Stories about witches in the New World are plentiful. Early historical accounts of witch trials in America show that the belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout the colonies, though the degree to which each colony acted on those beliefs varied quite a bit (see Blog Post 3 and Blog Post 6 for some good background on these).
Often, it seems that the stories about witches that appeared in the New World were linked to Old World roots. Tales of witch-flights in the Appalachians parallel similar stories from the British Isles. German stories about witches casting spells on hunters’ guns show up in the Ozarks. In general, many of these stories can be broken up into a few key categories: how to become a witch, what witches do, and how to deal with witches.
How to Become a Witch
There are several different ways a person (usually a woman in folklore) becomes a witch. The act of initiation usually involves a pledge of some kind to a dark figure—usually the Devil, though I would argue that this “Devil” is something other than Satanic. But I digress, and will address this topic further in another post. In Vance Randolph’s excellent book, Ozark Magic & Folklore, he outlines how the mountain folk thought a witch was initiated:
“Some parts of the witches’ routine are well known, even to people who deny all acquaintance with such matters. The trick of reversing the Lord’s Prayer is a case in point… When a woman decides to become a witch, according to the fireside legends, she repairs to the family buryin’ ground at midnight, in the dark of the moon. Beginning with a verbal renunciation of the Christian religion, she swears to give herself body and soul to the Devil. She removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s tombstone, and delivers her body immediately to the Devil’s representative, that is, to the man who is inducting her into the ‘mystery.’ The sexual act completed, both parties repeat certain old sayin’s, terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead and end by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. This ceremony is supposed to be witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude, and must be repeated on three consecutive nights. After the first and second vows the candidate is still free to change her mind, but the third pledge is final. Henceforth the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity” (Randolph pp. 266-67)
In Appalachia, another witch-making process is described in Foxfire 2:
“JIM EDMONDS: I heard about a man—a witch said he’d make a witch out a’him if he followed him. They come to this door and th’witch said ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! In th’keyhole I go.’ He went on in and got all he wanted.
Th’old witch came and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! Out th’keyhole I go,’ and went on out.
Th’old man came and thought he’d do what th’other did and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! Up th’high hole I go,’ and fell t’th’floor!
You just had t’pay no ‘tention t’witches. They can put a spell on you, but they can’t turn you into a witch if you pay them no mind.” (p. 355)
Hubert J. Davis, in his astoundingly good compilation of American witch-lore entitled The Silver Bullet, outlines another method of becoming a witch:
“’Fust, he’d [the potential witch] have to climb to the top of the highest knob on Witch Mountain and tote either a black cat or a black hen. Then, he’d have to find the Indian graveyard at the place nigh where two Indian trails cross. There, he’d have to draw a big ring in the dust ‘bout fifteen feet acrost, and dance in this circle each morning at break of day for eight mornings in a row. Then, on the ninth morning, he’d have to put one hand on the top of his head and ‘tother on the sole of his foot and say ‘ I give all betwixt my two hands to the Devil…Then the Devil comes…and nips him on the shoulder so hit bleeds. Then, the Devil tells him to wet his finger in the blood and sign an X to this pact…the Devil will same some magic words over the cat or the hen and change hit into an imp [another name for a familiar]” (Davis pp.14-15)
Various other methods of becoming a witch are recounted in these texts, too, including firing a gun nine times at a full moon, shooting at the rising sun and watching to see if it “bleeds,” or simply being taught the ways of the witch by a family member of the opposite sex. On this last point, I will note that the writers generally say cross-gender transfer of information is de rigeur, and just because one learns the spells and ways of a witch doesn’t make one an initiate of witchcraft.
I think I should point out that Sarah at Forest Grove did an amazing blog post on initiation recently which I recommend reading. Particularly because I think there are some pretty strong parallels between the folklore I’m presenting here and the steps towards initiation she mentions in her post. Let me know what you think, though.
What Witches Do
Having a witch in the neighborhood was a mix of good and bad for early settlers. On the one hand, witches tended to be able to make potions and counter-charms to help with curses and bad luck, among many other talents. But on the other hand, a local witch meant that there was a good chance your livestock would end up cursed or dead or both.
A common curse witches could use involved bewitching cattle so that they would not produce milk. Or rather, the only person who could milk the cow was the witch—she would usually use an axe-handle or an old rag tied to a fence post held over a bucket. She’d squeeze the object, and milk would pour out, while the cow’s udders slowly drained in a distant pasture. In one of the stories from The Silver Bullet called “No Milk on Saturday,” Hubert Davis recalls a story about a witch who put a spell on a cow so it would only give bloody milk. The cow’s owner consulted a witch doctor (see “Dealing with Wicked Witches” below) and figured out how to reverse the curse, eventually.
Witches also had the power to curse people. One of the main methods of performing such a curse involved the creation of a “witch ball.” This was a little ball made of black hair from a dog, cat, horse, etc. and wax, which was then thrown or “shot” at the target. If the victim didn’t get magical remediation immediately, the witch ball could lead to his or her death in fairly short order. From Ozark Magic & Folklore:
“I have been told of another Ozark witch who killed several of her enemies by means of a “hair ball” just a little bunch of black hair mixed with beeswax and rolled into a hard pellet. The old woman tossed this thing at the persons whom she wished to eliminate, and they fell dead a few hours later. It is said that the fatal hair ball is always found somewhere in the body of a person killed in this manner. In one case, according to my informant, the little ball of combings was taken from the dead girl’s mouth” (Randolph pp.271-272).
Some of the many other sinister tasks a witch might do included bewitching butter churns or soap tubs, causing them to fail to produce any butter or soap. They could also summon storms and blight crops, as well. In Randolph’s work, he mentions that one witch ruined a tomato crop by simply drawing a circle inscribed with a cross in the dirt, then spitting in the center.
Of course, the witch could also shapeshift, turning into her animal self easily and slipping off to Sabbaths, into the homes of innocent farmers and their families, or into the bed of a lover while her husband dozed dumbly in bed. Common shapes for witches included the ubiquitous black cat, the hare, mountain lions, and dogs. There are plenty of stories about a hunter being unable to shoot a particular animal until he manages to get a silver bullet in his gun. Then, he mortally wounds the beast, which gets away, and later hears that some local woman is lying in bed missing a hand or a foot—the very part shot off by the hunter!
I’ll refrain from offering too much commentary here on these ideas (though I will be revisiting them at a later date), but I would like to say that many of these common elements have a place in modern witchcraft, albeit not a literal one. Understanding these stories metaphorically, or understanding the basic kernels of practical witchcraft embedded in these tales, is an exercise worth the undertaking for an aspiring New World witch.
Dealing with Wicked Witches
Randolph makes a key point in his text on Ozark magic that many clairvoyants, mediums, card readers, conjure men, etc. get called “witches” by outsiders, but the Ozark resident made a distinction between them. Witches were almost always nefarious in purpose, according to Randolph, though he himself revealed that out of nearly two dozen witches he’d interviewed, almost twenty of them reported working against evil rather than for it.
In the Old World, these counter-cursing magical folk were often known as fairy doctors, cunning folk, or pellars. In the New World, these names sometimes surface, but just as often, they are called witch doctors or conjure folk (which is confusing when you realize that hoodoo and witchcraft cross cultural boundaries in many places, and thus this term may have had different meanings to different people). In a Works Project Administration report about Tennessee, the folklorist makes the following observation: “Cunjur [sic] doctors will sell you ‘hands’ or ‘tobies’ enabling you to detect witches and ward off their spells” (Ch. 14, par. 19). Here, the line between hoodoo (or “cunjur”) and what is typically thought of as European witchcraft is heavily blurred, and the magic of one is used to affect the magic of the other.
Undoing the harm caused by a witch could involve a number of different techniques. In Hubert Davis’s work, he talks about how the unfortunate farmer with the bloody milk dealt with his problem:
“Steve milked his cow, brought the milk into the cabin and put it in a big flat pan. Then, he went out on a ridge and cut three birch withes and tied them together. He built a big fire under the pan of milk and, as it boiled, he flailed as much milk as he could out of the pan into the fire with the birch withes. As the milk burned with a blue-green flame, Steve saw Granny Lotz’s face in the flames and he knew that it was indeed she who had witched the cow” (Davis p.35)
In the case of a bewitched butter churn, placing a piece of silver under the cursed object would stop the magic sometimes, or burning some of the butter with hot coals would do the trick too. Other curse-breaking methods included using witch bottles to reverse a curse and shooting an image of the witch with a silver bullet. This last method could theoretically kill the witch, and often was performed in the nick of time (at least as far as the folklore goes), just before a witch could complete a particularly nasty curse. Other methods of removing a witch’s curse involved “scoring her” above her eyes, or making her bleed on her forehead. If that happened, or if you could make her see her own blood in some cases, her powers would be broken.
Another common enchantment involved the bewitching of a hunter’s gun. A hunter who normally did well would suddenly find he couldn’t hit a thing he aimed at. In many cases, an elaborate ritual had to be performed to remove such an bewitchment. As Foxfire informant Jim Edmonds relates:
“Old Billy Jesse claimed he was a witch. Ol’Gran’daddy couldn’t shoot a thing. Somebody put a spell on his gun. He went over to Billy Jesse t’take th’spell off. He lived in what they call Bitter Mountain Cove. Told him he wanted him t’take th’spell off him. Somebody had witched his gun.
So Billy loaded that gun and went t’every corner of th’house and shot sayin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’ Run t’every corner and shot—never did load it but once—hollerin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’
Billy then said, ‘Now th’next thing you will see will be a great covey of quail. Now don’t you shoot at nothin’. Then th’next thing you see will be a big buck. You can kill him. Just shoot nothin’ else.
Gran’daddy done just like he told him, and here come a big drove a’birds. He just held still. He went on and there was this big ol’ buck. Shot and killed him. Th’spell was off his gun.” (Foxfire 2, p.333)
All of this folklore may just be storytelling. Or it may be a way of hiding secrets in plain sight. Or it may be to-the-letter true, for all I know. But at the very least, I know that I enjoy these stories. And personally, I get a lot out of them that isn’t just related to campfire entertainment. Though I don’t mind mixing s’mores and witchcraft, should the occasion call for it.
Okay, a long post today, but hopefully a useful one! Thanks for sticking with it, and as always, thanks for reading!