Posted tagged ‘folk medicine’

Podcast 49 – Powwow and Braucherei

February 25, 2013


Today we’re taking a brief look at the folk magical system of the Pennsylvania German (or “Dutch”) community, known as Powwow or Braucherei. We’ve got an interview with braucher Robert Schreiwer, several readings on the topic, and some charms, spells, and songs, too.


Download: Episode 49 – Powwow and Braucherei

Books mentioned within the show

  1. Discovering American Folklife: Essays on Folk Culture & the Pennsylvania Dutch, by Don Yoder
  2. The Long Lost Friend, or The Pow-wow Book, by John George Hohman
  3. American Shamans: Journeys with Traditional Healers, by Jack Montgomery
  4. The Red Church, or The Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, by Chris Bilardi
  5. Hex and Spellwork, by Karl Herr
  6. Buying the Wind, by Richard Dorson
  7. Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister, by Lee R. Gandee

Additional Sources

  1. Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald C. Milne
  2. Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph (section: “Power Doctors”)
  3. Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, David W. Kriebel
  4. Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols, by Don Yoder
  5. New World Witchery Podcast 29 featured an interview with author Jack Montgomery, who presented some good information on powwowing


  1. Urglaawe – Braucher Rob Schreiwer’s site on Heathen braucherei
  2. Three Sisters Center for the Healing Arts – A place to learn more about braucherei & associated practices
  3. Braucher.webs – Braucher Rob Chapman’s site for powwow and braucherei
  4. New World Witchery posts on Braucherei: Intro Part I, Part II, and Part III (also see our page Resources:  Magical Systems, under the heading “Braucherei, Hexenmeisters, & Pow-wow”)
  5. We have a great written interview with braucher Chris Bilardi here: Part I & Part II
  6. An online essay on Powwow by David W. Kreibel is available here

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

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 Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

German folk songs came from the site The songs played in this episode were:

  1. Winter, Ade!
  2. Taler, Taler du musst wander
  3. Meine Hande sind verschwunden
  4. Rolle, Rolle, Rolle
  5. Handewaschen
  6. Guten Morgen ruft die Sonne

Incidental music was Johannes Brahams, Symphony No. 4, found at

Promo 1- Lamplighter Blues


Podcast 48 – Healing Magic

January 25, 2013


In this episode we’re discussing magic, medicine, & healing. We’ll look at holistic therapies as well as why Laine & Cory don’t grab a spellbook or a pill bottle when they get a headache.


Download: Episode 48 – Healing Magic


  • Cory mentions Hands of Light by Barbara Ann Brennan, and while he doesn’t mention it, there’s a sequel called Light Emerging as well.
  • Make sure to visit our post about our current contest! You could win one of three amazing prizes!

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

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!

 Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1- Cosmophilia
Promo 2 – Between the Earth & Stars

Blog Post 166 – Dem Bones, part II

November 14, 2012

The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.

Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.

Healing Specimens
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:

  • To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
  • You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
  • The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay.  Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).

In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.”  What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page:  “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.”  Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.

After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:

  • TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
  • To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
  • To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
  • As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
  • If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
  • To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)

Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.

With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

Charm Curios
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:

  • Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
  • The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
  • When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
  • A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
  • Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
  • “Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)

Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).

Other methods for using bones as magical curios:

  • A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
  • Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
  • Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
  • You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
  • Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)

Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one:  the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:

To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).

Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:

“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).

I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.

With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!

Thanks as always for reading!



  1. Anderson, Jeffery D. Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook. (Greenwood Press, 2008).
  2. Artisson, Robin. “The Toad Bone Treatise.” Self-published (2008).
  3. Brown, Michael H., Ed.S. “The Bone Game: A Native American Ritual for Developing Personal Power or Tribal Consciousness.” Journal of Experiential Education (1990).
  4. Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Book of Gypsy Magic: Travelers’ Stories, Spells & Healings. (Weiser, 2010).
  5. Chumbley, Andrew. “The Leaper Between: An Historical Study of the Toad-bone Amulet.” The Cauldron (UK) (2001).
  6. Davies, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. (Jonathan Davis Publishers, 1975).
  7. Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore.  (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1935).
  8. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
  9. Hoadley, Michael. A Romany Tapestry. (Capall-Bann, 2001).
  10. Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  11. Howard, James H. “The Akira Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle.” Plains Anthropologist. (Plains Anthropological Soc., 1974).
  12. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
  13. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois.  (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
  14. Knab, Timothy. The War of the Witches: A Journey into the Otherworld of Contemporary Aztecs. (Westview Press, 1997).
  15. Martin, Kameelah L. “Conjuring Moments & Other Such Hoodoo: African American Women & Spirit Work.” Dissertation. Dept. of English, Florida State Univ. (2006).
  16. McAtee, W. L. “Odds and Ends of North American Folklore on Birds.” Midwest Folklore.  (Indiana UP, 1955).
  17. Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
  18. Poenna, Carlos G. The Yoruba Domino Oracle. (Red Wheel Weiser, 2000).
  19. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
  20. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).
  21. —. Throwing the Bones. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2012).

Blog Post 158 – The Doctrine of Signatures

June 1, 2012

Greetings everyone!

In this entry, I want to talk a little bit about a concept that can get very sticky, and which may very well put me at the outer limits of credibility. Before I dig into the meat of the subject, however, I think I should remind everyone that THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG. NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE IS INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE FOR ANY ILLNESS, AILMENT, OR CONDITION. IF YOU HAVE A MEDICAL NEED, PLEASE SEE YOUR PHYSICIAN OR QUALIFIED HEALTH PROVIDER. ALL INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN IS STRICTLY IN THE INTEREST OF PRESENTING FOLKLORE AND PERSONAL OPINION.

Now that the big, scary, all-caps part of the post is done, let’s talk about the Doctrine of Signatures. I was actually rather surprised after our last episode to hear from several people that the concept of the DOS was unfamiliar to them. I realized at some point that the ideas founding the DOS were so internalized, and I was assuming that most people who worked with herbs had heard of those concepts. Now I’m thinking that I may have just been sort of lucky to have picked that information up early on (I know my mother shared a bit of that with me based on herbs she grew and I learned a lot of it from my first few years as a practicing neo-Pagan hanging around rock and herb shops).

So what is the Doctrine of Signatures? In this case, I think I’ll leave the general explanation to better folklorists than myself. First, I’m going to quote a somewhat neutral (though erring on the side of skepticism) article by folklorist Wayland D. Hand:

“Advocates of nature’s way in natural and organically grown foods, probably still have a lingering belief in the doctrine that for every illness with which man is afflicted God himself has provided a healing agent. All one has to do is to learn to seek out these wondrous plants. It was on this essential premise that the Doctrine of Signatures was enunciated by Paracelsus, Giambattista Porta and the early botanists. This theory is most ably stated by William Turner, an English botanist, who in his The New Herbal of 1551, wrote: ‘God hath imprinted upon plants, herbs, and flowers, as it were, a hieroglyphic, the very  signature of their vertues, as on the nutmeg, which, being cut, resembles the brain.’ Writing a half a century later, Johannes Franck, one of the leading German botanists of his day, compiled a book which  he called Signature, that is, a Basic and True Description of Plants Created by God and Nature. This doctrine went somewhat beyond the shape and color of plants to their activity and function. One of the earliest examples of this kind of sympathetic connection is found in the writings of Pliny the Elder who flourished in the first century, A.D. Calcifrage was recommended to combat the stone. This prescription  comes form the fact that this hardy plant which could penetrate the fissures of the hardest face of a cliff, would certainly be able to break up kidney and gallstones, as the name of the plant itself suggests:  calci-frage, ‘stone breaking.’” (Hand, “Magical Medicine,” Western Folklore)

Next, let’s look at a much older (and much more cynical) opinion about this idea, from plant folk-lorist T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, whose Folk Lore of Plants is something of a classic:

“The old medical theory, which supposed that plants by their external character indicated the particular diseases for which Nature had intended them as remedies, was simply a development of the much older notion of a real connection between object and image. Thus, on this principle, it was asserted that the properties of substances were frequently denoted by their colour; hence, white was regarded as refrigerant, and red as hot. In the same way, for disorders of the blood, burnt purple, pomegranate seeds, mulberries, and other red ingredients were dissolved in the patient’s drink; and for liver complaints yellow substances were recommended. But this fanciful and erroneous notion ‘led to serious errors in practice,’ and was occasionally productive of the most fatal results.” (Dyer, TFLOP, Chapter XVI)

The idea of plants bearing the divine mark which indicated their use is a very old concept. Hand notes that Pliny the Elder recorded such an idea, and it was debated even in his time with question to the validity of this method.  The idea—in one form or another—appears in herbal medicinal systems throughout the world, including Chinese traditional herbalism and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.  Many people swear by it, and a number of ‘yarb doctors’ have treated ailments with it for centuries with relative success. Yet at the same time, the doctrine has been misused, misapplied, or just plain wrong in some cases and has caused an increase in illness or injury.

I bring up the DOS at all because it’s so fundamental to New World magical concepts. The idea that God, the Creator, or some other spiritual force has set in motion a world which bears hallmarks of its design seems to have been taken as de facto truth among many early settlers in America, particularly poor folks with limited access to medical treatment. An entire profession of folk herbalism, or “yarb doctors” arose in the Appalachians, and similar practices (such as curanderismo in the Southwest) appeared elsewhere. In most cases, these medicine men and women did not make their primary living off of their knowledge of herbs and plants, but rather in many cases refused payment for such services, feeling that it was their God-given duty to render help when help was needed. Of course, such high-mindedness was not universal, but even in cases where money or goods changed hands, yarb doctors cost less than a typical doctor in most instances.

Determining which plants have which signatures is a strange and murky process. For instance, an herb with heart-shaped leaves might be good for treating a physical heart problem, an emotional disorder, working a love charm, etc. The hairy stems of mint might indicate that it has the ability to ‘prickle’ the lungs and stimulate respiration, or they might signal that rubbing mint on one’s scalp would stimulate hair growth. The tall and showy joe pye weed, which has the nickname ‘gravel root,’ is used to treat kidney stones—frequently referred to as ‘gravel’—but its hollow stems might signal a use in treating sore throats as well as problems of the urinary tract, which both feature hollow tubes leading to external orifices. In this latter case, we can see another important aspect of the Doctrine, in which many plants receive their folk names based on their folk medical uses (boneset, feverfew, eyebright, etc.). Critics of the DOS sometimes point out that the retroactive ascription of signs to the plants, such as noticing that joe pye weed has hollow stems and therefore would be good for urinary problems, does not indicate a heavenly marking of use, but rather makes for an easy mnemonic device for remembering what plants are good for what ailments.  Further complicating the matter, some signatures are not visual markings, but rather based on sounds the plant makes when shaken, for example, or perhaps on a specific odor the plant emits.

There are also potential problems separating out a ‘signature’ from a legendary or mythical ascription of plant demarcation. Passionflower, which I’ve written about previously, is a good example of layered interpretation, with the numerical and color symbology of the plant being so closely linked to Christian mythology that the flower essentially contains a sermon. Was passionflower marked, given its unusual structure by a Creator to illustrate a story? Likewise, a number of plants are reputed to have some tie to the Crucifixion in Christian myth, such as the holly berry. Thiselton-Dyer also records a similar blood-staining myth related to poppies, in which they have been dyed by the blood of St. Margaret. In these cases, the plants are ‘marked,’ but not necessarily for use. They bear the signs of an interested and involved divine power, but are not strictly Doctrine of Signatures material since those signs illustrate a story and not a practical application. Yet, by a stretch of imagination, one could link the poppy’s use as an opiate and intoxicant to the story of St. Margaret, who famously battled a dragon. Since the use of poppy-derived-opium (and its relative, heroin) was known for a time as “chasing the dragon,” the connection does, by a bizarre happenstance, make some degree of sense. But was the flower marked with foreknowledge of the phrase, and thus was it pre-figurative? Or is all of this just strange coincidence?

It’s probably time for me to come clean, as I’ve been sort of dancing around my opinion on the Doctrine of Signatures. I’m a believer. Not a hard-and-fast, every-plant-bears-a-signature-and-medical-science-is-quackery kind of believer, but I tend to think that the DOS has some validity. My personal work with herbs and plants has led me to see the connections between their form and their functions. I don’t think that we necessarily understand every signature in every plant, and I do think that we frequently misinterpret the signs we see, but I do think that there’s an element of deliberate design within most flora that has to do with its use. This probably hedges a bit close to the Intelligent Design argument for some folks, and I don’t want to get bogged down in that discussion. I don’t make claims as to who marked the plants—perhaps they mark themselves in some way, for all I know. And I don’t necessarily think that I could wander into a meadow, find a foot-shaped plant, and use it to treat bunions and corns. I tend to agree with the skeptics about the retro ascription of plant signatures that human understanding of the plant signatures comes after we figure out what they are used for. But that does not diminish—to me—the idea that the design is implicitly connected to the use. It only emphasizes that we should be paying much more attention to what plants have to teach us, and to the hidden language of the world working around us.

So that’s my nutshell version of the Doctrine of Signatures. There are many authors who discuss this concept more handily than I have here, so please do some research and see what you think of the whole thing. Have you ever noticed signatures in plants (or even in animals, weather phenomena, etc., which are sometimes included in an extended version of this doctrine)?

Thanks for reading!


Blog Post 157 – Peaches

May 22, 2012

I love a good summer peach. Or peach cobbler. Or homemade peach ice cream. And I can’t tell you how much I miss my mother’s homemade brandied peaches (which were amazing over some hand-churned vanilla). If you live in North America, it’s likely you’ve encountered peaches everywhere from grocery stores to roadside stands to neighbors’ backyards. They’re ubiquitous, which also means they’ve been a major player in the foodways of America.

Today I’m going to briefly look at the peach from another folkloric perspective, focusing on its relevance in magical lore as opposed to its purely culinary uses (though I imagine the two are not ever to be completely disentangled from one another).

The flesh of the peach is frequently regarded as a nearly sacred food in its homeland of China, where it is thought to aid immortality. The lore of the peach is extensive there, with every part of the tree and fruit making an appearance. Peach pits are worn as amulets to ward off demons, while blossoms are used to enhance love, luck, & beauty. Peaches are left in family shrines, and feature prominently in the literature and art of China. You can read a good deal more about the role of the peach in Chinese lore here and here.

Peaches were highly valued in places like the Appalachian Mountains, too.  According to the third Foxfire book, one of the most common varieties was the Indian peach, a shrubby variety with small, firm peaches:

“Indian peaches are small trees, spreading with scraggly branches, said to be descendants of those trees planted by the Cherokees around their villages…The fruit of the Indian peach is white with a rosy cheek, white-meated with a red heart…All have a most delicious flavor, raw or cooked. Peaches are rich in iron, and peach leaf tea was a medicine for bladder troubles or used as a sedative” (Foxfire 3 303)

In North American folklore, all parts of the peach have their value as well. In Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, one of the author’s informants says this of the peach tree:  “The peach tree was justifiably described by herbalist Tommie Bass of northern Alabama as ‘a drugstore on its own’ in recognition of its many medicinal uses” (Cavender 64-5). Below you’ll see a sampling of the many different magical and/or medicinal uses of the peach and its parts:


  • “A baby that refuses to come can be brought at once and the labor pains will stop, if the woman drinks tea made from bark scraped downwards off a young peach tree.” (Hyatt #2972) Hyatt also states in several other places that peach branches were used to help bring a baby into the world by magical means.
  • “Peach tree root or bark was also commonly used [to treat diarrhea]” (Cavender 88)
  • Peach wood can be used in a magical cure for warts by cutting as many notches in a peach branch as one has warts (Thomas #1493) (see also “Leaves”)
  • Peach wood is one of the reputed choices for making dowsing forks, according to many sources (Thomas #105; Brunvand 432, Steiner 271, Randolph 83)
  • Ozark lore specifies that peach bark scraped upward prevents vomiting and/or diarrhea, but scraped downward it is a strong emetic (Randolph 95)
  • “A mess of peach roots, ground up and mixed with lard, is said to cure the seven-year itch” (Randolph 109)


  • A piece of Kentucky lore states that twinned peaches found together indicate that you will be married soon (Thomas #593)
  • Eating a peach pecked by a bird is said to lead to poisoning (Steiner 267)


  • John George Hohman mentions the use of “peach-stones” as a cure for “gravel” (kidney stones). He attests to it especially because it cured him of his own gravel (Long-Lost Friend #84)
  • Hohman attests that peach pits can also be taken to remedy drunkenness (#185)
  • The seeds reputedly can help stimulate hair growth in some people (Todd 55)
  • Vance Randolph describes an Ozark love charm consisting of a carved peach stone filled with “some pinkish, soap-like material” which he could not identify (Randolph 166)
  • Both Randolph and Newbell Niles Puckett mention the peach-pit charm as a powerful one, akin to the lucky rabbit’s foot charm (Puckett 437)


  • Peach leaves were thought to be a Colonial-era cure for worms (Black 199)
  • Cat Yronwode mentions using dried peach leaves in wisdom oil blends to help students focus on studies (HHRM 143)
  • Kentucky lore says that rubbing warts with peach-leaves, then burying them will remove warts (Thomas #1492)
  • The leaves were frequently made into a poultice, which could be used to treat headaches, bruises, and “pumpknots (bumps caused by a blow or knock to the head)” (Cavender 98, 109)
  • One of the Foxfire informants recommended a peach leave poultice mixed with salt and cornmeal to treat an abscessed tooth (Foxfire 9 70).
  • Herbalist Jude C. Todd recommends the use of peach leaves as a part of a dandruff treatment (Todd 53)


  • Hohman says that “The flowers of the peach-tree, prepared like salad, opens the bowels, and is of use in the dropsy” (Long-Lost Friend #185)
  • Hohman also recommends the use of the flowers as a cure for worms and constipation (#185)
  • Girls in the Ozarks pierce their ears when peaches are in bloom, believing that piercing them any other time will lead to infection (Randolph 164)

Vance Randolph has a great bit of lore regarding the planting of peaches as well:

“In planting peach trees, it is always well to bury old shoes or boots near the roots. Not far from Little  Rock, Arkansas, I have known farmers to drive into town and search the refuse piles for old shoes to be buried in peach orchards. The older and more decayed the leather, the better it works as fertilizer” (Randolph 39)

From my own perspective, I really like the dowsing power of the peach, but I also have a great fondness for the carved peach pit charms. They seem like they would be beautiful and incognito ways of carrying natural amulets about on one’s person. I can also easily see using the flesh of a peach like the flesh of an apple, carving things into it before eating to absorb those qualities. The peachy pulp, which bears such a strong resemblance in so many ways to human flesh, also suggests a use as a makeshift dolly. When the “heart” of the peach, its stone, is considered, this is likely a very apt application of magic to the rosy-golden fruit.

I thought I’d finish up today with something non-magical, but which certainly has an enchanting power: brandied peaches like my mother used to make (I sadly do not have her exact recipe anymore, so the one I’m sharing is adapted from the excellent Putting Food By, by Greene, Herzberg, & Vaughan). We used to have a spoonful of these over ice cream after dinner sometimes, and they were simply otherworldly. They’re not as sweet as you might think, but that’s part of their charm. Plus, you can’t go wrong with a little booze in your dessert. I hope you enjoy!

Peaches (1 lb.)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Good brandy
Whole cloves (optional)
Whole cinnamon sticks (optional)

Clean & dry your one-pint canning jars. Score skin of peaches, then blanch them in boiling water and dunk them into an ice bath. Slip the skins off and slice the peaches into halves and quarters (removing stones).

Make a simple syrup by boiling the cup of sugar with the water. Cook the peaches in the sugar syrup for about 5 minutes, then transfer peaches into individual jars. To each jar add 1-3 cloves  (optional), 1 cinnamon stick (optional), and 2-3 tablespoons of brandy. Seal jars and process in a hot water bath for about 20-25 minutes, then carefully remove the jars and allow them to seal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at peaches. If you have any other ideas about using peaches in magic, please leave them in here or drop us a line.

Thanks for reading!


Blog Post 144 – Walnuts

November 22, 2011

“As soft as silk,
As white as milk,
As bitter as gall,
A strong wall,
And a green coat covers me all”
Walnut riddle from H.M. Hyatt, Adams Co., Entry No. 14379

Continuing with the Thanksgiving ingredient theme (i.e. Apples), I thought today it would be good to look at a fairly common tree and nut that has been woven into magic for hundreds of years. I’m speaking of course of the unassuming but delicious walnut which tops brownies, finds its way into salads, and makes a delicious candied treat. Don’t worry, though, my next topic will not be mayonnaise and I am not subtly leading up to any kind of enchanted Waldorf salad.

I’d like to briefly start in the Old World and mention a legend which had some influence on 19th-century occult folklorist Charles Leland. In “Neopolitan Witchcraft” by J.B. Andrews and James Frazer, a rhyme appears which translates roughly:

Beneath the water and beneath the wind,
Beneath the walnut trees of Benevento,
Lucibello bring me where I need to go.

This charm would help a witch magically fly to her Sabbat, supposedly. The idea of witches gathering beneath a walnut tree in Benevento, Italy clearly impacted Leland, who includes a tale in his “witch gospel” Aradia called “The House of the Wind” (which is what Benevento means in English). [EDIT: See comments below for a correction on this translation] Myth Woodling, who runs a marvelous set of pages on Italian folk magic and witchcraft, has this to say about the walnut:

Walnut shells, in Italian fairy tales, were often used to contain something precious or magical. A walnut branch was said to protect one from lightening. There were stories of witches and spirits gathering under walnut trees”

In the New World, walnuts gained a number of powers and attributes, while the lore about walnuts and lightning becomes reversed, as found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, where he tells how black walnuts are now thought to draw lightning and hillfolk refuse to plant these trees near their homes for that reason (72). Some of Randolph’s other interesting tidbits about walnuts are here:

  • “A big crop of walnuts indicates cold weather to come” (26)
  • A good season for tomatoes is a bad season for walnuts (39)
  • Fresh walnut leaves scattered about the house can deter insects (68)
  • Walnut shells must not be burned, or bad luck will come (71)
  • The juice of a green walnut can help cure ringworm (110)
  • “The shell of a black walnut is supposed to represent the human skull, and the meat is said to resemble  the brain, therefore people who show signs of mental aberration are encouraged to eat walnuts. I know of one case in which an entire family devoted most of the winter to cracking walnuts for a feebleminded boy. They kept it up for years, and I believe the poor fellow ate literally bushels of walnut goodies” (114)
  • “A mountain girl of my acquaintance placed a lock of her hair under a stone in a running stream,  believing that the water would make her hair glossy and attractive. Another way to promote the growth of hair is to bury a “twist” of it under the roots of a white walnut tree, in the light of the moon” (165)

Similar lore exists in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, with the addition of magical wart charming ascribed to the humble walnut. Daniel & Lucy Thomas, in their Kentucky Superstitions, say that green walnuts can be rubbed on warts, then buried to charm the wart away. This makes for an interesting variant on the standard wart-charming method of cutting a fruit or vegetable in half before using it to cure the wart (but I’ll address those ideas in a different post entirely). Heading into Illinois, Henry Hyatt reports a mix of magical and medical uses for walnuts:

  • Thin walnut shells mean a light winter, while thick shells mean a heavy one
  • A black walnut carried at all times prevents headaches
  • A mixture of boiled walnut leaves, water, and sulphur makes a powerful anti-itch wash
  • Dreaming of opening or eating walnuts means money is coming soon

In this latter example, we can see the walnut being used as a divinatory aid, which makes sense when we think of the strong ‘brain’ association with the little wrinkled nut (since it has a brain, it must know something, so why not the future, right?). Hyatt also shares a lovely little love divination with walnuts:

9033. Her future husband’s occupation can be learned by a girl who grates three nuts — a hazelnut, nutmeg and walnut — mixes these grated nuts with butter and sugar, makes pills of this paste, and swallows nine of them on going to bed: if she dreams of wealth, she will marry a gentleman; of white linen, a clergyman; of darkness, a lawyer; of noises, a tradesman or laborer; of thunder and lightning, a soldier or sailor; and of rain, a servant

This sense of a walnut as a ‘knowing’ curio seems to be tied again to its brain-like appearance, but also with the idea of the little nut containing some special knowledge the way it contained magical charms in an Old World context. The tree even seems to know what is growing around it in some cases. Patrick Gainer says that the presence of a white walnut tree indicates ginseng growing underneath it (120).

Another key use of the walnut in magic has to do—or at least I think it does—with its bitterness and perhaps the deep blackness of the flesh surrounding the nut. Walnuts can strip away negativity nearly as well as eggs, lemons, salt, or any of the other major magical cleansing agents. Draja Mickaharic includes a cleansing bath which uses walnuts in order to sever ties with an unwanted person or influence. He warns that it can only be used once, and that going back to the person after ties are severed will have dire results. The basic formula involves boiling six unshelled walnuts in a pot for three hours, adding water if needed. After that time, there will be a black broth that should be added to a bathtub, and the person using the bath should immerse themselves seven times in it, saying prayers as appropriate (Spiritual Cleansing 58).The dark color absorbs all negativity, and the galling nature of the fruit works the way a lemon does to sever evil from one’s person. Cat Yronwode suggests a similar bath to Mickaharic, adding the important step of disposing of the used bathwater at a crossroads. She also indicates that walnut leaves can be used in a spell to hurt an enemy’s luck (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic 205).

One use for a walnut I’ve never seen but which I really think would be interesting to try would be as a head for a doll baby working. Considering the brain associations and the fleshiness of the fruit, I’m not sure why this is not a common-place use of the walnut, but c’est la vie. If you happen to know why they’re not used in doll magic, I’d love to hear it! Or if you have any other uses of walnuts in New World folk magic, please feel free to share!

Thanks for reading!


Blog Post 124 – Tobacco

April 14, 2011

[A note here:  This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. Additionally, I am NOT condoning the use of cigarettes, snuff, or any other tobacco product, especially for minors. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions.  Leave me out of it.  Thank you!]

This particular magical herb/plant/ingredient is rather controversial. As a reformed smoker, I know the power of tobacco’s hold on a person—it’s not just the nicotine, but a whole range of psychological dependencies that develop when one is a smoker.  What I’m looking at in this post, however, is not really tobacco as a commodity sold in convenience stores using cartoon animals, but instead the plant found in the Nicotiana genus. Tobacco is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes other rather magical plants like belladonna, datura, and mandrake as well as common (yet mythically significant) edibles like the tomato, potato, and chili pepper.  The plant is also a potent natural insecticide—or insect deterent, rather—and an infusion of tobacco leaves in water is often sprayed in organic garden to keep pests away.

Tobacco, like corn, is deeply significant to certain Native American tribes, who incorporate tobacco into ceremonies and offerings.  Cherokee shamans, for example, would use sacred tobacco in ceremonies designed to combat “night-goers,” evil spirits or people who invaded the dreams of others.  Tobacco smoke was also used as a curative for a number of ailments, and these uses filtered into non-Native practices over time (which we’ll see in just a moment).

When tobacco met European colonists, it experienced a boom in popularity that has kept it one of the top cash crops worldwide ever since—for better or for worse.  It has been deeply wound up in the lives of most North Americans for centuries now, including in their folk medical and magical practices.  One oft-repeated use of the leaf was as a treatment for insect stings and bites, as well as other types of wounds:

  • Tobacco used as a poultice to soothe “abdominal pain…cuts, stings, bites, bruises, and even bullet wounds.” It is thought to “draw out poison” (Randolph, p. 98)
  • “TOBACCO. The leaves are put on a wound to stop bleeding or to prevent infection” (Gainer, p.109)
  • Tobacco, especially homegrown, is good for insect stings and bites (Foxfire 9, p. 66)
  • Wet leaves are wrapped on feet to prevent infection of “full sores” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • Tobacco juice/tea used to wash wounds from snake/dog bites (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • A personal informant told me that her grandmother used to put wads of chewing tobacco on cuts, bug bites, and stings to help heal them (informant “Darlene”)

The other chief folk medicinal use for tobacco was the application of smoke to sick or troubled persons.  There were almost as many mentions of this method as there were of the poultice method.  Here are a few:

  • Tobacco smoke can be held in the mouth as a cure for a toothache (Cavendar, p. 118-19)
  • Smoke was blown into an ear for an earache, accompanied by the rhyme “Hurt, Hurt, go away/go into a bale of hay” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • Tobacco smoke is blown into the clothes of colicky children to quiet them, or blown through a straw and “bubbled” in milk as a sedative (Randolph, p.98)

This method clearly derives (I think, anyway) from the Native American medical practices which Europeans adopted in the New World.

The use of tobacco has always had its controversies, of course.  Some objected to it on aesthetic grounds, thinking the act of smoking vulgar and primitive.  Others were disgusted by the smoke and smell associated with the burning leaves.  Still others thought it a waste of money or even a diabolical entrapment for hapless Christians.  One poem I found was circulated in the middle-Appalachians during the nineteenth century and covered all these points:

“Tobacco is an Indian weed,

The Devil himself sowed the seed;

Robs your pockets, burns your clothes,

And makes a chimney out of your nose” (Milne, p. 58)

The religious objections to tobacco were primarily on its use as a vice and an intoxicant.  According to Foxfire 7, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had especial objections to it, and for quite intriguing reasons:  “Smoking has always been completely out of vogue among Jehovah’s Witnesses…As the Society researched the derivations of tobacco and smoking, they found it to be associated with spiritism.”  They also related tobacco to “drugs” used by “priests in pagan ceremony and worship” (Foxfire 7, p. 152-3).

When it comes to purely magical uses of tobacco, the information I found varied a good bit.  Zora Neale Hurston mentions it as a cursing ingredient in a powerful separation spell.  She also tells a very interesting story about a man who takes shelter in an abandoned house only to be joined by a mysterious old man who begins spitting tobacco across the fire at him. When the man attempts to fight the old fellow, he finds himself thrown across the room over and over again.  In this context, there seems to be a subtle current relating the “old man” of the story to the Crossroads Man, Papa Legba, or perhaps the Devil (or maybe even all three from a certain perspective).

One article from 1890 indicated that tobacco was included in mojo bags made with the famous lucky rabbit’s foot.

Cat Yronwode recommends tobacco as an ingredient in court case and spirit contact work.  In this latter capacity, I’ve see tobacco used as an offering to various spirits, particularly crossroads entities and spirits of the dead (Central American folk-saint/crossroads spirit Maximon frequently smokes cigarettes or cigars).  Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook indicates that tobacco is frequently offered to Baron Samedi in the New Orleans Voodoo tradition.

I would also suggest that due to the calmative and drawing effects that tobacco exhibits in folk medicine, it makes a useful addition to house-cleansing and blessing incenses.  A very small pinch added to another incense blend in a well-ventilated house should draw evil spirits out of your home and welcome friendly (and particularly, ancestral) spirits into it.  If you or anyone you live with cannot abide tobacco smoke, however, consider burying a little cut tobacco leaf at the four corners of your property to produce a similar effect.

Lastly, if you choose to smoke tobacco in a ritual context, consider whispering prayers as you exhale smoke.  It makes a fantastic visual focus point to see your requests and adoration slowly rising from your mouth and into the air.  Again, I don’t condone smoking (especially not outside of a very occasional ritual setting), but if you do incorporate it into your practices, I hope that this suggestion helps.

That’s it for the devil-weed tobacco!  I hope this proves useful to some of you out there.  Please let me know if you have any other magical or folk remedy uses for tobacco leaf in the comments below.

As always, thanks for reading!


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