Episode 164 – Irish Folklore and Magic with Morgan Daimler

Summary:
We settle in by a good turf fire to chat with Morgan Daimler, author of numerous books on folklore, magic, and fairies. We discuss the role of Irish belief systems and folkways on North American magical traditions, as well as the way that fairies have evolved over time. (Content Warning: Child abduction, death, or abuse as related to fairy lore).
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Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, Jennifer, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Payton, Carole, Payton, Staci, Montine, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, AthenaBeth, Bo, Scarlet Pirate, Tim, Leslie, Sherry, Jenna, Jess, Laura, & Clever Kim’s Curios (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Play:
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You should absolutely check out Morgan’s author page over at Moon Books, where you can find tons of their work on magical systems, fairies, and more! Their latest book is A New Dictionary of Fairies.
We also mention several books that would be worth checking out as well:
We’re also both big fans of folklorist, ethnographer, and filmmaker Michael Fortune, who has a number of short films on Irish folklore available to stream through his website.
Image via Pixabay (used under Public Domain).
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
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Promos & Music
Title and closing music are “Woman Blues,” by Paul Avgerinos, and “Belgrave Square,” by Galway Bay. Both are licensed from Audio Socket.
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Episode 131 – Disney Magic Part One

Summary:

Cory and Laine start an ongoing discussion of the use of magic in Disney films, looking at the cultural context, the fairy tale sources, and the specific practices found in some of the films. We cover Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Fantasia in this one.

 

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time.  Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

 

Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding,  Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Carole, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

Play:

Download: Episode 131 – Disney Magic Part One

Play:  

 

 -Sources-

There are plenty of great sources on Disney and fairy tales, but one Cory would highly recommend is the thoroughly researched (and highly entertaining) Disney Story Origins Podcast.

You can read one source version of “The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods” at SurLaLune. They also have an excellent version of “The Little Mermaid.”

Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” can be found at the VCU website.

We are in the final days of a contest in which we request your graveyard folklore at the end of this episode, with two potential prize packs available! Learn more about the contest and get complete rules at the official announcement post.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too! Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas and “The Sleeping Beauty Waltz” by Peter I. Tchaikovsky, both sourced from Archive.org‘s recording files.

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Blog Post 189 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 6

Cartulary6

Greetings everyone,

It’s been almost five months since my last cartulary post, so I thought I’d touch base a bit on the various magical, folkloric, and otherwise quirky corners of the world that have caught my attention (and my be of interest to my readers).

I’ll start with a little shameless self-promotion and note that the upcoming Three Hands Press anthology, Hands of Apostasy, will have my essay on witchcraft initiation rituals of the Southern mountains in it. It’s edited by Daniel A. Schulke (Magister of the Cultus Sabbati) and Mike Howard (editor of The Cauldron), and contains eighteen essays on historical and traditional witchcraft, both from a practical and scholarly perspective. Some of the phenomenal authors contributing to this tome include David Rankine, Cecil Williamson, and even a posthumous essay by Andrew Chumbley. There will likely be more information on the Three Hands Press website as the release date approaches (sometime in the next few months).

As a side-note, I’ve been placing essays with The Cauldron for some time now, covering a variety of topics in North American folk magic, and frequently alongside art and articles by some top-notch folks (the aforementioned Howard, Chris Bilardi, Sarah Lawless, and Emma Wilby, for example). If you have any interest in folklore, magic, and little-or-big-P paganism, it’s worth subscribing.

Moving on from shameless self-promotion to the fine work of others, I’ve recently been getting very into botany and horticulture (I can’t have a garden this year since we’re moving, so that might explain it). I completed a really lovely little book called The Drunken Botanist, which looks at the plant kingdom through a shot glass, providing history, growing tips, and drink recipes along the way. I’ve also been reading The Founding Gardeners, a book which places Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and other notable American patriarchs in the context of their horticultural interests, which were plentiful and various. It turns out Washington was an excellent farmer (in no small part due to slave labor, it should be noted), and Jefferson was more theoretical (and also extensively used slave labor). I also read Bill Bryson’s At Home, a microhistory of Anglo-American culture as seen through a series of rooms in his house, which featured a nice chapter on the garden—it put me on the scent of Wulf’s Founding Gardeners, in fact. And if you can’t get enough botany, I’m going to very highly recommend a favorite book entitled Botany in a Day, which is a wonderful introduction to plant taxonomy and identification that teaches you how to build an understanding of plants intuitively based on stem and leaf shape, color, size, petal count, etc. If you are at all interested in identifying wild plants, this is a great foundational text.

Since we’re already in the garden, I’m also going to recommend you stop and smell the roses with my dear friend Jen Rue on the latest episode of Lamplighter Blues, where Hob, Dean, and Jen talk about working with what’s around and growing your own supplies. Sarah Lawless also recently (well, as recently as possible considering she did just have a baby and all) looked at the idea of what’s immediately available to magical and shamanic practitioner in an extensive article on ‘Bioregional Animism’ which I highly recommend.

In the world of gratuitous pop-culture witch-fluff, the Season of Witch continues. A recent, if unnecessary, television remake of Rosemary’s Baby aired over a few weeks recently, which I’ve not seen but which is on my watch list. I won’t say I’m particularly excited about it, as I love the original Polanski film, but if this one turns out all right, I may change my tune. A decadently dark and occult series called Salem has been airing on WGN, and while I cannot recommend it for historical accuracy (of which there’s none), its tone and deep-and-dark witchy atmosphere is just very hard to turn away from. It will do absolutely nothing to improve the image of witches, folk magicians, or really anyone, but if you want to get a little jolt of wickedness it is a lot of fun. The second season of Witches of East End will also be airing starting in July on Lifetime—the first season was another fun and guilty pleasure like Salem, so I imagine I’ll give round two a try. Oh, and Maleficent is coming out, apparently (if I’m being honest, it’s one of the few magical enchantress stories I’m not interested in, but I’ll probably see it anyway).

Moving away from the inaccuracies of popular television and back to the realm of folklore, I had a listener recently write in to ask about why our Dark Mother tribute episode featured the somewhat more docile version of the fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree,” from the Brothers Grimm. In truth, I mostly chose that version because it was at hand and fit the time frame of the show nicely, but I am absolutely at fault for not pointing out that there is a much darker (and possibly more enjoyable because of it) version of the tale. You can read it at the Sur La Lune fairy tale site if you want to get a glimpse of a very Dark Mother. While you are there, you should also check out their versions of a few of the other tales I considered for that episode, but ultimately decided against due to time, including “Snow White & Rose Red,” and “Hansel & Gretel.”

Finally, I generally try to keep these cartularies more centered on things I’m reading, doing, and so forth, but I do want to take a moment to forward a request from a friend of our site and show, Mrs. Oddly, who is dealing with some difficult legal and financial situations centering on a custody battle. She’s set up a crowdfunding campaign which needs support, so if you have a few dollars you can spare, please consider helping her out. She’s brought some real magic to my world, and she is asking for whatever help we can give.

We’ve got a number of guests lined up for upcoming shows, and I’ve got a few one-off shows I’m hoping to do as well that might be fun, too, so stay tuned to the podcast! I’ll do my best to keep adding things to the website as well, for those that like reading the articles on folk magic here.

Thanks for Reading!
-Cory

Podcast 63 – The Dark Mother

Shownotes for Podcast 63 – The Dark Mother

Summary:

This episode is a tribute to the figure of the Dark Mother, with songs, stories, and poetry (by a special guest!). Feel free to send in any thoughts you have about the darker aspects of the feminine divine, particularly those found in folk and fairy tales!

Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 63

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In this show we’re featuring several stories and a few poems as well as the music listed below. Stories are:
1)      “The Juniper Tree” – by the Brothers Grimm, from Fairy Tales
2)      “Lilith’s Cave” – recorded by Howard Schwartz, from Lilith’s Cave
3)      “Leyenda de La Llorona” – recorded by Richard Dorson, in Buying the Wind
4)      “Inuit Myth of Sedna” – collected by Leeming & Page, from Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America

Poems are all courtesy of Peter Paddon, host of the Crooked Path podcast, and proprietor of the excellent Pendraig Publishing company.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

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Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Song List:
1)      Heather Dale – Mordred’s Lullabye (Avalon)
2)      SJ Tucker – Kashkash (Solace & Sorrow)
3)      Leslie Fish – Hymn to the NIght Mare (Avalon is Risen)
4)      Casey Redmond – Mother’s Acting Strange (MusicAlley.com)
5)      Wendy Rule – Creator/Destroyer (Wolf Moon) and Singing to the Bones (World between Worlds)

Incidental music was by SJ Tucker (from the Ember Days soundtrack) and Disparition.

Podcast 52 – Fairies

Summary

In this episode, we’ll be talking about Fairies in the New World. We have an interview with author Signe Pike, a discussion about fairies in our personal lives, poetry, story, and song.

Play:

Download: New World Witchery – Episode 52

Play:

 -Sources-

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!

 Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Featured song: “The Mushroom Song,” by Tricky Pixie, from Mythcreants.

Incidental Music: “I Vo Bene,” by Shira Kamen, from Mistral.  From Magnatune.

Podcast 51 – Magical Places

Podcast 51 – Magical Places

Summary

This time around, we’re looking at a variety of magical locations from legend, myth, and folklore. Plus we have the results of our Spring Lore Contest!

Play:

Download: Episode 51 – Magical Places
Play:

 -Sources-

We draw much of our primary theme from Judika Illes’ Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft (and you can find a lot of that information in condensed form in Judika’s Weiser Field Guide to Witches).

Also:

  • Cory mentions Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which is an excellent read if you like magical cemetery stories.
  • Laine cites the classic “Allegory of the Cave,” which is definitely worth a read.
  • We also mention the episode on “The Horned Women,” which involves a magical well.

We apologize for the echo effect in the first ten minutes of the show. It does go away and get better right around minute eleven.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!

 Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1- Inciting a Riot
Promo 2 – The iPod Witch

Blog Post 163 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 1

Hi all!

Today I thought I’d devote a post to, well, other posts. I’m frequently reading, communicating with, or learning from other folk magicians, scholars, storytellers, and various members of the folkloric community. While much of what you find here on New World Witchery focuses on research into history, I don’t want to ever lose sight of the vibrancy and currency of many expressions of folk spirituality and magical living which surround us today. We live in an enchanted world, or at least I like to think so, and I want to share the things that are enchanting me from time to time.

So I’m going to try to start periodically posting brief annotated link rolls (the “cartulary” in this post’s title) which might be of interest to readers of this site. Some will be as simple as podcast recommendations or interesting fiction I’ve come across, and others will be more academic in nature, focused on recent research or discoveries in folklore, fairy tales, or magic in general.  And some may simply have a nice, witchy feel to them. So let’s get started!

I only recently found out that Denise Alvarado and her publishing group put out a neat little almanac last spring called The Hoodoo Almanac, which includes bits of folk magic, lunar astrology, and other almanac-y things. I don’t know if they’ll do one for 2013 or not, but here’s hoping! Alvarado and several other root workers have also started a program for learning folk magic which involves taking several online courses and apprenticing with a live root worker in your area, called Crossroads University. This seems like a great way to learn this particular branch of folk magic. Similar courses can be taken through Lucky Mojo and Starr Casas (a very knowledgeable rootworker and friend to us here at NWW).

Speaking of books and learning, I recently read a review in the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) for a 2006 book on the infamous Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Pied Piper: A Handbook, by Wolfgang Mieder, looks like exactly the kind of in-depth, thorough investigation of the story behind the fairy tale that I love. This is the sort of book I can sink into and lose a few months of my life, so it’s already on my holiday wish list, and the JAF review gave it glowing praise as well.

I’ve very recently been made aware of the delightful blog Roman and Minnie’s Satanic Cocktail Hour, which assumes the personas of two characters from Rosemary’s Baby, then proceeds to imagine their lifestyle as hip 70s witches and pseudo-Satanists. There’s a schlock value to the site, and it’s definitely not safe for work (lots of naked folks), but they also have neat little gems of folklore occasionally, as with their most recent post on Ozark witchcraft from a Time magazine story in the 1939. Special thanks to

Arrowclaire, over at her lovely blog Wandering Arrow, always puts up interesting posts. She had one on dealing with death omens recently that I greatly appreciated, because it puts into perspective the idea of living an omen-driven life without necessarily becoming fearful or overly superstitious.

Rue of Rue & Hyssop had a beautiful post welcoming the autumnal season in. Check out the rather gorgeous PDF (but high-gloss) Pagan Living Magazine in her sidebar, too!

Speaking of great and stunning periodicals, the absolutely amazing Hex Magazine: Old Ways for a New Day is very worthy of your time. It focuses very heavily on Northern European and Teutonic folkways, but also includes a good bit of New World lore, too.

To get you in the mood for a spooky October, go take a peek at the great post Peter from New England Folklore has done on “Kidnapped Witches in Plymouth.” (Storytelling is an October tradition at NWW, so this should get you ready for next month nicely).

That’s my cartulary for today! Happy reading, everyone!

-Cory

Podcast 42 – Plants and Witchcraft

Summary
On this episode of New World Witchery, we look at the world of plants and how it affects the world of witchcraft. We talk about sourcing herbs and roots, wild vs. cultivated plants, and whether you need to work with them at all.

Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 42

 -Sources-
We don’t cite a whole lot of sources, so I’m just going to list a few of the herbal books/resources we discuss or which I turn to regularly:

The Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, by Scott Cunningham
Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, by Cat Yronwode
The Folk-lore of Plants, by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies, by Jude C. Todd, M.H
The Complete Book of Herbs, by Lesley Bremness
Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpepper
A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve (also known as botanical.com)

We mention Mountain Rose Herbs as a great source for buying herbs, and we make several failing attempts to recommend our shop, the Compass & Key Apothecary. You should also check out Sarah Lawless’s great herbal supply shop, Forest Grove Botanica.

You can now request Card Readings from Cory via email, if you are so inclined.

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!

 Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1 – Inciting a Riot
Promo 2 – The Infinite & the Beyond
Promo 3 – The Pagan Homesteader

Blog Post 150 – The Trickster’s Web

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of tricksters in folklore and fairy tales. I know it’s fairly well-trod ground to start looking at the mythical value of tricksters like Coyote and Loki and Hermes and all the other devious deities and demigods who so love to upend the orderly world in favor of a little creative chaos. I’m not going to dive into specific tricksters here (though I do intend to do some exploring of North American tricksters in the not too distant future), but I wanted to look instead at the folkloric need for these figures. After all, they’re not exactly protagonists, and they’re not exactly antagonists, but they are something else entirely. Their very identification and definition is tricky. So what is the trickster’s role in the tales we tell? According to Jane Yolen, author/editor of Favorite Folktales from Around the World:

“The figure of the trickster can be found in every folklore tradition. The trickster as hero or as god plays an important role: Anansi in Africa is sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, with definite supernatural powers. LIkewise his famous Native American counterparts, Coyote and Rabbit, act as both fooler and fooled….The German Tyll Ulenspiegel, a popular peasant jester, actually lived in the fourteenth century, but within another two centuries had become a legend around whose names volumes of anecdotes and jests had accumulated…Whether the trickster is an animal such as Brer Rabbit or Raven or the wily fox, or supremely human like the German master thief, he plays his tricks out to the end. And sometimes it is a bloody and awful ending” (From section “Tricksters, Rogues, & Cheats,” 127).

So then the trickster can be both a guide for overcoming adversity and self-empowerment, and he can be a sacrificial victim to fate—sometimes illustrating the tragically comic cycle of life and death we all must go through. In this latter capacity, the trickster attempts to operate outside the web of Fate (or natural order, if you prefer), and becomes deeply entangled in the threads he or she tried to avoid. I think here of Anansi, the spider, who in one tale learns of a magic spell which causes anyone who says the word “five” to drop dead on the spot and thus begins tricking various creatures to say that word so that he may eat them. Of course, the trick gets turned around on him, and he accidentally says “five” when a clever bird refuses to play by his rules, thus ending his own life. It is a storytelling picture of a spider weaving one web inside of another, only to be caught by the bigger web he didn’t see.

Why then do we need to have clever characters that can be so easily duped or destroyed? Do they play a similar role to folkloric devils, existing simultaneously as a threat and a challenge (and thus also functioning as teachers in some ways)?  I would assert here that when a trickster is overcome by his own tricks, it is because his deceit has crossed a line. Knowing how and when to play a trick is deeply important. Teachers understand that the process of discovery is very important to really gaining understanding as opposed to simply forcing short-term rote memorization (a topic we discussed in our recent podcast on riddles). I’ll get to the role of deceit a bit more in depth in a moment, but first let me briefly detour back to the ide of a trickster as an empowering figure.

Without diving too deeply into the sticky issues of what is “moral” in fairy and folk tales, I think it’s relevant to point out that concepts of “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” form central pillars around which many stories are built. At the same time, there remains an intense ambiguity about just about every “moral” decision in a fairy tale—the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” does seem to deserve to die, as she wants to kill and eat children, but is it a particularly happy ending for the children to return to a father who willingly (if reluctantly) abandoned them to that horrible ordeal? Bruno Bettelheim, in his controversial and classic fairy tale exegesis The Uses of Enchantment has this to say:

“Amoral fairy tales show no polarization or juxtaposition of good and bad persons; that is because these amoral stories serve an entirely different purpose. Such tales or type figures as ‘Puss in Boots,’ who arranges for the hero’s success through trickery, and Jack, who steals the giant’s treasure, build character not by promoting choices between good and bad, but by giving the child the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life” (10).

So then, the child, who knows intuitively that he or she is not as strong and capable in many ways as the adults around him or her, needs to understand that strength and physical skill are not the only methods for overcoming adversity. Brains count for something, too. For those of us who have outgrown the age of childhood (though you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me I’ve outgrown it in any way but the number of years shown on my driver’s license), that lesson can still be immensely invaluable. When we are faced with an ogrish boss or a monstrous task or a devilish choice, we need to believe that we have a tool in our arsenal that can beat the odds—and that’s where the trickster becomes more than a comical prop or sacrificial victim. As Bettelheim says, “Children know that, short of doing adults’ bidding, they have only one way to be safe from adult wrath: through outwitting them” (28). We, too, as adults and as magical folk, deal with a number of dangerous situations all the time, and we must adopt the trickster’s cleverness if we hope to overcome the challenges we face in one piece. To illustrate this point, Bettelheim relates the tale of the “Fisherman and the Jinny” (one we’ve mentioned a lot), in which a fisherman is threatened by a genie that he releases and must trick him back into the bottle or be killed by him. The genie is clearly bigger and more powerful, and only by means of deviousness can the fisherman preserve his life.  If you want to lend a magical quality to your life, think about how often you bottle the genie of a ferocious argument with a lover or friend by a few carefully placed words or a well-timed gesture.

Still, one moral lesson that we so often teach our children (and one which we repeat to ourselves ad nauseum) is: don’t lie. Lies are bad. Always tell the truth. Except, of course, when you shouldn’t. And here we come to my last point of examination in the role of the trickster. In The Witch Must Die, scholar Sheldon Cashdan looks at lies and deceit by examining three fairy tales: “The Goose Girl,” in which lying is punished brutally when it is found out; “Rumpelstiltskin,” in which lies are accommodated and made true by the intervention of magic and/or fate; and “Puss in Boots,” in which trickery is rewarded because it is cleverly executed. What Cashdan uncovers by contrasting these stories is that trickery when performed for the sake of trickery is ambivalent, and when done in the service of another person (or a righteous cause) is praiseworthy, but deceit performed for the sake of harm to another must bring judgement or punishment down on the deceiver/trickster. As he puts it:

“[I]t is the intent behind the lie that counts rather than the lie itself. In other words, there may be instances in which telling lies is justified…These contrasting approaches to deception reflect the ambivalence people harbor about telling the truth. On the one hand, we know that lying is wrong. At the same time, it is hard, as Diogenes discovered, to find an honest man…In some fairy tales, lying is not merely treated with ambivalence but is actually rewarded” (140).

For an a magical practitioner, then, the power of the trickster is power that can be used reactively (to combat an attack or overcome an obstacle) or chaotic (to inspire the topsy-turvy energy that seems to surge up periodically in Nature), but if it is used offensively it must be justified. Willfully entrapping someone by magical means—and here I’d venture away from magic and say this principle extends to social behavior, too—has to have some solid reasoning behind it, or else the universe has a way of bringing its own justice down on the tricksy person who did the ensnaring.

What the trickster seems to say to me, then, is this: If you are a spider, spin for the beauty of your web; spin that you may catch the food you need; spin to keep your enemies away. But beware weaving the web of greed and harm, because there’s likely a bigger web you do not see, and a bigger spider who is very hungry dangling not far overhead.

Whew, enough philosophy, right? What are your thoughts on tricksters, especially as teachers? Do you agree about the idea of justification? Have you ever experienced a trickster in your own life or practice? Let us know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 148 – The Witch’s Ire

Or, Why Witches Cast Curses & Steal Milk

Until relatively recently, most stories about witches in folklore and literature did not portray them as intensely helpful, benevolent creatures in touch with the natural world and working on behalf of cosmic balance. Fairy queens, enchantresses, and other witch-types did perform beneficient acts, of course (think of the benevolent fairies of “Sleeping Beauty” or the kindly-but-righteous “Mother Holle”), but one had to be careful not to run afoul of their temper or risk angering others of their kind. And acts of benificience performed for one person could easily result in tragic consequences for another (think here of Medea’s sacrifice of her own brother to save her beloved Jason).  When most people think of witches, though, they are imagining the wicked kind, the one working curses on unsuspecting victims or blighting crops or summoning up armies of flying monkeys to steal flashy footwear.

Today I thought it would be worth looking at just why witches in stories—particularly New World tales—might be doing such heinous deeds. What did people do to get on the witch’s bad side, and what could be done to remedy that problem? Let’s start by looking at a story from S.E. Schlosser’s American Folklore site, about a New Jersey witch named Moll DeGrow. You can read the full story at her site, but the basic idea is that DeGraw (who may or may not have folkloric connections to Maryland witch Moll Dyer) was an evil witch, who “took delight in the misery of others, and made things miserable for the folks living near her. If a neighbor slighted her, she would sour their milk. If anyone called her a witch, she made their dogs turn vicious.” She reportedly causes all manner of calamity, including the use of spectral hellhounds to torment a family which speaks ill of her and magically slaying a number of infants from families against whom she bore a grudge. “When she was accused by a hysterical mother of causing the death of her baby girl, Moll DeGrow just laughed and didn’t deny it.” When the townsfolk collect themselves to go and kill her, they find she is already dead, her corpse grinning cruelly at those who find it, and her ghost lingering on to haunt the area.

DeGrow’s story may seem essentially like a cut-and-dry case of wicked witchery, but perhaps the townsfolk aren’t the only victims here. Kieth Thomas, in his excellent essay “The Relevance of Social Anthropology to the Historical Study of English Witchcraft” (found in Elaine Breslaw’s Witches of the Atlantic World) makes a strong case that in most accusations of witchcraft, the alleged witch almost always acted in a roundabout form of self-defense, taking justice into her own hands when necessary and using one of the few tools at her disposal—magic—to effect real change on her own behalf. “Contemporaries were horrified by the witch’s activities,” Thomas says, “But they seldom denied that she had genuine reason for wishing ill upon her victim” (66). Thomas then goes on to point out that in many cases, the ‘witch’ in question was known to her accusers, and her persecutors frequently had turned away a request for aid in a time when the interdependence of a community was a nearly sacred bond. “The requests made by the witch varied, but they were usually for food or drink—butter, cheese, yeast, milk, or beer…They are not to be confused with simple begging. Rather, they illustrate the breakdown of the tradition of mutual help upon which many English villages communities were based” (67). So in the context provided by Thomas, a witch was a victim—even a begrudgingly acknowledged one—within the social rules of her community.  With that in mind, let’s look at the story of Moll DeGrow again.

In the DeGrow tale, the witch may have taken delight in the misery of her neighbors, but every instance of her wreaking havoc follows upon some perceived injury—a slight which led to sour milk, an accusatory epithet which led to animal bewitchment. And her grudge against local families must have been severe if she unleased death on their households. What exactly had they done to her? Of course, DeGrow may also be innocent of the last and most heinous of these acts, as she never admits guilt but merely “laughed and didn’t deny it.” Considering how often I’ve laughed in uncomfortable situations, I cannot help but wonder if maybe a little bit of shock and a lot of disbelief might not have been at play in that strange episode (that is, of course, all speculation on folklore, so please enjoy it with a hefty grain of salt).

With a worldview in which a wicked witch is merely fighting back against those who have done her wrong (or done those she loves wrong, as a mama witch is probably one of the scariest people a young beau can face), let’s look at a few cases of seething sorcery from other New World sources. The book Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau, by N.D.P. Bivens, uses a format in which a supplicant comes before the Voodoo Queen Marie (here a sort of witchy godmother) to redress some injustice and gain his or her heart’s desire. Here are a couple such cases:

THE LADY WHO WISHED TO CROSS HER ENEMIES

Oh good mother I come to you with my heart bowed down and my shoulders drooping and my spirits broken. For an enemy has sorely tried me. Has caused my loved ones to leave me, has taken from my worldly goods and my gold. Has spoken meanly of me and caused my friends to lose their faith in me. On my knees I pray to you a good mother that you will cause confusion to reign in my enemies house and that you will cause hatred to be on my enemies head and that you will take their power from them and cause them to be unsuccessful (8).

TO CONTROL TROUBLESOME NEIGHBORS

Oh dear Mother I come unto you to tell you of my unsettled mind and my grave troubles. There is some one who lives near me, but who has no neighborly love for me nor anyone else, but is only full of selfishness and of a mean mind and makes continual trouble for everyone who lives close near and around me, so that there is a continuous strife and wailing wherever that person may be. When I pass near their place of living they at once utter mean words loud enough so that they will reach my ears, in order that I may stop and say to them mean words in return so that this will lead to a court scrape and that the men of the laws may interfere with me, also when any of my loved ones pass the place wherein they live. Then again slander reaches their ears so that there shall be no peace in the neighborhood. When anyone comes to visit the place where I live they lie in wait for them until they come out and words of blasphemy and reproach reach their ears. Can you not in your great wisdom tell me which evil spirit makes them successful in their work of the devil so that I may hope to protect my home and my loved ones and in the end attain peace of mind (26).

In both situations, the victim is obviously the supplicant (though we only get the supplicant’s point of view, of course, a detail worth noting). In both cases, the supplicant appeals to the powers of witchcraft and conjure to fix the problem, and the prescribed solutions to fit these circumstances are not the gentle type (the latter story results in something like an intense hot-footing charm). Again the idea of neighborly duties are inverted, with the supportive role transformed into a grotesque exercise in social ostracism. In such a situation, a little manipulative spellwork hardly seems unjustified.  Reacting to an enemy is not the same thing as offensive magic, and in both cases the supplicant likely could perform countermagic with a clean conscience.

There are numerous other tales of witches who receive the short end of the stick in life and take it out on their callous neighbors, such as:

  • The tale of Granny Lotz in The Silver Bullet, an elderly woman whose neighbor “got after” her about forgetting to close her gate, which allowed his cattle to get loose. Because he ignores her age and persecutes her (a point the story makes as a mark against him), she bewitches his cows to give bloody milk (Davis 35).
  • A pair of stories entitled “How Witches got Milk and Butter” and “The Milk Witch of Wood County,” from Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. In both tales the witches are portrayed as poor members of the community who keep their families fed and healthy by magically stealing milk from neighbors. In neither case do neighbors take any relatilatory action, however, recognizing that the theft is occasional and non-debilitating, and that they witches seem to need it more than the dairymen do (Gainer 167-8).
  • Two stories in Ozark Magic & Folklore tell about witch-theft, too. In one case, two women “who lived all alone in a nearby farm” managed to siphon off milk from neighbors’ cattle using an enchanted dishcloth. In another story, a woman refuses to sell some ducks (at a low price, admittedly) to a reputed witch, who tells her the ducks will be dead by the following Monday. Sure enough, the ducks die, and the witch is blamed for the deaths (though it could be argued, of course, that the witch merely knew about the impending deaths and wanted to get some ducks on the cheap, ensuring a positive outcome for both parties, but that is certainly not implied by the story) (Randolph 270-1).

None of this is to say that a witch’s ire was fairly earned. In fact, most illustrations of such cases seem to side emotionally with the victims, even when recognizing the marginalized and abused position of the witch. The witch is thought to overreact, bringing death and destruction in turn for slights and offenses. She, too, neglects her neighborly duties by neglecting social norms in many ways within these tales. Yet it is worth remembering that keeping on a witch’s good side is possible in every version of these tales, and frequently it seems that only those who deliberately set out to poke a sleeping dragon truly get bitten. The central message of all these tales seems to be, “Don’t make the witches angry; you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.”

Of course, if you happen to know your own counter-curses and spells, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. When magical workers earn the ire of one another…well, that’s a post for another day, I think.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory