Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

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

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery Special – Learning Witchcraft

 

Stories:

 

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

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

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

Blog Post 155 – Radiolab and Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

Hi all!

I know this isn’t the botanical lore I was promising for the month of April, but don’t worry, there’s more of that coming. I just had to share something that my very dear and wonderful friend Kathleen alerted me to. One of my favorite non-magical podcasts in the world, Radiolab, just did a really interesting mini-show on a topic which intersects with our work here!

Please hop over and check out the 30 minute Radiolab short on the Crossroads, specifically the tangled crossroads legend surrounding blues players Robert Johnson (to whom the myth of selling his soul to become a great blues player is frequently ascribed) and Tommy Johnson (who may actually have done the crossroads ritual). There are fantastic interviews with music historians, blues experts, and even Tommy Johnson’s brother, all of which help shed light on the strange and gorgeous African American folk tale about gaining new power at the crossroads.

I should point out that they come at this from a scientific and historical perspective, and really are pursuing the true story about the musicians rather than doing much to get at the folkloric roots of the crossroads phenomenon. They specifically wind up ignoring the existence of the story in other African American literary and folklore sources, such as these:

  • The multiple incidents of crossoroads conjure recorded by Harry M. Hyatt between 1935-1939 (found at the bottom of the Lucky Mojo page linked above), which would have pre-dated the “creation” of this story as described in the Radiolab short
  • The numerous incidences of crossroads as places of healing, particularly trading things like a wart or a sty to a mysterious stranger, in Southern and African American folklore (which can be found in Hyatt’s work, the work of Vance Randolph, and Newbell Niles Puckett).
  • Puckett’s description of the crossroads ritual as an origin for folk hero Jack, which was published in 1926 and states:

Various legends are in vogue among the Negroes to account for the origin of this creature.  One illustrating the common theme, was told me by a root-doctor last summer.  Jack sold himself to the devil at the crossroads one night at twelve o’clock. For seven years all power was given to him to do as he pleased, but at the end of that period his soul belonged to the devil. [This eventually goes on to tell the story of Jack-o-Lantern, but the crossroads portion of it is given here as illustration of my particular point]

  • Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 article on African American folk magic, which has the following item in it:

How to Have a Slick Hand with People.

On the dark moon of any Friday night, dress yourself in black. Sit flat in the fork of a cross road at exactly twelve o’clock and sell yourself out to the devil. After which you shall have power to do anything you wish to do (“Hoodoo in America,” 392)

  • The appearance of crossroads in European folk magic (such as that found in Charles Leland’s Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune-telling, published in 1891, long before the legends being described in the blues tales)

There are so many other appearances of crossroads in folklore that it would be daunting to tackle them here (though I will probably try to do a bigger article on them some day). My real point is just to say that while I love the Radiolab story, they definitely overlooked a large amount of crossroads material so that they could focus more on the story of two real blues musicians, which is understandable.

I really do hope you’ll give this particular show a listen. It’s great, especially in its ability to untangle the two legends from one another, and you get to hear some really hauntingly good blues, too.  Let me know what you think of it!

All the best, thanks for reading, and see you down at the crossroads…

-Cory

Blog Post 127 – Summoning Devils

In Blog Post 126 we looked a little bit at the Devil as a folkloric figure in American witchcraft.  One of the questions I received in response to that post was, “but how do I meet him?”  Is the Devil an entity anyone can just summon up?  Do you have to be careful to call the “right” devil so as not to wind up with more on your plate than you can handle?  And if you do meet the Devil, how do you come away with your soul intact (assuming you want to)?

Today I thought I’d look at some of the ways, folklorically speaking, that people have been known to get into contact with the Devil or other “dark” spirits.  Some of these are based on old European folk traditions, and some call a figure which may or may not be the Devil, but which certainly shares traits with him (trickster nature, otherworldly knowledge, granting of gifts, etc.).  A word of warning before we dive in, though: Do NOT attempt any spiritual summoning work or diabolical contact without the proper precautions—while dark spirits can be powerful allies, they also can have a dangerous side and should be treated with respect and caution.

So, with that being said, let’s look at some of the main ways to meet your devil.

Invocation & High Magic

If you’ve ever read Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, you’ll be quite familiar with this method.  In this late 16th century play, Dr. Faustus (quite possibly based on a real person), learns the art of high magic and uses a magic circle to call forth a devil named Mephistopholes, who will act as his servitor on Earth in exchange for his soul.  He seals his pact with blood, and pretty much gets what he wants for a while (including Helen of Troy), then gets dragged off to hell for his final punishment.

In Marlowe’s version, the imp is a distinct entity, and in some versions of the legend he takes on the form of a dog or other animal to serve Faustus as a familiar.  Shakespeare, contemporary to Marlowe, also knew a bit about diabolic invocation through high magic.  In his Henry VI, part 2, Shakespeare demonstrates a different version of how such a meeting might go.  In Act I, scene iv, a conjurer named Bolingbroke summons the spirit of a devil named Asmath into a witch named Margaret Jourdain (based on a real woman and accused witch named Margery Jourdayne), then proceeds to interrogate the demon for information.  He dismisses the devil just before royal authorities break in and arrest everyone present for heresy and treason.

So here we have two methods inherited from the grimoire traditions of old Europe: direct appearance and possession.  Owen Davies gives an excellent overview of these traditions in his appropriately titled Grimoires: a history of magic books.  These late-antiquity and medieval methods of making contact with nefarious forces also found popularity in the New World, mostly through grimoires like the Grimoire Verum, Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets, and derivative texts drawn from such sources.  These tomes influenced magical systems like Pow-wow and hoodoo, though the specifically diabolic elements were often highly diminished by the time they reached the hands of folk practitioners.  The exception to this is that the seals found in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses were still used for magical purposes, and several of those seals are specifically designed to invoke diabolic aid from entities like Mephistopholes and Leviathan.

Should you get the urge to perform any of these types of invocations—and I reiterate my warning about being prepared and knowing what you’re doing first—here are several rituals you might try:

  • The Grimoire Verum – This text says that America is ruled by the devil Astaroth, whose sigils are included for your invocational purposes.  Please note that you should probably learn a little bit about basic Solomonic invocation and banishing from the Key of Solomon first, though the Grimoire Verum does give a little instruction in these areas as well.
  • The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses – There is a lot less instruction here than you would find in some of the other grimoires, so if you’re not versed in summoning and dispelling, you may need to look elsewhere.
  • Dr. Faustus – Here is the text used by Marlowe for his Faustian invocation.  Bear in mind that this was designed to be staged, so use it more as a guide than a rote ritual to be followed.
  • Henry VI, part 2 – Shakespeare’s text for invocation and bansishment.  Take with the same grain of salt you used with Marlowe’s work.

Meeting the Devil

On the more folkloric side of things, the common method for contacting a devil of some kind involves a journey to a liminal or wild place where he is thought to reside.  In most cases, the Devil can be found either at a crossroads or in a forest of some kind, though there are exceptions (many modern stories of meeting the Devil involve transportation or big cities, e.g. Robert Bloch’s Hell-Bound Train, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, and the cult film Rosemary’s Baby).  Probably the most famous ritual is the crossroads ritual, which I’ve mentioned here before.  As I’m planning to do an article on the crossroads as an independent magical space, I won’t go into great detail, but rather just say that Cat Yronwode has a great entry on the crossroads for those who are interested.

The forest or wild place meeting is a common folkloric theme across many cultures.  There are, of course, the Teutonic tales of meeting various wild spirits or devils in the forest, as in the Grimms’ tales of the Devil (see “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” or “The Devil’s Grandmother”).  There are biblical precedents for these sorts of meetings as well—Moses encounters the burning bush in the desert, which is at least terrifying if not outright diabolic.  Three of the gospels also recount the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert (an analog for wilderness in biblical terms).  American folklore picks up this thread, and stories of meeting the devil in wilderness are quite common.  “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, features such a meeting, and at least one scholar has brought the idea into the twentieth century by suggesting that “Men in Black” sightings associated with UFO’s in rural areas may be connected to devil lore.

The other alternative to the forest meeting is the graveyard meeting.  Usually in this version of the story, the person meeting the Devil must also do battle with him.  It can be a battle of wits, but just as often it is a physical wrestling match which parallels the interior struggle of the person confronting his or her fears by meeting the Devil in a graveyard in the firstplace.

So how does someone put this kind of meeting into practice?  Will devils always show up in graveyards after dark?  Will someone wandering in the forest or through a crossroads inevitably meet a Man in Black of some kind?  Sadly, I have no answers here.  All I can say is that if you’re truly moved to attempt these sorts of rituals, the Devil tends to show up in some form or fashion.  So if you’re interested in pursuing this line of contact, you could:

  • Attempt the Toad’s Bone ritual, which terminates with a graveyard wrestling session or a bout in a river
  • Give the Greased Plate method a try (mentioned in Blog Post 50 and found in The Silver Bullet, p.24)
  • See what happens if you do a Crossroads Ritual for a certain amount of time
  • Or, just wander to any of these kinds of places, swear yourself to the Devil (or in many cases, against God), and call out to the Devil to come and offer you terms of some kind—a new skill, riches, knowledge, etc. in exchange for service or something intangible like, oh, say, your soul.

One final thing I should mention is that the best-case scenario in many of these stories usually involves a person quick-witted enough to outsmart the Devil.  So always be aware of just what you say to any devil you meet, and make sure you leave loopholes for yourself if you promise them anything.  They seem to enjoy a good trick, so it’s a win-win if you can outsmart them.

Again, please be careful with this sort of magic. It has the potential to be dangerous, and at the very least it’s a little intense and can run you afoul of the law if you’re not cautious (loitering at crossroads or in graveyards tends to get the police rather grumpy).  If you do have any good experiences with this sort of work, though, please share!  I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 125 – Some Devils

One of the longest-standing charges against witchcraft in the New World (as well as the old) is its inherent alliance with diabolic forces.  A person simply could not be a witch without being bound in some way to the Devil or one of his minions, according to popular conceptions which remain strong even today.  The notion of witchcraft as a Satanic practice is, of course, inaccurate—many Satanists have nothing to do with witchcraft, and many witches have nothing to do with Satan (that name here being used for the Adversary of the Judeo-Christian God).  There are certainly Satanic witches, just as there are Jewish witches or Christian witches.

I prefer to draw a distinction, though, between Satan and the Devil (or devils in general, the capital “D” being used when referring to a singular entity).  In most cases, Satan appears in biblical lore as a being concerned with the overall cosmology of heaven and earth, leading wars against God, and presenting deep philosophical and theological complications into the story of Creation.  Devils, on the other hand, are creatures interested in particular individuals, usually offering them power or temporal gifts in exchange for a soul, a service, or as a reward for exemplary cleverness.  They stem from myriad sources, including the Teutonic Teufel, the trickster spirits of African and Native American mythology, the Norse Loki, and British devil-figures like “Old Nick.”  Today, I’ll be looking at the Devil and his role in American witchcraft, particularly his place as an Initiator and a Trickster.

Devil as Initiator

I’ve already somewhat covered this in our post on Initiation, but the Devil (or one of his guises) functions as a primary point of contact for aspiring witches looking for ways to join the Otherworld.  While this initiation does often feature some distinctly anti-Christian elements, such as the inverted recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Devil’s role in such inductions tends to take on the tenor of a patron or godfather.  The Devil “sponsors” the initiating witch, usually offering a physical or magical token in exchange.  Some of these gifts include a familiar imp, spirit, or animal – See “Devil beetle bleeding toe” by Davies, or

exceptional magical and/or physical ability (such as the tale of the crossroads by Tommy Johnson, or any of the accounts of gamblers using the crossroads ritual in Harry M. Hyatt).  What the witch herself offers the Devil varies a bit.  Some examples are:

  • The life of someone near to her – “I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).
  • Her family – As happens, for example, in the Appalachian story of Jonas Dotson, a young man whose granddaddy and daddy were both preachers who decides to become a witch.  A very specific ceremony is laid out in the book, involving the use of stolen rams, toad’s blood, a pewter plate, a silver bullet, and an incantation.  He undergoes the initiation rite three times before it “takes” and the Devil makes him a witch (or in the context of the story, a conjure man).  Basically, he must untie the bonds of family in order to become a magician, and each initiation separates him further and further from those family members.  (Davis, p. 22-25)
  • A bit of her own flesh or blood – “If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return.  This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).
  • Her immortal soul – This is probably the most common story, and is what is frequently meant by “selling yourself” to the Devil.  In Vol. 2 of Harry M. Hyatt’s magnum opus on hoodoo folklore, a ritual for meeting the Devil in the form of a tornado at the crossroads ends with “An’ when he [the Devil] gits dere he tells them [the person at the crossroads] exactly whut tuh do, an’ dey’ll dance with him. Dat’s whut chew call sellin’ yo’self to de devil” (Hyatt, p.1346)
  • A person’s soul even after death.  W.J. Hoffman recounts a Pennsylvania-Dutch legend about a miserly man known as “Old Kent” whose death was presaged by all manner of supernatural occurrences, such as a murder of crows rapping at the windows. After he died, his wife heard such rapping frequently, so often in fact that no guests would stay the night and eventually she had to abandon the house altogether (Hoffman p. 34-5)

In many of the tales of the Devil as initiator, he also takes the new witch’s name down with a pen in a great black book, signifying the entry of the witch into a long line of witches whose names fill the book’s pages.  He is often quite terrifying to those who encounter him.  One account of a witch’s initiation witnessed by a couple of country men out in the woods describes him thus:

“Neither me nor Jeff had ever seed the Devil, and we couldn’t believe our eyes, but it must’ve been him.  He had horns just above his ears, his feet had hoofs like a deer, he had a long tail like a cow, and fiery eyes that looked like two boiled eggs.” (Davis, p. 17)

Quite frightening, no?

The gifts gained by becoming a witch through compact with the Devil often must be exercised regularly in order to remain potent.  Lapsing in witchcraft seems to lead to torment on the witch’s part if the Devil finds that she’s not been keeping up her end of the bargain by using her powers.  I would posit that while the folklore here superficially portrays the Devil as a cruel master, he may instead be a necessary goad.  After all, what great musician or momentous artist ever became who they are without practice?  Again, the Devil may be a stern teacher at times, but one that provides the necessary impetus for improvement in one’s craft.

In all of these particular aspects—mentor/sponsor, gift-giver, book-keeper/librarian, school-master—the Devil rather reminds me of a faculty member at a university, taking a student under his wing, and helping the young witch succeed in her field of calling.  But that may just be thoughts spurred on by my gearing up for graduate school again.  Because imagining the Devil as some doddering old professor is foolhardy at best.  He is, of course, more dangerous than I give him credit for.

Devil as Trickster

Tricksters are common in a number of cultural mythologies, and often have somewhat unsettling or frightening sides.  Because of these attributes, the Devil makes a perfect candidate for chief trickster in many folk tales.  Just as often as he tricks someone, though, the Devil also gets tricked or outwitted in some way.  This flip-side to his role provides a number of amusing tales, but I tend to think there’s a subtle willingness to play the fool on the Devil’s part, making the whole scenario one big trick in the end.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The lore about trickster Devils is not a New World phenomenon, of course.  There are several tales from Europe and Africa which feature a Devil or a diabolical trickster figure of some kind, such as the Grimm’s tale “The Devil’s Sooty Brother” or the Ashanti tales about Anansi the Spider (see Podcast 26).  Native Americans, however, also seemed to latch on to the concept of the tricksy Devil, and either came to the campfire with their own Devil tales or allowed a Devil to be integrated into their storytelling at times.  A legend recorded by Charles M. Skinner in 1896 discusses a land dispute between the Devil and the Long Island Native tribes which resulted in the creation of a natural landmark (see “The Devil’s Stepping-Stones”).

Skinner also records another wonderful story which has become a tightly integrated piece of Americana.  In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” the poor, bedraggled title character meets the Devil in a wood outside of Boston, where they have this exchange:

“Who are you?” he [Tom] asked.

“I go by different names in different places,” replied the dark one. “In some countries I am the black miner; in some the wild huntsman; here I am the black woodman. I am the patron of slave dealers and master of Salem witches.”

“I think you are the devil,” blurted Tom.

“At your service,” replied his majesty.

The Devil coaxes Tom with the promise of treasure, which he at first resists, instead sending his wife to collect it instead.  When she disappears, he enters into his Faustian bargain and uses the money to set up a usury business.  He attempts at every turn to outwit the Devil, keeping a Bible on him at all times and even burying his horse feet up so that if the world turns upside down on Judgment Day, he’ll have a running start in escaping his fate.  Of course, the Devil finally catches Tom and spirits him off to hell, leaving behind only cinders and ashes in place of all his money and possessions.

What interests me about this particular tale is that unlike the European Faust, Tom Walker has no interest in magical gain or supernatural powers—only money.  Well, money and getting rid of his wife, that is.

Sometimes the Devil’s trickster competitions are with angels, saints, or even God.  In these cases, the Devil almost always loses, but often whatever occurs in the story has some lasting impact on the world.  The catfish, according to one Southern folk tale, gets its distinct and ugly appearance from a brush with the Devil.  God created the fish, then took the evening off to go up to the “Big House” with his archangels and eat supper.  When he came back down to the river, the Devil was sitting there descaling the fish.  God demanded he put the catfish back and the devil agreed.  The catfish rolled in the mud to make up for its lack of scales but never grew them back again (Leeming, p. 59-60).

Sometimes, of course, people do get the better of the Devil.  In a piece of Maryland folklore which parallels the Ashanti story of Anansi and Anene which I told in Podcast 26, a woman (who is never quite identified as a witch, peculiarly enough), enters into a contract with the Devil and outwits him at every turn:

“Not many outwitted the devil, but Molly Horn was one.  She and the devil contracted to farm on the Eastern Shore together.  They agreed that on the first crop Molly would take what grew in the ground and the devil would take what grew on top.  Molly planted white potatoes and the devil came out shortchanged.  So for the next crop they decided to do it the other way round, the devil getting what grew in the ground.  This time Molly planted peas and beans and once more the devil got nothing.  A hot argument ensued on the bank of the North West Fork of the Nanticoke River in Dorchester County.  Molly struck the devil a terrific crack and skidded him across the marsh to the edge of the Bay.  When he stood up and shook the mud off himself, it formed Devil’s Island, then he dove overboard and made Devil’s Hole.” (Carey, p. 49)

Sometimes, though, people don’t quite get the best of the trickster Devil, and pay a gruesome price.  Zora Neale Hurston records the tale of High Walker in her book, Mules & Men, in which the titular Mr. Walker gains necromantic powers from the Devil only to eventually be tricked into losing his head, literally, in a graveyard.

As a final point about the Devil as a trickster, I’d like to look at the Devil’s music.  As most probably know, the Devil loves music, especially fiddle music, and can be lured into a fiddle contest on a moment’s notice.  If you’ve ever heard the Charlie Daniels Band perform “The Devil went down to Georgia,” you know this story (a Mariachi band once sing this to my wife and me at a large Mexican wedding, which was a pretty phenomenal experience).  While it is an entertaining song even on its own, it has precedents in folklore, too:

“It is a well-known old belief that fiddlers make pacts with the devil in order to obtain their talent.  Players of old-time fiddle music commonly kept (and still keep) rattlesnake rattles in their fiddles, perhaps unconsciously associating a symbol of the devil with the instrument.  The devil appears as a serpent in Genesis, and he is more modernly portrayed playing a fiddle…the instrument has been called the devil’s box, the devil’s riding horse, and similar terms” (Milne, p.153)

Milne also asserts a connection between the rattles placed in the instrument and a similar practice in West Africa, something I’ve not had time to research but which adds an intriguing layer to this particular custom.

Well that’s it for the Devil for today.  I have a feeling he’ll be coming back up periodically.  When he does, hopefully I’ll be ready for him.  Perhaps I should start some fiddle lessons?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 105 – Magic Books in the American Colonies: The Devil’s Book

In an effort to blend the subjects of recent blog posts, I thought today I’d start to look at a few of the key magical texts which would have had an influence on the American Colonies.  Much of this entry will be directed by a reading of Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books and Witchcraft, Magic, & Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts by Richard Weisman, both of which I highly recommend reading.  I am also pulling from The Silver Bullet by Hubert J. Davis and Witches, Ghosts, & Signs by Patrick Gainer.  I’ll mostly be looking at the English colonies, but the French and Spanish colonies will also enter into the discussion a bit during later articles.

In general, the magical books of the early colonies came in three flavors:  devil’s books, witch-hunting manuals, and grimoires.  The Devil’s Book was frequently thought by Puritan settlers to be the ultimate embodiment of human sin—a willful signing away of one’s soul to infernal powers.  By simply signing one’s name to such a book, a witch gained all her power and lost all her salvation (I use “her” because the popular conception of a witch tended towards the feminine, though male witches were not uncommon either).  Some of the key features of a Devil’s Book and its accompanying rituals were:

The Profaning of the Bible – The witch would have to stamp upon a Bible or otherwise deface it before being allowed to sign.  In some cases, a Bible itself was used to sign the witch into the Devil’s service.  Several Appalachian tales record instances of witches simply making an “X” in a marred Bible to indicate their pact.  In The Silver Bullet, witch Rindy Sue Gose performs this sort of ritual to seal her contract with the Devil:

“Fust, Rinday Sue cut her finger with a knife, and when hit started to bleed, she opened a little Bible and ‘peared to write sumpthin’ in hit with the blood from her finger.  The Devil then nipped her on the left shoulder to give her a witchmark so’s she could suckle her familiar.  Rindy Sue swore to give her soul to the Devil and to work for him the rest of her born days.  Then, the Devil danced with her, and then went into the woods behindst thet tree” (Davis 17).

This action echoes the profaning of the Lord’s name or the recitation of a reversed “Our Father” as a way of breaking the bonds of Christianity for a witch.  Not that you should read much into that, of course.

The Use of Blood as Ink – When witches made their mark, they often didn’t actually sign their name.  In a time when general literacy was still low (though it should be noted that literacy among Puritan men was quite high for the era), not everyone would be expected to have a “signature.”  Instead, they would have a “mark,” often an “X” which they used as an indication of their agreement to a contract.  To personalize this mark in the rituals of witchcraft, a witch wouldn’t simply take an inked quill and make a fancy “X,” though.  Instead, her blood was an indication that the pact bound her body and soul to the Devil.  Puritan minister William Perkins described the process (most business-like) as follows:

“The express and manifest compact is so termed, because it is made by solemn words on both parties.  For the satisfying hereof, he [the future witch] gives to the devil for the present, either his own handwriting, or some part of his blood as a pledge and earnest penny to bind the bargain” (Weisman 36).

The Devil sometimes used a great iron pen to draw the blood from the witch before having him sign his name, and in cases where the book was not a defaced Bible, the great book contained hundreds of other blood signatures from other witches.

Owen Davies observes in his book that the drawing up of a pact between a witch or sorcerer and an infernal representative was nothing new—look at the legend of Faust for example.  What made these New World magical compacts unique was that the witch did not draw up the document herself, but rather was lured into signing a book which she would not take possession of, but rather which remained in the custody of her magical Master.  All her magic, then, would be learned without the aid of books, at least in this model of New England Colonial witchcraft.  Indeed, the Devil presented himself or his imps to the witch as her means for accomplishing malefic magic rather than gifting her the use of dusty tomes of magical lore and spells.  In short, the Devil’s Book was merely a roster of the souls won to his service, and possessed little magical power in and of itself, at least superficially.  However, many witches might claim that a deeper reading of the Devil’s Book phenomenon reveals that the act of writing in blood on a sacred object in fact demonstrates a type of very old and powerful magic.  Thus, such a book, if it could be wrested from the Devil, would be very powerful, indeed, perhaps containing the magic of all those who had signed before.

Next time we pick up this thread, we’ll be looking at the witch-hunting books, and why they may have actually helped more witches in their spellcrafting than they actually hurt by “revealing” them.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 99 – Halloween

Ghostly greetings, everyone!

As I near one hundred blog posts on this site, I thought I’d share something special for Halloween.  It’s an article I’ve been working on for a while now, part of a series I’m writing on the various holidays that make up my personal “ritual year.”  It’s long, though not as long as it will eventually be, and lacks annotation (likewise it does not contain links like my usual posts, other than in its Works Consulted at the end), but hopefully you will find it useful.

Please enjoy, and I wish you the very best Halloween (or Hallows, as I call it) you can have!

—           —           —

Children run from door to door, dressed in costumes and begging for candy.  As each door opens, there are monsters on the front porch, ghosts and ghouls waiting at the threshold with outstretched hands.  The familiar shout of “trick-or-treat!” fills the early autumn air.  Chocolate, sweets, money, and toys all get doled out to the eager masked masses (along with the occasional toothbrush from well-meaning but uninspired do-gooders).  It is Halloween, and all is well.

By now, most everyone knows that Halloween has its origins in pre-Christian festivals mostly stemming from the British Isles and honoring the dead.  Fires are lit, those who have passed on in the previous year wander the earth, and all manner of eerie activity takes place.  For a New World witch, however, the nature of this evening (or set of evenings, depending on how an individual witch practices the tradition) is more than what commonly gets called “Celtic” nostalgia.  Instead, there are a number of powerful forces at work on this night.  Some are easy to understand, and some are harder to wrap one’s head around.  But first things first, let’s get the obvious out of the way.

Halloween (or Hallows, as I call this series of days), is spooky.  It is eerie.  It is morbid, macabre, and a little bit twisted.  It’s also funny, sometimes sexy, a good bit bittersweet, and no small amount of weird.  It is supposed to be all of these things.  Others may disagree and require absolute solemnity as they honor their dearly departed, and there are probably some who would like to exorcise the entire bone-chilling side of the holiday.  But for me, and I think for most witches who do the work that has been done since the 18th century (and before) on this soil, there’s something in this time of year that requires skeletons and jack-o-lanterns, ghosts and goblins, and a good hard look at all the creepy-ookie-spooky parts of life we tend to ignore otherwise.  And then, a good laugh to shake the willies away.  This is the time of year where ghost stories, murder tales, and recounts of run-ins with the devil beg to be told.

Why do we dance with devils and the dead in tale and practice during Hallows, though?

There is, of course, the old saw that on this night “the veil between the worlds is thin.”  There are many nights throughout the year, however, when the door between this world and the next swings open and intercourse between spirits and mortals is easy.  The uniquely macabre tone of Hallows, in my opinion, has a lot more to do with its position between summer and winter, and more importantly, its position as a fulcrum between light and darkness, work and pleasure, comfort and danger.

The months preceding Halloween have been full of long days, often full of activity and work (during the previous centuries, farm work would have been going on right up to around the time of Halloween).  Suddenly, everything around us starts dying, the days become noticeably shorter, and our hard work comes to an end, more or less.  From a modern context, we don’t always understand this idea, because we aren’t working with agriculture directly for the most part, but think even of all the things that get done in summer after the work day is done:  gardens dug, lawns mowed, children taken to parks after school.  Now that the light is gone early, we—like our ancestors—have to find ways to occupy those dark evenings.

Enter the Hallows.  Most of what a New World witch can do on Halloween reflects inherited practices from the British Isles.  Because the Separatists (aka Puritans) were fiercely anti-holiday for religious reasons, the phenomenon of autumnal trick-or-treating and masked mischief didn’t really arrive in America until during the mid-19th century.  Certain pockets of Appalachian settlers—due to their Scots-Irish heritage—began holding “snap-apple” or “nutcrack” nights.  When the wave of Irish immigrants made their way to America following the potato famine in the mid-1800’s, this set of practices expanded to become a widespread phenomenon.

At this time of year, all sorts of mischief is afoot.  And all sorts of merrymaking accompanies it.  Some of the age-old practices (or at least centuries-old practices) associated with October 31st are:

Nutcrack Night – There are several divinatory rituals performed with nuts kept in the shell and placed in a fireplace which foretell of love, loss, and survival into the next year.

Snap-Apple Night – Games involving apples, such as bobbing for them or “snapping” after an apple dangled from a string using only one’s teeth, are very popular.  In some of these games, objects are hidden inside apples in order to bestow blessings on the one who manages to catch the elusive fruit.  Providing, of course, that the one catching the apple doesn’t break his or her teeth.

Guising – The practice of going out dressed in various fiendish costumes is one that shows up in many cultures.  In Halloween celebrations, the reason usually given for this is that the frightening devils, ghosts, and goblins will either be frightened by mortals dressed like them, or mistake those mortals for their own and leave them be.  This clearly taps into a major theme for the Hallows holidays:  the roving spirits, sometimes seen as the Wild Hunt (see “Roving Spirits” below)

A-Souling – The origin of trick-or-treating, going a-souling (or just souling in some places) meant traveling from house to house, singing songs or repeating rhymes in hopes of getting some sort of reward.  The most common reward was a little cake called a “soul cake.”  There is a famous song which encapsulates the practice nicely.  This practice also became part of the Christmastide celebration, in the form of caroling (see “Into the Dark” below)

Mischief-making – A nearly universal phenomenon, the idea of a holiday where good people do naughty things is quite cathartic.  Witches should understand that there is something subtler going on when the world is turned upside down and people begin acting “devilish.”  In America, we seem to appreciate this sort of phenomenon on April Fool’s Day, but less so on Halloween.  This may be because in recent years the nature of the pranks has gone from soaping shop windows and throwing streamers of paper (or toilet tissue) over trees and houses to the infamous arson found in Detroit on “Devil’s Night,” or Oct. 30th.  However, a witch playing at devilish tricks is less likely to be doing harm to his or her neighbors at this time of year, and more likely to be playing “tricks” on the natural order of things.

Ghost Stories – What would Halloween be without a good scare, right?  Ghost stories told at this time of year can be spooky, terrifying, or even rather funny.  Stories about devils, goblins, and other hellish creatures are also appropriate, as are tales of witches and witchcraft.  Telling stories about famous witches, in fact, can be a great way to combine the ancestral aspect of the holiday (as the witches of the past are spiritual ancestors if not genetic ones) and the more evocative and spooky side of Halloween.

Roving Spirits

The restless dead are fairly universal.  Many cultures have tales of vampire-or-zombie-like creatures which return from beyond the grave to wreak havoc on the living.  Still more common is the recognition that the dead come back in a less menacing form:  as ghosts or spirits to visit the living.  The living, however, often fear the dead who belong to a world that terrifies us (if only because we don’t know of many who come back from it…or so we think, more on that later).

In terms of witchcraft, however, the dead are our friends.  They are our ancestors, teachers, progenitors, and constant companions.  Any witch worth his or her blessed salt has communion with the dead—or at least spirits of some kind.

One particular group of spirits out and about on this night goes by the name of the Wild Hunt.   Fundamentally, this is the fairy court (also sometimes called the Unseelie Court or any number of other epithets) riding out into the mortal world.  The souls of the dead are being led by this party’s ride through the darkness to the point where they may cross over into the Underworld.  The problem is that the Wild Hunt isn’t exactly concerned if it gathers the souls of the dead or the souls of the living, and thus a mortal caught out by the Hunt can be in dire straits.  The tale of Tam Lin is an excellent point of reference:  the mortal Tam Lin was abducted by the Wild Hunt and must remain with them for seven years.  After that, he is to be offered up as a “tithe to Hell” by the Fairy Queen.  His lover (and the mother of his child yet unborn) saves him in a sort of reversal of the Wild Hunt, winning him back to the mortal realm

Other roving spirits may need guidance from the living on the nights of Hallows.  One of the primary traditions associated with these nights is the lighting of candles in windows to call the souls of dead ancestors home to rest and visit.  It is presumed that if they can at least get home for a while and share a little meal (see “The Dumb Supper”) they will be refreshed and able to find their way to the Underworld again.

Or so we hope…

The Dumb Supper

The famous Dumb Supper has been added to the ritual observance of many groups during the Hallows.  I attended a Wiccan-style Samhain event which featured a very moving Dumb Supper once, and the appeal was not lost on me.  The point of the Dumb Supper, at least superficially, is an act of communion with the deceased and other spirits.  This is not exactly different than a Red Meal, save that during the Dumb Supper, silence is required while the meal is served and consumed.  I’ve always understood the silence to be a method for tuning into the spiritual world around us, especially since our minds are focused on that world when we consume a communal meal.

The experience can be deeply emotional for some, as the beloved ancestors and friends who have passed on return to us and manifest themselves in order to share in our world once more.  Some people are able to hold silent conversations with the dead during this meal, and some find that the meal acts more as a prelude to spirit communication.  Either way, the Dumb Supper held at Hallows is particularly significant because beyond being a communal meal with particular ancestral spirits, the shades of all the dead are able to join in the feast.  This leads some to set apart a portion of the meal in advance for those less-than-savory ghosts and goblins that might seek to do harm to the witch or her company.  This portion is then offered as far away from the main table as possible—off her property if feasible.

There are other aspects of the Dumb Supper which are not as simple as a plate of food and a brimming cup of cider passed around in silence.  One ritual for this meal involves setting the table backwards, as well, and leaving an empty seat.  If a girl were to do this, during the course of the meal, the shade of her future husband would appear in the empty chair while they dined.  One folktale about this practice recalls how a girl performed this rite and saw her future husband, though he seemed to be in tremendous pain.  When she later met him, she knew him instantly but said nothing of the ritual.  They were married, and soon after she made a casual comment about the Dumb Supper rite she’d performed when a young girl.  The husband grew purple with rage and told her “So it was you!  I went through hell that night and back again, you foul witch!” and promptly stabbed her in the heart.   Above all things, such stories are fables about the consequences of being frivolous with magic.

Into the Dark

While the New World Witch may not find himself tied to the common “wheel of the year” associated with other denominations of magical religion, there is definitely something about Hallows that has to do with darkness and light.  The shifting tides of these forces becomes more and more apparent the further into autumn we journey each year, until it seems our whole day is but a breath between nights.  For a witch, this is a blessing in many ways:  we seem to have more liberty to be ‘oot and aboot’ in the dark of night, the moon with all its power is most easily viewed in a night sky, and it seems as though the mysterious and unknown are everywhere in the darkness.

This dark time of year is full of rituals and mischief.   From innocently childish pranks like soaping windows to the destructive fires of Detroit’s Devil’s Night, there seems to be a sense of Merry Misrule which kicks in as the daylight shrinks away from us.  The nights of Hallows are potent for this sort of behavior, not least because we also add the additional tool of disguise.  Between night and the masks, it’s no wonder a number of people simply lock their doors and don’t come out until morning during this holiday.  Which is their loss, of course.

Guising—going door to door in costume begging treats or money—has been around since at least the middle ages, and may have antecedents in ancient practices.  In Britain and parts of the American South, the practice of guising during festivals happens not just at Hallows, but Christmas as well.  Seeing as how Christmas is a fulfillment of darkness and misrule which begins at Hallows, that makes a good deal of sense to me.  Sadly, society does not like us to dress up and go door to door at Christmastime unless it’s in the form of Santa or carolers (though both are clearly connected to this practice, too).

Experiencing the dark of the year in conjunction with the rising of the dead lends a spooky air to this holiday, but inside that spookiness is a winking jester.  This is supposed to be fun, an inversion of the normal way of things where we teach our children to share and be cautious.  On Hallows, we want them dressed as monsters and ghouls, begging for candy from our neighbors, though.  And that is just as it should be.  Yes, there is certainly a place for solemnity in the darkness, but there is also a place for mirth.

Hailing the Hallows

So what might a New World witch do on Hallows that is so different from everyone else?  Quite simply, not much.  Take the kiddies trick-or-treating, indulge your sweet-tooth, attend a masked ball or party, give someone a friendly fright, and do whatever all of your non-witchy neighbors are doing.  If you wish, have a Dumb Supper and leave a candle in the window for the dead.  Go spend some time in a graveyard, leaving offerings for the dead and asking them to help you.  Do divinations with cards, shells, or whatever you like.  See if you can get your friends into it—even if you camp it up a bit, that’s okay.  It is that Merry Misrule I spoke of earlier coming out.  The dead can appreciate a good laugh, and you may be surprised how accurate your readings are if you let down the guard of seriousness which we so often keep up when working with the spirits.  Do keep some magical protection about, as some boogers are like people and have no sense of humor; it’s best to leave them be, but a little cross or star worn about the neck or a good bag of salt tied to your clothes wouldn’t hurt either.

If you absolutely must make this holiday something more dramatic than it is, I recommend looking to stories for your answers.  Read tales like “Godfather Death” or “Jack and the Devil,” and see what you can make of them.  You may come up with something worth trying, or you may just learn a new yarn to spin sometime in the future.  Share your meals and stories with the dead as best you can—leave seats and plates empty but set apart for your invisible guests, and invite them to participate in the festivities.  Play games of divination with nuts and apples, and mirrors and Ouija boards if you dare.  Sneak off to a dark corner with someone and have a little extra fun if you can, and if not, just revel in the madness of the nights of Hallows.

As a final note, Hallows is also a good time of the year for finding lost things, ferreting out thieves, and hex work, should you be so inclined to do such workings.  It is also a nice time to think about just what it means to be a witch, because you are surrounded by both the living and the dead in a very tangible way on these nights.  And a witch, above all, is someone who is of both worlds: living and dead at the same time.   What better time than Halloween to show that off?

Works Consulted (and generally just good reading):

Belk, Russell W.  “HALLOWEEN: AN EVOLVING AMERICAN CONSUMPTION RITUAL”, in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, pp. 508-517.

Burns, Robert.  “Halloween.”  Available online at http://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml.

Clar, Mimi.  “Negro Beliefs.”  Western Folklore, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1959), pp. 332-334.

Gainer, Patrick W.  Witches, Ghosts, & Signs.  West Virginia Univ. Press, 2008.

Grimm, Jacob & Wilhelm.  The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Bantam, 2003.

Hendricks, George D. “Superstitions Collected in Denton, Texas.” Western Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 1956), pp. 1-18.

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford Paperbacks, 2001.

Milnes, Gerald C.  Signs, Cures, & Witchery. University of Tennessee Press, 2007.

Santino, Jack.  All Around the Year: Holidays & Celebrations in American Life. Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995.

—.  Halloween & Other Festivals: Life & Death. University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Podcast Special – The Devil’s Marriage

-SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL-


Summary
The story of a brother, a sister, the devil, and a helpful witch.  From the folklore of North Carolina.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery Special – The Devils Marriage

-Sources-
Tales from Guilford County, North Carolina,” by Elsie Clews Parsons.  In The Journal of American Folklore, v. 30, no. 116, 1917.
“The Devil’s Marriage,” retold by S.E. Schlosser, in her collection Spooky South.


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

Blog Post 54 – The Devil’s Nine Questions

Today’s post is going to focus on one very specific set of riddles:  The Devil’s Nine Questions.  This is a series of riddles which has been set down in the form of a folk song, and which has come over from English traditional music by way of the Appalachians and mid-Atlantic colonies.  The theme of the piece involves the Devil asking a series of nine riddles, which the song’s protagonist (“the weaver’s bonny”) must solve or be taken off to Hell.  There are numerous variants on this motif, and on this specific song.  It is recorded as one of the famous Child Ballads (#1), and you can hear a version of it here.

The version I’m posting here is not necessarily the most “authentic” or “original” version (as this song may have grown out of Elizabethan folk music and is rather hard to pin down as far as origins go).  But it is a version that I think bears examination by the inquisitive witch.

THE DEVIL’S NINE QUESTIONS

If you don’t answer my questions nine
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
I’ll take you off to hell alive,
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

What is whiter than milk?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is softer than silk?
Say you’re the weaver’s bonny.”

Snow is whiter than milk,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
Down is softer than silk,
And I’m the weaver’s bonny.”

What is louder than a horn?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is sharper than a thorn?
Sing I am the weaver’s bonny.

Thunder’s louder than a horn,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety ;
Death is sharper than a thorn,
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.

What is higher than a tree?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is deeper than the sea?
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.

Heaven’s higher than a tree,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
And hell is deeper than the sea,
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.

What is innocenter than a lamb?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is worse than womankind?
Say I’m the weaver’s bonny.

A babe is innocenter than a lamb,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety ;
The devil’s worse than womankind,
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.”

You have answered me questions nine,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
You are God’s, you’re not my own,
And you’re the weaver’s bonny.”

From Bronson, Singing Traditions of Child’s Popular Ballads
Collected Mrs. Rill Martin, Virginia, 1922

Looking at this from an occult perspective, I see several things which stand out.  For instance:

  • The repetition about being “the weaver’s bonny,” which in my opinion may relate to being one of those who can change (or at least manipulate) Fate, the great weaver.
  • The efforts of the Devil to claim the “bonny” for his own reminds me a bit of the practice of initiation, which I covered recently (though in this case the person responding remains unmoved by the Devil’s efforts)
  • There’s an interesting bit of business in the part about trees, seas, Heaven, and Hell.  It’s almost a “Land, Sea, and Sky” image, but it also seems to be referencing the celestial, earthly, and underworldly realms.  Those are the realms a witch must go between, so I like to think there’s something to that part.

Of course, there are lots of other images in here which come out of Christian folklore, such as innocent lambs, the wickedness of womankind, etc.  In some of the variants, these change a bit (though usually the reference to Eve’s “original sin” remains in some form).  Some of the other variations include naming Love as softer than silk, rather than Down, and making Death “colder than the clay” instead of “sharper than the thorn.”   What I love about all of this imagery is that it relates one thing to another, connecting the senses to specific images in a very evocative way.  Associating Death with Thorns makes me think of going into the Underworld via the Hedge; Milk and Snow make me think of Mother images, like Mother Holle, who shook her downy blankets to stir up snow on earth; and thinking of Thunder as a Horn, summoning me out into a wild storm…well, let’s just say it makes my pointy hat dance on my head.

With songs like this, it’s often hard to know just what changed and when, and what the original meaning of certain parts are.  What I like about it, though, is the folkloric elements of being able to outwit the Devil and get one’s way, bending Fate to one’s will.  I would think this kind of a tune might be an excellent song for singing when gathering together with other witches, as a sort of  call-and-response as each witch is welcomed among the company (solving a riddle could serve as a “password” in effect).  Or, it could just be a good fun song to sing one night while passing a bottle around and telling jokes, stories, and riddles.  But what do you think?  Do you see anything witchy I missed?  Or do you think that dwelling on a song like this is wasting valuable time that could be devoted to a new root work herb of the week?  Is it all just a big stretch for something purely designed for entertainment?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 50 – A Witch’s Initiation

For my 50th blog post, I thought I’d do something special, something that really tickles my fancy.  I’ll be talking about the various types of witch initiations found in New World folklore.   I’ve already touched on this in Blog Post 45 – Witches, but today let’s expand a little bit on the concept.

In general, witch initiations in North American folklore share a few commonalities:

  • The renunciation of Christianity, often through a ritual like repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards
  • The giving of oneself to an otherworldly entity, such as the Devil or a “Man in Black” in exchange for magical powers
  • An act of exposure, such as being naked or sexual union of some kind, though in some cases this is not necessary
  • A sign or omen of the candidate’s acceptance as a witch
  • The transmission of magical knowledge in a ceremonial way, and/or the presentation of a familiar or fetch animal

Not all of these components are found in every case, of course, and the nature of the witch may be such that he or she is not an “initiated” practitioner, but merely someone who has picked up magic throughout his or her life.  This last circumstance is often found in places where magic is prevalently mixed with Christian practice, such as in the Appalachians (Granny magic) or among the Pennsylvania-Dutch (Pow-wow).  Of course, in these cases, the magical worker is seldom called a “witch,” though sometimes the term “witch doctor” is used.  It’s funny, to me anyway, to think about how a witch is “made” through initiation, much like someone can be “made” in the Mafia.  But I digress…

Now let’s take a look at how witches were/are initiated according to specific folklore examples.  From German Appalachian lore, there are stories of witches being initiated by obtaining a “Black Bible.”  Scholar Gerald C. Milnes links this tome to the Key of Solomon, a grimoire with many reputed magical properties and a host of instructions  on how to accomplish various magical tasks.  One of his informants outlines the basic ritual thusly:

“Now say you’re going to be a witch.  Okay, now I don’t know where you get ‘em, but they call e’m the little Black Bible.  Take that little Bible and you go to a spring where it’s a-running from the sun…not towards the sun, away from the sun…Take that little Black Bible and go to that stream, strip off, and wash in there—take a bath in that water—and tell God you’re as free from him as the water on your body” (Signs, Cures, & Witchery, p. 162).

Milnes also describes a similar Appalachian rite of this nature involves taking dirt and shaking it off of a plate or dish while stating aloud that you are as clear of Jesus Christ as the dish is of dirt.  Something more is added to this folklore:

“If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return.  This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).

Such a “sacrifice” is not uncommon in witch-lore, with the physical offering being anything from a bit of blood to sign a pact to a body part like a finger or toe to—at the extreme end—the death of a loved one.  This is a story commonly applied to many chthonic cult deities or spirits.  Santa Muerte in the Latin-American magical traditions has also been accused of this sort of thing.

I outlined one type of witch-initiation culled from Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet in Blog Post 45, an initiation which involved a type of blood offering in exchange for the presentation of a magical imp.  That version of initiation is only one of many methods presented by Davis.  Here’s another one, from Wise County, Virginia:

“She [Granny, the narrator of the tale] began: ‘I’ve been told thet annuder way to git to be a witch is to fust go to the top of a high mountain, throw rocks at the moon and cuss God Almighty.  Then, go find a spring where the water runs due east.  Take a brand new knife and wash hit in the spring just as the sun rises.  Say, “I want my soul to be as free from the savin’ blud of Jesus Christ as this knife is of sin.”  Do this fer twelve days in a row.  Effen on the thirteenth day the sun rises a drippin’ blud, hit’s a shore sign thet you’re becomin’ a witch’” (TSB, p. 11).

This variant is interesting, to me, because of a few elements.  First, in this initiation, the spring must flow east (or towards the rising sun, though against the natural path of the sun), which seems to be different than in the Milnes version.  In this initiation, too, the witch isn’t naked, but a new knife is washed in the stream while a renunciation is made.  Finally, the bloody sunrise is a sign to the witch indicating acceptance or denial of the initiation—this feature is common in several variations of the rite.  Davis also mentions another witch-making method which bears some of the trademarks of the process:

“He [the potential witch] then waited until Friday the thirteenth and returned to the spring as the morning turned gray over the ridge.  He dipped some water from the spring with his ram’s horn and poured it over the pewter plate.  He did this seven times and repeated the verses Liz [a witch] had taught him:

‘As I dip the water with a ram’s horn,
Cast me cruel with a heart of thorn,
As I now to the Devil do my soul lease…
May my black and evil soul be
Of Christian love and grace free
As this plate is of grease’ (TSB, p. 24).

This, to me, bears a strong similarity to the dirt-and-plate version of the ritual outlined in Signs, Cures, & Witchery.

I mentioned a ritual involving the reversed Lord’s Prayer from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore in my post the other day.  Randolph discusses several other ways of becoming a witch in that work, some simple, and some more complicated:

  • A woman could fire a silver bullet at the moon and “mutter two or three obscene old sayin’s” (p. 265)
  • Repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon will do the trick
  • Magical information can only passed across gender lines (man-to-woman or vice versa), or between partners united by sexual intercourse
  • Widows were the best candidates for becoming witches, as they only had to learn “the Devil’s language,” whatever that might be.

Randolph goes on to say that the transformation of a person into a witch was a moving one, and often one with a morbid downside:

“I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).

In this case, the lost loved one is called a “Witch’s sixpence,” and is the “price” paid for the witch’s powers.  This is not a universal belief, however, as many witches do not lose anyone close to them, and instead gain a new friend:  the familiar, fetch, or imp.  I’ll be doing something more extensive on this aspect of witchcraft in the future, so for now, I will just say that the familiar of the witch is a big subject with as much (often conflicting) information floating around about it as, well, the subject of initiation.

Finally, here are some examples of witch-induction from Kentucky.  I’ve gleaned these from the book Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel and Lucy Thomas.

  • To become a witch, go to a mountain top at dawn, shoot through a handkerchief at the rising sun, curse Jehovah three times, and own the Devil as master. When you shoot through the handkerchief, blood will fall from it (Mountains, #3773)
  • To become a witch: the candidate goes with the Devil to the top of the highest hill at sunrise nine successive days and curses God; the Devil then places one hand on the candidate’s head and one on his feet, and receives the promise that all between his hands shall be devoted to his service.  (Mountains, #3774)
  • To become a witch, you shoot at the moon nine times with a silver bullet, cursing God each time (Mountains, #3775)
  • You can become a witch by taking a spinning-wheel to the top of a hill, giving yourself up to the Devil, and waiting until the wheel begins to turn. The witches will then come to instruct you (Mountains, #3776)

These are similar to other folkloric initiation ceremonies already discussed, with the exception of the last one.  The inclusion of the spinning wheel here is interesting to me, because it seems to be connected to an idea I find very witchy: the threads of Fate.  It also reminds me of the Irish folktale “The Horned Women,” which is a story I glean much in the way of witchery from.  In this case, the wheel’s turning is much like the rising of a bloody sun—it provides an omen that the witch has been accepted into the fold of witches before her.

So what do I make of all of this?  Well, my own opinion (and I stress that it is only my take on the phenomenon of witch initiations, and no one else’s) is that each of these stories contains little pieces of initiatory lore, but always with a layer of sensationalism on top.  These folk tales were intended to amuse and spark curiosity, after all, so it doesn’t surprise me that a small offering of blood, say on an new witch’s cingulum or a few drops in a cup of wine poured out to the god, gods, or spirits to which the witch is binding herself, has become exaggerated into the death of a family member or the withering of a limb.  I think that initiations have a profound impact on those that undergo them, and that many of the common elements (the renunciation, the vow to serve a witch-god/goddess/devil/etc., and the granting of magical gifts like certain charms or familiars) are profound acts that may well belong in an initiation ceremony. Many of these features are also found in other initiation ceremonies and Traditional Witchcraft works, such as Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft or Nigel Jackson’s Call of the Horned Piper. I also think that some elements are overlooked in these sorts of folkloric imaginings of “witch-making”.  For instance, one thing Sarah at Forest Grove mentioned in her post on initiations is that once one becomes a witch (or takes initiation), one finds “Growth and strength of abilities and experiences the more one practices and keeps their promises.”  Most stories about witches seem to either end at the oaths taken upon becoming a witch, or to start in medias res of a witch’s career, showing a witch operating in one way, unchanging, until she is (inevitably) defeated.  That makes for good storytelling, but perhaps not for so much good practical witchery.  Witchcraft is wonderful in that the more you do it, the better it gets!

In the end, I like this topic, but I should say one more thing.  I don’t think that a person-to-person initiation is necessary to practice witchcraft.  If you’ve not taken an initiation, or don’t ever plan to, but find you are good at witchcraft anyway, keep doing it.  You certainly don’t need anyone to validate your magic if it’s working, and if whatever forces you draw your magic from one day choose to initiate you, I have a feeling that much like Don Corleone, they’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.

My apologies if this post has been overlong, but I hope it’s useful to somebody out there.   If nothing else, you’ve worked out your scrolling finger for today.

All the best, be well, and thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 45 – Witches

Stories about witches in the New World are plentiful.  Early historical accounts of witch trials in America show that the belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout the colonies, though the degree to which each colony acted on those beliefs varied quite a bit (see Blog Post 3 and Blog Post 6 for some good background on these).

Often, it seems that the stories about witches that appeared in the New World were linked to Old World roots.  Tales of witch-flights in the Appalachians parallel similar stories from the British Isles.  German stories about witches casting spells on hunters’ guns show up in the Ozarks.  In general, many of these stories can be broken up into a few key categories:  how to become a witch, what witches do, and how to deal with witches.

How to Become a Witch

There are several different ways a person (usually a woman in folklore) becomes a witch.  The act of initiation usually involves a pledge of some kind to a dark figure—usually the Devil, though I would argue that this “Devil” is something other than Satanic.  But I digress, and will address this topic further in another post.  In Vance Randolph’s excellent book, Ozark Magic & Folklore, he outlines how the mountain folk thought a witch was initiated:

“Some parts of the witches’ routine are well known, even to people who deny all acquaintance with such matters. The trick of reversing the Lord’s Prayer is a case in point… When a woman decides to become a witch, according to the fireside legends, she repairs to the family buryin’ ground at midnight, in the dark of the moon. Beginning with a verbal renunciation of the Christian religion, she swears to give herself body and soul to the Devil. She removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s tombstone, and delivers her body immediately to the Devil’s representative, that is, to the man who is inducting her into the ‘mystery.’  The sexual act completed, both parties repeat certain old sayin’s, terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead and end by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards.  This ceremony is supposed to be witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude, and must be repeated on three consecutive nights.  After the first and second vows the candidate is still free to change her mind, but the third pledge is final. Henceforth the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity” (Randolph pp. 266-67)

In Appalachia, another witch-making process is described in Foxfire 2:

“JIM EDMONDS:  I heard about a man—a witch said he’d make a witch out a’him if he followed him.  They come to this door and th’witch said ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho!  In th’keyhole I go.’  He went on in and got all he wanted.

Th’old witch came and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! Out th’keyhole I go,’ and went on out.

Th’old man came and thought he’d do what th’other did and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho!  Up th’high hole I go,’ and fell t’th’floor!

You just had t’pay no ‘tention t’witches.  They can put a spell on you, but they can’t turn you into a witch if you pay them no mind.”  (p. 355)

Hubert J. Davis, in his astoundingly good compilation of American witch-lore entitled The Silver Bullet, outlines another method of becoming a witch:

“’Fust, he’d [the potential witch] have to climb to the top of the highest knob on Witch Mountain and tote either a black cat or a black hen.  Then, he’d have to find the Indian graveyard at the place nigh where two Indian trails cross.  There, he’d have to draw a big ring in the dust ‘bout fifteen feet acrost, and dance in this circle each morning at break of day for eight mornings in a row.  Then, on the ninth morning, he’d have to put one hand on the top of his head and ‘tother on the sole of his foot and say ‘ I give all betwixt my two hands to the Devil…Then the Devil comes…and nips him on the shoulder so hit bleeds.  Then, the Devil tells him to wet his finger in the blood and sign an X to this pact…the Devil will same some magic words over the cat or the hen and change hit into an imp [another name for a familiar]” (Davis pp.14-15)

Various other methods of becoming a witch are recounted in these texts, too, including firing a gun nine times at a full moon, shooting at the rising sun and watching to see if it “bleeds,” or simply being taught the ways of the witch by a family member of the opposite sex.  On this last point, I will note that the writers generally say cross-gender transfer of information is de rigeur, and just because one learns the spells and ways of a witch doesn’t make one an initiate of witchcraft.

I think I should point out that Sarah at Forest Grove did an amazing blog post on initiation recently which I recommend reading.  Particularly because I think there are some pretty strong parallels between the folklore I’m presenting here and the steps towards initiation she mentions in her post.  Let me know what you think, though.

What Witches Do

Having a witch in the neighborhood was a mix of good and bad for early settlers.  On the one hand, witches tended to be able to make potions and counter-charms to help with curses and bad luck, among many other talents.  But on the other hand, a local witch meant that there was a good chance your livestock would end up cursed or dead or both.

A common curse witches could use involved bewitching cattle so that they would not produce milk.  Or rather, the only person who could milk the cow was the witch—she would usually use an axe-handle or an old rag tied to a fence post held over a bucket.  She’d squeeze the object, and milk would pour out, while the cow’s udders slowly drained in a distant pasture.  In one of the stories from The Silver Bullet called “No Milk on Saturday,” Hubert Davis recalls a story about a witch who put a spell on a cow so it would only give bloody milk.  The cow’s owner consulted a witch doctor (see “Dealing with Wicked Witches” below) and figured out how to reverse the curse, eventually.

Witches also had the power to curse people.  One of the main methods of performing such a curse involved the creation of a “witch ball.”  This was a little ball made of black hair from a dog, cat, horse, etc. and wax, which was then thrown or “shot” at the target.  If the victim didn’t get magical remediation immediately, the witch ball could lead to his or her death in fairly short order.  From Ozark Magic & Folklore:

“I have been told of another Ozark witch who killed several of her enemies by means of a “hair ball” just a little bunch of black hair mixed with beeswax and rolled into a hard pellet. The old woman tossed this thing at the persons whom she wished to eliminate, and they fell dead a few hours later. It is said that the fatal hair ball is always found somewhere in the body of a person killed in this manner. In one case, according to my informant, the little ball of combings was taken from the dead girl’s mouth” (Randolph pp.271-272).

Some of the many other sinister tasks a witch might do included bewitching butter churns or soap tubs, causing them to fail to produce any butter or soap.  They could also summon storms and blight crops, as well.  In Randolph’s work, he mentions that one witch ruined a tomato crop by simply drawing a circle inscribed with a cross in the dirt, then spitting in the center.

Of course, the witch could also shapeshift, turning into her animal self easily and slipping off to Sabbaths, into the homes of innocent farmers and their families, or into the bed of a lover while her husband dozed dumbly in bed.  Common shapes for witches included the ubiquitous black cat, the hare, mountain lions, and dogs.  There are plenty of stories about a hunter being unable to shoot a particular animal until he manages to get a silver bullet in his gun.  Then, he mortally wounds the beast, which gets away, and later hears that some local woman is lying in bed missing a hand or a foot—the very part shot off by the hunter!

I’ll refrain from offering too much commentary here on these ideas (though I will be revisiting them at a later date), but I would like to say that many of these common elements have a place in modern witchcraft, albeit not a literal one.  Understanding these stories metaphorically, or understanding the basic kernels of practical witchcraft embedded in these tales, is an exercise worth the undertaking for an aspiring New World witch.

Dealing with Wicked Witches

Randolph makes a key point in his text on Ozark magic that many clairvoyants, mediums, card readers, conjure men, etc. get called “witches” by outsiders, but the Ozark resident made a distinction between them.  Witches were almost always nefarious in purpose, according to Randolph, though he himself revealed that out of nearly two dozen witches he’d interviewed, almost twenty of them reported working against evil rather than for it.

In the Old World, these counter-cursing magical folk were often known as fairy doctors, cunning folk, or pellars.  In the New World, these names sometimes surface, but just as often, they are called witch doctors or conjure folk (which is confusing when you realize that hoodoo and witchcraft cross cultural boundaries in many places, and thus this term may have had different meanings to different people).  In a Works Project Administration report about Tennessee, the folklorist makes the following observation:  “Cunjur [sic] doctors will sell you ‘hands’ or ‘tobies’ enabling you to detect witches and ward off their spells” (Ch. 14, par. 19).  Here, the line between hoodoo (or “cunjur”) and what is typically thought of as European witchcraft is heavily blurred, and the magic of one is used to affect the magic of the other.

Undoing the harm caused by a witch could involve a number of different techniques.  In Hubert Davis’s work, he talks about how the unfortunate farmer with the bloody milk dealt with his problem:

“Steve milked his cow, brought the milk into the cabin and put it in a big flat pan.  Then, he went out on a ridge and cut three birch withes and tied them together.  He built a big fire under the pan of milk and, as it boiled, he flailed as much milk as he could out of the pan into the fire with the birch withes.  As the milk burned with a blue-green flame, Steve saw Granny Lotz’s face in the flames and he knew that it was indeed she who had witched the cow” (Davis p.35)

In the case of a bewitched butter churn, placing a piece of silver under the cursed object would stop the magic sometimes, or burning some of the butter with hot coals would do the trick too.  Other curse-breaking methods included using witch bottles to reverse a curse and shooting an image of the witch with a silver bullet.  This last method could theoretically kill the witch, and often was performed in the nick of time (at least as far as the folklore goes), just before a witch could complete a particularly nasty curse.  Other methods of removing a witch’s curse involved “scoring her” above her eyes, or making her bleed on her forehead.  If that happened, or if you could make her see her own blood in some cases, her powers would be broken.

Another common enchantment involved the bewitching of a hunter’s gun.  A hunter who normally did well would suddenly find he couldn’t hit a thing he aimed at.  In many cases, an elaborate ritual had to be performed to remove such an bewitchment.  As Foxfire informant Jim Edmonds relates:

“Old Billy Jesse claimed he was a witch.  Ol’Gran’daddy couldn’t shoot a thing.  Somebody put a spell on his gun.  He went over to Billy Jesse t’take th’spell off.  He lived in what they call Bitter Mountain Cove.  Told him he wanted him t’take th’spell off him.  Somebody had witched his gun.

So Billy loaded that gun and went t’every corner of th’house and shot sayin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’  Run t’every corner and shot—never did load it but once—hollerin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’

Billy then said, ‘Now th’next thing you will see will be a great covey of quail.  Now don’t you shoot at nothin’.  Then th’next thing you see will be a big buck.  You can kill him.  Just shoot nothin’ else.

Gran’daddy done just like he told him, and here come a big drove a’birds.  He just held still.  He went on and there was this big ol’ buck.  Shot and killed him.  Th’spell was off his gun.” (Foxfire 2, p.333)

All of this folklore may just be storytelling.  Or it may be a way of hiding secrets in plain sight.  Or it may be to-the-letter true, for all I know.  But at the very least, I know that I enjoy these stories.  And personally, I get a lot out of them that isn’t just related to campfire entertainment.  Though I don’t mind mixing s’mores and witchcraft, should the occasion call for it.

Okay, a long post today, but hopefully a useful one!  Thanks for sticking with it, and as always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

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