Blog Post 50 – A Witch’s Initiation

For my 50th blog post, I thought I’d do something special, something that really tickles my fancy.  I’ll be talking about the various types of witch initiations found in New World folklore.   I’ve already touched on this in Blog Post 45 – Witches, but today let’s expand a little bit on the concept.

In general, witch initiations in North American folklore share a few commonalities:

  • The renunciation of Christianity, often through a ritual like repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards
  • The giving of oneself to an otherworldly entity, such as the Devil or a “Man in Black” in exchange for magical powers
  • An act of exposure, such as being naked or sexual union of some kind, though in some cases this is not necessary
  • A sign or omen of the candidate’s acceptance as a witch
  • The transmission of magical knowledge in a ceremonial way, and/or the presentation of a familiar or fetch animal

Not all of these components are found in every case, of course, and the nature of the witch may be such that he or she is not an “initiated” practitioner, but merely someone who has picked up magic throughout his or her life.  This last circumstance is often found in places where magic is prevalently mixed with Christian practice, such as in the Appalachians (Granny magic) or among the Pennsylvania-Dutch (Pow-wow).  Of course, in these cases, the magical worker is seldom called a “witch,” though sometimes the term “witch doctor” is used.  It’s funny, to me anyway, to think about how a witch is “made” through initiation, much like someone can be “made” in the Mafia.  But I digress…

Now let’s take a look at how witches were/are initiated according to specific folklore examples.  From German Appalachian lore, there are stories of witches being initiated by obtaining a “Black Bible.”  Scholar Gerald C. Milnes links this tome to the Key of Solomon, a grimoire with many reputed magical properties and a host of instructions  on how to accomplish various magical tasks.  One of his informants outlines the basic ritual thusly:

“Now say you’re going to be a witch.  Okay, now I don’t know where you get ‘em, but they call e’m the little Black Bible.  Take that little Bible and you go to a spring where it’s a-running from the sun…not towards the sun, away from the sun…Take that little Black Bible and go to that stream, strip off, and wash in there—take a bath in that water—and tell God you’re as free from him as the water on your body” (Signs, Cures, & Witchery, p. 162).

Milnes also describes a similar Appalachian rite of this nature involves taking dirt and shaking it off of a plate or dish while stating aloud that you are as clear of Jesus Christ as the dish is of dirt.  Something more is added to this folklore:

“If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return.  This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).

Such a “sacrifice” is not uncommon in witch-lore, with the physical offering being anything from a bit of blood to sign a pact to a body part like a finger or toe to—at the extreme end—the death of a loved one.  This is a story commonly applied to many chthonic cult deities or spirits.  Santa Muerte in the Latin-American magical traditions has also been accused of this sort of thing.

I outlined one type of witch-initiation culled from Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet in Blog Post 45, an initiation which involved a type of blood offering in exchange for the presentation of a magical imp.  That version of initiation is only one of many methods presented by Davis.  Here’s another one, from Wise County, Virginia:

“She [Granny, the narrator of the tale] began: ‘I’ve been told thet annuder way to git to be a witch is to fust go to the top of a high mountain, throw rocks at the moon and cuss God Almighty.  Then, go find a spring where the water runs due east.  Take a brand new knife and wash hit in the spring just as the sun rises.  Say, “I want my soul to be as free from the savin’ blud of Jesus Christ as this knife is of sin.”  Do this fer twelve days in a row.  Effen on the thirteenth day the sun rises a drippin’ blud, hit’s a shore sign thet you’re becomin’ a witch’” (TSB, p. 11).

This variant is interesting, to me, because of a few elements.  First, in this initiation, the spring must flow east (or towards the rising sun, though against the natural path of the sun), which seems to be different than in the Milnes version.  In this initiation, too, the witch isn’t naked, but a new knife is washed in the stream while a renunciation is made.  Finally, the bloody sunrise is a sign to the witch indicating acceptance or denial of the initiation—this feature is common in several variations of the rite.  Davis also mentions another witch-making method which bears some of the trademarks of the process:

“He [the potential witch] then waited until Friday the thirteenth and returned to the spring as the morning turned gray over the ridge.  He dipped some water from the spring with his ram’s horn and poured it over the pewter plate.  He did this seven times and repeated the verses Liz [a witch] had taught him:

‘As I dip the water with a ram’s horn,
Cast me cruel with a heart of thorn,
As I now to the Devil do my soul lease…
May my black and evil soul be
Of Christian love and grace free
As this plate is of grease’ (TSB, p. 24).

This, to me, bears a strong similarity to the dirt-and-plate version of the ritual outlined in Signs, Cures, & Witchery.

I mentioned a ritual involving the reversed Lord’s Prayer from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore in my post the other day.  Randolph discusses several other ways of becoming a witch in that work, some simple, and some more complicated:

  • A woman could fire a silver bullet at the moon and “mutter two or three obscene old sayin’s” (p. 265)
  • Repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon will do the trick
  • Magical information can only passed across gender lines (man-to-woman or vice versa), or between partners united by sexual intercourse
  • Widows were the best candidates for becoming witches, as they only had to learn “the Devil’s language,” whatever that might be.

Randolph goes on to say that the transformation of a person into a witch was a moving one, and often one with a morbid downside:

“I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).

In this case, the lost loved one is called a “Witch’s sixpence,” and is the “price” paid for the witch’s powers.  This is not a universal belief, however, as many witches do not lose anyone close to them, and instead gain a new friend:  the familiar, fetch, or imp.  I’ll be doing something more extensive on this aspect of witchcraft in the future, so for now, I will just say that the familiar of the witch is a big subject with as much (often conflicting) information floating around about it as, well, the subject of initiation.

Finally, here are some examples of witch-induction from Kentucky.  I’ve gleaned these from the book Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel and Lucy Thomas.

  • To become a witch, go to a mountain top at dawn, shoot through a handkerchief at the rising sun, curse Jehovah three times, and own the Devil as master. When you shoot through the handkerchief, blood will fall from it (Mountains, #3773)
  • To become a witch: the candidate goes with the Devil to the top of the highest hill at sunrise nine successive days and curses God; the Devil then places one hand on the candidate’s head and one on his feet, and receives the promise that all between his hands shall be devoted to his service.  (Mountains, #3774)
  • To become a witch, you shoot at the moon nine times with a silver bullet, cursing God each time (Mountains, #3775)
  • You can become a witch by taking a spinning-wheel to the top of a hill, giving yourself up to the Devil, and waiting until the wheel begins to turn. The witches will then come to instruct you (Mountains, #3776)

These are similar to other folkloric initiation ceremonies already discussed, with the exception of the last one.  The inclusion of the spinning wheel here is interesting to me, because it seems to be connected to an idea I find very witchy: the threads of Fate.  It also reminds me of the Irish folktale “The Horned Women,” which is a story I glean much in the way of witchery from.  In this case, the wheel’s turning is much like the rising of a bloody sun—it provides an omen that the witch has been accepted into the fold of witches before her.

So what do I make of all of this?  Well, my own opinion (and I stress that it is only my take on the phenomenon of witch initiations, and no one else’s) is that each of these stories contains little pieces of initiatory lore, but always with a layer of sensationalism on top.  These folk tales were intended to amuse and spark curiosity, after all, so it doesn’t surprise me that a small offering of blood, say on an new witch’s cingulum or a few drops in a cup of wine poured out to the god, gods, or spirits to which the witch is binding herself, has become exaggerated into the death of a family member or the withering of a limb.  I think that initiations have a profound impact on those that undergo them, and that many of the common elements (the renunciation, the vow to serve a witch-god/goddess/devil/etc., and the granting of magical gifts like certain charms or familiars) are profound acts that may well belong in an initiation ceremony. Many of these features are also found in other initiation ceremonies and Traditional Witchcraft works, such as Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft or Nigel Jackson’s Call of the Horned Piper. I also think that some elements are overlooked in these sorts of folkloric imaginings of “witch-making”.  For instance, one thing Sarah at Forest Grove mentioned in her post on initiations is that once one becomes a witch (or takes initiation), one finds “Growth and strength of abilities and experiences the more one practices and keeps their promises.”  Most stories about witches seem to either end at the oaths taken upon becoming a witch, or to start in medias res of a witch’s career, showing a witch operating in one way, unchanging, until she is (inevitably) defeated.  That makes for good storytelling, but perhaps not for so much good practical witchery.  Witchcraft is wonderful in that the more you do it, the better it gets!

In the end, I like this topic, but I should say one more thing.  I don’t think that a person-to-person initiation is necessary to practice witchcraft.  If you’ve not taken an initiation, or don’t ever plan to, but find you are good at witchcraft anyway, keep doing it.  You certainly don’t need anyone to validate your magic if it’s working, and if whatever forces you draw your magic from one day choose to initiate you, I have a feeling that much like Don Corleone, they’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.

My apologies if this post has been overlong, but I hope it’s useful to somebody out there.   If nothing else, you’ve worked out your scrolling finger for today.

All the best, be well, and thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 49 – Snakes

I hope you’ve got your good boots on today, because we’re getting into the tall grass and looking for snakes!  Snakes have had a place in magical lore for a very long time.  In Ancient Greece, Artemis and Apollo were sometimes associated with snakes.  Apollo was famous for slaying the great serpent Python (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I), and his priestesses were ever afterwards known as the Pythia.  Artemis, offended by King Admetus’s oversight of an offering due her, filled his bed with serpents.  In Vodoun tradition, the Creator figure is a great serpent, Damballah.  Stories of creation and snakes seem to go hand in hand across many cultures.

In the New World, snakes have a mixed significance.  On the one hand, the biblical story of Eden in Genesis lays a lot of the blame for humanity’s disobedience on the serpent in the garden.  At the same time, humanity would be without knowledge without the snake, so there’s more than one way to look at the story.  However, if you ask many Christians today who the snake was, they will answer “the Devil” or “Satan,” so for all intents and purposes, mainstream culture takes a fairly negative view of these slithering creatures.  That does not mean, however, that all snakes are viewed as little devils, and many folks actually like them.  Farmers like snakes because they keep rodent populations down in barns and fields, for example.

In magic, snakes are one of the most potent animals you can use.  There are several different magical traditions surrounding snakes or their various parts and pieces.  Catherine Yronwode notes that “the blood, eggs, heads, flesh, sheds, and skins of all species of snakes are used in jinxing and crossing” and the manufacture of various hoodoo mixtures, like Goofer Dust or Live Things In You poisons (HHRM p. 186).  She also mentions that the sheds can be used to calm one’s mind.  Other hoodoo-related uses of snake sheds and bones include situations where cunning might be needed, or for luck and power.  In this last case, rattlesnake bones and rattles are often used.  Musicians who wish to play well and win contests often keep a rattle with their instruments, according to Yronwode.

In the case of the Live Things In You curse, powdered snake parts—usually eggs or sheds—are mixed into a victim’s food.  The target then feels as though the creature is wriggling around in his body, causing him pain and distress, as well as the feeling that he might be going crazy.  You can read more about this kind of baleful working in Superstitions & Folklore of the South, by Charles W. Chestnutt, at the University of Virginia website.

Vance Randolph recorded several bits of magical lore concerning snakes in his Ozark Magic & Folklore:

  • To cause a rain, a snake could be hung belly-up on a fence (p. 30)
  • Burning shoes in the fireplace will drive away snakes (p. 68)
  • Snake-skin soaked in vinegar is applied to boils to reduce them (p. 101)
  • Snake-bites treated by doctors will always ache on the anniversary of the bite (p. 159)

Randolph also mentions the snake-handling “Holy Roller” churches sometimes found in rural areas of the South.  These churches base their practice on an admonition in Mark 16: 17-18:   “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (KJV).

A final tale from the Ozarks concerns a family that had a secret method of dealing with snakes:

“Miss Jewell Perriman, of Jenkins, Missouri, tells me that her Uncle Bill had a secret method of curing snake bite, and people came from miles around for treatment. Uncle Bill belonged to a family of which it was said ‘them folks don’t kill snakes.’ This is very unusual in the Ozarks, where most people do kill every snake they see. When a large copperhead was found in the Perriman house, Uncle Bill caught it with the tongs, carried it out into the orchard, and released it unharmed. His cure for snake bite was known in the family for at least a hundred years…The secret is lost now, for Uncle Bill is long dead, and his son died suddenly without issue. All that Miss Perriman knows of the snake-bite cure is that the snake must not be injured, and that Uncle Bill had a strip of ancient buckskin in which he tied certain knots as part of the treatment. She showed me the buckskin. It was about half an inch wide, perhaps twelve inches long, carefully rounded at the ends. Three knots had been tied in it, one in the middle and one at either end” (Randolph, Ozark Magic & Folklore, p. 159).

Wouldn’t you love to know what that secret was?  I sure would!

I suspect that snakes will always have a place in magical lore.  They have the ability to slide between upper and lower worlds easily.  Some can kill with a bite, but also provide useful services to us in many ways.  They seem to show up everywhere in the world (except Ireland…but that’s a completely different subject) and they always connect to something primal in us: fear, knowledge and gnosis, or even sexuality.  I’ll be keeping my good boots on when dealing with them, but I definitely have a particular love for these critters.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 46 – Magic and Mother Goose

I received a comment from reader Chet the other day which inspired this particular blog post.  So, many thanks, Chet!  He mentioned that he’s been listening to his daughter’s music, which includes many nursery rhymes, and hearing not-so-subtle references to fairly adult topics (such as the sexual undercurrents in a song like “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”).  This idea may be old hat to some, but I thought it might be worth taking a few nursery rhymes and dropping them into the cauldron to see what bubbled up.  Please note that my witchy exegesis here may be entirely wrong, but it may also provide some new perspectives on old songs and rhymes.  I welcome all comments on these interpretations (well, all civil comments, that is).

You can find a great list of Mother Goose rhymes here, along with some brief explanations of each one.

Now, onto the rhymes!

Jack-be-Nimble
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over
The candlestick.

This little rhyme was first published in the 18th century, according to one source.  It may have referred to a clever and quick pirate called “Black Jack,” but  it also likely has something to do with the practice of jumping over fires, as is sometimes done at May Day (or Beltane) celebrations.  In these instances, the leaper jumps over a bonfire in order to gain blessings—like fertility and an easy birth for women—or protection, or to purify one ritually.  Afterwards, the ashes would be scattered over the fields to ensure a fertile crop.  In its diminished form with a candle-stick, a person could leap the candle forwards and backwards three times (or nine times in some cases) while asking for such blessings, and if the candle remained lit, the wish would be granted.  This might make for an interesting spell, though I cannot recommend it for safety reasons—if you choose to do it, you do so at your own risk and would be well advised not to wear loose-fitting or flowing clothes.

Peter Pumpkin Eater
Peter Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her!
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well!

This rhyme fits in very well at New World Witchery, because it originates in North America.  While many nursery rhymes came from the UK, the mention of the pumpkin in this one tells of its roots (pumpkins are a New World fruit unknown in Europe prior to the colonial era).  But what is it all about?  Well, if a man has a wife he can’t “keep,” it means that she is being generally unfaithful to him, and turning him into a cuckold.  My take on this particular rhyme is that our good fellow Peter knows of his wife’s infidelity and decides to put a stop to it.  He does this by putting something of hers—likely something very intimate like used underclothes—into a pumpkin shell, which as it rots, prevents her from being able to dally with other men.  This sort of spell is common enough in hoodoo, and is generally referred to as binding someone’s “nature” so they cannot sexually perform with another partner.   This is my take only, of course, and your mileage may vary.

For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This rhyme is used, according to some, as a way of chastising children who do not see the consequences of their actions.  I certainly agree that in that light, this rhyme is a wonderful didactic tool.  However, I also like to think there’s something a little more magical that can be gleaned from this little bit of lore.  For example, there is a great deal of sympathetic magic which focuses on using something small, like a poppet, to affect something bigger, like a person.  Examined thusly, this chant might be a great way to amplify magical activity.  For example, if you were trying to banish something—like a disease—you could take something from the ill party (hair, fingernails, or clothing worn while sick) and bind it into a charm which might be buried, burned, or otherwise permanently disposed of while chanting this rhyme.  In this way, you’d be telling the disease that it no longer has the power to ravage the entire body, because you’ve taken away a part of the “body” from it.  The disease would then give up, having lost its “kingdom.”  The healing example may be a bit of a stretch, though, as the primary way I can see this little spell being used is to banish unwanted persons from your life.

Pat-a-Cake
Pat a cake, Pat a cake, baker’s man
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Pat it and prick it and mark it with a ‘B’,
And put it in the oven for Baby and me.

I see two ways that this lovely little rhyme might be given a magical connotation:  1) By baking food and marking it with someone’s initial, you’re essentially creating a poppet of that person, which can be used in many kinds of spells, or 2) This could be a lovely way to help someone with fertility or family blessings, as having a “bun in the oven” is a common euphemism for pregnancy.  In this latter case, when the mother-to-be devours the cake marked with an initial (perhaps the future baby’s, or her own if she hasn’t picked a name yet), she would be putting the “baby” in her belly.  A newly pregnant mother might also do a spell based on this to ensure a healthy baby, and a new mother might then play this game with her child as a way of continuing the blessing for her child (as well as endlessly amusing the little one, which is really what I think this rhyme is all about in the end).

Crooked Man
There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.
And they all lived together in a little crooked house

Finally, we come to one of my personal favorites.  I know that some interpretations put a meaning on this rhyme referring to the unification of Scotland and English under a single ruler, but I tend to think of the rhyme in more esoteric terms.  The repetition of the word “crooked” seems to be almost a mantra, or a chant for moving into another state of mind.  And I think that the “crooked mile” could well be the “crooked path” of witchcraft.  The “crooked stile” is likely the gateway between worlds, too.  So my best use of this charm is to act as a “road opener” between the mundane world and the world of spirits.  There are also plenty of stories about paying a “tithe to hell” before crossing over (see Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer), and it’s usually something nominal (or at least, something that seems nominal at the time), so a sixpence would fit the bill. I also wonder if the crooked house is the proverbial witch’s cottage, or something a little more significant. Perhaps the “house” is the line down which a tradition is passed? And because that line sometimes veers out of strict blood ties and into adoptive relationships, it could be seen as a “crooked house.”  Of course, these are all just my speculations, but I like them.

I could go on and on with these rhymes, looking at them through the lens of witchcraft, and probably find something of value in most any nursery rhyme I read.  However, it’s probably best to say here that just because I interpret something with a witchy twist doesn’t mean that historically it has any such meaning.  In many cases, these rhymes are just entertainments for the very young, and a bit of whimsy for the slightly less young.  I like to think that magic and childhood go together, though, so I will happily continue scouring these rhymes for a bit of hidden wonder.  If you do the same, I’d love to hear what you come up with!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 45 – Witches

Stories about witches in the New World are plentiful.  Early historical accounts of witch trials in America show that the belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout the colonies, though the degree to which each colony acted on those beliefs varied quite a bit (see Blog Post 3 and Blog Post 6 for some good background on these).

Often, it seems that the stories about witches that appeared in the New World were linked to Old World roots.  Tales of witch-flights in the Appalachians parallel similar stories from the British Isles.  German stories about witches casting spells on hunters’ guns show up in the Ozarks.  In general, many of these stories can be broken up into a few key categories:  how to become a witch, what witches do, and how to deal with witches.

How to Become a Witch

There are several different ways a person (usually a woman in folklore) becomes a witch.  The act of initiation usually involves a pledge of some kind to a dark figure—usually the Devil, though I would argue that this “Devil” is something other than Satanic.  But I digress, and will address this topic further in another post.  In Vance Randolph’s excellent book, Ozark Magic & Folklore, he outlines how the mountain folk thought a witch was initiated:

“Some parts of the witches’ routine are well known, even to people who deny all acquaintance with such matters. The trick of reversing the Lord’s Prayer is a case in point… When a woman decides to become a witch, according to the fireside legends, she repairs to the family buryin’ ground at midnight, in the dark of the moon. Beginning with a verbal renunciation of the Christian religion, she swears to give herself body and soul to the Devil. She removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s tombstone, and delivers her body immediately to the Devil’s representative, that is, to the man who is inducting her into the ‘mystery.’  The sexual act completed, both parties repeat certain old sayin’s, terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead and end by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards.  This ceremony is supposed to be witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude, and must be repeated on three consecutive nights.  After the first and second vows the candidate is still free to change her mind, but the third pledge is final. Henceforth the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity” (Randolph pp. 266-67)

In Appalachia, another witch-making process is described in Foxfire 2:

“JIM EDMONDS:  I heard about a man—a witch said he’d make a witch out a’him if he followed him.  They come to this door and th’witch said ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho!  In th’keyhole I go.’  He went on in and got all he wanted.

Th’old witch came and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! Out th’keyhole I go,’ and went on out.

Th’old man came and thought he’d do what th’other did and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho!  Up th’high hole I go,’ and fell t’th’floor!

You just had t’pay no ‘tention t’witches.  They can put a spell on you, but they can’t turn you into a witch if you pay them no mind.”  (p. 355)

Hubert J. Davis, in his astoundingly good compilation of American witch-lore entitled The Silver Bullet, outlines another method of becoming a witch:

“’Fust, he’d [the potential witch] have to climb to the top of the highest knob on Witch Mountain and tote either a black cat or a black hen.  Then, he’d have to find the Indian graveyard at the place nigh where two Indian trails cross.  There, he’d have to draw a big ring in the dust ‘bout fifteen feet acrost, and dance in this circle each morning at break of day for eight mornings in a row.  Then, on the ninth morning, he’d have to put one hand on the top of his head and ‘tother on the sole of his foot and say ‘ I give all betwixt my two hands to the Devil…Then the Devil comes…and nips him on the shoulder so hit bleeds.  Then, the Devil tells him to wet his finger in the blood and sign an X to this pact…the Devil will same some magic words over the cat or the hen and change hit into an imp [another name for a familiar]” (Davis pp.14-15)

Various other methods of becoming a witch are recounted in these texts, too, including firing a gun nine times at a full moon, shooting at the rising sun and watching to see if it “bleeds,” or simply being taught the ways of the witch by a family member of the opposite sex.  On this last point, I will note that the writers generally say cross-gender transfer of information is de rigeur, and just because one learns the spells and ways of a witch doesn’t make one an initiate of witchcraft.

I think I should point out that Sarah at Forest Grove did an amazing blog post on initiation recently which I recommend reading.  Particularly because I think there are some pretty strong parallels between the folklore I’m presenting here and the steps towards initiation she mentions in her post.  Let me know what you think, though.

What Witches Do

Having a witch in the neighborhood was a mix of good and bad for early settlers.  On the one hand, witches tended to be able to make potions and counter-charms to help with curses and bad luck, among many other talents.  But on the other hand, a local witch meant that there was a good chance your livestock would end up cursed or dead or both.

A common curse witches could use involved bewitching cattle so that they would not produce milk.  Or rather, the only person who could milk the cow was the witch—she would usually use an axe-handle or an old rag tied to a fence post held over a bucket.  She’d squeeze the object, and milk would pour out, while the cow’s udders slowly drained in a distant pasture.  In one of the stories from The Silver Bullet called “No Milk on Saturday,” Hubert Davis recalls a story about a witch who put a spell on a cow so it would only give bloody milk.  The cow’s owner consulted a witch doctor (see “Dealing with Wicked Witches” below) and figured out how to reverse the curse, eventually.

Witches also had the power to curse people.  One of the main methods of performing such a curse involved the creation of a “witch ball.”  This was a little ball made of black hair from a dog, cat, horse, etc. and wax, which was then thrown or “shot” at the target.  If the victim didn’t get magical remediation immediately, the witch ball could lead to his or her death in fairly short order.  From Ozark Magic & Folklore:

“I have been told of another Ozark witch who killed several of her enemies by means of a “hair ball” just a little bunch of black hair mixed with beeswax and rolled into a hard pellet. The old woman tossed this thing at the persons whom she wished to eliminate, and they fell dead a few hours later. It is said that the fatal hair ball is always found somewhere in the body of a person killed in this manner. In one case, according to my informant, the little ball of combings was taken from the dead girl’s mouth” (Randolph pp.271-272).

Some of the many other sinister tasks a witch might do included bewitching butter churns or soap tubs, causing them to fail to produce any butter or soap.  They could also summon storms and blight crops, as well.  In Randolph’s work, he mentions that one witch ruined a tomato crop by simply drawing a circle inscribed with a cross in the dirt, then spitting in the center.

Of course, the witch could also shapeshift, turning into her animal self easily and slipping off to Sabbaths, into the homes of innocent farmers and their families, or into the bed of a lover while her husband dozed dumbly in bed.  Common shapes for witches included the ubiquitous black cat, the hare, mountain lions, and dogs.  There are plenty of stories about a hunter being unable to shoot a particular animal until he manages to get a silver bullet in his gun.  Then, he mortally wounds the beast, which gets away, and later hears that some local woman is lying in bed missing a hand or a foot—the very part shot off by the hunter!

I’ll refrain from offering too much commentary here on these ideas (though I will be revisiting them at a later date), but I would like to say that many of these common elements have a place in modern witchcraft, albeit not a literal one.  Understanding these stories metaphorically, or understanding the basic kernels of practical witchcraft embedded in these tales, is an exercise worth the undertaking for an aspiring New World witch.

Dealing with Wicked Witches

Randolph makes a key point in his text on Ozark magic that many clairvoyants, mediums, card readers, conjure men, etc. get called “witches” by outsiders, but the Ozark resident made a distinction between them.  Witches were almost always nefarious in purpose, according to Randolph, though he himself revealed that out of nearly two dozen witches he’d interviewed, almost twenty of them reported working against evil rather than for it.

In the Old World, these counter-cursing magical folk were often known as fairy doctors, cunning folk, or pellars.  In the New World, these names sometimes surface, but just as often, they are called witch doctors or conjure folk (which is confusing when you realize that hoodoo and witchcraft cross cultural boundaries in many places, and thus this term may have had different meanings to different people).  In a Works Project Administration report about Tennessee, the folklorist makes the following observation:  “Cunjur [sic] doctors will sell you ‘hands’ or ‘tobies’ enabling you to detect witches and ward off their spells” (Ch. 14, par. 19).  Here, the line between hoodoo (or “cunjur”) and what is typically thought of as European witchcraft is heavily blurred, and the magic of one is used to affect the magic of the other.

Undoing the harm caused by a witch could involve a number of different techniques.  In Hubert Davis’s work, he talks about how the unfortunate farmer with the bloody milk dealt with his problem:

“Steve milked his cow, brought the milk into the cabin and put it in a big flat pan.  Then, he went out on a ridge and cut three birch withes and tied them together.  He built a big fire under the pan of milk and, as it boiled, he flailed as much milk as he could out of the pan into the fire with the birch withes.  As the milk burned with a blue-green flame, Steve saw Granny Lotz’s face in the flames and he knew that it was indeed she who had witched the cow” (Davis p.35)

In the case of a bewitched butter churn, placing a piece of silver under the cursed object would stop the magic sometimes, or burning some of the butter with hot coals would do the trick too.  Other curse-breaking methods included using witch bottles to reverse a curse and shooting an image of the witch with a silver bullet.  This last method could theoretically kill the witch, and often was performed in the nick of time (at least as far as the folklore goes), just before a witch could complete a particularly nasty curse.  Other methods of removing a witch’s curse involved “scoring her” above her eyes, or making her bleed on her forehead.  If that happened, or if you could make her see her own blood in some cases, her powers would be broken.

Another common enchantment involved the bewitching of a hunter’s gun.  A hunter who normally did well would suddenly find he couldn’t hit a thing he aimed at.  In many cases, an elaborate ritual had to be performed to remove such an bewitchment.  As Foxfire informant Jim Edmonds relates:

“Old Billy Jesse claimed he was a witch.  Ol’Gran’daddy couldn’t shoot a thing.  Somebody put a spell on his gun.  He went over to Billy Jesse t’take th’spell off.  He lived in what they call Bitter Mountain Cove.  Told him he wanted him t’take th’spell off him.  Somebody had witched his gun.

So Billy loaded that gun and went t’every corner of th’house and shot sayin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’  Run t’every corner and shot—never did load it but once—hollerin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’

Billy then said, ‘Now th’next thing you will see will be a great covey of quail.  Now don’t you shoot at nothin’.  Then th’next thing you see will be a big buck.  You can kill him.  Just shoot nothin’ else.

Gran’daddy done just like he told him, and here come a big drove a’birds.  He just held still.  He went on and there was this big ol’ buck.  Shot and killed him.  Th’spell was off his gun.” (Foxfire 2, p.333)

All of this folklore may just be storytelling.  Or it may be a way of hiding secrets in plain sight.  Or it may be to-the-letter true, for all I know.  But at the very least, I know that I enjoy these stories.  And personally, I get a lot out of them that isn’t just related to campfire entertainment.  Though I don’t mind mixing s’mores and witchcraft, should the occasion call for it.

Okay, a long post today, but hopefully a useful one!  Thanks for sticking with it, and as always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 44 –Stories, Tales, Rhymes, and Songs

Greetings everyone!

I began discussing fairy tales in the New World last week, and I thought that this week, I might continue that trend.  Before diving too far into more stories, though, I’d like to make a quick case for the value of “fiction” in witchcraft.  I’m mostly focusing on fairy tales, legends, nursery rhymes, and old songs/ballads here, but it’s possible to apply what I’m talking about to a broader range folk material.

Witchcraft, being largely a folk practice, is seldom found in codified form (well, at least it wasn’t found as such until the 20th Century).  Many of the grimoires used by magicians from late antiquity until the Enlightenment (and beyond) contained magical incantations and spells, true, but access to these books was limited.  While some books did make it onto the shelves of everyday magical practitioners—John George Hohman’s Powwow’s is a prime example of this—there were also plenty of witches who would have had no books at all, or perhaps only something like the Bible to plumb for magical material (there’s a lot of it in there, by the way, but I’ll get to that another day).

Instead, much of the lore of the witch was transmitted orally.  By “lore of the witch,” I’m not talking specifically about magical spells and recipes alone, though certainly there are many precedents for such things being passed along orally—mostly through family lines and across genders.  But there were also many stories about witches, or fairies, or conjure-folk, or saints performing rather un-Biblical “miracles,” and so on.  These tales serve as repositories of a sort, holding little bits of information about what a magical worker could do, some of the ingredients he or she would use, and what kind of journeys a witch might be making “oot and aboot” at night.  It is my personal belief that these fragments of magical knowledge are available to any witch “who has eyes to see,” as Robert Cochrane would have put it.

There are already many people who seem to feel the way I do about these old stories, and who recognize that magic is sometimes hidden in plain sight, as dainties for babes or campfire tall tales.  Sarah Lawless, the Witch of Forest Grove, has a wonderful blog post on this topic, as well as an example of how fairy tales can come true—and not always in a nice way.  Of witchcraft based on fairy-lore, she says:

“These are witches and pagans who incorporate the fairy-faith into their practices and belief systems by incorporating genuine fairy lore and traditions. This can involve anything from superstitions concerning the good folk to practicing a specific cultural fairy-faith such as that of Ireland, Brittany, Italy, or the Orkneys.” (Lawless, 09/15/09, par. 6)

She also lists a set of tremendous resources for those interested in learning more about folklore and its relationship to magic (by the way, if you’re not following her blog for some reason, I really can’t recommend it enough).

One of the authors she mentions is R. J. Stewart, who has also explored the relationship between old stories and magic in much of his work.  One of his best known (and hardest to find in print) works on the subject is The Underworld Initiation.  He has a stellar revisiting of that topic on his website, which not only explores the mythic landscape of the Faery realms, but also goes into great detail on how the poem/song (at one time there was little difference between these genres) “Thomas the Rhymer” outlines much of what a potential witch should know about the Underworld.  I also have a copy of his book Magical Tales, which outlines the storytelling tradition as a part of witchcraft, necessary to ensure its survival.  I very much incorporate his point of view into my own life—one of my greatest joys is being able to recite fairy tales by heart to my child as he falls asleep in my arms, and that’s not just because of the witchy bits embedded in the tales.  Having a baby fall asleep on you is like getting caught in a rain shower made of candy.  While wearing a raincoat made of kittens.  It’s just that good.

Robert Cochrane, mentioned above, also saw the value in mining songs and legends for magic.  In one of his letters to Joe Wilson, he says, “My religious beliefs are found in an ancient song, ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, and I am an admirer, and a critic of Robert Graves.” (Bowers, 12/20/65).  The song Cochrane (born Roy Bowers) mentions contains many references which Cochrane spun into his own particular brand of witchcraft.  His work spawned several Traditional Witchcraft groups, including the Clan of Tubal Cain and the 1734 Tradition.  Robert Graves, a poet who authored a mytho-poetic text on the Divine Muse entitled The White Goddess also used folklore of a sort to explain mystical traditions, though his work is less about witchcraft as a practice than the religious worship of a goddess (in my opinion).

That’s it for this introductory post.  I think it’s always rewarding to learn a tale or two, if only to have something to share around a campfire someday.  And for an astute witch, these sorts of tales often contain even more than just evening entertainments.  For the rest of this week, I’ll be focusing on specific books, stories, or themes which relate to witchery.  I hope that you’ll enjoy discussing them as much as I do.  Please feel free to comment and suggest tales, poems, and songs which have a little witchcraft to offer, as well!  It’s always good to find new sources of magic.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 7 – Weather Magic and Lore

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 7-

Summary
Today we’ll look at some weather folklore and magic.  Then, we’ll be introducing two new sections:  WitchCraft with Laine, and Magic Spelled Out with Cory.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 7

-Sources-
Main Topic
The Foxfire BookSpecifically the chapter on weather lore
Smoky Mountain Weather Lore – With some interesting weather folklore from the Appalachians
Buying the Wind by Richard Dorson
Grimoire for the Green Witch, by Ann Moura
Dog Predicting Earthquake – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MFzcl-kZHo&feature=related
And of course, weather lore provided by our wonderful listeners!

WitchCraft
“Knitting Witchcraft” by Olivia O’Meir, in Llewellyn’s 2007 Magical Almanac
The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, by Clara Parkes
knittingdaily.com
theanticraft.com
ravelry.com

Magic Spelled Out
Earth Power, by Scott Cunningham
Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells, by Judika Iles

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
WitchCraft Intro: “Down on the Farm” by Chubby Parker
Magic Spelled Out Intro: “Evil Devil Woman Blues” by Joe McCoy
Promo 1 – Witchery of One (Hooray!  Jay’s back!)
Promo 2- Pennies in the Well

Blog Post 42 – Five-finger Grass

Catherine Yronwode calls this “the most popular green, leafy herb in hoodoo” (HHRM, p. 95).  It’s known by several names, including Cinquefoil and Tormentil (which is actually a particular species in the broader genus of Potentilla, which also includes Five-finger Grass).  This herb, which is not actually a grass, is one of the best to keep around.  It’s fairly easy to grow from seed, or from root cuttings as it is a rhizome.

The value of this herb has been known for a long time.  Sir Francis Bacon noted that it seemed to attract a particular type of wildlife, saying “The toad will be much under Sage, frogs will be in Cinquefoil” (The Works of Sir Francis Bacon, p. 548).  John George Hohman mentions it in his The Long Lost Friend, saying “If you call upon another to ask for a favor, take care to carry a little of the five-finger grass with you,

and you shall certainly obtain that you desired” (Hohman, #14).

This particular herb is a very positive one.  It’s used for protection because of its hand-like shape (imagine a hand held up to halt evil in its tracks), but also in love spells, money and luck workings, and even travel magic.  Here are some of the basic ways to use it:

  • Take a pinch of cinquefoil and put it behind a mirror (in the space between the mirror and its backing).  Then hang the mirror where it faces your front, or main, door.  A landlord or debt collector will be unable to force you from your home, and anyone coming to see you will be predisposed to show you kindness.
  • Carried with Comfrey Root and Lodestone in a black bag and dressed with Commanding Oil, it prevents you from getting lost in your travels (this spell is from Catherine Yronwode, HHRM, p. 95)
  • According to Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells, burning Cinquefoil as incense before bed will let you dream of your lover
  • Mixed with Deer’s Tongue and Calamus root and powdered, it can be used to dress love letters in order to encourage loving thoughts from your intended.
  • Putting a pinch of the grass in your wallet or purse will keep you lucky with your money, helping you to spend it wisely, find good bargains, and have luck when you risk it at games of chance.
  • Add it to a mojo bag with a Lucky Hand Root and an Alligator Foot or Rabbit Foot charm, then feed the bag with Hoyt’s Cologne or another lucky scent for help when you’re playing cards.
  • Made into a strong tea and used as a floor wash (or combined with another floor treatment like Chinese Wash) Five-finger Grass will remove curses put upon your household.  You can also add other protective herbs like Rue or Rosemary to help with this.

Botanical.com mentions that the herb has also had reputed healing qualities ascribed to it for quite some time.  In days of yore, it was used to heal aches and sores (esp. those which were ulcerous, such as sores in the mouth), and also to help ease coughs.  Today, they say that “the dried herb is more generally now employed, for its astringent and febrifuge properties.”

You can grow or buy this herb, and it’s definitely a good one to have around your front door (remember the protective qualities; it might even keep the Jehovah’s Witnesses away!), if there’s a sunny spot for it—it prefers full sun and does well in rock gardens.  It’s got very pretty little yellow flowers, similar to a strawberry plant’s.  However you get it, I definitely recommend having it on hand if you are going to be doing hoodoo for luck or money.  Or any number of other spells, for that matter.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this herb, and this week’s posts!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 39 – Angelica Root

Since we talked about the very masculine High John yesterday, today I thought we’d look at its feminine “counterpart,” Angelica.  The main plant bearing this name is Angelica archangelica, appropriately enough, and it has strong associations with angels and holiness.  It is often associated with the Archangel Michael, and has much of his same protective power.

Culpepper, in his medieval herbal manual, writes of this herb:  “To write a description of that which is so well known to be growing in almost every garden, I suppose is altogether needless; yet for its virtue it is of admirable use” (Culpepper 8).  This plant has been grown commonly for hundreds of years, for its medicinal, culinary, and magical properties.  It’s one of the common flavorings found in liqueurs such as Chartreuse and it has a highly aromatic quality that runs from root to leaf.

Botanical.com describes it thusly:

“The roots of the Common Angelica are long and spindle-shaped, thick and fleshy – large specimens weighing sometimes as much as three pounds – and are beset with many long, descending rootlets. The stems are stout fluted, 4 to 6 feet high and hollow. The foliage is bold and pleasing, the leaves are on long stout, hollow footstalks, often 3 feet in length, reddish purple at the much dilated, clasping bases; the blades, of a bright green colour, are much cut into, being composed of numerous small leaflets, divided into three principal groups, each of which is again subdivided into three lesser groups. The edges of the leaflets are finely toothed or serrated. The flowers, small and numerous, yellowish or greenish in colour, are grouped into large, globular umbels. They blossom in July and are succeeded by pale yellow, oblong fruits, 1/6 to a 1/4 inch in length when ripe, with membraneous edges, flattened on one side and convex on the other, which bears three prominent ribs. Both the odour and taste of the fruits are pleasantly aromatic.”

The root of the plant has potent estrogen-like compounds, which is likely one reason it has a strong connection to women.  It’s also supposed to be good for helping to break fevers and expel disease, particularly diseases of the lungs.

Magically, this plant is female, through and through.  That’s not to say men can’t use it, of course.  I bound up an Angelica root in white linen and placed it beneath our bed when my wife was pregnant to protect her and the developing baby (all turned out quite well, by the way).  But Angelica is renowned for its power to protect women and undo harmful magic.  Some of the various spells one can do with Angelica include:

  • Carrying the root to protect from harm (in general)
  • Women can carry the root, along with a picture of St. Michael the Archangel, to protect from unwanted advances (or worse) from men
  • Dress Angelica root with Blessing oil (or just olive oil over which prayers have been said, such as Psalm 23) in order to protect a newborn baby (place the anointed root in a white cloth under the baby’s bed).
  • Ground Angelica root can be mixed with salt and another protective herb, like rue, rosemary, or sulfur (not an herb, I know, but I think you follow me) and kept in a small white mojo bag to guard against hexes.  Alternatively, the mixture can be sprinkled across doorways or mixed into an Uncrossing floor wash to remove jinxes placed on one’s household.
  • A strong tisane (or tea) of the root can be made and used to sprinkle a new home or a home where negative spiritual activity has occurred in order to make the home calm and peaceful.

Additionally, Cathreine Yronwode mentions that “Angelica stem candied in sugar is an old fashioned treat said to keep children healthy” and that “When buying Angelica, be aware that its occasional alternate name Masterwort more truly belongs to Imperatoria ostruthium…Also, Hercules Club, a plant in the Aralia family, is called Angelica Tree by some, but is not related to Angelica” (Yronwode 30).

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 38 – High John

Howdy all!

I hope you had a great weekend!  This week, I’m going to be focusing on herbs, roots, and curios used in various American magical practices.  I’m starting with one of the most common and most important roots in hoodoo:  High John the Conqueror.

This shriveled root is part of the Ipomoea genus, and is a relative of the Morning Glory.  Its resemblance to a shrunken testicle has made it a powerful symbol of potency and virility.   I consider it to be one of the quintessential hoodoo herbs (which is the reason I included it in my “hoodoo kit” post).  Catherine Yronwode says of the root in her Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic book, “ A person possessing a John the Conqueror Root will never be long without money or a lover and will be extremely lucky in games of chance and business” (HHRM p. 111).

Some of the most common ways to use this root are to put it into a jar of neutral oil (such as safflower or olive) and let it sit for a few weeks, occasionally shaking the jar.  The resulting oil (which will have little to no smell and to which you should add some vitamin E or tincture of benzoin to prevent rancidity) can be used to anoint anything that needs more power.  Rubbed on your hands and feet, it adds personal power to everything you do.  Rubbed on money kept in your wallet, it helps you be more successful in luck and business endeavors.  Rubbed (very lightly) on the penis, it restores male virility and enhances sexual prowess.

Another key way to use this root is to keep a whole root in your pocket, either by itself or wrapped in a red cloth bag as a mojo hand.  Fed regularly (once a week at least) with whiskey or the High John Oil I just described, it keeps you empowered and potent at all times.  According to the lore, money comes easier, luck favors you, love finds you, and sex is better than ever.

You can also add John the Conqueror (by the way, you say it “John the Con-ker”) chips or oil to other mojo hands to increase their potency as well.  I like to add them to success and business workings, because they tend to work faster and require less finagling on my part after my initial efforts.

The High John root has appeared in pop culture several times, too.  Whenever hoodoo comes up in songs, a mention of this root is seldom far behind.  For example, in the Allman Brothers Band remake of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” radio audiences of the 70’s heard the lyrics:

“Got a John the Conquerer root and got some mojo too,
We got a black cat bone, we’re gonna slip it to you.”

Considering the libertine behavior the singer boasts of elsewhere in the song, having a little magic keeping his virility charged certainly seems like a good idea (I’ll address the black cat bone reference in another post).  Muddy Waters (who worked with Willie Dixon quite a lot) also recorded a blues song featuring the hoodoo charm, entitled (appropriately) “My John the Conqueror Root.”

There are lots of places to find this root on the web, and if you have a local botanica of some kind, they will also likely carry this curio.  I highly recommend anyone looking into American magic familiarize him/herself with High John.  Who couldn’t use a magical boost from such a potent little root?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 37 – Some Weekend Reading

Howdy everyone!

I thought that I’d finish up this week with another essay, this time one that I won’t actually be posting on the New World Witchery site.  Instead, I’m going to provide a link to an excellent essay I found on Pow-wow magic, and then some notes I made while reading it.

The essay itself is written by David W. Kriebel, Ph.D.  and has a distinctly academic tone.  It focuses on the history and practice of braucherei in the Pennsylvania area, as well as examining some modern practitioners (most notably Don Yoder and Silver Ravenwolf (aka Jenine Trayer).  It’s an interesting read, I think, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Here’s the essay:  http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIV/Powwow.htm

Some of the thoughts I had while reading this were:

  • Why is Pow-wow fading from the magical stage so steadily?  Many spiritual and magical traditions have received increased attention in the past 30-40 years as the shiny patina of atomic-age wonder has begun to fade, yet Pow-wow still seems to be on the decline.
  • Is Pow-wow evolving into something else altogether?  Kriebel mentions Ravenwolf’s book, which has had a mixed reception at best in the magical community.  But her version of Pow-wow may just be where the practice is headed.  Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing, period?
  • The old books of Pow-wow, such as The Long Lost Friend and the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, get a good bit of attention in this essay.  How relevant are they to the current practice of this magical system?
  • I love the story about Mountain Mary.  It makes me wonder just how many of my local folk heroes might have been magically inclined.
  • The three levels of magical ritual (I, II, and III) which Kriebel mentions correspond well to various practices I’ve seen elsewhere (a simple charm from Hohman might be a I or a II, while Chris Bilardi’s complete brauche circuit in The Red Church is more of a III, I think).  I wonder if the idea presented here about Pow-wow would hold true for other magical systems, like hoodoo.
  • One of the best things I come away with from this essay is in his conclusion, where he notes a 90% effectiveness rating for Pow-wow curing, which is remarkably good for any healing practice.  In the end, I think that kind of a result defies any attempts to explain magic as pure superstition, but I may be wrong.  What do you think?

That’s it for this week!  Have a great weekend, and as always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

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