Posted tagged ‘hexing’

Blog Post 210 – What is New World Witchery?, Part VI (Witches Have a LOT of Talents)

August 9, 2018

This is the last post in a series in which I’ve attempted to outline a loose set of categorical criteria that might offer the hint of a shape to what I’ve termed “New World Witchery.” So far, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just starting with this series here, you might want to flip back the pages of this dusty old tome on the bookshelf and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices, the physical “things” of North American witchcraft, and the processes by witches gain their magical experience and knowledge. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.

As I enter into this final segment, I should note that it will likely raise as many questions as it answers (if not more), but I believe that to be a good thing. If I say, for example, that witch-flight is a talent for some witches in the stories I cite, that inevitably leads to questions about which witches (hah!) do not fly, why some do and some don’t, and just what do I mean by “flight” anyway? The benefit to leaving these questions only loosely sketched out is that they invite further investigation. They prompt more reading, more interviews, more questions, more experiments, and more questions (again)! Those don’t have to be questions on my part alone, either, but can easily be questions that you explore for yourself (and hopefully share your findings with us, as that makes everyone’s knowledge a little bit better). Some of the points I raise below will be interesting to particular readers and less interesting to others. That’s fantastic, because it means you can explore just what interests you while still seeing it as part of a bigger whole. There’s room around the cauldron for just about every type of witch, I think Which brings me to the final point in my rather over-stuffed taxonomy of New World Witchery.

Publicity photo of American actress, Margaret Hamilton and American Muppet, Oscar the Grouch promoting the February 10, 1976 premiere of Episode #0847 of Sesame Street. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Witches Have a LOT of Talents

When you picture your example of a “witch” in your head, you are likely seeing something different than what others around you see in terms of precise elements, but at the same time you could likely extract that image (by magic if that’s one of your many skills) and show it to others, and at least a few people would say “Oh, yes! That’s most certainly a witch!” Leaving aside the potential aesthetic elements such as the black pointy hat or cat and cauldron, you could also likely describe a person “casting a spell,” “flying at night,” and “summoning the dead” (or other spirits as has already been discussed) and you would evoke something that others recognized as a “witch.” You might also mention full moon rituals, or the creation of herbal healing salves, or perhaps the dispelling of ghosts with piles of burning flora or a chant in an unfamiliar tongue and similarly draw forth the word “witch” from someone’s lips. A woman at a coffee shop, quietly reading tarot cards in the corner? A teenage woman lighting candles and whispering a spell to make herself feel beautiful? A young man inscribing circles and lines on the ground in chalk, muttering in Latin? The mother of a friend who leaves salt lines across her doorstep and a broom turned up in the corner when the landlord visits? Some of these may say “witch” to you, and some may skirt the edge of that word. Some of these examples may fully slide by without ever even registering as “witchy” to you, but you might be able to think of a friend who would instantly label them that way.

A Witch, by E.R. Hughes (1902) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever the case, we understand that witches do a lot of different things, even while we also understand that many of the things we see witches doing seem to be part of a spectrum of behaviors we identify as “witchcraft” or “magic.” In stories, witches do things like pass on secret magical artifacts or turn people into animals. In history, we find people called witches who told fortunes (like Dorcas Hoar in Salem), healed their neighbors (as in the case of Grace Sherwood), or even seemed to have no direct connection to magic at all until their death (as in the case of “Old Kate Batts,” better known as the Bell Witch). Trying to pin down every single talent we see in narratives about witchcraft would generate a list that grinds even the sharpest of pencils into a worn nub, while still leaving copious room at the bottom of the page for all that I’ve missed. Still, I can assemble a broadly inclusive set of practices that I have seen repeated in my research that might at least put a pin in key locations throughout the spectrum of witchy doings. So just what is a North American witch capable of?

 

  1. Casting Spells – This may seem obvious, but it really shouldn’t. There have been several examples where the active casting of spells has not been a main characteristic in a witch story (for example, several of the cases involved in the Salem trials were almost explicitly focused on demonic and spectral visitations that tormented victims, and so the accused “witches” were not necessarily seen as spell-casters but night-wraiths). Given those few exceptions, however, we do see the active use of intentional magic (a definition I will return to later) in myriad tales, legends, and accounts of witchcraft. Whether it’s the act of burning candles, rubbing someone with eggs, or even “fixing” a luck charm of some kind for someone else’s use, witches often work magic through specific spells (and as I’ve noted, those spells often involve “things” as well).
  2. Witch-Flight – Again, not all witches in not all stories share this characteristic. The use of the word “flight” is also tricky and will require further exploration but taking it to mean any form of travel through the air, whether in body or spirit, we do see a lot of witches participating in this kind of magic. Interestingly, lots of stories involve other non-witches gaining the power of flight by following the rituals of the witches they observe, only to find themselves in hot water when the effects wear off and they don’t know what to do (or how to get out of the wine cellar they’re suddenly trapped in).
  3. Using Magical Objects – I’ve touched on this extensively in the section on the physical “things” of witchcraft, and we’ve discussed the nature of magical objects in the everyday world quite a lot as well. Creating or empowering talismans or charms, using cards or coins or bones to read a future, or tying up someone’s good luck (or reproductive functions) with a bit of cord all feature in multiple narratives of witchcraft, so it’s worth repeating. Magical objects are often crafted, of course, in every sense of the word, but a number of witches also repurpose the objects around them or even purchase magical artifacts and tools for their use, none of which makes them any less of a witch.
  4. Harming and Cursing – If we are to listen to the stories and not simply dismiss them out of hand, a great number of witches are engaged in the practice of cursing, hexing, and magical theft. Crucially, they often have very good reasons for acting the way they do, including responding to a community’s failure to treat its members equitably or fairly, making witchcraft an informal method of “justice.”
  5. Healing and Blessing – We have simply massive quantities of stories in which witches do their worst to those who earn their ire, but we also have more stories than you can shake a black cat at featuring a witch doing something helpful or kind for someone (even if it is done in a somewhat grudging way). Witches may execute justice on behalf of someone left out of the community, or offer a healing ointment, or even remove curses placed by other witches. One of the most common talents of those practicing magic is finding lost objects or even treasure, for example, which is a service rather than a curse. The New World Witch has complex motivations and her actions require a lot of context, it seems.
  6. Suffering – If you think of the stereotypical folktale featuring a witch, she often winds up getting the bum end of the dea She gets shoved into an oven, hung on an old tree, burned in the town square, or swallowed up by the forces of hell. She loses a hand while transformed into a cat or gets tortured because she has a pet rat and people don’t understand that choice, or she gets scalded with hot liquid because she happened to be siphoning off some milk from a nearby farmstead (okay, that last one may be more about the repurcussions of theft than any particular act of cruelty by the neighboring farmers). Witches, however, seem to take the brunt of abuse in the stories where they are present. Their spells get reversed or undone, and they wind up the worse for casting them, even to the point of (frequent) death.
  7. Surviving – Even in death, however, witches carry on. They may engage with the dead and the spirit world their whole lives only to become one of those spirits in the beyond. Tales of witches returning from the grave to seek revenge, as reputedly happened in the case of the Bell Witch of Tennessee or Mother Hicks of Maine, are many. Witches don’t go away easily, and almost never go down without a fight.

Illustration of a witch, John D. Batten (1892) (via Wikimedia Commons)

As I stated earlier, this is hardly an exhaustive or even particularly detailed list, but it does provide some ideas about the ways we perceive witches in stories and the ways we understand what they do. A witch is likely to engage in an act of magical theft as a response to poverty, then be caught and punished for her spells, and finally return from the grave for vengeance. Or, she might quietly cast spells and divine fortunes with cards, finding lost goods and livestock as a nervous client sits in front of her.

Our understanding of witches is shaped by their actions and behaviors far more than by the pointy hat or the bubbly cauldron, even though we often signal the idea of “witch” with those sorts of symbolic cues. Seeing these behaviors in combination helps us to see the emerging “witch” of legend and history as an active participant in her own story rather than just a victim of mislabeling by the ignorant around her (although there are certainly plenty of cases of that happening, too).

Weather vane with witch (photo by Jordiferrer, 2014, CC License-Wikimedia)

As I move forward with this website and all its related projects, I hope that these posts will be ones that we can return to as to a crossroads, with a giant post full of various arrow signs giving us all sorts of potential directions to go. We have seen the ways witches engage with the world around them here. The problems they face, they face with practical—if not necessarily logical—approaches, using magic as a specialized tool for overcoming barriers including poverty or injustice (as well as exacting personal vendettas sometimes). They understand the world to be a wonderful one—not necessarily a “good” one, but a world inhabited by the uncanny and awe-inspiring. Witches engage with that wonder, form bonds with it and with the world it shows them. Witches go beyond wonder and belief, transforming their ideas into concrete reality through spells and charms, knotted cords, bones and skins from animals, and handfuls of gathered plants. They acquire their power and knowledge through struggle and effort, often developing it over a lifetime and passing it on to others sometime before they die. They do magic, cast spells, deal with curses, provide blessings, bewitch guns and cattle, find missing animals, brew love potions, get blamed when things go wrong (sometimes because they did, indeed, have something to do with it), transform into animals, suffer for their work, and often pay very high prices for the magic they do.

The life of a New World Witch, then, is one of action. Witches do work. Witches solve problems. Witches learn and grow. Witches make things. Witches talk to things that others don’t or won’t talk to. Witches see the world differently, and it changes them. Then, they change the world.

I look forward to seeing all the things that you all do with your magic. Please continue to share your own acts of witchery and enchantment with us and help all of us here to summon forth a little more New World Witchery in the years to come.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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Blog Post 198 – Dolls

February 1, 2016

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.

Robert the Doll, in Key West, Florida. Creepy, right? By Cayobo from Key West, The Conch Republic (Robert The Doll Uploaded by LongLiveRock) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Illustration of Brer Rabbit & the Tar Baby. A. B. Frost [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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).

"Voodoo Doll," featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

“Voodoo Doll,” featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References

  1. Alvarado, Denise. The Day of the Dead Handbook (CreateSpace Publishing, 2012).
  2. The Voodoo Doll Spellbook: A Compendium of Ancient Spells and Rituals (Weiser Books, 2014).
  3. Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society (LSU Press, 2008).
  4. Casas, Starr. The Conjure Workbook, Vol. 1: Working the Root (Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
  5. Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2006).
  6. Crowley, Daniel J. “Anansi.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 50-1.
  7. Goldberg, Christine. “Witchcraft.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1560-64.
  8. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” In Journal of American Folklore (Fall 1931). 317-417.
  10. Kirkland, James W. “Folk Medicine.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 983-89.
  11. Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. “Toys, Folk.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1477-80.
  12. McMillan, Timothy. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, & Resistance in Colonial New England.” In Journal of Black Studies (Sept. 1994). 99-117.
  13. Miller, Jason. Protection & Reversal Magick (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books), 2006.
  14. Milspaw, Yvonne J. “Paper Cutting.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1132-35.
  15. Morrison, Dorothy. Utterly Wicked: Curses, Hexes, & Other Unsavory Notions (St. Louis: WillowTree Press, 2010.
  16. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York: Dover, 1970).
  17. R. D. Personal correspondence via email. 23 Dec. 2015.
  18. Yolen, Jane, ed. “Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch.” In Favorite Folktales from Around the World (New York: Random House, 1986).

Blog Post 115 – Cursing Psalms (part I)

January 18, 2011

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
CONTROL

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…

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast Special – Mother Hicks

October 30, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL-
Summary
A tale of a famous witch from Maine, adapted from Richard Dorson’s “Buying the Wind”

Play:

Download: New World Witchery Special – Mother Hicks

-Sources-
Based on tales found in Buying the Wind, by Richard Dorson.


Promos & Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com

Podcast 12 – Spell Failures

August 2, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 12-

Summary
This episode is a follow-up to our recent special on spell successes.  We look at spells that have not ended successfully, and discuss how we reacted to these failures.  In WitchCraft, Laine looks at the magic of calligraphy, and in Spelled Out, Cory examines the Green Devil Pay Me Now Spell.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 12

-Sources-
Our own experiences, of course!

We also mentioned the book Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells by Judika Illes again.
Laine mentioned the book Learn Calligraphy, by Margaret Shepherd in the WitchCraft segment.
Cory referenced the Lucky Mojo site as a source for things like the green devil figural candles and Pay Me incense in the Spelled Out segment.
Other sites to find Pay Me-type products (many don’t have “Pay Me Now” oil, but various kinds of commanding and money-drawing incenses and oils, which can be used in a similar way):  Queen of Pentacles Conjure, Music City Mojo, Forest Grove Botanica, Toads Bone Apotheca, and The Conjure Doctor.

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

Blog Post 32 – Hoodoo You Do (Intro, Part IV)

March 18, 2010

This blog post will primarily deal with types of hoodoo spells, or “tricks.”  It’s not a complete list of all types of hoodoo magic by any stretch of the imagination, but for someone just getting into it, this should give you an idea of what a conjure man/woman does, and give you some places to start if you want to do hoodoo for you.

Mojo Bags – Probably the best known of the hoodoo magical charms, mojos go by many names:  hands, tobys, jomos, etc.  These small talismans are little bags designed to be worn out of sight and usually close to the skin.  A particular type of mojo worn only by women is the “nation sack” of Memphis, TN.  The way these charms are made may vary a bit from place to place or worker to worker, but the general idea is that a small flannel sack, usually red but sometimes other colors, is filled with magical ingredients—usually an odd number of them.  It’s then closed up, and often anointed or “fed” with some offering on a regular basis (whiskey, rum, or other alcohol is a common food for a mojo hand; some of the condition oils found in hoodoo are also appropriate).  I recently heard these bags described as little spirit houses, and to my mind, that’s a perfect description.  The herbs, oils, curios, and other elements of hoodoo are matched together to make a little home for a spirit who can aid the worker in getting what he or she wants.  I often include a written charm in mine (being inclined towards the written word as I am), and usually I make my mojos as part of a larger working, such as a Candle Burning.

Candle Burnings – Also commonly called “setting lights,” candle burnings in hoodoo are similar to candle burnings in any other magical system.  The only real difference is the method (or methods) of dressing the candles.  In hoodoo, when a worker is dressing a candle to draw something (like money, love, health, etc.), he or she will cover the candle in herbs and oils from the bottom-up.  To rid oneself of something (like a jinx), candles are dressed top-down.  Personal concerns, such as a target’s hair or fingernails, are usually incorporated in the dressing, or may be placed beneath an inverted saucer upon which the candle is burned.  Name-papers with written charms may also be used in this manner.  Henri Gamache’s Master Book of Candle Burning is an excellent resource for this type of magic.

Readings – Most rootworkers begin with a reading of some kind.  Whether its tarot cards, palm reading, or just a sort of psychic once-over with second sight, the conjure person will need to get a good idea of what the client needs—not just what he or she wants.  Often, readings are done as part of a larger interview process to really hone in on what kind of work the rootworker will need to do.  I like to use playing cards to read before doing most magical workings, even ones for myself.

Honey Jars – We covered them a bit in our Special Episode recently, but I love these things, so I’ll mention them again here.  Basically, a honey jar is exactly what it sounds like:  a jar full of honey.  Into this sweet-and-sticky pot you place the names (and personal concerns in some cases) of those you wish to “sweeten up.”  These jars are also known as “sweetening jars,” and can actually contain almost any kind of pure sweetener, such as brown or white sugar, molasses, or syrup.  This is a good way to start doing hoodoo, because it is a very positive type of magic (you’re only making your relationships with those you sweeten better, after all) and it also teaches you to get your hands a little dirty (because you must push the names into the jar with your fingers, and then lick them clean…a nice reward for your efforts!).  You can make jars for each person you want to sweeten if you’re working more elaborate spells on them, or keep one jar with lots of names in it for general sweetening.  You can also make vinegar or “souring” jars, which is a form of Hexing.  I’d generally wait to do a souring jar until after you’ve tried a few sweetening ones, though.

Foot-track Magic – This type of magic stems from African Traditional practices, in which the footprint of a person could be used magically against them (or to help them, but usually harmful magic is associated with foot tracks).  The basic idea behind this kind of spell is that the feet come in contact with a magical potion, powder, or other ingredient and draw the psychic contagion up into the body.  One of the most famous examples of foot-track magic is the use of goofer dust on someone.  The hexing dust is sprinkled somewhere where the target will walk over it, and the poisonous influence of the powder will cause the target’s body to swell and fill with pain, and possibly even die.  Of course, it’s possible to do helpful spells with foot-track work, like laying a prosperity blend in someone’s path to ensure they have good luck, but this is a less common use of this magic.

Washing/Bathing – While I love the fact that hoodoo gets down and dirty, I also really like the emphasis it puts on cleanliness.  There are lots of formulae designed exclusively for things like washing one’s floors to banish harmful things and/or draw beneficial ones.  For example, you can wash your business doorstep or the sidewalk in front of your shop with a money drawing blend (such as bayberry, cinnamon, and rose-of-jericho water) from the outside-in to draw customers to you.  Bathing is also important in hoodoo, particularly ritual bathing performed over a series of 3, 5, 7, or 9 days.  Much like in Candle Burning, if you take a hoodoo bath, you’ll want to stand in the tub and wash up to draw something (like money) and down to get rid of something (like a bad habit).  Prayers, psalms, and other magical phrases may be recited while bathing, and usually at least some of the bath water is saved and later disposed of ritually (by pouring at a crossroads, for example).   I highly recommend Draja Mickaharic’s Spiritual Cleansing if you want to learn more on this subject.

Cleansings/Uncrossing Work – Related to Washing/Bathing is the concept of a Cleansing or an Uncrossing.  These workings are usually done to remove the effects of harmful witchcraft or hexing, and can be done by a rootworker or by a client under a worker’s direction.  Some common methods of uncrossing involve the aforementioned ritual bathing while using downward motion and uncrossing herbs (like rue, hyssop, and salt), marking the client with the “five-spot” or quincunx pattern using an uncrossing oil, or even running a raw egg around the client’s body to absorb negative spiritual energies (this is similar to cleansings found in other systems, like curanderismo).  A rootworker may also smoke or fumigate a client, using a sheet to tent the seated client from the shoulders down and burning incense beneath the chair to fill the tent with sacred smoke.  There are related areas of hoodoo spellwork which are more protective than cleansing which involve putting down salt, chalk, or brick dust lines around a person’s home to prevent harm from reaching them, but these are usually done after a cleansing has been performed on both the client and his/her house.

Jinxing/Hexing – So I know it seems backwards to discuss this after Cleansing/Uncrossing, but I generally feel like it’s better to know how to stop a harmful spell before you get started, so that’s why I mentioned the other first.  However, Jinxing/Hexing is a big part of hoodoo.  From the harmful forms of Foot-track Magic mentioned earlier to more fearsome curses (such as the disgusting but terrifying “Live Things in You” curse, in which a target is tricked into swallowing powdered snake skin, spider eggs, or other unsavory items so that they begin to feel like things are literally crawling around inside them).  Learning to hex someone with hoodoo isn’t hard, though it often requires a strong stomach.  One simple and quite grave curse is to make a doll-baby (stuffed poppet) with the person’s name paper or personal concerns inside of it, then put that into a small coffin and bury it in a graveyard.  The victim should feel their own life-force fading as long as the buried doll remains in the cemetery (a word of warning, though—in most places digging so much as a single spoonful of dirt is considered vandalism and is quite illegal, therefore I do not advocate it).  A simpler and much tamer curse is the vinegar jar I mentioned in our Witch Bottle Special.  By simply placing someone’s name into a jar of vinegar, along with things like red pepper flakes, black pepper, and garlic, you can sour their life pretty effectively.  Shaking the jar every time you think about it can help “stir up” more trouble for them.  Cursing someone for fun, by the way, is always a bad idea.  You never know when it might backfire and wind up dragging you right into trouble, so make sure you’re working “justified,” perhaps by doing a Reading first.

Love Spells – The simplest of these is a type of Honey Jar in which two people’s names are kept and a candle burned over the top of it.  This sweetens them to each other and helps set magic in motion to keep them sweet on one another.  Love spells in hoodoo, though, are not always so nice.  There are plenty of spells aimed at separating lovers (candles are even sold which look like married couples and which, when burned, come apart and lead to divorce or estrangement).  There are also more intense love spells aimed less at finding that one true love than at exercising power over the target (see Controlling Spells for more on that).  Many love spells, though, are more like the sweetening spells, and simply help a person find or catch that perfect mate.  There are some extremely simple love spells in hoodoo which involve little more than tying two dirty socks—one from each mate—together and hiding them away so that love will remain forever “bound” between them.  Of course, for those coming from a background where this sort of manipulation is a magical no-no, even a fairly benign hoodoo love spell can seem a little sinister.  But then, no one says you have to do every spell in the hoodoo spellbook, right?

Controlling/”Bend Over” Spells – I saved these spells for last because I find them incredibly interesting.  They are so antithetical to the kind of magic I did for years, because they completely ignore the idea of non-manipulation.  These spells are all about manipulation, in fact.  Controlling spells (and their sister workings, “Compelling” and “Bend Over” spells) usually involve forcing another person to do what you want them to do.  Sometimes, as in the case of Compelling or Pay Me Now! spells, the force is simply making the target fulfill a promise they’ve already made.  But often these tricks are laid in order to keep an errant spouse from philandering about, or to make a boss give you that raise you’ve been after.  Using roots like licorice and calamus, as well as personal effects from the target (name papers are much less effective in this kind of work, in my experience), a rootworker can do a heckuva number on someone.  One of the most famous methods of using this kind of magic involves a woman putting a bit of her menstrual blood in her husband or lover’s food, thereby making him remain faithful to her.  She can also “tie his nature” by measuring his penis with a string, then soaking it in his semen and tying knots in it.  That way, he will find himself useless unless she releases him, which presumably will only happen when he’s with her.  It’s intense stuff!  But it also makes sense.  For many folks, these workings are last-resort measures.  In some cases—such as using Courtcase formulae or spitting galangal root juice on a courthouse floor—they are the only methods available to poor folks being ground down by the gears of the legal system.  Who wouldn’t want magical reassurance that the judge was on their side?  While I don’t recommend starting with these kinds of spells, I will say I’ve gotten to really like them over time.  They’ve proven useful, and a good rootworker knows how to set limits when using Controlling magic.

Like I said, this isn’t an exhaustive list of all hoodoo techniques and spells, but it should at least give you an idea what kinds of magic are available in the rootworking system.  As always, I recommend checking out the Lucky Mojo site for more info on many of these methods, and if you have any comments or questions, you can email us or leave a comment and I’ll be happy to respond!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast Special – Witch Bottles

March 11, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR SPECIAL – WITCH BOTTLES-

Summary
This is the first of (hopefully) many mini-episode specials in which we’ll explore particular practical topics in American Witchcraft.  Today, we’re looking at the history, lore, and making of Witch Bottles.  Plus we’ll share our own experiences with them.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Podcast Special – Witch Bottles

-Sources-
*The Wikipedia entry on “witch bottles.”
*Apotropaios – An excellent site with scholarly history of many occult objects, including Witch Bottles.
*The Lucky Mojo page on “Bottle Spells” has lots of great information on the various kinds of magical bottle workings done around the world.
*The Appalachian History blog has an excellent entry on “Bottle Trees.”
*The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, has a good article on “witch bottles.”
*The Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells, by Judika Illes, is another tome with lots of magical information, including some on Witch Bottles.

Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com


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