On Wednesday, I attended the Ash Wednesday mass at a Catholic church near my workplace, which begins the Lenten season. The pull of tradition sometimes brings me back to the church rituals of my childhood, and while I’m spiritually aligned else wise now, I take comfort in some of these practices, too. The ashes used in Ash Wednesday services are a powerful ritual tool, made from the palms left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, mixed with incense and holy water, and blessed by the priest. They mark the bearer as a member of the church, a mortal person living in a mortal world, and someone aware of death’s role in our lives. The ashes, which serve as a spiritual tool for unification with divinity and with mortality, got me to thinking about some of the other ways in which ashes can be used in folk religious or magical practices.
And so today, I thought we’d explore the very rich traditions of magical work which incorporate ashes. I shall endeavor to stay focused on the practical application of ashes, rather than the mere presence of ashes in a spell, but in some cases that line blurs (or smudges) a bit. In researching the topic, I was astounded to see how many different methods for working with ashes I found: banishing, cursing, healing, money work, omens about bad luck and loss, and even some quasi-magical gardening tips. This, to me, is an example of how an extraordinarily normal item—ashes—can be a useful magical tool if a practitioner knows a little about what to do with them. Truly, a clever witch or magical worker can read his or her environment and see it loaded with enchantment and possibility, but I digress. On to the ash spells!
One of the most common ways to counteract bewitchment was to burn the affected object—usually a cow, butter-churn, etc.—“to ashes” which would render the witch who cast the enchantment powerless or cause her tremendous pain. Often the ashes would have to be dispersed even more extensively by being scattered to the four winds to render the spellcaster completely impotent and/or destroyed. Similarly, feathers from black fowls could be burned and the ashes sprinkled or blown over a bewitched person to remove the bewitchment.
An account of a Bell Witch-style haunting in Wiltshire, North Carolina, noted that the wicked spirit “sprinkled ashes in the beds” (Cross 243). Some hoodoo spells deploy the ashes of particularly nasty spells in the way one might lay a magical powder, sprinkling at someone’s doorstep so that they must step in the baneful trick.
Cat Yronwode mentions rubbing alfalfa ashes on one’s money to improve business, especially if the money is in a cash register. She also has this excellent and interesting recipe for a floorwash designed to bring clientele to a cathouse:
To Draw Trade to a Whorehouse: On a Friday morning, build a fire outdoors and burn a man’s worn-out left SHOE with a pinch of SUGAR in it. Put the SHOE ashes, a tablespoonful each of AMMONIA, SALT, and SUGAR, plus your own URINE, into a bucketful of water. Mop from the sidewalk inward, to attract men (Yronwode 29).
Ashes can also be used in hoodoo love charms (perhaps in conjunction with the above business charm?), as in this method from Zora Neale Hurston:
Cut some hair from under your left arm-pit and some from the right side of the groin. Then cut some from the right arm-pit and from the left side of the groin. Burn this hair with a wish for this man to love you. Put the ashes – made into fine dust – in his food secretly and he will love you and do as you wish (Hurston 361-2).
A magical charm called the “Chinese Snake Stone” from an account of North Carolina witchcraft tells how the amulet could be used to draw poison and how ashes were used to re-charge it after its work was done:
Directions for using The Chinese Snake Stone. Scarify the wound before applying the Stone-take it off every morning and evening-put the Stone at each time, when taken off, into a glass of milk-warm water, and let it remain a few minutes, until it discharges itself of the poison-wash the wound in a strong solution of salt water, and scarify again, if necessary. After taking the Stone from the water, rub it dry in moderately warm ashes, and apply as before. This course should be repeated for the space of nine days, when a cure will be effected (Cross 264)
In some cases, ashes have to be handled carefully in order to prevent illness from getting worse. When someone in a family is sick, for example, removing the ashes from the fireplace and taking them out of the building is said to be very bad luck, possibly even fatal to the ailing person.
A Pow-wow hair removal charm taken from older European sources recommends burning a frog to ashes and mixing them with water to make an ointment “that will, if put on any place covered with hair, destroy the hair and prevent it from growing again” (Hohman 14). I also found the same cure echoed in witchcraft practices from North Carolina.
Curandera recipes sometimes call for white ashes, which are powdery and fine and must be sifted from the gray and black ashes. Mrs. Mercedes Castorena of Sonoma gave the following recipe for dealing with empacho, a stomach and intestinal ailment:
“You crack an egg and get the yolk, being very careful not to break the yolk, because it has to be all in one piece. Then lay the sick person on the bed, put the egg on his stomach and let the egg slide all over the stomach. Wherever the spot is (where the food is stuck), the egg yolk will break. You leave the egg here. Then you take some herb called rosa de castilla, and some ashes-just the white part of the ashes-and put this on the stomach and wrap a bandage around the stomach to keep it on. Then you give them a dose of Baby Percy (a patent medicine)” (Neighbors 251).
Mrs. Castorena also mentioned a cure involving mixing avocado seed ashes with oil to treat indigestion. Ashes are also used in other home remedies from other traditions: “To cure toothache, place a bag of warm wood ashes on the side of the face where the tooth is aching” (Farr 327). Vance Randolph mentions the Ozark method of treating an itch using a mix of gunpowder, wood ashes, and sweet cream. He also talks about a method of staunching a wound using the ashes of a man’s shoe.
In the garden, ashes can be mixed into soil around fruit trees to improve their growth. My mother used to have me take our fireplace ashes and put them around our blueberry bushes at the beginning of the spring to promote big, juicy berries later on. Supposedly, doing this on Ash Wednesday ensured a pest-free garden all year long (I don’t recall if I was usually enjoined to this particular chore in conjunction with the holiday or not, but our plants were not bug-free).
Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of beliefs about sprinkling ashes around a hen-house to prevent lice on the birds (and he also mentions the Ash Wednesday ritual for gardening success). Some of the other magical ash-lore he shared includes:
- “Epileptic attacks are checked, if you remove the person’s undershirt immediately after an attack, let it smolder on live coals, mix a teaspoonful of these ashes in a glass of holy water, and say In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. These ashes in holy water must be administered three times a day.”
- “An old shoe should be burned and the ashes used in washing out the mouth of a child with thrush.”
- Several of his informants recommended burying objects that have touched a wart in ashes in order to cure the growth
- Dreaming about ashes is very bad luck, usually foretelling a significant loss or a death in the near future
Strangely, dreaming of fire is frequently a good sign, but the ashes tend to be a bad-luck indicator.
As you can see, even the lowly ashes from your fireplace can become useful magical aids if you know what to do with them. I hope this little exploration is useful to you! Please feel free to share your own ash lore in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,
- Bivens, N.D.P. Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau (1994, new ed.)
- Cross, Tom. “Witchcraft in North Carolina.” Studies in Philology (Jul. 1919).
- Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1935)
- Hohman, John George. The Long Lost Friend (1820).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1931).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
- Neighbors, Keith A. “Mexican-American Folk Disease.” Western Folklore (Oct. 1969).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
- Snow, Loudell F. “Mail Order Magic: The Commercial Exploitation of Folk Belief.” Journal of the Folklore Institute (Aug. 1979)
- Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic (2002).
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):
- 1772. Hit a hen on the back and she will lay an egg.
- 1773. A hen never lays eggs near a potato patch.
- 1774. Eggs are not laid by hens on a windy day.
- 1823. If you set a hen in the dark of the moon, half of the chicks hatched will be deformed.
- 1824. Set a hen at sunrise in the light of the moon and all the eggs will hatch.
- 1825. If you set a hen to hatch in the light of the moon, more of the eggs will be hatched.
- 1848. To procure chickens of different colors, set the eggs on Sunday morning as the congregation leaves church; the various colors in the clothing of the church-goers produces this result.
- 1849. Chickens of various colors are procured by setting the eggs on Ash Wednesday.
- 1892. For white diarrhea among chickens [sometimes believed to be caused by witchcraft], drop a piece of iron into their drinking water and also let them eat corn saturated with urine.
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!
[NOTE: This is a very long personal entry. It doesn’t really reveal any new information about North American Witchcraft. If you regularly read the blog for its information content, please feel free to skip this entry. Thank you!]
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,—sharp underfoot
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs—
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
If you’ve been a long-time listener and/or reader of New World Witchery, you probably know that I have significant trouble remembering my dreams, or even gaining access to them at all. I’ve gotten plenty of great tips to help me with dreaming, particularly when it comes to the type of dreaming I crave most—dreams infused with magic and witchcraft. I’ve tried herbal pillows, a cup of mugwort tea before bed, mirrors under my pillows, prayer, and dreamcatchers. I’ve kept a journal by my bed to record the few and far between dreams I receive as best I can in the dark—a technique that does at least yield some results, though inevitably I wind up with gaps of several months from one page to the next.
I haven’t tried everything, of course. Deep breathing exercises, focused and guided relaxation to pre-recorded visualizations, Lunesta, and other options are still open. But I have attempted a number of methods to get into the dream world and really use that space, only to find my marginal successes frustrating in their inconsistency.
Up to this point, I’ll admit, dreaming has bothered the hell out of me. I can’t seem to do it right, or to get what I really want out of the experience.
What I want, of course, is probably the big problem. I have seen for several years now a tendency among witches and magical practitioners to encounter their gods, daemons, spirits, fetches, fairies, and otherworldly entities of choice in dreams. Sometimes the dreams come unbidden—even unwelcome—and seem to be very nearly disastrous for the one having them. I recall Peter Paddon talking about an encounter with the Dark Mother figure which involved a series of terrifyingly bloodthirsty dreams that left him shaken to his core. Which was the point, yes, but it was also unnerving for him. Other very close friends have shared their dreams with the community involving scenes that could come from fairy tales or horror films or an amalgamation of the two. And always, always, I read with envy their experiences and wonder when it will be my turn. And ever I sense somewhere there’s a voice saying “Patience. You do not understand, yet.” Those gods, those spirits, those fairies, those beings of that Otherworld, they simply do not want to meet me in dream space. They have given me little fragments of dreams to appease me from time to time, but always I find myself holding me an empty plate, husks, shells, seed pods, or splinters.
Recently, Laine & I went out into the midnight woods to work a little witchcraft. As always, we high-stepped and staggered our way past the outermost portion of the dense tangled wall separating tightly-mown lawns and garden pavers from shin-deep undergrowth and the scratchy whisper of treetops moved by the lightest wind. We lost our way, though we’ve traveled the paths beyond the thicket several times in all seasons. We expected to lose our way because our destination in the woods is an old stone chimney in a small clearing carpeted with periwinkle vines that we both take to be enchanted. Every time we go visit—especially at night—it seems to move in time and space. This visit was no different, and we found that even though we were sure we were close, we couldn’t see the chimney until we turned off our flashlights, took a deep breath,listened to the woods around us, and turned our lights on again. Rising up before us not ten feet away we saw the chimney, waiting patiently. Had it been there all along?
Shortly after Laine and I started working together, we did a guided visualization in which I read a pathworking to her and she attempted to relax and go into a trance-space. For my part, I found the experience calming and pleasant, but not terribly magical. Laine, upon coming “back,” more or less confirmed the feeling. It had been a fine exercise, but not terribly resonant. I have had past-life regressions done by a professional hypnotist several times, and only one seemed to ever click. I’ve tried pathworkings from other magical workers—some of them brilliantly written and full of symbols and keys to spiritual insights—and found that they don’t strike the chord that simply reading a fairy tale from an Andrew Lang or Grimm’s book does.
I’m a very cerebral person, someone who enjoys being in my own headspace tremendously. On any given night when I finally get ready to go to bed, I’ll wash my dishes in the sink, put a few things aside for the next day, and then start thinking about something I’ve read, or seen, or experienced in the past day or two or twelve. I start muttering, framing a discussion with myself—ever a Devil’s advocate, and deeply in love with that role—until I’m finally at full-tilt and thirty minutes or an hour have slipped by. What was to be a midnight bedtime has suddenly slipped to 1 a.m. or later, just because I can’t stop talking to myself about some idea that won’t let go.
I dream of being a teacher, a professor particularly, and helping students make sense of folklore and stories and mythology in their own lives. I dream of making a living with words, of thinking about them and about how people use them. I dream about stacks of books piled high by my bed, poring over papers from pupils which contain threads of brilliance buried beneath mounds of “proper grammar,” and “technical skill.” I dream of carrying my 1 a.m. conversations into a classroom, a room full of young devils waiting to catch me in a mistake, or catch some respectable author in a mistake, or catch themselves in a mistake. I dream of devilish intellects and diabolical minds which are hungry for new ideas, just as I am.
When it comes to witchcraft, however, the life of the mind falls short for me. Dreams are not the place where my witchcraft works. They help me from time to time, but mostly they only make me confident that I don’t really need dreams. I need real experiences, ones I can’t rationalize away, ones that happen and that jar me out of my perceptions of reality. Experiences that scare me a little, and remind me how much of witchcraft is just overcoming fear.
I’ve told the story before—probably several times—about my accidental meeting of the Black Man of the Crossroads. I had gone out to work a ritual for a completely unrelated entity, and after I emerged from behind my hiding spot, I was startled by the presence of a man in dark shadow, standing directly under a streetlight. I didn’t address him, and instead pretended not to notice who he was. I often look upon that experience as a failure of my own will and a giving in to fear, but at the same time it made me aware of something very profound: it’s all real. Witchcraft, magic, and sorcery are not simply psychological operations for me—they are true, actual experiences that can be fraught with physical danger and which can completely unhinge my notions of expected reality in a split second.
The night not long ago when Laine and I went to the woods, we worked our magic and prepared to go. At the last moment, we decided to do something else, a very particular bit of witchcraft which involved asking for a sign when we finished. Almost immediately the ground just around the chimney started to rustle with the sound of skittering feet. Some of the stones on the chimney started to glow—possibly with the faint moonlight, though I think something else was behind it. And a firefly, the only one we saw at all that night, came out of the dark forest straight towards us. It circled over our heads a while, then flew off again into the dark woods. The experience was immediate and real and we both recognized it as it happened, then continued to be awed by it for hours afterward.
I’ve heard from a number of folks lately who write regularly in the magical community—particularly bloggers—about how they see their experiences and practices being co-opted by casual readers who then turn around and write about the exact same incidents with nary a nod to their witchy progenitors. I understand that frustration. Many people in the magical community work incredibly hard to establish a functional practice of their own. Jumping in feet first without doing all the work of establishing such a practice, without making that journey independently, can lead to a shallow type of witchcraft. Something which may look mysterious and magical on the surface, but which ultimately crumbles when poked and prodded by more experienced and knowing fingers.
But I also understand the other side of the equation. For those who are—more or less—plagiarizing witchcraft from other witches, it may be because they finally found something that works for them. Or in many cases, it may be that they’ve found something that they think finally works for them, and in their enthusiasm they wind up stepping on a lot of toes putting this new-found practice into place. In those cases, however, I think what the new folks are really finding is their own starting point, a launching pad into deeper witchcraft. One day they may discover that they have gone in a completely different direction and now they are writing about practices which other newbies are co-opting to form their own loose foundations. It doesn’t make the plagiarism right, but it does put it into perspective.
I leave in a few days to continue the pursuit of a dream. I’ll be studying and reading and engaging in linguistic deviltry. I’ll be spending time in one of my favorite cemeteries anywhere (this article is peppered with photos from this gorgeous graveyard). I’ll be going into woods and waiting at darkened crossroads to see what turns up. I’ll be carrying mojos to help with study, personal mastery, and prosperity. I won’t be putting mirrors under my pillow, burning incense to help me astrally project, or playing pathworkings on my iPod. I will be looking for passionflowers and sassafrass roots in the woods. I won’t be invoking four elements, calling on a nameless God and Goddess, or using an athame. I will be asking my ancestors for help, and using my playing cards to find out what they say.
I will be practicing my witchcraft, which comes from my experiences. It involves meeting a Man in Black at a crossroads, physically fighting my way through brambles and poison oak, looking a coyote or a buck dead in the eyes at twenty paces. It relies little on dreams, which I have only recently come to understand. It doesn’t bother me anymore that I don’t have dreams rife with witchcraft, because that doesn’t fit who I am. It works amazingly well for others, but not for me. What works for me is going to real graveyards at midnight, real forests under the light of a full moon, real crossroads where unexpected visitors can turn up at any moment. I’ve still got the kind of witchcraft that lives in my feet and hands, my eyes and breath, and it is my own brand and it is beautiful to me and it works for me and…
And if someone takes what I do and runs with it, if I see half a dozen blogs on North American folk magic appear in the next six months, if I read about people going into forests which seem to shift and change as in fairy tales, well that’s okay. We’re all making our way, and I’ve got miles to go before I sleep, too.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll talk to you all soon…
[Special Thanks to those I consider my teachers. They have influenced me profoundly whether they know it or not: Sarah Lawless, Stephanie Palm, Morgaine, Janus, Mrs. Graveyard Dirt, Robin Artisson, Peter Paddon, Gar Pickering, Vance Randolph (& dozens of other folklorists), Cat Yronwode, Juniper Cox, Zora Neale Hurston, Concha, Brujo Negro, and far too many others to mention here. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.]
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:
- When a woman dreams she is a man, and is not married, she will have a husband; or if she’s without children, she’ll have a son, but if married ‘twill be ill to have a son; and to a maid-servant, much incumbrance [sic]; ‘tis very fortunate to a harlot, because she will forsake her evil ways. (Dreams & moles)
- Either he or she that has a mole on the upper part of the ear, and on the right side of his belly, shews the party guilty of such crimes as may endanger their life. (Dreams & moles)
- [On Palmistry:] The liver line, if it be straight and crossed by other lines, shews the person to be of sound judgement. (Fortune Teller)
- To dream you are pleasantly sailing on calm water, denotes a peaceable and quiet life. (Fortune Teller)
- A Mole on the hip, shows that the person will have many children. (Spaewife)
- A face naturally pale denotes the person very amorous. (Spaewife)
- He that hath a great and broad mouth is shameless, a great babbler and liar, proud to an excess, and ever abounding in quarrelsome words. (Spaewife)
- He that hath a decent beard, handsome and thick of hair, is good-natured and reasonable. (Spaewife)
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:
- Terrors of the Evil Eye Exposed
- The Ancient’s Book of Magic
- The Book of Luck
- Sen Chu’s Sure Way Number System
- The Ancient Book of Formulas
- Rajah Rabo’s 5-Star Mutuel Dream Book [sic]
- Aunt Sally’s Policy Player’s Dream Book
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!
Hi everyone. I received a fantastic email From Sarah R. about a number of traditions she remembered from a book called The Fortune Telling Book, by Gillian Kemp. I thought I’d share a few of the wonderful tidbits she sent me, along with some other signs and omens we didn’t get to in the podcast.
Marriage Omens (from Sarah R.)
1. It is considered unlucky to be married in a church where there is an open grave.
2. A solitaire cut engagement ring indicates a solitary existence.
3. If three women sitting together at a dinner table possess the same initial to their Christian name, one of the three women will soon marry.
4. It is considered lucky to have an even number of guests at the wedding and unlucky to have an odd number.
5. Wedding Dress Omen:
Married in white you will have chosen alright,
Married in green ashamed to be seen,
Married in grey you will go far away,
Married in blue you will always be true,
Married in yellow you’re ashamed of your fellow,
Married in black you will wish yourself back,
Married in pink of you he will think.
6. To see a flock of birds in flight on your wedding day is a sign of fidelity and a long and happy marriage blessed by heaven.
Here are some signs from Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind, from the “Illinois Egyptians” section. The “Egyptians” he refers to occupy the southern “triangle” of Illinois, beginning “when the flat prairie lands of grain-rich central Illinois turn to foothills” (p.289). The culture here is influenced by several ethnic groups, including the Irish, the French, and African-Americans.
A Death Omen
“The McConall Banshee
Before anyone of the McConnal family died, a banshee [sic] would scream, and it would take the route that the family would go to the cemetery. The neighbors along the route would hear it.
When old lady Brown died—she was a McConnall—the banshee came into the house and got in bed. It looked like a little old woman about a foot high, with a rag tied around its head. John Gentry was going to kill it, but Mrs. Brown said, ‘Don’t bother that. That’s my baby.’
Some folks said that the banshee was a curse sent by the church, for the McConnalls had once burned a church.
When Walter Fraley’s baby died, the banshee cried all over the place, but no one could see it” (p.313)
Birth and Infancy Signs
“A baby speaks with angels when it smiles”
“An ugly baby makes a pretty adult.”
“It is bad luck to name a first child after its parents.”
“You should not cut a baby’s hair before it is a year old.”
“A baby will be a prophet if it is born with a veil over its face.”*
*This veil is known as a caul, and is somewhat common in births. I’ve got more about it in Blog Post 8 – Seaside Sorcery
Dream Signs and Omens
“Dream of a funeral and attend a wedding.”
“It is bad luck to tell a dream before breakfast.”
“It is bad luck to dream of muddy water.”
“It is good luck to dream of clear water.”
“You will have enemies if you dream of snakes.”
“Count seven stars for seven nights, and you will dream of the man you will marry”
“You will be successful if you dream of being dead.”
“Marry soon if you dream of a corpse.”
“You will make true friends if you dream of ivy.”
“Dream of letters and receive good news.”
(all preceding quotations from Dorson, pp. 338-340)
That’s plenty of prophetic phraseology for today, so I’ll wrap it up. But I still have many more tokens to tell of, so I’ll likely do another post on them later this week. If you have any folklore regarding forecasting future events (or even current or past ones) via dreams, signs, etc., we’d love to hear them! Feel free to add them as a comment to this post, or send us an email.
Thanks for reading!