Posted tagged ‘history’

Blog Post 197 – Shapeshifting

November 26, 2015

“Loup-Garou,” from The Werewolf Delusion, by Ian Woodward (1979) (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

[N.B. Please also check out our podcast episode on this phenomenon as well: Episode 82 – Shapeshifting]

 

One of the talents attributed to witches in a number of cultures is self-transformation. If you’ve plunged more than ankle-deep into witchcraft research, you’ve likely run across famed Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie’s charm, which she reputedly used to transform into a hare, which begins “An I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and sighing in mickle care…” Gowdie was not alone in her belief that through the force of her magic and her will (and perhaps some psychoactive botanical substances or a judicious application of rendered animal fat), she could change her form to that of an animal. Perhaps the most famous example of this power is the werewolf, which sometimes changes of its own volition, but more often is a victim of the shiny moonlight’s powers.

In the New World, plenty of witches also had the power of transformation. This article will look at a few key tales of shapeshifting from New World lore, and ask questions about what the stories could mean for a magically inclined person with an interest in exchanging human form for an animal’s.

Perhaps the best-known and most widespread incarnation of the shapeshifting legend east of the Mississippi is the story of the loup-garou (sometimes also rou-garou, rugaru, or a similar variation). The beast can be found just about anywhere which saw frequent contact with French Colonial influences, such as in Canadian border zones or Louisiana. Often the loup-garou is essentially a werewolf, a human being who can—through magical means often diabolical in nature—become a wolf-like beast. Some versions of the story, recorded by University of Louisiana professor Barry Ancelet, describe the beast as more of a thief than a predator for humans, stealing fishermen’s clams while they sleep. The exact nature of the creature is also indeterminate, since depending on one’s location, it can “range from the rougarou as a headless horseman to a wolf that prowls the forest at night” (Lugibihl). The actual transformation may be permanent (or even ghostly, as some accounts tell of the beast as the remnant of a cruel old man), or may only last for 101 days, after which time the loup-garou transfers its curse to another person through a bite or drinking his or her blood. A person under the curse seems to know whether he or she is suffering from the transformation, and becomes rather wan and unhealthy, but usually remains silent about the condition with others. A major variation on the loup-garou is the bearwalker, about which Richard Dorson recorded several stories in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the mid-20th century. As you can probably guess, the assumption of a bear form (or at least an animal form which resembles a bear more than a wolf) is more common in the lore of the borderlands on the north of the Great Lakes.

In the mid-section of the United States, particularly from the mid-Atlantic down to the upland South and across into the Midwest, the power of transformation is far less canine in nature. While the loup-garou certainly fell into the purview of New World magical lore (albeit lore largely imported from Europe), the tales of transformation one finds in places like Appalachia skew distinctly witchy in flavor. Several stories, including one which we’ve recorded here before called “The Black Cat Murders,” talk about witches transforming into cats in order to visit harm on prospective victims. Patrick Gainer recorded his version of the tale in West Virginia from Mrs. Robert Pettry, whose account included a man with a pet bear that struck off the witch-cat’s paw only to have it transform into a human hand once it was severed. This is a very common feature of witch transformation tales, and often once a witch has been injured in her animal state, she bears the marks of her injury in human form as well (which proves helpful to neighbors in identifying her). One of the remarkable points about these transformations remains that in many cases the witch has a physical human body in one place and a spectral body (with some corporeal aspects, as in the case with the bear above) that can travel around at her behest while remaining deeply linked with her. That trait appears throughout North America (again, with some Old World antecedents, including Africa as well as Europe). A tale from Virginia recorded in The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis, tells of women who turns into a cat only to have her hand whacked off with a knife. The next day, when the man who did the whacking tries to shake hands with the suspected witch, she refuses because her hand is now missing. Davis also reports a tale of a witch who becomes a cat only to be caught by a lonely mountain man, and transformed back into a woman, she marries him and bears him two children. When he begins drunkenly telling someone how they met, she turns herself and the kids into cats and kittens and they disappear forever through a hole in the wall.

Of course, not all witches turn into cats, and not al were-cats are witches, exactly, either. In Utica, New York, Davis found a tale of a witch who turned herself into a black colt that would appear in neighbors’ fields and graze among their horses. When a man sneakily catches the colt and has it shod at the blacksmith’s (I’d note the importance of iron to this story, by the way), the colt then gets put into a pasture, then disappears. However, a neighbor-woman is seen with bandages on all her hands and feet the next day. New York is also the home of famed witch Aunty Greenleaf, who reportedly would turn herself into a white deer rather than a cat or a horse. She managed to elude hunters constantly until one hunter got the idea to use melted silver for bullets and struck her in her transformed state. She, of course, took ill and died (Schlosser 2005). Another famed shapeshifting creature, however, is not a witch at all, but a Native woman who has been cursed into cat form known as the Wampus Cat (Schlosser 2004). Lest you think that all those who are animagi (to steal a term from Harry Potter) are female, an African American tale speaks of a male witch whose form is that of a boarhog, and who uses his powers of magic and transformation to gain a pretty wife with lots of land. Interestingly, a little boy in the story—often called the “Old Witch Boy”—knows the boarhog witch’s secret and reveals it to the girl’s father, resulting in the death of the hog-witch (Leeming & Page).

Some of the most pervasive and powerful witch-stories of transformation come from the American Southwest. Navajo skinwalker tales abound with narratives about evil witches who could use the pelts of animals to take on different shapes, usually to terrorize outsiders or those they did not like on the reservations. Some accounts claim that the witch who could take on the skin of another creature was the most powerful type of witch, and had mastered what was known as “The Witchery Way.” Such a creature was to be greatly feared, and trade in certain skins and furs was severely limited within Navajo culture. Skinwalkers could be recognized by some of their supernatural abilities, but more especially by their eyes: in animal form, their eyes looked human, and vice versa when in their human form. Nasario Garcia recorded many tales in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and California from people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who reported knowing about or having seen witches that had taken on animal forms, just as skinwalkers do. One story related by a a man who recalled the events of the tale from when he was eight years old told of how his father had been driving an oxcart on a dark night with his son (the narrator) and a few farmhands along with him. Suddenly, two sheep appeared alongside the cart, one white and one black, and simply followed them, always matching pace with the cart. Eventually, they simply disappeared. Many others recorded by Garcia spoke of witches taking on owl forms to travel out by night, or occasionally coyote or dog forms, in which case they seemed to want to bite errant travelers (although never in such a way as to cause permanent injury or death, although most who see these creatures report being terrified).

So just what do witches do once they are transformed? In many of the stories, they seem to be up to no good. The tales of witch-cats often speak of numerous murders or unexplained deaths attributed to the shapeshifting sorcerers in the area. In some tales, witches take on cat forms to sneak into the houses of children and steal their breath (which is obviously related to the superstition about cats stealing babies’ breath). In some cases, the witches seem to be up to mischief, as in the case of Aunty Greenleaf, who likes to lead hunters on wild chases and get them lost, or cause their guns to fail. The loup-garous steals food, or worse, passes its curse on to others, sometimes even drinking the blood of another person to accomplish its nefarious task. The near-universal terror of skinwalkers in the Southwest is attributed to their powers to cause sickness and death as witches, although they seldom seem to kill or even severely maim while in animal form (although there are often reports of animal mutilation later connected to them). Richard Dorson records one tale from the Southwest in which shapeshifting witches seem to threaten each other more than the average person. He speaks of a pair of witches who make a bet about which one is faster in horse form. The loser has to stay a horse, which is accomplished by means of a magical halter. The winning witch sells the loser to a man, whose son accidentally removes the halter, and the witch transforms into a fish and swims away in a nearby river, then continues to transform until he’s a coyote. The coyote is tracked and killed by dogs in the end, and notably the witches have done no harm to anyone but themselves.

Why do shapeshifting witches get a bad rap, then? I would like to suggest that the real uneasiness among those who tell the stories is a fear that witches can be anywhere, and anyone, and just about anything. You never know when you might offend a hidden witch, who could be the cat twitching its tail by the fire or a horse in a pasture across the road. A healthy show of respect (even one tinged with fear) makes for a good insurance policy against the witch’s other fearful talents. Of course, being able to take on animal forms also means that the witch knows just how well you treat the lower orders of species, which might also inspire one to act a little better around the flocks and fields, or to pass an extra dog biscuit to the pooch curled up at your feet. Who knows, that might just be all that stands between you and a rather nasty hex, right?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

Sources:

  1. Davis, Hubert J. 1975. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. Jonathan David Publishers.
  2. Dorson, Richard. 1964. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore. Univ. of Chicago Press.
  3. Dorson, Richard. 1972. Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers. Harvard Univ. Press.
  4. Gainer, Patrick W. 2008. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. West Virginia Univ. Press.
  5. Garcia, Nasario. 2007. Brujerias: Stories of Witchcraft & the Supernatural in the American Southwest & Beyond. Texas Tech Univ. Press.
  6. Leeming, David, and Jake Page. 1999. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America: An Anthology. Oxford Univ. Press.
  7. Lugibihl, Steve. 2001. “The Rougarou: A Louisiana Folklore Legend.” The Nichollsworth. 26 April. Louisiana State University.
  8. Navajo Skinwalker Legend.” 2015. Navajo Legends Website.
  9. Pitre, Glen. 1993. Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. Louisiana State Univ. Press.
  10. Schlosser, S. E. 2004. Spooky South. Globe Pequot Press.
  11. Schlosser, S. E. 2005. Spooky New York. Globe Pequot Press.

Wilby, Emma. 2010. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft, & Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press.

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Episode 82 – Shapeshifting

November 23, 2015

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Episode 82 – Shapeshifting

Summary:

This time, we look at the lore of shapeshifting witches, including loup-garous, Wampus cats, and skinwalkers. We also briefly discuss the idea of hag-riding.

 

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: Renee Odders & Athena (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

Play:

Download: Episode 82 – Shapeshifting

 

-Sources-

If you’ve got a paperback copy of a book which you’d like to get bound in leather, our friend Achija Branvin Sionnach of Spellbound Bookbinding is offering our listeners a very deep discount. If you tell him we sent you, he’ll do the leather-binding for you at cost of materials plus shipping.

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.”

 

Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Music: “Were-Owl,” by S.J. Tucker, from her album Mischief. Incidental music by Brian Johnston, doing a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” found at Soundcloud and used under a Creative Commons License.

Podcast recommendation: Laine recommends the podcast Darkness Radio, and Cory suggests the medical/comedy/folklore show Sawbones.

Episode 81 – Magical Occupations Revisited

October 30, 2015

NWWLogoUpdated2015small

Episode 81 – Magical Occupations Revisited

Summary:

We launch our super-exciting and fun Patreon campaign! Come support us and help us grow (and get cool stuff at the same time)! We also revisit one of the topics we enjoyed most in our early days, Magical Occupations, and add some ‘new’ jobs to the list, as well as some new folklore to explore.

 

Play:

Download: Episode 81 – Magical Occupations Revisited

 

-Sources-

We have to give a very special thanks to YOU! Our listeners! You sent in the emails and comments which we used to think about magical occupations a second time around, and added so much brilliant insight to the discussion. Thank you!

Other sources include:

For a look at the folklore in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world, check out The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter.

Some resources based on the various “new” jobs discussed:

 

  • Nurses: Barbara Brennan’s Hands of Light is a book which uses energy healing in a nursing context
  • Hairdressers: Carolyn Morrow Long’s bio of Marie Laveau, A Voudou Priestess, addresses some of the hairdressing lore.

Cory also enthusiastically recommends the film Gypsy 83.

Please, please, please, check out our new 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.

 

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.”

 

Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Incidental music in this episode is selected from the emerging genre of Witchhouse. The band you hear samples from is Salem, from their free album “I Buried My Heart Inna Wounded Knee.”

Podcast recommendation: Dusted! A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast (which both Cory & Laine have been listening to far too often)

Blog Post 195 – Old Betty Booker and Witch Bridles

July 13, 2015

John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1781 – via Wikimedia)

Author’s Note: This post is largely based on material I gathered for an entry in the upcoming ABC-CLIO three-volume series, American Myths, Legends, & Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore. The views and lore presented here, however, do not explicitly reflect the views of that publisher, and are entirely my own.

American history—and more generally, legend—contains its share of witches. In most cases, we hear or read about a witch at the receiving end of a lot of harsh accusations: milk stealing, poisoning livestock, and so forth. Not infrequently, however, a witch’s story takes a slightly different turn, and she becomes something more like a protagonist than a villain, albeit one with shades of gray around her morals. One of the best examples of just such a story is from rural nineteenth-century Maine, and it tells of a woman named “Old Betty Booker,” who gets a bit of a raw deal from a local captain and brings the full brunt of her witchcraft to bear on him for a bit of gleeful justice. The account below is found in Benjamin Botkin’s collection, A Treasury of New England Folklore:

HOW OLD BETTY BOOKER RODE SKIPPER PERKINS DOWN TO YORK

These two skippers, Mitchell and Perkins, were both Kittery salts, but of the two Skipper Perkins was the worst curried. Old Betty Booker wanted some fish, and she suggested her need to the skipper, “Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper, when you git in—.”

“Show me your sixpence, ma’am,” was the thrifty reply.
And with an ill-boding scowl, and a shake of—
“Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
And nose of a hawk, and eyes like a snake,”

She watched the skipper sail away. The sea beat him up and down. The gale tore his sails, and the fish sheered away from his trawls. His men got sick, and his schooner came home poorer than she went. Then it got bruited about that Betty Booker was making a witch-bridle for the skipper, and was going to ride him down to York some wild night, whereat, the skipper, when it came to his ears, got into a mortal terror. He was sure to be at home, always, before dusk; and his doors were barred double, and he quaked and shivered and shook until the sun came up. Finally Betty sent the skipper word that the first stormy night she would ride him to York…

[H]e waited for Betty Booker; nor was she long in coming. An unearthly wail came down the wind, and there was a scratching of a hundred witch-claws on his door, and above all sounded the cracked notes of Betty Booker’s voice—

“Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper!”…

With the cry of the hag, the gale rose higher, and with rougher buffetings it smote the old door that was built to look out on the sea; and then it began to open so the skipper felt a spatter of rain on his face. He heard the wild chatter of the witches, but he still held to his pushing, until he felt himself sliding along the rough floor. He made a leap for his bed, winding himself about in its coverings; the door flew open and in trooped the witches. They pounced upon the skipper, and stripped him to his skin; and while he cowered in his fear, old Betty bridled him and got upon his back, while the other witches climbed upon hers, and off they raced through the gale to York Harbor. When he lagged, they pricked him with their claws to make him go faster; and so they rode him as long as they wished, to get him back to Kittery before cock-crow, more dead than alive.

“Don’t say sixpence, skipper, to a poor old woman again,” was Betty booker’s parting admonition, as she and her familiars vanished into the mists of the darkest part of the night.

After that the skipper took to his bed, where for three weeks he nursed his wounds and told his story to his neighbors.

Botkin reports that the legend of Old Betty Booker may have been in some part based in real witchcraft performed in the York area, or at least in the practice of regional and maritime folk magic. He notes that one of the Kittery houses was torn down and inside a “witch-bridle” was found, composed of horsehair, tow, and yellow birch. Witch-bridles were thought to be a tool essentially similar in design a horse’s bridle, which a witch could slip over the head and into the mouth of a person or animal to force it to do her bidding. Accounts from both sides of the Atlantic describe situations in which witches use the bridles to force someone (or in some instances, a neighbor’s horse or other livestock) to become a mode of transport for the witch. Belief in witch-bridling was widespread during the Colonial era, and the phenomenon even appeared during the infamous witch trials of Salem. As a mode of transportation, they are coequal to flying ointments and broomsticks in most accounts. In the collection of Irish folktales assembled by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, similar stories of spectral bridling pepper legends of witches. George Lyman Kittredge’s Witchcraft in Old and New England contains an account of a man bridled in the same way as Skipper Perkins. In almost all instances, the victim remains aware of what is happening throughout the ride, but his or her memories of the event quickly fade in the morning, leaving only bruises and a battered, weary body as proof of any supernatural occurrence. The folk phenomenon of “hag riding,” which has been linked to sleep apnea and sleep paralysis in modern medical diagnosis, may offer some explanations to the stories behind the malady, if one is inclined to make such connections (I personally tend to keep the two ideas only loosely connected for my purposes, and try not to make assumptions about medical conditions two centuries hence without at least entertaining the supernatural explanation with equal credence). A person under the influence of the witch-bridle felt no control of his or her body, but remained lucid and felt the pressure of someone on top of him or her. In the medical phenomenon of sleep paralysis, sufferers report a feeling like a great weight on their bodies and an inability to control their limbs, which very much resembles the conditions described in the folklore (see Baughman motif G241.2 “Witch rides a person”).

Possibly my favorite element of the Betty Booker story is its clear assumption that Booker is not out of order for her treatment of Perkins. The story seems to recognize that Booker is in a vulnerable position in the community, and that Perkins is not doing his duty by acting in such a miserly way. Women like Old Betty provided social good in some ways, selling outbound sailors magical charms to raise winds or prevent drowning. For example, cords with knots tied in them could be used to raise winds on a becalmed ship, and dried cauls (amniotic sacs which sometimes surround a baby’s head after birth) taken from newborn infants were alleged to protect sailors from drowning. Widowed women and social outcasts were particularly susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft. In stories like that of Old Betty, witches were seen as a form of moral enforcement. The sailor’s miserly behavior goes counter to acceptable standards, and even the structure of the narrative seems to blame him for the misfortunes that follow. Maine witches in other stories often have righteous retribution as motivation for their occult activities. In one tale, a witch named Emma Alley gets slighted by a fish boat skipper in much the same way as Old Betty Booker, and curses him for his stinginess, which results in him not catching anything else for the remainder of the season.

Old Betty is associated with several other witches who lived in the “Brimstone Hill” area of Kittery, namely Mary Greenland and a woman named “Aunt” Polly Belknap. She may also have taken on other names during her tenure as resident witch, including Betsy Booker, Easter Booker (who is also referred to as Esther Booker and associated with a woman named Betty Potter, further adding to the confusion) or a character called “Black Dinah,” who reputedly used weather-pans in her magic and dowsed for buried treasure. According to George Alexander Emery, Old Betty’s home was on the land between Kittery and York, marked by “a stone wall extending north-west and south-east,” on which she and a companion raised a meager patch of vegetables and some chickens. An 1896 newspaper account from the Boston Evening Transcript recounts the Skipper Perkins story, but attributes the storm-raising and subsequent torments directed against the captain to a witch named Hetty Moye, and relocates the narrative to within fifty miles of Boston (to be fair, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820, so the fine line between one state and the other can be muddled in tales from the early-to-mid nineteenth century).

Witch Woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)

None of this is to say that Old Betty comes out with a completely clean nose in all narratives. Other tales associate her firmly with diabolical activities. In one story, she allegedly dances with the devil out on the village green to fiddle music on moonlit nights. Additionally, witches were believed to have control over weather and storms by using devices such as “weather-pans,” which a sorceress would heat up over a fire to release a tempest out at sea.

In at least one account, however, I find it extremely heartening that a witch comes out very well, even dispensing a bit of needed justice without doing too much serious harm in the process. That seems much better than days spent stealing milk or blighting cattle, in my opinion, which are often ways in which a witch might express her ire in folklore. What do you make of Old Betty? Is she the sort of witch you would include in your spiritual ancestry as an American witch? Or do you see her story as just another sensational portrayal with a slightly positive twist?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES:

  1. Beck, Horace P. 1957. The Folklore of Maine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  2. Bliss, William Root. 1893. The Old Colony and Other Sketches. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  3. Botkin, Benjamin, ed. 1947. A Treasury of New England Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers.
  4. Dorson, Richard M. 1946. Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
  5. Dorson, Richard M. 1964. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
  6. Emery, George Alexander. 1873. The Ancient City of Georgiana and the Modern Town of York (Maine) from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Boston: G.A. Emery.
  7. Gregory, Isabella Augusta, and William Butler Yeats. 1988. A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, & Folklore. New York: Gramercy.
  8. Kittredge, George Lyman. 1956. Witchcraft in Old and New England. New York: Russell & Russell.
  9. Muise, Peter. “The Witch Bridle: Ride ‘Em Cowgirl!” New England Folklore Blog. April 10, 2010.
  10. Sylvester, Herbert M. 1909. Maine Pioneer Settlements: Old York. Boston: W.B. Clarke Co.

“Witchcraft Today: The Belief in Supernatural Feats in a New England Town.” Oct. 10, 1896. Boston Evening Transcript.

Podcast Special – The Green Man of Pittsburgh

October 25, 2014

SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – THE GREEN MAN OF PITTSBURGH

Summary
In this week’s spooky tale, we hear about a murderous mutant from Pittsburgh. And we also hear how he might not just be an urban legend…

Sources

The sources for this episode are Weird Pennsylvania and the Wikipedia article on the Green Man.

Play
Special Episode – The Green Man of Pittsburgh

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

Podcast 68 – Magical Pennsylvania

September 26, 2014

Summary:

This episode centers on Cory’s new home, Pennsylvania, and its magical/mystical lore. We have interviews, stories, conversations, and songs to help get a glimpse at the enchantment of the Keystone State.

Play:

Download: New World Witchery – Episode 68

-Sources-
Websites, Guests, & Visitors:

  1. Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day – Where we recorded a number of this show’s interviews.
  2. Great folks I met (and in some cases, recorded) at PPD Philly: Jowzeph (Old Gods & Indoor Plumbing) and Anne (The Gods Are Bored).
  3. The Witches of Pennsylvania Facebook Group – The best place to contact our interviewee, Thomas White
  4. Chris Orapello was a lovely addition to our conversation (my apologies that the sound quality during his interview was a bit wonky). See his promo link below, too.
  5. Distelfink Sippschaft – Where you can find out more about Urglaawe and its lore

Books:

  1. Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History & Lore, by Thomas White (also see his author page for more titles)
  2. The First Book of Urglaawe Myths, by Robert L. Schreiwer (see our previous Pow-wow episode for an interview with him)
  3. Spooky Pennsylvania, by S. E. Schlosser
  4. Weird Pennsylvania, by Matt Lake

Please send in contest entries to compassandkey@gmail.com! We are giving away a copy of 54 Devils (my book, in either digital or print form, whichever you prefer) and a digital copy of Carolina Gonzalez’s book on reading the Spanish cards as well. All you have to do is send us your weirdest or most unique piece of personal holiday lore, along with a name we can read on-air and a general location (‘Illinois’ or ‘the Midwest,’ for example).

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!

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Incidental music The Happy Dutchmen, from Archive.org. Songs include “The Pennsylvania Polka,” “The Beer Barrel Polka,” and “Eidelweiss,” among others.

Promos:
1. Down at the Crossroads

Blog Post 186 – The Seventies Witch

February 18, 2014

Borrowed from Pinterest user shuttlecock (click for link)

Or, “Myrtle Snow is my Power Animal.”

[NOTE: The original version of this article contained a phrase that, used in this context, is insensitive and appropriative towards several Native cultural traditions. I leave the original above with a strikethrough to indicate that such use was a mistake. My mistake. I regret the choice of phrase and I apologize for any discomfort or harm it causes to anyone. I don’t want to completely erase the original because I worry that doing so will look like I’m trying to hide the mistake, which I’m not trying to do. I want others to see and know this was not a good choice on my part, and that I am sorry for it.]

(A few AHS: Coven spoilers below, but no major plot points)

For those who, like me, spent the past four months or so riveted to the meandering and bizarre plots of the American Horror Story: Coven television series, the ride is now over and we’re all left sorting out wheat from chaff from eyeballs from  axe-murdering ghosts living in knotty pine hell. One of the most interesting and unusual characters in this season was Myrtle Snow (portrayed by the luminous Frances Conroy), a complicated, artistic, eccentric witch that is just about everything you could dream of having in a crazy aunt who can cast spells and is willing to melon-ball out the eyes of her enemies to restore your own sight. Myrtle plays the theremin, knows fashion inside and out (one of the best moments in the series was her screaming “Balenciaga!” at a crucial moment in the final episode), and has a palate for classic French and continental cuisine. She is, in short, a child of the seventies. More importantly, she is a child of the seventies witch.

Today I wanted to briefly look at that decade (which I’m treating as a “long” decade, starting in around 1965 and going through the very early 80s), which spawned a very particular witchy aesthetic.  It was the decade of Stevie Nicks (another AHS trope) and saw a marked growth in the popularity of occult themes across all sectors of American—and international—society. This is not going to be comprehensive, of course, and I know this is not exactly folk magic drawn from a weather-beaten nineteenth-century almanac, but I think that we should be cognizant of the role of recent (well, as recent as almost half-a-century ago, anyway) history in the development of modern magic and witchcraft. If the Victorian era was the early bloom of occultism, the seventies was the springtime explosion of color, dripping nectar, and bloody thorns which allowed a lot of the witchcraft we have today to re-surge, and it even helped fuel some of the studies of folk magic which have been so crucial to us in contemporary times.

In 1958, the film Bell, Book, & Candle featuring Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon appeared in movie houses following a popular run of the play on Broadway. The sympathetic witch, played by Novak, and her hep-cat brother Nicky (Lemmon) mark some of the earliest American pop-culture portrayals of sorcerers who are not scary and evil, but hip, cool, and attractive. The success of the film eventually fed into the production of the classic television show Bewitched, which ran from 1964 to 1972, which starred Elizabeth Montgomery as the beautiful and charming Samantha. These portrayals are occasionally problematic—the film requires Novak’s character to give up witchcraft in the name of love, and the show was centered around Samantha’s struggles to sublimate her magic so that her husband could lead a comfortable suburban life (although that magic frequently saves his proverbial bacon)—but these glowing women brought glamor to the popular American experience of witchcraft, and the occult looked a lot less intimidating.

Knock, knock!

Then, in 1967, Ira Levin published his book Rosemary’s Baby. The following year, Roman Polanski adapted the book into a film the following year, and the eerie occult was back, with full-on Satanic conspiracies lurking behind Manhattan closet doors. Even in Rosemary’s Baby, however, the glamor persisted—the eccentric but resplendent witches-next-door, Roman and Minnie Castavet (played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), were magnetic, and served frosty cocktails in their spacious New York flat. There Satanic witch-cult even seems more like an anarchy art clique than a sinister magical lodge for the most part. The film put the fear of witches back into the American mind, however, with a new twist—witches were spooky, but spooky was cool. Incidentally, another classic occult film, The Devil Rides Out, appeared in theaters the same year as Rosemary, and lit its own subtle fires under the cauldron.

With this new-found social capital, witchcraft and the occult took the world by storm in the seventies. Some of the occult films which appeared during the decade were hallmarks of art and cult cinema: Simon, King of the Witches (1971); The Devil’s Daughter (1973); The Exorcist (1973—not a true ‘witch’ film, but one with strong occult ties and influence); The Wicker Man (1973); Season of the Witch (1973, directed by zombie-genre great George A. Romero); Lisa & the Devil (1974); and the highly glamorous Suspira (1977), a veritable precursor to 2010’s creepy art-dance film Black Swan. In essentially all of these films, the presence of the occult is a trope, and does not have any of the benign or jovial qualities of Bell, Book, & Candle or Bewitched. Yet each film features a mixture of eroticism, fashion, and allure layered over the tale of black magic driving the story. Liberation, sexual empowerment, and countercultural energy augment the horror of the films, and the gray space between forbidden occultism and fashionable society becomes a gulf.

Art and music also experienced an occult florescence during the seventies. The aforementioned Stevie Nicks—the “White Witch” of music—joined the group Fleetwood Mac along with boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham in 1974, and in 1975 the group experienced mainstream success with an album featuring witchy hits like “Rhiannon.” Her flowing shawls, black gowns, and stage twirls bewitched audiences, and her fashion became a standard of young, hip women seeking to look a little out of the mainstream—a little “witchy.” The occult music craze started well before Nicks, of course, and bands like Coven and Black Widow had experienced some chart success with their Satanic/witchy black rock during the late 60s. In 1970, Santana recorded and released Fleetwood Mac’s song “Black Magic Woman,” on their (fairly occult-named album) Abraxas, taking it to no. 1 on the pop music charts. In 1972, the Eagles released “Witchy Woman,” another big hit glamorizing witches, and in 1974 Cher released “Dark Lady,” about a love triangle involving a witchy fortune teller. Cher herself cultivated a glam-witch look throughout the decade, further expanding the cultural capital of witchcraft fashion. Other rockers who adopted elements of the occult into their songs, performances, and fashions include David Bowie, Jimmy Page, and, of course, Jim Morrison. Patti Smith notes the heavy influence of the occult on the Greenwich Village music scene in her memoir Just Kids, and especially the huge artistic influence that it had on artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. Penthouse magazine did erotic spreads centered on occult themes as well, such as this one featuring Babetta Lanzilli from 1974.

In the ‘real-world’ of witchcraft, a number of stars were aligning to add fuel to the magical fire. Chas Clifton outlines a number of the groups which were exploding onto the scene in his book Her Hidden Children, including the Psychedelic Venus Church and Anton LaVey’s Satanic Church, which also released a film called Satanis in 1970 (there are some great pictures of a 1969 LaVey here). Alex Sanders, the progenitor of Alexandrian Wicca, released an album revealing some of the workings of Wicca called A Witch is Born in 1970. Wicca had arrived stateside with Raymond Buckland in 1968 (although it may have had some early seeds from other sources, too). Buckland expanded on witchcraft religion through books like Witchcraft Ancient & Modern and Witchcraft from the Inside. The hugely influential publication of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in 1967 led to the foundation of The Church of All Worlds (CAW) and shaped practices in other groups as well (such as the aforementioned Psychedelic Venus Church).  The mass-marketing of witchcraft became a staple of the 70s, with sales of “black magic ritual kits” hitting store shelves and a variety of occult-inspired board games. The Ouija game was purchased by Parker Bros. in 1966, and they began to push it as a party game rather than a spiritual tool. There was also a push towards legitimacy. Journalist Hans Holzer published his mainstream apologetic (and sensationalist at times) text The Truth About Witchcraft and opened the door to public discussions of its practices as legitimate, if fringe, activities done by regular people. Wicca and neo-Paganism in general underwent a rapid expansion and transformation, and the end of the decade saw the journalistic survey of new witchcraft (and other alternative) faiths in Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1979). That same year, Starhawk published The Spiral Dance, which crystallized the evolving feminist Wicca movement. A busy, busy decade for witchcraft.

I should point out that these different aspects of witchcraft may have occasionally interacted with one another, but they were not in strict conversation through the decade. Instead, the popular conception of the occult and witchcraft grew in one direction—often sensational and glamorous—and the nature-based religions that were gaining momentum in fringe spiritual culture. Yet there does seem to be a shared zeitgeist from that era that drove ever more people into the black-robed arms and beshawled shoulders of witches. For a number of people, the ecological spiritualism which was fueling part of the neo-Pagan segment was a complete non-starter. Instead, the sex, drugs, & rock-and-roll aspects of witchery worked as an artistic medium of self-expression. Both segments were connected to counterculture, but with different aims and methods. Following this decade, with its chaos and beauty, the occult got heavily mired in a number of problems, most notably the “Satanic panic” of the 80s. With the recent popularity of witchcraft in media, I’d be hardly surprised to find a resurgence of people claiming to have been harmed or attacked by evil cults over the next two decades or so. Let’s hope there’s been some growth on that front and that the information age will keep it in check, but I somehow doubt the ripples aren’t already in motion for the next “panic.”

So what does all this have to do with Myrtle Snow and the Diane von Furstenburg  wrap dress (“the greatest invention of the century,” according to dear Auntie Myrtle)? I think that it can be very easy to lose sight of just how diverse witches are, for one thing. Dressing in black (despite AHS:Coven’s edict that “On Wednesdays we wear black”) may be a statement, but so is sporting a pair of black-and-red Pleasers for ritual sex, and there’s nothing wrong with a Pier 1 altar and a little P90X before ritual. I don’t want this to devolve into a post on there being no one type of witch, or on what witches should or shouldn’t look or act like, but I do think that the recent witchcraft revival in pop culture means that there’s room for some real glamor in witchery again. Folk magic performed with embedded style and power—a flair for the dramatic—could be a very refreshing thing. I’d like to see witches embracing their own high-fashion spins on tried and true witchcrafts—not so much glitter in conjure oils, but a really knowledgeable mixologist of a witch brewing enchanted herb rinses for bewitching cocktail hours, for example. I certainly don’t want to see the folk magic I study and practice cheapened by commercial interests, of course, but I would love to see a few more Myrtles playing the theremin around bonfires, while our cultural capital is so ascendant.

What about you? Is there a place for glamor and high fashion in your witchcraft? Are the seventies still alive in your spells?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Borrowed from KPopStarz (click for link)


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