Blog Post 223 – Magic in the Time of Plague

A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.

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It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.

Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.

Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.

Great plague of london-1665
Print of Plague in 1665, via Wikimedia

Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:

“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”

The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.

The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such). 

Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.

Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low. 

Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins: 

“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.

What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).

Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century. 

A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:

“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)

The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt). 

Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia: 

“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).

This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4). 

None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place. 

So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complement actual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).

Higo Amabie
Image of Amabie yokai from Edo Newspaper (1846) via Wikimedia

First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.

managingpanic-color
Sigil for Managing Panic, designed by Laura Tempest Zakroff (2020)

These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.

Thank you for reading.

Be well,

-Cory

Episode 155 – Names and Magic

Summary:
We’re discussing the power of names, both magical and mundane (and if there’s really a difference). We discuss the names we keep, the names thrust upon us, the names we lose, and the power of knowing a “true” name.
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: Heather, Donald, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Payton, Staci, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Clarissa, Leslie, Hazel, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Jennifer, Jess, Laura, Emily, Clever Kim’s Curios, Donald, Bo, Drew, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Play:
-Sources-
We pull in a whole heap of sources for this episode, including:
Promotional image modified from image via Pixabay, public domain.
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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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
Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune.
If you like us AND you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will love our new show: Myth Taken: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast, now available through all the podcatchers!
Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Episode 143 – The Magical Home

Summary:

For this episode we decided to do a magical mental tour of the home, and explore how the different spaces in our dwelling places are used magically. We talk sex and protection in the bedroom, magical blankets and occult summonings in children’s rooms, and the power of the magical threshold.

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: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Fergus from Queer as Folk Magic, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding,  Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Payton, Staci, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Hazel, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Jennifer, Clever Kim’s Curios, Donald, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (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 143 – The Magical Home

Play:

 

 -Sources-

We reference a few episodes and posts from our distant murky past, including:

Cory mentions the video “Mean Teddies” by animator Vincent Pang, and the upcoming book Making Magic, by Bri Saussy.  The famed Horace Miner anthropology essay “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” gets some discussion. We also have a very brief mention of Marie Kondo, author of several books and star of the Netflix series “Tidying Up.” And, of course, the Pennsylvania “sex dungeon” house.

Cory also has a chapter on “Home and Vehicle in American Folklore and Folklife” in the upcoming Oxford Handbook of American Folklore and Folklife Studies (due out in 2020, although you may need access to your local library or a university library account to get the article without paying exorbitantly for it).

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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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

Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune.

If you like us AND you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will love our new show: Myth Taken: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Podcast, now available through all the podcatchers!

Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Episode 140 – Culture and Witchcraft with Lilith Dorsey

Summary
We interview author and blogger Lilith Dorsey about her recent response to an article on “Black witches” in The Atlantic, as well as the role traditions and pop culture play in shaping contemporary witchcraft and folk magic.
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: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding,  Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Patrick, Carole, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, WickedScense, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Tarsha, Donald, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Play
 -Sources-
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.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too (as well as most of our contest announcements)! 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
Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune. Additional song is “When,” by Anthony Salvo, also licensed from Magnatune.
Please think about checking out our Audible Trial program. Visit Audibletrial.com/newworldwitchery to get your free trial of Audible, where you can download over 180,000 titles (including some narrated by Cory). Your purchases help support this show, and there’s no obligation to continue after the free trial

Video – Of Sea Witches and Merfolk

 

We’ve added something new over at our YouTube channel! We’re continuing the thread of our Disney Magic episode by starting a series of videos that explore the connections between popular culture, fairy tales, folklore, and folk magic. We’re calling it the Compass & Key Charm School. Our first installment is one of my favorite Disney witches, Ursula, and we look at the differences between Hans Christian Anderson’s classic literary fairy tale and the animated film version. We also discuss some of the ways that seaside witches use their magic (and how you might style your own magical cupboard after Ursula’s). Please feel free to comment, subscribe to the channel, and share the video around! Thanks for watching!

Quick Update – Graveyard Lore Contest!

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 compassandkey@gmail.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!

-Cory

Blog Post 209 – Gunpowder

It’s hard to miss the sounds of constant explosions overhead near a number of U.S. cities during the first week of July. The Independence Day celebrations are loud, full of the sounds of wailing guitars at outdoor concerts, screams at amusement parks, and of course, the smoky shrieks and bangs of fireworks overhead. Canada Day, celebrated July 1st, is also a reason to break out the big bangs and send rockets into the sky. The substance fueling much of the fun at these celebrations is gunpowder. A volatile but useful blend of potassium nitrate (or “saltpeter”), charcoal, and sulphur, gunpowder was first developed by the Chinese in the Sung Dynasty over a thousand years ago, when rulers quickly found celebratory and military applications for the new alchemical mixture.

 

While incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, gunpowder has also become a ubiquitous part of human life for better or worse, and that includes in the realms of folk magic. Today I’m sharing a few examples of the way that folk magicians in North America have found uses for gunpowder that rely upon its explosive properties to create uncanny results. A NOTE: Please do not take anything in this post as advice. Messing with gunpowder is, as already stated, DANGEROUS. Everything presented here is offered as folklore and history, and not as any sort of endorsement of the behavior described.

 

So how have practitioners historically put gunpowder to use? As you might have guessed, the destructive qualities of black powder have been a major part of its magical applications. According to several variations of folk spells in the regions running from the northern Appalachian Mountains down into the Gulf of Mexico delta and a bit west of the Mississippi, it has several uses. Gunpowder combined with lodestone and red pepper can be turned into a mojo that will increase business. Added to foods, it also has the power to increase potency, as one hoodoo recommendation involves feeding gunpowder to a guard dog to make him vicious (DON’T DO THIS). One Pennsylvania pow-wow remedy for treating urinary disease in horses involves mixing gunpowder with flour, gentian, and calamus and feeding it to the animal until the disease clears. Perhaps one of the most surprising applications is in the area of women’s reproductive health, where gunpowder was once believed to stimulate expulsive contractions, with results varying depending on when the woman used the remedy. Harry M. Hyatt found that gunpowder was used as an abortifacient to induce miscarriage in Adams County, Illinois, including a topical remedy that required a woman to rub her breasts with it every night until the desired outcome occurred. A belief from the mountainous area of eastern Kentucky says that a small dose of gunpowder given right before birth will help to ease the labor, as well.

 

Most hoodoo and Southern conjure-based magical applications incorporate the magical properties of the particular ingredients, especially the bad luck-breaking power of sulphur, as a component of the spell. Mixed with ingredients like salt and sugar, it can be turned into bathing scrubs that take off negative effects in hurry. In some cases, only the ingredients (usually sulphur but sometimes saltpeter as well) would be added to a bath, and in other accounts, gunpowder itself would be added to other components to actively destroy the harmful effects of a curse, as in this example from Hyatt’s five-volume collection of (mostly) African American magical practices [dialect left mostly intact from Hyatt’s transcriptions]:

Mah husband , he wus witchcraft heah a little before Christmas , an’ when he begin , he begin as a chills-an’ fevah. An’ course I didn’t know, you know, right then…an’ I had [the] doctor…They say he had the flu. An’ so he wusn’t whut you call real, you know, sick like a medical doctor [says], you know. The medicine he give ‘im—he give ‘im medicine an’ it didn’t seem to do him no good. So his mind led’ im that he knew it wusn’t pure sickness. So I had my fortune told an’ it…wusn’t pure natural.  So they fixed ‘im—a root doctor fixed him some medicine. An’ it holp him, too; but you see, jis’ like they put [something] down for yah, all the medicine you take it won’t cure you. So I had someone to come to pick it [an object she found] up. I don’t know exac’ly wut it wus, but it was down under the—kin’a in the south part of the house an’ right in the middle, jis’ like you walk over it. An’ this filth, of course you have to step in it. An’ they [the root doctor] taken it up, an’ after takin’ it up, you know, they kill it. They kill it with salt. An’ then I had to—after takin’ it up they put salt on it, wash it off, an’ put it in a paper an’ let it dry. Then I had to take it an’ put lye, an’ sulphur, red pepper, an’ gunpowder, put it in a quart up an’ put a quart of water in it an’ boil it [every] bit of the water out it, right dry, an’ then take an’ [carry] it to a runn’ water an’, you know, put it in. That’s called, that’s turnin’ back on the one that did it.

One of the best (and most explosive applications) involves mixing gunpowder and other ingredients with an enemy’s footprint, then lighting the mixture on fire and watching it explode. This supposedly causes them to leave town in a hurry (possibly due to the strange explosions they keep hearing). Because it contains sulphur, variations on the hexing compound known as “Goopher Dust” can also have gunpowder mixed in. Mixed with other repelling herbs like asafetida the gunpowder could be worn in shoes or carried in a pouch around a person’s neck to ward off harm. Jason Miller’s Protection and Reversal Magick mentions a “jinx-breaker” mojo bag a person can carry which has sulpher and saltpeter (and thus everything but the charcoal in gunpowder) as well as lemongrass. Miller doesn’t specifically mention using gunpowder, but it is likely that some extant variations of the hand would use it as a necessary substitution.

Of course, gunpowder’s application in celebrations can also have a magical or spiritual significance. Spinning fire-wheels powered by gunpowder fireworks are often used in ceremonies honoring the dead or unseen spirits. The Urglaawe Heathen tradition uses such a “Catherine Wheel” in its Sunneraad (Yuletide) celebrations, and similar wheels can be found in Mexican Dia de los Muertos festivities. Similarly, many Appalachian people would celebrate the arrival of the New Year by “shooting in” the day with live ammunition fired into the air, which was also thought to induce good luck or scare away bad luck. Shooting in also happened in cities, where it could pose a significant safety threat, and often those not directly participating would sequester themselves indoors to avoid the “Calithumpian” revelries which also included costumes, masks, and a lot of heavy drinking. In some Vodoun rituals, celebrants may make the veve designs of a particular loa out of gunpowder, especially if that loa is “hot” in nature, such as the Petro spirits. In other cases, gunpowder may be specifically avoided to prevent inciting spirits to become destructive or to avoid any potential spiritual insults.

 

Gunpower was also sometimes employed to spark a sudden or rapid change in less personal conditions as well, for example in weather magic. In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, the author notes that out in the frequently dry prairie areas of North America such as Nebraska and Kansas, “professional ‘rainmakers’ sought to earn their pay by firing explosions from balloons, building large, smoky fires, or setting off gunpowder explosions from high peaks” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 

In most cases, the essential magical nature of gunpowder is driven by one of two factors: its ability to explode on ignition or its ingredients’ magical properties. Many applications, such as the jinx-breaking in the hoodoo examples, rely on a mixture of both aspects: a symbolic rapid change and the physical presence or properties of the sulphur and saltpeter (the charcoal seldom gets a mention, but its “neutralizing” nature seems to be a good fit, too). The abortifacient uses of gunpowder also could be an extension of these characteristics. One of the most interesting things about gunpowder is its relative predicatibility for an explosive substance (as opposed to say, nitroglycerin, which can be incredibly volatile). Gunpowder is even used to create artworks in seriously cool ways because it can be controlled. At the same time, this substance continues to be dangerous, causing more than a few lost digits or limbs every year during July celebrations and fueling firearms that can do immense damage to life and property. In some ways, gunpowder is almost a perfect metaphor for folk magic more generally—deployed with intention and thought, it can do wonderful things, but carelessly handled it can cause irreparable harm.

 

So as the fireworks are booming overhead during this first week of July in North America, I hope you will look up at the bright and beautiful patterns and think about some of the magic in them that goes beyond the visual awe and glamor. Although, if you prefer to “ooh” and “aah” at them instead, I can hardly blame you.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

References and Further Reading

  1. Brunvand, Jan, ed. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Press, 1996.
  2. Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1986.
  3. Corbett, Bob. “Eshin-Fun Answers: African Religion Syncretism.” Webster University Website (http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/voodoo/syncretism.htm).
  4. Hohman, John George, and Daniel Harms, ed. The Long-Lost Friend: A 19th-Century American Grimoire, Llewellyn, 2012.
  5. Hyatt, Harry M. The Folklore of Adams County, Illinois. New York: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935.
  6. —. Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork (5 Vols.). New York: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1970.
  7. Miller, Jason. Protection and Reversal Magick. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2006.
  8. Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Knoxville, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2007.
  9. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic and Folklore. Dover Publications, 1964.
  10. Schreiwer, Robert L. “Yuletide Sunneraad 2017.” Urglaawe: Deitsch-Pennsylvania German Heathenry Website. (http://urglaawe.blogspot.com/2017/12/yuletide-sunneraad-2017.html).
  11. Thomas, Daniel, and Lindsey Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2012 (reprint).
  12. yronwode, catherine. Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic. Forestville, CA: Lucky Mojo Curio Co., 2002.