- Blog Post 58 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part I
- Blog Post 59 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 2
- Blog Post 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 3
- Blog Post 173 – Spring Tonics
- Blog Post 194 – Plugging (Healing with Trees)
- Episode 91 – Appalachian Plant Lore with Becky Beyer
- Episode 145 – Southern Cunning with Aaron Oberon
The holly and the ivy,When they are both full grown,Of all the trees that are in the wood,The holly bears the crown.
–From “The Holly and the Ivy,” a traditional carol
- Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, & Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 3rd ed. Omnigraphics, Detroit: 2005.
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells. Harper Collins, New York: 2009.
- Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Barnes & Noble Books, New York: 1989.
- Raedisch, Linda. The Old Magic of Christmas. Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN: 2013.
- Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Univ. of Illinois Press, Chicago: 1995.
We take a look at the concept of Evil as it relates to magic and witchcraft. Is there such a thing? What guides a witch’s moral compass? Do witches ever summon demons? And just what kind of shenanigans is Cory up to, anyway?
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Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Shannon, Little Wren, Michael M. and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Download: Episode 102 – Evil
We start off by Looking Back at our Episode 19 – Curses & Hexes. Other articles that might be of interest include Blog Post 105 – The Devil’s Book, Blog Post 126 – Some Devils, and Blog Post 127 – Summoning Devils. Cory also mentions the story of Betty Booker, which can be found in Blog Post 195.
Cory mentions Mont and Duck Moore, two Appalachian witches. Their tales can be found in The Silver Bullet: And Other American Witch Stories as well as this article. Other books mentioned include Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (as well as the film based on it) and Lucifer Ascending, by folklorist Bill Ellis.
We also make mention of the Paranormal Activity series of films, as well as the recent Fox TV series The Exorcist.
Check out our latest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, which just launched in early October. If you like folklore, this show will be connecting the dots between folk tales, science, nature, pop culture, literature, and more.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
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Promos & Music
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.
Thanks for reading!
A number of modern spells are designed to bring “prosperity” into an individual’s life. In some cases, Wiccan and Wiccan-influenced spellbooks contain workings that either target specific needs and cash amounts, or which seek to generally enhance the financial stability of the magician or his/her designated target (most Wiccan spellbooks also require that the magician have permission from the target even in beneficial magical workings like this). Certainly, magical practices designed to bring a sense of bounty and abundance into one’s life go back quite far—the cults of Fortuna and Tyche in the ancient world appeal to good luck, and the Roman cult of Pomona pursued the ideal of a fruitful life. Folk magic, however, has generally focused less on meeting a generalized prosperity and has drilled down to specific financial problems and advantages. The Wiccan spells which seek a specific sum of money to cope with a specific issue—a medical bill, a broken radiator, etc.—very much mirror the sorts of spells done by people across multiple times and places as they tried to cope with uncertain finances.
Another brand of folk magic, however, did not work towards a specific sum, nor did it seek to bring a vaguely defined sense of wealth into someone’s life. Instead, many spells targeted getting rich—quick! In some cases, the spell’s target would be a gambler who worked to gain the advantage in games of chance (more on that another day, hopefully). A few stories talk of acts of magical extortion, wherein a magician would either try to low-ball the purchase of land/livestock with the threat that failure to accept a paltry offer would result in the destruction of the commodity in question OR a witch might place a curse on a neighbor and only remove the curse for a fee (you can find several examples of such stories in The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories by Hubert J. Davis).
If someone wanted to get rich really quickly, however, he or she would turn to magical treasure hunting. Plenty of European grimoires had methods for finding lost treasures, usually with the help of spirits. Some grimoire texts which influenced American practices, such as The Black Pullet, spelled out in detail how to summon treasure-seeking daemons to work on one’s behalf:
“This talisman and this ring are not less valuable. They will enable you to discover all the treasures which exist and to ensure you the possession of them. Place the ring on the second finger of your right hand, enclose the talisman with the thumb and little finger of your left hand, and say, Onaim, Perantes, Rasonastos.” I repeated these three words, and seven spirits of a bronze colour appeared, each carrying a large hide bag which they emptied at my feet. They contained gold coins which rolled in the middle of the hail where we were. I had not noticed that one of the spirits had on his shoulder a black bird, its head covered with a kind of hood. “It is this bird,” the old man said to me, “who has made them find all this treasure. Do not think that these are some of what you have seen here. You can assure yourself of this.” I replied, “You are for me the truth itself. My father! Do you believe that I would insult you by doubting?”
He made a sign, and the spirits replaced the gold in the bags and disappeared. “You see, my son, what the virtues of these talismans and rings are. When you know them all, you will be able, without my aid, to perform such miracles as you judge proper” (The Black Pullet, 20-21).
Seals and incantations like these made it into later magical practices, especially in places where grimoire languages like German, Spanish, or French were spoken (to be clear, many grimoires were written in languages like Latin with commentaries in European languages, and these three tongues were hardly the only ones in which grimoires appeared).
Of course, being able to find treasure only helps if treasure is already buried in the earth waiting to be found. In the maritime culture of early New England (as well as the maritimes of other parts of the New World), a widespread belief in hidden golden caches secreted beneath the soil became the basis for a number of magical spells. A Maine man named Daniel Lambert, suddenly flush with money, faced suspicion, for:
Lacking any other apparent explanation, his neighbors attributed Daniel Lambert’s sudden wealth to the discovery of buried pirate treasure. Despite Canaan’s location dozens of miles from navigation, the inhabitants readily believed that Lambert had found a treasure chest because, as Kendall explained, “The settlers of Maine, like all the other settlers in New England indulge an unconquerable expectation of finding money buried in the earth.” Indeed, backcountry folk insisted that troves of pirate treasure guarded by evil spirits pockmarked the New England countryside even in locales far from the coast (Taylor 7).
Since the New World was vast and dangerous, people turned to magic to help find these copious buried (and frequently ‘cursed’) treasures, and to remove any dangers that might arise during the expedition to unearth them. A number of ‘rules’ for enchanted bounty-seeking developed, including:
- Treasure hunting teams needed at least three members, as that number ensured magical success
- Magical circles should be inscribed around the digging site to prevent any malevolent spirits from attacking the diggers
- Implements of silver, such as silver spoons or spades, should be used to dig at least part of the earth to ensure luck in the hunt and to protect the diggers from harm
- Blood offerings (animals usually) had to be made to quell the guardian spirits protecting the treasure—a belief related to the idea that a guardian spirit was usually a person who was killed and his blood spilled over the burial ground
In addition to maritime treasures, the idea of “Indian” gold became very popular. Some European colonists and conquerors were sure that entire cities of gold were just waiting to be found in the dense, mysterious interiors of North and South America. Gonzalo Pizzaro and Sir Walter Raleigh both mounted expeditions to find such legendary places, frequently referred to as “El Dorado,” or “the golden one.” In almost every case, however, the site was protected by evil spirits, a curse, ghosts, or some other malevolent force. In some situations, however, the spirit might actually help a seeker find his or her treasure: “There are many tales about ghosts who speak to people, telling them to dig at such-and-such a place to find a buried treasure. The ghost is usually that of some fellow who died without being able to tell anybody where his treasure was concealed, and who cannot rest quietly until someone gets the money and enjoys it” (Randolph 219). How one ensures that the ghost is not simply walking the magician into a trap is anyone’s guess.
One of the best examples of magical treasure hunting led to an entire religious movement in the New World. While the time has not yet come to explore the full magical heritage of the Latter Day Saints, I would be remiss to omit them here. Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of the Mormon faith, used to hunt for treasure using methods derived from alchemy and hermetic science/magic. He followed the rules laid out above, frequently offering “sacrificed either pure white or jet black sheep or dogs to lay out magic circles of blood” prior to discovering his golden plates and having his angelic vision (Taylor 12). Smith’s methods were not deviant or unusual. He used seer or peep stones to help find his hidden treasures, and his activity in the highly spiritually active area of New York known as the Burned-Over District was imitative of earlier seekers and followed by those who did the same. In fact, Smith was following very much in his own father’s footsteps, as Joseph Smith, Sr. was an active treasure seeker in Palmyra, New York. He is recorded to have once described his methods to a neighbor, saying “the best time for digging money was in the heat of the summer, when the heat of the sun caused the chests of money to rise to the top of the ground” (Brooke 31). The tradition the Smiths followed required—like many grimoire traditions do—that the seeker be spiritually pure or else he will fail in his pursuits, a concept brought in from hermetics and alchemy. The fervent spirituality and insistence on saintly behavior left a strong mark on the junior Smith, and helped him feel prepared for his prophetic role in revealing the Book of Mormon (which was inscribed on golden plates).
In some cases, treasures of golden pieces and precious gems are not the target of the magic. I have written previously on the phenomenon of dowsing, which allows a person to magically search for substances like water and oil beneath the earth. In some cases, the dowser might also search for veins of gold or silver or other valuable ores like iron. The method for making such a dowsing tool appears in Hohman’s early nineteenth century text, The Long-Lost Friend:
TO MAKE A WAND FOR SEARCHING FOR IRON, ORE OR WATER.
On the first night of Christmas, between 11 and 12 o’clock, break off from any tree a young twig of one year’s growth, in the three highest names (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), at the same time facing toward sunrise. Whenever you apply this wand in searching for anything, apply it three times. The twig must be forked, and each end of the fork must be held in one hand, so that the third and thickest part of it stands up, but do not hold it too tight. Strike the ground with the thickest end, and that which you desire will appear immediately, if there is any in the ground where you strike. The words to be spoken when the wand is thus applied are as follows: Archangel Gabriel, I conjure thee in the name of God, the Almighty, to tell me, is there any water here or not? do tell me! + + +
If you are searching for Iron or Ore, you have to say the same, only mention the name of what you are searching for.
This version of magical dowsing incorporates high magical elements (such as the invocation of Gabriel) and strong folk magical ones (the clipping of the tree twig at sunrise and the simple dowsing methodology). On the simpler end of the spectrum, one could simply put a bit of whatever was being sought into the tip of the dowsing rod, as in this example from the Ozarks: “Many hillfolk are interested in the search for lost mines and buried treasure, and some of these people have tried to use the witch stick in their quests. If a man is looking for buried gold, he fastens a gold ring to the end of his stick ; if it is silver that he expects to find, he splits the end of the wand and inserts a silver coin. Rayburn says that to locate mixed ores one uses two different metals usually a dime and a penny” (Randolph 88).
The practice of hunting for buried wealth and riches spanned cultural and geographic boundaries. In many cases, very strict rules were followed, regarding purification and protection as well as actual seeking magic. Spirits would guide a magician to the site of a treasure, and in some cases might even be employed to raise it from the earth. In other cases, the spirits associated with the treasure were deeply malevolent and most of the magic employed was to placate or dis-empower any evil that might be lingering about the dig site. The payoff for an effective treasure hunter could be a sack of coins, a buried chest, or even a new branch of a religion, but the work required up front was heavy and intense. While gambling charms might take longer, the success rate was better overall. In the end, getting rich quick via magical means, it seems, has always been a labor-intensive and time-consuming effort, just like any other job.
Thanks for reading!
- Anonymous. The Black Pullet (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2007).
- Brooke, John L. The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge UP, 1996).
- Davies, Owen. Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford UP, 2010).
- Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Pub., 1975).
- “El Dorado,” Wikipedia (2013).
- Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians (Vandalia Press, 2008).
- Hohman, John George. The Long-Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire, ed. Daniel Harms (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Horowitz, Mitch. Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, & the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation (Bantam, 2010 reprint).
- Hutcheson, Cory. “Blog Post 146 – Dowsing,” New World Witchery, 2011.
- Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery (Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2009).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
Taylor, Alan. “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830.” American Quarterly (Spring, 1986).
To get everyone in the holiday spirit, today I thought we might head down the gruesome path to the graveyard and see what we can dig up (figuratively, of course). That’s festive, right? Deck the halls and all that? While I’ve talked recently about bones and their uses in magic, and we’ve touched on the idea of working with the dead in magical practice, too, you may not know that there is a very long and widely spread habit of using corpses—in whole and in macabre part—as magical tools in their own right. Of course, there are many societies, including some Native American tribes, with strong taboos against contact with dead bodies, yet even this geis reflects a sense of respect and awe at the power of the deceased. Sometimes the spirit of the dead person is the fuel behind the magic—in which case it can be seen as a form of necromancy—and sometimes it is simply the body voided of life—any body, really—which empowers the charm.
Probably one of the most famous and nefarious examples of corpse magic is the Hand of Glory, a special candle made from the severed and pickled hand of an executed criminal which supposedly had intense magical properties. One of its talents was its reputed ability to render anyone in a house near where it was lit unconscious, thus making them easy to rob and explaining why the Hand of Glory might have been sought after by eager thieves. Here is one of the brief-but-to-the-point recorded recipes for making a Hand of Glory, from one of my favorite spooky little tomes, Kathryn Paulsen’s Witches’ Potions & Spells (WARNING! THIS IS PROVIDED AS A FOLKLORIC EXAMPLE ONLY! DO NOT DESECRATE CORPSES—IT IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL!):
During an eclipse of the moon, sever the right hand of a corpse, preferably that of an executed murderer. Dry it and preserve it in a jar to which you have added foul smelling herbs. If you light the fingers of this hand as candles, the light can only be seen by yourself and other witches, and the light will not go out until you wish it. If you bring it into a house, sleep will reign over those within. But you must let no one know that you posses the Hand of Glory. Use this hand to give light whenever you wish to obtain something from a graveyard (Paulsen 40).
Paulsen also mentions a variation on this spell which involves filling a human shin bone with tallow and carrying it as a candle to cause enchanted sleep. The Hand of Glory and its variants date back to at least the early Modern period, showing up in 18th century texts like the Petit Albert.
Across the Atlantic and on North American soil, corpses remained a morbid part of folk magic. Here they were granted powers of healing, crime-detection, secret-keeping, and other occult traits. The bodies of the dead figure into magical systems spanning multiple cultures, including those of Native Americans, the Pennsylvania Dutch, African Americans, and mountain folk in the Appalachians and Ozarks. First Nations practices vary between tribes, with alternating levels of prohibition and interaction when it comes to handling the dead. Randolph notes that “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist upon sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before the burial. This is done unobtrusively, without any noise or ceremony, and many whites have attended funerals where the rite was carried out without eve* noticing it. As the mourners shuffle past the body, here and there you see one drop a tiny pinch of meal into the coffin” (Randolph 316). Such a practice more rightly belongs to burial customs than necromancy, however. In general, contact with the dead can be a powerful—but frequently fearful—thing in Native societies. For example, “[o]ne of the most remarkable of Indian sacrifices was that practised by the Hurons in the case of a person drowned or frozen to death. The flesh of the deceased was cut off and thrown into a fire made for the purpose, as an offering of propitiation to the spirits of the air or water. What remained of the body was then buried near the fire” (Parkman 4). In the Pacific Northwest, there are accounts of tribes with magical groups that engaged in highly taboo behaviors to perform their roles as community sorcerors: “There were also a number of secret societies—for example the Cannibal Society of the Kwakiutl, whose induction ceremony was believed to involve eating parts of a corpse” (Lowenstein 120). South American Natives have their own legends about how a group of witch-monsters from Chiloe, an archipelago south of the mainland, use a fearsome object called a macun. This is a leather bowl made from human skin taken from the corpse of a virgin which reveals the presence of human victims and can be used in some stories as a mode of transportation. It can also help the evil brujos turn into animals, open locked doors, and become invisible.
Turning from the cultural backdrop of Native Americans, whose varied practices I have only skimmed in the previous paragraph, let us now look more at the specific applications of corpse magic in some of the non-Native societies of North America. In general, what follows is broken down by magical purpose into categories (legal work, divination, cures, and curses), with a few tidbits at the end. This is a far from complete examination of the topic, however, so I hope this provides an entryway into further study for those interested.
Fundamentally, these sorts of spells are either somewhat divinatory—helping to provide insight into crimes which remain unsolved, for instance—or make use of the dead body to provide legal aid. To this latter end, we can look in Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to find at least one instance in which the figure of the corpse is invoked to help in court-case work:
“TO RETAIN THE RIGHT IN COURT AND COUNCIL.
Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judeorum.
First carry these characters with you, written on paper, and then repeat the following words: “I (name) appear before the house of the Judge. Three dead men look out of the window; one having no tongue, the other having no lungs, and the third was sick, blind and dumb.” This is intended to be used when you are standing before a court in your right, and the judge not being favorably disposed toward you. While on your way to the court you must repeat the benediction already given above.” (Hohman #147)”
The use of actual corpses in legal work tends to be more in crime-detection, however. One piece of lore spread across several cultures describes leaving an egg in the hand of a murdered man when he is buried. The murderer will be compelled to some action, depending on the story, ranging from returning to the scene of the crime to confessing guilt to suffering illness and death himself. Sometimes the body will perform its own divination, unaided by other witnesses or participants. Kentucky lore says “If a corpse’s nose bleeds, it is a sign that the murderer is in the room” (Thomas #745). Puckett notes in African American lore that “the common Negro belief [is] that If you put your hand on the corpse the ghost will not harm you (or you will be afraid of no more dead people). This may be the remnant of an old ordeal, since the wounds are supposed to bleed if the murderer touches the corpse” (Puckett 88).
Dead bodies can predict a number of situations and conditions it seems, as we shall see in the next section.
A number of sources on African American lore mention that a corpse that “limber” corpses predict a death to follow them, and insist that mirrors and clocks be covered with cloth as soon as someone dies to prevent anyone else in the house from dying. Like Puckett’s note above about touching the body to prevent fear of dead people, the corpse can intrude upon the living. Touching the body can prevent both bad dreams and visits from an unruly spirit. Likewise, the suggestion of something corpse-like can announce important information (usually another death). Harry Hyatt had an informant who related a tale of ‘death-scent,’ for example:
“I started to eat my breakfast last week. I happened to put my hand to my face; it smelled like a corpse. I said, ‘I wonder who’s going to die.’ And the smell left right away; that is a sudden death. If the smell stays, it will be longer. That day I had a call. My cousin died when I was eating my breakfast. If it is the left hand that smells, it’s a lady; right hand, a man” (Hyatt #8313).
The dead seem to know a lot about the affairs of the living, but they can also be entreated to hold their tongues. Zora Neale Hurston recorded a spell used for keeping secrets which required a corpse: “If you want a secret kept, put it in the care of the dead by writing it on a piece of paper and folding it small and slipping it into the hand of the corpse, of whispering it in the ear” (Hurston 361). In addition to catching criminals and revealing impending doom, corpses can also be employed in a variety of happier magics, such as healings.
The volume of cures ascribed to dead bodies is too voluminous to include in any book, so I will only briefly touch on it here. One of the most popular healings ascribed to the dead is wart-charming, which we’ve looked at before. In the Ozarks, “[t]here is a widespread belief that warts can be ‘charmed off’ by touching them with the hand of a corpse. I have seen this tried several times. The warts disappeared after a while, just as they generally do under any other treatment, or with no treatment at all. On the other side of the balance, I have met an undertaker who handles many bodies every year, and both his hands are covered with warts!” (Randolph 131). Similar to Randolph’s bit about wart-removal, this charm comes from Kentucky: “You may remove birth-marks by rubbing them with the hand of a corpse.” (Thomas #1067). It can supposedly treat other skin disorders like eczema as well. A variation on the birthmark-removal from Illinois contains a little verbal charm to accompany the act of touching the corpse: “A girl should visit the corpse of a boy and move his hand over her birthmark as she says What I have, take with you; In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A boy with a birthmark does this at the corpse of a girl.” (Hyatt #2685). Sometimes merely rubbing the mark or blemish with a rag and placing the rag in the coffin of a dead man is enough to remove the problem. Placing clothes and other objects from a sick person in the casket of the deceased supposedly removes everything from skin disorders to contagious diseases. Clothes taken from the corpse can also be healing: “To remove a swelling on the leg, bandage it with a piece of linen taken from a corpse” (Hyatt #5145).
Some of the other cures attributed to the dead:
- “In other localities the body is placed on a ‘coolin’-board’ and covered with an arrangement of sheets, the one over the face being raised when the mourners address the corpse. Mourners may talk to the body to this effect: ‘Mandy, you gone an’ lef me. … I may be nex’ . . . Po’ Mandy! . . . Po’ John! .’ A plateful of salt and ashes is placed under the coolin’-board . . . whatever disease the body has goes into the ashes and salt. ‘Ashes takes up from de body de disease.’ These ashes are carried to the grave; and at the words, ‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,’ they are thrown into the grave.’” (Puckett 87)
- “When in pain get some of this graveyard dirt from the breast of the corpse, cook it with lard, and make into a sort of pancake. Sprinkle this with turpentine and bind like a mustard plaster to the place that pains you. You will surely be cured.” (Puckett 287)
- “Place in a coffin three lice from your head and the corpse will carry away the others.” (Hyatt #1438)
- One of the more desecration-y methods for solving home problems with a little help from the dead comes from Harry Hyatt: “Pour some of the child’s urine into a bottle, hide this with a coffined corpse, and the child will stop wetting the bed. Sometimes a hole is punched through the stopper so that the urine can drip out — the cure being effected after the bottle becomes empty.” (Hyatt #6298)
In addition to being powerful curatives, bodies of the deceased can also cause tremendous harm.
It probably comes as no surprise that the use of dead bodies in magical rituals and spells generally gets a fairly negative portrayal. In the previous three sections, the spells were all designed to enact some positive change—albeit messy or sacrosanct in some cases—but now we shall look at a few of the nastier ways in which our dead friends can be used for magic. I’ll begin with a love spell, not because I inherently think love spells are evil curses (I don’t think that at all, actually), but rather because this one is exactly the kind of spell you could make a horror movie out of. It’s obsessive, possessive, and a little mean:
“A girl can take a needle which has been stuck into a dead body, cover it with dirt in which a corpse has been laid, and wrap the whole thing in a cloth cut from a winding sheet ; this is supposed to be a very powerful love charm, and a woman who owns such a thing can make any man fall in love with her. A needle which has been used to make a shroud is useful, too. If a girl thrusts such a needle into her lover’s footprint in her own dooryard, he is forced to remain with her whether he wants to or not. If he leaves the neighborhood he will get sick, and if he stays away long enough he will die.” (Randolph 169)
Randolph also examines witchcraft which falls in line with storybook expectations, harmful stuff perpetrated by willfully malevolent magical practitioners:
“Some witches are said to kill people with graveyard dirt, which is dust scraped from a grave with the left forefinger at midnight. This is mixed with the blood of a black bird; a raven or crow is best, but a black chicken will do in a pinch. The witch ties this mixture up in a rag which has touched a corpse and buries it under the doorstep of the person who is to be liquidated. The practice of burying conjure stuff under houses and doorsteps is well known. I have heard it said of a sick woman that she ‘must have stepped on somethin’ ‘ meaning that she was bewitched.” (Randolph 272)
Sometimes the negative effects of the corpse are inadvertent, however, and cursing is incidental. Several sources mentioned that pregnant women should not look upon a corpse, lest their child be marred in some way. Ozark lore says that using the comb of a dead person, particularly a comb that touched the deceased’s hair, will cause your own pate to go bald. Still other corpse curses seem related to harming the spirit of the departed him or herself. Kentucky lore says that you should “Put a lock of hair of a corpse into a hole in a tree to localize the spirit. If you remove the hair, the spirit will haunt you” (Thomas #741). Trapping a spirit seems like a dangerous game to me, but then, I’m not doing that particular spell anytime soon anyway. One of the quirkier ways of messing with the soul of the departed comes from Illinois: “As long as the funeral bill remains unpaid, the corpse will not rest in its grave” (Hyatt #15193).
In addition to the main methods discussed above, corpses also seem to have other magical uses. Here are a final pair from Hurston and Randolph involving some of the more unusual magic connected to the dead and their bodies:
“I. To Gain All Power. Go to the graveyard the night of All Saints at twelve o’clock. All of the blessed are gone from the cemetery at that time and only the damned are left. Go to a sinner’s grave1 and get nine hairs from his head and give the spirit in there a drink of whiskey. (They’ll do anything for a drink of whiskey.) Just leave a pint of liquor in there with the stopper out. Go home and burn nine red candles and the spirit will do anything you want.” (Hurston 361)
“When a backwoodsman dies, in certain sections of the Ozarks, it sometimes happens that one of his male relatives cuts a hickory stick just the length of the corpse. I have seen a hill farmer carrying one of these sticks on the day of his brother’s death, and I have seen one tied to the wagon which conveyed a corpse to the graveyard, but I have never been able to find out what became of them, or what their significance was. I first thought that the stick was simply to measure the body for a coffin, but it is something more complicated than that, and there is some sort of superstition connected with it.” (Randolph 314)
I hope this has been a worthwhile spin through the old boneyard to look at the dead from a more corporeal angle than we usually do in magic. None of this is to advocate any sort of desecration or anything illegal. While I imagine slipping a pinch of cornmeal into a coffin or wiping a handkerchief over a deceased family member’s hand before the casket is closed would at most raise some eyebrows, just about anything involving messing with the dead means legal problems. If you want to get a little help from the dearly departed, developing a relationship with them as spiritual beings is a much smarter way to go (I wrote about it recently on my other blog over at Witches & Pagans, if you’re interested). If you have lore about dead bodies and the ways they have been used in magic, I’d love to hear them!
Thanks so much for reading!
REFERENCES & SOURCES
- Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
- Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
- Lowenstein, Tom & Piers Vitebsky. Native American Myths & Beliefs (Rosen Pub. Group, 2011).
- Paulsen, Kathryn. Witches’ Potions & Spells. (Peter Pauper Press, 1971).
- Parkman, Francis. “Indian Superstitions.” North American Review (Univ. of Northern Iowa Press, 1866).
- Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
- Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1926).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
- Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).
Or, Why Witches Cast Curses & Steal Milk
Until relatively recently, most stories about witches in folklore and literature did not portray them as intensely helpful, benevolent creatures in touch with the natural world and working on behalf of cosmic balance. Fairy queens, enchantresses, and other witch-types did perform beneficient acts, of course (think of the benevolent fairies of “Sleeping Beauty” or the kindly-but-righteous “Mother Holle”), but one had to be careful not to run afoul of their temper or risk angering others of their kind. And acts of benificience performed for one person could easily result in tragic consequences for another (think here of Medea’s sacrifice of her own brother to save her beloved Jason). When most people think of witches, though, they are imagining the wicked kind, the one working curses on unsuspecting victims or blighting crops or summoning up armies of flying monkeys to steal flashy footwear.
Today I thought it would be worth looking at just why witches in stories—particularly New World tales—might be doing such heinous deeds. What did people do to get on the witch’s bad side, and what could be done to remedy that problem? Let’s start by looking at a story from S.E. Schlosser’s American Folklore site, about a New Jersey witch named Moll DeGrow. You can read the full story at her site, but the basic idea is that DeGraw (who may or may not have folkloric connections to Maryland witch Moll Dyer) was an evil witch, who “took delight in the misery of others, and made things miserable for the folks living near her. If a neighbor slighted her, she would sour their milk. If anyone called her a witch, she made their dogs turn vicious.” She reportedly causes all manner of calamity, including the use of spectral hellhounds to torment a family which speaks ill of her and magically slaying a number of infants from families against whom she bore a grudge. “When she was accused by a hysterical mother of causing the death of her baby girl, Moll DeGrow just laughed and didn’t deny it.” When the townsfolk collect themselves to go and kill her, they find she is already dead, her corpse grinning cruelly at those who find it, and her ghost lingering on to haunt the area.
DeGrow’s story may seem essentially like a cut-and-dry case of wicked witchery, but perhaps the townsfolk aren’t the only victims here. Kieth Thomas, in his excellent essay “The Relevance of Social Anthropology to the Historical Study of English Witchcraft” (found in Elaine Breslaw’s Witches of the Atlantic World) makes a strong case that in most accusations of witchcraft, the alleged witch almost always acted in a roundabout form of self-defense, taking justice into her own hands when necessary and using one of the few tools at her disposal—magic—to effect real change on her own behalf. “Contemporaries were horrified by the witch’s activities,” Thomas says, “But they seldom denied that she had genuine reason for wishing ill upon her victim” (66). Thomas then goes on to point out that in many cases, the ‘witch’ in question was known to her accusers, and her persecutors frequently had turned away a request for aid in a time when the interdependence of a community was a nearly sacred bond. “The requests made by the witch varied, but they were usually for food or drink—butter, cheese, yeast, milk, or beer…They are not to be confused with simple begging. Rather, they illustrate the breakdown of the tradition of mutual help upon which many English villages communities were based” (67). So in the context provided by Thomas, a witch was a victim—even a begrudgingly acknowledged one—within the social rules of her community. With that in mind, let’s look at the story of Moll DeGrow again.
In the DeGrow tale, the witch may have taken delight in the misery of her neighbors, but every instance of her wreaking havoc follows upon some perceived injury—a slight which led to sour milk, an accusatory epithet which led to animal bewitchment. And her grudge against local families must have been severe if she unleased death on their households. What exactly had they done to her? Of course, DeGrow may also be innocent of the last and most heinous of these acts, as she never admits guilt but merely “laughed and didn’t deny it.” Considering how often I’ve laughed in uncomfortable situations, I cannot help but wonder if maybe a little bit of shock and a lot of disbelief might not have been at play in that strange episode (that is, of course, all speculation on folklore, so please enjoy it with a hefty grain of salt).
With a worldview in which a wicked witch is merely fighting back against those who have done her wrong (or done those she loves wrong, as a mama witch is probably one of the scariest people a young beau can face), let’s look at a few cases of seething sorcery from other New World sources. The book Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau, by N.D.P. Bivens, uses a format in which a supplicant comes before the Voodoo Queen Marie (here a sort of witchy godmother) to redress some injustice and gain his or her heart’s desire. Here are a couple such cases:
THE LADY WHO WISHED TO CROSS HER ENEMIES
Oh good mother I come to you with my heart bowed down and my shoulders drooping and my spirits broken. For an enemy has sorely tried me. Has caused my loved ones to leave me, has taken from my worldly goods and my gold. Has spoken meanly of me and caused my friends to lose their faith in me. On my knees I pray to you a good mother that you will cause confusion to reign in my enemies house and that you will cause hatred to be on my enemies head and that you will take their power from them and cause them to be unsuccessful (8).
TO CONTROL TROUBLESOME NEIGHBORS
Oh dear Mother I come unto you to tell you of my unsettled mind and my grave troubles. There is some one who lives near me, but who has no neighborly love for me nor anyone else, but is only full of selfishness and of a mean mind and makes continual trouble for everyone who lives close near and around me, so that there is a continuous strife and wailing wherever that person may be. When I pass near their place of living they at once utter mean words loud enough so that they will reach my ears, in order that I may stop and say to them mean words in return so that this will lead to a court scrape and that the men of the laws may interfere with me, also when any of my loved ones pass the place wherein they live. Then again slander reaches their ears so that there shall be no peace in the neighborhood. When anyone comes to visit the place where I live they lie in wait for them until they come out and words of blasphemy and reproach reach their ears. Can you not in your great wisdom tell me which evil spirit makes them successful in their work of the devil so that I may hope to protect my home and my loved ones and in the end attain peace of mind (26).
In both situations, the victim is obviously the supplicant (though we only get the supplicant’s point of view, of course, a detail worth noting). In both cases, the supplicant appeals to the powers of witchcraft and conjure to fix the problem, and the prescribed solutions to fit these circumstances are not the gentle type (the latter story results in something like an intense hot-footing charm). Again the idea of neighborly duties are inverted, with the supportive role transformed into a grotesque exercise in social ostracism. In such a situation, a little manipulative spellwork hardly seems unjustified. Reacting to an enemy is not the same thing as offensive magic, and in both cases the supplicant likely could perform countermagic with a clean conscience.
There are numerous other tales of witches who receive the short end of the stick in life and take it out on their callous neighbors, such as:
- The tale of Granny Lotz in The Silver Bullet, an elderly woman whose neighbor “got after” her about forgetting to close her gate, which allowed his cattle to get loose. Because he ignores her age and persecutes her (a point the story makes as a mark against him), she bewitches his cows to give bloody milk (Davis 35).
- A pair of stories entitled “How Witches got Milk and Butter” and “The Milk Witch of Wood County,” from Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. In both tales the witches are portrayed as poor members of the community who keep their families fed and healthy by magically stealing milk from neighbors. In neither case do neighbors take any relatilatory action, however, recognizing that the theft is occasional and non-debilitating, and that they witches seem to need it more than the dairymen do (Gainer 167-8).
- Two stories in Ozark Magic & Folklore tell about witch-theft, too. In one case, two women “who lived all alone in a nearby farm” managed to siphon off milk from neighbors’ cattle using an enchanted dishcloth. In another story, a woman refuses to sell some ducks (at a low price, admittedly) to a reputed witch, who tells her the ducks will be dead by the following Monday. Sure enough, the ducks die, and the witch is blamed for the deaths (though it could be argued, of course, that the witch merely knew about the impending deaths and wanted to get some ducks on the cheap, ensuring a positive outcome for both parties, but that is certainly not implied by the story) (Randolph 270-1).
None of this is to say that a witch’s ire was fairly earned. In fact, most illustrations of such cases seem to side emotionally with the victims, even when recognizing the marginalized and abused position of the witch. The witch is thought to overreact, bringing death and destruction in turn for slights and offenses. She, too, neglects her neighborly duties by neglecting social norms in many ways within these tales. Yet it is worth remembering that keeping on a witch’s good side is possible in every version of these tales, and frequently it seems that only those who deliberately set out to poke a sleeping dragon truly get bitten. The central message of all these tales seems to be, “Don’t make the witches angry; you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.”
Of course, if you happen to know your own counter-curses and spells, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. When magical workers earn the ire of one another…well, that’s a post for another day, I think.
Thanks for reading!
-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 36–
This is our long-in-the-making audio spellbook episode! Listener contributions abound, as well as a few spells from your New World Witchery Hosts. Plus we announce the contest winners from our Speak-a-Spell giveaway.
Download: New World WItchery – Episode 37
All the spells come from listeners this time. Here’s a list of what you can hear:
1. Odom of the Evil Eye – Gambling Charm
2. Baron Chatdelamort – Chicken Foot Spell
3. Cory Hutcheson – Academic Crown of Success Mojo
4. Leathra (read by Laine) – Safe Travel Spell
5. Scarlet Page – Employment Spell
6. Nashoba – Cicada Creativity Charm
7. Jaina (read by Laine) – Prosperity Spell
8. Leathra (read by Cory) – Lost Object Teacup Spell
9. Ro – Matchbox Spell
10. Jessica – Warding and Protection Spell
11. Bev (read by Cory) – Coral Anti-Negativity Spell
12. Mama Fortuna – Cleansing Ritual Bath
13. Cory Hutcheson – Feet Water Charm
14. Cedar – Socializing Spell
15. Laine – Get a Job! Spell
16. Cory Hutcheson – Addled Brain Curse
17. John from MN – Icelandic Staves Curse
Here’s the photo from John’s Icelandic Staves spell:
Congratulations to our contest winners!
- American Shamans by Jack Montgomery – won by Mama Fortuna
- The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages by Judika Illes – won by John from Minnesota
- The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook by Denise Alvarado – won by Baron Chatdelamort
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!
Promos & Music
Additional Music from Musicalley.com (all podsafe):
1. Armand van Helden – “Witch Doctor”
2. Michael & Spider – “Enchanted”
3. Dreamline – “The Day the World Stood Still”
4. Todd Parker & the Witches – “Greetings from the Star Chamber”
5. Witcher – “Astral Phantasm”
6. Clouseaux – “Jungle Witch”
7. Witcher – “Kuin Metsaan Huuta”
-SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL-
In our very special and rather remarkable Halloween episode, we have original works of short fiction from six talented horror writers. Special thanks to our guests and our listeners!
Download: New World Witchery Special – All Hallows Read
Really, this entry should be called “pins & needles & spikes & nails & all other kinds of spiky things,” but that would have been an overly long title, so I’m standing by my choice. What I’ll be looking at today are folkloric occurrences of piercing devices as magical tools. This will probably overlap a bit with my entry on iron, but I’ll attempt to cover more new ground than old.
Probably one of the first things to come to mind when looking at sharp-and-pointy things is the popular “voodoo doll,” which is essentially a European-style poppet. These poppets are stuffed with botanicals, curious, dirt, rags, and/or personal items from the intended target and then manipulated to control him or her. Films and television frequently portray only harmful magic being done through these dolls, but a witch or conjurer can also use them to cast love spells, healing spells, or even health and wellness spells. I’ll probably try to do a separate entry on doll magic another time, but it’s worth a mention here, too, I think.
There are some African roots to the voodoo doll phenomenon, including the minkisi minkondi, which were little wooden dolls from Kongo where spirits were thought to live. The doll’s owner would drive a spike into it to “provoke the forces within them” and then the owners would be able to command the spirit to perform certain tasks (Chireau, Black Magic: Religion & the African American Conjuring Tradition). Other cultures have certainly used small effigies of human beings to cause hurt or help, as well. Denise Alvarado has a book which examines these dolls in detail, including a look at corn dollies, fetishes, Greek kolossoi, and other similar magical poppets.
Of course pins and other sharp objects can be used to cause magical harm even without the use of a doll (which makes sense according to the Doctrine of Signatures, which has tremendous influence on much folk magic). Zora Neale Hurston recorded a sinister curse which involved taking nine new pins and nine new needles and boiling them in a nefarious formula called “Damnation Water” in order to cross one’s enemy (Hurston, Hoodoo in America). An old-world carry-over (likely from England, but found in Southern communities where conjure is common) says that burying a pin taken from the clothes of a living person with a dead person will cause the target to die within a year (William G. Black, Folk Medicine).
Probably the most One of the more gruesome application of pin-and-needle magic had little to do with the magical effects of these tools, and all too much to do with their physical dangers: “One instance is given [in an account from 1895] of ‘toad heads, scorpion heads, hair, nine pins and needles baked in a cake and given to a child who became deathly sick’” (“Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors in the Southern United States,” Journal of American Folklore, p. 143). Curing magical maladies often involved finding pins used in spellwork and disposing of them in a ritual way: “He went at once to the hearth, took up a brick, and found sticking in a cloth six pins and needles. He took them up, put salt on them, and threw them in the river. The needles and pins were said to be the cause of so many pains”( “Conjuring…”, JAF, p.145).
A number of ‘Shut-up’ spells—tricks that involve tying the tongue of a gossip or potential witness against you in court—involve taking a slit tongue from an animal like a cow or sheep, packing it with hot peppers, vinegar, and/or salt along with the name paper of the target, and pinning it up with a number of pins and needles (usually nine, but not infrequently more).
Not all piercing spells used metal points. An account of Clara Walker, a former slave from Arkansas, describes her getting help from a rootworker who made a mud effigy of her master and ran a thron through the back of it, causing severe back pain in him (Chireau, Black Magic…)
Pins and needles needn’t be solely used in malicious work, however. A healing spell from England resembles wart charms in Appalachia and some of the rootworker cures from Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams County, requiring pins that have been used to poke or pierce a wart to be sealed in a bottle and buried in a newly-dug grave (Black, Folk Medicine). An account of a mojo bag from the days of slavery tells of “a leather bag containing ‘roots, nuts, pins and some other things,’ which was given to [the slave] by an old man” (Chireau, Black Magic…). The purpose of this bag was to prevent whippings on the plantation where the slave toiled, which could be quite severe.
Pins are also frequently used in witch-bottle spells, which cover a number of different magical traditions, including this version from hoodoo: “Bottles of pungent liquids, pins, and needles were interred by practitioners or strung on trees as a snare for invisible forces” (Chireau, Black Magic…). It would be an egregious error of me not to at least mention coffin nails, too, which are frequently applied in hoodoo and conjure preparations. Usually these are used to inscribe candles with signs, figures, names, etc., but they can also be included in things like war water mixtures or mojo bags to cause hurt and violence. Interestingly, they can be used for protection and health, too. Binding two or four nails into a cross with a little wire or red thread creates a powerful anti-evil charm. Vance Randolph recorded that “nails taken from a gallows [not the same as coffin nails, but rather similar] are supposed to protect a man against venereal disease and death by violence” (OM&F). He also describes these nails being turned into rings by blacksmiths to be worn as protective amulets.
Another hoodoo application involves the use of a series of nails of increasing size, starting with little ‘brad’ nails and getting progressively bigger until you use railroad spikes at the end. The spell is often referred to as “nailing down the house” and requires a practitioner to start by putting the small brads into the corner of each room, and nailing them down, while speaking magic words about protection, prosperity, and stability. Then the conjurer takes bigger nails and nails down the four corners of the house, again praying the magic words. This pattern continues until the conjurer reaches the four corners of the property and nails down iron railroad spikes into the dirt, thus sealing the home from harm and ensuring that the owner will remain in the home and not be evicted. I’ve heard one rootworker say that adding a little urine to each of the nails helps with this work, too, as a way of “marking one’s territory.”
Sewing needles or hairpins can also be used in love spells, as in these from Adams County, Illinois:
- 9641. The significance of a bending needle is a hug for the sewer.
- 9650. If a girl tries on a dress pinned for a fitting, each pin catching in her petticoat or slip will represent a kiss before the day is over.
- 9654. Before going to bed on January 21, a girl may tear off a row of pins (from a new package according to some) , say Let me see my future husband tonight as she pulls out each pin, and then stick them in the sleeve of her nightgown; that night he will be seen in her dream.
- 9655. If a pin found on the floor or street is picked up and stuck in your coat, you will have a date before the week ends.
- 9656. The girl who finds and picks up a pin pointing toward her will see her beau that day.
- 9657. A girl finding and picking up a pin will be dated that night; the man will come from the direction towards which the pin points.
- 9666. For luck in love a girl may secretly put one of her hairpins in her beau’s left hip pocket; this is also supposed to hold him.
- 9669. If while walking along you pick up a large safety pin and name it a man you want to see, he will soon be seen; if a small safety pin and
- name it a girl, she will soon be seen.
The binding power of pins in love spells makes a good bit of sense, and seems deeply entrenched in popular culture; think of high-schoolers being “pinned” (an antiquated notion, I know) or of the description of Cupid shooting arrows or darts to cause romantic feelings in his victim…er..targets. Amorous magic incorporating prickly things is not all lettermen jackets and floating nekkid babies, however. A somewhat heavier love spell from Zora Neale Hurston prevents a lover from straying:
Use six red candles. Stick sixty pins in each candle – thirty on each side. Write the name of the person to be brought back three times on a small square of paper and stick it underneath the candle. Burn one of these prepared candles each night for six nights. Make six slips of paper and write the name of the wanderer once on each slip. Then put a pin in the paper on all four sides of the name. Each morning take the sixty pins left from the burning of the candle. Then smoke the slip of paper with the four pins in it in incense smoke and bury it with the pins under your door step. The piece of paper with the name written on it three times (upon which each candle stands while burning) must be kept each day until the last candle is burned. Then bury it in the same hole with the rest. When you are sticking the pins in the candles, keep repeating:
‘Tumba Walla, Bumba Walla, bring (name of person desired) back to me.’ (Hurston, Hoodoo in America)
There are several agricultural spells which involve driving iron nails or spikes into trees to prevent fruit from dropping off of it (see Randolph, Hyatt, etc.). There’s a lovely bit of distinctly American folklore that says two iron nails driven into your bat will make you a better batter (in the game of baseball, that is).
Finally, I wanted to share an adorably sweet childhood rhyme does not use actual pins, but merely the words as part of a wishing spell performed when two people accidentally speak the same words at the same time. From Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams Co.:
8643. After two persons speak the same thing at the same time, the little finger of the one is held crooked about the little finger of the other and these words spoken alternately:
When a man marries,
His troubles begin,
What goes up the chimney,
They then make a wish and together say Thumbs.
I know there are dozens more applications of pins-and-pokey-bits magic I am not listing here, but hopefully this gives you some idea of what you can do with a simple sewing needle or a couple of iron nails. Magical tools are everywhere, if you know what you’re looking for, and how to use them. But for now, I’ve waxed on long enough about this topic, so let’s stick a pin in it and call it done.
Thanks for reading!