Black Lives Matter. I say that first, because it is the most important component of what I write today. To all those standing up for Black lives right now, thank you.
In our recent Patreon newsletter, which we made public, we issued our position about valuing Black lives and Black contributions to our world. One of the points we made was this:
“To us, Black Lives Matter. Frankly, we wouldn’t exist without the numerous contributions and creations of myriad Black and Brown minds throughout our history, and we have sought to highlight those figures on the show and on our site when possible, and we know we can do even better in the future, too. We must. We will. American folk magic does not exist, does not thrive and grow, without People of Color. So again we say, Black Lives Matter.”
Today, I’m going to highlight a small number of the figures from Black magical history (particularly in the U.S.) that prove that statement true. American folk magic does not exist without the contributions made by these individuals, and in many cases it has thrived and grown only because of the efforts made by People of Color. I’ll be mentioning only a small handful of what could easily be a MASSIVE list, and I’ll be sharing resources and information where you can learn more about them (as often as possible in their own voices or from non-white sources). I also showcase several contemporary Black magical figures because it is important not only to see the foundations of American folk magic as rooted in African American soil, but to see what continues to grow and thrive here. I recommend listening to them, hearing their perspectives, buying their books, or supporting them in any way you can. (Note: Where possible, all books are linked to a Bookshop.org page, and I encourage you to order these books from one of the many excellent Black-owned bookshops throughout the U.S.; Amazon links are used ONLY when the book is not available through Bookshop).
So let’s get started.
Zora Neale Hurston
To me, Zora Neale Hurston is the grande-dame of North American folk magic in so many ways. I know that’s a controversial opinion, but Hurston herself was no stranger to controversy. She was a key piece of the Harlem Renaissance, working on plays with the likes of Langston Hughes, while also doing advanced anthropological work at Columbia University. Hurston was prompted by her mentor, Franz Boas, to go out and document her own culture, to see it as equally valid and important, and through that she produced both fiction and non-fiction texts that are absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in folk magic. She documented Vodun and Obeah in Haiti and Jamaica, and produced a quintessential collection of stories and material on hoodoo by researching in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, as well as other parts of the Gulf Coastal South. She was sometimes accused of being accommodating to white folks (like one of her patrons, the paternalistically racist Charlotte Osgood Mason) or of embellishing her work, but it rings with poetry and life and as Hurston herself might say, “the boiled down juice” of living. She died in relative obscurity until her literary reputation was resurrected by Black scholar Alice Walker a decade-and-a-half later.
To read: Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography); Tell My Horse (Vodun/Obeah); Mules and Men (Hoodoo); “Hoodoo in America” (extensive folklore article); Their Eyes Were Watching God (gorgeous literature); Moses Man of the Mountain (fiction with strong magical elements).
Aunt Caroline Dye
She was known as the seer of Newport, Arkansas, and received visitors from hundreds of miles away. She was the subject of several blues songs, and was reputed to be able to find any lost or stolen object with her powers. When she died, it was said she had literally thousands of dollars hidden away on her property, making her one of the wealthiest women around. During the peak of her popularity and power, it was said that more Black folks knew her name than President Woodrow Wilson’s.
To read: Statesmen, Scoundrels, & Eccentrics: A Gallery of Amazing Arkansans, by Tom Dillard (biography section); “The Hoo Doo Woman of Arkansas” (AR State Parks Dept.)
Black Herman was both a stage magician and a practitioner of mystical and magical arts when the spotlights were off. He was born Benjamin Rucker in the late nineteenth century, but he took the name “Black Herman” to honor his teacher and partner, a stage magician named “Prince Herman,” when the latter died. Black Herman took over the show and toured it with incredible success from the time he was seventeen until his untimely death nearly thirty years later. He was best known for his legerdemain and escapist tricks in his act, including a stunt that saw him buried alive then miraculously resurrected days later (when he’d continue with his show). Herman also folded in a number of African American folk magical elements, too, including the curing of patients with “live things” in them like snakes or the expulsion of evil spirits.
Stephany Robinson, known to most around St. Helena Island, South Carolina, often gets painted as a sort of villain or foil in the stories about him. He was well-known as a rootworker and conjurer in an area connected with the Gullah culture, specializing in “chewing the root,” which involved visiting a courthouse where a client was expecting a trial, sitting in the audience, and slowly chewing a “Little John” root (galangal) while spitting the juices on the floor. He would fix a judge with his gaze and in many cases get his clients off from their accusations just by showing up. He also provided medications to young Black men who were being drafted into military service that would make them fail qualifying draft tests. Eventually, his success ran him afoul of local law enforcement, particularly Jim E. McTeer, a sheriff who decided to start using rootwork on his own to combat Dr. Buzzard. The conjure war between them escalated for a few years until Buzzard’s son was killed in a car crash, devastating him. He soon after called a truce with the sheriff. I’ll admit that I often think of this more from McTeer’s perspective than Buzzard’s, but in truth Buzzard’s clients likely faced incredibly unfair circumstances and his roots and magic were invaluable to his community, while McTeer’s use of conjure was almost play-acting at times as he engaged in a form of psychological combat with the respected local root doctor.
See also: The Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor (for more on the region)
So much is written about Marie Laveau it’s hard to separate fact and fiction, but we do know that she existed and that she was one of the most powerful Black women of her day. She’s mostly associated with New Orleans Voodoo, although she likely also incorporated elements of hoodoo at times while maintaining a strongly Catholic public presence. I won’t belabor her story here, because of all the people on this list you’re probably going to be able to find the most information about Laveau, but she’s absolutely one of the core figures in North American magical history.
Less well-known than Laveau, but deeply influential in the Brooklyn community where she lived (and beyond), Mama Lola was a Haitian mambo overseeing a number of rituals for the immigrant community around her and acting as a social pillar for her neighborhood. One biographer gives her full name as Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, but everyone knew her as Mama Lola or Alourdes. While New Orleans Voodoo may have captured the imagination of many, in Brooklyn Alourdes/Lola kept the living spirit (and spirits) of her tradition going. She acted as a spiritual and social counselor for those around her, as well as providing childcare for her daughter and helping to financially support members of her community. She would meet with clients almost daily, stage elaborate birthday parties for the lwa spirits she honored, and offer initiation and teaching to talented students.
To read: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, by Karen McCarthy Brown (bio)
For some, Katrina Hazzard-Donald is controversial, because she insists that Hoodoo is its own traditional spiritual system, a religion that was essentially quashed during the late nineteenth century and which has only been revived as a commercial enterprise in the intervening years. Hazard-Donald’s scholarship on the subject, built on her years as a professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Rutgers University, is frequently compelling and points out that the specific rituals of Hoodoo as a religious phenomenon include things that derived from or mirrored existing African spirituality. She points to things like ritual dancing, water immersion, and divination as reflective of the African roots of the tradition. Her work shows that once the religion left its home soil in particular regional zones, it became nationalized and easily coopted and marketed by outsiders, including white and Jewish merchants in big cities. While I don’t always agree with every point she makes, her analysis of Hoodoo is absolutely mind-expanding and thought-provoking. Additionally, she also practices African Traditional Religion as an Ogun Olorisha in the Lukumi tradition. I had the absolute pleasure of getting to hear her speak at an academic conference a few years ago, and she is fiery, eloquent, and moving when she talks about African and African American spirituality.
To read: Mojo Workin’ (her seminal work on “Old Black Belt” Hoodoo)
The author of the deeply influential book Jambalaya: The Natural Women’s Book, Luisah Teish has been working with African and African American spiritual traditions for decades and connecting her knowledge of spirituality with healing for issues of both race and gender. She makes feminism a crucial part of her spiritual practice, and was advocating for self-care as a radical form of spiritual action back in 1985. She continues to act as a guide and teacher to people, particularly women, who know her as Yeye Teish. She’s an initiate (Iyanifa) and chief in the Yoruban spiritual tradition, and hosts workshops and international trips to places like Jamaica to connect with living African-derived spiritual and magical traditions.
If you haven’t heard of Lilith Dorsey, you’re doing yourself a disservice. She’s an incredibly cogent writer on the subject of a number of diasporic practices, especially Vodun, witchcraft, and Afro-Caribbean spirituality. She recently put out a magnificent-looking book on Orishas, and has written books looking at love magic and African American cooking as a form of spellcraft, too. Her blog over at Patheos is always thoughtful and points toward new sources and new ideas while also bringing in her anthropological background and rooting what she discusses in that field.To pile talent upon talent (which she has in abundance), she’s also a filmmaker, who made the documentary Bodies of Water: Voodoo Identity and Tranceformation.
Lisa Jade is a Canadian witch with a keen eye for issues of environmentalism, social justice, and–of course–witchcraft. She’s also a Patheos blogger (like Lilith Dorsey above) who shares her insights into issues like locavore lifestyle witchcraft and the deep problems with capitalism for those who walk a crooked path. She also produced an EXCELLENT reading list of Black witchy authors a few years back including Black writers and magical workers that aren’t on this list (including people like the brilliant Khi Armand).
To read: Her reading list, 100% for sure, because it will offer you a lot of new options to discover
See also: Her website (which also produces material for Patheos)
The A Little Juju podcast is something I’ve only recently found, but it’s been going strong for a while now. It also has one of the best and catchiest theme songs I’ve heard on a magical podcast, and Juju Bae covers a wide range of topics that intersect with Black magical spirituality. She’s talked astrology, money magic (which she takes VERY seriously), reiki, and even why masturbation is a healthy expression of spiritual self. She offers a line of hoodoo-related oils and products as well as divinatory readings (including ancestral readings), and she teaches online courses as well.
To listen: Check out her A Little Juju podcast
Stephanie Rose Bird
She’s a prolific author who shares her knowledge of hoodoo readily in her books, but who also writes about health and wellness as a Woman of Color and even has a debut novel in the works! She’s generous and supportive while also providing rigorous and careful instructions in her books, and she looks at places where magical practices and spiritualities overlap with a thoughtful eye. The ecological side of her writing runs deep, and she situates the hoodoo she knows and does within the framework of natural cycles and seasons, while also making it contemporary and accessible for anyone.
To read: 365 Days of Hoodoo (a hoodoo-based daily practice book); Sticks, Stones, Roots, & Bones (her landmark work on her hoodoo-rooted practice); The Big Book of Soul (African American culture and spirituality)
See also: Her website
My final member of the thirteen-person coven assembled here is someone that I think everyone should know. Via Hedera is one of my favorite writers on North American folk spirituality. She looks to the folklore and scours collections and practices to better understand and share a deeply-rooted, deeply-felt sense of folk magic here. She comes at the topic as someone who lives intersectionality, bringing a multi-ethnic perspective and elevating practices from a wide range of sources, connecting sources such as Indigenous and African American magical practices through her work. She’s a delight to read, and her forthcoming book is one that I’ve been lucky enough to preview and I will say it should be at the top of any New World Witchery fan’s reading list. Plus, she’s a crazy talented artist who makes gorgeous plant-spirit sculptures that will melt your brain with their beauty.
To read: Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Mulitcultural Experience (forthcoming, and you should definitely get it)
* * *
This is truly just a sampling of the hundreds (of thousands) of Black/POC figures that have informed, shaped, guided, and continue to influence the magic of North America. There are no shortage of people I skipped or missed here, ones that I think deserve just as much praise and recognition as the ones I’ve highlighted. To that end, if you have figures that you think should be on this list, please feel free to share them in the comments (along with any links to relevant information).
A note: any racist, misogynistic, or otherwise heinous comments will not be approved and may be reported as harassment. Please use the comments to lift up and elevate Black magic.
Black Lives Matter. Black Magic Matters. Rise together.
Thank you for reading,
- The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
- IT, by Stephen King
- A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, by Madeline L’Engle
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
- Sula, by Toni Morrison (as well as works like Song of Solomon, Paradise, and Beloved)
Or, Notions of Magic.
We often mention that magic–folk magic, especially–is an everyday sort of affair. It lives in places like loose change and decks of playing cards, and we find spells using eggs or walnuts tucked into the corners of North American witchery.
Recently, I received a gift from a friend in the form of the Five Cent Tarot (thank you Heather!). It has fast become one of my absolute favorite decks to read with, as it has a number of symbols to draw from (and keywords pointing to meanings woven into the images, which helps with those of us who don’t do tarot quite as often as we do other systems). In this deck, the minor arcana are essentially the objects you might find in a junk drawer: sewing needles for swords, matches for clubs, buttons for discs, and teacups for, well, cups. We have already put up a post on the use of pins and needles, and matches are really more suited to their own post or one dealing with other aspects of fire magic. I’m so enamored of this deck, however, that I had to take some inspiration from it, and so the remaining suits put the idea in my head that I should look at some of the folk magic around buttons, thimbles, and other sewing notions. Given the burst of sewing going on as people make masks and other vital items during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also seemed like at least a semi-relevant topic. So let’s take the lid off grandma’s old butter cookie tin and see what sorts of lore and spells we find!
We start with buttons, which have a great deal of luck folklore associated with them. Widespread folk belief says that finding a button brings good luck to follow, somewhat similar to finding a lucky penny or other coin. In fact, one variant of this belief from North Carolina indicates that any button found and carried for luck should be smaller than a penny (or other lucky coin) (Brown). The kind of button found can also have magical significance. A button with two eyes is good luck, while a button with five eyes is bad (ibid.). A button from a coat might indicate that a letter is forthcoming soon, while a white button foretells a lawsuit (so maybe leave those where they are) (Daniels & Stevans). In the Ozarks, finding a black button indicates misfortune to follow (Steele).
A number of other notions like thimbles and ribbons have similar lore associated with them:
- To find a collar signifies that you will make an enemy…
- To find a piece of lace, signifies that you will be ill…
- To find a darning needle, signifies a disappointment in love…
- To find a hat-pin signifies a quarrel…
- To find a ribbon, a string, piece of silk or anything with color, especially if it be new and fresh will portend, signifies if red, good fortune, prosperity, successful love
- To find scissors or knives, signifies that you should beware of enemies (ibid.)
Buttons are also the focus of a number of folk spells and rituals, such as these found in Henry Middleton Hyatt’s collection Folklore from Adams County, Illinois:
- Buttons strung on a thread can be put around a baby’s neck to aid in teething. Some say the buttons should be cut from a man’s shirt for this purpose (NOTE: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING LIKE THIS AROUND A BABY’S NECK!).
- You can “sell” your wart to someone for a button, and as long as you keep the button the wart will go away
- Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish. Other sources also indicate that you can do this ritual with any button you find so long as you pick up the button and place it in your shoe (which would be most comfortable if you were wearing penny loafers, I imagine). One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish (Brown).
One particularly neat divination found in Hyatt’s collection is similar to the “calling circle” sometimes performed to discern a baby’s future on its first birthday. This time, however, the button is one of a set of objects that can be used to determine your future at any age:
“Into a pan of water on the table drop a button, coin, nut, ring and stone; then blindfold yourself and with a spoon attempt to scoop out one of the articles from the pan — three trials being allowed: if you lift out the button, you will live in single blessedness; if the coin, you will acquire wealth; if the nut, you will toil for a living; if the ring, you will marry; and if the stone, you will travel a rocky road. Halloween is the usual time for this divination.”
This sort of divination game is similar to other party games, and the Halloween setting of this ties it to similar occult play such as the use of “nutcrack night” fire rituals or even the slightly more spin-the-bottle-esque game of snap apple (or, in a similar vein, bobbing for apples).
Thread is another good source of folklore and folk magic. Most people reading this likely know about the general idea of “knot magic,” (something we’ll be covering through our Cunnigham Book Club in the show as well). Using threads for magical work is something both old and incredibly contemporary, as even children are frequently doing magic like this. Just think of the many friendship bracelets young kids make for one another, and the way those are designed to “bind” them together in the bonds of friendship forever. One of my favorite presentations of this is in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, where Chihiro/Sen’s friends make her a little friendship bracelet-like hair tie, the only physical object she gets to keep when she exits the spirit world later.
One long-standing superstition that I personally hold to is trying to save all my trimmed thread ends. I keep them in a jar in the top-most room of my house (which also happens to be my library room where I’m writing this at the moment. The tangles in the jar are thought to help prevent harm from coming to a household, much in the way that “counting objects” like beans or salt scattered by a door might. Since my wife is a knitter and I do a good bit of sewing and darning there are few weeks in a year I don’t add to the jar, yet somehow it never quite gets full. Almost like magic.
Knotting thread, especially red thread, around someone’s wrist with a certain number of knots–usually seven–was used as a magical ward against headaches and other ills (Hand) (Randolph). Cunning folk traditions from England also suggest using bits of rope from a hangman’s noose can alleviate these sorts of aches and pains (Baker). We also see the use of knots and threads in the form of a “witch’s measure,” a concept adopted in a number of occult systems like Wicca (where it is often called a cingulum and can be used to “bind” an initiate to their coven). In Hoodoo, a similar use of a measure involves taking red thread or yarn and measuring a partner’s genitals, then wetting them with sexual fluids and knotting them to prevent a partner from straying (Hurston). A similar principle was used when taking two pieces of clothing, one from each partner (preferably worn and unwashed), then knotting them together to ensure fidelity.
Untying knots also has occult power in several bits of folklore. For example, in the Appalachians and Ozarks, women were sometimes advised to unbind their hair as a way to ease birthing pains (during birth, not necessarily all the time) (Illes). Sailors heading out to sea might acquire a cord made by a local witch with a series of knots in it. If their ship were becalmed and unable to move, they could untie each knot to raise a different degree of wind. One knot could bring about a light breeze, while all the knots might summon a hurricane. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “buying the wind” using coins thrown overboard (Dorson).
And, of course, how could we talk about threads and strings and witchcraft without mentioning the popular (and often nefarious) witch’s ladder? This is a magical talisman made by braiding three cords together and knotting them nine times while placing an object into each knot. Usually, these objects were bones or feathers from birds, often geese, which may connect the charm mythologically to figures like Frau Holle. While each knot was tied, the witch would curse the intended target, then hang the ladder secretly in the home of their victim with the intent of causing them to suffer and eventually die unless the knots are unbound or the ladder is destroyed somehow. Late twentieth-century Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (mentioned above as part of our book club) revised the witch’s ladder a bit for more positive purposes, turning it into the “wishing ladder,” which uses similar magical structures to create charms that get a witch what she wants out of life.
There are so many other magical crafts and lore associated with things like strings, buttons, thimbles, and ribbons, too. Crafts like the ojo de dios or the oft-appropriated Ojibwe dreamcatcher use the concepts of threads and knots to create talismanic spells, for example. I’ve also been delighted to see the enthusiasm for needlecraft among contemporary feminist witchcraft practitioners, who cross-stitch their intentions into spell-like wall hangings with phrases like “hex the patriarchy” on them. As someone who frequently darns my own clothes and does a good bit of sewing on the side to repair the damage done to clothes by growing children (and frankly, we adults are not terribly careful either), the eager embrace of sewing and knot magic and a jar full of magical buttons makes me quite happy (you can tell I’m the life of every party, can’t you?). There’s even a new book recently released that I’m hoping to check out at some point all about contemporary needlework-and-button-bound magic called Sew Witchy, by Raechel Henderson (if you’ve read it or tried out any of the crafts in it, I’d love to hear about those below in the comments, along with any other notion-based magical work you do!).
That’s only a small bit of a much bigger line of magical work. Weaving has its own spell associations, and I’m not even touching prayer shawls at the moment, which can have an intense magical protective connection. Still, in this time when we see people making dozens or hundreds of cloth masks for public health and safety or needing to stretch their clothing’s lifespan a bit longer due to newly-tightened economic belts, it’s good to know we can still find magic and witchcraft in the very stitches, thimbles, measures, and buttons we’ve been hiding in butter cookie tins the whole time.
Thanks for reading!
- Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
- Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
- Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
- Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
- Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).
It’s strange, isn’t it, that at a time when so many of us are being asked to stay home that it feels like we have so little time to do things like read? At least, that is how it’s felt around our neck of the woods of late. But we have been managing to make headway in our ongoing Book Club, featuring the work of Scott Cunningham and focusing on the concept of folk magic in connection to nature and elemental associations.
In the past two regular episodes (on Safe Hex and Dreams) we covered the first few chapters of both Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. Those chapters began unpacking two of the major elements: Earth and Air, as well as sharing a group of spells that Cunningham associated with each of them. We talked about the use of things like sand and dirt in jars as a common folk magical trope for keeping evil at bay, and we still see that in some forms of charm work today with people leaving bottles or jars of rice, beans, pins, or more by their front doors or windows. Sprinkling salt has a similar effect when done at a threshold and that fits well with Cunningham’s ideas. We also chatted about Cunningham’s point that getting out into spaces without urbanization can be very good at connecting us to our landscapes and our planet, but that we should also be mindful that having that access is a privilege and we shouldn’t make others feel bad if they are doing the same work in a big city by going to a park or keeping potted plants.
On the Air side of things, we talked about how odd it was to see a warning in Earth Power specifically saying to be careful with air magic–why is that admonition so strong here, but not with something like earth magic? Does it have to do with the fast-changing nature of wind and storms? That also got us into the point that Cunningham makes about Air as a “twin of Fire,” which we’re still not strongly convinced about but makes for an interesting thought experiment. We noted that a lot of air-based spells have had their own evolution, with sailors likely using knot charms a lot less in an era of non-sailing ships and a recognition that spells involving tying things to trees need to be largely adapted so they don’t damage the tree (Laine and I both suggest the idea of using hair, which works well and biodegrades easily).
In our Patreon Discord discussion, we also tackled a few more particular questions on these chapters and concepts:
- What do you think of the differences in style between the books? For example, we talked about how Earth Power is obviously pulling from a lot of very practical folk magic (such as potato/apple wart curing charms) while EAFW seems to be more focused on rituals (including more incantations and rhymes). Which style works better for you, and why do you think that is?
- What do you think the magical “theory” behind some of these spells would be? For example, why does throwing a handful of dirt after someone protect them (or in a similar folk magic tack, why would throwing a handful of salt after them keep them from coming back)? What about those counting spells? Why do witches/vampires/etc. have to do all that counting? (DON’T MAKE ME DO MATH!!!)
- What do you think about including knot-magic in “Earth”? Does that make sense to you, or would you put it somewhere else?
- Some of these are clearly very short-term spells, but a lot of earth spells are longer-term. Do you prefer to do spells with short, immediate bursts of activity and results, or longer and more sustained spellwork (or do you mix it up a lot)?
- Is there a distinct difference between “air” and “wind” as a magical element or force to you? Why or why not, and how do you use air if you’re not also using wind?
- Do we also see distinctions between “elements” and “transmission” or “medium” in other forms of magic? So for example I can see water as a medium with waves and tides as transmission methods. With earth, there are the seismic waves, but are there other forms of earth “transmission” that are fairly regular? I am sure mudslides, etc. would count but in terms of the way we can let a leaf go in air or water to carry a spell is burial the earth transmission method? Similarly with fire–is fire the medium and “burning” the method? Or are light and heat the transmission forms (so a spell using light is technically a fire spell then?).
- And finally, why are birds so dang smug?
We would love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these points, so feel free to leave a comment below (or you can even shoot us an email if you’d prefer to share your ideas that way).
We’ll be tackling the powers of Fire and Water next, and then hopefully summoning Captain Planet to combat the avian smugness we will inevitably encounter. Or, at the very least, posting more questions and ideas to discuss.
For now, we hope you’re getting by okay, and we wish you happy reading and magic every day!
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.