The holly bears the crown. –From “The Holly and the Ivy,” a traditional carol
We’re deep in the Yuletide season, which means not only can you expect an episode of carols and stories from us soon, but that you’re almost guaranteed to hear at least one or two carols mentioning holly, ivy, or both (in fairness, it’s probably a lot better to keep your elf-ears tuned in for those topics than to be hyper-vigilant in your efforts to avoid Wham!ageddon, right?)
The above-mentioned carol, “The Holly and the Ivy,” has been around for at least two hundred years, but likely dates back even further as a folk song, deriving from medieval traditions in England of associating the plants with various winter festivities and customs (see, for example, KIng Henry VIII’s carol “Green Groweth the Holly“).
In North America, we have several species of holly that are native to our continents, but ivy is a different matter. Most of the “ivies” associated with the holiday season are things like English ivy, which are imports and can be very invasive and destructive if not controlled (similar vines like Japanese kudzu are notorious for the damage they do and their proliferation). If you are in North America and using holly and ivy, it might be worth thinking about picking a twining vine native to the continent, like Virginia creeper, especially if you’re planning to plant anything.
Holly has long been used to decorate for the winter holidays, including in Ancient Rome. Some stories claim that the Christian cross was originally made from holly, which is why its berries are often stained red like blood. Linda Raedisch tells of a hobgoblin named Charlie who haunted an inn in Somerset, England and liked to perch on a holly beam above the fire to warm his feet (when he wasn’t hiding all the dinnerware to annoy the guests). Raedisch also notes several important appearances of holly in the lore and literature of the UK. She points out that in the classic Arthurian tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the titular swain appears at Arthur’s court to issue his challenge bearing an ax in one hand and a sprig of holly in the other. The Blue Hag of Scotland hides her magical staff under a holly bush (which prevents grass from growing beneath holly bushes in general). And of course, when the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present appear to Ebeneezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, they both bear holly as well.
While holly is often thought to be a good plant to bring in for the winter holidays, ivy is thought to bring ill fortune if carried indoors for winter festivities. Ivy is also associated with cemeteries and graves, as well as the wheel of St. Catherine, and thus, spinners and fiber workers (although it should be pointed out that St. Catherine’s wheel is NOT a spinning wheel, but a torture device…however it’s nice to see the imagery repurposed for better things). Some English lore says that ivy brought into a sick room will prevent recovery, and that taking ivy leaves from off of a church wall will doom the one who picks them to illness.
According to Judika Illes, medieval Europeans believed holly wood had the power to protect against wild animals. While the spell she references involves throwing a piece of holly at an aggressive beast, a contemporary alternative might be to take a small disk of holly wood and inscribe (paint, carve, or burn) it with the name of an animal friend or protector (a companion pet from your life or even one that you know of from books or stories). When preparing it, speak to the animal friend you have in mind and ask them to intercede with any creature you encounter and grant you safe passage. Wear the disk as a necklace or bracelet when going into wild places (possibly consider adding a couple of small bells to the jewelry, as that will alert wild animals to your presence long before you see them, and thus ensure they skedaddle before you make contact…they are usually far more scared of you, after all, than you are of them).
Holly was also thought to be protective against evil spirits. Churches and cemeteries planted holly around their perimeters in England as a way to deter pesky spirits who would get caught on the prickly leaves (this may also have worked to discourage vandals and some wild animals as well). If you do decide to plant holly, bear in mind that it is best left to grow on its own. It is considered very bad luck to cut down a holly tree.
One of the main uses of holly and ivy is in love work. A holly charm recommended by Judika involves picking nine holly leaves at midnight on a Friday. Without speaking, wrap them in a white cloth (like a handkerchief) and put that under your pillow. You should dream of your true love before daybreak. Ivy can also be used to determine who your lover will be. A Scottish charm involves plucking an ivy leaf in secret (not from a church, please) and uttering the words “Ivy, ivy, I pluck the, In my bosom I lay thee; The first young man who speaks to me, Shall surely my true lover be.”
Men hoping to attract women should carry holly leaves, and women hoping to attract men should carry ivy (those hoping to attract their same gender would carry the plant that most corresponds with their attraction: to attract women carry holly, to attract men, ivy).
You can also use ivy to discern who is working against you by wrapping a candle in ivy and burning it. The identity of your foe will become clear (likely through dreams or other omens). Ivy can help determine future illness, too, as one New Year’s divinatory ritual involves laying leaves of ivy in water on New Year’s Eve, naming each leaf for a loved one, and leaving them there until Twelfth Night (January 6th). Any leaves that are still green indicate health for that person, while leaves with black spots or those that have shriveled up reveal who will suffer great illness in the year to come (it probably helps to mark each leaf in some way, as with a dot of nail polish, to ensure you know whose leaf is whose).
And both holly and ivy can be used for more severe spellwork, too. You can put a token from a target (such as their name, a photo, or even a bit of their hair) into a bottle with twists of ivy and sharp-pointed holly leaves. Fill the bottle with black ink and some swamp water or war water, then seal it and bury it upside down. I can even imagine doing a rather dark and wicked little “sinner’s tree” of your enemies by taking a branch of holly and hanging little glass ornaments filled with your enemies’ names, holly leaves, and ivy, with a bit of black ink (they make fillable ones you can buy at craft stores, or you could just save a few small spice bottles). Tell them they will spend the next year in perdition and torment if they do not change their ways, then burn the tree and the contents of the bottles, and scatter the ashes at a crossroads or in running water.
Of course, if they *do* change their ways, you should probably put them on your “nice” list next year and perform an equally powerful blessing on their behalf.
We take a look at the concept of Evil as it relates to magic and witchcraft. Is there such a thing? What guides a witch’s moral compass? Do witches ever summon demons? And just what kind of shenanigans is Cory up to, anyway?
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Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Shannon, Little Wren, Michael M. and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
On the internet more generally, you may want to check out Dawn Jackson’s Hedgewytchery site (only available through Archive.org currently) and Fire Lyte’s recent episode on “Fluffy Bunnies.”
We also make mention of the Paranormal Activity series of films, as well as the recent Fox TV series The Exorcist.
Check out our latest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, which just launched in early October. If you like folklore, this show will be connecting the dots between folk tales, science, nature, pop culture, literature, and more.
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In one of our recent holiday episodes, we discussed the way that toys, dolls in particular, seem to embody the uncanny. Dolls, doll babies, dollies, poppets—whatever you call them, figural toys seem to have the power to evoke fear in people and act as powerful proxies for magical work. I decided to cover the topic in part because several podcasts I frequently download (namely LORE and Stuff You Missed in History) have recently mentioned Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Robert’s story is full of creepy twists and turns, but nicely captures how dolls can be both innocent (as Robert is when he acts as a best friend to his young owner, Gene) and terrifying (as Robert is when he shows up on a subsequent owner’s bed, brandishing a kitchen knife). Still, most tales of dolls and magic in the New World are not as spectacular as Robert’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very interesting uses for dolls in American folk magic. There most definitely are, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the ones that I find most interesting.
We can start in Salem, during the famous witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. A slave from Barbados named Candy was the focus of one early investigation (although her fate was not, as far as we know, the gallows). Candy confessed her use of folk magic, including the use of a handkerchief which she transformed into a doll:
“Candy stated that her knowledge of witchcraft came from her experience in Salem and not from her home in Barbados. The magical items possessed by Candy bear closer analysis and provide evidence for a possible connection to African or Afro- Caribbean beliefs. The knotted handkerchief was obviously a doll to stick with pins or to rend to inflict pain on others. The pieces of cloth were possibly shreds of clothing to be used to identify the dolls with a particular victim, as is common in the sympathetic magic which makes up part of voodoo belief” (McMillan 104-5)
Comments about “voodoo belief” aside (here I think McMillian is simply conflating “voodoo” with the folk magic of African Caribbeans), Candy’s use of the knotted handkerchief gets at some of the main reasons that doll magic seems to be popular and widespread. Firstly, it involves easily found or acquired resources—in this case cloth from the intended target, making the materials doubly enticing. Secondly, doll magic is sympathetic magic, and the connection is easy to see. If I make a piece of someone’s long johns look like a person, particularly the person whose backside the doll so recently covered, it seems likely that those two things will share a connection.
This point, that something that looks human but isn’t has uncanny powers, gets echoed in a lot of folklore as well, some of which connects to the folk magical systems of early Americans. Imported stories, such as tales about Anansi, refer to the use of dolls as agents of trickery. One account of Anansi tells how he tricked Tiger, and Tiger avenged himself on Anansi by putting a gumdoll in a field. Anansi gets angry when the doll won’t respond to him, and strikes it, becoming stuck to it. This tale is likely best known by American audiences as the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, of course, which replaces Anansi with the wily trickster rabbit and uses tar in place of tree gum. An Apache tale recasts the narrative as Coyote fighting with a lump of pitch, placed in a field by a “white man” to catch the sneaky food thief. The story keeps reappearing across different cultural backdrops, with new characters but the same basic structure. In all cases, the doll in question does nothing—that is one of the reasons Brer Rabbit and his compatriots dislike the thing—but still manages to get the best of its target.
Dolls, much like the Tar Baby or gumdoll, don’t necessarily have to do anything to be effective in folk magic, either. Jason Miller recounts a story in his Protection & Reversal Magic in which a doll’s effect is clearly psychological, but nonetheless potent:
“A santera I know was having problems with her neighbor being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night and leaving garbage on her lawn. She asked her madrina (her teacher) what she should do. The madrina told her to make a doll that looked like the neighbor, blindfold it, tie its arms and legs, and nail it to the tree in her yard facing her neighbor’s front door. My friend was a bit shocked and said, “Good Lord! I don’t want to hurt him! What will happen?”
“Nothing” replied her madrina, “but it will scare the living crap out of him!”” (Miller 30)
Miller’s account of the santera’s doll experience resembles other accounts in American folk history. Newbell Niles Puckett references a similar incident in his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. In the cases Puckett describes, the dolls may or may not actually have a magical effect, or they might simply convey the sender’s sentiments about how they wish to see the recipeient suffer: “Very common also was the practice of putting small black caskets, often with skull and crossbones upon the cover, in front of a person’s door. Sometimes these would contain a small doll with pins run through the heart and with a burned-out candle at the head and another at the foot, doubtless a case of sympathetic magic, indicating a desire that the person be “laid out” according to the Catholic rites.” (Puckett 227-8).
Dolls that do nothing, however are not as much fun as dolls that do something. Fairy tales like “Vasalissa the Beautiful” from Russian lore offer dolls that seem to do little, but in fact act as powerful fetishes of protection to those that carry them. Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s doll, which carries a maternal blessing and performs tasks while the young girl and the old witch Baba Yaga are sleeping at night. Baba Yaga is always disappointed by Vasilissa’s completion of her tasks, which she knows must be done by magic but cannot figure out. Eventually the ancient cannibal witch decides not to eat the girl and instead sends her away with a magical gift when she learns that Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s blessing (although she never does puzzle out the secret of the doll).
Just as in fairy tales, dolls can have powerful magical agency, according to folklore. Several authors, including the aforementioned Jason Miller, suggest using dolls or poppets in spells, just as Candy was said to have done in Salem. Miller recommends a mirror box spell using a doll which will turn any harmful magic back on its sender or protect one from magical attack. Dorothy Morrison makes similar suggestions in her book on baneful magic, and even talks about using dollar store Barbie knockoffs stuffed with personal materials or herbs as a way of simplifying the doll-making process.
When it comes to making dolls, however, kids seem to have a knack for doing it with whatever’s at hand, which as I mentioned above, may be part of why dolls are both so ubiquitous and so powerful. Coming from materials which are already familiar to the doll-maker through use and contact, the relationship with the doll itself can be very deep once the figure has been created. Adults do sometimes craft dolls and other toys with what is around, but they are also likely to purchase materials:
“Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper, fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or “found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”). Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric).” (Leeds-Hurwitz 1477)
The fabrication of toys and dolls, including ones used for ritual or magical purposes, is not limited to post-European contact in the New World, either. According to scholar Yvonne Milspaw, Native cultures would create paper-type dolls out of natural materials with magic in mind: ““Other reported uses of paper and bark cutting among Native Americans include carefully worded reports of sorcery and cut-paper dolls among some Mexican people like the Otomi” (MIlspaw 1134). Some of these traditions may have shaped latter-day practices like the creation of skeletal papier mache dolls for Day of the Dead/Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.
So dolls can be made from lots of materials, and can be active or passive in the use of magic, as we’ve seen. They also frequently come with their own rules or taboos about how they can be used, deployed, or even simply treated. When it comes to folk magic, African American conjure traditions emphasized the choice of materials as a matter of import. Dolls are often crafted with local flora (and occasionally fauna) for a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. Spanish moss is frequently used to stuff or wrap doll babies in Delta-area conjure practices both because it grows ubiquitously on trees in the region and because as a plant it acts semi-parasitically (it doesn’t actually feed off of the oak trees it grows upon directly, but it can limit their growth), thereby sharing life with a host as a doll is supposed to. Even more potent than Spanish moss, however, are doll components that come directly from the intended target, such as pieces of their clothing, as illustrated by this example from African American folklore:
“My husband was very jealous of me, he was just insane jealous. He was always telling me he was going to put a spell on me. I was afraid of him. I went to a house where he didn’t want me to go, because a man was at that house he was jealous of. He was going away to get work…and told me not to go there. He went and took a piece of my bloomers and made a rag doll out of them, stuff it, worked black eyes like mine with silk thread; then put in the head — a needle, some of my hair, pins, rain water and a shingle nail, then sewed up the head. After that he took a small picture of me and put it on the left side of the rag doll, about where my heart is; then he filled the doll just full of pins and needles all over. He then put it in a pint jar and buried it under that house, where he didn’t want me to go — without anyone knowing it — and left town. I started to getting sick just as soon as he left, was sick all the time, could not find out what was wrong. I would start over to the house, but I could not make it. Something kept me from going. I went on this way for about a month, I was getting weaker and weaker, when one day some children playing around this house, digging, dug up this rag doll. They [the people at the house] knew right away it was to cast a spell over me, because they knew my picture was on the doll, and he was always saying he was going to make me suffer. We took the rag doll, jar and all, put it on the fire and burnt it all up; and I started to getting better right away and got well. And my husband got stab in about a month time; we threw the spell back on him by burning up everything, and he died and I am well.” (Hyatt 456)
A number of writers on conjure similarly describe the use of clothing from the intented target, including Yvonne Chireau, Starr Casas, Denise Alvarado, and Jefferey Anderson. While a doll sculpted from scratch certainly seems to be preferred in many magical practices, it is not the only way to operate. Much as Dorothy Morrison mentions using dollar-store plastic dolls to do work, Zora Neale Hurston records the repurposing of children’s toys for magical purposes in Southern African American hoodoo:
“To Keep a Person Down. Write name on paper with black ink. Rip open back of a doll and put the names in it. Sew it up with black thread. Put aloes, cayenne pepper in doll along with names. Tie the hands of the doll behind her and place her in a kneeling position in a corner, and keep her there where nobody will interrupt. They will be frustrated as long as she is not disturbed. Tie a black veil on her face and knot it in the back, so that the person will be blind and always do the things to keep himself from progressing” (Hurston 384).
In addition to the lore of creepy dolls and the lore about how to use dolls magically, there seem to be a few taboos about dolls which thread through different American cultural landscapes as well. For instance, many Amish communities have strict rules about children’s dolls, insisting that they cannot have faces on them for fear of violating the “graven images” commandment in the Bible (the rule also extends to things like snowmen and usually paintings as well). Hyatt notes that one superstition about dolls involves naming: “If a girl changes the name of her doll, the doll will break.” (Hyatt, p.268). He also records a much more sinister taboo about dolls which I cannot help but share here:
“A little girl died that was three years old, and her mother put a doll and a little horse in the coffin that she always played with. I said to the mother, ‘I would not do that, for there is an old saying, never bury anything with a corpse.’ And in a few weeks this little girl’s mother and sister died.” (Hyatt 374)
This last bit of folklore is fascinating to me simply because it seems to be a powerful impulse in human beings to bury toys with children when they are tragically lost. Many early human graves contain burial goods, and children’s burial goods often seem to be toys. Dolls, though, might have a special exemption from burial because of their close resemblance to a living person, although that does not seem to be a universal taboo.
Dolls today have a lot of the same stigmas attached to them: they are objects of fear and superstition as well as simple objects of play. Magically, they can be used for a number of purposes which resemble and also modify the traditional folk uses I’ve outlined here. One of our readers shared a story with us about a sloth doll she uses to overcome issues with chronic lethargy, letting the doll absorb any feelings of laziness from her (she also shared her very terrifying experiences with an American Girls doll, so that tradition is alive and well, too). The film Toy Story and its many sequels and similar movies all play upon the idea of toys having a “secret life,” which involves humans not being around, but being the prime object of the dolls’ attention. In theaters as of the date of this post, one can also see the film The Boy, about a very Robert the Doll-esque figure which seems to have a (sinister) life of its own.
All of which is to say, dolls are a big part of magical lore and practice, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And they watch you while you sleep. So sweet dreams and all.
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!
Staying on the dark side of things today, I’m going to continue the theme I started in my previous blog post on the biblical Psalms which have been used to curse. In this post, I’ll be looking at several of the most commonly used Psalms, as well as some of the spells which are built around them.
The power to heal can be the power to harm. Even something as intrinsically good and sacred as a psalm may be used malevolently. Psalm 109 has been called ‘the cursing psalm.’ It may be chanted to harm an enemy.
The psalm itself is inherently benevolent. It’s your emotion and intention that transforms it. Therefore the fist step is to be in the right mood. Then start chanting and visualizing.” (p. 575)
This is certainly the most intensive of the cursing Psalms, including the admonitions:
9Let his [one’s enemy] children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
10Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
13Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Not pleasant stuff, certainly. This one is powerful enough that merely chanting it while focusing on an enemy should cause him or her some distress. However, before simply writing this particular Psalm off as evil, I should point out that it also gets interpreted in more positive ways. Ray T. Marlbrough says it is used “To protect from an enemy, persisting in bothering you” (Magic Power of the Saints). In this light, it is not so much of a curse as a barrier against harm. Braucher Chris Bilardi recognizes its power to be used “against a tenacious enemy,” but also says it is useful “for acquiring friends” (The Red Church). So even the “cursing Psalm” has its upside.
CUT LIMB FROM A TREE THAT IS WITHERING
WHILE MENTIONING WHICH LIMB OF YOUR ENEMY YOU WISH TO BE AFFECTED, OR WHILE MENTIONING OVERALL WITHERING AS YOUR INTENT;
READ THE 70TH PSALM ON YOUR ENEMY;
BURY WITHERED LIMB WITH YOUR ENEMY’S UNDERWEAR –
– TO HURT BY DRYING THEM UP When ah want someone tuh dry up, or tuh hurt them, yo’ go to a tree an’ git a tree that’s withered all up, dryin’ up. Yo’ don’t know the cause of the tree dryin’ up but chure not supposed tuh know how come the tree is witherin’ up yo’self tuh do this. Yo’ jes’ git the witherin’ tree that’s dyin’, an’ yo’ cut a branch offa that tree, see. An’ yo’ want that person – whatevah limb yo’ want that person tuh lose when yo’ cut this branch offa this tree, yo’ mention de limb that chew want ’em tuh lose, if it’s the right laig or the right arm. It won’t work on they haid; it’ll work on a limb, yore arm or yore laig. An’ then yo’ bury this withered tree wit some of this person’s underwear. Until it’s found, why they’ll wither away or lose dere laig or lose they arm, whichevah yo’ say, an’ they’ll be lingerin’ from it. Co’se if yo’ don’t want ’em tuh die like that or lose their laig or arm, yo’ would say, “Let ’em wither as dis tree withers.” But chew would have tuh read de 70th Psalms tuh do that work. De 70th Psalms will dry that person up, jes’ wither him up. De 70th Psalms will dry yo’ up jes’ like a herrin’ – yo’ see, a dry herrin’. Yo’ read de 70th Psalms on anyone an’ it will dry ’em up.
[Memphis, TN. Informant #926 and #1538 (this is one informant, two different interview dates); B45:19-B51:1 = 1503-1509 and D96:1-D110:2 = 2779-2793.]
This is definitely a severe curse, in that it aims to cause at least semi-permanent damage to a person’s body. Both Bilardi and the Curious Curandera also list this Psalm as one to be used for overcoming evil, particularly bad habits—the withering of a limb in this case being the withering of the wicked part of oneself that must be removed.
Some of the other Psalms that may be used in a cursing capacity include:
Psalm 7 – Used to overcome enemies, especially those who plot against one secretly
Psalm 48 – To undo envious enemies; according to Malbrough, it can also be used to “strike fear into your enemies”
Psalm 52 – Used to punish one’s enemies, especially those who use magic against one
Psalm 53 – Which can be used to curse someone who is being stubborn, or to inflict blindness (mental or physical)
Psalm 93 – Used in legal cases where one has been unjustly accused in order to cross the one who brought the charges
Psalm 100 – According to Bilardi, this Psalm is for “overcoming enemies and obstacles” (TRC)
Psalm 109 – The Curious Curandera recommends this one “to overcome a strong enemy, for the ungrateful people who turn against their benefactors”
Psalm 120 – To stop gossip against one or to cross one’s enemies in court cases
Psalm 140 – Against anyone “evil,” though I think that is a fairly subjective idea. It is also used like Psalm 52 against anyone who has worked harmful magic against one
In all of these cases, the Psalms themselves are sometimes all you need, though the more one wants to add to the process, the more potent the curse will be. Muttering the curse over a candle with an enemy’s name carved into it would be a simple and not-terribly-visceral way to do it. Sewing up one of these Psalms into a doll-baby containing an enemy’s hair or foot track and tossing it into a fire, burying it in the earth, or dropping it into a jar full of baneful herbs and oils would be a pretty big curse. The mechanics of the curse really would depend upon the practitioner.
Before I finish up today, I thought I’d also look at a few of the other curse verses employed from the Bible. Just as non-Psalmic verses (like the Blood Verse in Ezekiel 16) and extra-biblical prayers can be employed to do good works, there are a few passages which have some crossing power in them. These are taken from a very fine book on Old Testament magic called Jewish Magic & Supersition, by Joshua Trachtenberg:
To cause a man who has sworn falsely to die within a year: Ex. 15:12
To cause a curse to take effect: Lev. 27:29” (p. 110)
Pretty rough stuff! All of these curses make me want to up my protection factor quite a bit. You can’t be too careful out there, where magic is concerned.
I hope this has been useful to someone. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment or email me. For now, blessings upon you for reading this (after all these curses, you might need them!).
And, of course, thanks for reading!
Several months ago, I received an email from a reader/listener asking about the use of certain biblical texts in the context of cursing. It said:
“I have been reading Judika Illes’ Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells and came across Psalms 109 being used as a hex. I did not know that you could use Bible verses as a hex. Can you give me more info of this Psalms 109 hex?”
So I thought that today I might start to look at some of the “cursing Psalms,” with an eye to their historical precedents, their place in American folk magic, and some ideas of what to do with them. Before I get too far into the topic, however, please let me emphasize that using any curse is tricky, and biblical ones can be especially so. Many of them are based on specific theological ideas about the Old Testament G-d and His will regarding the administration of justice. If a curse isn’t justified, not only might it not work, it might backfire as according to the theology involved, the curse would go against G-d’s will, and thus invite destruction on the curser. Basically, as always, be careful with curses.
To look at biblical curses historically, the first hurdle most folks have to leap is the hurdle of modern thinking. Many who study the Bible are incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that it contains admonitions to do harm to others, yet it clearly does. Repeatedly G-d tells his chosen people to exterminate tribes, towns, and even civilizations down to the last man, woman, and child (see Deuteronomy and I Samuel). He inflicts suffering on even his most loyal subjects (see Job). Some view this all as an historical account, or a gloss for political struggles in a religious context, or as something undone by New Testament theology. Cursing in the Bible, though, is not limited to cataclysmic events on a national level or a cosmic wager between G-d and Satan—it’s often deeply personal. There are several accounts in the Bible of G-d’s representatives dishing out curses:
2 Kings 2 – The prophet Elisha curses a group of children for calling him “bald,” and the children are eaten by a pair of bears.
Numbers 5 – A magical ritual is prescribed for determining if a woman has abeen unfaithful. If she has and she is pregnant from her adultery, the ritual causes spontaneous abortion.
Acts 5 – Peter curses a man and woman who lied to him, and they die.
Acts 13 – Paul curses a man pretending to be an Apostle/sorcerer, and the man goes blind.
(You can read more about magic in the bible here, by the way)
It should be apparent, then, that the Bible doesn’t contain only sweetness and light and the works of a “good” G-d the way many modern people might prefer it. Rather, it contains a mix of history, folklore, philosophy, and even some occult information straddling the line of morality on all accounts. Rather than viewing it through the lens of today, when we might not understand why anyone would resort to cursing in the name of a higher power, it is helpful to have a little more perspective. Theologian Tomas O Curraoin writes about curses in an article for the Irish Catholic digest The Furrow:
“The stand taken by the Old Testament was certainly uncompromising; whereas the contemporary world which influences us all is, to say the least, more accommodating. The maledictions found in the psalms are merely an expression of that fundamental attitude of the Old Testament to evil and to evil-doers. They take their origin in certain human situations, and express an attitude to God, to Life, to the cosmic struggle between good and evil, which is certainly not characteristic of the world-attitude today. In fact there is no question of justifying, in the sense of excusing, the use of curses in the psalms. The psalms are inspired, and do not need to be justified…” (from “The Malediction in the Psalms”).
(Please note here that O Curraoin makes the point that the Psalms themselves, as divine passages, do not need to be justified—I still stand by my point that the use of thes Psalms for cursing must be justified, however). He goes on to point out that in many cases, the maledictive Psalms are really about justice for those who have no other recourse. In a tribal system where many legal cases come down to one man’s word against another and where death is on the line for what we might consider minor transgressions, it’s not senseless to call upon G-d to smite one’s enemies before one is destroyed by them. From a nationalist point of view, the enemy of a faithful follower is an enemy of the people, and thus of G-d, so again, a curse is a-okay. And in the case of a curse against one who is simply acting immorally to wards his neighbors, well, that is still in line with the whole “G-d’s will” idea because the laws about morality supposedly come from G-d. Or as priest John J. Greehy puts it:
“We must be fair to the Psalmists. They had a keen sense of justice. They realized that there could be no real peace (shalom—the fullness of God’s promise in every sphere of life) unless justice, truth, freedom, even some loving were present in the land. So they invoked the divine justice against unrepentant sinners” (from “The Cursing Psalms” in The Furrow, Mar. 1978).
So, what we have is a system of last resort for someone without other recourse, backed by the most powerful forces he or she can muster.
In that vein, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poor and enslaved are the ones we find using cursing Psalms in history. Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of spells involving the Psalms among his Black informants, including some curses. One particularly interesting example follows:
HOODOO PSALM SCRATCHED ON NEW TINPAN WITH NEW PIN OR NEEDLE OR NAIL TO
9783. Yo’ kin take a tinpan an’ control a person. Yo’ kin take a
brand-new tinpan an’ yo’ kin write – lemme see. Ah got it right heah, de
psalms yo’ find where it says “Vau – v-a-u.” Yo’ kin take that an’ write
that on a brand-new tinplate. (This psalm in which the word “Vau” is
used?) Yes Sir. It’s in psalms [the psalm of a hoodoo book] an’ yo’ kin
write that. But now yo’ don’t write it with a pencil or nuthin like
that. Yo’ take a needle or pin or new nail that’s sharp – anyting that’s
sharp except a pencil – an’ yo’ write that psalm on that tinplate. Then
yo’ kin take that tinplate an’ put it away where it won’t be disturbed
or be handled by anybody else. An’ you kin control that person if yo’
write that psalm fo’ them.
[Waycross, Ga., (1166), 1959:8.]
The Psalm in question is the acrostic Psalm 119, focusing specifically on the Hebrew letter “vau”in verses 41-48 and its portion of the overall Psalm. From the King James Version:
41Let thy mercies come also unto me, O LORD, even thy salvation, according to thy word.
42So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word.
43And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth; for I have hoped in thy judgments.
44So shall I keep thy law continually for ever and ever.
45And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.
46I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.
47And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved.
48My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes.
While this isn’t a particularly virulent bit of cursing, it is certainly not a pleasant spell, as it puts someone under the spellcaster’s control. Hyatt also records Psalms 20 and 93 being used to bind one’s enemies in a court situation, Psalms 35 and 102 being used to get rid of a troublesome enemy, and Psalm 70 to make them wither up and suffer. I should go ahead and say that, of course, the use of cursing Psalms even in hoodoo is fairly limited compared to using Psalms for things like success, luck, love, and protection. I generally interpret the large percentage of non-cursing spells in most folk magic practices probably indicates that curses should make up a minority of any witch’s magical work, but that’s just my perspective.
I think we’ll stop there today, as this is already a rather lengthy entry. In my next post, I’ll be including a list of cursing Psalms and their intended effects, as well as any techniques you might use to bring them to fruition. Until then, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do…
This episode is all about the controversial topic of hexing and cursing. We discuss the ethics, methods, and types of cursing, as well as some personal experience with the subject. Then Laine talks about Goofer Dust in WitchCraft, while Cory looks at Uncrossing in Spelled Out.