- Blog Post 123 – Corn
- Blog Post 143 – Apples (see also our Everyday Magic video on apples)
- Blog Post 144 – Walnuts
- Blog Post 145 -Wart Charming (because everything seems to cure warts, apparently)
- Blog Post 157 – Peaches
- Blog Post 192 – Eating Your Luck
- Blog Post 227 – Bread
Black Lives Matter. I say that first, because it is the most important component of what I write today. To all those standing up for Black lives right now, thank you.
In our recent Patreon newsletter, which we made public, we issued our position about valuing Black lives and Black contributions to our world. One of the points we made was this:
“To us, Black Lives Matter. Frankly, we wouldn’t exist without the numerous contributions and creations of myriad Black and Brown minds throughout our history, and we have sought to highlight those figures on the show and on our site when possible, and we know we can do even better in the future, too. We must. We will. American folk magic does not exist, does not thrive and grow, without People of Color. So again we say, Black Lives Matter.”
Today, I’m going to highlight a small number of the figures from Black magical history (particularly in the U.S.) that prove that statement true. American folk magic does not exist without the contributions made by these individuals, and in many cases it has thrived and grown only because of the efforts made by People of Color. I’ll be mentioning only a small handful of what could easily be a MASSIVE list, and I’ll be sharing resources and information where you can learn more about them (as often as possible in their own voices or from non-white sources). I also showcase several contemporary Black magical figures because it is important not only to see the foundations of American folk magic as rooted in African American soil, but to see what continues to grow and thrive here. I recommend listening to them, hearing their perspectives, buying their books, or supporting them in any way you can. (Note: Where possible, all books are linked to a Bookshop.org page, and I encourage you to order these books from one of the many excellent Black-owned bookshops throughout the U.S.; Amazon links are used ONLY when the book is not available through Bookshop).
So let’s get started.
Zora Neale Hurston
To me, Zora Neale Hurston is the grande-dame of North American folk magic in so many ways. I know that’s a controversial opinion, but Hurston herself was no stranger to controversy. She was a key piece of the Harlem Renaissance, working on plays with the likes of Langston Hughes, while also doing advanced anthropological work at Columbia University. Hurston was prompted by her mentor, Franz Boas, to go out and document her own culture, to see it as equally valid and important, and through that she produced both fiction and non-fiction texts that are absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in folk magic. She documented Vodun and Obeah in Haiti and Jamaica, and produced a quintessential collection of stories and material on hoodoo by researching in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, as well as other parts of the Gulf Coastal South. She was sometimes accused of being accommodating to white folks (like one of her patrons, the paternalistically racist Charlotte Osgood Mason) or of embellishing her work, but it rings with poetry and life and as Hurston herself might say, “the boiled down juice” of living. She died in relative obscurity until her literary reputation was resurrected by Black scholar Alice Walker a decade-and-a-half later.
To read: Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography); Tell My Horse (Vodun/Obeah); Mules and Men (Hoodoo); “Hoodoo in America” (extensive folklore article); Their Eyes Were Watching God (gorgeous literature); Moses Man of the Mountain (fiction with strong magical elements).
Aunt Caroline Dye
She was known as the seer of Newport, Arkansas, and received visitors from hundreds of miles away. She was the subject of several blues songs, and was reputed to be able to find any lost or stolen object with her powers. When she died, it was said she had literally thousands of dollars hidden away on her property, making her one of the wealthiest women around. During the peak of her popularity and power, it was said that more Black folks knew her name than President Woodrow Wilson’s.
To read: Statesmen, Scoundrels, & Eccentrics: A Gallery of Amazing Arkansans, by Tom Dillard (biography section); “The Hoo Doo Woman of Arkansas” (AR State Parks Dept.)
Black Herman was both a stage magician and a practitioner of mystical and magical arts when the spotlights were off. He was born Benjamin Rucker in the late nineteenth century, but he took the name “Black Herman” to honor his teacher and partner, a stage magician named “Prince Herman,” when the latter died. Black Herman took over the show and toured it with incredible success from the time he was seventeen until his untimely death nearly thirty years later. He was best known for his legerdemain and escapist tricks in his act, including a stunt that saw him buried alive then miraculously resurrected days later (when he’d continue with his show). Herman also folded in a number of African American folk magical elements, too, including the curing of patients with “live things” in them like snakes or the expulsion of evil spirits.
Stephany Robinson, known to most around St. Helena Island, South Carolina, often gets painted as a sort of villain or foil in the stories about him. He was well-known as a rootworker and conjurer in an area connected with the Gullah culture, specializing in “chewing the root,” which involved visiting a courthouse where a client was expecting a trial, sitting in the audience, and slowly chewing a “Little John” root (galangal) while spitting the juices on the floor. He would fix a judge with his gaze and in many cases get his clients off from their accusations just by showing up. He also provided medications to young Black men who were being drafted into military service that would make them fail qualifying draft tests. Eventually, his success ran him afoul of local law enforcement, particularly Jim E. McTeer, a sheriff who decided to start using rootwork on his own to combat Dr. Buzzard. The conjure war between them escalated for a few years until Buzzard’s son was killed in a car crash, devastating him. He soon after called a truce with the sheriff. I’ll admit that I often think of this more from McTeer’s perspective than Buzzard’s, but in truth Buzzard’s clients likely faced incredibly unfair circumstances and his roots and magic were invaluable to his community, while McTeer’s use of conjure was almost play-acting at times as he engaged in a form of psychological combat with the respected local root doctor.
See also: The Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor (for more on the region)
So much is written about Marie Laveau it’s hard to separate fact and fiction, but we do know that she existed and that she was one of the most powerful Black women of her day. She’s mostly associated with New Orleans Voodoo, although she likely also incorporated elements of hoodoo at times while maintaining a strongly Catholic public presence. I won’t belabor her story here, because of all the people on this list you’re probably going to be able to find the most information about Laveau, but she’s absolutely one of the core figures in North American magical history.
Less well-known than Laveau, but deeply influential in the Brooklyn community where she lived (and beyond), Mama Lola was a Haitian mambo overseeing a number of rituals for the immigrant community around her and acting as a social pillar for her neighborhood. One biographer gives her full name as Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, but everyone knew her as Mama Lola or Alourdes. While New Orleans Voodoo may have captured the imagination of many, in Brooklyn Alourdes/Lola kept the living spirit (and spirits) of her tradition going. She acted as a spiritual and social counselor for those around her, as well as providing childcare for her daughter and helping to financially support members of her community. She would meet with clients almost daily, stage elaborate birthday parties for the lwa spirits she honored, and offer initiation and teaching to talented students.
To read: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, by Karen McCarthy Brown (bio)
For some, Katrina Hazzard-Donald is controversial, because she insists that Hoodoo is its own traditional spiritual system, a religion that was essentially quashed during the late nineteenth century and which has only been revived as a commercial enterprise in the intervening years. Hazard-Donald’s scholarship on the subject, built on her years as a professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Rutgers University, is frequently compelling and points out that the specific rituals of Hoodoo as a religious phenomenon include things that derived from or mirrored existing African spirituality. She points to things like ritual dancing, water immersion, and divination as reflective of the African roots of the tradition. Her work shows that once the religion left its home soil in particular regional zones, it became nationalized and easily coopted and marketed by outsiders, including white and Jewish merchants in big cities. While I don’t always agree with every point she makes, her analysis of Hoodoo is absolutely mind-expanding and thought-provoking. Additionally, she also practices African Traditional Religion as an Ogun Olorisha in the Lukumi tradition. I had the absolute pleasure of getting to hear her speak at an academic conference a few years ago, and she is fiery, eloquent, and moving when she talks about African and African American spirituality.
To read: Mojo Workin’ (her seminal work on “Old Black Belt” Hoodoo)
The author of the deeply influential book Jambalaya: The Natural Women’s Book, Luisah Teish has been working with African and African American spiritual traditions for decades and connecting her knowledge of spirituality with healing for issues of both race and gender. She makes feminism a crucial part of her spiritual practice, and was advocating for self-care as a radical form of spiritual action back in 1985. She continues to act as a guide and teacher to people, particularly women, who know her as Yeye Teish. She’s an initiate (Iyanifa) and chief in the Yoruban spiritual tradition, and hosts workshops and international trips to places like Jamaica to connect with living African-derived spiritual and magical traditions.
If you haven’t heard of Lilith Dorsey, you’re doing yourself a disservice. She’s an incredibly cogent writer on the subject of a number of diasporic practices, especially Vodun, witchcraft, and Afro-Caribbean spirituality. She recently put out a magnificent-looking book on Orishas, and has written books looking at love magic and African American cooking as a form of spellcraft, too. Her blog over at Patheos is always thoughtful and points toward new sources and new ideas while also bringing in her anthropological background and rooting what she discusses in that field.To pile talent upon talent (which she has in abundance), she’s also a filmmaker, who made the documentary Bodies of Water: Voodoo Identity and Tranceformation.
Lisa Jade is a Canadian witch with a keen eye for issues of environmentalism, social justice, and–of course–witchcraft. She’s also a Patheos blogger (like Lilith Dorsey above) who shares her insights into issues like locavore lifestyle witchcraft and the deep problems with capitalism for those who walk a crooked path. She also produced an EXCELLENT reading list of Black witchy authors a few years back including Black writers and magical workers that aren’t on this list (including people like the brilliant Khi Armand).
To read: Her reading list, 100% for sure, because it will offer you a lot of new options to discover
See also: Her website (which also produces material for Patheos)
The A Little Juju podcast is something I’ve only recently found, but it’s been going strong for a while now. It also has one of the best and catchiest theme songs I’ve heard on a magical podcast, and Juju Bae covers a wide range of topics that intersect with Black magical spirituality. She’s talked astrology, money magic (which she takes VERY seriously), reiki, and even why masturbation is a healthy expression of spiritual self. She offers a line of hoodoo-related oils and products as well as divinatory readings (including ancestral readings), and she teaches online courses as well.
To listen: Check out her A Little Juju podcast
Stephanie Rose Bird
She’s a prolific author who shares her knowledge of hoodoo readily in her books, but who also writes about health and wellness as a Woman of Color and even has a debut novel in the works! She’s generous and supportive while also providing rigorous and careful instructions in her books, and she looks at places where magical practices and spiritualities overlap with a thoughtful eye. The ecological side of her writing runs deep, and she situates the hoodoo she knows and does within the framework of natural cycles and seasons, while also making it contemporary and accessible for anyone.
To read: 365 Days of Hoodoo (a hoodoo-based daily practice book); Sticks, Stones, Roots, & Bones (her landmark work on her hoodoo-rooted practice); The Big Book of Soul (African American culture and spirituality)
See also: Her website
My final member of the thirteen-person coven assembled here is someone that I think everyone should know. Via Hedera is one of my favorite writers on North American folk spirituality. She looks to the folklore and scours collections and practices to better understand and share a deeply-rooted, deeply-felt sense of folk magic here. She comes at the topic as someone who lives intersectionality, bringing a multi-ethnic perspective and elevating practices from a wide range of sources, connecting sources such as Indigenous and African American magical practices through her work. She’s a delight to read, and her forthcoming book is one that I’ve been lucky enough to preview and I will say it should be at the top of any New World Witchery fan’s reading list. Plus, she’s a crazy talented artist who makes gorgeous plant-spirit sculptures that will melt your brain with their beauty.
To read: Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Mulitcultural Experience (forthcoming, and you should definitely get it)
* * *
This is truly just a sampling of the hundreds (of thousands) of Black/POC figures that have informed, shaped, guided, and continue to influence the magic of North America. There are no shortage of people I skipped or missed here, ones that I think deserve just as much praise and recognition as the ones I’ve highlighted. To that end, if you have figures that you think should be on this list, please feel free to share them in the comments (along with any links to relevant information).
A note: any racist, misogynistic, or otherwise heinous comments will not be approved and may be reported as harassment. Please use the comments to lift up and elevate Black magic.
Black Lives Matter. Black Magic Matters. Rise together.
Thank you for reading,
In a recent discussion on our Patreon Discord channel, we had a really smart question from listener Fergus. He was noting that both Laine and I often mention bits of folk magic we remember from our families and wondered what we did to gather that lore. Broadly speaking, I think both Laine and I have been incredibly lucky in that as we discuss different magical practices and folklore, we are reminded of things from our childhood and upbringing that relate to magical topics at hand.
However, it’s not always an easy process to get at magical folklore from your family or your community. With it being Pride Month, we are often reminded intensely that many people are cut off from their families and from their friends and neighbors by prejudice and bigotry. That means that opening the doors to magical discovery can feel a bit like an impossible quest.
For others, they may have strong family bonds, but figuring out how to ask about magic specifically is hard because any use of that word (or “spells” or “witchcraft” or similar terms) will instantly get shut down due to deeply-held religious convictions or other social stigmas. (Also, please note that while I’m using the term “family,” the term “community” is just as relevant–your local social environment can provide a LOT of lore, as can any chosen family to which you belong).
So what’s a person to do when they want to learn more about their own magical history (which is important, because we often see huge problems arise when people try to nab someone else’s magical history or invent a magical history out of whole cloth)?
Thankfully, as I’ve been working on my upcoming book for Llewellyn, I’ve also been thinking about that question, and for one of my chapters I came up with some exercises that I think would be extremely valuable to anyone trying to recover community or family lore. The big trick? Don’t focus on the magic and make sure you listen. Here are some practical exercises you might be able to try:
1. Ask for stories. Don’t focus on magical stories, mind you, but instead stories from a person’s life. In particular, you might try spending time with elders from your family or your community, and seeing what stories they have to tell. Get them to tell you about what life was like when they were growing up. Ask about their time at school, and what they remember about friends and neighbors growing up. Get them talking and truly listen to what they have to say. Write it down if you can (record it if they’ll let you, and donate that to a local archive! There’s a magnificent resource for doing this sort of ethnographic interviewing available from the Library of Congress called Folklife & Fieldwork: An Introduction to Cultural Documentation, by Steve Winick and Peter Bartis at the American Folklife Center. The full text of it is available as a PDF here, and they often will mail you a print copy for no more than the cost of postage). Remember that these interviews are about building a relationship. Make it a habit to ask questions and take an interest in them and their life. Even if they say things you don’t always agree with, try to be generous in your listening and pay attention to what emerges from these conversations. Over time, you’re going to find that there are stories that involve “a way of doing things” that doesn’t follow any rational structure, which is frequently an indicator of magical thinking and practice.
When I was growing up, one of the places I often visited with my Dad as part of his church choir duties was a local nursing home, and I found lots of people there who wanted to share their stories. I learned patient listening and got some good tales (and jokes) out of that, as well as making a few good friends, too.
2. Tell your own story. Get someone to interview you. Don’t think about the magical side of it or even focus on that part. Just let them ask questions about your life and the world you grew up in, and see what you say. Get them to record you, and listen back to your words later (I know, no one likes hearing themselves played back, so pretend it’s someone else if you must). Use the same prompts as in suggestion one above and see just where your stories lead. You’ll likely surprise yourself with how many little bits of magic, superstition, and folk belief you uncover with this process. I once did an interview with someone for my Krampuslauf research involving their role as a musical participant. They later told me that my interview opened up a whole cache of experiences, memories, and family connections that they hadn’t been thinking about, and it was a powerful emotional experience. That research involved a parade, but uncovered a good bit of magical and ritual material as well, some of which emerged during interviews without me ever raising those topics.
3. Focus on specific folklore-rich topics. You’ll often find as you do interviews and discuss lore that there are key subjects that generate more magical lore than others (even if, or especially if you don’t actually mention anything about magic). Some of the best topics to ask about include:
- weddings and marriages (especially the ceremonies/customs)
- pregnancy and childbirth
- strange or important weather events/natural disasters
- major religious rites of passage (like baptisms or a bris)
- death and funeral customs
These subjects frequently involve subtle forms of folk magic, or point you in the direction of magical lore.
4. Pay attention to how people in your community respond to issues of stress. While major life events are great fonts of lore for general customs and beliefs, the way people deal with problems often involves a weaving together of rational and non-rational responses. Injuries, even something as small as a scrape on the sidewalk, often makes magic suddenly pop out in the form of a kiss or a gentle blow on the wound after the bandage is applied. How does the community or family around you respond when someone loses a job or faces a sudden loss? Are they turning to prayer? Are those around them doing so? Are they adding them to prayer lists, or giving them foods or objects of comfort? Do people trying to get a job have a lucky token they take with them to interviews? This is not an admonition to suddenly put on your social scientist glasses when you see someone suffering–far from it! Offering succor in times of strain is valuable, so if you can do so I encourage it, but also keep your eyes and mind open to what you can learn about the cosmology and enchantment in the world around you in those moments.
5. Finally, visit your local library! Do some research! Go to the archives! Libraries, and by extension local historical archives, often have absolutely scads of records, documents, diaries, and books of lore tied into the community around you. Remember, your magical practices are not solely about kinship, but community, and your teachers and magical heritage come from the places and people surrounding you. Dig into local lore and legends, and see what they tell you about the landscape you see every day. Are there places reputed to be haunted or cursed? Spots where wonders have been observed, or local legends of people who might have had magical powers? I happen to live in Pennsylvania at the moment, and this state loves its history and archives, which in turn allows for a lot of lore recovery. The lovely Urglaawe community–a regionally-based Pennsylvania German Heathen group–has been able to rebuild an immense amount of its lore and practices through research and interviews. Check into the folklore collections housed at your library, and look for local lore in particular. Does the library have genealogical records you can look into to find more information? Can you visit the places you read about, or even leave some flowers on the grave of an accused witch?
This is hardly a complete list of what you could do, but if you’ve been struggling with the ways you might get in tune with your own ancestral magic, consider giving these methods a try. I’ve been doing interviews for years now and my favorite thing about them is how often I find people want to keep talking long after the mic is turned off–we are a creature of narrative, and we love sharing stories. Remember that in no case should you approach this sort of research as an opportunity to exploit the people you talk to or study, but instead use these interviews and deep-diving inquiries to develop relationships and understand how you fit into your own magical (and cultural) landscape. You may be surprised just how rich it is.
Thanks for reading!
It’s been too long since we did a contest, hasn’t it? But we have a great one up and going, because we want to feature your some of your local lore from your local graveyards! In October, Laine and Cory will be discussing the ways that graveyards factor into both supernatural beliefs and magical practices, and we thought it would be fun to have you all share your graveyard stories with us! And if you do send something in, you will be entered to win one of two prizes, too!
To enter, all you need to do is get us your graveyard lore. You can send it to us via email at email@example.com (the easiest way) or leave us a voice mail at our hotline (442) 999-4824 [442-99-WITCH]. Tell us a name we can use on the show, your approximate area/location (you don’t have to be too specific, just a state or even “the Pacific Northwest” would be fine), and your piece of lore! It can be a ghost story from a local boneyard, a tradition observed in your area (such as leaving stones or pennies on certain stones), or even a bit of info about magic you’ve done in the graveyard! Put “Graveyard Lore Contest” in the subject line to make it easy for us to keep track of your lore, too, if you don’t mind. By sending the lore to us, you’re agreeing to let us read it on the air and use it in other projects, so make sure you’re okay with that (and that you use a name that you’re okay with sharing). You can see a video going over the basics here:
Don’t have any graveyard lore to share? That’s okay, you can still get an entry into the contest! Here are the alternative ways to enter:
- Patreon – Do you already sponsor us on Patreon? Great! You’re in! Anyone who sponsors us at any level by the closing date gets at least one (1) entry into the contest.
- Subscribe to our YouTube Channel – We’ll pull a list of all subscribers on the last day of the contest, and if you’re subscribing to us (make sure we can see a user name of some kind), we’ll add your name to our sorting hat!
- Share Your Favorite New World Witchery – Share one of our articles, videos, or episodes somewhere on social media and tag us! We’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, so you have lots to choose from. When you tag us and share your favorite piece of New World Witchery, we’ll add you to the drawing as well!
So what can you win if you enter? Well I’m glad you asked! We’ve got two prize packs for two winners:
- The Wild Magic Pack – This pack features a copy of Aidan Wachter’s excellent new book Six Ways: Entries and Approaches for Practical Magic, a poster print of the poem “Sometimes a Wild God” written by Tom Hirons and illustrated by Rima Staines, a bottle of Conjured Cardea’s Abre Camino road-opening oil, and some bits and bonuses thrown in by us as well.
- The Hills and Hollers Pack – This is a mountain magic based pack featuring Appalachian Folklore by Nancy Richmond and Misty Murray Walker, the first two volumes of Cullen Bunn’s chilling Harrow County graphic novel series, a book of mountain holiday lore called A Foxfire Christmas by Bobby Anne Starnes, and a bottle of our own Compass & Key Black Cat Oil (for luck and other good things to come your way).
Winners will be chosen at random from the total list of names we compile at the end of the contest, and prize packs will be selected randomly for the winners. The contest will close at midnight on September 1st, 2018, so get your entries in ASAP!
We hope you’re already thinking about the chilly days of autumn and picturing yourself among the gravestones, and we can’t wait to hear from you!
This post is part of my ongoing series trying to use folklore, history, and contemporary accounts of folk magic to paint a picture of what “New World Witchery” might look like. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read the previous post, “What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you. I have already said there what I will reiterate here: that my attempt to lay out some sort of shape that defines New World Witchcraft practices is likely to satisfy no one (not even me). I undertake this effort largely because I think it gives me a point of reference when I’m developing other articles and trying to see how distinctly “New World” certain practices are. There will always be exceptions, of course. Rules and witchcraft have a murky, complicated relationship, a thought which brings me to the subject of today’s section:
Witchcraft is an Amoral (not Immoral) Act
Despite a common popular conception in parts of early America, most witches are not interested in worshiping a literal Christian Devil or sending random blights over their neighbors’ crops. That doesn’t mean witches do no harm—they seem to do a lot of it, at least in accounts historical and folkloric. For instance, many witches will tie up a rag to an axe handle or fence post in order to steal milk from their neighbors’ cows, thereby stealing directly from the people around them. Seldom are those targeted by witches run into ruin or completely deprived because of the witch’s interference, although it may cause them some anxiety and trouble. The magical theft seems to be an extension of the pragmatism mentioned previously, though, offering the witches involved a way to sustain themselves. There are stories of people being tormented to the point of death, of course, but as in the famous Bell Witch case, much of the lore surrounding such attacks implies that the target has wronged the witch in some way, and that the witch is simply bypassing conventional justice for her own brand (see Keith Thomas’ essay on English witchcraft for a good outline of that argument, which applies equally in a number of Colonial-era witchcraft cases).
Witchcraft is not an act of evil unless it is being labeled that way by those not practicing it, but its applications are often morally ambiguous, verging on unethical. Take for example, the case of Mont and Duck Moore in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Duck would hex livestock within the community, and then Mont would remove the curse…for a fee, of course. This was an act of commerce far more than it was an act of evil. Or at least, it was evil in proportion to its pragmatic approach to earning a living. The case of Betty Booker mentioned previously provides an example with a bit less racketeering. At the far end of the spectrum we have the case of “The Witch of Pungo,” Grace Sherwood, who provided a variety of cures for her community in Virginia, only to end up being “swum” for her troubles (fortunately, she survived the experience). Sherwood reportedly stirred up the ire of some of her neighbors through her witchy ways, but seldom held back in her condemnation of those same neighbors when they leveled accusations against her. Folk magic and witchcraft, as we have seen already, are about meeting needs, and those needs are frequently morally dubious, much more so than the people who perform conjurations to help meet those needs. Cheo Torres noted that he was once asked what people liked to ask curanderas to do for them by a reporter. He replied: “Well, I said, young men usually want something to help them get sex…[M]idle-aged women usually want something to make their husbands love them again, sine that spark has left their lives. Middle-aged men want something to help them deal with the old aches and pains of their arthritis or their old football injuries. Older women wanted something to help them win at bingo or the lottery. And older men usually wanted something to attract younger women.” Clearly, meeting the needs of those who come to them is what creates moral ambiguity, far more than a witch’s partnership with a particular imp or spirit (although we’ll be getting to that topic soon enough).
A New World Witch is accountable to herself, and answers to her own sense of morality. Some stories demonstrate a witch paying a price exacted later by a Devil, but for the most part any suffering they find is at the hands of those who work countermagic against them—for example in tales where a hexed butterchurn is used to reverse harm upon the witch who cast the curse in the first place. One informant shared a just such a reversal with me regarding the Evil Eye:
“If your infant is thought to have been given the Evil Eye, it will display tantrums, inexplicable fits, crying, fever, coupled with nausea out of nowhere. If this is determined to be the case, the one suspected of giving the Evil Eye to the child must be confronted in front of said child, and be asked to submit (pass along with their mouth or spit in a glass of water) their saliva to the infant for it to ingest… Giving of themselves a part of them, to queue [quell] its curse.”
The person who gave the Evil Eye was expected to be a person that could be confronted, negotiated with, a part of a community that operated by informal, unofficial, but very potent magical “rules” that could flex and adjust to particular circumstances.
Justice is negotiated in individual encounters rather than through uniform rules. Witches like Sherwood may have had tempestuous personalities but still acted as forces for good in their communities. Milk-stealing witches met their needs through magic, often because they had fallen through any social networks of support that were supposed to exist in their communities, and frequently paid an eventual price for their deeds at the hands of those they’d wronged. Some witches played a system, as in the case of Mont and Duck, and were tolerated by the community at least for a time. No one, it seems, in history or folklore, expects the witch to act in a morally “mainstream” manner, but to operate under her own code of right and wrong (and any shades of gray between).
Next time: Witches Have a Lot of Friends (You Just Can’t See Many of Them).
Thanks for reading!
We move across the state of Tennessee in this episode, discussing hoodoo in Memphis, the magical scene in Nashville, and hearing stories of the Bell Witch and a hexed gun along the way.
Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.
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, Little Wren, Jessica, Victoria, Daniel, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Montine, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, and Hazel (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
You can check out Tony Kail’s book, A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurers, and Spirituals and find out more about his work on the Memphis Hoodoo website.
Rebecca Petersen runs the store Draconis Arcanum in Nashville.
The account of the Bell Witch you heard is taken from Tennessee: A Guide to the State, produced by the Works Project Administration.
The story of “Billy Jesse and the Witched Gun” comes from the book Foxfire 2.
We’re also planning an excursion in early to mid-summer to see the ancient magical artifacts exhibit at the Penn Museum and we’d love for you to join us! More details will be coming soon.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).
Promos & Music
I realize that my previous post promised a bit more exploration of the potential shape of a “New World Witchery” sort of practice, but during the drafting of that post, Ilvermorny was unveiled. I’ll get to what that means in a moment, but I wanted to just take a moment to say I am still working on the other post, and that this one may actually tie nicely into the longer discussion of New World magic (albeit from a more literary stance). I also want to note that there are most definitely *spoilers ahead* so consider this your chance to stop reading if you aren’t already somewhat familiar with what Ilvermorny is.
If you have managed to see the light of day at any point in the past two decades, you are probably familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Created by J.K. Rowling, the Potterverse (as all the collective official materials of the Harry Potter fictional fandom are known) has historically centered on the adventures of Harry, “The Boy Who Lived,” and his struggles against Voldemort (a.k.a. Tom Riddle), an evil and megalomaniacal wizard bent on the purge of all “impure” wizarding families and the subjugation of Muggles (as non-magical folk are known). The places most familiar to those who have read the seven primary tomes of the Potter series (and now, the eighth installment, which is actually a stage play called Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, but which even in its dramatological format has still sold more than two million copies during its first few days of release) are generally located in the United Kingdom: Platform 9 ¾, found at King’s Cross Station in the London Underground; the wizard-and-witch shopping mecca of Diagon Alley, hidden behind the Leaky Cauldron, both also in London; and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, located in and about Scotland, where Harry and his friends learn their trade along with hundreds of other students (I emphasize the number for reasons that I hope will be clear soon enough). Pottermania has permeated literary and popular culture for well over a decade now, and Rowling’s most recent endeavors in her magical world make it clear that the Potterverse is not going to remain stagnant, but expand even further.
Most recently, it has expanded with some detail into North America. Rowling wrote a short story that tells the history of the founding of the North American school of magic, known as Ilvermorny, in Massachussetts during the seventeenth century. I won’t do a complete recap of the events, as I encourage you to read it for yourself (it’s less than an hour’s read, really), but the gist of the tale is that an Irish witch descended from the Slytherin line named Isolt Sayre fled the Old World with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, and then high-tailed it into the woods to the west and eventually formed a magical family, adopting two boys (the Boot brothers) and marrying a kindly Muggle (or “No-Maj” as we apparently call non-magical people in North America, in a blinding fit of banality) named James Steward. Isolt befriends a number of North American mythical beasts and cryptids, including a river spirit in the form of a Horned Serpent and a pukwudgie whom she calls William. When she begins instructing other magical folk (including the local Native populations, mostly of the Wampanoag people), she establishes the school that eventually becomes Ilvermorny.
At a very basic level, the Ilvermorny story is a pleasant addition to the young-adult fictional world of Rowling’s imagination. Characters—despite not having much space in the narrative—generally have readily accessible personalities and even get a bit of development here and there. Rowling tries very hard to recreate the magic of Hogwarts in Massachussets, and at times, she gets pretty close to doing so, in my opinion. Given the heavy use of British and broadly European folklore and myth in the Potter series, however, her approach to North American lore and legend is strangely off-kilter. I can only really speak for North American cultural materials from the United States, here, but I imagine that Canadian and Mexican readers might also feel there is something “off” about the Ilvermorny tale. Below I will outline some of the key issues I found when reading Rowling’s backstory.
Ilvermorny’s problems often stem from a particularly British mindset transplanted into an environment that was fundamentally un-British. Firstly, very few schools in the U.S. use the “house” structure. There are certainly exceptions to that rule, notably a high school in Kentucky, but by and large even residential boarding schools do not favor house systems anymore. Of course, Ilvermorny was founded in the 1600s, so it is very likely that a house system might have been in place for a century or so, but I doubt it would have lingered there much past the public education and Sunday school movements of the nineteenth century. Instead, individual schools foster collective school pride in competition with other schools. In some instances, there might be fraternity-like divisions within a school, but they are seldom as intense as house divisions and rivalries are generally much shallower. In some cases, such divisions are even viewed with intense scrutiny: “[O]rganizations that enclose themselves in separate houses…carry the stigma of secret societies, [and] fraternities and sororities are subject to suspicion, restriction, reform, disparagement, suspension, and at many campuses, banishment” (Bronner 242). Even at colleges, where house-like divisions are more common, they seldom take on the definite shape of the divisions found in the more British antecedents. Additionally, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a founder, with a deeper backstory about why they came together to form the school Ilvermorny has a general set of founders, but they chose not to name the houses after themselves. Rowling even makes a point of joking about how the houses are not named after the individuals behind them: ”The idea of naming the houses after themselves, as the founders, was swiftly abandoned, because Webster felt a house called ‘Webster Boot’ had no chance of ever winning anything, and instead, each chose their favourite magical beast.” The author’s clever solution to the founder problem is to form the houses around the mascots, which brings us to…
The Menagerie of Beasts
Taken *mostly* from North American folklore and legend, the house creatures are essentially mascots for their houses. Yes, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a creature associated with it, but the creature is fundamentally linked to the founder—Gryffindor is a Griffin because a Griffin represents Godric Griffindor (and there’s a whole book about the “heir of Slytherin” and the relationship to snakes through his line). The beasts in Ilvermorny actually work better as mascots because the founders remain nominally distant from their houses (Rowling’s account of the naming of the houses makes it sound like an affable after-dinner conversation). In an American secondary education environment, however, you don’t have four mascots at one school. You have four schools, with four different mascots. I will return to that concept momentarily, but first we must discuss the mascots themselves.
The beasts are an odd mishmash of the North American legendary landscape. All of them are at least loosely linked to Native American or Amerinidian legends of one kind or another, but are lumped together in such a way that they don’t suggest the distinct or distinguishable Native tribes whence they come. Pukwudgies, for example, would be primarily associated with areas under the Northeastern portion of the Algonquin-speaking America—largely New England, where much of the Ilvermorny story takes place. So far, so good, right? There are similar creatures depicted in other areas—the Cherokee have legends about “Little People,” and the Cree tell tales of the Mannegishi, who are a lot like Pukwudgies (Mooney 335). Choosing to call them Pukwudgies links them to a region, however, and complicates things, because then Rowling introduces the idea of the”Horned Serpent,” a much more generic term for a figure found in various forms throughout the Plains, Lakes, and Southeastern American regions, as well as having some cousins in the “plumed serpents” of the Southwestern and Central American zones. Why make one specific, and one generic? Why not settle on a specific term, like Uktena or Mishi Kenepikwa to attach it to a region or tribal affiliation in some way, the way she did with Pukwudgie? Thunderbirds are similarly broad, although at least potentially more connected to the region in which Ilvermorny is founded (although not massively so, as they feature much more prominently in regions much further west) (Cohen 92-4; Erdoes & Ortiz 218-22). Perhaps the most confusing is the Wampus Cat, which is usually limited to the Southeast and occasionally Deep South (Mooney 324; Schlosser 92-8). Again, its name is potentially generic, but folklorically it has almost no connection to the area of Massachussets where Ilvermorny is located.
That doesn’t mean that Rowling is wrong to draw upon these figures—it is her fictional universe, after all. It does mean, though, that she’s not really put them into any context that makes sense given the folklore at hand. This is strange, because she is very good with British folklore and fairy tales, and incorporates them frequently into her Potter series. In the case of Ilvermorny, she has Hodags (a Wisconsin-based hoax beast) and Jackalopes (mostly in the Plains and American Southwest) mingling with the creatures of New England and the Mid-Atlantic (Brunvand 831-2; Cohen 239-44) . She does not seem to realize that a Hodag would have to travel nearly a thousand miles to romp with her pukwudgies, or that a Maryland Snallygaster would need to head northwest to the tune of about four hundred miles to play with Isolt’s friendly Horned Serpent. In the end, I think that she just does not quite grasp the size and scope of America, its peoples, and their mythologies. How anyone at Ilvermorny got Wampus Cat hair for making wands during the first years of the school is a mystery, and perhaps one we will examine as she expands the Potterverse over time. Which brings me to the last point…
America is Very Big
Let’s think about some numbers. We’ll start with Hogwarts. Based on what we’ve read in the Harry Potter book series, we can estimate an average of of 10 new students per house per year for 7 years = 280 students at any given time. The U.K. population is around 65 million, which means that about .000004 percent of people in the United Kingdom are likely to be selected for Hogwarts (and I am assuming that Hogwarts is the only place young wizards and witches are educated in the U.K., so that number is the high end estimate of new witches & wizards per year). To compare, the U.S. population is around 320 million, nearly five times the size of the United Kingdom, spread out over an area roughly forty times as large. If we assume that wizarding populations are roughly the same worldwide (as one astute listener pointed out, that idea is canon from the Pottermore site), then using approximate statistics, there should be at least 1,000 young wizards and witches per year (closer to 1,300-1,400, really) for the U.S. population. Enough to fill four or five schools, that is.
Ilvermorny is a very British way of doing things, and is very out-of-joint with the American people and landscape. There’s something very Colonial and Imperialist about the way Ilvermorny is portrayed, with its founder instructing the local Natives in magic (although to her credit, Rowling does make the education more of a magical exchange; most of the magic in the story, however, is the wand-waving type, and so European magic seems to be the most prominent and dominant form). Rowling seems to be trying to create a unified and cohesive narrative about American magic, and in some places she succeeds: the idea of the Magical Congress is very sharply perceived, as is the effort to avoid an aristocracy of houses and the inclusion of a Muggle-founded house. Her efforts to concentrate everything into one time and place, and her seeming lack of understanding of American historical movements and regional interactions, undercut the story she tells, however. It’s just sloppy to dump every possible magical being from Wampus Cats and Hodags to Jackalopes and even the Snallygaster into one place, especially without giving any context. She could just as easily have started bringing in Bigfoot or Little Green Men as a part of the Potterverse, since both creatures also have antecedents in Native lore, and are perhaps as disharmonious in her setting as some of the cryptids she does include.
My own reading of the situation tells me that Rowling would have been much better off dividing the school into the four mascots, and then having each mascot represent a different regional school. Ilvermorny could have been the Pukwudgie school of New England and potentially parts of the Mid-Atlantic. The Wampus Cat would then have been representative of the South (possibly started by a maroon/runaway slave community—although it would also be lovely to imagine such a school represented by the Loup Garou in Louisiana). The Thunderbird would have made much more sense somewhere in the Western Plains, the Pacific Northwest, or California. And the Horned Serpent could have represented either the Middle West and Great Lakes region effectively, or been a more “plumed serpent” creature in the Southwest. Alternatively, a fifth school would have been a good thing to add, maybe including a Jackalope to represent quick-wittedness and a bright intellect with a bit of a mischievous streak in the West or upper Southwest. Rowling’s Potterverse accounts for “skinwalkers” as a type of shapeshifting Animagus slandered by charlatan “No-Maj medicine men,” so perhaps even a school founded by such an Animagi would be appropriate—particularly as it would show the magical agency of Native sorcerors in founding their own school. A fifth school division would work because the numbers for the wizarding school in the UK—Hogwarts—are roughly one-fifth of the projected numbers in the United States (and this is not even touching Canada or Mexico, which might well have their own schools—I could easily envision one by a lake in British Columbia where Ogopogo lurked in the waters much as other mythic creatures do in the lake by Hogwarts, for example) (Cohen 136-41). These schools would likely have been founded by different witches and wizards over time and during the expansion of American westward migration, and so they would not all tie up into quite so neat a package as the Ilvermorny tale or the Hogwarts history, but America is big and messy and complicated.
Yes, it would have meant a less complete story for Ilvermorny. But it would also have meant room for more expansion later. Since Ilvermorny is repeatedly described as the Great North American School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, we are left to assume that it is likely the only one. Considering we are a competitive, diverse, and geographically expansive society, any school attempting to be the sole proprietor of magical knowledge on the continent is unlikely to succeed. As historian Daniel Boorstin notes, “There has never been an effective American movement for a national university. The numerous and diverse American colleges, separated by vast distances, never formed a self-conscious community of learned men”(and women, I would add) (180). Boorstin is obviously discussing higher education, but the principle of spatial separation and scholastic individualism is mirrored in secondary education, too. We just don’t do an Oxford or a Cambridge here—we prefer numerous schools representing regional identities, and that’s something the Ilvermorny story misses. Rowling has a big imagination, and this is all fiction and her universe; she can do as she pleases. From where I sit, though, it seems she has not been able to imagine just how big and diverse America can be in its landscape, peoples, and lore.
I’d like to note that Peter Muise of the New England Folklore blog has also tackled this topic, much more succinctly than I have here, and I highly recommend you check out his take on the subject. Also, Laine & I discussed this topic extensively on our latest episode. And, of course, this is really all just for fun anyway. While I’ve obviously taken a bit of (wait for it) Umbridge at certain folkloric pieces of Rowling’s story, really it’s just there to entertain us and she seems to do that pretty well. Plus, it gives us a place to work from when discussing things we should expect to find in New World magical practices (such as diverse forms spread over a wide set of regions, with a combination of widespread and geographically particular spirits/creatures to explore). I write what I do here with fondness for Rowling’s work (and let’s face it, she doesn’t need my approval for anything!), and in the hopes that her story might inspire deeper reading for those who are interested in American folklore.
Thanks for reading!
- Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience (Random House, 1964).
- Botkin, B.A. A Treasury of New England Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1947)
- —. A Treasury of Southern Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1949).
- —. A Treasury of Western Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1951).
- Bronner, Simon J. Campus Traditions (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012).
- Brunvand, Jan, ed. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing, 1996).
- Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Monsters (Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1982).
- Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964).
- Erdoes, Richard, & Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths & Legends (Pantheon Books, 1984).
- Leeming, David, & Jake Page. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).
- Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee (Charles Elder Books, 1982).
- Rowling, J.K. Pottermore site (updated 2016).
- —. The Harry Potter book series (Scholastic Press, 1997-2007)
- Schlosser, S.E. Spooky South (Globe Pequot Press, 2004).
I am sure I am not the only person in the witchcraft blogosphere who will be venturing an opinion on Robert Eggers’ New England folk horror film, The Witch. The movie’s stylistic and narrative gravity has been pulling critics from many backgrounds into its orbit to venture commentary. It is a fine film, to be sure, and if you are looking for a recommendation, I am among dozens of others who will give one—the film currently seems to be holding a mid-to-upper-80s percentage and “Certified Fresh” rating on movie review amalgamator RottenTomatoes.com. If you’re a fan of horror movies (or at least can stomach horror genre frights), the movie is beautiful to look at and riveting from its first moment until its surprising finish. For visual impact alone, it is worth seeing in the theater. Other critics with a deeper background in film studies can and have said much more about Eggers’ diretorial debut as an artistic work, and so I will leave my simple recommendation here in the first paragraph.
Instead, I would like to comment on the elements of the film upon which I may be more uniquely qualified to offer an opinion. As a student of folklore and history, as well as someone with a more-than-passing interest in witchcraft as a particular subject, I will take a couple of paragraphs to talk about how the film uses those elements to tell a story that lingers long after a viewer departs the theater. Fair warning: while I do not wish to spoil anything, I won’t be able to discuss how history and folklore shape the narrative without referencing very specific moments in the movie. So, that is to say, many potential spoilers ahead.
One of the most widely acclaimed elements of the film is its historical accuracy. Director Eggers spent four years doing intensive research, drawing upon primary source documents from the 17th century to build up the authenticity of his world. The film’s coda notes that the themes, some narrative elements, and much of the dialogue is taken directly from diaries, pamphlets, and other period materials, and that attention to detail shows. The film’s language has an immersive quality. Its costumes and physical spaces do as well, from the community plantation abandoned by the Separatist family at the beginning of the film (filmed at Plimoth Plantation) to the wild wood which hems in the clearing where they attempt to build a farm and a life. The family, led by father William (Ralph Ineson), manage to eke out a first season’s crop of corn only to have it struck by blight. Soon after, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) loses the youngest child to something which mysteriously—and with uncanny swiftness—appears from and disappears into the woods. William attempts to comfort his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), by reminding her how lucky they are to have so many children survive in the capricious Early Modern period, and that the loss of one is tragic, but understandable in a world where God must continually test his children’s faith. Katherine is broken, however, fearing her infant has been taken to Hell since William refused to have it baptized in the plantation church due to his disagreements with its less rigid brand of Puritanism. The pre-adolescent boy of the family, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), receives religious lessons from his father in the woods as they attempt to set traps to catch wild game for the winter, lessons about his corrupt and sinful nature. Caleb finds himself caught in a moral compromise after his father reveals that he sold a family heirloom without telling Katherine, a crime for which Thomasin receives the blame until the boy steps in with a protective lie, and imprecating all of them in violations of Calvinist theology.
All of this is not to spoil the film’s plot elements—these fragments do not reveal anything terribly important, and most happen within the first third of the film. I bring these details up to make the point that the film has an air of authenticity about it, both historically and psychologically. That is not to say that the historicity of The Witch is somehow above reproach. It is not. As Peter Muise of the blog New England Folklore has pointed out, “many of the film’s later images are drawn not from New England witch narratives but instead from continental European myths and narratives, which had more sexual content. Continental witch stories were quite lurid, full of orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. The New England witches, malevolent though they were, were demure Puritans at heart.” So Puritan were 17th-century witches, in fact, that their notorious leader—the Devil—frequently wore the guise of a Puritan minister. Historian Richard Godbeer notes that the inversion of specifically religious images had nothing to do with Puritanical obsessions with chastity, but with the intentional choices of the accused in connecting their religious leaders with satanic influences:
“The subversive equation of godly and diabolical communities in descriptions of witchcraft at Salem explains the almost complete absence of sex from those accounts. That absence was not due to Puritan success in ridding New England of sexual license, or any reluctance on the part of townsfolk to mention such transgression as did occur. The court records of early New England contain thousands of cases relating to sex crimes…Had deponents in 1692 wanted to fill their descriptions of witch gatherings with illicit sex, they could have drawn on the local reports and gossip…That deponents did not include sex in their descrptions of the diabolical community at Salem was, therefore, a matter of choice…[and] give the impression that layfolk in New England were imprisoned by the covenantal discourse of Puritan theology” (Godbeer 69).
That Puritan theology is something the film gets very right. At one point, William leads his son out into the woods to check some game traps, and leads him through a Calvinist catechism of sorts, which has the child confessing his debased and sinful nature and the failure of anything but God’s grace to save him. William also has to explain that Caleb’s younger brother may very well be in Hell, because only God can know the ultimate disposition of someone’s soul. William’s disagreement with his local church’s theology is very much based on this world-view, and like many Puritans, he believes the wilderness and all its trials are a godly sign of righteousness. The wilderness, and the things dwelling within it, sorely test the goodness of the family, and find it wanting.
Yet it is not just in the wild places where dangers pursue Thomasin and her kin. Even on the little farm, corrupting influences creep in. The twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), display remarkably little regard for their parents or older siblings. They play strange games with the family’s dark-hued goat, Black Phillip, and are visited by spectral fits during an attempt to exorcise the influence of witchcraft on one of the family members. Thomasin’s budding sexuality threatens the family’s stability, too, very much putting her in the line of fire for witchcraft accusations. Women were seen as particularly susceptible to witchcraft and the Devil—one part of the famous witch-hunting manual known as Malleus Maleficarum contains a section entitled “Why It is That Women Are Chiefly Addicted to Evil Superstitions.” Thankfully, the film does not oversimplify the accusations into pure psychosexual drama, but instead shows how the family begins to devour itself from the inside, with the twins just as suspect for diabolical malfeasance as their older siblings.
All of that is to say that the historical aspects of the film generally ring true, even if they muddle a bit of the Old World into the New. The language particularly crackles, immersing the audience without dumbing it down for them (and it is taken directly from trial records and journals, as mentioned above, which Eggers had to sift and stitch together into something cohesive). If the film were called Accursed Little House on the Damnéd Prairie, however, I likely would not be examining it here (although I’d still absolutely watch it). The history in the film is heavily served by its reliance on folklore, which is what makes it truly terrifying.
Almost from the very beginning, the folk world of The Witch absorbs its audience. The titular witch seems like a potential allegory or psychological symbol for only the briefest of moments, and then suddenly becomes very real within the story. To be clear, this witch is NOT an herbal healer or midwife living at the edge of a village who gets accused of crimes in some land-grab or out of fear over her quirky and peculiar ways. When Eggers gives his audience a witch, he gives them exactly what that word meant to a 17th-century audience: a wicked, dangerous, wild woman (yes, okay, sometimes witches were men, too), bent on doing harm and destruction to those that threatened her. Or, you know, just for fun, since the film is not completely clear on why the witch singles out this family for her torments beyond the possible encroachment upon her space.
So just what folkloric signs of witchcraft pepper the film? As a wise man once asked, “How do you know she’s a witch?” Well, as the answer goes, she looks like one—wild and disheveled, crone-like (except when she isn’t), and often working naked under the cover of darkness. She uses a wild-caught animal—of sorts—and turns its fat into a flying ointment, with which she anoints a staff and rides before a full moon. While much of this lore betrays the more European-style lore which Eggers admits influenced him significantly, there are a number of pieces here that absolutely get echoed in American magical and witchcraft practices. The animal-fat ointment, for example, has several parallels, including a story of “Greasy Witches,” from Roan Mountain on the Tennessee/Carolina border, and the Appalachian folkways series, Foxfire, has references to rendering all kinds of animal fat into useful cures, ointments, and greases.
As the film is a horror movie of sorts, blood is also in the mix. Animals give bloody milk as a sign of bewitchment, a theme paralleled in a number of stories from New England and the mid-Atlantic. Sadly, the family does not seem to know any of the traditional cures against witchcraft, such as scalding the milk in the fire or beating it with brambles to reverse the harm upon the witch. But then, as they are devout in their Puritan faith, they likely would agree with Cotton Mather that “[W]e ought not to practice Witchcraft to discover Witches, nor may we make use of a White healing Witch (as they call them) to find out a Black and Bloody one” (Mather 265). Black and bloody this witch can be, almost vampirically draining blood and life from the livestock and even people on the little farmstead, and leaving sickness and madness in her wake. While a more modern interpretation of this sort of story might be tempted to associate illness with a natural cause and leave witchcraft as a psychological function, Eggers resists that urge, and clearly implies the uncanny in the family’s woes. During a particularly eerie moment, a family member suffering from the witch’s influence coughs up a bloody, partially gnawed crabapple as a sign of his malefic infection, not unlike cases in which pins or stones are vomited in folk tales.
The animals in the story also play a significant role in the witchcraft. A wild-eyed hare seems to taunt the family. William’s attempt to kill the thing results in a misfire of his rifle, which in turn causes him injury. Stories of bewitched guns are found in a number of tales in collections like Patrick Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs or Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet. The animal form of the witch—a hare—seems more in line with British and Scottish lore, but the concept of shapeshifting is hardly unknown on American soil (we did a pair of shows and an article on the topic recently, in fact). The other eerie beast in the film is Black Phillip, the family billy goat, with whom the twins cavort and make up rather diabolical stories. The goat seems harangued by the children, and the father struggles to catch and pen him at one point, demonstrating his tremendous physical strength. Black Phillip nearly steals the show when he’s on screen, with his strange dancing and bucking when the members of the family get too close. Animal familiars also appear in the film, such as a raven which pecks at one person’s breast, drinking blood as recorded in some of the testimonies of 17th-century witches. The deposition of New Hampshire witch Eunice Cole, for example, accused of nursing her familiar with a witch’s teat: “[L]ookeing upon hir brests under one of hir brests (I thinke hir left brest) I saw a blew thing like unto a teate hanging downeward about three quarters of an inche longe not very thick” (Demos 485). Stories from Salem also spoke of witches suckling animals, such as hairless cats.
Perhaps the darkest and finest connection to folklore is the presence of both the Devil and the Devil’s book, in which a person might sign her or his name and gain diabolical power at the cost of her or his soul. The trope of this infernal deal appears in European records, too, but became a major feature of witchcraft legends, tales, and trials in the North American colonies and states. Folklore from Maine down into Virginia and the Carolinas made mention of these dealings (which is not to exclude points outside of that range—Canada had some similar legends, as did areas south and west of the New England/Mid-Atlantic corridor). These books would frequently be signed in blood, and in the case of an illiterate person, an “X” in her or his blood would suffice for a compact. We’ve written about the subject here before, but these “Devil’s Books” and their contractual bond with Satan (or at least with a “man in black,” who often looked a great deal like a Puritan minister) made concrete the fears of Puritans—the Devil was really out to get them, and was ready and waiting to enlist any human into his service who did not keep constant vigilance. What did people hope to gain from signing on with the Devil? One witch, Mary Marston, found release from pain and grief after her mother’s death by signing the book and becoming a witch, while accused witch Mary Lacey “confessed that the Devil told her ‘we should have happy days and then it would be bett’r times for me’” (Hall 145). One witch, Mary Barker, even believed that compacting with the Devil for a witch’s powers would earn her pardon from her sins (ibid.). Frequently, witches compacted for the sole and deeply personal purpose of vengeance upon enemies whom they could not defeat through legal or licit means. Accused Salem witch Rebecca Eames explained that the Devil agreed to give her “powr to avenge her selfe on them that offended her” (Hall 192).
All of these reasons come into play through the course of Eggers’ The Witch, as tragedy turns into motivation and the fallen family comes to grips with its graceless state. When piety has been exhausted, power becomes a deeply motivating incentive. Crucially, the film does not linger on any sexual compacts with the Devil, although the witches in the film are generally nude or sexualized in other ways. Instead, the embrace of witchcraft becomes a choice, indeed an almost entirely reasonable one, given the circumstances of the collapse of Puritan morality in the face of a wilderness clearly beyond the control of any Calvinist God.
Eggers has invested in this film, emotionally and intellectually, and he asks that his audience do so as well. While he is attracting a lot of attention for his detail-oriented and historical approach, the feelings conveyed by the filim have as much or more authenticity as the choice to use period costume or building materials. The folk elements of the film—which is subtitled “A New England Folk Tale”—connect it to the raw nerve of the cultures in which witches seemed to be under every dark bush or tree. As a specimen of American folk horror, the movie packs a punch, and does not attempt to explain away its terrifying elements through a single lens, like psychology or the supernatural. Instead, it lets all the pieces come together to support a story that can break your heart as easily as it makes you jump out of your seat.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the historical or folk elements which shaped The Witch, please check out the bibliography at the end of this article.
Thanks for reading,
- Barden, Thomas E. Virginia Folk Legends (Charlottesville, VA: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1991).
- Benes, Peter, ed. Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900 (Boston: Boston University/Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1992).
- Breslaw, Elaine G. ed. Witches of the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader & Primary Sourcebook (New York: NYU Press, 2000).
- Botkin, Benjamin. A Treasury of New England Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1984). Reprint.
- Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Publishers, 1975).
- Demos, John. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft & the Culture of Early New England (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004).
- Demos, John. “Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England,” in Witches of the Atlantic World, Elaine Breslaw, ed. (New York: NYU Press, 2000).
- Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972). Reprint.
- Eggers, David. The Witch (A24, 2015).
- Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs: Folklore in the Southern Appalahcians (Morgantown, WV: Vandalia Press, 2008).
- Games, Alison. Witchcraft in Early North America (American Controversies) (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
- Godbeer, Richard. “Chaste & Unchaste Covenants: Witchcraft & Sex in Early Modern Culture,” in Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900, Peter Benes, ed. (Boston: Boston University/Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1992).
- Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989).
- Mather, Cotton, & Increase Mather. Wonders of the Invisible World (London: John Russell Smith, 1862). Reprint.
- Muise, Peter. The New England Folklore Blog. 2008-2016.
- Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage Books, 2002).
- Olson, Ted, & Anthony Cavendar, eds. A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selected Readings from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin (Knoxville: Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2009).
- Russell, Randy, & Janet Barnett, eds. The Granny Curse, and other Ghosts & Legends from East Tennessee (John F. Blair Publishers, 1999).
- Wigginton, Eliot, ed. The Foxfire Book (Series). (Anchor Press, 1972-2009)