Podcast 14 – An Interview with Cat Yronwode

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 14-


Summary
Today we are truly blessed to have an interview with renowned rootworker and teacher Catherine Yronwode of the Lucky Mojo Co.  Then we briefly discuss Christianity in hoodoo.  Laine tells us about Magical Soap in WitchCraft, and Cory talks about Spiritual Cleansing Baths in Spelled Out.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 14

-Sources-
Some of Cat’s many wonderful sites:
Lucky Mojo – Her main site and online store
Lucky W Amulet Archive – A repository of info on lucky charms
Southern Spirits – Her site on Southern folklore and history
Arcane Archive – An archive of magical lore and practice from around the net
YIPPIE – The Yronwode Institute for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology
Herb Magic – A site on magical plants and roots
Missionary Independent Spiritual Church – The world’s smallest church, and part of the long tradition of Spiritual Churches in the United States
Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (AIRR) – A body of trained, professional rootworkers with experience and accountability
Hoodoo and Rootwork Course – One of the definitive training programs in traditional hoodoo
And, of course, her book Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic is often referenced on the blog and in the show.

Cory also reference’s Draja Mickaharic’s Spiritual Cleansing, a definitive guide on the topic.

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1- Inciting a Riot
Promo 2- Pagan in the Threshold

Blog Post 81 – Van Van Oil

Greetings everyone!  Today, I’m going to cover another piece of our recent Lucky 13 podcast:  Van Van oil.  This is one of the most common hoodoo oils around, and actually  shows up in other places fairly often, too.  Because it is made from grasses found in Southeast Asia, it has a long history in medicine and magic from those areas.  Some of the grasses used in Van Van are also grown in West Africa, which is likely one route through which Southern conjure practices adopted this formula.

The basic ingredients in a Van Van blend are oils from:

Most of these are not easily available in bulk herb form, with the exceptions of lemongrass (which you can find at almost any Asian market) and vetiver (which can often be found in herb or metaphysical shops).  All of the oils except gingergrass are readily available from any aromatherapy or herbal extract dealer.  Gingergrass oil, which can be hard to find, is often left out of homemade Van Van recipes, or something else might be substituted for it.

The proportions heavily favor lemongrass in the recipes I’ve seen, almost to the point of exclusivity.  There are some who solely use lemongrass oil and add dried botanicals to it in order to round out the recipe.  Generally speaking, a home blender would use:

  • 5-10 parts lemongrass oil
  • 3-5 parts citronella oil
  • 2-3 parts vetiver root or oil
  • 1 part palmarosa
  • 1 part gingergrass

All of these would be carefully blended in a sterile jar, then topped with a carrier oil (sweet almond or jojoba would be excellent).  The proportions above are merely suggestions, and you would do well to contact a trained herbalist before blending these on your own.  In reality, you might be able to use just the first three oils and have some pretty solid Van Van oil, so don’t spend loads of money tracking down rare herbal ingredients unless you really feel compelled to do so.

Additions to the recipe vary by practitioner and region.  For example, in New Orleans, one might find lemon verbena added to the mix.  In fact, this may be how the formula got its name.  According to Cat Yronwode, Creole rootworkers would sometimes use lemon verbena in their blends in order to supplement the strong lemon-musk scent of the oil.  Verbena—a related herb—was often called vervain, and that was given a pidgin phoneme of “van van.”  The name does NOT have anything to do with vanilla, which is not found in any traditional recipes for this formula.  Judika Illes, whom we’ve referenced several times before, suggests adding another wild Asian grass—patchouli—to the blend, but I’ve never done this myself (I’m not a fan of patchouli, personally).  Other additions might include pyrite chips or “lucky” things like four leaf clover charms (which can also be anointed with Van Van and carried for luck).

So just what is Van Van oil for and how does it work?  Well, it’s considered a sort of ultimate luck formula, having sway over money, prosperity, gambling, love, and anything else that might need a little luck.  It’s often used to anoint talismans—like the rabbit’s foot—or mojo hands made for gambling or love.  As for how it works, lemongrass (and all citrus grasses) has a powerful “cut and clear” effect…think of how many lemon-scented cleaning agents there are.  They just make things seem cleaner (lemon also has some antibacterial/antimicrobial properties, and is a potent preservative in small doses—sliced apples are often treated with a lemon juice extract to keep them from browning).  Citronella does something similar (think of how citronella candles, torches, and oils repel nasty insects like mosquitoes).  These grasses cut and clear any negative influences, warding off bad luck. Palmarosa and gingergrass (which come from the same plant, in reality, Cymbopogon martine) are muskier, and so have a slight sexual connotation.  If you think of something being clean, bright, and sexy, it’s not hard to imagine lucky in the mix, too (think James Bond in a casino).  Vetiver is the muskiest of all, with strong earthy tones.  Earth has connections to abundance and prosperity (think of fertile black soil planted with seeds which grow into crops), plus there is a strong sexual current again.  Sex + money + nothing standing in your way?  Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty lucky.

A few quick notes:

Magico-botanical notes come primarily from Cat Yronwode’s book, Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic.

You can find Van Van oils at the Lucky Mojo Co.,  Music City Mojo, Toads Bone Apotheca, Queen of Pentacles Conjure, The Conjure Doctor, and just about any botanica or root shop around.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 74 – Sassafras

While passing by the cemetery on campus one day, I noticed a few little sprouted saplings with very particularly-shaped leaves.  I got very excited when I moved in closer and saw the definitive “mitten” shape of some of the leaves.  I pinched one and sniffed, smelling a strong spicy aroma almost immediately.  I knew at that point I was dealing with sassafras.

Sassafras is one of those herbs that you can’t avoid in the South.  It grows in all sorts of adverse environments:  roadsides, hedgerows, waste spaces, etc.  It can be short and bushy in its early years of development, but becomes a full-sized tree given enough time.  The roots and bark have long been used in culinary and medicinal applications.  If you’ve ever had a root beer, there’s a chance that you have tasted this plant, as sassafras and sarsaparilla were the two primary flavors in that drink for a long time.  In recent years (since 1960), active ingredient in sassafras, called safrole, has been officially banned by the USDA as potential carcinogen.  So most of the root beer sold now uses artificial flavors to reproduce the sassafras and sarsaparilla taste.  The leaves of sassafras also feature in Cajun cooking; dried and powdered, they become file powder, which is used to thicken stews like gumbo.

Medicinally, sassafras is a tricky root to use.  According to botanical.com, “Oil of Sassafras is chiefly used for flavouring purposes, particularly to conceal the flavour of opium when given to children. In the United States of America it is employed for flavouring effervescing drinks…Aromatic, stimulant, diaphoretic, alterative. It is rarely given alone, but is often combined with guaiacum or sarsaparilla in chronic rheumatism, syphilis, and skin diseases.”  It also seems to have a strong effect on women’s reproductive systems, easing menstrual pain, but also potentially causing abortions.  Several health problems have been connected to consuming overdoses of safrole, including vomiting, collapse, pupil dilation, and cancer.  WARNING!  Consult a physician before taking ANY herb or root internally!  Sassafras is NO EXCEPTION!

Sassafras bark and root have long been made into teas in the Appalachians.  In Foxfire 4, informant Pearl Martin showed students Bit Carver and Annette Sutherland how to gather the herb and make the drink:

“Sassafras is a wild plant that grows in the Appalachians…The spicy, distinct flavor of sassafras makes the tea a popular beverage, served hot or cold…Pearl told us that she could gather roots any time of the year without affecting the taste of the tea.  However, the roots should be gathered young, so they will be tender…She chops the roots from the plants, then washes the roots in cold water.  Next she scrapes off the outer layer of bark and discards it.  Either the roots or the bark can be used in making the tea, but Pearl prefers the roots.  They can be used dried or green.  She brings the roots to a boil in water.  The longer they are boiled, the stronger the tea.  To make a gallon of tea, she boils four average-sized roots [which appear to be about a foot long and an inch thick] in a gallon of water for fifteen to twenty minutes.  She then strains it, and serves it either hot or iced, sweetened with either sugar or honey” ( p. 444).

While the safrole content of the tea is relatively low, again you should consult with a physician before drinking this tea.

Magically speaking, sassafras is a money root.  It attracts business success and material wealth.  Putting a little sassafras root in one’s wallet or purse keeps money from running out.  Catherine Yronwode has several good charms in her Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic book, including a business attracting sidewalk scrub made from sassafras, allspice, and cinnamon (which has the added bonus of a pleasant aroma), and this powerful little Money-Stay-with-Me mojo hand:

“Jam a silver dime into an alligator foot [available from Lucky Mojo and other botanicas and curiosity shops] so that it looks like the ‘gator is grabbing the coin.  Wrap it tightly with three windings around of red flannel, sprinkling sassafras root chips between each layer as you wind, and sew it tight.  Just as the alligator foot holds the coin and won’t let go, so will you be able to save instead of spend” (p. 179).

Sounds like a pretty wonderful charm to know, in my opinion.  I’ve not seen anything particularly about burning sassafras as incense, but I did find a book called A Collection of Folklore by Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University edited by Thomas G. Burton and Ambrose N. Manning which records a bit of superstition claiming that bad luck comes if you “burn sassafras wood” (p. 74).  The lore in this particular collection is all from first-hand sources, so I tend to think it’s got some weight.  A similar folklore collection from Kentucky elaborates on this point, saying, “If you burn sassafras wood or leaves, a horse or a mule of yours will die within a week” (from Kentucky Superstitions, #2993).  I tend to think this refers to burning wood in a fire or fireplace as opposed to using a little bit of it as incense, but take your chances as you see fit.  Particularly if your horses or mules are dear to you.

I hope this post has been of some use to you!  Enjoy the slowly waning summer, and get out in the woods to find some sassafras and other plants!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 70 – Elder

I’ve been noticing a lot of the elder trees blooming in my neck of the woods lately, so I thought I might take a stab at sharing some information on that particular plant.

Elder is a tree that has a long history with humanity.  Its uses are broad, including medicinal, culinary, and magical aspects.  Generally speaking, elder comprises anything in the genus Sambucus, with species names like nigra, canadensis, peruviana, etc. depending on region and appearance.  Elders can be very shrubby, or full-grown trees reaching up to 25 feet tall.  They have white flowers which bloom in the summer in bunches called corymbs (these are very prominent, so much so in fact that I felt compelled to write a blog post on them).  The blue-black berries, which appear in late summer and early fall, are a foodstuff used in everything from jams to vinegars.  The shoots of the elder have even been used as toys.  According to Botanical.com:

“The popular pop-gun of small boys in the country has often been made of Elder stems from which the pith has been removed, which moved Culpepper to declare: ‘It is needless to write any description of this (Elder), since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the Elder.’ Pliny’s writings also testify that pop-guns and whistles are manufactures many centuries old!”

Medicinally, elders different parts have different uses (a quick note:  I am not a medical professional.  Please seek professional medical advice before using any plant medicinally).  The flowers have been used in tisanes to help alleviate all manner of ailments: sore throats, swollen tonsils, flu symptoms, etc.  The cooled elder tea could also be used topically on sunburns or to alleviate sore eyes.  The leaves of the elder can be used as a poultice or turned into an unguent to treat bruises, cuts, and abrasions.  The bark can be used as a potent purgative, though the inner bark is better for this than the outer.

As food, elder berries are most commonly consumed as elderberry jam.  They can also be turned into a syrup, and made into a delicious cordial for the adults in the crowd.  A sweet and slightly spicy wine can also be made from the berries, which seems to be very popular among the brew-it-yourself crowd.  I remember an old herbal book of mine which also contained a recipe for drinks like elderberry fizz and elderberry flip, which are essentially cocktails made from either the wine or the cordial.

Magically, elder has appeared in many cultures with many different purposes.  Some of the Old World magical associations with elder include:

  • Driving away evil spirits (Russian)
  • Magically removing fever (Czech)
  • Protection against witchcraft (English)
  • Good luck at weddings (Serbian)
  • Preventing theft (Sicilian)
  • Bad luck if burned (Romany)

The Danes believe that furniture made from elder wood is haunted by a spirit called Hylde-Moer (or “Elder Mother”), who may bear a connection to Mother Holle in Teutonic mythology.

On this side of the Atlantic, elder shows up in several systems.  John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend recommends frying elder leaves with tobacco leaves in butter to make a healing salve.  In hoodoo, elder is used primarily for protection.  Hung in a bag near the entrance to the home, elder wood and flowers prevents intruders from coming in.  When mixed with the potent devil’s shoestring herb, it can prevent any unwanted guest from getting close to your home.  Catherine Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic recommends elder as part of a Law-Keep-Away spell:

“Determine how many ways there are to enter the place where you conduct your business, and for each way, cut an elder stick five inches long, and get a small piece of John the Conqueror root.  On each elder stick carve five notches, one-half inch apart, then cut a sharpened point on each stick.  About fifty feet down each path leading to the place, drive a hole into the ground.  Put a piece of John the Conqueror root at the bottom of the hole, followed by an elder stick, pointed end down, with all the notches facing North.  It is said that no law officer will walk or drive over those elder pegs”  (HHRM p.90).

Yronwode also recommends drawing a circle around oneself with an elder branch and making a wish.  If you try this out, I’d love to hear your results!

There are probably dozens of other things I’m missing about elder, but hopefully this is a good start.  If you have uses of elder or experiences with the plant you’d like to share, please feel free to do so!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 63 – Black Pepper

Today I thought I’d take a brief look at a magical ingredient which most everyone has on hand:  Black Pepper.  There are many uses for this dried fruit of the Piper nigrum plant.  Of course it’s valued for its ability to enhance food with a bit of heat, but it also has medicinal properties, and is very common in hoodoo practice as well.

Botanical.com lists the black peppercorn’s medicinal properties as being a febrifuge (fever reducer) and a stimulant and carminative.  For those with enflamed throats or ailments of the uvula, the site recommends using an infusion of black peppercorns as a gargle, and also suggests using the herb for constipation and urinary troubles.

In Appalachian practice, Granny women would sometimes use an infusion of black pepper to help induce labor in an expectant mother, because of its stimulatory nature.  They might also have the mother “snuff” or “quill” black pepper for the same results:

“Snuffing entailed having the mother sniff black pepper…from a plate placed under her nose; quilling involved blowing the same substances directly into the mother’s nostrils or throat with a goose quill, reed, or rolled piece of paper.  Either way, the objective was to cause a violent sneezing attack that would induce labor” (Folk Medicine of Southern Appalachia p.130).

In hoodoo, the black peppercorn is used primarily to harm or protect.  It’s often added to things like Hot-Foot powders or crossing tricks to facilitate an uncomfortable “heat” in the target’s life.  Catherine Yronwode also notes that black pepper can be used to stave off a jinx, particularly one which has been stepped in:

“To shield yourself from anyone doing these things [poisoning you through the feet via powder or other foot-track magic]…sprinkle black pepper powder or a mixture of black pepper and Fear Not to Walk Over Evil Powder in your shoes.  It is said that your track will be invisible or invulnerable to harm, and even if someone does throw for you or lift your foot track, they won’t be able to affect you in any way” (HHRM, p.53).

She also mentions that black pepper can be mixed with salt and thrown after someone when they leave your home to prevent them from ever returning or doing you harm.  Since salt and pepper are rather easy to come by in most homes, doing a spell like this is simple, and because the ingredients are so common most people don’t think twice about seeing them on the ground.  In fact, a light sprinkling of these ingredients would probably go unnoticed even in a busy apartment complex, and would be easily vacuumed up later, which makes a spell like this good for the urban root worker or witch (in my opinion, of course).  I’d combine it with the practice of leaving a broom behind the door just to double up the protection from unwanted visitors, too.

There are several potent curses which can be levied using black pepper, too.  Catherine Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic book has an excellent entry on these, so I’ll not rehash everything in her entry here.  I will say that the spell she mentions involving a black candle and 99 peppercorns taken to a crossroads sounds particularly nasty, and would be well worth learning, if only to have an idea how to undo it should someone do it to you.

That’s it for today!  I wish you all a wonderful weekend.  Please don’t forget to vote in our polls, too!  They’ll be open through the weekend, and you can find them in Blog Post 61 or at the top right of the sidebar.  Thanks for voting, and as always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part III

Today I’m finishing up the introduction to the magic of Appalachia by looking at “yarb Doctors” and some of the other magical oddities of the mountains.

Yarb Doctors
The final part of the mountain magical triumvirate is the “Yarb Doctor.”  These are often seen as the male counterparts to the Granny women already discussed.  These were folks who knew enough herbal medicine to make cures and remedies for all manner of ailments.  Vance Randolph describes them thusly:

“Besides the regular and irregular physicians, who live mostly in the villages, the backwoods country swarms with ‘yarb doctors’…who have never studied medicine at all. Some of these nature doctors are women, others are preachers who do a little doctorin’ on the side, and many of them are unable to read or write. They rely mainly upon herbs, barks, roots, and the like. For internal medication these substances are steeped in hot water, and “horse doses” of the resulting teas are administered at frequent intervals. In some cases the tea is boiled down to a thick paste called ooze, or mixed with strained honey to make a syrup” (OM&F, p.92)

Often, this is what we think of when we talk about “snake oil salesmen.”  The yarb Doctor basically dealt in herbal formulas for treating common ailments.  Some of these formulas became fairly well-known.  When a particular yarb Doctor’s formula reached a particular level of renown (and often even if it didn’t and an unscrupulous “doctor” was simply chasing a dollar) these medicines would become a famous “patent medicine.”   This is not to say that the yarb Doctor (variously known as an “herb doctor,” “rubbing doctor,” or “nature doctor”) was simply a quack making money off of ignorant mountain folk.  In most cases, these were locals with a knack for making formulas and medicines from the indigenous flora of the area, including roots, barks, flowers, and leaves.  Some of the mixtures are still in use today, albeit changed much from their original purpose.  Root beer is a prime example of what happens when you make a patent medicine out of sarsaparilla and sassafras roots and mix it with a little sugar and soda water.  Appalachian yarb Doctors had good reason to make medicines:  they lived in the pharmaceutical breadbasket of the country.  According to Dave Tabler’s Appalachian History blog:

“Big Pharma had not yet perfected the widespread manufacture of synthetic drugs in 1932. Instead, the industry relied on ‘western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee [to] furnish 75% of the crude botanical drugs which the continent of North America supplies to the drug markets of the world,’ according to an article in Economic Geography that summer”

The remedies proffered by yarb Doctors were not limited only to plants and their components, but often included a few more unusual ingredients.   For example, dealing with a toothache was a common enough problem in the mountains, where access to regular dental care was limited or non-existent:

“There were many treatments for a toothache.  Some of the more common ones were holding tobacco smoke, a sip of red oak bark decoction, or whiskey in the mouth; chewing ragweed leaves; applying cinnamon or clove oil, camphor, or persimmon juice to the tooth and gum; placing a ball of cotton soaked in paregoric, camphor, turpentine, or kerosene on top of the tooth; and holding a bag of warm ashes or salt against the cheek.  If a large cavity was present, it was stuffed with soda, salt, cow manure, spider webs, aspirin, burned alum, dried and pulverized buckeye skin, or crushed puff-balls” (FMSA, p.107)

There are a number of remedies used by these mountain medicine men which are still in common practice.  Clove oil, for example, is still used to numb the pain of a toothache.  Some methods, though, such as packing a cavity with cow dung, seem to have fallen by the wayside (I’ll not say whether I think that a good or bad thing, though I’m less than eager to put cow dung in my own mouth if I’m being entirely honest).

Other Aspects of Mountain Magic
There are, of course, many areas of mountain magic which don’t fall neatly into the three categories I’ve laid out here.  yarb Doctors and Granny women had much in common and there is a great deal of crossover in their particular lines of work.  Likewise, one who could dowse for water could usually also perform some other occult action, such as simple curing.  I have an in-law whose great-grandfather (the seventh son of a seventh son, no less) could dowse and “buy” warts off of people in order to effect a cure, for example.

Other aspects of mountain magic have already been touched on in this blog.  Some of the areas we’ve covered here which have a huge place in the folk magical practices of Appalachian peoples include:

One of the biggest areas I’ve not yet covered in detail is the Appalachian preoccupation with death, dying, corpses, and graveyards.  Edain McCoy’s In a Graveyard at Midnight includes a great deal of this lore in her chapter on “Death, Dying, and ‘Haints,’” which focuses mostly on the rituals surrounding death and burial as well as protection from the dead.  At some point, I’ll be doing a bit more on this topic, but for now I think the most important thing to note is that death and birth were—and are—the two most important events in a human life, and the mountain folk treated them with respect, awe, and not a little fear.

A final area of interest for mountain dwellers where the occult was concerned had to do with divining the future.  Rather than foreseeing events having to do with money or fame or anything like that, almost all Appalachian divinations performed in the home had to do with love.  This is, again, a topic I’ll be delving into with more depth at another time.  But often the “games” played by young girls in the mountains revolved almost entirely around divining the name, appearance, or attributes of a future husband.  And there are also plenty of tales which deal with the terrible consequences of treating these sorts of divinations lightly (such as the story of the “dumb supper” which eventually leads to a young girl’s brutal murder).  Suffice to say, Appalachian folk know that life has its dark side, and they aren’t afraid to talk about it.

That’s it for mountain magic this week.  I hope this has been a useful introduction.  This, like many of the other topics here, only scratches the surface, and I hope to return and look at Granny women, yarb Doctors, dowsers, power doctors, signs and omens, death lore, and just about everything in more depth at a later date.  But for now, I’ll wish you a happy weekend.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 59 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part II

Today, I’m continuing the look at Appalachian mountain magic by focusing on a few of the specific “jobs” performed by mountain magicians.

Grannys, Dowsers, and Yarb Doctors

In general, the current incarnation of Appalachian magic is broken into a few categories.  Mountain witches may do only one “magical” thing all their lives, or they may perform a broad array of tasks for their communities, some magical and some not.  Often, the word “witch” never enters the picture or has a negative connotation (with one very key exception, explained below).  But the basic functions of a mountain magician can be broken down into a set of roles, as follows.

Granny Women
This is probably the best known and most ambiguously defined magical “job” in the mountains.  Granny women filled several roles in the community:

  • They acted as healers in communities where trained doctors were scarce, nonexistent, or deeply distrusted.
  • They assisted doctors when professional medicine was required, and often during childbirth.
  • They acted as midwives and postpartum caretakers for new babies and mothers.
  • They might be called upon to perform blessings for livestock or land before planting, owing to their roles as birth-helpers (thus helping the earth and one’s livestock birth the food one would eat for the coming year).
  • In some cases, they might also perform basic divinations, like determining the sex of a baby by dangling a wedding ring over the woman’s palm or belly.

Often the work done by these women was broader in scope than mere medicine.  It took into account a patient’s whole state, including spiritual or psychological.  Sometimes the work done by Grannies baffled the doctors performing the births, though they obviously were a great comfort to the mothers:

“Granny-women might perform a number of rituals which doctors found silly and irrational. Some were designed to give the mother psychological, if not physical, relief from her pain. She might give the woman her husband’s hat to hold during the ordeal, thus bringing him symbolically into the delivery room. If the labor were particularly severe, she would place an axe or knife under the bed to “cut” the pain in two. Sometimes, weather permitting, she would throw open every door and window in the house, in a symbolic representation of opening the birth canal” (from “In Defense of Granny Women,” by Janet Allured)

The term “Granny women” isn’t exactly accurate, either.  Many women were not particularly old when they learned about midwifery from their own female relatives, and even some men were known to assist during childbirth.  While much of the training to become a Granny was on-the-job, there were surprisingly sophisticated teaching materials as well:

“To train them [potential midwives], we had a very large wooden box.  At the bottom and on the top, there was a simulated abdomen and perineum—just like the mother—so we could actually teach them the mechanism of labor, and so we could teach them what was going on inside” (Foxfire 2, p.277)

Payment for a Granny woman’s services varied, often depending on the economic state of those she helped (which was usually fairly poor).  A passage from Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, by Anthony Cavender, illustrates the point:

“A typical fee charged by a physician in Kentucky for delivering a baby in the latter part of the nineteenth century was about $10, a substantial sum for an average farming family.  Physicians were often paid in commodities, such as corn, timber, pigs, cows, and corn mash whiskey, or labor in kind.  Some granny women charged a modest fee of a dollar or two or its equivalent in materials, but many did not” (FMSA, p.129)

These women served a vital role in their communities, and while some of them were labeled as “witches,” they seldom endured physical persecution as they were far too valuable.

Dowsers
The exception to the rule of bad “witches” were the dowsers, often called “water witches.”  These were people—most often men, though women were certainly known to perform water witching as well—who could locate underground streams through the use of various magical techniques.  The most common method was to use a forked branch cut from a witch hazel tree (some sources list other trees, like willow) and to walk slowly along a piece of property until the rod reacted by bobbing up and down or giving some other sign.  Despite being called “water witches,” there were seldom any negative connotations to the profession, as it was an absolutely necessary service in a time when digging wells was costly and difficult business.  Vance Randolph describes them thusly:

“Nearly all of the old settlers…believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks. These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers, and the forked switches they carry are known as witch sticks. Despite this sinister terminology, the waterfinder has no dealings with the Devil, is not regarded as dangerous by his neighbors, and has  nothing to do with witchcraft proper…Nearly all of the really old wells…were located by witch wigglers. Even today there are many substantial farmers who would never think of drilling a well without getting one of these fellows to witch the land” (OM&F, p.82)

In addition to locating underground water currents, dowsers could also locate other materials, like oil or precious metals.  Some practiced what is called “map dowsing,” where a map would be laid out in front of the dowser and he or she would use a pendulum to figure out where to start the search for whatever material was being sought.  This practice is very well accepted in the mountains and throughout the rural parts of North America.  In Signs, Cures, & Witchery, Gerald C. Milnes  examines the widespread nature of dowsing, as well as some of its history:

“Water witching (rhabdomancy) is very common in West Virginia.  According to a study done about fifty years ago, at that time there were twenty-five thousand practicing water witches in this country.  The actual practice of divining with a forked stick, as we know it, began in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century in Germany.  Martin Luther believed the practice violated the first commandment.  Through the ages it has been roundly denounced as the devil’s work and praised as a remarkable aid to a basic necessity of rural life—finding water.  It is often categorized with such rural customs as planting by the signs” (SC&W, p.133)

There have been many efforts to scientifically prove or disprove dowsing, all with varying degrees of success and failure.  It seems that there is something to it, but that it may have a great deal more to do with the person doing the dowsing than the actual practice itself, at least as far as science is concerned.  However, from my personal point of view, the practice of water witching is akin to pendulum divination of any kind and something worth adding to a witch’s repertoire.  In one of Peter Paddon’s Crooked Path episodes, for example, he talks about ley lines and the currents of magical energy flowing through the world.  Dowsing is a great way to help detect those currents and to tap into and work with them to improve one’s witchcraft (again, in my opinion).

Whew!  This is already getting to be a long post, so I’m going to stop here for today and save the last little bit of this topic for tomorrow.  Please feel free to add any comments or questions, and if you have any family stories about Grannies or dowsers, I’d love to hear them!

As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 42 – Five-finger Grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 38 – High John

Howdy all!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 26 – Gravel Root/Joe Pye Weed

Today I’d like to discuss an ingredient found in both Native American medicinal practices and Southern conjure and root work.  The flowering herb known as both Gravel Root and Joe Pye Weed can be found throughout most of the eastern half of North America, including portions of Canada, Texas, and Florida.  Its botanical name is Eupatorium purpureum, and it is also sometimes known as Purple Boneset or Queen of the Meadow.

The story behind Joe Pye Weed stems back to a Native American named, aptly enough, Joe Pye, who used the root to heal typhus.  It’s been used in tisane form—both root and flower—to help with kidney problems (though I will recommend here that if you are considering drinking ANY tea made from an herb to consult with a health professional and be SURE you know what you’re drinking).  Foxfire 11 gives some good information on the traditional medicinal use of this wild herb.

The plant itself is often found as a wildflower in fields and “waste” spaces like construction zones (though it doesn’t last as long here).  It’s a perennial so if you cultivate it instead of wildcrafting you should see it coming back regularly.  Joe Pye can reach heights around four feet, so take that into account when planting it.  It can also reseed, so you might want to thin them occasionally.  It has flowers which range from white to pinkish to lavender and purple, and butterflies love it.

Its magical uses tend to be split depending on what part of the plant you’re using.  The leaves and flowers are considered “Queen of the Meadow,” and are not particularly used in traditional hoodoo, though I’ve seen it show up in a spell for success.  Catherine Yronwode mentions putting the flowers in a glass of water next to a burning candle to attract spirits and visions.  The root, which is often the most sought-after part of the plant, is a fantastic help in job-search, success, and luck magic.  I recently used a bit of Gravel Root in a mojo hand along with High John and a copy of Psalm 65 in order to help procure some magical aid with an academic pursuit, which turned out very well.

Joe Pye Root

You can find more on this herb/root in Catherine Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, as well as the websites listed below.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

More information:

Medicinal and identification information – http://www.altnature.com/gallery/joe_pye_weed.htm

Cultivation and propagation information – http://oldfashionedliving.com/joe-pye-weed.html

Folklore and Appalachian history – http://appalachianhistory.blogspot.com/2007/08/queen-of-meadow-cures-all.html

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