Posted tagged ‘cursing’

Blog Post 210 – What is New World Witchery?, Part VI (Witches Have a LOT of Talents)

August 9, 2018

This is the last post in a series in which I’ve attempted to outline a loose set of categorical criteria that might offer the hint of a shape to what I’ve termed “New World Witchery.” So far, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just starting with this series here, you might want to flip back the pages of this dusty old tome on the bookshelf and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices, the physical “things” of North American witchcraft, and the processes by witches gain their magical experience and knowledge. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.

As I enter into this final segment, I should note that it will likely raise as many questions as it answers (if not more), but I believe that to be a good thing. If I say, for example, that witch-flight is a talent for some witches in the stories I cite, that inevitably leads to questions about which witches (hah!) do not fly, why some do and some don’t, and just what do I mean by “flight” anyway? The benefit to leaving these questions only loosely sketched out is that they invite further investigation. They prompt more reading, more interviews, more questions, more experiments, and more questions (again)! Those don’t have to be questions on my part alone, either, but can easily be questions that you explore for yourself (and hopefully share your findings with us, as that makes everyone’s knowledge a little bit better). Some of the points I raise below will be interesting to particular readers and less interesting to others. That’s fantastic, because it means you can explore just what interests you while still seeing it as part of a bigger whole. There’s room around the cauldron for just about every type of witch, I think Which brings me to the final point in my rather over-stuffed taxonomy of New World Witchery.

Publicity photo of American actress, Margaret Hamilton and American Muppet, Oscar the Grouch promoting the February 10, 1976 premiere of Episode #0847 of Sesame Street. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Witches Have a LOT of Talents

When you picture your example of a “witch” in your head, you are likely seeing something different than what others around you see in terms of precise elements, but at the same time you could likely extract that image (by magic if that’s one of your many skills) and show it to others, and at least a few people would say “Oh, yes! That’s most certainly a witch!” Leaving aside the potential aesthetic elements such as the black pointy hat or cat and cauldron, you could also likely describe a person “casting a spell,” “flying at night,” and “summoning the dead” (or other spirits as has already been discussed) and you would evoke something that others recognized as a “witch.” You might also mention full moon rituals, or the creation of herbal healing salves, or perhaps the dispelling of ghosts with piles of burning flora or a chant in an unfamiliar tongue and similarly draw forth the word “witch” from someone’s lips. A woman at a coffee shop, quietly reading tarot cards in the corner? A teenage woman lighting candles and whispering a spell to make herself feel beautiful? A young man inscribing circles and lines on the ground in chalk, muttering in Latin? The mother of a friend who leaves salt lines across her doorstep and a broom turned up in the corner when the landlord visits? Some of these may say “witch” to you, and some may skirt the edge of that word. Some of these examples may fully slide by without ever even registering as “witchy” to you, but you might be able to think of a friend who would instantly label them that way.

A Witch, by E.R. Hughes (1902) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever the case, we understand that witches do a lot of different things, even while we also understand that many of the things we see witches doing seem to be part of a spectrum of behaviors we identify as “witchcraft” or “magic.” In stories, witches do things like pass on secret magical artifacts or turn people into animals. In history, we find people called witches who told fortunes (like Dorcas Hoar in Salem), healed their neighbors (as in the case of Grace Sherwood), or even seemed to have no direct connection to magic at all until their death (as in the case of “Old Kate Batts,” better known as the Bell Witch). Trying to pin down every single talent we see in narratives about witchcraft would generate a list that grinds even the sharpest of pencils into a worn nub, while still leaving copious room at the bottom of the page for all that I’ve missed. Still, I can assemble a broadly inclusive set of practices that I have seen repeated in my research that might at least put a pin in key locations throughout the spectrum of witchy doings. So just what is a North American witch capable of?

 

  1. Casting Spells – This may seem obvious, but it really shouldn’t. There have been several examples where the active casting of spells has not been a main characteristic in a witch story (for example, several of the cases involved in the Salem trials were almost explicitly focused on demonic and spectral visitations that tormented victims, and so the accused “witches” were not necessarily seen as spell-casters but night-wraiths). Given those few exceptions, however, we do see the active use of intentional magic (a definition I will return to later) in myriad tales, legends, and accounts of witchcraft. Whether it’s the act of burning candles, rubbing someone with eggs, or even “fixing” a luck charm of some kind for someone else’s use, witches often work magic through specific spells (and as I’ve noted, those spells often involve “things” as well).
  2. Witch-Flight – Again, not all witches in not all stories share this characteristic. The use of the word “flight” is also tricky and will require further exploration but taking it to mean any form of travel through the air, whether in body or spirit, we do see a lot of witches participating in this kind of magic. Interestingly, lots of stories involve other non-witches gaining the power of flight by following the rituals of the witches they observe, only to find themselves in hot water when the effects wear off and they don’t know what to do (or how to get out of the wine cellar they’re suddenly trapped in).
  3. Using Magical Objects – I’ve touched on this extensively in the section on the physical “things” of witchcraft, and we’ve discussed the nature of magical objects in the everyday world quite a lot as well. Creating or empowering talismans or charms, using cards or coins or bones to read a future, or tying up someone’s good luck (or reproductive functions) with a bit of cord all feature in multiple narratives of witchcraft, so it’s worth repeating. Magical objects are often crafted, of course, in every sense of the word, but a number of witches also repurpose the objects around them or even purchase magical artifacts and tools for their use, none of which makes them any less of a witch.
  4. Harming and Cursing – If we are to listen to the stories and not simply dismiss them out of hand, a great number of witches are engaged in the practice of cursing, hexing, and magical theft. Crucially, they often have very good reasons for acting the way they do, including responding to a community’s failure to treat its members equitably or fairly, making witchcraft an informal method of “justice.”
  5. Healing and Blessing – We have simply massive quantities of stories in which witches do their worst to those who earn their ire, but we also have more stories than you can shake a black cat at featuring a witch doing something helpful or kind for someone (even if it is done in a somewhat grudging way). Witches may execute justice on behalf of someone left out of the community, or offer a healing ointment, or even remove curses placed by other witches. One of the most common talents of those practicing magic is finding lost objects or even treasure, for example, which is a service rather than a curse. The New World Witch has complex motivations and her actions require a lot of context, it seems.
  6. Suffering – If you think of the stereotypical folktale featuring a witch, she often winds up getting the bum end of the dea She gets shoved into an oven, hung on an old tree, burned in the town square, or swallowed up by the forces of hell. She loses a hand while transformed into a cat or gets tortured because she has a pet rat and people don’t understand that choice, or she gets scalded with hot liquid because she happened to be siphoning off some milk from a nearby farmstead (okay, that last one may be more about the repurcussions of theft than any particular act of cruelty by the neighboring farmers). Witches, however, seem to take the brunt of abuse in the stories where they are present. Their spells get reversed or undone, and they wind up the worse for casting them, even to the point of (frequent) death.
  7. Surviving – Even in death, however, witches carry on. They may engage with the dead and the spirit world their whole lives only to become one of those spirits in the beyond. Tales of witches returning from the grave to seek revenge, as reputedly happened in the case of the Bell Witch of Tennessee or Mother Hicks of Maine, are many. Witches don’t go away easily, and almost never go down without a fight.

Illustration of a witch, John D. Batten (1892) (via Wikimedia Commons)

As I stated earlier, this is hardly an exhaustive or even particularly detailed list, but it does provide some ideas about the ways we perceive witches in stories and the ways we understand what they do. A witch is likely to engage in an act of magical theft as a response to poverty, then be caught and punished for her spells, and finally return from the grave for vengeance. Or, she might quietly cast spells and divine fortunes with cards, finding lost goods and livestock as a nervous client sits in front of her.

Our understanding of witches is shaped by their actions and behaviors far more than by the pointy hat or the bubbly cauldron, even though we often signal the idea of “witch” with those sorts of symbolic cues. Seeing these behaviors in combination helps us to see the emerging “witch” of legend and history as an active participant in her own story rather than just a victim of mislabeling by the ignorant around her (although there are certainly plenty of cases of that happening, too).

Weather vane with witch (photo by Jordiferrer, 2014, CC License-Wikimedia)

As I move forward with this website and all its related projects, I hope that these posts will be ones that we can return to as to a crossroads, with a giant post full of various arrow signs giving us all sorts of potential directions to go. We have seen the ways witches engage with the world around them here. The problems they face, they face with practical—if not necessarily logical—approaches, using magic as a specialized tool for overcoming barriers including poverty or injustice (as well as exacting personal vendettas sometimes). They understand the world to be a wonderful one—not necessarily a “good” one, but a world inhabited by the uncanny and awe-inspiring. Witches engage with that wonder, form bonds with it and with the world it shows them. Witches go beyond wonder and belief, transforming their ideas into concrete reality through spells and charms, knotted cords, bones and skins from animals, and handfuls of gathered plants. They acquire their power and knowledge through struggle and effort, often developing it over a lifetime and passing it on to others sometime before they die. They do magic, cast spells, deal with curses, provide blessings, bewitch guns and cattle, find missing animals, brew love potions, get blamed when things go wrong (sometimes because they did, indeed, have something to do with it), transform into animals, suffer for their work, and often pay very high prices for the magic they do.

The life of a New World Witch, then, is one of action. Witches do work. Witches solve problems. Witches learn and grow. Witches make things. Witches talk to things that others don’t or won’t talk to. Witches see the world differently, and it changes them. Then, they change the world.

I look forward to seeing all the things that you all do with your magic. Please continue to share your own acts of witchery and enchantment with us and help all of us here to summon forth a little more New World Witchery in the years to come.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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Blog Post 198 – Dolls

February 1, 2016

In one of our recent holiday episodes, we discussed the way that toys, dolls in particular, seem to embody the uncanny. Dolls, doll babies, dollies, poppets—whatever you call them, figural toys seem to have the power to evoke fear in people and act as powerful proxies for magical work. I decided to cover the topic in part because several podcasts I frequently download (namely LORE and Stuff You Missed in History) have recently mentioned Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Robert’s story is full of creepy twists and turns, but nicely captures how dolls can be both innocent (as Robert is when he acts as a best friend to his young owner, Gene) and terrifying (as Robert is when he shows up on a subsequent owner’s bed, brandishing a kitchen knife). Still, most tales of dolls and magic in the New World are not as spectacular as Robert’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very interesting uses for dolls in American folk magic. There most definitely are, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the ones that I find most interesting.

Robert the Doll, in Key West, Florida. Creepy, right? By Cayobo from Key West, The Conch Republic (Robert The Doll Uploaded by LongLiveRock) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We can start in Salem, during the famous witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. A slave from Barbados named Candy was the focus of one early investigation (although her fate was not, as far as we know, the gallows). Candy confessed her use of folk magic, including the use of a handkerchief which she transformed into a doll:

“Candy stated that her knowledge of witchcraft came from her experience in Salem and not from her home in Barbados. The magical items possessed by Candy bear closer analysis and provide evidence for a possible connection to African or Afro- Caribbean beliefs. The knotted handkerchief was obviously a doll to stick with pins or to rend to inflict pain on others. The pieces of cloth were possibly shreds of clothing to be used to identify the dolls with a particular victim, as is common in the sympathetic magic which makes up part of voodoo belief” (McMillan 104-5)

Comments about “voodoo belief” aside (here I think McMillian is simply conflating “voodoo” with the folk magic of African Caribbeans), Candy’s use of the knotted handkerchief gets at some of the main reasons that doll magic seems to be popular and widespread. Firstly, it involves easily found or acquired resources—in this case cloth from the intended target, making the materials doubly enticing. Secondly, doll magic is sympathetic magic, and the connection is easy to see. If I make a piece of someone’s long johns look like a person, particularly the person whose backside the doll so recently covered, it seems likely that those two things will share a connection.

This point, that something that looks human but isn’t has uncanny powers, gets echoed in a lot of folklore as well, some of which connects to the folk magical systems of early Americans. Imported stories, such as tales about Anansi, refer to the use of dolls as agents of trickery. One account of Anansi tells how he tricked Tiger, and Tiger avenged himself on Anansi by putting a gumdoll in a field. Anansi gets angry when the doll won’t respond to him, and strikes it, becoming stuck to it. This tale is likely best known by American audiences as the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, of course, which replaces Anansi with the wily trickster rabbit and uses tar in place of tree gum. An Apache tale recasts the narrative as Coyote fighting with a lump of pitch, placed in a field by a “white man” to catch the sneaky food thief. The story keeps reappearing across different cultural backdrops, with new characters but the same basic structure. In all cases, the doll in question does nothing—that is one of the reasons Brer Rabbit and his compatriots dislike the thing—but still manages to get the best of its target.

Illustration of Brer Rabbit & the Tar Baby. A. B. Frost [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dolls, much like the Tar Baby or gumdoll, don’t necessarily have to do anything to be effective in folk magic, either. Jason Miller recounts a story in his Protection & Reversal Magic in which a doll’s effect is clearly psychological, but nonetheless potent:

“A santera I know was having problems with her neighbor being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night and leaving garbage on her lawn. She asked her madrina (her teacher) what she should do. The madrina told her to make a doll that looked like the neighbor, blindfold it, tie its arms and legs, and nail it to the tree in her yard facing her neighbor’s front door. My friend was a bit shocked and said, “Good Lord! I don’t want to hurt him! What will happen?”

“Nothing” replied her madrina, “but it will scare the living crap out of him!”” (Miller 30)

Miller’s account of the santera’s doll experience resembles other accounts in American folk history. Newbell Niles Puckett references a similar incident in his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. In the cases Puckett describes, the dolls may or may not actually have a magical effect, or they might simply convey the sender’s sentiments about how they wish to see the recipeient suffer: “Very common also was the practice of putting small black caskets, often with skull and crossbones upon the cover, in front of a person’s door. Sometimes these would contain a small doll with pins run through the heart and with a burned-out candle at the head and another at the foot, doubtless a case of sympathetic magic, indicating a desire that the person be “laid out” according to the Catholic rites.” (Puckett 227-8).

Dolls that do nothing, however are not as much fun as dolls that do something. Fairy tales like “Vasalissa the Beautiful” from Russian lore offer dolls that seem to do little, but in fact act as powerful fetishes of protection to those that carry them. Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s doll, which carries a maternal blessing and performs tasks while the young girl and the old witch Baba Yaga are sleeping at night. Baba Yaga is always disappointed by Vasilissa’s completion of her tasks, which she knows must be done by magic but cannot figure out. Eventually the ancient cannibal witch decides not to eat the girl and instead sends her away with a magical gift when she learns that Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s blessing (although she never does puzzle out the secret of the doll).

Just as in fairy tales, dolls can have powerful magical agency, according to folklore. Several authors, including the aforementioned Jason Miller, suggest using dolls or poppets in spells, just as Candy was said to have done in Salem. Miller recommends a mirror box spell using a doll which will turn any harmful magic back on its sender or protect one from magical attack. Dorothy Morrison makes similar suggestions in her book on baneful magic, and even talks about using dollar store Barbie knockoffs stuffed with personal materials or herbs as a way of simplifying the doll-making process.

When it comes to making dolls, however, kids seem to have a knack for doing it with whatever’s at hand, which as I mentioned above, may be part of why dolls are both so ubiquitous and so powerful. Coming from materials which are already familiar to the doll-maker through use and contact, the relationship with the doll itself can be very deep once the figure has been created. Adults do sometimes craft dolls and other toys with what is around, but they are also likely to purchase materials:

“Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper, fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or “found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”). Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric).” (Leeds-Hurwitz 1477)

The fabrication of toys and dolls, including ones used for ritual or magical purposes, is not limited to post-European contact in the New World, either. According to scholar Yvonne Milspaw, Native cultures would create paper-type dolls out of natural materials with magic in mind: ““Other reported uses of paper and bark cutting among Native Americans include carefully worded reports of sorcery and cut-paper dolls among some Mexican people like the Otomi” (MIlspaw 1134). Some of these traditions may have shaped latter-day practices like the creation of skeletal papier mache dolls for Day of the Dead/Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.

So dolls can be made from lots of materials, and can be active or passive in the use of magic, as we’ve seen. They also frequently come with their own rules or taboos about how they can be used, deployed, or even simply treated. When it comes to folk magic, African American conjure traditions emphasized the choice of materials as a matter of import. Dolls are often crafted with local flora (and occasionally fauna) for a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. Spanish moss is frequently used to stuff or wrap doll babies in Delta-area conjure practices both because it grows ubiquitously on trees in the region and because as a plant it acts semi-parasitically (it doesn’t actually feed off of the oak trees it grows upon directly, but it can limit their growth), thereby sharing life with a host as a doll is supposed to. Even more potent than Spanish moss, however, are doll components that come directly from the intended target, such as pieces of their clothing, as illustrated by this example from African American folklore:

“My husband was very jealous of me, he was just insane jealous. He was always telling me he was going to put a spell on me. I was afraid of him. I went to a house where he didn’t want me to go, because a man was at that house he was jealous of. He was going away to get work…and told me not to go there. He went and took a piece of my bloomers and made a rag doll out of them, stuff it, worked black eyes like mine with silk thread; then put in the head — a needle, some of my hair, pins, rain water and a shingle nail, then sewed up the head. After that he took a small picture of me and put it on the left side of the rag doll, about where my heart is; then he filled the doll just full of pins and needles all over. He then put it in a pint jar and buried it under that house, where he didn’t want me to go — without anyone knowing it — and left town. I started to getting sick just as soon as he left, was sick all the time, could not find out what was wrong. I would start over to the house, but I could not make it. Something kept me from going. I went on this way for about a month, I was getting weaker and weaker, when one day some children playing around this house, digging, dug up this rag doll. They [the people at the house] knew right away it was to cast a spell over me, because they knew my picture was on the doll, and he was always saying he was going to make me suffer. We took the rag doll, jar and all, put it on the fire and burnt it all up; and I started to getting better right away and got well. And my husband got stab in about a month time; we threw the spell back on him by burning up everything, and he died and I am well.” (Hyatt 456)

A number of writers on conjure similarly describe the use of clothing from the intented target, including Yvonne Chireau, Starr Casas, Denise Alvarado, and Jefferey Anderson. While a doll sculpted from scratch certainly seems to be preferred in many magical practices, it is not the only way to operate. Much as Dorothy Morrison mentions using dollar-store plastic dolls to do work, Zora Neale Hurston records the repurposing of children’s toys for magical purposes in Southern African American hoodoo:

“To Keep a Person Down. Write name on paper with black ink. Rip open back of a doll and put the names in it. Sew it up with black thread. Put aloes, cayenne pepper in doll along with names. Tie the hands of the doll behind her and place her in a kneeling position in a corner, and keep her there where nobody will interrupt. They will be frustrated as long as she is not disturbed. Tie a black veil on her face and knot it in the back, so that the person will be blind and always do the things to keep himself from progressing” (Hurston 384).

"Voodoo Doll," featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

“Voodoo Doll,” featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the lore of creepy dolls and the lore about how to use dolls magically, there seem to be a few taboos about dolls which thread through different American cultural landscapes as well. For instance, many Amish communities have strict rules about children’s dolls, insisting that they cannot have faces on them for fear of violating the “graven images” commandment in the Bible (the rule also extends to things like snowmen and usually paintings as well). Hyatt notes that one superstition about dolls involves naming: “If a girl changes the name of her doll, the doll will break.” (Hyatt, p.268). He also records a much more sinister taboo about dolls which I cannot help but share here:

“A little girl died that was three years old, and her mother put a doll and a little horse in the coffin that she always played with. I said to the mother, ‘I would not do that, for there is an old saying, never bury anything with a corpse.’ And in a few weeks this little girl’s mother and sister died.” (Hyatt 374)

This last bit of folklore is fascinating to me simply because it seems to be a powerful impulse in human beings to bury toys with children when they are tragically lost. Many early human graves contain burial goods, and children’s burial goods often seem to be toys. Dolls, though, might have a special exemption from burial because of their close resemblance to a living person, although that does not seem to be a universal taboo.

Dolls today have a lot of the same stigmas attached to them: they are objects of fear and superstition as well as simple objects of play. Magically, they can be used for a number of purposes which resemble and also modify the traditional folk uses I’ve outlined here. One of our readers shared a story with us about a sloth doll she uses to overcome issues with chronic lethargy, letting the doll absorb any feelings of laziness from her (she also shared her very terrifying experiences with an American Girls doll, so that tradition is alive and well, too). The film Toy Story and its many sequels and similar movies all play upon the idea of toys having a “secret life,” which involves humans not being around, but being the prime object of the dolls’ attention. In theaters as of the date of this post, one can also see the film The Boy, about a very Robert the Doll-esque figure which seems to have a (sinister) life of its own.

All of which is to say, dolls are a big part of magical lore and practice, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And they watch you while you sleep. So sweet dreams and all.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References

  1. Alvarado, Denise. The Day of the Dead Handbook (CreateSpace Publishing, 2012).
  2. The Voodoo Doll Spellbook: A Compendium of Ancient Spells and Rituals (Weiser Books, 2014).
  3. Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society (LSU Press, 2008).
  4. Casas, Starr. The Conjure Workbook, Vol. 1: Working the Root (Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
  5. Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2006).
  6. Crowley, Daniel J. “Anansi.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 50-1.
  7. Goldberg, Christine. “Witchcraft.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1560-64.
  8. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” In Journal of American Folklore (Fall 1931). 317-417.
  10. Kirkland, James W. “Folk Medicine.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 983-89.
  11. Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. “Toys, Folk.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1477-80.
  12. McMillan, Timothy. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, & Resistance in Colonial New England.” In Journal of Black Studies (Sept. 1994). 99-117.
  13. Miller, Jason. Protection & Reversal Magick (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books), 2006.
  14. Milspaw, Yvonne J. “Paper Cutting.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1132-35.
  15. Morrison, Dorothy. Utterly Wicked: Curses, Hexes, & Other Unsavory Notions (St. Louis: WillowTree Press, 2010.
  16. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York: Dover, 1970).
  17. R. D. Personal correspondence via email. 23 Dec. 2015.
  18. Yolen, Jane, ed. “Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch.” In Favorite Folktales from Around the World (New York: Random House, 1986).

Blog Post 183 –Lost in the Supermarket (Part II)

November 20, 2013

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.

supermarket_herbs_spices

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.

Corn Husks

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?

Corn dolly folk art (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Hot Peppers

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).

Coconuts

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.

“Retrato de una señora principal con su negra esclava,” by Vicete Alban (via Wikimedia Commons)

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!

-Cory

Blog Post 172 – Ashes

February 15, 2013

“Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” –Priest’s admonition during Ash Wednesday liturgy, based on Genesis 3:19.

On Wednesday, I attended the Ash Wednesday mass at a Catholic church near my workplace, which begins the Lenten season. The pull of tradition sometimes brings me back to the church rituals of my childhood, and while I’m spiritually aligned else wise now, I take comfort in some of these practices, too. The ashes used in Ash Wednesday services are a powerful ritual tool, made from the palms left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, mixed with incense and holy water, and blessed by the priest. They mark the bearer as a member of the church, a mortal person living in a mortal world, and someone aware of death’s role in our lives. The ashes, which serve as a spiritual tool for unification with divinity and with mortality, got me to thinking about some of the other ways in which ashes can be used in folk religious or magical practices.

And so today, I thought we’d explore the very rich traditions of magical work which incorporate ashes. I shall endeavor to stay focused on the practical application of ashes, rather than the mere presence of ashes in a spell, but in some cases that line blurs (or smudges) a bit. In researching the topic, I was astounded to see how many different methods for working with ashes I found: banishing, cursing, healing, money work, omens about bad luck and loss, and even some quasi-magical gardening tips. This, to me, is an example of how an extraordinarily normal item—ashes—can be a useful magical tool if a practitioner knows a little about what to do with them. Truly, a clever witch or magical worker can read his or her environment and see it loaded with enchantment and possibility, but I digress. On to the ash spells!

 One of the most common ways to counteract bewitchment was to burn the affected object—usually a cow, butter-churn, etc.—“to ashes” which would render the witch who cast the enchantment powerless or cause her tremendous pain. Often the ashes would have to be dispersed even more extensively by being scattered to the four winds to render the spellcaster completely impotent and/or destroyed. Similarly, feathers from black fowls could be burned and the ashes sprinkled or blown over a bewitched person to remove the bewitchment.

An account of a Bell Witch-style haunting in Wiltshire, North Carolina, noted that the wicked spirit “sprinkled ashes in the beds” (Cross 243). Some hoodoo spells deploy the ashes of particularly nasty spells in the way one might lay a magical powder, sprinkling at someone’s doorstep so that they must step in the baneful trick.

Cat Yronwode mentions rubbing alfalfa ashes on one’s money to improve business, especially if the money is in a cash register. She also has this excellent and interesting recipe for a floorwash designed to bring clientele to a cathouse:

To Draw Trade to a Whorehouse: On a Friday morning, build a fire outdoors and burn a man’s worn-out left SHOE with a pinch of SUGAR in it. Put the SHOE ashes, a tablespoonful each of AMMONIA, SALT, and SUGAR, plus your own URINE, into a bucketful of water.  Mop from the sidewalk inward, to attract men (Yronwode 29).

Ashes can also be used in hoodoo love charms (perhaps in conjunction with the above business charm?), as in this method from Zora Neale Hurston:

Cut some hair from under your left arm-pit and some from the right side of the groin. Then cut some from the right arm-pit and from the left side of the groin. Burn this hair with a wish for this man to love you.  Put the ashes – made into fine dust – in his food secretly and he will love you and do as you wish (Hurston 361-2).

A magical charm called the “Chinese Snake Stone” from an account of North Carolina witchcraft tells how the amulet could be used to draw poison and how ashes were used to re-charge it after its work was done:

Directions for using The Chinese Snake Stone. Scarify the wound before applying the Stone-take it off every morning and evening-put the Stone at each time, when taken off, into a glass of milk-warm water, and let it remain a few minutes, until it discharges itself of the poison-wash the wound in a strong solution of salt water, and scarify again, if necessary. After taking the Stone from the water, rub it dry in moderately warm ashes, and apply as before. This course should be repeated for the space of nine days, when a cure will be effected (Cross 264)

In some cases, ashes have to be handled carefully in order to prevent illness from getting worse. When someone in a family is sick, for example, removing the ashes from the fireplace and taking them out of the building is said to be very bad luck, possibly even fatal to the ailing person.

A Pow-wow hair removal charm taken from older European sources recommends burning a frog to ashes and mixing them with water to make an ointment “that will, if put on any place covered with hair, destroy the hair and prevent it from growing again” (Hohman 14). I also found the same cure echoed in witchcraft practices from North Carolina.

Curandera recipes sometimes call for white ashes, which are powdery and fine and must be sifted from the gray and black ashes. Mrs. Mercedes Castorena of Sonoma gave the following recipe for dealing with empacho, a stomach and intestinal ailment:

“You crack an egg and get the yolk, being very careful not to break the yolk, because it has to be all in one piece. Then lay the sick person on the bed, put the egg on his stomach and let the egg slide all over the stomach. Wherever the spot is (where the food is stuck), the egg yolk will break. You leave the egg here. Then you take some herb called rosa de castilla, and some ashes-just the white part of the ashes-and put this on the stomach and wrap a bandage around the stomach to keep it on. Then you give them a dose of Baby Percy (a patent medicine)” (Neighbors 251).

Mrs. Castorena also mentioned a cure involving mixing avocado seed ashes with oil to treat indigestion. Ashes are also used in other home remedies from other traditions: “To cure toothache, place a bag of warm wood ashes on the side of the face where the tooth is aching” (Farr 327). Vance Randolph mentions the Ozark method of treating an itch using a mix of gunpowder, wood ashes, and sweet cream. He also talks about a method of staunching a wound using the ashes of a man’s shoe.

In the garden, ashes can be mixed into soil around fruit trees to improve their growth. My mother used to have me take our fireplace ashes and put them around our blueberry bushes at the beginning of the spring to promote big, juicy berries later on. Supposedly, doing this on Ash Wednesday ensured a pest-free garden all year long (I don’t recall if I was usually enjoined to this particular chore in conjunction with the holiday or not, but our plants were not bug-free).

Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of beliefs about sprinkling ashes around a hen-house to prevent lice on the birds (and he also mentions the Ash Wednesday ritual for gardening success). Some of the other magical ash-lore he shared includes:

  • “Epileptic attacks are checked, if you remove the person’s undershirt immediately after an attack, let it smolder on live coals, mix a teaspoonful of these ashes in a glass of holy water, and say In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. These ashes in holy water must be administered three times a day.”
  • “An old shoe should be burned and the ashes used in washing out the mouth of a child with thrush.”
  • Several of his informants recommended burying objects that have touched a wart in ashes in order to cure the growth
  • Dreaming about ashes is very bad luck, usually foretelling a significant loss or a death in the near future

Strangely, dreaming of fire is frequently a good sign, but the ashes tend to be a bad-luck indicator.

As you can see, even the lowly ashes from your fireplace can become useful magical aids if you know what to do with them. I hope this little exploration is useful to you! Please feel free to share your own ash lore in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Sources

  1. Bivens, N.D.P. Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau (1994, new ed.)
  2. Cross, Tom. “Witchcraft in North Carolina.” Studies in Philology (Jul. 1919).
  3. Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1935)
  4. Hohman, John George. The Long Lost Friend (1820).
  5. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1931).
  6. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
  7. Neighbors, Keith A. “Mexican-American Folk Disease.” Western Folklore (Oct. 1969).
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
  9. Snow, Loudell F. “Mail Order Magic: The Commercial Exploitation of Folk Belief.” Journal of the Folklore Institute (Aug. 1979)
  10. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic (2002).

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