In tonight’s episode (slightly belated, my apologies), we have an excellent discussion of Sacred Artistry and Enchanted Worldviews with the wonderful Bri Saussy. I bookend the interview with a pair of readings on the topic as well. Thanks for your patience, and I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did!
Last time, I looked at a few of the standard products found in a typical supermarket which could be easily used within a folk magical context. I’m continuing that theme today, and while I’ll still be doing my best to stay out of the ubiquitous enchanted spice aisle, I will be touching on a few ingestibles. Please note, however, that as I frequently say: THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE SHOULD BE TAKEN AS MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE. Before you start popping things into your mouth or rubbing them on your skin, you should make sure with your doctor that doing so will not lead to genetic mutation, pestilence, plague, or ennui of any kind.
I’m going to start in what my part of the country likes to think of as the “ethnic foods” section, which generally speaking involves a portion of the produce area and an aisle with Asian, Hispanic, and perhaps Italian meal ingredients. It’s where I found the candles I showed in the previous post, but in most of the grocery stores around here, despite the obviously oblivious marginalization that comes with a label like “ethnic” or “international” cuisine, the diversity of the consumer population has made a lot of once-rare items much easier to find. The section of these stores directed at Hispanic consumers provides a number of tools for folk magic that fall under the practices of curanderismo and/or brujeria. I’ve covered supermarket staples like eggs already, so today I thought I’d look at three somewhat more distinctive items: corn husks, hot peppers, and coconuts.
The papery, stiff-but-pliant corn husk is absolutely essential for making really good tamales. Usually these come in huge packs (because if you’re going to go to the trouble of making tamales, you may as well make a lot of them), and they’re often dirt cheap. In fact, in the late summer, I frequently fine freshly stripped corn husks in buckets next to the corn displays, and few grocery store managers care if you grab a sackful to take home with you for free. So what sorts of magical mischief can you get up to with all those husks?
If you’re not making ensorcelled tamales, you might consider saving a few husks and turning them into doll babies for working various kinds of poppet magic. In some cases, the husks would be bound to the cob, along with various herbs and things like hair or clothing from the intended target to work a spell on them. Texan rootworker Starr Casas describes one such baby in The Conjure Workbook, vol. 1:
“When I was caring my daughter [sic] I was very ill. I was put on bed rest for five months. My Grandma knew this lady and asked her to come to my house and help me during the week. She treated people who were ill. I think that due to her efforts my daughter is alive today. I trusted her because my Grandma trusted her…She prayed over me every day; one day she asked if she could have some of my hair. She could have just taken the hair from my brush, at this time my hair was very long. She told me the hair needed to come from the crown of my head.
A few days later she came with this Dollie. This was the first time I had ever seen a doll like this. The body of the doll was a corn cob and the doll was covered in corn husk. When I asked her what it was for all she told me was to keep me and my baby safe. After I had my daughter the Dollie disappeared. When I asked her about the missing doll she told me the doll wasn’t needed anymore. I have never seen another Conjure doll like that one again” (Casas 246-7).
Starr’s encounter with this type of doll is not typical of conjure practice, something even she notes, but the use of doll baby magic is fairly common and corn husks make a simple, cheap, easy-to-make-and-destroy sort of doll. One reason that Starr may not have seen them since is that they are less directly associated with hoodoo and more directly associated with mountain crafts, particularly the crafts of the Appalachians. In fact, you can find wonderfully detailed instructions and step-by-step photos on constructing corn dollies in Foxfire 3, which records the folk practices of the southern Appalachians (a later compendium called The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Toys & Games also discusses the corn dolls, but doesn’t give the detail the actual anthology book does). That’s not to say that such dolls are not found in any version of conjure—Dr. E mentions them in his article on doll making, found in The Black Folder, for example—but that they very likely drifted in from non-African sources. Their provenance matters not, though, because they are incredibly useful magical tools in any case.
Have you ever seen the sheer plethora of peppers available in a bodega? Even at the chain supermarkets, you can now find dozens of choices, ranging from fresh jalapenos and big, fat Anaheims to the huge sacks of tiny dried japones peppers and the small-but-potent habaneros. So what to do with all those peppers?
Of course, the obvious answer would be hot-foot work in hoodoo, but you can also get a little more creative than that. Using the peppers as a vessel, it takes very little effort (but a good bit of practice and caution) to slit open a habanero, stuff someone’s name inside and bind it back up. Doing that works sort of like a vinegar jar cranked up to eleven, in that it puts a lot of unpleasantness into someone’s life. Peppers don’t have to be all bad, either, as cooking them with something like chocolate creates a very different effect—a good hot cocoa with a hint of chili pepper makes an enlivening winter beverage, and a heck of an aphrodisiac! A little rum in that latter option helps, too, of course.
Speaking of rum, one of the more interesting uses for all those hot peppers in magic—and here I’m stretching the term to incorporate a certain degree of magical religion—is to soak the peppers into an alcohol like rum until it is nigh undrinkable. Why would you do that, you ask? Maya Deren explains the use of the drink during a Vodoun rite in her book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti:
“As Lord of Eroticism, he [Ghede] embarrasses men with his lascivious sensual gestures; but as God of the Grave he terrifies them with the evidence of the absolutely insensate: he will not blink even when the most fiery liquid is sprayed into his eyes, and only Ghede can swallow his own drink—a crude rum steeped in twenty-one of the hottest spices known. Thus he may alternately remind men that he is their past, their present and their future, that he is master of their compulsive drive to life and the inevitability of their death” (Deren 104).
Deren also notes that anyone claiming possession by Ghede is subject to both of the tests she mentions: having the hot rum sprayed in their eyes and being told to drink it. A truly possessed devotee will have no problem doing so (and likely be able to down the entire bottle of rum and show no effects after the possession ends).
If you ever need to pretend to ride a horse, you will probably automatically feel the need to buy a coconut and bang the two empty halves together to simulate the sound. At least if you grew up watching a lot of Monty Python that’s probably what you’d do. The coconut is good for more than equine simulations, however, and you can use the whole fruit/nut and its liquid for several magical functions.
Drilling holes in the coconut will allow you to do two things: firstly you can get at the precious liquid, coconut milk, inside. It’s delicious and a wonderfully refreshing drink, but if you can resist the urge to down it all in one go, save some for later. Now that you have a semi-empty coconut with holes in it, why not stuff it full of name papers, sweet things like raw turbinado sugar (also available in the Hispanic section usually) and create a natural honey-jar spell? This sort of spell will, of course, not last as long as an actual honey-jar, but it has the advantage of being very quick and due to the sympathetic magic connected to the coconut’s skull-like density and shape, it works right on the minds of the folks targeted with the spell.
Speaking of heads, if you saved that liquid, you can turn that into a powerful magical formula as well. An African-derived magical practice known alternately as “feeding the head,” or in Vodoun as a lave tet ceremony (literally “head washing”) involves using a coconut wash on the head and hair during a ritual setting in order to fill it up with good spiritual forces. The feeding usually follows a simple head washing, either with natural water (sea water, spring water, etc.) or a number of aqueous formulae found in various traditions. Then comes the feeding:
“The process of feeding the head is simplicity itself. The coconut milk or cream is scrubbed into the head, just like the head-washing compound or a shampoo. Once the compound has been worked into the head, the hair may be combed out again. However, unlike a head-washing compound, the coconut compound should be left to dry on the head—preferably, overnight. A scarf or towel may be wrapped around the person’s head to insure this…In the morning, the coconut compound may be rinsed out and the person’s hair washed with a shampoo and dried, as it would normally be” (Mickaharic, Spiritual Cleansing, 101).
The richness of the coconut milk causes the spirits which guard a person (frequently though to be connected to a person’s head in African tradition) to be refreshed and take a renewed interest in the person’s well-being. It’s sort of like bribing a guardian angel with a good pina colada, which would be another fun way to use that coconut milk if you’re so inclined.
Of course, you don’t even have to open the coconut up to use it magically. I’ve seen a house cleansing method which involves simply kicking a coconut around a new home, through every room from top to bottom and back to front. You might say a psalm as you go, or repeat the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. Other traditions use other incantations, songs, or words, but the point is the same: get the coconut all over the house, kicking it as you go, letting it soak up bad vibes like a sponge. When you finish you can either pick it up in your left hand and take it to a far away tree, where you crack it open and leave it at the roots, or you can drop it into running water heading away from your home. It essentially functions as an egg cleansing for a domicile, but coconuts tend to be less messy than eggs when kicked (Mickaharic has a variant on this practice using a head of lettuce in his Spiritual Worker’s Spellbook).
There’s an entire pharmacopeia in a well-stocked bodega, with everything from aloe vera gel (and the live plants) to nopales (prickly pear cactus, sometimes used in curanderismo for treating diabetes) to chicken feet and cattle tongues (both edible, but also both used in various hoodoo spells as well) available to an informed shopper. I mention these three ingredients solely as a way to begin to see the shelves as stocked with more than marketing gimmicks and high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden beverages. While having a good local witch shop is invaluable for many reasons, the grocery store may be your best friend when it comes to simple, practical magic.
I know this article barely scratches the surface of the subject, and I highly encourage you to look at some other sources on making the most of a grocery store’s shelves for your spell work. As I said before, much of my own inspiration came from Sarah Lawless’ post on the topic and Cat Yronwode’s compilation The Black Folder, which features not only an article on grocery store magic (covering things like onions and lemons) by Cat herself, but other useful tidbits such as Norwegian bread charms (from Dr. Johannes Gardback) and an article on “kitchen witchery” by Sister Robin Petersen. Of course there are probably dozens of books on this subject, many of which I’ve sadly neglected here. Do you know of any good grocery-store spells? If so, please feel free to post them to the comments below!
I may eventually come back to this topic another time, but for now I hope this has been a useful glimpse beneath the barcodes into the magic of the market.
I recently received an email regarding a topic we discussed on the podcast a while back:
“Cory, on one episode you mention 4 thieves vinegar and was wondering if you had the recipe. I totally want to make some! I heard what items go into it, but don’t know the proportions.”
I was surprised that I actually haven’t done a post on this yet, as it is such a fundamental formula, and so easy to make. So today I thought I’d put up some information on this particular recipe.
Let’s start with the history. The legend is that sometime during the plague years of the 16th and 17th centuries, a story went about that four spice merchants had discovered a secret formula which made them immune to the plague and which they’d rub on their bodies before robbing corpses ravaged by the disease. That formula was eventually revealed to be a strong red wine vinegar with a number of different spices—reputedly one for each thief—most notably a lot of garlic. Vinegar and garlic have some strong antiseptic properties, so it’s not hard to imagine that in a time before Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microorganisms in 1675 any application of anti-microbial formula would help prevent a communicable disease.
Of course, the history provided is the stuff of legend, and may or may not have a basis in fact. The earliest English reference to the Four Thieves and their famous concoction appears in 1825, in the publication Pharmacologia, where it is referred to as Four Thieves Vinegar or Marseilles Vinegar, after the French region where some legends claim the Thieves operated. A 1939 article published in Pennsylvania History by Mulford Stough notes that the formula was used in Philadelphia during the outbreak of a plague during the 1790’s. Stough blames the outbreak on the huge influx of immigrants from Santo Domingo (basically the Haitian Revolution concurrent with that time period sent a large number of Dominicans and Haitians fleeing to America, through major centers like New Orleans and Philadelphia). While there’s no explicit link between the use of the vinegar formula to battle the disease and the immigrants themselves, I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of speculation here and say that there is a connection. Whether the European formula entered the immigrants’ magical systems here, or whether the arrival of the immigrants (who may already have been using the formula magically) spurred its resurgence, I cannot say.
What I can say is that the potion did enter into the folk magical practices of America, and has continued to remain popular. It’s also a flexible formula, one that has been adapted and changed many times over the years, depending on the need of the practitioner. Here I’d like to give you my own personal recipe and method for making it and tell you a bit about how I use it, then look at some variations from other recipes and magical folk.
Cory’s Four Thieves Vinegar (please feel free to copy, use, distribute, etc. with attribution)
One pint mason jar, filled to just about 3/4 full with good cider vinegar
One head of garlic, peeled of skins (around 8-12 cloves)
One large handful of red chili flakes (probably about 2 tbsp, though I don’t measure that way when I make this stuff)
One large handful of black mustard seeds (again, around 2 tbsp, and if you can’t find black mustard, brown will be fine, though you might want to toast them to release their oils and blacken them a bit)
One handful of salt (not quite as much, maybe 1.5 tbsp)–kosher or sea salt are best
Optional ingredients include: a sprig of rue (I usually include), black peppercorns (small handful of these), rosemary, other types of chilies such as habanero or jalapeno, guinea pepper grains, galangal root, ginger root, etc. You only need a little bit of any of these to boost the overall strength of the mix.
Put your ingredients into your mason jar, making sure it doesn’t overflow. Cap and seal, then shake vigorously for 30-60 seconds. Put it a cool, dark place or a refrigerator. Shake daily for 2 weeks, then keep stored in a dark pantry or a fridge.
If you want to time your vinegar production magically, set it up to begin when the moon is waxing and finish when the moon is full if you intend to use it for protection. Go from full to new moon if you want to use it to banish someone/thing. If you can make it while the moon is “in Aries,” “in Leo,” or “in Sagittarius” that might boost its power, too.
The ways I use FTV tend to be protective and for uncrossing work. A little can be added to a bath to help knock off any evil eyes or general bad luck. During spring cleaning, I usually add a little urine (in a separate bucket, please!) and red brick dust to a wash that I use on the front door and porch steps of my home to repel any harm sent my way. One of my favorite ways to use FTV is to mix it with some olive oil and put it on a salad as a sort of spring tonic to clear out any lingering malevolence that might have accrued in my body. Adding a tablespoon of it to a glass of water and drinking every morning is another good way to go (I’ll admit that I did this for a while but eventually let it slide and now just use the salad dressing method instead).
If you want to use it for banishing someone, you can break a bottle of it on their property (much like War Water) or stick their name paper in a jar of the vinegar—maybe with an extra handful of red pepper flakes to really heat up the spell. Or, and this is probably going to blow your mind, give it to them to eat. But wait! you say. I’ve been eating it all along and it’s protecting me. What’s going on here? This is one of those weird circumstances where intention seems to play a part. If you serve it to them with the desire to get them to leave you alone, that seems to be enough. Of course, if you’ve timed the production to make the vinegar essentially banishing anyway—in which case I hope you’re not eating it—then intention may or may not really be what’s causing the results.
Okay, so now for the variations. Of course, there are lots of folks who follow the older French recipe and use red wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar. I just use the latter because it’s more typically American and thus something I have a stronger connection to, but feel free to use either version. Other variations include one from author Ray T. Malbrough’s Charms, Spells, & Formulas in which he says: “To a gallon of strong cider vinegar add a handful of the following: rosemary, wormwood, lavender, rue, sage, and mint. Add 1 ounce of powdered camphor gum.” He goes on to recommend shaking and heating the mix for four days before finally straining it and bottling it, and that would definitely speed up the process. I would say, however, that ingesting this version might not be a good idea with the camphor gum in it (camphor is poisonous if swallowed). Malbrough recommends the vinegar as a cursing agent, one that can be used to cross someone’s luck or break up their home.
Cat Yronwode speaks of its uses, saying “Four Thieves Vinegar is used for protection, because it contains garlic, and also to cause confusion and discord among enemies, because it is sour” (p. 203). Jim Haskins mentions it as “bad vinegar” in his book Voodoo & Hoodoo, and talks of it being used to curse and break up homes.
“To make the original Four Thieves Vinegar, peel a number of cloves of garlic. Place the garlic in a clean glass bottle. When the bottle is full of peeled garlic cloves, wine vinegar is poured over the garlic until the bottle is full. The bottle can then be capped and placed in the refrigerator, root cellar, or spring house for a week or so. The vinegar should be used a little at a time, with new wine vinegar being added as some is drawn out. It will last a year or so before a new batch needs to be made” (p. 130-31).
Mickaharic also says that “Purists use a red Bordeaux wine, and wait for it to turn to vinegar before using it…Apple cider vinegar is not the ‘real thing’ but it works just as well in magic and better for some healing work,” which is basically how I feel about the topic. He recommends it as a spring tonic and calls it a great salad dressing, too!
Northwoods witch Sarah Lawless says that her FTV uses “the old school recipe which is more a tonic than a crossing blend – onion, garlic, thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender, peppercorns, bay leaves, and red wine with red wine vinegar” (Thanks Sarah!).
One of the more unusual recipes I’ve found for this mixture is from Dorothy Morrison’s Utterly Wicked, which lists the recipe as including Adam & Eve Root (a type of endangered orchid found in the eastern U.S.), John the Conqueror root, black pepper, and vetivert. This is a recipe I also would probably never eat, as the High John root comes from the Ipomoea genus which has demonstrated toxicity. However, this recipe is very unique as it does not contain most of the key ingredients found in other blends: garlic, red pepper, rosemary, etc. About the only ingredients it has in common with other recipes are black pepper and, well, vinegar. I’ve not tested the efficacy of this version, so if anyone out there has, I’d love to know what you think of it!
Four Thieves Vinegar continues to be popular among occultists and witches, but it’s got a broader appeal, as well. One of the best sites I found while researching this article was Secret of the Thieves, a website which tells the history of FTV and offeres a wide range of products based on the recipe such as toothpaste, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, soap, and even dental floss!
So if you’re looking for a good, widely-used folk-magical formula, I recommend making this rather simple one yourself. It’s easy, has protective and cursing applications, and keeps for a long time. If you have other variants, I’d love to hear those, and if you find new applications for the vinegar, please let me know those as well!
Happy Friday, all. Today, to make up for a rather long post yesterday, I’m just doing a quick blurb on a book I’ve not referenced much here, but which will likely be cropping up as we get into discussions of things like curanderismo and brujeria. The book I’m looking at is called Spiritual Cleansing by Draja Mickaharic.
Mickaharic was an immigrant from Central Europe who arrived in the U.S. just as World War II was dawning. The occult seems to have interested him from a relatively young age, and he’s produced copious volumes on various magical themes. What strikes me as unique is that despite his Old World roots, most of his magical writings focus on what I would call New World systems, such as Caribbean, Southern, and Mexican folk magic.
Spiritual Cleansing is, according to its subtitle, “a handbook of psychic self-protection.” Much like Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense, this book is mostly aimed at beginning practitioners or those with little experience in occult topics. It’s chief goal is to help a person who might be facing all sorts of spiritual afflictions to remove those problems and prevent future recurrences. Mickaharic is very insistent in this text that his work is not to be taken as medical advice (which is a sound if common legal disclaimer in works like this), but also that it is only for basic spiritual cleansing and protection. He advises those with serious afflictions to seek out the help of a professional spiritual practitioner, and therein lies some of his charm. He takes his subject very seriously, and his tone comes across a bit like an admonition from a grandparent. This is probably because he was nearly 70 when the book was first published in 1982. A more recent edition came out in 2003 with additional material, including a chapter on “Quieting the Mind.”
Mickaharic’s work is incredibly practical. He discusses a lot of different spiritual cleansing techniques without high-flown language. Some of the topics he addresses are:
-Dealing with Malochio (the Evil Eye)
-Cleansing oneself with spiritual baths
-Using eggs to remove negative energy
-Burning incenses to fumigate oneself for protection
-The proper use of Holy Water
One thing that some readers may be turned off by is the matter-of-fact way he says to do things. For example, of burning incense he says “If we burn incense with no real purpose, we may find the forces [higher powers] decide we are calling a wrong number—and they will not act in harmony with our desires…To be able to use an incense properly we must first understand these rules” ( p. 78). He then goes into the rules as he sees them. In another passage, he advises against using rain water for spiritual cleansing because “Rain water is difficult to use as it has variable vibrations…[and] should not be used for any spiritual work except by those who have been specifically told to use it by a spiritual practitioner” (p. 67). I know such “this is this and that is that” statements are a big turn-off for many magical folk (and I have a feeling Laine would strongly disagree with Mickaharic on his perspective concerning rain water). But I’d like to offer up, as some small defense of this work, that it is written for an inexperienced magical practitioner. Someone with a better understanding of magic very well may be able to bend his “rules,” but Mickaharic is more concerned with the well-being of the reader he’s never met and wants to make sure they don’t get into anything they can’t handle.
Many of the spells and workings in this book are wonderful. Some bear striking similarities to hoodoo work (his home sweetening spells involve burning brown sugar, which is very common in hoodoo), and many are very close to curanderismo practices (the egg cleansings in particular strike this note with me). Some things in this book seem a little pedantic to me, of course, but then again I’ve been reading magical books for a long time. In the end, I still think the good of this book outweighs anything bad I can say of it, and so I’m recommending it to you. If you have an interest in spiritual cleansing and protection, or in Mexican folk magic, hoodoo, and other natural magical systems, this is a book well worth tracking down.