This seems to be a great time to work with American folk magic. Not only have a number of people begun working with the systems that have evolved here (like hoodoo, pow-wow, and all the other flavors of North American magic you probably come to this site to investigate), but the vast amount of information on the various branches has become legion. Thanks very much to author-teachers like Cat Yronwode, Conjureman Ali, and Denise Alvarado, the opportunity to learn folk magic has expanded beyond a few internet sites and hard-to-find instructors to entire shelves of books and even folk magic festivals where students can gather together and learn from a bevy of the brightest minds in practical magic today.
Keeping up with the tremendous reading list available to someone interested in folk magic is no easy task. My current pace is roughly a book a week to a book every two weeks, and that includes the books I review for the Journal of American Folklore, texts on folk magic, books on literature and criticism, science writing, etc. Occasionally I manage to squeeze one in for fun, too!
That’s not to say that my ‘required’ reading list can’t be fun, too, of course. Two recent entries into the pile of texts on folk magic that have been absolute pleasures to read are The Black Folder, compiled by Cat Yronwode and The Conjure Workbook, v. 1: Working the Root, by Starr Casas.
The Black Folder is the assembly of a number of workshop handouts from a variety of events and educational opportunities presented by Yronwode’s Lucky Mojo Curio Company and Missionary Independent Spiritual Church over the past decade or so. Many of the entries, particularly the early ones, are by Yronwode herself. Her section on working hoodoo based on items you can pick up at the grocery store or pull from your pantry is first-rate, and doesn’t simply focus on the spice rack but includes work with onions and other produce as well. Other top-notch contributors include Conjureman Ali, Sindy Todo, Robin York, Dr. E, Starr Casas, and many others. Topics range from the oft-covered bottle spells and honey jars to very detailed and unique pieces on foot-washing, the use of skulls in magic, and even some Swedish troll-magic courtesy of Dr. Johannes Gardback. The design of the book really looks like a collection of newsletters that have been bound up in a black cover (it is, however, a trade paperback version of the original Black Folder, which Yronwode used to keep up with all the informational pamphlets used by teachers in Lucky Mojo’s courses). Reading through this book provides a bit of a biography of Lucky Mojo as well, as the evolution of the company and its teaching role can be seen in the more-or-less chronological progression of the pamphlets. The work provided varies in quality according to the author, with some authors giving standout spells and methods, and some which focus more on theory than technique. I found a few entries that seemed more conjectural and less based on inherited practices or research, but for the most part the book is an absolute treasure-trove of information. While it does not replace the opportunity to learn from these folks in person, it certainly does a phenomenal job of feeling like field notes from working magicians. It is published by Lucky Mojo, so you can buy it directly from them or through Amazon and other booksellers. Because of the difficult layout work that must be required to piece together all those pamphlets, it seems like the kind of text that will not likely ever appear in eBook format, so a physical copy is the only way to go, but highly worth the purchase price.
In The Conjure Workbook, Casas—who contributed to The Black Folder as well, noted above—also does a tremendous amount of assembly, piecing together essentially an entire lifetime of conjure knowledge in a little under 300 pages. Casas has been teaching and writing for several years, and has formerly produced texts on doll baby work, money magic, basic Southern conjure, and Blackhawk independently. For this endeavor, however, she has joined up with Pendraig Publishing (Peter Paddon’s company). At the very outset, I will say the biggest problem with the book has nothing to do with the work presented, but rather the frequent typos, spelling errors, and odd edits that plague the text. Hopefully future volumes and editions will corret those issues, though, because this book is highly valuable and informative. Starr’s workbook reads like a master class with a highly skilled and practiced conjure worker. She makes no bones about the type of work she does, which she labels as specifically Southern conjure and ties to working with the Bible (please note, she does not say one must be a Christian to do this work, but that one must be comfortable with the Bible as a source of spellwork and power—this point frequently gets misunderstood in her writing). She has been practicing within a Catholic strain of the work for many years, so the Saints make a strong entry into this book. She doesn’t shy away from the darker side of saints like St. Lucy and St. Ramon, and includes work with Mary and several of the prophets, too—which are spirits that receive relatively little attention in other works on Biblically-framed folk magic despite their powerful natures. Casas puts the work first in this book, and if you’re looking for actual spells to do, this is certainly the kind of text to keep handy. She also does not regurgitate anyone else’s spellwork (at least as far as I can see) and gives the reader a piece of her own history and philosophy in between the spells. More than anything, this book reads like a conversation with her, and provides loads of new conjure projects to an aspiring worker, including doll babies made with shrunken apple heads, medicine bottle spells, and even a good reason to invest in getting a box of chalk from the dollar store to keep handy. Starr has put together a book that, despite its proofreading issues, manages to be absolutely invaluable to anyone who likes to get their hands a little dirty in folk magic.
Both of these books are born from years of practical experience, and they both have more of a classroom feel than most titles on folk magic do, which may make them more accessible than other texts on similar subjects. It is highly likely both books will be the initial entries into multi-volume series as well, which hopefully means that classes will continue, so to speak, for a long time to come.
Yronwode and Lucky Mojo have also begun producing a number of smaller books, like The Art of Hoodoo Candle Magic in Rootwork (by Ms. Cat) and Hoodoo Honey & Sugar Spells (by Deacon Millet), but I’ve yet to read most of those. Casas also has released a small book on reading “conjure cards,” and she’s put out a deck and a special deluxe set that includes the cards, book, and blessing oil through Pendraig. They look absolutely stellar, though I’ve not laid hands on a set yet, only seen the online previews. I mention these because both Pendraig and Lucky Mojo seem to be strong contenders in terms of putting out useful texts on folk magic now, and I’m very happy to see them expanding their offerings. Hopefully that means an ever-growing source of knowledge and spellwork for all of us.
There are plenty of other texts I’d love to explore (including one that I’ll try to get to with a bit of fanfare soon, called Fifty-Four Devils, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, who seems a rather promising fellow, if a bit silly at times), but for now I hope you’ll check out The Black Folder and Working the Root and let me know what you think.
Wishing you all the best, and happy reading!
Tonight we’re looking at the concept of “magical Catholicism,” or folk magic using Catholic symbols. We’ll have a couple of saint stories, a brief history of the traditions, and a bevy of practical applications.
Download: Episode 53 – Papisticall Charmes
Relevant blog posts (and podcasts) mentioned in this episode:
- Blog Post 115 & 116 (Cursing Psalms)
- Blog Post 122 (Bibliomancy)
- Blog Post 134 (Brujeria & Curanderismo Intro)
- Blog Post 135 (The Magical Catholic)
- Blog Post 136 (Papisticall Charmes/More Catholic magic)
- Blog Post 137 & 138 (Curandro Spells)
- Blog Post 160, 161, & 176 (Saint Magic)
- Podcast 34 (Biblical Magic)
- Podcast Special (Magical Saints)
(All of these can be easily found by navigating to the “Magical Systems” resource page of the NWW site, then looking at the subheadings of ‘Curanderismo & Brujeria’ and ‘Other Magical Systems’)
Books worth seeking out on the topic:
- Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft
- Draja Mickaharic’s Magical Spells of the Minor Prophets, Spiritual Cleansing, & A Spiritual Worker’s Spell Book
- Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic & Superstition
- A chapbook called The Magical Powers of the Holy Death
- Chris Bilardi’s The Red Church and John G. Hohman’s Long Lost Friend
- Curandero by Cheo Torres
- Magical Powers of the Saints by Ray T. Malbrough
- Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook
- Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages, by Judika Illes
- Gerald Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery
- Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints
- I didn’t mention it in the episode, but I’d HIGHLY recommend the new release The Conjure Workbook: Working the Root, vol.1, by Starr Casas—it’s conjure and rootwork, but heavily influenced by the author’s Catholicism and very useful stuff, to boot!
Other worthwhile resources:
- Check out the Yahoo! Group Catholic Folk Magic
- The site fisheaters.com which has several pieces of information that veer towards the esoteric which are worth checking out (such as “St. Anthony’s Brief” or “Holy Oils”) [A warning: this site is very traditional, and thus its viewpoints may be controversial; browse at your own risk]
- I would highly recommend the Library Page of the Curious Curandera website, where you’ll find a number of free titles on magical Catholicism, including “How to Pray the Rosary,” “Saints and their Patronage,” and “Prayers for Different Needs.” There are a few (very good) pay titles, too, but it’s hard to beat the wonderful free texts. Her courses are marvelous, too!
- Legends of St. Expedite come from http://saintexpedite.org/history.html and luckymojo.com/saintexpedite.html
- The legend of Saint Charlene was adapted from an essay by Donna McGee Onebane (http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/CharleneRichard.html#tab2)
- Special thanks to Listener “V” for your spells from Cartagena!
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
- “Veni Creator Spiritus – Gregorian Chant” – performed by Coral Vertice – from archive.org
- “St. Stephen” – live track performed by the Grateful Dead – from archive.org
It’s not quite officially summer yet, technically speaking, but the days are longer and the air is warmer, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit a subject which I explored last summer and add a new chapter to the book of New World Witchery. Today I’ll be looking again at Saints, but veering away from the orthodox and the official and into the realm of popular or “folk” saints.
The process of canonization frequently involves a great deal of waiting and confirming and bureaucracy on the part of the Catholic church, and sometimes folk saints are simply people who are on the way to becoming official saints but who still lack whatever final paperwork might be required to get their membership card into the elect order. In other cases, folk saints have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and instead are simply incredibly popular figures who’ve developed devotional cults which make sacred pilgrimages or maintain shrines to a particular figure. Some of this was discussed on the Podcast Special on Magical Saints a while back, where I highlighted both official and unofficial saints, so some of the information below may be a bit repetitive, but it can’t hurt to have a little more information.
So what sets a folk saint apart from a revered ancestor, then? How is that “sainthood” bestowed, if not through the channels of a legitimizing body like the church? In general, the holiness of the saint empowers him or her—the saint is either directly in communion with the divine or is a transformed divinity him- or herself. Take for example, Teresa Urrea, whom we examine below in a bit more detail. She underwent a number of ecstatic ‘fits,’ during which she attended the court of God:
A mythology quickly grew up around each of the folk saints, attracting ever more adherents. The content of this cycle of stories is remarkably similar, although the parallels here are closer between Teresa and [folk saint Nino] Fidencio, than between these two and [San] Damian [of Sonora]. Teresa was thought to be in continual contact with supernatural beings during her ecstatic attacks. When these occurred, an immense multitude of people approached her, kneeling, praying, and weeping. When she returned to herself, she announced that she had been with God and his angels who gave her advice on morality (Macklin 94).
The divine actions of these saints frequently came at great personal expense. Some gave away worldly possessions, and others sacrificed their health and well-being for the aid of those who came to them:
These folk healers worked hard, sometimes seeing hundreds of people per day, and sometimes getting little sleep for long periods of time. Both El Nino and Teresita are conjectured to have died young partly as a result of exhaustion from years of labor. They also worked for little or no compensation. These old-time curanderos were regarded as folk saints while they were still alive—that is, they were recognized by la gente (the people) as holy beings, even while they were not officially canonized as such by the church (Torres 6).
Still, there are cases where a saint does not act particularly saintly and yet develops a strong following. Maximon, the Guatemalan folk saint who likely derives from a native deity very loosely wrapped in a Catholic guise—his name derives from the name San Simon, or St. Simon, but clearly even that name doesn’t stick—can be fickle and demanding, and generally provides assistance to people through wealth rather than health. Jesus Malverde works on behalf of the narcotraficantes and other outlaws. While Elvis certainly accomplished a lot in his lifetime, no one is making the case for his sainthood based on his receiving angelic lessons on morality during ecstatic trances.
The cult of folk saints is widely practiced and very popular among Hispanic populations, although it is not exclusively limited to them by any means. In some cases, the folk saint in question is a cultural hero of some kind (see Pancho Villa below), and the combination of exalted personality and the practice of Catholic ceremony merge to form the folk saint reverence tradition. In other situations, displaced native spirits have been overlaid with legitimate or semi-legitimate identities (see Maximon and La Guadalupe). However, any iconic figure can inspire intense devotion, and that devotion can eventually translate into folk sainthood.
The methods for revering folk saints can include anything from simply maintaining an image of that person to praying to them for intercession and making votive offerings to elaborate undertakings like pilgrimages. Most saints have likes and dislikes, preferences for particular appeasements, etc. Some are quite specific (Expedite requires a slice of Sara Lee pound cake for the performance of his brand of intercession, for example). Others seem happy with any heartfelt act of devotion.
The remainder of this article will be devoted to looking—very briefly—at half a dozen or so common folk saints based out of North America. This is hardly a complete list, nor are the entries here going into nearly enough detail on any of the saints mentioned, but hopefully it will provide a reasonable jumping-off point for learning more.
Teresita – “Teresita Urrea the curandera, who passed through New Mexico around the turn of last century and who left behind her the rumor of her great legend” (Torres 91). Apprenticed to a curandera named Huila, the woman born Teresa Urrea who became affectionately known as Teresita came from an aristocratic father and peasant mother. In addition to healing, she could heal and hypnotize. Photos of her performing healings can be found in the book Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing, by Eliseo ‘Cheo’Torres, and you can see one at this link as well. At a young age, she suffered a coma and near death after an attempted rape. Upon her recovery, she took up curanderismo and became famous for her tireless healings of the poor and marginalized communities in the Mexican-American borderlands. She was described as “[w]orking herself toward an early grave from the beginning” (Torres 97). Teresita befriended the Yaqui Indians, and was revered by many as a living saint within her lifetime. Known as the Saint of Cabora, she sought to heal anyone and right political wrongs done the native and mestizo peoples she worked with. She died in 1906 after working to the point of exhaustion. Cheo Torres acknowledges that “at least a couple of different versions of the story have circulated over the years” (Torres 101).
El Nino Fidencio – A deeply religious young man from Espinazo, Mexico, who performed a number of faith healings and miracles during his lifetime, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino showed promise in his calling from a very early age (which is why he was given the epithet “el nino,” or “the child”). His abilities were so great he was reputed to be able to perform miracles from miles away. He managed to do not just distance healing, but amputations and surgeries to remove illness. He had a variety of other unorthodox and alternative healing methods as well. He is said to have kept a garden with two hundred herbs which he processed into cures, and he frequently “prescribed herbal baths, nutritional therapy, and laughter. He rolled people in dirt. He sat the mentally ill on children’s swings and incorporated singing and dance into his cures” (Illes 285). The church where he is buried has “mementoes included such items as desiccated body parts in glass jars that El Nino had removed through amputation or excision, and the broken bottles that he had sometimes used to perform the surgeries” (Torres 21). El Nino Fidencio is sought in hopeless cases and has a highly active cult following. He died young, only about 40 years old. While he’s not officially recognized as a saint, his propensity for performing miraculous healings and his religious faith (he was a devout Catholic) make him resemble other canonized saints fairly closely. Some of his devotees keep “little boxes” through which his healing power is supposed to be channeled (“Nino Fidencio” Wikipedia).
Pancho Villa – This historical figure was seen as a military hero by some and a scandalous villain by others. He was a general who led the division del norte during the Mexican Revolution, and he had a very Robin Hood-esque reputation. While his guerilla tactics included train robbery and land confiscation, he frequently distributed his takings among his soldiers and the local poor, which made him—unsurprisingly—tremendously popular. He was born Jose Doroteo Villa (he and I share a birthday, which makes me like him even more), and he demonstrated a strong combination of political and military savvy very quickly in his career. In the United States, we know him best for his attacks in the Texas/New Mexico region, but his activity in Mexico was much wider, including governorship of the state of Chihuaha and serving a primary pro-democracy leader during the period of Mexican civil war. He was assassinated in his car in 1923, and was reportedly “found in the driver seat of the car, with one hand reaching for his gun” (“Pancho Villa” Wikipedia). “Give Pancho Villa cheap cigars, cigarettes, and tequila. The general despised the pretentious, overpriced, or refined. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have good taste. If you can offer him something cheap and good, all the better!” (Illes 553-4). It is said that he likes to grope or pinch women who attract his attention.
Maximon –This Guatemalan folk saint bears a striking resemblance to the “Man in Black” found in other traditions like African Amercican hoodoo. He is seen as a saint syncretized to St. Simon Peter, but any adoption into the Catholic assembly of saints is superficial and tenuous. He likely derives from “a pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld formerly known as Maam (‘grandfather’)” (Lucky Mojo 1). He is offered rum and cigarettes (statues of the saint frequently smoke the cigarettes as part of the offering ritual) and is thought to provide aid to his votaries in matters of love, health, and money, but also in exacting vengeance on enemies. His cult is particularly strong in the town of Santiago Atitlan, where his attendants remain constantly with his effigy. Judika Illes recommends washing the clothing from the Maximon “doll” with citronella and lemongrass oil, then keeping the rinse water to use in magical work (Illes 506).
St. Expedite – This saint inhabits a tenuous space in the heavenly assembly—no one is quite sure if he existed, or if he might just be the result of a shipping mistake in which another saint’s statue was labeled for fast delivery—in a box labeled ‘EXPEDITE’, or sometimes the Italian ‘SPEDITO’—and the name stuck to the figure (or in some versions, the body of an unknown saint) and became a holy helper in its own right. The official Catholic story of Expeditus (as he is sometimes known) places him in the fourth century CE, a late Roman imperial soldier whose iconography shows him stepping on a crow which calls out ‘cras!,’ a sound similar to a caw but which also means “tomorrow” in Latin, hence his reputation for getting things done today (Catholic Online 1). “Saint Expedite is controversial. He has a reputation for unscrupulousness. He is rumored to assist sorcerors with curses and revenge spells; although some devotees vociferously deny that this is true, insisting that he will only fulfill benign petitions” (Illes 281). Offerings for Expedite include a slice of Sara Lee pound cake or red carnations. He’s become incredibly popular in folk Catholicism and some branches of hoodoo, and his devotional images and candles are usually readily available.
Elvis – Being a southerner, I can’t help but mention Elvis. The King of Rock and Roll serves as a sort of patron saint to his fans, who embody their fantaticism with all the hallmarks of religious devotion, including pilgrimages to his home at Graceland in Memphis and by setting up altars with his image on them. He also has a folk mythology surrounding him, including appearances from beyond the grave, miraculous healings, and even the persistent myth that he is still alive. His cult is part kitsch and part true devotion, and it’s very distinct. Some dress like Elvis as a way to honor him or perpetuate his memory, and some leave out offerings of peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches (a favorite food of the King, though he appreciated just about any rich southern dish). He can be petitioned for any number of needs, including healing, musical and artistic inspiration, wisdom and guidance, and overcoming addictions. I think of Elvis as a very special sort of folk saint—one in living memory for many of his devotees and deeply flawed in his personal life, but one who provided joy for millions of people both during and after his time as a mortal. I was an enormous Elvis fan for much of my childhood, despite not having been born at the time of his death. The King has found an especial home in the Latin American community, where he is frequently depicted in skeletal form in Day of the Dead (dia de muertos) celebrations and decorations (Illes 267). Another recommended offering for him? Teddy bears.
Jesus Malverde – In the realm of controversial and unofficial saints, Jesus Malverde is right at the top, alongside a similar roguish hero, Pancho Villa. Known as a “narco-Saint,” this figure guards and protects those involved in illegal activities, particularly those working in the drug trafficking trade. His depictions make him look less like a Catholic Christ figure and far more like a landowning Hispanic gentleman from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is fitting, as one legend describes him as “a Robin Hood figure of the early 1900’s that was hanged by the governor. He himself did not traffic drugs, but after his death his reputation for working miracles drew faith strongest among Sinaloa’s poor and highland residents, the classes from which narco-traffickers emerged. Malverde has become the patron saint for many drug smugglers, though the local diocese says the Malverde chapel is an embarrassment. The priests lament the glorification of a man who robbed and killed, though citizens of Sinaloa have found it harder to have faith in a political system that enforces a drug war responsible for the many deaths of their own people. Historians cannot seem to find documentation of his existence, but even still miracles such as the healing of the blind and crippled, the returning of lost cattle, and the saving of a drowning man have been attributed to him” (U. Texas Library 1). In some ways he resembles the folk outlaw figure Zorro, but with less of a penchant for clean living. Malverde’s shrine is used by those who deal with the drug trade, not only those who transport the drugs but families who pray for his protection over loved ones facing criminal charges.
As you can probably guess, the practice of folk-saint veneration is strongest in communities with a heavy Catholic background, and all of the saints above either come from Hispanic backgrounds or have been added into Hispanic folk practices (as in the case of Elvis). There are many folk saints who do not have the strong Hispanic connections mentioned here, of course, and hopefully one day I’ll get around to some of them as well. For now, I hope this has at least whetted your appetite to know more about the intriguing and enchanting pantheon of folk saints in the Americas.
Thanks for reading!
- Illes, Judika. The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages (HarperOne, 2011).
- “Jesus Malverde: El Narco-Santon,” U. Texas Library – Narcocorridos site.
- Knab, Timothy J. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of Contemporary Aztecs (Harper San Francisco, 1997).
- Macklin, Barbara J. and N. Ross Crumrine. “Three North Mexican Folk Saint Movements,” Comparative Studies in Society & History (Cambridge UP, Jan. 1973).
- Mestizo & Indigineous Culture Pinterest board: Teresa Urrea (photo credit).
- “Nino Fidencio,” from Wikipedia.
- “Pancho Villa,” from Wikipedia.
- “St. Expeditus,” Catholic Online.
- Torres, Eliseo ‘Cheo.’ Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2005).
- Yronwode, Catherine. “Maximon,” from the Lucky Mojo webpage.
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).
I realize this is rather late, and that I’ve taken a long time to get it out. I’m still working on papers and projects for the graduate seminar, which wound up being incredibly time-consuming, so I had very little time to devote to my work here. However, I hope you’ll forgive me and enjoy the articles I do manage to put out when I manage to get them up.
Today, let’s continue working on those summer saints I started in the last post. While there are plenty of saints remaining in the calendar for the season, I thought that one saint’s feast day deserved some particular attention. St. John’s Eve, which is June 23rd, is ostensibly a celebration of the life and times of John the Baptist. It falls remarkably close to Midsummer, however, and so its connotations and meanings have absorbed a good bit of the lore associated with that holiday, too. It features prominently in accounts of New Orleans Voodoo from the nineteenth century, and functions as a day of tremendous power for working all sorts of quasi-magical operations. Let’s look at two from (quasi-)anthropological perpsectives. The first is an account found in Robert Tallant’s Voodoo in New Orleans, taken from a newspaper report contemporary to the events described (allegedly 28 June 1872):
“On Monday morning (St. John’s Day) I went to the French Market for the express purpose of finding out…the exact spot where the Voudou Festival would be held this year…I took the 8 o’clock train on the Ponchartrain Railroad. Arriving at the lake I fooled around a little; saw great crowds…I hired a skiff and pulled to the mouth of Bayou St. John—the best way of getting there from the lake end—the festival took place near Bayou Tchoupitoulas. Upon arriving at the shanty I found congregated about two hundred persons of mixed colors—white, black, and mulattoes…Soon there arrived a skiff containing ten persons, among wich was the Voudou Queen, Marie Lavaux [sic]. She was hailed with hurrahs.
The people were about equally divided male and female—a few more females. The larger portion of the crowd Negroes [sic] and quadroons, but about one hundred whites, say thirty or forty men, the remainder women.
Upon the arrival of Marie Lavaux, she made a few remarks in Gumbo French [Creole, I presume the reporter means], and ended them by singing, “Saiya ma coupe ca,” to which all hands joined in the chorus of “Mamzelle marie chauffez ca.” [reporter’s itallics, not mine]…The song ended, orders were given by the queen to build a fire as near the edge of the lake as possible, which was ‘did,’ every one being compelled to furnish a piece of wood for the fire, making a wish as they threw it on. Then a large caldron [sic] was put on the fire; it was filled with water brought in a beer barrel; then salt was put in by an old man, who jabbered something in Creole; then black pepper was put in by a young quadroon girl; she sang while putting in the pepper; then a box was brought up to the fire, from which was taken a black snake; he was cut into three pieces (the Trinity), one piece was put in by Marie Lavaux, one piece by the old man who put in the salt, and one piece by the young girl who put in the pepper; then al ljoined in chorus of the same song: “Mamzelle Marie chauffez ca;” then the queen called for a ‘cat,’ it was brought, she cut its throat, and put it into the kettle.
Another repetition of the same chorus, then a black rooster was brought to the queen. She tied its feet and head together and put it in the pot alive. Reptition of the chorus. Then came an order from the queen for every one to undress, which all did, amid songs and yells. The queen then took from her pocket a shot bag full of white and colored powders. She gave orders for every one to joino hands and circle around the pot. Then she poured the powders into the pot, sang a verse of some oracle song, to which all joined in a chorus while dancing around the pot, “C’es l’amour, oui Maman c’est l’amour, etc.”…everybody went into the lake, remained in the bath about half an hour…in half an hour the horn was blown (a sea shell), and all hand shurried back to the queen, and set up another chorus to a verse she sang to the same tune as the first one.
After the song she said ‘You can now eat’” (Tallant 80-81).
A long account (even with my editing), and likely a pretty sensationalized one. Certain aspects—communal feeding, dancing, music, memorized choruses, and the direction of a guiding presence like Marie Laveau—all ring somewhat true to accounts of African Traditional Religious practices in other places, such as the thorough examination of Brooklyn Vodoun in Mama Lola. Yet other features seem glaringly off, such as the complete lack of lwa, or the insistence on nudity (a common embellishment which appeared in several accounts and which essentially exists to exoticize and sexualize an entire race—even in the 1920’s stage shows at The Cotton Club in New York featured nude Black dancers with spears and tribal makeup because white patrons enjoyed “primitive” Black culture). The St. John’s dances, however, were highly popular affairs, and I see no reason to doubt that they truly happened. In many cases, it seems whites saw what they wanted to see—or what they were directed to see, and missed a great deal of the spiritual side of the events.
In Mules & Men, Zora Neale Hurston recounts her apprenticeship with Laveau’s alleged nephew, Luke Turner, who gives a somewhat more mystical (and significantly shorter) version of events:
“Out on Lake Ponchartrain at Bayou St. John she hold a grat feast every year on the Eve of St. John’s, June 24th. It is Midsummer Eve, and the Sun give special benefits then and need great honor. The special drum be played then. It is a cowhide stretched over a half-barrel. Beat with a jaw-bone. Some say a man but I think they do not know. I think the jawbone of an ass or a cow. She hold the feast of St. John’s partly because she is a Catholic and partly because of hoodoo.
The ones around her alter fix everything for the feast. Nobody see Marie Leveau [sic] for nine days before the feast. But when the great crowd of people at the feast call upon her, she would rise out of the waters of the lake with a great communion candle burning upon her head and another in each one of her hands. She walked upon the waters to the shore. As a little boy I saw her myself. When the feast was over, she went back into the lake, and nobody saw her for nine days again” (Hurston 193).
Again, I am a bit skeptical about Turner’s claims in some ways, but he seems to get at the heart of the event in a more profound way. Laveau becomes a demi-goddess in his account, a precursor to the lwa which she would eventually become. Certain aspects of both accounts agree: the presence of music, particularly drum music; the great communal feast; the crowd chanting and calling for her to arrive. For a celebration of St. John, the focus in these accounts tends to be awfully heavy on Marie Laveau, no?
However, that is not to say that St. John should be completely left out of his own holiday. Even one of Tallant’s informants recognizes the role the saint plays in the New Orleans frenzy on his feast day:
“Alexander Augustin remembered some of the tales of old people which dated to the era of the Widow Paris [another name for Marie Laveau].
‘They would thank St. John for not meddlin’ wit’ the powers the devil gave ‘em,’ he said. ‘They had one funny way of doin’ this when they all stood up to their knees in the water and threw food in the middle of ‘em. You see, they always stood in a big circle. Then they would hold hands and sing. The food was for Papa La Bas, who was the devil. Oldtime Voodoos always talked about Papa La Bas” (Tallant 65-6).
So does that mean that John’s role—and I should here clarify that the John honored on St. John’s Eve is St. John the Baptist, who was written about in the New Testament, but who was not the author of the Gospel of St. John (different saints entirely)—is always sublimated to another spiritual force, be it Marie Laveau or Papa Le Bas (also frequently called Papa Lebat, and sometimes seen as an alternate identity for Papa Legba, although he may also be named after a New Orleans priest who tried to eradicate Voodoo only to become a lwa after his death)?
Let us briefly look at the saint behind the day, then. Since we’ve already spent so much time in New Orleans, I’ll pause to crack open my copy of Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, which says that St. John is aligned with Ogun, Agonme, and Tonne in the lwa/orisha traditions, and that he has patronage over silence, slander, bridges, and running water. While Alvarado does note that the eve of June 23rd involves observations in honor of Marie Laveau, she does a lovely job looking at the current understanding of the saint’s feast day on the 24th:
“[The] holiday coincides with summer solstice, celebrated in New Orleans every year by Mambo Sallie Ann glassman at St. John’s Bayou. To celebrate the summer, the warmth, fire, and nourishment from the sun. For opportunities, good luck, and to realign with cosmic forces” (Alvarado 74).
Both Hurston and Alvarado have noted the strong connection to the sun with this day, not surprising given its proximity to the summer solstice. Within Christian cosmology, the desert-dwelling St. John recognized Jesus before most others had, and spoke of baptizing people with fire. He saw the heavens open up, and the holy spirit—sometimes represented by fire, though in this case in the form of a radiant dove—descend to earth to acknowledge Jesus as God incarnate. A number of solar symbols appear in this myth—deserts, fire, heavens opening up, descending light, and even the metaphorical light of understanding which enables John to see Jesus’ true nature. And since Midsummer forms the balance point for the winter holidays, which included the feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), it makes a great deal of sense to have the fiery and solarly-aligned John the focus of such a major holiday. Plus, they guy lived off of locusts, so I think we can spare him a day on the calendar.
Turning to NWW favorite Judika Illes, we find that St. John is associated with the color red, love spells, herbs, marriage, fertility, and, of course, beheading (the method of his death). She notes that he “has dominion over healing and magical plants in general,” which makes sense as one of the famous magical herbs bears his name: St. John’s wort. A bevvy of rituals surround the acquisition and deployment of this enchanted plant, the most famous of which Illes shares in her book:
“If you rise at dawn on Midsummer’s Day and pick a sprig of St. John’s Wort with the dew still clinging to it, tradition says you will marry within the year—but only if you do not speak, eat, or drink from the time of rising until after the plant is picked. A second part to this spell claims that if you slip the plant benath your pillow and go back to sleep—still without eating, drinking, or speaking—your true love will appear in your dream” (Illes 381).
The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages also points out that in a number of European cultures, any herb gathered on St. John’s Day before dawn is inherently imbued with intense magical qualities.
Finally, let’s finish up our (rather long) snapshot of St. John with a smattering of magical lore surrounding him and his feast day from around the world:
- “Wear a mugwort wreath around your brow on Midsummer’s Eve to banish headaches for a year” (Illes 381).
- “Gather blossoming St. John’s Wort at midnight on St. John’s Eve. If the blossoms remain fresh in the morning, this is an auspicious sign that the rest of the year will be happy; if the blossoms have wilted, magical protective measures may be in order” (Illes 381).
- To return an wandering lover, gather three roses on St. John’s Eve, bury two secretly before sunrise in a grave and under a yew tree, and put the third under your pillow. Leave it for three nights, then burn it, and your lover won’t be able to stop thinking about you (Illes 381).
- St. John is the patron of conversion/baptism and tailors, and can be petitioned for “good luck, good crops, fertility, & protection from enemies” (Malbrough 29).
- In Russian, a priest would visit local farms on St. John’s day and make a cross of fresh tar on the fence posts while reciting a prayer to keep away witches “who were liable to go around in the shape of dogs and steal milk from the cows” (Ryan 43).
- A Russian spell from the Enisei region of Siberia notes that gathering twelve magical herbs (unspecified) on St. John’s Eve and placing them under the pillow would induce prophetic dreaming (Ryan 47).
- St. John could be invoked in a charm with St. Peter to diminish fevers, according to English cunning man William Kerrow (Wilby 11-12).
- English cunning woman Ursula Kemp “recommended three leaves each of sage and St. John’s wort steeped in ale,” as a powerful potion against witchcraft (Davies 110).
So that’s a little look at St. John. And his day. That was worth the wait, right?
One thing I did learn in my long absence is that I should be careful about setting expectations with some of these posts. I originally intended to make a 3-to-5-part series on the “summer saints,” but at this point it will probably be a while before I return to the saints I had planned to cover in the remaining posts. I still will be addressing magical saints in various articles and from a few different perspectives, but I think for the moment I want to move on to other topics here. My reading and research have me exploring a number of topics, and I’d prefer to get those covered here while they’re fresh in my mind, so forgive me if I get a little bit more scattershot in terms of what gets posted here. I’ve also had requests for topics to be covered that I may essay given a bit of time and the proper resources. So, in other words, I’ve got lots to do, and the saints of summer may just have to wait a bit. I hope that’s okay with y’all.
With all of that being said, thank you so much for hanging in there with me. I’ll do my best to keep work coming your way, but I hope that what is here already is proving useful to you. I’m not going away anytime soon, even if I do seem quiet from time to time. I really love getting emails and comments, too, and I apologize for the delays in response to those, but thank you to everyone who has written in.
I really appreciate your patience, and thanks so much for being friends to us here at New World Witchery!
Thanks for reading,
-SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL-
In our only June 2012 episode (sorry! I’ll be back from school soon!) Cory tells a few tales of magical saints. The saints range from canonical choices to folk tales to at least one very American folk saint.
Download: Special Episode – Magical Saints
The sources today come mostly from the following books:
- The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages by Judika Illes
- Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino
- Discovering American Folklife by Don Yoder
- The Golden Legend (a collection of saintly folk legends)
- Legends of Beasts & Saints by Helen Wadell and Robert Gibbings
- Mules & Men by Zora Neale Hurston
(also, I used Audacity instead of GarageBand for this episode, so the sound may be a bit different)