- Blog Post 58 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part I
- Blog Post 59 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 2
- Blog Post 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 3
- Blog Post 173 – Spring Tonics
- Blog Post 194 – Plugging (Healing with Trees)
- Episode 91 – Appalachian Plant Lore with Becky Beyer
- Episode 145 – Southern Cunning with Aaron Oberon
A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.
It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.
Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.
Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.
Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:
“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”
The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.
The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such).
Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.
Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low.
Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins:
“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.
What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).
Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century.
A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:
“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)
The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt).
Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia:
“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).
This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4).
None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place.
So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complement actual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).
First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.
These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.
Thank you for reading.
In one of our recent holiday episodes, we discussed the way that toys, dolls in particular, seem to embody the uncanny. Dolls, doll babies, dollies, poppets—whatever you call them, figural toys seem to have the power to evoke fear in people and act as powerful proxies for magical work. I decided to cover the topic in part because several podcasts I frequently download (namely LORE and Stuff You Missed in History) have recently mentioned Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Robert’s story is full of creepy twists and turns, but nicely captures how dolls can be both innocent (as Robert is when he acts as a best friend to his young owner, Gene) and terrifying (as Robert is when he shows up on a subsequent owner’s bed, brandishing a kitchen knife). Still, most tales of dolls and magic in the New World are not as spectacular as Robert’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very interesting uses for dolls in American folk magic. There most definitely are, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the ones that I find most interesting.
We can start in Salem, during the famous witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. A slave from Barbados named Candy was the focus of one early investigation (although her fate was not, as far as we know, the gallows). Candy confessed her use of folk magic, including the use of a handkerchief which she transformed into a doll:
“Candy stated that her knowledge of witchcraft came from her experience in Salem and not from her home in Barbados. The magical items possessed by Candy bear closer analysis and provide evidence for a possible connection to African or Afro- Caribbean beliefs. The knotted handkerchief was obviously a doll to stick with pins or to rend to inflict pain on others. The pieces of cloth were possibly shreds of clothing to be used to identify the dolls with a particular victim, as is common in the sympathetic magic which makes up part of voodoo belief” (McMillan 104-5)
Comments about “voodoo belief” aside (here I think McMillian is simply conflating “voodoo” with the folk magic of African Caribbeans), Candy’s use of the knotted handkerchief gets at some of the main reasons that doll magic seems to be popular and widespread. Firstly, it involves easily found or acquired resources—in this case cloth from the intended target, making the materials doubly enticing. Secondly, doll magic is sympathetic magic, and the connection is easy to see. If I make a piece of someone’s long johns look like a person, particularly the person whose backside the doll so recently covered, it seems likely that those two things will share a connection.
This point, that something that looks human but isn’t has uncanny powers, gets echoed in a lot of folklore as well, some of which connects to the folk magical systems of early Americans. Imported stories, such as tales about Anansi, refer to the use of dolls as agents of trickery. One account of Anansi tells how he tricked Tiger, and Tiger avenged himself on Anansi by putting a gumdoll in a field. Anansi gets angry when the doll won’t respond to him, and strikes it, becoming stuck to it. This tale is likely best known by American audiences as the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, of course, which replaces Anansi with the wily trickster rabbit and uses tar in place of tree gum. An Apache tale recasts the narrative as Coyote fighting with a lump of pitch, placed in a field by a “white man” to catch the sneaky food thief. The story keeps reappearing across different cultural backdrops, with new characters but the same basic structure. In all cases, the doll in question does nothing—that is one of the reasons Brer Rabbit and his compatriots dislike the thing—but still manages to get the best of its target.
Dolls, much like the Tar Baby or gumdoll, don’t necessarily have to do anything to be effective in folk magic, either. Jason Miller recounts a story in his Protection & Reversal Magic in which a doll’s effect is clearly psychological, but nonetheless potent:
“A santera I know was having problems with her neighbor being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night and leaving garbage on her lawn. She asked her madrina (her teacher) what she should do. The madrina told her to make a doll that looked like the neighbor, blindfold it, tie its arms and legs, and nail it to the tree in her yard facing her neighbor’s front door. My friend was a bit shocked and said, “Good Lord! I don’t want to hurt him! What will happen?”
“Nothing” replied her madrina, “but it will scare the living crap out of him!”” (Miller 30)
Miller’s account of the santera’s doll experience resembles other accounts in American folk history. Newbell Niles Puckett references a similar incident in his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. In the cases Puckett describes, the dolls may or may not actually have a magical effect, or they might simply convey the sender’s sentiments about how they wish to see the recipeient suffer: “Very common also was the practice of putting small black caskets, often with skull and crossbones upon the cover, in front of a person’s door. Sometimes these would contain a small doll with pins run through the heart and with a burned-out candle at the head and another at the foot, doubtless a case of sympathetic magic, indicating a desire that the person be “laid out” according to the Catholic rites.” (Puckett 227-8).
Dolls that do nothing, however are not as much fun as dolls that do something. Fairy tales like “Vasalissa the Beautiful” from Russian lore offer dolls that seem to do little, but in fact act as powerful fetishes of protection to those that carry them. Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s doll, which carries a maternal blessing and performs tasks while the young girl and the old witch Baba Yaga are sleeping at night. Baba Yaga is always disappointed by Vasilissa’s completion of her tasks, which she knows must be done by magic but cannot figure out. Eventually the ancient cannibal witch decides not to eat the girl and instead sends her away with a magical gift when she learns that Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s blessing (although she never does puzzle out the secret of the doll).
Just as in fairy tales, dolls can have powerful magical agency, according to folklore. Several authors, including the aforementioned Jason Miller, suggest using dolls or poppets in spells, just as Candy was said to have done in Salem. Miller recommends a mirror box spell using a doll which will turn any harmful magic back on its sender or protect one from magical attack. Dorothy Morrison makes similar suggestions in her book on baneful magic, and even talks about using dollar store Barbie knockoffs stuffed with personal materials or herbs as a way of simplifying the doll-making process.
When it comes to making dolls, however, kids seem to have a knack for doing it with whatever’s at hand, which as I mentioned above, may be part of why dolls are both so ubiquitous and so powerful. Coming from materials which are already familiar to the doll-maker through use and contact, the relationship with the doll itself can be very deep once the figure has been created. Adults do sometimes craft dolls and other toys with what is around, but they are also likely to purchase materials:
“Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper, fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or “found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”). Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric).” (Leeds-Hurwitz 1477)
The fabrication of toys and dolls, including ones used for ritual or magical purposes, is not limited to post-European contact in the New World, either. According to scholar Yvonne Milspaw, Native cultures would create paper-type dolls out of natural materials with magic in mind: ““Other reported uses of paper and bark cutting among Native Americans include carefully worded reports of sorcery and cut-paper dolls among some Mexican people like the Otomi” (MIlspaw 1134). Some of these traditions may have shaped latter-day practices like the creation of skeletal papier mache dolls for Day of the Dead/Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.
So dolls can be made from lots of materials, and can be active or passive in the use of magic, as we’ve seen. They also frequently come with their own rules or taboos about how they can be used, deployed, or even simply treated. When it comes to folk magic, African American conjure traditions emphasized the choice of materials as a matter of import. Dolls are often crafted with local flora (and occasionally fauna) for a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. Spanish moss is frequently used to stuff or wrap doll babies in Delta-area conjure practices both because it grows ubiquitously on trees in the region and because as a plant it acts semi-parasitically (it doesn’t actually feed off of the oak trees it grows upon directly, but it can limit their growth), thereby sharing life with a host as a doll is supposed to. Even more potent than Spanish moss, however, are doll components that come directly from the intended target, such as pieces of their clothing, as illustrated by this example from African American folklore:
“My husband was very jealous of me, he was just insane jealous. He was always telling me he was going to put a spell on me. I was afraid of him. I went to a house where he didn’t want me to go, because a man was at that house he was jealous of. He was going away to get work…and told me not to go there. He went and took a piece of my bloomers and made a rag doll out of them, stuff it, worked black eyes like mine with silk thread; then put in the head — a needle, some of my hair, pins, rain water and a shingle nail, then sewed up the head. After that he took a small picture of me and put it on the left side of the rag doll, about where my heart is; then he filled the doll just full of pins and needles all over. He then put it in a pint jar and buried it under that house, where he didn’t want me to go — without anyone knowing it — and left town. I started to getting sick just as soon as he left, was sick all the time, could not find out what was wrong. I would start over to the house, but I could not make it. Something kept me from going. I went on this way for about a month, I was getting weaker and weaker, when one day some children playing around this house, digging, dug up this rag doll. They [the people at the house] knew right away it was to cast a spell over me, because they knew my picture was on the doll, and he was always saying he was going to make me suffer. We took the rag doll, jar and all, put it on the fire and burnt it all up; and I started to getting better right away and got well. And my husband got stab in about a month time; we threw the spell back on him by burning up everything, and he died and I am well.” (Hyatt 456)
A number of writers on conjure similarly describe the use of clothing from the intented target, including Yvonne Chireau, Starr Casas, Denise Alvarado, and Jefferey Anderson. While a doll sculpted from scratch certainly seems to be preferred in many magical practices, it is not the only way to operate. Much as Dorothy Morrison mentions using dollar-store plastic dolls to do work, Zora Neale Hurston records the repurposing of children’s toys for magical purposes in Southern African American hoodoo:
“To Keep a Person Down. Write name on paper with black ink. Rip open back of a doll and put the names in it. Sew it up with black thread. Put aloes, cayenne pepper in doll along with names. Tie the hands of the doll behind her and place her in a kneeling position in a corner, and keep her there where nobody will interrupt. They will be frustrated as long as she is not disturbed. Tie a black veil on her face and knot it in the back, so that the person will be blind and always do the things to keep himself from progressing” (Hurston 384).
In addition to the lore of creepy dolls and the lore about how to use dolls magically, there seem to be a few taboos about dolls which thread through different American cultural landscapes as well. For instance, many Amish communities have strict rules about children’s dolls, insisting that they cannot have faces on them for fear of violating the “graven images” commandment in the Bible (the rule also extends to things like snowmen and usually paintings as well). Hyatt notes that one superstition about dolls involves naming: “If a girl changes the name of her doll, the doll will break.” (Hyatt, p.268). He also records a much more sinister taboo about dolls which I cannot help but share here:
“A little girl died that was three years old, and her mother put a doll and a little horse in the coffin that she always played with. I said to the mother, ‘I would not do that, for there is an old saying, never bury anything with a corpse.’ And in a few weeks this little girl’s mother and sister died.” (Hyatt 374)
This last bit of folklore is fascinating to me simply because it seems to be a powerful impulse in human beings to bury toys with children when they are tragically lost. Many early human graves contain burial goods, and children’s burial goods often seem to be toys. Dolls, though, might have a special exemption from burial because of their close resemblance to a living person, although that does not seem to be a universal taboo.
Dolls today have a lot of the same stigmas attached to them: they are objects of fear and superstition as well as simple objects of play. Magically, they can be used for a number of purposes which resemble and also modify the traditional folk uses I’ve outlined here. One of our readers shared a story with us about a sloth doll she uses to overcome issues with chronic lethargy, letting the doll absorb any feelings of laziness from her (she also shared her very terrifying experiences with an American Girls doll, so that tradition is alive and well, too). The film Toy Story and its many sequels and similar movies all play upon the idea of toys having a “secret life,” which involves humans not being around, but being the prime object of the dolls’ attention. In theaters as of the date of this post, one can also see the film The Boy, about a very Robert the Doll-esque figure which seems to have a (sinister) life of its own.
All of which is to say, dolls are a big part of magical lore and practice, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And they watch you while you sleep. So sweet dreams and all.
Thanks for reading!
- Alvarado, Denise. The Day of the Dead Handbook (CreateSpace Publishing, 2012).
- The Voodoo Doll Spellbook: A Compendium of Ancient Spells and Rituals (Weiser Books, 2014).
- Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society (LSU Press, 2008).
- Casas, Starr. The Conjure Workbook, Vol. 1: Working the Root (Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
- Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2006).
- Crowley, Daniel J. “Anansi.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 50-1.
- Goldberg, Christine. “Witchcraft.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1560-64.
- Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” In Journal of American Folklore (Fall 1931). 317-417.
- Kirkland, James W. “Folk Medicine.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 983-89.
- Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. “Toys, Folk.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1477-80.
- McMillan, Timothy. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, & Resistance in Colonial New England.” In Journal of Black Studies (Sept. 1994). 99-117.
- Miller, Jason. Protection & Reversal Magick (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books), 2006.
- Milspaw, Yvonne J. “Paper Cutting.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1132-35.
- Morrison, Dorothy. Utterly Wicked: Curses, Hexes, & Other Unsavory Notions (St. Louis: WillowTree Press, 2010.
- Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York: Dover, 1970).
- R. D. Personal correspondence via email. 23 Dec. 2015.
- Yolen, Jane, ed. “Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch.” In Favorite Folktales from Around the World (New York: Random House, 1986).
Exploring American folk magic means looking under lots of stones, poking about in the weeds on the roadside, and scaring furry little critters out of their hiding spots as we try to discover the methods that have been used to solve problems throughout the years. Whether it’s using potatoes to cure warts or making your spare change break an incoming hex, the techniques of folk magic demonstrate a masterful application of resources at hand to get the results a body needs. Which brings me to the subject of this article, the practice of “plugging” to heal disease.
Largely found in the mountain regions of America, although it also appears in a few other places as well, the basic practice of plugging consists of measuring a person against a tree, boring a hole in the tree, then filling and stuffing the hole (or “plugging” it, obviously). Some folks also call the practice “pegging” rather than “plugging,” since the bored out chunk of tree forms a natural peg (and since the image of a peg may have a more biblical connotation to some practitioners, since a tent peg is used in the Book of Judges to kill an enemy of the Israelites). Once the person measured against the tree grows past the height of the hole, he or she should be cured of the disease. Of course, this means that the person must still be growing, which essentially means this method is used to help children with chronic illness rather than adults. There are a few variants in the practice, which we’ll get to, and some of those provide relief for adults, but for now let’s look at some of the typical examples:
“Drill a hole in a black oak or sourwood tree just above the head of the victim [of asthma], and put a lock of his hair in the hole. When he passes that spot in height, he will be cured. (Another person told us that if the person died, the tree would also.)” –Foxfire Book, p. 231
This is probably the most basic version of the method, although it is more specific about the tree than many versions. For the most part, the remedies simply say “a tree,” although some will indicate a preferred species to affect a cure. One Southern spell says that “chills can be driven away by boring a deep hole in the sunny side of an oak tree, blowing your breath into it, and plugging up the hole, with the result that the tree dies” (Botkin, Treasury of Southern Folklore, p. 630). Variants from the Foxfire 40th Anniversary book also say you can do the remedy with a black gum tree, and interestingly, you can use a detached form of the plugging remedy: “Take a sourwood stick the size [height] of the child when he’s two or three years old. Put it in the top of the house where it won’t get wet. When the child outgrows the stick, the asthma will be gone. This also works for hay fever, and some say it can be done with any “dry stick” by placing it “under the doorstep” (p. 349). The last examples show that the power to heal is not directly tied to a living tree, but simply to the qualities of wood, since the twigs are detached form their trunk before use in the spell.
Plugging is hardly an Appalachian phenomenon, however. A bit of lore from Indiana is very similar to the mountain method: “Measure the baby’s height on a tree and make a hole at this point in the tree. Then cut off a lock of the baby’s hair and put it in the hole. When the bark of the tree grows so as to cover the place, the baby will be well” (Grace Smith, “Folklore from ‘Egypt’,” p. 70). John George Hohman reports a version of plugging which resembles the detached plugging in the sourwood stick example above: “Cut three small twigs from a tree — each to be cut off in one cut — rub one end of each twig in the wound, and wrap them separately in a piece of white paper, and put them in a warm and dry place” (Hohman, Long-lost Friend). One collection of lore from Louisiana is rife with examples of plugging:
379. To cure a child of asthma stand him up by a post and lay a knife on his head and run it into the post. When the child grows above this knife he will no longer have asthma.
380. Negroes cure asthma by taking some of the victim’s hair, tying it up in red flannel, and putting it in the crack of the door.
381. To cure a child of asthma stand him up against a tree and bore a hole just above his head. Into this hole put some of the child’s hair and then stop it up. When the child grows above the hair he will no longer have the asthma.
382. To cure a child of croup stand him up against a tree and run a knife through his hair into the tree burying some of his hair. When the child grows above the hair he will no longer have the croup…
385. A way to cure croup is to bore a hole in the wall behind a door at the height of the child’s head. Put some of the child’s hair into the hole and cork it up. The child will no longer have croup…
389. To keep a child from having whooping-cough take him to a house that is just being built, stand him against the wall, and bore a small hole in it just above his head. Then put some of his hair into it, plug up the hole, and cut the hair off. As he grows above this he will not have the whooping-cough. (Hilda Roberts, “Louisiana Superstitions”)
Many of these are in “Superstitions from Oregon,” by Donald Hines, demonstrating that the practice is hardly a unilocal one. Henry Middleton Hyatt recorded dozens of incidents of plugging in his “Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois” collection. One such example somewhat resembles the practice of plugging without the use of a tree mentioned in the collection above:
- “If you have asthma, take and stand the person up against a door — the door must be an outside door — bore a hole in the door at the top of their head, save the sawdust, then put a lock of their hair in this hole, then the sawdust, then the plug. When the person grows above that hole, they will be well. Do you see that hole in the kitchen door over there? Well, that is where we tried this on my niece, and she got well.” (Hyatt).
The use of the wall or door as a substitute for a tree may stem from the fact that—at least in most homes prior to very recent times—these objects would have all been made of wood, and so might have retained the general properties of trees. Since it is unlikely that those doing the boring would know exactly what wood their walls or doors are made of (although in some older cases they might have known), I think this demonstrates the point that the type of tree used for the cure was less important than the fact that it was a tree.
While a number of these techniques do specifically apply to children, in some cases the practice was extended to adult patients as well. In several of Hyatt’s examples, plugging is used to cure excessive bleeding without any relationship to the patient’s growth:
- Profuse bleeding in a horse is stopped by boring a hole into a tree, putting in it some of the blood, and plugging up the hole with a wooden peg.”
- To check a bleeding caused by a cut, bore a hole into a soft maple tree and plug up in this hole some of the blood”
In this pair of examples, we can see a general sympathetic magical principle at work, since the stopping of the hole represents the stopping of the wound, and the symbolic transfer of the hurt to the tree. In many cases, the plugging action creates a symbiotic enchantment between the patient and the tree. Several accounts claim that if the tree sickens and dies at some point in the future, so will the person healed by its intervention.
Healing is not always the aim of the plugging, either. One Appalachian plugging says, “When you pull a tooth, drive it in an apple tree, and good luck will follow” (Gainer, 125). Likewise, the healing accomplished in some cases may not be physical, but mental. Some Appalachian lore says that putting hair from a recent haircut under a rock will prevent headaches, a sort of form of plugging (probably because birds can’t get the hair and weave it into their nests, which is believed to cause headaches or madness). Surprisingly, plugging has received little attention as a magical practice (although I somewhat suspect that its lack of marketability and a general inclination against drilling holes in things in the modern age have something to do with that). I hope this brief glimpse into the practice gives readers a chance to explore plugging a bit further, as we really only have the very tip of a rather large iceberg here. If you have additional information on plugging you’d like to share, we’d love to hear it!
Thanks for reading,
Today we’re taking a brief look at the folk magical system of the Pennsylvania German (or “Dutch”) community, known as Powwow or Braucherei. We’ve got an interview with braucher Robert Schreiwer, several readings on the topic, and some charms, spells, and songs, too.
Download: Episode 49 – Powwow and Braucherei
Books mentioned within the show
- Discovering American Folklife: Essays on Folk Culture & the Pennsylvania Dutch, by Don Yoder
- The Long Lost Friend, or The Pow-wow Book, by John George Hohman
- American Shamans: Journeys with Traditional Healers, by Jack Montgomery
- The Red Church, or The Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, by Chris Bilardi
- Hex and Spellwork, by Karl Herr
- Buying the Wind, by Richard Dorson
- Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister, by Lee R. Gandee
- Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald C. Milne
- Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph (section: “Power Doctors”)
- Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, David W. Kriebel
- Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols, by Don Yoder
- New World Witchery Podcast 29 featured an interview with author Jack Montgomery, who presented some good information on powwowing
- Urglaawe – Braucher Rob Schreiwer’s site on Heathen braucherei
- Three Sisters Center for the Healing Arts – A place to learn more about braucherei & associated practices
- Braucher.webs – Braucher Rob Chapman’s site for powwow and braucherei
- New World Witchery posts on Braucherei: Intro Part I, Part II, and Part III (also see our page Resources: Magical Systems, under the heading “Braucherei, Hexenmeisters, & Pow-wow”)
- We have a great written interview with braucher Chris Bilardi here: Part I & Part II
- An online essay on Powwow by David W. Kreibel is available here
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Promos & Music
German folk songs came from the site Mamalisa.com. The songs played in this episode were:
- Winter, Ade!
- Taler, Taler du musst wander
- Meine Hande sind verschwunden
- Rolle, Rolle, Rolle
- Guten Morgen ruft die Sonne
Incidental music was Johannes Brahams, Symphony No. 4, found at Archive.org
Promo 1- Lamplighter Blues