Posted tagged ‘hidden in plain sight’

Blog Post 53 – Riddle Me This

April 27, 2010

Which is the Maid without a Tress?
Which is the Tower without a Crest?
Which is the Water without any Sand?
And which is the King without any Land?
Where is no Dust in all the Road?
Where is no Leaf in all the Wood?
Which is the Fire that never Burnt?
And which is the Sword without any Point?

-Riddles from Dawn Jackson’s (sadly defunct) Hedgewytchery site (a version still exists at Archive.org, however)

I love riddles.  I’ve always enjoyed letting them roll around in my brain until I can figure them out.  I’m that way with many brain-teasers, but there’s something very special about riddles, I think.  As a witch, I value riddling because riddles have had a place in mystical practice for a long time now (just think about Oedipus facing off with the Sphinx’s riddle).   I think they have the potential to help move one into an altered state of consciousness, and to force the brain to stop thinking in a simply linear, rational fashion.  The mindset which comes after a little riddling is an ideal one for magic, because connections that aren’t immediately obvious suddenly become apparent.  Or such is my opinion on the subject.

Today I’m going to look at a few riddles from American folklore (though some of them may be older in origin).  I’ll post a response in the comments section with the answers in case you don’t want to see those right away.  I’ll also try to point out anything that might have magical significance as I go along.  Without further ado, the riddles (from Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind):

From the South:

The ole man shook it an’ shook it;
The ole woman pulled up her dress an’ took it.
(The solution to this one is simple, but I like the sexual connotations to the riddle itself.)

About six inches long, an’ a mighty pretty size;
Not a lady in the country but what will take it between her thighs.
(Again with the sexual innuendo…apparently we Southerners are a dirty-minded lot.  The solution to this one, though, is interesting because of the idea of “riding” to the witches’ Sabbat—in may folkloric versions, there is a sexual side to this riding).

From the Pennsylvania Dutch:

What goes and goes,
And yet stands and stands?
(Solve this one and you’ve got an interesting way to look at one version of a witch’s magical circle).

What poor fellow passes up and down the steps on his head?
(No witchy significance I can see; I just like this one)

What has its heart in its whole body?
(The answer to this one is worth remembering, for naturally-inclined folk)

What resembles half a chicken?
(A simple answer, but exactly the kind of riddling answer that I like, because it is both slightly funny and a little weird—it does a nice job of making the brain shut out its over-analytical side, for me at least)

From the Louisiana Cajuns:

If a man can lift two hundred and fifty barrels of rice when it is not raining, what can he lift during the rain?
(Again, this one isn’t really magical, but helps to get that child-like mindset which can be very useful in witchcraft)

What goes to the bayou laughing and returns crying?
(This one has more to do with sound than anything else, and getting the guesser to use his or her imagination a little)

What was it that was given to you that belongs to you only but that your friends use more than you?
(This one has particular significance for a witch, I think—if you think of “friends” in this context as covenmates, gods, spirits, etc., it makes sense, at least to me)

So what about you all out there?  Do you have any favorite riddles?  Do you ever use riddles as a way to get yourself into a magical mindset?  I’d love to hear what you have to say, so please feel free to leave a comment!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

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Blog Post 46 – Magic and Mother Goose

April 15, 2010

I received a comment from reader Chet the other day which inspired this particular blog post.  So, many thanks, Chet!  He mentioned that he’s been listening to his daughter’s music, which includes many nursery rhymes, and hearing not-so-subtle references to fairly adult topics (such as the sexual undercurrents in a song like “There’s a Hole in My Bucket”).  This idea may be old hat to some, but I thought it might be worth taking a few nursery rhymes and dropping them into the cauldron to see what bubbled up.  Please note that my witchy exegesis here may be entirely wrong, but it may also provide some new perspectives on old songs and rhymes.  I welcome all comments on these interpretations (well, all civil comments, that is).

You can find a great list of Mother Goose rhymes here, along with some brief explanations of each one.

Now, onto the rhymes!

Jack-be-Nimble
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over
The candlestick.

This little rhyme was first published in the 18th century, according to one source.  It may have referred to a clever and quick pirate called “Black Jack,” but  it also likely has something to do with the practice of jumping over fires, as is sometimes done at May Day (or Beltane) celebrations.  In these instances, the leaper jumps over a bonfire in order to gain blessings—like fertility and an easy birth for women—or protection, or to purify one ritually.  Afterwards, the ashes would be scattered over the fields to ensure a fertile crop.  In its diminished form with a candle-stick, a person could leap the candle forwards and backwards three times (or nine times in some cases) while asking for such blessings, and if the candle remained lit, the wish would be granted.  This might make for an interesting spell, though I cannot recommend it for safety reasons—if you choose to do it, you do so at your own risk and would be well advised not to wear loose-fitting or flowing clothes.

Peter Pumpkin Eater
Peter Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her!
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well!

This rhyme fits in very well at New World Witchery, because it originates in North America.  While many nursery rhymes came from the UK, the mention of the pumpkin in this one tells of its roots (pumpkins are a New World fruit unknown in Europe prior to the colonial era).  But what is it all about?  Well, if a man has a wife he can’t “keep,” it means that she is being generally unfaithful to him, and turning him into a cuckold.  My take on this particular rhyme is that our good fellow Peter knows of his wife’s infidelity and decides to put a stop to it.  He does this by putting something of hers—likely something very intimate like used underclothes—into a pumpkin shell, which as it rots, prevents her from being able to dally with other men.  This sort of spell is common enough in hoodoo, and is generally referred to as binding someone’s “nature” so they cannot sexually perform with another partner.   This is my take only, of course, and your mileage may vary.

For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This rhyme is used, according to some, as a way of chastising children who do not see the consequences of their actions.  I certainly agree that in that light, this rhyme is a wonderful didactic tool.  However, I also like to think there’s something a little more magical that can be gleaned from this little bit of lore.  For example, there is a great deal of sympathetic magic which focuses on using something small, like a poppet, to affect something bigger, like a person.  Examined thusly, this chant might be a great way to amplify magical activity.  For example, if you were trying to banish something—like a disease—you could take something from the ill party (hair, fingernails, or clothing worn while sick) and bind it into a charm which might be buried, burned, or otherwise permanently disposed of while chanting this rhyme.  In this way, you’d be telling the disease that it no longer has the power to ravage the entire body, because you’ve taken away a part of the “body” from it.  The disease would then give up, having lost its “kingdom.”  The healing example may be a bit of a stretch, though, as the primary way I can see this little spell being used is to banish unwanted persons from your life.

Pat-a-Cake
Pat a cake, Pat a cake, baker’s man
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Pat it and prick it and mark it with a ‘B’,
And put it in the oven for Baby and me.

I see two ways that this lovely little rhyme might be given a magical connotation:  1) By baking food and marking it with someone’s initial, you’re essentially creating a poppet of that person, which can be used in many kinds of spells, or 2) This could be a lovely way to help someone with fertility or family blessings, as having a “bun in the oven” is a common euphemism for pregnancy.  In this latter case, when the mother-to-be devours the cake marked with an initial (perhaps the future baby’s, or her own if she hasn’t picked a name yet), she would be putting the “baby” in her belly.  A newly pregnant mother might also do a spell based on this to ensure a healthy baby, and a new mother might then play this game with her child as a way of continuing the blessing for her child (as well as endlessly amusing the little one, which is really what I think this rhyme is all about in the end).

Crooked Man
There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.
And they all lived together in a little crooked house

Finally, we come to one of my personal favorites.  I know that some interpretations put a meaning on this rhyme referring to the unification of Scotland and English under a single ruler, but I tend to think of the rhyme in more esoteric terms.  The repetition of the word “crooked” seems to be almost a mantra, or a chant for moving into another state of mind.  And I think that the “crooked mile” could well be the “crooked path” of witchcraft.  The “crooked stile” is likely the gateway between worlds, too.  So my best use of this charm is to act as a “road opener” between the mundane world and the world of spirits.  There are also plenty of stories about paying a “tithe to hell” before crossing over (see Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer), and it’s usually something nominal (or at least, something that seems nominal at the time), so a sixpence would fit the bill. I also wonder if the crooked house is the proverbial witch’s cottage, or something a little more significant. Perhaps the “house” is the line down which a tradition is passed? And because that line sometimes veers out of strict blood ties and into adoptive relationships, it could be seen as a “crooked house.”  Of course, these are all just my speculations, but I like them.

I could go on and on with these rhymes, looking at them through the lens of witchcraft, and probably find something of value in most any nursery rhyme I read.  However, it’s probably best to say here that just because I interpret something with a witchy twist doesn’t mean that historically it has any such meaning.  In many cases, these rhymes are just entertainments for the very young, and a bit of whimsy for the slightly less young.  I like to think that magic and childhood go together, though, so I will happily continue scouring these rhymes for a bit of hidden wonder.  If you do the same, I’d love to hear what you come up with!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 44 –Stories, Tales, Rhymes, and Songs

April 13, 2010

Greetings everyone!

I began discussing fairy tales in the New World last week, and I thought that this week, I might continue that trend.  Before diving too far into more stories, though, I’d like to make a quick case for the value of “fiction” in witchcraft.  I’m mostly focusing on fairy tales, legends, nursery rhymes, and old songs/ballads here, but it’s possible to apply what I’m talking about to a broader range folk material.

Witchcraft, being largely a folk practice, is seldom found in codified form (well, at least it wasn’t found as such until the 20th Century).  Many of the grimoires used by magicians from late antiquity until the Enlightenment (and beyond) contained magical incantations and spells, true, but access to these books was limited.  While some books did make it onto the shelves of everyday magical practitioners—John George Hohman’s Powwow’s is a prime example of this—there were also plenty of witches who would have had no books at all, or perhaps only something like the Bible to plumb for magical material (there’s a lot of it in there, by the way, but I’ll get to that another day).

Instead, much of the lore of the witch was transmitted orally.  By “lore of the witch,” I’m not talking specifically about magical spells and recipes alone, though certainly there are many precedents for such things being passed along orally—mostly through family lines and across genders.  But there were also many stories about witches, or fairies, or conjure-folk, or saints performing rather un-Biblical “miracles,” and so on.  These tales serve as repositories of a sort, holding little bits of information about what a magical worker could do, some of the ingredients he or she would use, and what kind of journeys a witch might be making “oot and aboot” at night.  It is my personal belief that these fragments of magical knowledge are available to any witch “who has eyes to see,” as Robert Cochrane would have put it.

There are already many people who seem to feel the way I do about these old stories, and who recognize that magic is sometimes hidden in plain sight, as dainties for babes or campfire tall tales.  Sarah Lawless, the Witch of Forest Grove, has a wonderful blog post on this topic, as well as an example of how fairy tales can come true—and not always in a nice way.  Of witchcraft based on fairy-lore, she says:

“These are witches and pagans who incorporate the fairy-faith into their practices and belief systems by incorporating genuine fairy lore and traditions. This can involve anything from superstitions concerning the good folk to practicing a specific cultural fairy-faith such as that of Ireland, Brittany, Italy, or the Orkneys.” (Lawless, 09/15/09, par. 6)

She also lists a set of tremendous resources for those interested in learning more about folklore and its relationship to magic (by the way, if you’re not following her blog for some reason, I really can’t recommend it enough).

One of the authors she mentions is R. J. Stewart, who has also explored the relationship between old stories and magic in much of his work.  One of his best known (and hardest to find in print) works on the subject is The Underworld Initiation.  He has a stellar revisiting of that topic on his website, which not only explores the mythic landscape of the Faery realms, but also goes into great detail on how the poem/song (at one time there was little difference between these genres) “Thomas the Rhymer” outlines much of what a potential witch should know about the Underworld.  I also have a copy of his book Magical Tales, which outlines the storytelling tradition as a part of witchcraft, necessary to ensure its survival.  I very much incorporate his point of view into my own life—one of my greatest joys is being able to recite fairy tales by heart to my child as he falls asleep in my arms, and that’s not just because of the witchy bits embedded in the tales.  Having a baby fall asleep on you is like getting caught in a rain shower made of candy.  While wearing a raincoat made of kittens.  It’s just that good.

Robert Cochrane, mentioned above, also saw the value in mining songs and legends for magic.  In one of his letters to Joe Wilson, he says, “My religious beliefs are found in an ancient song, ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, and I am an admirer, and a critic of Robert Graves.” (Bowers, 12/20/65).  The song Cochrane (born Roy Bowers) mentions contains many references which Cochrane spun into his own particular brand of witchcraft.  His work spawned several Traditional Witchcraft groups, including the Clan of Tubal Cain and the 1734 Tradition.  Robert Graves, a poet who authored a mytho-poetic text on the Divine Muse entitled The White Goddess also used folklore of a sort to explain mystical traditions, though his work is less about witchcraft as a practice than the religious worship of a goddess (in my opinion).

That’s it for this introductory post.  I think it’s always rewarding to learn a tale or two, if only to have something to share around a campfire someday.  And for an astute witch, these sorts of tales often contain even more than just evening entertainments.  For the rest of this week, I’ll be focusing on specific books, stories, or themes which relate to witchery.  I hope that you’ll enjoy discussing them as much as I do.  Please feel free to comment and suggest tales, poems, and songs which have a little witchcraft to offer, as well!  It’s always good to find new sources of magic.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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