Blog Post 223 – Magic in the Time of Plague

A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.

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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.

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Print of Plague in 1665, via Wikimedia

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).

Higo Amabie
Image of Amabie yokai from Edo Newspaper (1846) via Wikimedia

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.

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Sigil for Managing Panic, designed by Laura Tempest Zakroff (2020)

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.

Be well,

-Cory

Episode 162 – Urban Witchery with Diana Rajchel

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Summary:
This episode features an interview with author Diana Rajchel about folk magic in the big city! We discuss the spirits of a city, ways to gather urban spell ingredients, and getting to know the difference between the land and the place of an urban witch’s environment.
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, Jennifer, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Payton, Carole, Payton, Staci, Montine, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, AthenaBeth, Bo, Scarlet Pirate, Tim, Leslie, Sherry, Jenna, Jess, Laura, & Clever Kim’s Curios (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
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We are so glad to have Diana Rajchel on our show! You can check out her new book, Urban Magick, out now from Llewellyn, along with either of her Sabbat series entries, Mabon and Samhain. You can find her at her website, dianarajchel.com, or on her Facebook author page as well.
If you like Cory’s train metaphor, you may also want to check out his post Blog Post 64 – City Spirits.
Image sourced courtesy of Llewellyn Publications.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Promos & Music
Title and closing music are “Woman Blues,” by Paul Avgerinos, and is licensed from Audio Socket. Incidental music is “Painting at the Train Station,” by Chris Welch, and is licensed from Audio Socket. Ambient effects are “Ambience, London Waterloo Train Station.wav” by InspectorJ (www.jshaw.co.uk)  of Freesound.org.
If you like us AND you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will love our new show: Myth Taken: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast, now available through all the podcatchers!
Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Episode 161 – Practicing Safe Hex

We discuss the (apparently very large) issue of magical safety practices. We talk about how to avoid burning down your favorite home or familiar, as well as making sure to close out your Ouija board properly. Plus we discuss earth spells in our Cunningham Natural Magic book club.

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Summary:

We discuss the (apparently very large) issue of magical safety practices. We talk about how to avoid burning down your favorite home or familiar, as well as making sure to close out your Ouija board properly. Plus we discuss earth spells in our Cunningham Natural Magic book club.

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

Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, Jennifer, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Payton, Carole, Payton, Staci, Montine, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, AthenaBeth, Bo, Scarlet Pirate, Tim, Leslie, Sherry, Jenna, Jess, Laura, & Clever Kim’s Curios (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

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Download: Episode 161 – Practicing Safe Hex

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We mention a few previous episodes that you might be interested in, especially our one on Spell Failures and our episode featuring wilderness wise woman Becky Beyer.

For First Aid and practical safety, we definitely recommend finding a local Red Cross affiliate near you.

For some crucial outdoor safety guidance, check out the Wilderness Awareness School.

And here are some links if you want to know more about Z*Zo or the Three Kings Rite.

If you’re interested in participating in the book club, check out the post introducing it.

Image sourced from Pixabay.

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

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

Promos & Music

Title and closing music are “Woman Blues,” by Paul Avgerinos, and is licensed from Audio Socket.

If you like us AND you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will love our new show: Myth Taken: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast, now available through all the podcatchers!

Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Blog Post 222 – Book Club Discussion #2


Time to open the dusty and ancient tomes once more! We continue with our Book Club, featuring the work of Scott Cunningham.

We’ve had a busy couple of weeks so our apologies that we haven’t gotten this up sooner, but we thought it would be better late than never to get some of the questions we had in our book club discussion onto the website.

This time around we were talking about Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Preface and Part I (Ch. 1-5), which pretty much covers the background and introduction of the book. Cory brought up a few points, noting for example, the very strong distinction Cunningham makes between a purely internal, “personal power” type magic and something that is channeled through these outside elements/objects/actions. This sort of ties into the recent interview with Mat Auryn, who works largely with what he calls Psychic Witchcraft. In EAFW we see something different, something gritty and earthed and a good bit messier and lived in than trying to operate solely in that “inner space” of the psyche (not that there’s a problem with that–just not Cory’s style). We’d love to know if you see that distinction, or if we are maybe missing some of the ways that Cunningham blends these two sides of witchery?

Laine let a friend borrow her copy, and got a really interesting note on the role of the moon in witchcraft versus that of the sun. The note says “perhaps the night holds a power/feeling because the sun is not present and we aren’t saturated by its power. We at night can feel our own power because the embodiment of the sun is reduced.” What do you think? Is the moon carrying the sun’s power in a different way, or do you feel it as something totally separate?

We also threw some questions out to our Patreon supporters and have had some good discussions circulating there, too. We thought we’d put a few of those questions here for you to ponder (and respond to in the comments if you want), too!

I wanted to throw out some questions for this second round of the book club, too, before I post up anything on the website. I’d love to hear about any of the following from anyone interested in discussing (as well as any topics you might want to bring up, too):
1. How do you feel about the “Akasha” thing? Does that enter into your practice at all? Does the idea of “cosmicness” play into your magical work somehow?
2. Do objects (esp. natural ones) help you to do magic, or is most of your magic internally driven? Are you more attuned to what Cunningham describes as “Natural Magic(k)” or more to what Mat Auryn describes as “Psychic Witchcraft” or both or neither or some other alternative?
3. How do you feel about his admonitions about evil and doing negative workings? Do you think those are a product of the time? How do you handle the idea of curses/hexes or similar magic?

Would love to hear what you have to say! Join in and discuss below!

And, as always, thanks for reading!
-Cory

Episode 160 – Turtle Island Folk Magic with Via Hedera

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Summary:

We talk with the Riverton Witch Via Hedera in this episode about folk magic on Turtle Island (North America), intersectional magic, what folk traditions we keep alive and which ones we leave behind, and how to weave magic into the things we make.

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

Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, Jennifer, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Payton, Carole, Payton, Staci, Montine, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, AthenaBeth, Bo, Scarlet Pirate, Leslie, Bagga, Stephanie, Sherry, Jenna, Jess, Laura, & Clever Kim’s Curios (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

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Download: Episode 160 – Turtle Island Folk Magic with Via Hedera

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The main spot to check out is Via Hedera’s amazing website, full of articles on everything from “Rat Letters” to erotic apples, tarot reviews, book resources, and more! Also be on the lookout for her book, Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Multicultural Experience:  A Crucible at the Crossroads, coming later this year from Moon Books.

We also mention a few folklore collections, such as the Frank C. Brown collection of North Carolina lore and American Regional Folklore, edited by Terry Ann Mood-Leopold that you might be interested in.

Image sourced from Via Hedera (copyright Via Hedera).

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

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

Promos & Music

Title and closing music are “Woman Blues,” by Paul Avgerinos, and is licensed from Audio Socket. Incidental music is “Danse Morialta” by Kevin MacLeod (Free Music Archive).

If you like us AND you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will love our new show: Myth Taken: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast, now available through all the podcatchers!

Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Episode 159 – Making Magical Books

Summary:
Laine and Cory revisit the idea of making magical books, including what they do differently now and some ideas that might help you put together your own magical text. We also do our second round of the Scott Cunningham “Natural Magic” book club.
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, Jennifer, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Payton, Carole, Payton, Staci, Montine, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, AthenaBeth, Bo, Scarlet Pirate, Leslie, Sherry, Jenna, Jess, Laura, & Clever Kim’s Curios (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
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We are circling back around to the topic of magical books, which we’ve covered in different ways a couple oftimes:
If you’re interested in the “smash book” method, here’s a tutorial on it.
Cory has also written an article for Witches & Pagans magazine on spellbook crafting and compilation, and you may also be interested in his post on recovering lore mentioned in this episode.
If you’re interested in following along with our book club, you should check out our main blog post on it.
Image sourced from Pixabay.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Promos & Music
Title and closing music are “Woman Blues,” by Paul Avgerinos, and is licensed from Audio Socket. Incidental music is “Winner Winner” by Kevin Macleod (Free Music Archive).
If you like us AND you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will love our new show: Myth Taken: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast, now available through all the podcatchers!
Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Blog Post 220 – Book Club Discussion #1

Hello witchy reader-folk!
As I mentioned last week, we’ve embarked on a 2020 book club looking at two of the books that got Laine and I into witchcraft in the first place: Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, and Water by Scott Cunningham. If you haven’t checked that post, make sure to do so and see when we’re reading each segment. We have ongoing discussions and chats with our Patreon supporters who are reading the book through our Discord server, but we also want to open up the conversation more publicly, too. So each month we’ll be posting a brief rundown of some questions and ideas that came up either in the discussion between Laine and me on the show or through the Discord chat.
This month, we tackled: Earth Power – Preface, Introduction, and Part I (Ch. 1-4)
Some questions to ponder as you read or reflect:
  1. Cunningham often refers to what he’s doing as “natural magic,” and Cory thought that he was just using a different phrase to describe folk magic, which makes up the majority of the book. What do you think? Are there distinctions or differences between folk magic and natural magic? Are those differences present in Cunningham’s introduction, or is he using that term interchangeably?
  2. Cory and Laine both discussed the idea of different elemental systems beyond the four-parted (or sometimes five-parted if you are reading Aristotle) Greco-Roman system. For example, Chinese metaphysics recognize a different set of elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal), and other systems get more into “hot/cold/wet/dry/moving/stable” divisions (one of our Patreon folks pointed out in their tradition they have twelve different elements, and there’s a funny XKCD comic about someone being a “Polonium bender” and thinking of elements by way of the periodic table). What exactly are the elements to you? Are they fundamental building blocks in a very material way, or simply symbolic and thus subject to change based on who’s using them and how? What elemental systems do you work with, if any?
  3. Laine raised the point that a lot of what we see in the introduction has to be seen as a product of its time (not to excuse it, but just to give it context). One of the big points she brought up was the artificial way that elements sometimes get lumped with “masculine” or “feminine” descriptors. How do you deal with these sorts of outdated ideas when you encounter them in a book you like (especially an older one)? Do you simply dismiss the pieces that no longer work and move on, or do you process it another way? Are dichotomies (like gendered elements) even useful in an age where we understand better that gender is a spectrum rather than an either/or situation?
  4. One great discussion that came up on our patron chat was the question of “What books were your starting point for witchcraft?” Laine and I both had several, and Cunningham’s were among our earliest, but does the book (or books) you begin with for witchcraft studies have a defining effect on how and what you study? Or is the other way around, and what you’re interested in will lead you to certain types of books (other, non-dichotomous options are welcome, too!). What was your first book of magic or witchcraft?
  5. Finally, do we do too much idealizing of the past? Cunningham likes to paint rosy pictures at times of some sort of agrarian paradise in which nature and magic were all around the common folk (a bit like in the magic forest in Frozen II). Magic, however, always seems to be very adaptable to new situations and new eras. Some of it falls by the wayside when it’s not useful/appropriate (for example, there are some terribly racist folk charms involving stealing hair from an African American person but I don’t think anyone’s recommending those today….I hope). At the same time, while we can “yeet our woes unto the void” in a contemporary ritual, we also might still have uses for lucky horseshoes, even if we don’t ride horses regularly anymore). So what do you think? How much of the past informs your practice, and how ready are you to adapt your practice to contemporary needs?
(Mendeleev, Polonium-bending Master. Comic by XKCD)
We welcome (civil) discussions and deliberations on these points in the comments, and if you have a question raised by the episode or this post that you’d like to explore further, feel free to comment that as well!
Thanks for reading (along with us)!
-Cory