We check the Astro-weather to see that March does indeed come in like a lion and leaves like a lamb, plus we hear about witches in stone boats, the twos of Diamonds and Swords, and learn a bit about the practice of dowsing!
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A number of modern spells are designed to bring “prosperity” into an individual’s life. In some cases, Wiccan and Wiccan-influenced spellbooks contain workings that either target specific needs and cash amounts, or which seek to generally enhance the financial stability of the magician or his/her designated target (most Wiccan spellbooks also require that the magician have permission from the target even in beneficial magical workings like this). Certainly, magical practices designed to bring a sense of bounty and abundance into one’s life go back quite far—the cults of Fortuna and Tyche in the ancient world appeal to good luck, and the Roman cult of Pomona pursued the ideal of a fruitful life. Folk magic, however, has generally focused less on meeting a generalized prosperity and has drilled down to specific financial problems and advantages. The Wiccan spells which seek a specific sum of money to cope with a specific issue—a medical bill, a broken radiator, etc.—very much mirror the sorts of spells done by people across multiple times and places as they tried to cope with uncertain finances.
Another brand of folk magic, however, did not work towards a specific sum, nor did it seek to bring a vaguely defined sense of wealth into someone’s life. Instead, many spells targeted getting rich—quick! In some cases, the spell’s target would be a gambler who worked to gain the advantage in games of chance (more on that another day, hopefully). A few stories talk of acts of magical extortion, wherein a magician would either try to low-ball the purchase of land/livestock with the threat that failure to accept a paltry offer would result in the destruction of the commodity in question OR a witch might place a curse on a neighbor and only remove the curse for a fee (you can find several examples of such stories in The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories by Hubert J. Davis).
If someone wanted to get rich really quickly, however, he or she would turn to magical treasure hunting. Plenty of European grimoires had methods for finding lost treasures, usually with the help of spirits. Some grimoire texts which influenced American practices, such as The Black Pullet, spelled out in detail how to summon treasure-seeking daemons to work on one’s behalf:
“This talisman and this ring are not less valuable. They will enable you to discover all the treasures which exist and to ensure you the possession of them. Place the ring on the second finger of your right hand, enclose the talisman with the thumb and little finger of your left hand, and say, Onaim, Perantes, Rasonastos.” I repeated these three words, and seven spirits of a bronze colour appeared, each carrying a large hide bag which they emptied at my feet. They contained gold coins which rolled in the middle of the hail where we were. I had not noticed that one of the spirits had on his shoulder a black bird, its head covered with a kind of hood. “It is this bird,” the old man said to me, “who has made them find all this treasure. Do not think that these are some of what you have seen here. You can assure yourself of this.” I replied, “You are for me the truth itself. My father! Do you believe that I would insult you by doubting?”
He made a sign, and the spirits replaced the gold in the bags and disappeared. “You see, my son, what the virtues of these talismans and rings are. When you know them all, you will be able, without my aid, to perform such miracles as you judge proper” (The Black Pullet, 20-21).
Seals and incantations like these made it into later magical practices, especially in places where grimoire languages like German, Spanish, or French were spoken (to be clear, many grimoires were written in languages like Latin with commentaries in European languages, and these three tongues were hardly the only ones in which grimoires appeared).
Of course, being able to find treasure only helps if treasure is already buried in the earth waiting to be found. In the maritime culture of early New England (as well as the maritimes of other parts of the New World), a widespread belief in hidden golden caches secreted beneath the soil became the basis for a number of magical spells. A Maine man named Daniel Lambert, suddenly flush with money, faced suspicion, for:
Lacking any other apparent explanation, his neighbors attributed Daniel Lambert’s sudden wealth to the discovery of buried pirate treasure. Despite Canaan’s location dozens of miles from navigation, the inhabitants readily believed that Lambert had found a treasure chest because, as Kendall explained, “The settlers of Maine, like all the other settlers in New England indulge an unconquerable expectation of finding money buried in the earth.” Indeed, backcountry folk insisted that troves of pirate treasure guarded by evil spirits pockmarked the New England countryside even in locales far from the coast (Taylor 7).
Since the New World was vast and dangerous, people turned to magic to help find these copious buried (and frequently ‘cursed’) treasures, and to remove any dangers that might arise during the expedition to unearth them. A number of ‘rules’ for enchanted bounty-seeking developed, including:
Treasure hunting teams needed at least three members, as that number ensured magical success
Magical circles should be inscribed around the digging site to prevent any malevolent spirits from attacking the diggers
Implements of silver, such as silver spoons or spades, should be used to dig at least part of the earth to ensure luck in the hunt and to protect the diggers from harm
Blood offerings (animals usually) had to be made to quell the guardian spirits protecting the treasure—a belief related to the idea that a guardian spirit was usually a person who was killed and his blood spilled over the burial ground
In addition to maritime treasures, the idea of “Indian” gold became very popular. Some European colonists and conquerors were sure that entire cities of gold were just waiting to be found in the dense, mysterious interiors of North and South America. Gonzalo Pizzaro and Sir Walter Raleigh both mounted expeditions to find such legendary places, frequently referred to as “El Dorado,” or “the golden one.” In almost every case, however, the site was protected by evil spirits, a curse, ghosts, or some other malevolent force. In some situations, however, the spirit might actually help a seeker find his or her treasure: “There are many tales about ghosts who speak to people, telling them to dig at such-and-such a place to find a buried treasure. The ghost is usually that of some fellow who died without being able to tell anybody where his treasure was concealed, and who cannot rest quietly until someone gets the money and enjoys it” (Randolph 219). How one ensures that the ghost is not simply walking the magician into a trap is anyone’s guess.
One of the best examples of magical treasure hunting led to an entire religious movement in the New World. While the time has not yet come to explore the full magical heritage of the Latter Day Saints, I would be remiss to omit them here. Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of the Mormon faith, used to hunt for treasure using methods derived from alchemy and hermetic science/magic. He followed the rules laid out above, frequently offering “sacrificed either pure white or jet black sheep or dogs to lay out magic circles of blood” prior to discovering his golden plates and having his angelic vision (Taylor 12). Smith’s methods were not deviant or unusual. He used seer or peep stones to help find his hidden treasures, and his activity in the highly spiritually active area of New York known as the Burned-Over District was imitative of earlier seekers and followed by those who did the same. In fact, Smith was following very much in his own father’s footsteps, as Joseph Smith, Sr. was an active treasure seeker in Palmyra, New York. He is recorded to have once described his methods to a neighbor, saying “the best time for digging money was in the heat of the summer, when the heat of the sun caused the chests of money to rise to the top of the ground” (Brooke 31). The tradition the Smiths followed required—like many grimoire traditions do—that the seeker be spiritually pure or else he will fail in his pursuits, a concept brought in from hermetics and alchemy. The fervent spirituality and insistence on saintly behavior left a strong mark on the junior Smith, and helped him feel prepared for his prophetic role in revealing the Book of Mormon (which was inscribed on golden plates).
In some cases, treasures of golden pieces and precious gems are not the target of the magic. I have written previously on the phenomenon of dowsing, which allows a person to magically search for substances like water and oil beneath the earth. In some cases, the dowser might also search for veins of gold or silver or other valuable ores like iron. The method for making such a dowsing tool appears in Hohman’s early nineteenth century text, The Long-Lost Friend:
TO MAKE A WAND FOR SEARCHING FOR IRON, ORE OR WATER.
On the first night of Christmas, between 11 and 12 o’clock, break off from any tree a young twig of one year’s growth, in the three highest names (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), at the same time facing toward sunrise. Whenever you apply this wand in searching for anything, apply it three times. The twig must be forked, and each end of the fork must be held in one hand, so that the third and thickest part of it stands up, but do not hold it too tight. Strike the ground with the thickest end, and that which you desire will appear immediately, if there is any in the ground where you strike. The words to be spoken when the wand is thus applied are as follows: Archangel Gabriel, I conjure thee in the name of God, the Almighty, to tell me, is there any water here or not? do tell me! + + +
If you are searching for Iron or Ore, you have to say the same, only mention the name of what you are searching for.
This version of magical dowsing incorporates high magical elements (such as the invocation of Gabriel) and strong folk magical ones (the clipping of the tree twig at sunrise and the simple dowsing methodology). On the simpler end of the spectrum, one could simply put a bit of whatever was being sought into the tip of the dowsing rod, as in this example from the Ozarks: “Many hillfolk are interested in the search for lost mines and buried treasure, and some of these people have tried to use the witch stick in their quests. If a man is looking for buried gold, he fastens a gold ring to the end of his stick ; if it is silver that he expects to find, he splits the end of the wand and inserts a silver coin. Rayburn says that to locate mixed ores one uses two different metals usually a dime and a penny” (Randolph 88).
The practice of hunting for buried wealth and riches spanned cultural and geographic boundaries. In many cases, very strict rules were followed, regarding purification and protection as well as actual seeking magic. Spirits would guide a magician to the site of a treasure, and in some cases might even be employed to raise it from the earth. In other cases, the spirits associated with the treasure were deeply malevolent and most of the magic employed was to placate or dis-empower any evil that might be lingering about the dig site. The payoff for an effective treasure hunter could be a sack of coins, a buried chest, or even a new branch of a religion, but the work required up front was heavy and intense. While gambling charms might take longer, the success rate was better overall. In the end, getting rich quick via magical means, it seems, has always been a labor-intensive and time-consuming effort, just like any other job.
I love a good summer peach. Or peach cobbler. Or homemade peach ice cream. And I can’t tell you how much I miss my mother’s homemade brandied peaches (which were amazing over some hand-churned vanilla). If you live in North America, it’s likely you’ve encountered peaches everywhere from grocery stores to roadside stands to neighbors’ backyards. They’re ubiquitous, which also means they’ve been a major player in the foodways of America.
Today I’m going to briefly look at the peach from another folkloric perspective, focusing on its relevance in magical lore as opposed to its purely culinary uses (though I imagine the two are not ever to be completely disentangled from one another).
The flesh of the peach is frequently regarded as a nearly sacred food in its homeland of China, where it is thought to aid immortality. The lore of the peach is extensive there, with every part of the tree and fruit making an appearance. Peach pits are worn as amulets to ward off demons, while blossoms are used to enhance love, luck, & beauty. Peaches are left in family shrines, and feature prominently in the literature and art of China. You can read a good deal more about the role of the peach in Chinese lore here and here.
Peaches were highly valued in places like the Appalachian Mountains, too. According to the third Foxfire book, one of the most common varieties was the Indian peach, a shrubby variety with small, firm peaches:
“Indian peaches are small trees, spreading with scraggly branches, said to be descendants of those trees planted by the Cherokees around their villages…The fruit of the Indian peach is white with a rosy cheek, white-meated with a red heart…All have a most delicious flavor, raw or cooked. Peaches are rich in iron, and peach leaf tea was a medicine for bladder troubles or used as a sedative” (Foxfire 3 303)
In North American folklore, all parts of the peach have their value as well. In Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, one of the author’s informants says this of the peach tree: “The peach tree was justifiably described by herbalist Tommie Bass of northern Alabama as ‘a drugstore on its own’ in recognition of its many medicinal uses” (Cavender 64-5). Below you’ll see a sampling of the many different magical and/or medicinal uses of the peach and its parts:
“A baby that refuses to come can be brought at once and the labor pains will stop, if the woman drinks tea made from bark scraped downwards off a young peach tree.” (Hyatt #2972) Hyatt also states in several other places that peach branches were used to help bring a baby into the world by magical means.
“Peach tree root or bark was also commonly used [to treat diarrhea]” (Cavender 88)
Peach wood can be used in a magical cure for warts by cutting as many notches in a peach branch as one has warts (Thomas #1493) (see also “Leaves”)
Peach wood is one of the reputed choices for making dowsing forks, according to many sources (Thomas #105; Brunvand 432, Steiner 271, Randolph 83)
Ozark lore specifies that peach bark scraped upward prevents vomiting and/or diarrhea, but scraped downward it is a strong emetic (Randolph 95)
“A mess of peach roots, ground up and mixed with lard, is said to cure the seven-year itch” (Randolph 109)
A piece of Kentucky lore states that twinned peaches found together indicate that you will be married soon (Thomas #593)
Eating a peach pecked by a bird is said to lead to poisoning (Steiner 267)
John George Hohman mentions the use of “peach-stones” as a cure for “gravel” (kidney stones). He attests to it especially because it cured him of his own gravel (Long-Lost Friend#84)
Hohman attests that peach pits can also be taken to remedy drunkenness (#185)
The seeds reputedly can help stimulate hair growth in some people (Todd 55)
Vance Randolph describes an Ozark love charm consisting of a carved peach stone filled with “some pinkish, soap-like material” which he could not identify (Randolph 166)
Both Randolph and Newbell Niles Puckett mention the peach-pit charm as a powerful one, akin to the lucky rabbit’s foot charm (Puckett 437)
Peach leaves were thought to be a Colonial-era cure for worms (Black 199)
Cat Yronwode mentions using dried peach leaves in wisdom oil blends to help students focus on studies (HHRM 143)
Kentucky lore says that rubbing warts with peach-leaves, then burying them will remove warts (Thomas #1492)
The leaves were frequently made into a poultice, which could be used to treat headaches, bruises, and “pumpknots (bumps caused by a blow or knock to the head)” (Cavender 98, 109)
One of the Foxfire informants recommended a peach leave poultice mixed with salt and cornmeal to treat an abscessed tooth (Foxfire 9 70).
Herbalist Jude C. Todd recommends the use of peach leaves as a part of a dandruff treatment (Todd 53)
Hohman says that “The flowers of the peach-tree, prepared like salad, opens the bowels, and is of use in the dropsy” (Long-Lost Friend #185)
Hohman also recommends the use of the flowers as a cure for worms and constipation (#185)
Girls in the Ozarks pierce their ears when peaches are in bloom, believing that piercing them any other time will lead to infection (Randolph 164)
Vance Randolph has a great bit of lore regarding the planting of peaches as well:
“In planting peach trees, it is always well to bury old shoes or boots near the roots. Not far from Little Rock, Arkansas, I have known farmers to drive into town and search the refuse piles for old shoes to be buried in peach orchards. The older and more decayed the leather, the better it works as fertilizer” (Randolph 39)
From my own perspective, I really like the dowsing power of the peach, but I also have a great fondness for the carved peach pit charms. They seem like they would be beautiful and incognito ways of carrying natural amulets about on one’s person. I can also easily see using the flesh of a peach like the flesh of an apple, carving things into it before eating to absorb those qualities. The peachy pulp, which bears such a strong resemblance in so many ways to human flesh, also suggests a use as a makeshift dolly. When the “heart” of the peach, its stone, is considered, this is likely a very apt application of magic to the rosy-golden fruit.
I thought I’d finish up today with something non-magical, but which certainly has an enchanting power: brandied peaches like my mother used to make (I sadly do not have her exact recipe anymore, so the one I’m sharing is adapted from the excellent Putting Food By, by Greene, Herzberg, & Vaughan). We used to have a spoonful of these over ice cream after dinner sometimes, and they were simply otherworldly. They’re not as sweet as you might think, but that’s part of their charm. Plus, you can’t go wrong with a little booze in your dessert. I hope you enjoy!
Peaches (1 lb.)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Whole cloves (optional)
Whole cinnamon sticks (optional)
Clean & dry your one-pint canning jars. Score skin of peaches, then blanch them in boiling water and dunk them into an ice bath. Slip the skins off and slice the peaches into halves and quarters (removing stones).
Make a simple syrup by boiling the cup of sugar with the water. Cook the peaches in the sugar syrup for about 5 minutes, then transfer peaches into individual jars. To each jar add 1-3 cloves (optional), 1 cinnamon stick (optional), and 2-3 tablespoons of brandy. Seal jars and process in a hot water bath for about 20-25 minutes, then carefully remove the jars and allow them to seal.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at peaches. If you have any other ideas about using peaches in magic, please leave them in here or drop us a line.
I’ve been reading a lot lately (but then, when am I not?). I’ve also managed to catch a couple of great movies as well. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on them with you! The excerpts below are the slightly abridged versions of the full reviews found over at Pagan Bookworm, so head over there if you want the full report.
If you have spent much time studying occult literature, you know that Great Britain is rife with magical lore: fairies, Arthurian legends, druidry, cunning folk, etc. In The Book of English Magic, Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate make the not-too-audacious claim that Britain’s magical history is one of the richest—perhaps the richest—in the world. They approach their subject by examining a mix of history, folklore, and modern practices to attempt to piece together a portrait of Britain as an enchanted isle. While I think that they succeed in presenting a magical portrait of a magical land, I also think that the authors are by turns too broad and too narrow. They do a wonderful job looking into subjects like English alchemy and dowsing, providing a number of excellent resources to discover more about each topic. They also dwell overlong on the concept of druidry (not surprising considering it is one of Carr-Gomm’s chief fields of interest—he is also the author of Druid Mysteries, the Druid Plant Oracle, and the Druid Animal Oracle). The paucity of sources supporting some of their research means that while some chapters seem tight and focused, others seem only loosely woven together. They hardly plumb the depths of what is called Traditional Witchcraft, and the concept of cunning folk is given surprisingly short shrift considering how close to contemporary some of that material is. The inclusion of practical exercises gives a slightly ‘workbook’ feel at times, which deflates the momentum of the book in some places, but really does seem to serve the overall work.That being said, if one were looking for a good coffee-table introduction to the myriad magical traditions available to the student of British history, this would be an excellent starting point.
This book is about what author Denise Alvarado calls “Voodoo-Hoodoo,” a term which irks some as the continuing inaccurate jumble of two terms which should remain distinct (Voodoo being a religion and hoodoo being a folk magical practice). However, if one takes the time to read Alvarado’s passionate book on the topic, the Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook, one can see that she is merely sticking to the terminology most people are familiar with and that the dog of diction has no teeth to bite when it comes to New Orleans-style magic. Instead, Alvarado presents a tradition which blends elements of Haitian Vodoun, folk Catholicism, Southern root work and hoodoo, and a touch of New Age spirituality to create a vibrant, current practice. She uses a number of good resources, often primary ones, to support her understanding of a practice she has lived with her whole life (according to her). She also frequently slips away from the facts and into personal experience, but does so in a non-authoritarian way. Her history of Mardi Gras and the magical folklore associated with them is captivating, as is her heartfelt look at the Seven African Powers. When she does slip off of the scholarly or personal track the book can get a bit messy. Her correspondence tables are not a strength, and her inclusion of New Age style tumbled gemstones in her work almost undermines her traditionalism (as it seems fairly obvious that slaves doing similar work in the 19th century would not have had polished rose quartz to work with). She is flexible and fluid towards Christianity, though here it should be pointed out that she neither says one must work with Christianity nor one must work with African Traditional spirituality. People are looking for spells, and this book definitely has those. There are spells for love, luck, money, protection, and half-a-dozen other needs. Hundreds of spells and workings are contained in this book, as well as recipes for conjure oils and powders, instructions for candle working, and a discussion of poppets and dolls in magical work. Some of them seem totally reasonable within the context of her presented practice, and some seem a little forced. This book fits nicely on the shelf next to other “hoodoo 101” texts, while offering a few doors to open for a reader looking to go deeper.
3) Old World Witchcraft – by Raven Grimassi (Weiser 2011)
Don’t buy this book. I’m not even bothering providing a link to it. I’ve done a full review at Pagan Bookworm, but let me just say this text is badly researched, mis-cites or fails to cite sources, argues with scholars without presenting their actual point of view/argument, claims that graveyard dirt is just the powdered ash of tree leaves gathered in a cemetery, and says that you can become deeply knowledgable about a plant by studying its sigil. It’s bad history, bad herbalism, and bad witchcraft. All in all, this is a book which suffers from broken clock syndrome (as in, “a broken clock is right twice a day”). He occasionally hits on interesting ideas or brings up worthwhile concepts, but mostly he seems to be posing an elaborate fantasy as a pseudo-historical reality, with very little scholarly backbone to support his claims. When someone prods the gear works, the whole contraption just seems to fall apart.
Director Mar turns the camera on three different but spiritually similar people: Kublai, an African American man who belongs to the Spiritualist Church; Chuck, a Lakota Sioux sun dancer; and Morpheus, a pagan witch and Feri tradition priestess. The director captures the challenges of these faiths, including both internal and external struggles. While there is an element of novelty to the practices of each film subject, the director never lets curiosity turn into spectacle. The Sun Dance, which can be grueling for participants, is not simply a show of blood and muscle, but rather connects Chuck to his family in a powerful way. Kublai seems to struggle with just how much he believes in his own spiritual gifts. And Morpheus senses her displacement in the modern world, while at the same time she does not shy away from the society of other people. The film does have its flaws, but keeps a sensitive and intelligent lens focused on these subjects and their deeply-felt spiritualism. This is a rare and lovely documentary on mysticism as seen at the ground level. Available on Netflix.
In this outstanding independent film from director (and bit player/musician) Tim Rutili, a lonely fortune-teller and magical worker named Zel (played by the radiant Angela Bettis) lives in an old country house inhabited by a wide range of unusual ghosts that only she can see. There are dead flappers, priests, blind musicians, and a strange, child-like woman named Nyla (Molly Wade) who cannot speak. Zel is not merely a medium, she is also a deeply talented magical worker. She smartly lays down a salt line in front of her bedroom door every night to keep her ghost-friends out. The director cleverly bookends each section of the film with bits of folk magic, title cards with things like “A wish made while burning onions will come true,” which lends to the overall enchantment of the piece. This is such a lovely and exceptional film that I easily overlooked its flaws in favor of being bespelled by these characters. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Go, watch it now! Available on Netflix.
Whew! So that’s been my reading and watch list (at least, that all the ones I could write reviews about lately). What have you been getting into?
Today’s entry deals with a very specific type of magic, one which has been associated with the word “witch” in a positive way even within deeply Christian communities for a century or more. The practice of dowsing, or “water witching” as it is sometimes called, essentially deals with the use of divination instruments to find something. Most frequently, that something is water, but on occasion it might be oil, precious metals, lost objects, or even lost people. The phenomenon of water witching is one of the most accepted mystical practices in the West today, and there are organizations devoted to its study from both scientific and metaphysical perspectives. A person can be a dowser and still be a respected member of his or her community, even a highly valued one if he or she is effective at it, though magic or divination of any other kind might be frowned upon by the neighbors. But just what is dowsing and how does it work? Here is an excellent description taken from a folklore handbook on a specific area of the Appalachian foothills:
Almost without exception, dowsers were used to ‘witch’ wells dug in the region [the Upper Cumberland area of TN/KY] before the 1930s. A dowser, or water witch, is a person perceived to have a skill for discovering underground water with the use of a divining rod, usually a small, forked limb cut from virtually any fruit-bearing tree or willow. Because a water witch’s method is not scientifically proven, reliance on this technique is considered a folk practice. However, there were at least 25,000 active diviners in the United States as late as the mid-1950s, according to folklorist Trudy Balcom, and the results of their predictions have proven as successful as those of hydrologists and geologists.
Dowsers were often called in before a new home was built, so that the house could be located near a well. To find the water, the dowser typically holds the free ends of the forked prongs, wrists turned upward. Thumbs are pointed horizontally outwards so that the loose ends of the prongs extend three to four inches beyond the thumbs. (There are variations on the manner in which the switch is held.) The dowser walks slowly toward the desired location of the well. When the witch comes upon a subterranean stream immediately below, the vertex of the fork turns toward the ground; the stronger the stream, the more forceful the downward pull. The fork often twists in the dowser’s hands when a strong stream of water is discovered. Some say that the bark will even twist off into the dowser’s hands, and a few people claim that the forked limb often begins to nod, one time for each foot of dirt and rock that will have to be excavated before water is reached (from Upper Cumberland Country, by William Lynwood Montell, 37-8).
This summary of water witching covers most of the basics: a forked rod, used to find water before digging a well, the power in the dowser, and the nodding to indicate well depth. It also addresses the issue of scientific verification, which is a sticking point for a lot of professional dowsers. Some argue that they can produce repeatable results with their methods, even going so far as to get large mining companies to acknowledge their findings. Yet many scientific studies are at best inconclusive when it comes to water witching, or even outright disprove the phenomenon (on paper, anyhow). I’m not here to argue the merits of scientific proof of spiritual phenomena, so I’ll just say that both sides have evidence of some kind, and both seem to be firmly convinced of their interpretation of that evidence. Getting back to the folklore of dowsing, I found a rather interesting footnote explaining the dowser’s use of the forked branch in the book Kentucky Superstitions, which seemed to indicate that the forked shape is related to lightning in some way (292).
Water witches proved to be incredibly valuable members of their communities, and were not only popular but highly regarded for their skill, with no diabolical associations. From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:
Nearly all of the old settlers in the Ozark country believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks. These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers, and the forked switches they carry are known as witch sticks. Despite this sinister terminology, the waterfinder has no dealings with the Devil, is not regarded as dangerous by his neighbors, and has nothing to do with witchcraft proper (83)
Randolph himself takes it very seriously, indicating that it’s not something that he has seen scientifically proven, but which he has seen demonstrated over and over again, which is a fairly sharp contrast to his usual bemused skepticism with regard to the folk beliefs of those he studied. He also makes several other observations on the powers of water witches:
He says that the power is in the dowser, not the stick itself, but that he felt a distinct sensation upon holding a witch stick in his hands ( 84)
He discusses the societies built around the practice of water witching or dowsing, including ‘Water Surveyors’ Club’ of Butler, MO (86)
He gives the story of Fred Goudy of Everton, MO, who dowsed using copper wire instead of tree branches, and gained great fame by doing so (87)
Of note, however, is his doubt about water witches who claim to find mineral deposits or oil. He does not put stock in the ability to find anything other than water with this method, at least as far as the Ozarks are concerned:
Many hillfolk are interested in the search for lost mines and buried treasure, and some of these people have tried to use the witch stick in their quests. If a man is looking for buried gold, he fastens a gold ring to the end of his stick ; if it is silver that he expects to find, he splits the end of the wand and inserts a silver coin. Rayburn says that to locate mixed ores one uses two different metals usually a dime and a penny. Witch sticks thus equipped for treasure hunting are sometimes called ‘doodlebugs,’ but I don’t know if this is an old backwoods term or a recent importation. I have seen perhaps a dozen doodlebugs in operation but have yet to hear of any treasure being found by the doodlebuggers in the Ozarks. It is said that a switch loaded with metal will not react to water, or to any other substance save the particular metal which is attached to the stick (88)
Richard Dorson records the presence and commonality of ‘water witches’ in Illinois in his book Buying the Wind, saying that (in the early 20th century), most farmers had dowsers find wells for them, often for only a dollar or two in payment. He also reports that dowsing for oil had lately (the book was published in 1964 for a sense of temporality) become more common and profitable than dowsing for water (321-22). Veering momentarily into recent history, in a letter dated December 8, 1993, the Chevron Oil Company told Welsh dowser J.P. Taylor that “you opened our eyes to the world of dowsing…it certainly made us think there is more to it than we had previously known.” The letter goes on to highlight how Taylor, with no prior knowledge of the specific geology of two regions, had been able to accurately identify subterranean oil and gas reservoirs. This is hardly proof positive of dowsing’s power, but it should put into perspective the acceptance with which water witching has been met, even in the past quarter-century or so.
I’d like to conclude today by going back in time and abandoning the present-day (not that it’s not a nice place to visit, but let’s go where the history is hanging out) and looking back at dowsing in the Colonial period. Peter M.’s New England Folklore blog tells a humorous and interesting story about the “Rod Men” of Middletown, VT. He also mentions a few of the late 18th-century powers ascribed to dowsers:
Finding wild plants to cure illnesses
Receiving divine messages
And my favorite: “Tell young women their clothes had the Devil in them, and should be removed”
So that’s it for this cursory examination of water witching. There are probably far more qualified folks to write on this phenomenon than me, so consider this a fleeting glimpse into a fascinating subject. My own experiences with dowsing have been limited to using bent copper rods and attempting it (unsuccessfully) with a broken tree branch (which was not taken from a living tree, so that might explain the problem). If you’ve had experience with water witching or treasure/mineral/oil dowsing, I’d love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below! Otherwise, here’s hoping you find what you seek in life!
Today’s entry is not about the crazed cartoon sorceress from Warner Bros. cartoons (voiced by the inimitable June Foray), but instead we’ll be looking at the remarkable fall-blooming witch hazel tree. Really, the Hamamelis virginiana is not exactly a tree, but a woody shrub which can be found growing near water sources or in forest undergrowth throughout the Eastern United States (as well as in parts of Europe). It bears gorgeous yellow flowers in fall which look almost like a deep yellow honeysuckle bloom or a spidery golden star. It has a number of medical applications (you can usually find an astringent extract of the same name in your pharmacy), and has been used as a tea, poultice, extract, and tincture to treat bleeding wounds for a long time, according to botanical.com. The handy little book Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia names witch hazel as a topical treatment for hemorrhoids and sunburn, and mentions it as an infusion for treating menstrual discomfort.
But you’re probably not here for the medical qualities of the plant (although I should quickly make my regular disclaimer that nothing herein contained is intended as medical/legal advice and you should see professional guidance when using any herb, plant, or botanical). So let’s look at the folklore surrounding this plant.
The name is a good jumping-off point. Wikipedia (forgive me, please) indicates that the appellation of “witch” to this plant is related to an Old English word meaning “bendable” or “pliant,” due to witch hazel’s extremely flexible branches. It also tangentially relates it to its folkloric use as a dowsing tool. Since being able to dowse for water or other hidden substances is often referred to as “witching” for such things, connecting the tree name to its application makes some sense. Essentially this could be a chicken-and-egg argument about which idea came first, so I’ll just leave the question hovering in the ether for you to contemplate.
Since we’re mentioning witch hazel’s connection to dowsing, let’s look at one method of using it in this way, from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:
“Well, I just cut me a green fork off a peach tree some fellows use witch hazel or redbud, but peach always works better for me and take one prong in each hand. Then I walk slowly back and forth, holding the fork in front of me, parallel with the ground. When I cross an underground stream the witch stick turns in my hands, so that the main stem points down toward the water. Then I drive a stake in the ground to mark the place, and that’s where I tell ’em to dig their well” (p.83)
In this example, the informant shows a preference to peach branches over witch hazel (which I found in several other sources as well, particularly those focused on the American Southeast). Another informant of Randolph’s, one Mr. A.M. Haswell of Joplin, Missouri, espouses a staunch preference for witch hazel. Regardless of the tree, the technique remains the same. This account does not mention the holding method, which usually involves a palms-up grip, with the thumbs pointing out and away from the body. The stick ‘turning’ is a violent bobbing action, and truly accomplished dowsers can count the bobs to indicate approximately how deep the well is (thirty bobs equals thirty feet, for example).
Witch hazel can be used for other magical applications, too. A technique which seems—to me, anyway—related to its pharmaceutical properties involves using hazel branches to cure warts, scars, or blemishes. The patient takes a hazel stick, cuts three notches into it, applies some blood from the afflicted body part, and casts it into running water (Folklore of Adams County, Hyatt). One version of this method recorded in Folk Medicine by William Black involves writing one’s name on the branch and filling those grooves with blood.
The plant can also be used in protection magic. Randolph mentions that Ozark hillfolk would tie hazel twigs into little crosses and hung on their walls to guard against disease, especially in barns to safeguard the animals (p.284). This is somewhat like the rowan tree charm, which involves crosses of rowan twigs bound by red thread used as protective aids.
So as you are out on your autumn evening walks, keep an eye out for this gorgeous and rather useful magical plant. Try your hand at dowsing, or just make some healing or protective charms. But make friends with the poor, sweet witch hazel. She gets awfully lonely, and we don’t want her out hunting wabbits, do we?
In this episode, we look at different divination systems from the New World. We have a conversation about Destiny, and Laine talks about spinning wheels as magical tools. Cory discusses bibliomancy at the end of the show.
Today, I’m continuing the look at Appalachian mountain magic by focusing on a few of the specific “jobs” performed by mountain magicians.
Grannys, Dowsers, and Yarb Doctors
In general, the current incarnation of Appalachian magic is broken into a few categories. Mountain witches may do only one “magical” thing all their lives, or they may perform a broad array of tasks for their communities, some magical and some not. Often, the word “witch” never enters the picture or has a negative connotation (with one very key exception, explained below). But the basic functions of a mountain magician can be broken down into a set of roles, as follows.
This is probably the best known and most ambiguously defined magical “job” in the mountains. Granny women filled several roles in the community:
They acted as healers in communities where trained doctors were scarce, nonexistent, or deeply distrusted.
They assisted doctors when professional medicine was required, and often during childbirth.
They acted as midwives and postpartum caretakers for new babies and mothers.
They might be called upon to perform blessings for livestock or land before planting, owing to their roles as birth-helpers (thus helping the earth and one’s livestock birth the food one would eat for the coming year).
In some cases, they might also perform basic divinations, like determining the sex of a baby by dangling a wedding ring over the woman’s palm or belly.
Often the work done by these women was broader in scope than mere medicine. It took into account a patient’s whole state, including spiritual or psychological. Sometimes the work done by Grannies baffled the doctors performing the births, though they obviously were a great comfort to the mothers:
“Granny-women might perform a number of rituals which doctors found silly and irrational. Some were designed to give the mother psychological, if not physical, relief from her pain. She might give the woman her husband’s hat to hold during the ordeal, thus bringing him symbolically into the delivery room. If the labor were particularly severe, she would place an axe or knife under the bed to “cut” the pain in two. Sometimes, weather permitting, she would throw open every door and window in the house, in a symbolic representation of opening the birth canal” (from “In Defense of Granny Women,” by Janet Allured)
The term “Granny women” isn’t exactly accurate, either. Many women were not particularly old when they learned about midwifery from their own female relatives, and even some men were known to assist during childbirth. While much of the training to become a Granny was on-the-job, there were surprisingly sophisticated teaching materials as well:
“To train them [potential midwives], we had a very large wooden box. At the bottom and on the top, there was a simulated abdomen and perineum—just like the mother—so we could actually teach them the mechanism of labor, and so we could teach them what was going on inside” (Foxfire 2, p.277)
Payment for a Granny woman’s services varied, often depending on the economic state of those she helped (which was usually fairly poor). A passage from Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, by Anthony Cavender, illustrates the point:
“A typical fee charged by a physician in Kentucky for delivering a baby in the latter part of the nineteenth century was about $10, a substantial sum for an average farming family. Physicians were often paid in commodities, such as corn, timber, pigs, cows, and corn mash whiskey, or labor in kind. Some granny women charged a modest fee of a dollar or two or its equivalent in materials, but many did not” (FMSA, p.129)
These women served a vital role in their communities, and while some of them were labeled as “witches,” they seldom endured physical persecution as they were far too valuable.
The exception to the rule of bad “witches” were the dowsers, often called “water witches.” These were people—most often men, though women were certainly known to perform water witching as well—who could locate underground streams through the use of various magical techniques. The most common method was to use a forked branch cut from a witch hazel tree (some sources list other trees, like willow) and to walk slowly along a piece of property until the rod reacted by bobbing up and down or giving some other sign. Despite being called “water witches,” there were seldom any negative connotations to the profession, as it was an absolutely necessary service in a time when digging wells was costly and difficult business. Vance Randolph describes them thusly:
“Nearly all of the old settlers…believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks. These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers, and the forked switches they carry are known as witch sticks. Despite this sinister terminology, the waterfinder has no dealings with the Devil, is not regarded as dangerous by his neighbors, and has nothing to do with witchcraft proper…Nearly all of the really old wells…were located by witch wigglers. Even today there are many substantial farmers who would never think of drilling a well without getting one of these fellows to witch the land” (OM&F, p.82)
In addition to locating underground water currents, dowsers could also locate other materials, like oil or precious metals. Some practiced what is called “map dowsing,” where a map would be laid out in front of the dowser and he or she would use a pendulum to figure out where to start the search for whatever material was being sought. This practice is very well accepted in the mountains and throughout the rural parts of North America. In Signs, Cures, & Witchery, Gerald C. Milnes examines the widespread nature of dowsing, as well as some of its history:
“Water witching (rhabdomancy) is very common in West Virginia. According to a study done about fifty years ago, at that time there were twenty-five thousand practicing water witches in this country. The actual practice of divining with a forked stick, as we know it, began in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century in Germany. Martin Luther believed the practice violated the first commandment. Through the ages it has been roundly denounced as the devil’s work and praised as a remarkable aid to a basic necessity of rural life—finding water. It is often categorized with such rural customs as planting by the signs” (SC&W, p.133)
There have been many efforts to scientifically prove or disprove dowsing, all with varying degrees of success and failure. It seems that there is something to it, but that it may have a great deal more to do with the person doing the dowsing than the actual practice itself, at least as far as science is concerned. However, from my personal point of view, the practice of water witching is akin to pendulum divination of any kind and something worth adding to a witch’s repertoire. In one of Peter Paddon’s Crooked Path episodes, for example, he talks about ley lines and the currents of magical energy flowing through the world. Dowsing is a great way to help detect those currents and to tap into and work with them to improve one’s witchcraft (again, in my opinion).
Whew! This is already getting to be a long post, so I’m going to stop here for today and save the last little bit of this topic for tomorrow. Please feel free to add any comments or questions, and if you have any family stories about Grannies or dowsers, I’d love to hear them!