We feature listener feedback of the macabre, morbid, and magical in this episode. We’ll hear tales of nighttime peepers, Wild Hunt taunters, creepy floating lights, and more!
We feature listener feedback of the macabre, morbid, and magical in this episode. We’ll hear tales of nighttime peepers, Wild Hunt taunters, creepy floating lights, and more!
I have to admit something slightly shameful about my time during the pandemic. I have not undertaken the task of making my own sourdough starter. Now, before you judge me too harshly, I should note that it’s not as though I haven’t been baking anything, just that I tend to do most of my baking using store bought yeast, eggs, or leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder. Our area did run out of yeast in the stores for a while, but somehow I’ve managed to back-stock just enough of it to last us for the few months it took for yeast to begin appearing on our shelves again. I’ve made starter-based breads before (yummy Amish friendship bread that lasted a few loaves before I failed miserably as a fermentation parent, for example), but I just haven’t needed to do the sourdough yet so it remains off of my “pandemic skills checklist.”
However, the popularity of bread baking did spark one of my other skills: research! I have been looking into a few of the folklore collections I have access to and finding all sorts of doughy, yeasty, yummy notes about the uses of bread in North American folk magic. So I thought today I’d share a few of the notes I’ve gleaned with all of you! Hopefully if you’ve been doing some resting, rising, and toasting of your own you’ll see some things here that spark your witchy senses and maybe make the act of bread-baking a little more magical the next time you go to top up that bottle of starter in the corner of your pantry.
I’ve already written a bit on things like the magic of cakes before, but I’ll start here by mentioning a cake of a sort. This is the “witch cake” used during the Salem Witch trials (and also occasionally found in other places, as it seems to derive from some English antecedents). The basic idea, as found in historical accounts such as town church documents from the trial period and reprinted in George L. Burr’s Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, is that a bewitched person’s “water” (urine, as it always seems to come back to collecting someone’s pee here at New World Witchery) is added to a rough loaf of rye or barley, then baked and fed to a dog. If the dog grows ill, convulses, or dies, it indicates witchcraft, or alternatively may be able to reverse harm, causing the witch to suffer visibly and thus identifying them. Mary Sibley, the neighbor of the Parris family who recommended the magical loaf cure, was later intimidated into confessing that the cake was diabolical in nature, a sort of “using witchcraft to fight witchcraft” approach that was found throughout Colonial New England folk practices (see the excellent book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement by David Hall for more on these sorts of folk magical practices in wide circulation).
These sorts of curative bread recipes, even if they are a bit unappetizing to us today, were widely known across traditions in North America. Oftentimes, bread was used as a delivery method for a variety of unsavory magico-medical treatments, creating rolled “bread pills” to treat ailments using herbs, medicinal mixtures, or even insects like lice and spiders to fend off sickness (Brown v.6 #806). A similar remedy could be used when treating animals, feeding them medicine or folk remedies along with bread to ensure they took them, as evidenced by an entry in Hohman’s Pennsylvania Deitsch tome, The Long-lost Friend:
#91 – For vomiting and diarrhoea [sp] – Take pulverized cloves and eat them together with bread soaked in red wine, and you will soon find relief. The cloves may be put upon the bread.
Hohman also mentions a similar method of delivering a chickweed based rabies cure in that book.
While baking a magical loaf of dark bread is certainly an intense way to mingle witchcraft and daily baking, many other beliefs and rituals surrounding meal, dough, and a warm oven could be found throughout the continent and across a wide range of people. In terms of superstitions, a massive number exist surrounding everything from baking the bread to burning it to taking a piece of it:
This last bit about the curly hair is one of the strangest but most pervasive beliefs about bread I found while researching loaf-lore. A number of sources indicate that if a person eats bread crusts, it will cause the person’s hair to curl, which is usually presented as a desirable outcome (Brown, Randolph, Farr). Sometimes those curls are ringlets, and at other times more like curly bangs or forelocks. In other cases, the curly hair actually predicts something about the bread, as in one North Carolina belief that says a baby with two curls of hair on its forehead will eventually “break bread on two continents,” indicating a life of travel (Brown v.6 #259). This may have something to do with the fact that the crust is the outermost part of the bread and often what visually draws us in (although the smell is certainly a factor, too, as many realtors know). Similarly, the hair or outer appearance of a person could be linked to this visual enticement through the bread. Or, it could simply be a way for a frugal parent to convince a child to eat the crusts, too!
Continuing the theme of good looks and good bread, several wart or blemish cures are connected to a well-baked loaf. Most of these depend upon the use of cornbread rather than other forms of grains, with cornbread “sweat” being invoked most frequently as a curative for things like warts, pimples, and freckles (for those that don’t know, “sweat” is the condensation layer that settles on top of cornbread as it cools). Cornbread factors into several other cures and rituals as well. An Ozark cure for bewitched cattle involves feeding the cow a combination of burnt cornbread, soot, and salt (Randolph). In parts of Appalachia, there are superstitions that say a person should never break cornbread from both ends, or else there will be bad luck (Brown). A Georgia folk ritual says to feed a dog cornbread that has been rubbed on his left hind-foot in order to get him to follow you or stay loyal to you (Steiner).
Bread features in a number of magical rituals beyond ensuring canine companionship, too. One of the better-known rites is probably the Dumb Supper, which we’ve covered a few times and even done as a story episode during our annual All Hallows Read. A specific version of the working from Watauga County, North Carolina, involved even baking the bread backwards:
“Cook bread backwards, by sifting with the flour sifter behind you, and the like; also eat it with your back toward the table, and you’ll dream of whom you will marry” (Brown v.6 #4296).
The “reversal” power of the Dumb Supper works magically by inverting the typical order of things, allowing the user of the spell to see an end result (a future partner) earlier in their life. However, there are also consequences to that working in many cases (as you hear in our spooky retelling of the tale). It may also be that the Supper works to sort of ‘short circuit’ the brain by making it do a rote task in an unfamiliar way, thus causing a sort of distorted reality reaction and an altered state of consciousness, which might make a person much more susceptible to things like visions. Bread, as a staple ingredient and something so ordinary and frequently made, would be a perfect base for that kind of rite. It also has long-standing associations with strength and body, which could be another reason it gets used to call forth a corporeal image of a future lover. This body association also makes bread a key component of the modern Traditional Witchcraft rite of the Housle or “Red Meal.” In that rite, dark bread is presented as part of a ceremonial meal shared with Otherworldy spirits or the Dead (Artisson). That association of bread with the land of the dead also plays out in many customs and folkways from cultures that have ancestral reverence as a part of their practice. For example, in Mexican American traditions, a sweet bread flavored with orange essence and anise seed called “pan muerto”/”pan de muerto,” or “bread of the dead” is offered to ancestors during holidays like Dia de Muertos (Fernandez Kelly).
Bread’s association with the strength also leads to a curious bit of lore from Georgia, which says that a knife with a “soft” blade can be strengthened by simply putting it into hot cornbread, then into hot water (Steiner).
Bread also features in a variety of other folklore as well, even metaphorically. For example, many people almost instinctively say the phrase “bread and butter” when passing someone on the street with a light pole or other object between them. This is thought to ward off bad luck (another variation has one party say “bread and butter” while the other says “come to supper,” as well) (Brown, Randolph). A Pennsylvania Deitsch idiom says that a person who can use braucherei magic or other supernatural gifts is someone that “Hot meh du kenne wie Brod esse,” or that “he knows how to do more than eat bread!” (Dorson 112n1). Even in dreams, bread can have significance, as evidenced by this interpretation from the well-known and widely available Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream-book from the early twentieth century: “To eat wheaten bread, gives great gain to the rich, but loss to the poor; to eat rye bread is the reverse” (9). The commonness of the bread seems to be underlying most of its metaphorical value in these folk beliefs, sayings, and symbols–a person who can do more than eat bread can do more than the ordinary, and a rich person who eats the sort of bread only available to rich people (the more expensive and finer-milled “wheaten” bread) will see their gains continue.
A House Blessing Charm (with bread!)
Perhaps my favorite bread-based magical working is one that I’ve done for a lot of folks when they move into a new home. It’s a little house blessing that I learned from my mother, who claimed it derived from Polish customs (we have a section of our family who all come from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well as the Bialystok region of Poland). I’ve also seen this represented as a Jewish house blessing, as well as a few other ethnicities, but thus far I’ve not found a single “source” for it. My guess is that it builds upon some fairly widespread Central and Eastern European symbols, and may even have been widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean through the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (which still uses house blessings today). The basic practice involves taking a small jar and filling it partly with salt, then adding a piece of homemade bread (just a small, crouton-sized cube would be enough), and a single coin. You can say a blessing over this (such as the Catholic rite of house blessing or Psalm 122:7, “Peace be in thy walls, and prosperity in thy dwelling”), simply explain the symbolism when you give the gift, as well. The individual components each have a meaning:
There are lots of magical variations you could make here, too, including selecting specific kinds of coins (or ones with significant minting years printed on them). A silver “Mercury” dime would be a very protective one to include. You might also make a special kind of bread using herbs that convey specific blessings (although you do want to make sure the bread is somewhat dry when fully baked–it will essentially “mummify” in the salt over time so it won’t spoil, but only if it’s not a particularly moist bread to begin with…no zucchini bread, please!). You might even mix in spices or herbs with the salt, or consider using black salt as a way to specifically repel evil.
However you slice it, there’s a lot of magic in the lore of bread! If you’re baking up a storm during these mad, mad days of plague and pandemic, I hope that this post will inspire you to mix in a little magic along with your leaven, and add some enchantment to your bread basket!
Thanks for reading!
On Wednesday, I attended the Ash Wednesday mass at a Catholic church near my workplace, which begins the Lenten season. The pull of tradition sometimes brings me back to the church rituals of my childhood, and while I’m spiritually aligned else wise now, I take comfort in some of these practices, too. The ashes used in Ash Wednesday services are a powerful ritual tool, made from the palms left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, mixed with incense and holy water, and blessed by the priest. They mark the bearer as a member of the church, a mortal person living in a mortal world, and someone aware of death’s role in our lives. The ashes, which serve as a spiritual tool for unification with divinity and with mortality, got me to thinking about some of the other ways in which ashes can be used in folk religious or magical practices.
And so today, I thought we’d explore the very rich traditions of magical work which incorporate ashes. I shall endeavor to stay focused on the practical application of ashes, rather than the mere presence of ashes in a spell, but in some cases that line blurs (or smudges) a bit. In researching the topic, I was astounded to see how many different methods for working with ashes I found: banishing, cursing, healing, money work, omens about bad luck and loss, and even some quasi-magical gardening tips. This, to me, is an example of how an extraordinarily normal item—ashes—can be a useful magical tool if a practitioner knows a little about what to do with them. Truly, a clever witch or magical worker can read his or her environment and see it loaded with enchantment and possibility, but I digress. On to the ash spells!
One of the most common ways to counteract bewitchment was to burn the affected object—usually a cow, butter-churn, etc.—“to ashes” which would render the witch who cast the enchantment powerless or cause her tremendous pain. Often the ashes would have to be dispersed even more extensively by being scattered to the four winds to render the spellcaster completely impotent and/or destroyed. Similarly, feathers from black fowls could be burned and the ashes sprinkled or blown over a bewitched person to remove the bewitchment.
An account of a Bell Witch-style haunting in Wiltshire, North Carolina, noted that the wicked spirit “sprinkled ashes in the beds” (Cross 243). Some hoodoo spells deploy the ashes of particularly nasty spells in the way one might lay a magical powder, sprinkling at someone’s doorstep so that they must step in the baneful trick.
Cat Yronwode mentions rubbing alfalfa ashes on one’s money to improve business, especially if the money is in a cash register. She also has this excellent and interesting recipe for a floorwash designed to bring clientele to a cathouse:
To Draw Trade to a Whorehouse: On a Friday morning, build a fire outdoors and burn a man’s worn-out left SHOE with a pinch of SUGAR in it. Put the SHOE ashes, a tablespoonful each of AMMONIA, SALT, and SUGAR, plus your own URINE, into a bucketful of water. Mop from the sidewalk inward, to attract men (Yronwode 29).
Ashes can also be used in hoodoo love charms (perhaps in conjunction with the above business charm?), as in this method from Zora Neale Hurston:
Cut some hair from under your left arm-pit and some from the right side of the groin. Then cut some from the right arm-pit and from the left side of the groin. Burn this hair with a wish for this man to love you. Put the ashes – made into fine dust – in his food secretly and he will love you and do as you wish (Hurston 361-2).
A magical charm called the “Chinese Snake Stone” from an account of North Carolina witchcraft tells how the amulet could be used to draw poison and how ashes were used to re-charge it after its work was done:
Directions for using The Chinese Snake Stone. Scarify the wound before applying the Stone-take it off every morning and evening-put the Stone at each time, when taken off, into a glass of milk-warm water, and let it remain a few minutes, until it discharges itself of the poison-wash the wound in a strong solution of salt water, and scarify again, if necessary. After taking the Stone from the water, rub it dry in moderately warm ashes, and apply as before. This course should be repeated for the space of nine days, when a cure will be effected (Cross 264)
In some cases, ashes have to be handled carefully in order to prevent illness from getting worse. When someone in a family is sick, for example, removing the ashes from the fireplace and taking them out of the building is said to be very bad luck, possibly even fatal to the ailing person.
A Pow-wow hair removal charm taken from older European sources recommends burning a frog to ashes and mixing them with water to make an ointment “that will, if put on any place covered with hair, destroy the hair and prevent it from growing again” (Hohman 14). I also found the same cure echoed in witchcraft practices from North Carolina.
Curandera recipes sometimes call for white ashes, which are powdery and fine and must be sifted from the gray and black ashes. Mrs. Mercedes Castorena of Sonoma gave the following recipe for dealing with empacho, a stomach and intestinal ailment:
“You crack an egg and get the yolk, being very careful not to break the yolk, because it has to be all in one piece. Then lay the sick person on the bed, put the egg on his stomach and let the egg slide all over the stomach. Wherever the spot is (where the food is stuck), the egg yolk will break. You leave the egg here. Then you take some herb called rosa de castilla, and some ashes-just the white part of the ashes-and put this on the stomach and wrap a bandage around the stomach to keep it on. Then you give them a dose of Baby Percy (a patent medicine)” (Neighbors 251).
Mrs. Castorena also mentioned a cure involving mixing avocado seed ashes with oil to treat indigestion. Ashes are also used in other home remedies from other traditions: “To cure toothache, place a bag of warm wood ashes on the side of the face where the tooth is aching” (Farr 327). Vance Randolph mentions the Ozark method of treating an itch using a mix of gunpowder, wood ashes, and sweet cream. He also talks about a method of staunching a wound using the ashes of a man’s shoe.
In the garden, ashes can be mixed into soil around fruit trees to improve their growth. My mother used to have me take our fireplace ashes and put them around our blueberry bushes at the beginning of the spring to promote big, juicy berries later on. Supposedly, doing this on Ash Wednesday ensured a pest-free garden all year long (I don’t recall if I was usually enjoined to this particular chore in conjunction with the holiday or not, but our plants were not bug-free).
Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of beliefs about sprinkling ashes around a hen-house to prevent lice on the birds (and he also mentions the Ash Wednesday ritual for gardening success). Some of the other magical ash-lore he shared includes:
Strangely, dreaming of fire is frequently a good sign, but the ashes tend to be a bad-luck indicator.
As you can see, even the lowly ashes from your fireplace can become useful magical aids if you know what to do with them. I hope this little exploration is useful to you! Please feel free to share your own ash lore in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,
In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with skin as soft as silk,
Within a crystal fountain clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold
Yet thieves break in to steal the gold (from “Riddles,” American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, p. 1318)
This riddle (a variant of which appears in Tolkien’s The Hobbit during Bilbo’s riddle-game with Gollum) probably isn’t very hard to figure out. Eggs are one of the food staples which exist nearly worldwide, and almost every culture has traditions dealing with eggs. They are cooked, painted, dyed, emptied and filled with dioramas, and the shells are even ground up and added to the soil to prevent garden pests.
Today we’re going to look a little at some of the magical traditions surrounding eggs, particularly the ones we find in the New World.
Much of the lore about eggs has to do with their production or bewitchment, such as these tidbits (from Folklore of Adams Co. Illinois, by Harry M. Hyatt):
Eggs are frequently used to heal magical illnesses or to help with prophetic work. John George Hohman records several uses of eggs in magic among the Pennsylvania Dutch, including a method for curing “falling away,” a folk sickness characterized by physical weakness, by boiling an egg, putting three holes in the shell, and then leaving it on an anthill to be devoured. A common belief among several traditions says that eggs left in the hands of a murder victim will compel the murder to return and be caught before the eggs rot. A bit of folklore related to Midsummer festivals (which may be from Latin American or Slavic sources, as the book is unclear to which culture it is referring): “In one divination, a girl seeks her betrothed by reading the shape of a egg white in a glass of water; in another, the index is a wreath floated on a stream” (“Solstices,” Amer. Folklore: An Encyclopedia, p. 1412). This seems to be related to a more general set of European folklore focused on St. John’s Day and Midsummer Eve, such as this ritual from Madeira:
On St. John’s eve at ‘Ave Maria’ the village maidens in Madeira try their fortunes in various ways. They take a newly laid egg, break it in a tumbler of cold water, and place it out of doors in a secluded place. Should the white rise in lines that in any way represent a ship, they will soon take a voyage. If it at all resembles a house, it means marriage and settling down. If a coffin or tombstone, it means death (Ecyc. of Superstitions, Folklore & the Occult Sciences, by Cora L.M. Daniels, p. 1551)
This practice may sound familiar, as it is very similar to the curandero method of egg reading done during a limpia, or spiritual cleansing. In that process (which I touched on briefly in Blog Post 137 – Curandero Spells, part I), an egg is used to rub and mark a person’s body in order to cleanse them of curses, witchcraft, bad luck, and general spiritual illness. An Ozark superstition says that if a man eats owl eggs it will cure him of alcoholism (this is not recommended, especially due to the potential environmental damage it could cause).
Eggs can also be used to cause harm as well as to cleanse it. Newbell N. Puckett records that among Southern African Americans eggs put into a couple’s bed will cause them to quarrel and fight (perhaps because they smash the eggs and get into a row about who’s going to clean it up?). A curious German method recorded by Harry M. Hyatt uses “a glass of salt water that will hold an egg up”and a picture of a person (usually a former lover). The egg is floated in the glass, the picture put upside down over it, and the water swirled around while making a wish for ill (or good, if the conjurer is so inclined) fortune for the person (Folklore of Adams Co., 16006). Hyatt also records that a witch can give a person a ‘gift’ of three eggs in order to curse them. In his extensive masterwork on folk magic (Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork), Hyatt records a number of other curses using eggs, including using buzzard’s eggs to cause someone harm or this spell, which allegedly forces a straying spouse to be faithful:
WRITE YOUR HUSBAND’S NAME
AND THE NAME OF THE WOMAN HE’S FOOLING AROUND WITH
ON AN EGG.
THROW THE EGG AWAY FROM YOU
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER,
AGAINST THE EAST CORNER OF YOUR HOUSE.
DO THIS FOR NINE CONSECUTIVE MORNINGS,
AND THAT AFFAIR WILL BE OVER.
Yes, ah learnt dis on chicken aigs. Yo’ take a aig, if a woman is runnin’ wit yore husband, an’ yo’ git chew a aig an’ bust a aig fo’ nine mawnin’s – an’ write dere names on dat aig – an’ bust de aig in [the] east fo’ nine mawnin’s. Throw it away from yo’ “In the Name of the Father” in de east – in de cornah of de house fo’ nine mawnin’s. Dat bust ’em up an’ yo’ nevah will be bothahed wit ’em no mo’ – yo’ won’t have tuh worry. Jes’ write dere names on dose aigs an’ bust ’em fo’ nine mawnin’s – yeah one each mawnin’.
(Whose house do you bust that on, your own house?)
Yore own house, yeah.
(Despite the ‘on’ of my question, these eggs are broken inside the house. This is a rite to separate a man and woman, not to make someone move from a house. The eggs are busted against the wall, thrown away from you so that the dangerous substance will not spatter on you.)
[Memphis, TN; A lady who once worked in Louisiana; Informant #1419. D15:3-D23:6 = 2698-2706.] (Vol. 2, p.1581)
Eggshells also have magical uses completely on their own and apart from their high-protein filling. A curious southern tradition involves using eggs as a method to deter predators from killing young chickens on a farm: “Hawks may be kept from catching your chickens by sticking a poker in the fire; by threading eggshells, from which chickens have recently hatched, on a piece of straw (or putting them in a covered tin bucket) and hanging them in the chimney” (Puckett, Folk Beliefs…, p.323). Vance Randolph records that a tea made from “toasted egg shells in water” was taken by a girl near Forsyth, Missouri, for ailments unknown, but likely related to stomach issues. And I would be much remiss if I didn’t mention the magical ingredient of cascarilla, or powdered eggshell, which is used in Santeria/Lukumi as well as a few other traditions. It is usually sold in little paper cups (though it is not hard to produce yourself if you just wash and save your eggshells from a few breakfasts), and used to ward off evil and occasionally to draw sigils for ritual work.
Dreaming of eggs is supposed to be good luck, indicating everything from monetary gain to a wedding or children on the horizon. Traditions conflict about whether the eggs must be whole or broken to indicate good news, with convincing arguments presented on both sides (a fragile relationship situation—such as one affected by a lover’s quarrel–could be deemed finished by dreaming of broken eggs, or the possession of whole eggs might mean wealth, for instance). Randolph records this tidbit about the use of eggs to produce prophetic dreams:
Sometimes a mountain damsel boils an egg very hard, then removes the yolk and fills the cavity with salt. Just before bedtime she eats this salted egg. In the night, according to the old story, she will dream that somebody fetches her a gourd filled with water. The man who brings her the water is destined to be her husband. It is surprising how many young women have tried this, and how many feel that there may be something in it (Ozark Magic & Folkore, p. 174)
While this method seems popular, I think it would probably not be good for anyone’s blood pressure.
Wow, that’s a lot of material about eggs! And I’ve only scratched the surface here. There are so many more superstitions, spells, and sayings about eggs that I couldn’t begin to cover them all. So I’ll just recommend that if you want a good, easily available household tool for magic, you just can’t beat the humble egg. Hm, speaking of beaten eggs, I wonder if there are any magical meringues out there?
Thanks for reading!
My ambitions got ahead of my time last week, so I am behind in posting about magical books in American traditions. I thought today, though, I’d start at the cheap and plentiful end of the spectrum in the hopes that I might make up for any lack of posting.
Chapbooks—small, cheaply made books usually containing no more than a hundred pages or so—have been a part of the New World landscape since Colonial times. Many of the most important texts leading up to the Revolutionary War were published in chapbook format, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. These booklets, which were also frequently referred to as “tracts” or “pamphlets,” were cheap to make and cheap to buy, and could often be found in the stock of travelling peddlars (also known as “chapmen,” where the term chapbook comes from).
In addition to political messages, these little books frequently served as repositories for folklore and folk music, fairy tales, religious information, poetry, fiction, almanacs, and most importantly to us, magic. I’ll be addressing the topic of almanacs separately, as they have had a tremendous influence on the occult in America, so in this post I’ll focus primarily on the booklets of magic which circulated in North America from the 1600’s until modern times.
Early occult chapbooks generally originated in places like London or Scotland, and bore titles such as Dreams and Moles with Their Interpretation and Signification (London, 1750), The Fortune Teller & Experienced Farrier (Exeter, 1794) or the Spaewife, or Universal Fortune-teller (Scotland, 1860’s). They contained advice on interpreting signs, reading palms and other body parts, and performing basic divination such as taseomancy (tea-leaf reading). Some examples of the esoteric knowledge they contained:
Some of these books gave medical advice as well, and instructions for livestock management. In The Fortune Teller & Experience Farrier, author Ezra Pater tells anyone with a horse suffering from a cough to “take five or six eggs, and lay them in a sharp white-wine vinegar, till the shells be somewhat soft, then fling them down his [the horse’s] throat and it will cure forthwith.” Such remedies would go on to be de rigueur for magical practitioners in rural locations, and especially in the New World. The reasons for the popularity of such simple guides probably stems from their low cost, but also may have something to do with the rough medicine of frontier life. In many cases, settlers lived days away from good medical or veterinary care, and so a small practical guide would be indispensible to a rural family. As for magic’s entanglement with practical medicine, I can only reiterate that until very recently (the mid-to-late twentieth century really) there was no separation between the two, especially not in rural communities. Not everyone used every remedy, and not everyone used magic, but they were not at odds with each other, either. I find the best analogy here is a cookbook: just because you have one hundred recipes doesn’t mean you cook all of them. In most cases, you specialize and repeat the recipes you like or are best at, and those become your signature dishes.
Over time, other chapbooks emerged and became more and more popular. In rural and farm communities, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch areas of the middle Appalachians and the Ohio Valley, little books like Hohman’s Long Lost Friend became household texts. Individual families would also compile their own books, not unlike family recipe books, which might be kept on the same shelf as the family Bible. In many cases, these chapbooks would be the only texts in the home other than the Bible and perhaps a cherished tome or two of literature like Shakespeare. In more urban areas, cheap editions of Grimoires found their way into chapbooks, with publishers like Chicago’s William Delaurence producing a number of pirated works in reduced pamphlet form, including The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus, The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses, and Hindu Magic and Indian Occultism. In Owen Davies’ excellent history of magical books entitled Grimoires, he explores the influence of the occult in Chicago:
Chicago may have an image as a grim, grey industrial city, but in the early twentieth century it was also a hotbed of mystical, magical, and prophetic activity. Rural Pennsylvania may have been the cetre of pow wow and New Orleans the home of hoodoo, but Chciago was the undoubted centre of organized occultism and grimoire publication…[it] proved fertile ground for mystical and magical groups. (p.210-11)
Other cities, like Chicago, also began producing quantities of occult chapbooks. Detroit—which had and continues to have a strong tie to hoodoo—was home to countelss candle shops with shelves full of pamphlets on luck, love, and money magic. In Harlem, stores like the Hindu Mysterious Store were selling racks of booklets on occult topics into the mid-to-late twentieth century. Some of the many titles included:
Books like these, especially the dream books (which purported to interpret dream symbols into lucky numbers to be used in lotteries), were tremendously popular. While the number of shops carrying such literature has diminished recently, the occult pamphlet remains popular and can still be found in many urban magical retailers.
Today, chapbooks still exist and continue to be published, though in two distinct veins. Some occultists (myself included) like to produce very limited runs of such booklets as artisan items. The publishing company responsible for the marvelous Witches’ Almanac also issues lovely chapbooks such as Spells & Incantations, Magical Creatures, and Magic Charms from A to Z. I’m still working on the illustrations and additional material for our New World Witchery cartomancy chapbook, which will eventually be sold through our Etsy shop. Many classic chapbooks are also still available, such as Henri Gamache’s Master Book of Candle Burning.
The other form in which one can find modern chapbooks will likely lead to scowls from some readers. If you’re ever standing in line at the grocery store, however, look over at the racks of gum and magazines, and usually near the top there will be small, palm-sized books of cheap newsprint paper and glossy stock covers. Some of them are all about alleged dieting secrets and pop psychology, but occasionally you can find little tomes of herbal lore, astrological information, and even love spells. While it may seem unsavory to think of magical literature as an impulse buy in the checkout lane, I would recommend perusing them. They’re often incredibly cheap and sometimes have good information in them, as well as guideposts to other resources that might be even more worthwhile. Of course, you may also find all you can do is line your familiar’s cage with them, too, so browse before buying.
I hope this has been useful to you! If you have any favorite chapbooks or magical booklets, I’d love to know about them! Please leave a comment or send an email and share them with us.
Thanks for reading!