We discuss the uses of cauldrons, just what qualifies as one, and how formulae and potions factor into our witchcraft.
Summary: It’s all about what’s in our cauldrons, literally this time! We discuss the uses of cauldrons, just what qualifies as one, and how formulae and potions factor into our witchcraft.
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A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.
It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.
Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.
Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.
Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:
“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”
The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.
The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such).
Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.
Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low.
Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins:
“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.
What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).
Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century.
A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:
“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)
The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt).
Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia:
“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).
This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4).
None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place.
So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complementactual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).
First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.
These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.
If you have that song by the Clash in your head now, congratulations, that was my primary purpose in writing this article. Kidding.
Last time I took you on a quick but fun tour of my home to show how I’ve applied some of the folk magic I’ve picked up over the years in my personal life. Today, I’m drawing some inspiration from Sarah Lawless, whose article on “Pantry Folk Magic” is one of the finest pieces on using what’s at hand for practical spellwork that I’ve ever read. I’m also inspired by an article on “Grocery Store Magic,” in The Black Folder, a compilation of workshop notes by Cat Yronwode (which I recently reviewed), and I’ll be citing both of these sources as well as several others in the coming few paragraphs.
There are plenty of articles out there on doing magic from the grocery store, but I wanted to go beyond the spice aisle a bit and look at the vast number of folk magical items that may go a little under the radar in a standard shopping trip.
Before we go much further, I do want to mention that I don’t think the grocery store is the end-all be-all of magical supply houses. I prefer by far to grow or wildcraft my own botanicals, use hand-crafted incenses from a local occult shop, and carry talismans picked up at the nearby Catholic bookstore in a lot of cases. Supporting community commerce and doing work oneself fits in as well or better with most magical practices than grabbing a mass-produced box of incense from a five-and-dime shelf, but there are always going to be cases where magic must be done on short notice or with supplies not readily purchased at the witchy store. In some of the cases below, it should also be noted that the grocery stores where one can find these ingredients are not the big chains, but rather local bodegas or international markets. You are far more likely to find chewing john (galangal root) in an Asian market than in a big chain one, for example. Now, on to the tour!
One of the big resources that frequently gets missed in grocery store magical item lists is the cornucopia of candles that can sometimes be found. Of course, a lot of stores carry scented jar candles and those are reasonable enough for doing some workings, but if you look in the Latin American or Hispanic section you can often find a number of saint candles as well. I’ve found everything from the standard Virgen de Guadalupe to Santa Muerte, Seven African Powers, Just Judge/Justo Juez, and even a Lucky Lotto Numbers candle just by browsing a little. Below you can see a pair of very cute candles which look like children’s novenas for working with Guadalupe or St. Jude, found at a mid-level chain grocery store.
The novena candles are also frequently available unlabeled and sometimes in multiple colors. It’s fairly easy to customize them to your own needs and do extended spellwork using these tools.
The candles don’t stop there, though. Say you want to do a quick-and-easy candle spell, but you know you won’t have time to burn a candle 1-2 hours per night for nine nights. Stop by the baking section and grab birthday candles, which are small and burn very quickly. Will it change the potency? Perhaps, but you’ll be able to at least do what you want to do. They also frequently have letter or number shaped candles, so you might be able to use those to target a specific goal or person with the spell (especially if you’re knowledgeable about numerology and can figure out the right number(s) for the job).
If your grocery also has a Jewish section with kosher options, check to see if they sell Shabbat candles. They frequently come in boxes at a very reasonable price, and are specifically designed to be used for spiritual purposes (albeit non-magical ones in most cases). These burn longer than the birthday candles but much more quickly than novenas, and so would be good for mid-range spell work.
We’ve mentioned these a bit in our previous post on Spiritual House Cleaning, but here I mean less of the whole-herb types and more of the mass-produced stuff. Harshly-scented cleaning solutions with abrasive chemicals and artificial odors may not seem like a particularly likely place to find folk magic, but it’s there if you look for it. One of the most common of household cleaning agents, ammonia, acts as a substitute for urine in some spells. Cat Yronwode suggests in her Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic that ammonia can be used in spells focusing on protection and spells designed to improve sales, either at a business or of a home (Yronwode 29). In Spiritual Cleansing, Draja Mickaharic mentions ammonia’s great psychic cleaning powers and notes that putting a little bit down the drain after a house blessing & cleansing will help finish the job.
In a similar vein, we find plenty of uses for that old pantry/laundry/cleaning-closet standby, vinegar. Sarah plainly mentions vinegar as one of her grocery store finds for the working magician. All vinegars can be good for simple crossing work, according to Southern folk magic, and it would be very easy to turn cider or wine vinegars into a variety of Four Thieves Vinegar for both aggressive protection and subtle cursing. I mentioned on our Spell Failures episode that I had attempted to work a vinegar jar with poor results (mostly due to my lack of dedication). I found an interesting hexing combination of both vinegar and ammonia in Zora Neale Hurston’s article on “Hoodoo in America,” too:
i. To Punish.
When you want a person who is indited punished, write the name of the person in jail on a slip of paper and put it in a sugar bowl, or some other receptacle of the kind. Put in red pepper, black pepper, one penny nail, fifteen cents of ammonia and two keys. Drop one key down in the bowl and lean the other against the side of the bowl. Go to the bowl every day at twelve and turn the key that is standing against the side of the bowl to keep the person locked in jail. Every time you turn the key, add a little vinegar (Hurston 382).
I find it interesting that both ammonia and vinegar seem to be able to perform cleansing functions in a household, but applied to an individual their corrosive nature seems to become destructive. I think this illustrates the principle of the two-sided coin of magic nicely, though, as the same ingredient that can save you from nasty spirits might also be turned around to damn an enemy.
Before I move off of cleaners, I want to mention a couple of the commercial products out there that have some magical history and applications. First, the famous Pine-Sol cleaner, which has been found in grocery stores for almost 60 years. The product was born in Mississipi, and even today contains pine oil to give it cleaning power and its trademark scent (along with a hefty dose of chemical salts and alcohols). Pine oil is another spiritual cleanser and refresher, in addition to having some mundane cleaning properties as an antibacterial and antiseptic disinfectant. It works a lot like lemon does in spiritual cleansing—so much so that one of Pine-Sol’s first offshoot scents was lemon, although now they have half-a-dozen different aromas to choose from. While I’d never suggest using a commercial pine cleaner on the body (or in the body especially…that’s a big no-no!), some folk magical traditions have used pine oil-based treatments for medical ailments (there’s a fine example in Hohman’s Long Lost Friend, for instance). So the presence of lemon and pine has the power to cut through spiritual ailments as well as the nasty germs lingering on your kitchen floor. You can make a variant of your own pine oil cleaner by simply adding pine oil to some salted water with some castile soap dissolved in it. It won’t be as strong as Pine-Sol, but it also won’t be quite as harsh. You could even add a bit of lemon juice or lemon oil to that, too, for extra kick (both spiritually and microbially speaking).
Since we’re talking of lemons and soap, I can’t help but at least briefly mention Murphy Oil Soap, which has been treating hardwood floors for over a century (although only in a mass market for about half that time). The cintronella oil in Murphy’s has a citrusy, lemony scent, and is both a lucky and cleansing ingredient in spiritual work (it’s one of the oils used in Van Van Formula). Queen of Pentacles Conjure notes that both Murphy’s and Pine-Sol make great additions to the spirit worker’s cleaning closet. Citronella keeps away mosquitoes, too, which makes me love it even more.
I’m going to pause here before continuing through the aisles, as this article is already quite long. There is plenty more to see as we make our way through the store, though, so stay tuned!
Ah! Spring is in the air! The warm breezes, the crisp blue skies, the flowers poking their heads from beneath the stiff and frosty soil…wait, never mind. It’s still winter, isn’t it? But I did see a few daffodils showing their buttery yellow tops recently, so spring can’t be too far away. That brings me to the topic of the day: spring tonics. These are potions, concoctions, teas, tisanes, and other preparations which are taken not to react to a medical problem (although some do claim to treat a specific disorder) but to provide general or specific proactive health support. I make the standard disclaimer before we begin that this is not a medical blog and nothing herein should be construed as medical advice; it is provided in a historical and folkloric context only and any medical treatments should only be undertaken with the advice of a trained physician.
Tonics of one kind or another can be found in many places, but I will specifically be looking at the mountain traditions of eastern North America today (the Ozarks and Appalachians). This region has a long history with tonics as part of its medical culture, and even in its economy (which we’ll get to in a bit). Just what is a spring tonic, though? Let’s look to the sourcebook series on Appalachia, The Foxfire Books for a definition:
“After a long winter, spring was the time to refresh the spirit and tone up the system with a tonic. The mountain people used teas and beverages as tonics. They would gather the roots or barks in the proper season, dry them, store them in a dry place, and use them as they wanted them. People used sugar, honey, or syrup to sweeten the teas. Common spring tonics were sassafras, spice bush, and sweet birch” (Foxfire 2, 49).
The book says they were used to treat everything from digestive disorders to gout, sore eyes, skin problems, and liver ailments. They were usually used by making a strong tea (or tisane) and sweetening to taste. Spring greens could also have a tonic/purifying effect, such as wild asparagus, dandelions, dock, poke, wild onion, ramps, and nettles. So the simple answer is that a tonic is a plant based, preventative medical remedy aimed at improving overall health. They are frequently taken in the spring, but in some cases might be used throughout the year.
What kind of tonics were—and in some cases are—common in the mountains. One of the most widely used was sassafrass, which we’ve looked at before. According to Appalachian healer Emogene Nicholas Slaughter:
“We always have a spring tonic of sassafras tea. The red is the best. It makes the best tea. It’s the same thing but in different localities the roots are different because of the soil. I get mine generally over here along the river, and it’s the red roots but I can go back up here against the mountain on the north side of the hill and it’s the white roots. The old people always say that it (spring tonic) thins your blood after the wintertime you know. Cleared out the blood stream. Just makes you feel better. I really feel that it does” (Milne 94)
As you can see, even the specific location from which the roots were dug could have an impact on the healing quality of the tonic. Folklorist Vance Randolph recorded the use of sassafras and similar roots in Ozark tonics:
“Many Ozark people make a tea from the bark of the spicebush (Benzoin aestivale) in March and April. They drink this just as they do sassafras tea and regard it as a tonic and blood thinner. It tastes quite as good as sassafras, I think. Some old folks say that in pioneer days the spicebush was used to season game it softened the wild taste of venison and bear meat. Spicebush twigs are still used as a mat beneath a possum, when the Ozark housewife bakes the animal in a covered pan or a Dutch oven. Choctaw-root or dogbane (Apocynum) is also made into a tea, mildly laxative, which is said to “thin the blood an’ tone up the system.” I have never tasted this but have met men who say that it is better than either sassafras or spicebush. Some yarb doctors fortify their choctaw-root with wild-cherry bark and ‘anvil dust,’ whatever that may be” (Randolph 105)
Randolph also identifies wild-cherry preparations which would be used to make “bitters,” similar to those used in making cocktails but specifically focused on health benefits. He also mentions the purple coneflower (Echinacea), which has been touted in contemporary times as an immunity booster.
Sassafras and spicebush were far from the only spring tonic taken regularly in the mountains. Here are some other examples of spring tonics:
Seventy-seven willow leaves boiled down in water to a pint of liquid is a good chills tonic (Hyatt 109)
Ginseng, which we’ve covered in another post, was reputed to have a number of tonic properties
To regulate the flow in menstruation, boil the inside bark of a sweet- apple tree and use as a tonic: if flowing too much, the bark must be scraped upwards from the tree; if too little, downwards (Hyatt 111)
“An amateur herbalist at Pineville, Missouri, told me that a tonic mixture of whiskey, tansy, and ragweed leaves was indicated in all such cases ; “I take it every day myself,” said he, “an* it agrees with me fine. I aint had the hiccoughs but once in fourteen year!” (Randolph 100)
A strong tea of red-clover blossoms is highly regarded in some quarters as a blood purifier and general tonic. It is used in the treatment of whooping cough, too, but if the whooping cough is really bad nothing will help it but mare’s milk. Many a father has been routed out in the night to ride to some farm where a mare has lately foaled (Randolph 105)
“Bloodroot or red puccoon (Sanguinaria) is also supposed to be a great blood remedy, apparently because it has bloodred sap. By the same token a leaf shaped like a kidney, or a liver, or an ovary, or what not is supposed to designate a remedy for disorders of the organ which it resembles. The yarb doctors are all familiar with this principle, but they don’t seem to take it very seriously or follow it consistently.” (Randolph 105-6)
“Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey” (Foxfire 3, 247)
“Corn whiskey was a common cure for many ailments, many of which were feigned, people say. A mixture of whiskey and honey was used to treat toothaches, sore throats, and minor stomach ailments” (Montell 103)
Whiskey played a major role in the decoction of tonics, as you can see in some of the above examples. Likewise strong solvents like vinegar could be used to draw out the wonderful properties of plants and create a powerful tonic. We touched on this in our post on Four Thieves Vinegar, for example. At the top of this article you can see an example of a brochure for a vinegar-based tonic (I picked this up at a nearby Amish market). The inside portion is below:
Several of the tonics we’ve mentioned so far specifically speak of their effect on the blood, either as “blood-thinners” or “blood toners.” These preparations were supposed to help undo the sluggishness and thickening that occurred during the winter within the body.
“Tonics known as ‘blood toners’ or ‘blood builders’ were used mainly in the spring to restore vital properties to the blood. One of the most popular was sulfur and molasses. ‘Blood purifiers’ or ‘blood thinners’ were also used in the spring and during episodes of sickness to clear the blood and organs of toxic waste, or what Southern Appalachians termed ‘pizins’” (Cavendar 65)
They also made herbal bitters which helped digestion and purified the blood. Eventually, tonics were commercialized and turned into wonder pills and patent medicines. Some examples of the many patent medicines available throughout the early twentieth century: Dr. Enuf, Peuna, Dr. Simmons’ Liver Regulator, Dr. Thatcher’s Liver & Blood Syrup, Dr. Taylor’s Family Cordial, and Thedford’s Black Draught. Some, like Dr. Enuf, were essentially caffeine and sugar energy pills claiming marvelous properties. Some legitimately helped. Most were made not in the mountains, but in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, or Baltimore. The Chattanooga Medicine Company made two successful medicines, however: Wine of Cardui for ‘female complaints,’ and the laxative Black Draught (Cavendar 72-3). These patent medicines (which I may cover in another post at some point) had a huge impact on Appalachian economies, especially for people trying to get out of the farming life:
“The J.R. Watkins Medical Company, founded in 1868 in Winona, Minnesota…enjoyed great success in selling their medicines in Southern Appalachia…[They] offered men, and later women, the opportunity to have their own business by becoming local sales representatives. For many, it was a way to escape farming life and become prosperous. A 1916 issue of the Watkins Almanac has a picture of a man in a hat and overalls standing beside a horse-drawn plow. His head is turned toward a Watkins truck rolling down a road in the distance. Beneath the picture is the caption ‘I wish I were a Watkins Man.’ The company’s recruitment efforts were successful, for in 1911 it had over 2,500 sales representatives across the nation. Sales representatives not only operated in towns and cities but also served the remote rural communities on horseback. Families in the rural communities often provided food and lodging for the ‘Watkins man’…Watkins Blood and Skin Purifier, for example, was recommended [in their almanacs, another source of revenue and advertisement as well as a pharmacopeia for the rural Appalachian] as a curative or preventative for influenza, catarrh, headache, boils, acne, blackheads, ‘change of life’ (menopause), languor, and diarrhea because these disorders were all thought to be caused or complicated by defiled or weak blood” (Cavendar 74-5)
As medicine became restricted and patent medicines came under increasing scientific and legal scrutiny, these “Watkins men” and their ilk slowly disappeared, but the tonics have remained popular up to the present day (as illustrated by the Yoder’s Good Health brochure above).
Some tonics also got administered to animals for their general benefit, too: “Ordinary soft soap made with wood ashes is regarded as a sort of universal tonic for hogs, so the hillman just mixes a little soap with the hog feed occasionally. ‘Soap will cure a hog no matter what ails him, if you git it to him in time,” said one of my neighbors’”(Randolph 50). In some cases, plant materials were completely unnecessary and a tonic could be made by simply using water from a natural mineral spring. I hope to cover the many miracle curing hot springs at some point in the future, but I’ll briefly mention one such spring due to its connection to tonics:
“The unique sulphur spring was promoted as a cure for a variety of illnesses, but especially for influenza…promoters boasted that one could drink the waters and bathe in them for a few weeks each summer and thus prevent catching the dreaded disease during the winter months. The water was even bottled for a while and distributed throughout the nation as a cure-all” (Steele, 63)
If you’re already seeing the word “tonic” connected to the spring water and you’re thinking cocktails, you’re in good company. Tonic water, the kind you mix with really good Old Tom gin (am I showing a bias there?), comes out of the tonic-brewing tradition. Happy hour for your health, anyone?
I hope this has been a nice—if brief—look at spring tonics in their various forms. If you know of tonic recipes or variations I’ve missed, feel free to post them in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading,
I recently received an email regarding a topic we discussed on the podcast a while back:
“Cory, on one episode you mention 4 thieves vinegar and was wondering if you had the recipe. I totally want to make some! I heard what items go into it, but don’t know the proportions.”
I was surprised that I actually haven’t done a post on this yet, as it is such a fundamental formula, and so easy to make. So today I thought I’d put up some information on this particular recipe.
Let’s start with the history. The legend is that sometime during the plague years of the 16th and 17th centuries, a story went about that four spice merchants had discovered a secret formula which made them immune to the plague and which they’d rub on their bodies before robbing corpses ravaged by the disease. That formula was eventually revealed to be a strong red wine vinegar with a number of different spices—reputedly one for each thief—most notably a lot of garlic. Vinegar and garlic have some strong antiseptic properties, so it’s not hard to imagine that in a time before Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microorganisms in 1675 any application of anti-microbial formula would help prevent a communicable disease.
Of course, the history provided is the stuff of legend, and may or may not have a basis in fact. The earliest English reference to the Four Thieves and their famous concoction appears in 1825, in the publication Pharmacologia, where it is referred to as Four Thieves Vinegar or Marseilles Vinegar, after the French region where some legends claim the Thieves operated. A 1939 article published in Pennsylvania History by Mulford Stough notes that the formula was used in Philadelphia during the outbreak of a plague during the 1790’s. Stough blames the outbreak on the huge influx of immigrants from Santo Domingo (basically the Haitian Revolution concurrent with that time period sent a large number of Dominicans and Haitians fleeing to America, through major centers like New Orleans and Philadelphia). While there’s no explicit link between the use of the vinegar formula to battle the disease and the immigrants themselves, I’m inclined to allow myself a bit of speculation here and say that there is a connection. Whether the European formula entered the immigrants’ magical systems here, or whether the arrival of the immigrants (who may already have been using the formula magically) spurred its resurgence, I cannot say.
What I can say is that the potion did enter into the folk magical practices of America, and has continued to remain popular. It’s also a flexible formula, one that has been adapted and changed many times over the years, depending on the need of the practitioner. Here I’d like to give you my own personal recipe and method for making it and tell you a bit about how I use it, then look at some variations from other recipes and magical folk.
Cory’s Four Thieves Vinegar (please feel free to copy, use, distribute, etc. with attribution)
One pint mason jar, filled to just about 3/4 full with good cider vinegar
One head of garlic, peeled of skins (around 8-12 cloves)
One large handful of red chili flakes (probably about 2 tbsp, though I don’t measure that way when I make this stuff)
One large handful of black mustard seeds (again, around 2 tbsp, and if you can’t find black mustard, brown will be fine, though you might want to toast them to release their oils and blacken them a bit)
One handful of salt (not quite as much, maybe 1.5 tbsp)–kosher or sea salt are best
Optional ingredients include: a sprig of rue (I usually include), black peppercorns (small handful of these), rosemary, other types of chilies such as habanero or jalapeno, guinea pepper grains, galangal root, ginger root, etc. You only need a little bit of any of these to boost the overall strength of the mix.
Put your ingredients into your mason jar, making sure it doesn’t overflow. Cap and seal, then shake vigorously for 30-60 seconds. Put it a cool, dark place or a refrigerator. Shake daily for 2 weeks, then keep stored in a dark pantry or a fridge.
If you want to time your vinegar production magically, set it up to begin when the moon is waxing and finish when the moon is full if you intend to use it for protection. Go from full to new moon if you want to use it to banish someone/thing. If you can make it while the moon is “in Aries,” “in Leo,” or “in Sagittarius” that might boost its power, too.
The ways I use FTV tend to be protective and for uncrossing work. A little can be added to a bath to help knock off any evil eyes or general bad luck. During spring cleaning, I usually add a little urine (in a separate bucket, please!) and red brick dust to a wash that I use on the front door and porch steps of my home to repel any harm sent my way. One of my favorite ways to use FTV is to mix it with some olive oil and put it on a salad as a sort of spring tonic to clear out any lingering malevolence that might have accrued in my body. Adding a tablespoon of it to a glass of water and drinking every morning is another good way to go (I’ll admit that I did this for a while but eventually let it slide and now just use the salad dressing method instead).
If you want to use it for banishing someone, you can break a bottle of it on their property (much like War Water) or stick their name paper in a jar of the vinegar—maybe with an extra handful of red pepper flakes to really heat up the spell. Or, and this is probably going to blow your mind, give it to them to eat. But wait! you say. I’ve been eating it all along and it’s protecting me. What’s going on here? This is one of those weird circumstances where intention seems to play a part. If you serve it to them with the desire to get them to leave you alone, that seems to be enough. Of course, if you’ve timed the production to make the vinegar essentially banishing anyway—in which case I hope you’re not eating it—then intention may or may not really be what’s causing the results.
Okay, so now for the variations. Of course, there are lots of folks who follow the older French recipe and use red wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar. I just use the latter because it’s more typically American and thus something I have a stronger connection to, but feel free to use either version. Other variations include one from author Ray T. Malbrough’s Charms, Spells, & Formulas in which he says: “To a gallon of strong cider vinegar add a handful of the following: rosemary, wormwood, lavender, rue, sage, and mint. Add 1 ounce of powdered camphor gum.” He goes on to recommend shaking and heating the mix for four days before finally straining it and bottling it, and that would definitely speed up the process. I would say, however, that ingesting this version might not be a good idea with the camphor gum in it (camphor is poisonous if swallowed). Malbrough recommends the vinegar as a cursing agent, one that can be used to cross someone’s luck or break up their home.
Cat Yronwode speaks of its uses, saying “Four Thieves Vinegar is used for protection, because it contains garlic, and also to cause confusion and discord among enemies, because it is sour” (p. 203). Jim Haskins mentions it as “bad vinegar” in his book Voodoo & Hoodoo, and talks of it being used to curse and break up homes.
“To make the original Four Thieves Vinegar, peel a number of cloves of garlic. Place the garlic in a clean glass bottle. When the bottle is full of peeled garlic cloves, wine vinegar is poured over the garlic until the bottle is full. The bottle can then be capped and placed in the refrigerator, root cellar, or spring house for a week or so. The vinegar should be used a little at a time, with new wine vinegar being added as some is drawn out. It will last a year or so before a new batch needs to be made” (p. 130-31).
Mickaharic also says that “Purists use a red Bordeaux wine, and wait for it to turn to vinegar before using it…Apple cider vinegar is not the ‘real thing’ but it works just as well in magic and better for some healing work,” which is basically how I feel about the topic. He recommends it as a spring tonic and calls it a great salad dressing, too!
Northwoods witch Sarah Lawless says that her FTV uses “the old school recipe which is more a tonic than a crossing blend – onion, garlic, thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender, peppercorns, bay leaves, and red wine with red wine vinegar” (Thanks Sarah!).
One of the more unusual recipes I’ve found for this mixture is from Dorothy Morrison’s Utterly Wicked, which lists the recipe as including Adam & Eve Root (a type of endangered orchid found in the eastern U.S.), John the Conqueror root, black pepper, and vetivert. This is a recipe I also would probably never eat, as the High John root comes from the Ipomoea genus which has demonstrated toxicity. However, this recipe is very unique as it does not contain most of the key ingredients found in other blends: garlic, red pepper, rosemary, etc. About the only ingredients it has in common with other recipes are black pepper and, well, vinegar. I’ve not tested the efficacy of this version, so if anyone out there has, I’d love to know what you think of it!
Four Thieves Vinegar continues to be popular among occultists and witches, but it’s got a broader appeal, as well. One of the best sites I found while researching this article was Secret of the Thieves, a website which tells the history of FTV and offeres a wide range of products based on the recipe such as toothpaste, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, soap, and even dental floss!
So if you’re looking for a good, widely-used folk-magical formula, I recommend making this rather simple one yourself. It’s easy, has protective and cursing applications, and keeps for a long time. If you have other variants, I’d love to hear those, and if you find new applications for the vinegar, please let me know those as well!