutes, covered. Strain and sweeten if desired. Drink several cups per day for 1 week. This helps to tone up the male reproductive organs. The stimulation to the prostate is helpful to all parts of the system” (120)

It also considers ginseng one of the great coffee subsitutes available in the wild. It is still considered a great digestive aid, as well. The folklore tome Kentucky Superstitions calls it “A sure remedy for all kinds of stomach trouble” (107).

In the folk magical realm, ginseng again parallels its medicinal uses, as well as adding a few new tricks to its repertoire. Cat Yronwode describes a recipe for soaking a ginseng root in Holy Oil which can then be used to anoint the male genetalia to enhance sexual performance. She also mentions it’s a key component of an old-timey gambling mojo, too. The root seems to have made its way into curanderismo practice as well, as the Curious Curandera lists the following uses for it: “Love, wishes, protection, luck, spirit communication, visions, divination, male vigor, gambling luck, to control another.” And Judika Illes, in her oft-recommended tome The Encylopedia of 5000 Spells, gives a number of great magical applications for ginseng root:

  • Tie a red thread around a ginseng root and carry with you for beauty and grace (1026)
  • Wrapping the first dollar earned at a new business around a ginseng root w/ red thread will help improve income (167)
  • Mentions its name as “Wonder of the World root,” and tells how it can be used in hoodoo to enhance longevity, libido, & performance in sexual situations (527). Also says you can carve a wish on a whole root & toss it into running water to gain what you desire (763).
  • Can be burned to break curses (598)

This incredibly verstatile root definitely has a place in a folk magician’s cupboard, though I would recommend acquiring it from legal sources. While I’m normally an advocate of wild harvesting roots for practice, in ginseng’s case three centuries of such harvesting have taken a toll, and since it grows well in cultivation I’d rather see the wild stocks remain alive and untouched for a long time to come.

If you have experience with ginseng or know of any unique magical applications for it, I’d love to hear them! Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 138 – Curandero Spells, part II

Hello again! Today we’re finishing up our look at the small selection of curandero spells I started in our last post. We’re looking at technique mostly, and I’ve got a couple of other spells that might be of interest to you at the end of the post. Let me reiterate that these ideas ARE NOT MEANT TO REPLACE MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE, but are merely provided as folkloric examples of a vibrant cultural practice. And now, our exciting conclusion!

Techniques
Curanderos use a variety of techniques to do their work, often depending on the specialty of the worker or the case at hand. Some workers only do herbal remedies, while others also work with a certain degree of Western conventional medicine, recommending vitamins or over-the-counter medications in conjunction with regular prayers.

SmokingCuranderos frequently smoke their clients with herbs or incense in order to cleanse them of negative effects. The incense used may be church incense (often called “Gloria Incense” in religious supply stores) or a homemade concoction of ground up herbs, roots, barks, and resins. The patient usually stands while the curandero walks around him or her, wafting the smoke onto the torso, arms, legs, and head. Sometimes the smoke is used to “seal” a person to prevent any bad influences from getting in after a limpia has been performed.

Rubbing – A major component of curanderismo practice is rubbing. Eggs, fruit, plants, and sometimes just hands are rubbed over the body with massaging techniques to help alleviate symptoms and empower curative spells. Clothes are almost always left on, and most curanderos are very careful not to touch anyone in ways that would make them feel morally compromised. This does not mean that the patient feels no pain, however. Frequently the massages are very intensive, and rubbing can turn into a light beating fairly quickly during major cleansings. You can see an example of the herb-rubbing (or flogging) technique in this YouTube video from Gurreros de Sangre.

Burning – Thankfully, not the burning of actual people but rather the burning of used ingredients and tools. Herbs, eggs, cloth, and other items may be burned once they’ve been used to perform cleansings so that any evil influences they’ve collected will be destroyed. Sometimes alcohol is used to facilitate a burn, and sometimes the items are simply tossed into a fire or onto hot coals. Candles, of course, are also burned to provide magical or miraculous effects.

Prayer – This has already been covered a good bit in the “Tools” section of the previous post, so here I’ll just say that the prayers are almost always spoken aloud, even if only half-mumbled. Something about the sound is vitally important to affecting the cure.

For a Few Spells More
To finish up, I thought I’d share a couple of other spells which are not strictly speaking part of curanderismo, though both of them come from people who practice within some version of that tradition. The first comes from Eliseo “Cheo” Torres and his book Curandero. It’s a spell I’ve seen versions of in multiple magical traditions, so I’m not sure if it originates in Hispanic folk magic or if it simply has made its way into those practices, but either way, here it is:

 A method for battling stress called “los siete nudos” or The Seven Knots:

One takes a red ribbon, ties one knot in the center of it while focusing on a major problem. Then he/she begins tying six more knots, about four inches apart, alternaitng right and left of the knot, like this:
1)  —————X—————-
2) —————-X———X——
3) ——X——–X———X——

  …and so on until one gets a ribbon looking something like this:

—X—X—X—X—X—X—X—

 The completed cord is placed in a sealable container, like a mason jar or a babyfood jar.The sealed jar is then buried in the backyard. While tying the knots, the person is to strongly picture the particular worries in his or her life that he or she wishes to be rod of. Tying the knots can be accompanied by a prayer, such as the Apostle’s Creed or Lord’s Prayer, in order to seal in the power of the charm before burial.

 This final spell was taught to me only very recently by someone who works within the conjure tradition, but who also grew up learning Native American magic and brujaria in Texas. I don’t have permission to use her name at this time, but she’s someone I’ve known from a distance for a few years, and she was one of my fellow lecturers at the recent Western Kentucky Rootwork Heritage Festival. This technique requires a rather unusual tool: a turtle shell.

 Slow-manifesting Moon Spell

 A turtle shell naturally has thirteen plate divisions to it, which can be seen as one for every moon in the year. If you happen to be lucky enough to have a turtle shell handy, you can take it out into the moonlight of a full moon and trace a sacred symbol (such as a cross or star) onto each plate with your finger, while reciting a prayer. For instance, if you wanted to gain spiritual guidance, you might pray Psalm 23. To break a bad habit, you might use Psalm 70. For general success and prosperity, Psalm 65 would be excellent. The trick to this is that the wish or desire must be something that can manifest slowly and incrementally. The spell will work over the next year, and you should see some slight change with each passing full moon. By the end of the year, your wish should be granted (or at least, should be as close to fruition as possible).

 She also explained to me that the foundation of this prayer is the idea of the turtle as a representation of earth itself, something solid and foundational. The turtle carries its home with it, and so the earth carries all we need as well, if only we’re willing to be patient enough to pursue it over time. Again, this may not be, strictly speaking, a curandero spell, but I thought it was a good one and one worth sharing.

Resources

Some of my resources have been scattered throughout these posts, but here’s a lovely reference list for your perusal :

I hope these have been useful to you! If you have information, thoughts, or ideas about these practices, we’d love to hear them.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 137 – Curandero Spells, part I

Howdy everyone! In the next couple of posts I’m just going to toss a few spells, charms, herbs, and other tools and techniques gleaned from Hispanic folk magical practices out there for you to peruse. As always, let me state clearly that these ideas ARE NOT MEANT TO REPLACE MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE, but are merely provided as folkloric examples of a vibrant cultural practice. With that out of the way, let’s look at the magic!

Illnesses and Maladies
Curanderos treate a variety of different ailments of both physical and spiritual natures. Some of the best known and most commonly treated are:

  • Empacho – a digestive disease caused by a perceived blockage in the intestines
  • Susto – a type of soul-shaking fright that causes a person’s spirit to leave their body, which becomes weak and vulnerable
  • Desasombro – an intensive form of susto which leaves its victim debilitated after severe trauma
  • Mal de ojo – the famous ‘evil eye,’ which can have a number of symptoms, such as bad luck, ill health, or anxiety and depression
  • Mal puesto/brujeria – essentially a curse or malignant witchcraft, which is ‘put on’ a person and must be taken off with spiritual tools and prayer
  • Nervios – nervous diseases that cause emotional distress and suffering
  • Bilis – a type of anger sickness caused by a perceived backup of ‘bile’ in a person’s system, and which is usually treated with a laxative of some kind
  • Muina – a more intensive anger sickness which results in an outward rage of some kind. treated with tranquilizing herbal remedies (like orange blossoms, also called flor de azahar)
  • Latido – a sort of eating disorder which is primarily seen in young women which results in anorexia and bodily weakness, treated  with repeated herbal and physical healing practices
  • Impotence/Infertility – sometimes linked to a psychic cause, sometimes a physical one, sometimes both; usually treated herbally or with techniques like massage combined with prayer
  • Menstrual/Gynecological disorders – irregular menstruation, prolapsed uteruses, and other problems related to the female reproductive system which are almost always treated without requiring the patient to disrobe (a major reason why some people turn to curanderos instead of conventional doctors)

There are plenty of diseases I’m not listing here, of spiritual and medical natures. Accounts of these disorders and their treatment by curanderos can be found in a number of resources, such as Curandero by Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, “Mexican-American Folk Diseases,” by Keith A. Neighbors, and this article from the Western Journal of Medicine in 1983. Folk practitioners generally deal with these maladies on a case-by-case basis, and attempt a holistic cure which integrates body, mind, and spirit in the healing process.

 

Tools
The tools of curanderos are generally easy to find, household items. Combined with the power of prayer and focused intent, their magical or miraculous qualities emerge and they can be used to to treat the illnesses listed above. Some tools are a little more difficult to acquire than simply going to your local grocery store, but almost any of them are available cheaply and easiliy either online or through mail-order.

  • Yerbas (Herbs) – These are probably some of the most common and important components of curanderismo practice.  A number of different herbs are used, often in a variety of forms. They can be bundled and used like a broom or small scourge (see “Rubbing” in the Techniques section), turned into a tea, burned, or even taken in pill form. Some curanderos grow their own, and others purchase herbs at a yerberia, which is similar to a natural health food store or Chinese apothecary. Since there are so many herbs available, I am only going to select a small handful to mention here in the interest of saving space:
    • Ruda (Rue) – primarily used (as it is in other cultures) as an anti-evil charm and a general spiritual curative, it can also bring prosperity and wealth
    • Cenzino/Salvia (Sage) – in most cases the white sage (Salvia apiana) found in the American Southwest, though in some cases culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) may be substituted; protects, cleanses, reverses evil witchcraft and susto, and provides long life and wisdom
    • Anis (Aniseed) – a licorice-flavored seed used in cooking and liqueur-making, which also aids all sorts of digestive problems when chewed or administered as a tea; also used after susto treatments to help the patient’s spirit settle back into his or her body
    • Calendula (Marigold) – used for a number of psychic phenomenon, from prophetic dreaming to helping one to have visions or find stolen property
    • Cascara sagrada – a tree bark which helps with legal issues and court cases, as well as providing general good luck
  • Amuletos (Amulets) – A variety of amulets, from the very simple to the very complex, are used to create magical conditions for clients and/or patients. Most are carried in pockets or purses, though some can also be worn, usually around the neck. Some of the most famous amuletos are the Milagros which are little tin, lead, or otherwise metallic charms in a variety of shapes such as heads, hearts, hands, pigs, Blessed Virgins, and even ears of corn. These are frequently left at the shrine of a saint with especial patronage of a particular type of healing or miracle, but can also be incorporated into other charms. Horseshoes are sometimes found as amulets, either in milagro form or actual horsehoes. One of the most interesting charms I’ve found is the piedra iman, or lodestone charm, which is made in the following way (from Torres’ Curandero):

“I discovered that the piedra iman [lodestone] is the basis for what is called piedra iman curada (a cured lodestone), in the form of an amulet (amuleto) which is a specially prepared plastic bag containing a number of items or trinkets, including a small piedra iman rock. Each item in the bag is significant and represents the following:
-A gold colored bead signifies the need for wealth or money (oro para mi uena );
-A silver colored bead, or silver taken from old jewelry, is for harmony in one’s home (plata para mi casa y hogar);
-A copper coin such as a penny is for the poor and needy (cobre para el pobre);
-A red bead or red bean signifies coral, to rid you of envy and all that’s bad (coral para que se me quite la envidia y el mal);
-A horseshoe or wire bent in the shape of  ahorseshoe to prosper in business or in personal work (la heradura para un buen negocio o trabajo); and
-A piece of lodestone for good luck and fortune (la piedra iman para la uena suerte y fortuna).

People carry the plastic bag with all these items in their pockets or cars, or hang the bag in their homes or businesses” (p. 54)

  • Eggs, Limes, & Lemons – These are used to perform limpias, or spiritual cleansings. In most cases, the food item is rubbed over the body of the patient, then either destroyed in a ritual manner or “read” for information on the person’s condition. Egg limpias are especially common and reading an egg’s contents after a cleansing is done by dropping the cracked egg into a glass of water and interpreting things like bubbles, strands, and coloration of the egg itself. Blood on the egg is a very bad sign, as is a foul odor emanating from the egg. In these cases, multiple limpias may be performed to rid the patient of his or her magical affliction. You can read an excellent description of both the egg cleansing and how to interpret the signs of the egg over at Concha’s Curious Curandera website.
  • Candles – These probably don’t need a whole lot of elaboration, but it should be pointed out that a number of different candles are used within curanderismo. Saint candles are common, of course, but so are the candles frequently found in other traditions, like hoodoo. For instance, one might see a St. Michael candle burning alongside a Fiery Wall of Protection candle or a Sacred Heart of Jesus candle burning with a Reversing candle. Votive candles and tapers are also used for various types of work, from cleansing to simple prayers.
  • Prayer – Probably the most important and powerful tool in a curandero’s bag is his or her selection of prayers. Usually these are liturgical prayers, such as the Apostles Creed, certain Psalms, or the Lord’s Prayer, but occasionally one can find a folk prayer or one that has simply grown up out of the curandero’s personal tradition. Usually prayers are said multiple times, often over extended periods of time, and as often as possible the patient is asked to pray with the worker.

That will just about cover us for today. Next time we’ll have a look at the techniques used by curanderos, as well as a couple of other interesting spells.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 135 – The Magical Catholic

Good morning everyone!

Last time I touched briefly on the practice of curanderismo, which is a Hispanic system of folk magic centered upon healing, jinx removal, and protection/cleansing rituals. I also mentioned that it takes a lot of its magical cues from Catholicism, albeit in a syncretic and flexible form of that religion. I received a comment on that post, too, which raised a thoughtful question about Catholicism in the New World and why it might have been seen as ‘magical’ or why its presence can be felt so strongly within magical traditions on this side of the Atlantic. I think that much of this attitude appeared in the Old World after the Reformation, when the broad brush of ‘papism’ or ‘pope worship’ was being used to paint the embattled Catholic Church. Some of the best illustrations of the Protestant perception of ‘the magic Catholic’ come from a tome which has informed witchcraft studies for centuries, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. In the following passage, you can see how Scot—who associated superstitious beliefs in witchcraft with the foolish ‘superstition’ of Catholicism—clearly links the priest with the sorcerer:

A papisticall charme.

Signum sanctæ crucis defendat me à malis præsentibus, præteritis, & futuris, interioribus & exterioribus:

That is, The signe of the crosse defend me from evils present, past, and to come, inward and outward. (Book XII, Chapter IX)

Scot certainly thought little of such charms, saying later in his book, “HE that can be persuaded that these things are true, or wrought indeed according to the assertion of couseners, or according to the supposition of witchmongers & papists, may soone be brought to beleeve that the moone is made of greene cheese” (Book XV, Chapter V).

To be sure, a number of Catholics have spent years—centuries in fact—fighting against these perceptions and very few mainstream Catholics would cotton to having their religion identified with sorcery or witchcraft. From a perspective of official Church doctrine and approved dogma and praxis, it is vital to note that Catholicism does not condone magic or the use of enchantments and charms, and that they fall in line largely with other Christian groups when it comes to beliefs and religious operations. They believe in Jesus as God (as well as seeing him as part of a divine trinity made up of “Father, Son, & Holy Ghost/Spirit”), they require baptism, they expect remission of wrongdoings (and, in the case of confession, admission of wrongdoing), and believe in an afterlife in which they will be judged by God for the quality of their lives and the state of their souls. There are a number of fine-pointed theological differences between Catholicism and Protestant denominations, but in many ways they are deeply similar.

What we’re looking at here, then, is not the official, dogmatic, Vatican-approved version of Catholicism, but rather a phenomenon which might be termed as ‘folk’ Catholicism. Folk religions are not exclusive to this religion, of course. There are also folk Hindus, folk Daoists, folk Shintoists, and folk Jews, all with varying degrees of adherence to official practice and varying degrees of handed-down traditions from unofficial sources. Folk Catholicism is particularly relevant to New World esoteric studies, however, because it has appeared in several different places. It shows up in the spiritual and magical practices of New Orleans (such as in the work of author Denise Alvarado). It also appears prevalently in Italian-American communities, and occasionally within Irish-American communities.  Both the Foxfire books and Gerald Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery contain examples of Appalachian residents whose beliefs veer towards the enchanted from time to time via a connection with Catholicism. Milne cites the Swiss/German community of Randolph Co., NC, in one such illustration:

“In Randolph County, the Swiss/German Helvetia community observes Fastnacht prior to the beginning of Lent. It happened that in Helvetia, some of the original families were Catholic, and now their pre-Lenten observance is celebrated by all in a non-religious way. At Helvetia, an effigy of old man winter is burned on a bonfire” (SC&W, p. 195)

Milne also points out that festivals like this were a confluence of Catholic traditions (Lent) and non-Catholic ones (the midwinter effigy burning), which took on a mystical significance in their union. Probably one of the best places to look for Catholic folk magic, however, is within the context of the North (and South) American Hispanic communities, which have strong historical ties to more mainstream Catholicism, and yet which also have allowed a beautiful flowering of folk culture in tandem with Catholic expansion, resulting in a rich and fairly accessible magical storehouse.

In the previous post, I have already looked very generally at some of the techniques of curanderismo and brujeria. Both traditions draw heavily on folk Catholicism to provide their magic, including things like the Apostles Creed and Lord’s Prayer as charms against harmful magic, or using tools like holy water, scapulars (a type of loosely-worn ornament which contains religious icons or written prayers), and rosaries to effect change.  In my next post, I hope to get into the specific spells, charms, and tools used within Catholic folk magic. For now, though, I wanted to leave you with some sites and books which might be of interest to anyone pursuing the folk Catholic path.

  1. I highly recommend the Yahoo! Group Catholic Folk Magic, where curanderas, brujos, and a number of other folk magicians with a base in Catholicism share ideas and resources.
  2. You could always give The Discoverie of Witchcraft a good read. It may have been intended as satire and mockery, but it has a heck of a lot of good pseudo-Catholic magic in it, too.
  3. The moderators of the site fisheaters.com would probably balk at my reference to them here, because they mostly focus on actual Vatican-approved Catholicism. However, familiarizing yourself with these ideas and practices is good if you plan to work ‘within’ this stream, and there are actually 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]
  4. One book that a number of Catholics grow up with is Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints (or at least some version of it). Why do I recommend it here? For the same reason I recommend folk and fairy tales to any aspiring magician—there is more to these tales than what’s on the page. St. Lucy’s removal of her own eyes has a distinctly magical flavor to it, in my opinion, which may explain why her celebration in Scandanavia is laced with esoteric symbolism.
  5. Finally, 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.

That’s all for today! I’ll try to have another post up soon with some more practical elements for you (though it is always possible I’ll get distracted and have a tangential topic). Until then, though…
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 134 – Brujeria and Curanderismo: A (Very Brief) Overview

I’ve been combing back through a number of different posts lately, and seeing what areas we’ve covered in some detail (hoodoo, rootwork, and Pow-wow, mostly), which ones we’ve done some basic delving into (mountain magic and general witchcraft), and which ones we’ve only just barely touched upon (pretty much everything else). I was very surprised that I’d not covered today’s topic more, as it’s one of the topics with which I have a good bit of practical experience. But for some reason, I’ve only mentioned curanderismo and its ‘darker’ sister brujeria a few times.

And so today, I thought it might be good to remedy that deficiency somewhat. We’ll be giving these traditions only the most basic of examinations, as a deeper exploration of either could easily fill several dozen books and websites. Yet there are relatively few texts or webpages which look at these practices. Partly this may be a linguistic barrier (my Spanish is intermediate-level at best), but honestly I think this may just be an area where research is thin on the ground. I’d love to be proven wrong in that, though, so if you know of some good research on these traditions, please leave a comment and/or link.

To begin, let’s look a bit at curanderismo. This is a system of magical healing, blessing, and cleansing largely centered around Catholic prayers and rituals, with a heavy infusion of folk religion and magic and a bit of herb lore in some cases. A male practitioner is a curandero, while a female practitioner is a curandera. Many of the rituals within this tradition have to do with detecting and undoing evil witchcraft (which is called brujeria by curanderos, which gets a bit confusing…more on that later). In Mexico, where this practice is centered—though there are ever-increasing numbers of practitioners in other Central and North American locations, a person might call upon a curandero if a family member seems to be plagued with some uncommon illness, or if their house seems to be exhibiting symptoms of a haunting, or if they are feeling as though a general run of bad luck has settled onto them. One of the best resources on curanderismo on the internet is Dona Concha of the Curious Curandera website. In the introductory material for one of her many excellent courses, she includes this summary of the practice:

Curanderismo is not only a form of folk healing, it also includes the practice white magic, ritual, cleansings, energy work, spirit contact, divination, and a vast amount of prayer just to name a few. While some practitioners prefer to engage only in one area, others work in all areas.
Curanderismo is a very spiritual practice with strong religious faith. Practitioners use a variety of objects including herbs, spices, eggs, lemons, limes, Holy Water, Saints, Crucifixes, prayer, candles, incense, oils and divination tools. Most include spirit assistance. Not all practitioners work in the same way. For example, one person may perform a spiritual cleansing with a raw unbroken egg while another may employ a bundle of herbs for the cleansing tool.

While a curandera might perform rituals that help remove bad luck or might contact specific spirits (usually angelic or “holy” ones), they tend to shy away from any ‘dark’ magics.

Brujeria, on the other hand, means literally “witchcraft,” and is frequently perceived in a negative light. This system, however, is not entirely dissimilar from hoodoo, with a focus on practical, earthier types of magic: love, money, sex, etc. What gives brujeria its bad reputation is its association with “magia negra” or “black magic.” While both curanderismo and brujeria can work with “magia blanca” (“white magic”) to provide cures, healing, and good luck, only brujeria works with things like spirit summoning and necromancy to achieve its aims. Brujo Negro, who runs a fantastic site on brujeria (and whose name means “black witch”), explains magia negra as an extension of the grimoire magic imported by the Spaniards during the 16th century. He also points out that the native peoples of Mexico—the Nahua, the Xolotl, etc.—did not particularly have concepts of “good” and “evil,” and so the concept of a branch of magic entirely in the service of evil would have been alien to them. Instead, the “healer physician” figure (anthropologically referred to as a “shaman” in many circles) would use his or her knowledge of natural materials and forces—herbs, roots, stones, and animal parts—to craft specialized remedies for community members struck with strange illnesses. The Spaniards did not always understand what the natives were doing, and viewed them and their practices warily.

The use of grimoire magic, talismans, spirit invocations, and other spells which did not explicitly call upon Christian paradigms to accomplish their goals led to opposition between the brujos and the curanderos. This is not all that different than the supposed wars between the benandanti and the witches of Italy, which Carlo Ginzburg has catalogued incredibly well in his book The Night Battles. In truth, both groups were likely working—in general—for the good of their communities, though the brujos might occasionally use more aggressive magic to do their work and likely were a little saltier about the spiritual side of their practice. Another group of magical practitioners (which may be the equivalent of fairy-tale witches or malevolent wizards or folklore) may well have engaged in exclusively cursing practices and malevolent magic, in which case either a brujo or curandero might be called in to do battle with the wicked sorcerer, again demonstrating that the line between the two camps is a fuzzy one at best.

The historical presence of folk magic among Hispanic communities goes back centuries, and while it shares certain commonalities with the European colonial experience along the Atlantic, it also strongly resembles the African experience in America. Contact between native peoples and the new arrivals was relatively high, and cultural exchange was fluid, if not officially indulged:

New Mexico witchcraft cases reveal a variety of features of colonial life in New Mexico that did not exist in other colonized areas of North America. For example, they show the physical proximity in which the Indians and Europeans lived and the increasingly intertwined beliefs they shared—about power, about magic, about healing, and about witches. These characteristics of New Mexico society were especially pronounced after the Spanish returned to the colony in 1706. Witchcraft was so much a part of New Mexico in the eighteenth century that Ramon A. Gutierrez has suggested that it was one of the three main issues that affected life there…Nothing comparable exists among the surviving records in British or French North America, at least as far as indigenous people are concerned” (Games 34-5).

This is not to say that relations were necessarily sunny between the natives and the conquering Spaniards, but the level of integration between Old World and New World beliefs seemed to flow both ways, with people like the Xolotl eventually adapting to the Catholic pantheon of saints and the rituals of the church, while the Spaniards sought out community healers for their ethereal gifts. Witch trials can and did erupt, but seldom with the vigor found in New England (or even old England). The veneer of Catholicism covered a variety of magical practices and set them in an ‘appropriate’ religious context, though in practice healings were still being done through the agency of plants, spirits, and other magical tools.

So just what does a curandero or bruja do nowadays? Much of what brujos and curanderas do resembles another magical practice heavily rooted in Catholicism, that of stregheria (or, more specifically, the cousin tradition of streghoneria), which come from Italy. I hope to dig into this question a bit more in other posts, but it might be good to look at some earmark practices common to one or both traditions, so that you can recognize it when you see it. In both, you are likely to find:

  • Divinatory practices – Sometimes by cards, but just as often by very specific items like eggs broken into a glass of water or the ashes left by a smoldering cigar.
  • Saint magic – Calling upon the intercessory power of saints to accomplish specific tasks. This is usually accompanied by rituals such as candle-burning and prayer.
  • Statuary or charms – This goes hand-in-hand with saint magic for the most part, though other types of charms like milagros (little pewter, silver, or gold charms shaped like hearts, body parts, animals, etc. and used as devotional offerings) are also frequently used.
  • Ritual cleansing – Especially using holy water or natural elements, like eggs, limes, lemons, etc. This can be done on a person or on a specific place.
  • Liturgical prayers – These are used outside of the orthodox liturgy, and are usually repeated several times to gain their benefit in magical settings. Examples include the “Our Father,” or “Ave Maria” prayers.
  • Novena candles – These are easily found in places with large Hispanic populations, and usually have a pillar candle encased by glass with a picture of a saint, angel, or other holy being on them. On the back they typically have short prayers (often in Spanish and English) which are recited while burning the candle.

In the individual practices, the magic may lean more heavily towards one or another of these categories. Certain folk saints are deeply revered by one group and not the other, or sometimes revered by both groups in different ways. A great example of this different-but-the-same relationship is Santa Muerte (“Holy Death”), a powerful spirit both loved and feared throughout Mexico. She’s a big enough topic for her own post at some point, so I’ll just leave that mention as a tease for the moment. As I mentioned earlier, brujeria resembles hoodoo fairly strongly, so there are lots of roots, bones, and rusty nails found in it, while herbal preparations for healing and cleansing tend to be more heavily emphasized in curanderismo.

All of this is simply the lightest scratch across the surface of a very deep subject. I hope to provide more and more information through other posts at other times, and even then I’ll only really be getting at a fairly superficial understanding of this incredible set of traditions and practices. For now, though, I hope this has been a useful magical appetizer.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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