Blog Post 225 – Button Button

Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish…One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish. (image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson)

Or, Notions of Magic.

We often mention that magic–folk magic, especially–is an everyday sort of affair. It lives in places like loose change and decks of playing cards, and we find spells using eggs or walnuts tucked into the corners of North American witchery.

Recently, I received a gift from a friend in the form of the Five Cent Tarot (thank you Heather!). It has fast become one of my absolute favorite decks to read with, as it has a number of symbols to draw from (and keywords pointing to meanings woven into the images, which helps with those of us who don’t do tarot quite as often as we do other systems). In this deck, the minor arcana are essentially the objects you might find in a junk drawer: sewing needles for swords, matches for clubs, buttons for discs, and teacups for, well, cups. We have already put up a post on the use of pins and needles, and matches are really more suited to their own post or one dealing with other aspects of fire magic. I’m so enamored of this deck, however, that I had to take some inspiration from it, and so the remaining suits put the idea in my head that I should look at some of the folk magic around buttons, thimbles, and other sewing notions. Given the burst of sewing going on as people make masks and other vital items during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also seemed like at least a semi-relevant topic. So let’s take the lid off grandma’s old butter cookie tin and see what sorts of lore and spells we find!

We start with buttons, which have a great deal of luck folklore associated with them. Widespread folk belief says that finding a button brings good luck to follow, somewhat similar to finding a lucky penny or other coin. In fact, one variant of this belief from North Carolina indicates that any button found and carried for luck should be smaller than a penny (or other lucky coin) (Brown). The kind of button found can also have magical significance. A button with two eyes is good luck, while a button with five eyes is bad (ibid.). A button from a coat might indicate that a letter is forthcoming soon, while a white button foretells a lawsuit (so maybe leave those where they are) (Daniels & Stevans). In the Ozarks, finding a black button indicates misfortune to follow (Steele).

A number of other notions like thimbles and ribbons have similar lore associated with them:

  • To find  a collar signifies that you will make an enemy…
  • To find a piece of lace, signifies that you will be ill…
  • To find a darning needle, signifies a disappointment in love…
  • To find a hat-pin signifies a quarrel…
  • To find a ribbon, a string, piece of silk or anything with color, especially if it be new and fresh will portend, signifies if red, good fortune, prosperity, successful love
  • To find scissors or knives, signifies that you should beware of enemies (ibid.)

Buttons are also the focus of a number of folk spells and rituals, such as these found in Henry Middleton Hyatt’s collection Folklore from Adams County, Illinois:

  • Buttons strung on a thread can be put around a baby’s neck to aid in teething. Some say the buttons should be cut from a man’s shirt for this purpose (NOTE: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING LIKE THIS AROUND A BABY’S NECK!). 
  • You can “sell” your wart to someone for a button, and as long as you keep the button the wart will go away
  • Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish. Other sources also indicate that you can do this ritual with any button you find so long as you pick up the button and place it in your shoe (which would be most comfortable if you were wearing penny loafers, I imagine). One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish (Brown).
Horn 'hunting' buttons with shanks
Buttons made of animal horn (photo by Tyranny Sue / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

One particularly neat divination found in Hyatt’s collection is similar to the “calling circle” sometimes performed to discern a baby’s future on its first birthday. This time, however, the button is one of a set of objects that can be used to determine your future at any age:

“Into a pan of water on the table drop a button, coin, nut, ring and stone; then blindfold yourself and with a spoon attempt to scoop out one of the articles from the pan — three trials being allowed: if you lift out the button, you will live in single blessedness; if the coin, you will acquire wealth; if the nut, you will toil for a living; if the ring, you will marry; and if the stone, you will travel a rocky road. Halloween is the usual time for this divination.”

This sort of divination game is similar to other party games, and the Halloween setting of this ties it to similar occult play such as the use of “nutcrack night” fire rituals or even the slightly more spin-the-bottle-esque game of snap apple (or, in a similar vein, bobbing for apples).

Thread is another good source of folklore and folk magic. Most people reading this likely know about the general idea of “knot magic,” (something we’ll be covering through our Cunnigham Book Club in the show as well). Using threads for magical work is something both old and incredibly contemporary, as even children are frequently doing magic like this. Just think of the many friendship bracelets young kids make for one another, and the way those are designed to “bind” them together in the bonds of friendship forever. One of my favorite presentations of this is in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, where Chihiro/Sen’s friends make her a little friendship bracelet-like hair tie, the only physical object she gets to keep when she exits the spirit world later.

One long-standing superstition that I personally hold to is trying to save all my trimmed thread ends. I keep them in a jar in the top-most room of my house (which also happens to be my library room where I’m writing this at the moment. The tangles in the jar are thought to help prevent harm from coming to a household, much in the way that “counting objects” like beans or salt scattered by a door might. Since my wife is a knitter and I do a good bit of sewing and darning there are few weeks in a year I don’t add to the jar, yet somehow it never quite gets full. Almost like magic.

Jar full of thread and yarn ends to protect family and house from harm. Photo by Cory Thomas Hutcheson. Image in background by Rima Staines.

Knotting thread, especially red thread, around someone’s wrist with a certain number of knots–usually seven–was used as a magical ward against headaches and other ills (Hand) (Randolph). Cunning folk traditions from England also suggest using bits of rope from a hangman’s noose can alleviate these sorts of aches and pains (Baker). We also see the use of knots and threads in the form of a “witch’s measure,” a concept adopted in a number of occult systems like Wicca (where it is often called a cingulum and can be used to “bind” an initiate to their coven). In Hoodoo, a similar use of a measure involves taking red thread or yarn and measuring a partner’s genitals, then wetting them with sexual fluids and knotting them to prevent a partner from straying (Hurston). A similar principle was used when taking two pieces of clothing, one from each partner (preferably worn and unwashed), then knotting them together to ensure fidelity.

Untying knots also has occult power in several bits of folklore. For example, in the Appalachians and Ozarks, women were sometimes advised to unbind their hair as a way to ease birthing pains (during birth, not necessarily all the time) (Illes). Sailors heading out to sea might acquire a cord made by a local witch with a series of knots in it. If their ship were becalmed and unable to move, they could untie each knot to raise a different degree of wind. One knot could bring about a light breeze, while all the knots might summon a hurricane. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “buying the wind” using coins thrown overboard (Dorson). 

The Witch’s Ladder is a charm made from rope or thread knotted around objects, usually including feathers, as a way to create a long-term curse or spell on a person (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020)

And, of course, how could we talk about threads and strings and witchcraft without mentioning the popular (and often nefarious) witch’s ladder? This is a magical talisman made by braiding three cords together and knotting them nine times while placing an object into each knot. Usually, these objects were bones or feathers from birds, often geese, which may connect the charm mythologically to figures like Frau Holle. While each knot was tied, the witch would curse the intended target, then hang the ladder secretly in the home of their victim with the intent of causing them to suffer and eventually die unless the knots are unbound or the ladder is destroyed somehow. Late twentieth-century Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (mentioned above as part of our book club) revised the witch’s ladder a bit for more positive purposes, turning it into the “wishing ladder,” which uses similar magical structures to create charms that get a witch what she wants out of life.

There are so many other magical crafts and lore associated with things like strings, buttons, thimbles, and ribbons, too. Crafts like the ojo de dios or the oft-appropriated Ojibwe dreamcatcher use the concepts of threads and knots to create talismanic spells, for example. I’ve also been delighted to see the enthusiasm for needlecraft among contemporary feminist witchcraft practitioners, who cross-stitch their intentions into spell-like wall hangings with phrases like “hex the patriarchy” on them. As someone who frequently darns my own clothes and does a good bit of sewing on the side to repair the damage done to clothes by growing children (and frankly, we adults are not terribly careful either), the eager embrace of sewing and knot magic and a jar full of magical buttons makes me quite happy (you can tell I’m the life of every party, can’t you?). There’s even a new book recently released that I’m hoping to check out at some point all about contemporary needlework-and-button-bound magic called Sew Witchy, by Raechel Henderson (if you’ve read it or tried out any of the crafts in it, I’d love to hear about those below in the comments, along with any other notion-based magical work you do!). 

That’s only a small bit of a much bigger line of magical work. Weaving has its own spell associations, and I’m not even touching prayer shawls at the moment, which can have an intense magical protective connection. Still, in this time when we see people making dozens or hundreds of cloth masks for public health and safety or needing to stretch their clothing’s lifespan a bit longer due to newly-tightened economic belts, it’s good to know we can still find magic and witchcraft in the very stitches, thimbles, measures, and buttons we’ve been hiding in butter cookie tins the whole time.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References:

  1. Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
  2. Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
  3. Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
  4. Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
  5. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
  6. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
  7. Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
  9. Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).

Blog Post 196 – Body Lore & Magic

Hans van Hayek, The Fortuneteller, 1892 (via Wikimedia)

“My ears are burning; who’s talking about me?”

“If your nose is itching, someone wants to kiss you.”

“Your feet itch? You must be about to go somewhere.”

I remember my mother often sharing the little bits of proverbial wisdom throughout my childhood.

Usually they were delivered with a wink or a wry smile, and I don’t think she took them particularly seriously, but then she also wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that any one of these tokens had borne some fruit in the real world. If you think about it, assumptions about the intimate connection between a person’s body and the world around him or her are not anything new or unusual. Plenty of people have an uncle whose bunions predict snowstorms, or a grandmother whose arthritis tells of coming rain, or headaches that detect heatwaves moving in. There are plenty of other ways one’s body might help one prepare for a day outdoors, according to American lore:

Beyond those sorts of weather-related phenomena, however, bodies are reputed to be in touch with all sorts of esoteric information. Of course, obtaining pieces of a person’s body is a primary way of gaining magical control over him or her, but that, I fear, goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this brief examination will focus on the body as a giver or receiver of information, rather than a source of spell ingredients. For example, often the physical features of a person imply certain characteristics about their intellect or psychology, according to American lore:

  • A fat person is believed to have a good disposition and a friendly nature
  • A big head can be the sign of great intelligence, provided it’s not too big (which would mean a person of no wit whatsoever)
  • A person with a “long head” is thought to be someone of dubious morality and “unscrupulous” character
  • A person with a broad face is thought to be warm and friendly, while a narrow face indicates shrewdness and insensitivity
  • “Dimple on the chin,/ Devil within” – A dimpled chin indicates a troublemaking personality
  • Long arms indicate someone with a “grasping” nature, someone who will do whatever it takes to geth what he or she wants
  • Trimming a baby’s fingernails will turn it into a thief
  • And of course, cold hands mean a warm heart.

What do all of these sorts of lore have in common, then? They all seem to operate off of the ever-present Doctrine of Signatures, which we’ve seen before, and which fundamentally states that like affects like. By that logic, we can see how things like “broad face” and “big head” can be indicators of abundance with regard to particular character traits (I can only assume that the same sort of logic applies to the “fat person,” in that they have general abundance in their figure and thus must have some in their disposition towards others as well). More interesting are the less direct connections between things like trimming fingernails and later thievery in life. I would suggest that because a baby is supposed to undergo very little “reduction” during the first year or so of life (a period when their hair, body, and in some cases, teeth, are all growing more abundant), that trimming something off of the baby’s hand will make it always look for something to fill the void. That, in turn, might lead the baby to fill it with other people’s things, and thus the fear of thievery is attached to the belief. Makes sense? Coming with me on that one? (It’s fine if you don’t, of course, as these sorts of lore-bits often can have multiple meanings and origins).

Some of my favorite bodily predictors come in the form of love (and lust) lore, because they seem so appropriate to connect to how we experience our fleshly existence. I always heard that if your nose itched, someone wanted to kiss you, as I noted above (which may indicate either a lustful flag of interest if one subscribes to the nose/penis symbolism that some folklorists do, or a simple sense of “rooting out” such a person, as indicated in the paragraph on itching below). Another fairly common bit of folklore says that “a hair in your mouth means someone wants to kiss you.” Hair can have very sexual connotations (which is why it frequently gets associated with sexuality in Abrahamic religions), so its presence in the mouth would be a very reasonable indicator of lustful intent. Another bit of lore deals more with what to do if your paramour wanders off: “Throwing nail parings into a fire is a way to call a lover back to you” (okay, so this is more of a spell, but it does seem as though the nail trimmings are communicating with the other person, so I’m calling it a fit).

Itches or burning sensations on the body are of particular importance, and seem to offer very particular meaning depending on where they occur. Some examples from Kentucky lore:

  • If your ears burn some one is talking ill of you, while if your hand itches you will receive a present, or shake hands with a stranger.
  • If your right foot itches, you are to go on a journey; if the left, you are going where you are not wanted.
  • When your nose itches, some one is coming. If it is when you are away from home, you may know you are wanted at home.
  • If your right eye itches, you will cry; if the left, you will laugh.

Again, we see elements of the Doctrine of Signatures, in that ears receive the voice of others in most circumstances, so if they act in an uncharacteristic manner, they must indicate an unheard voice somewhere out in the world. Feet carry us on journies, of course, so the interesting element in that superstition is the association with particular feet and the type of journey. With the long-standing stigma against “sinister” (the original meaning of that word being “left-sided”) use of limbs, the connection between the left foot and an unpleasant journey makes some sense. The less obvious one is the nose, although we may make some guesses about why a nose would be a barometer for upcoming human contact. We might think of proverbial phrases like “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong” or a “nosy person,” and understand that noses are believed to be the body part which roots for information, particularly about the lives of others, and so the nasal connection does have some precedent.

In Mexican-American folklore, bodily functions are often regulated by “hot” or “cold” natures (not dissimilar from Ayurvedic medicine). Because of those temperature associations, people can figure out important information about a person’s state of well-being based on whether small signs on the body indicate larger imbalances within the person. A great example would be hair, which is thought to be “hot” while it grows. A person whose “heat” dies away quickly, however, will likely begin to go gray, as though his or her vitality were turning to ash on his or her head. Having long hair can also help one lose weight in this estimation, because longer hair burns off more energy, thus depleting the body of its energetic fat stores.

Surprisingly few death omens connected to anything body related. This likely reflects an anxiety that bodily warnings are incredibly frequent and common, and that death should be a rare and unusual occurance, rather than anything commonplace. One of the few bits of bodily lore connected to death has to do with the loss of a limb and its disposal. Supposedly, if one loses a limb through combat or other misfortune, and fails to take off any shoes or other vestments on the detatched extension, the person will experience phantom pains so long as the problem is not corrected.

Vance Randolph collected some interesting lore which borders on a divinatory method using the appearance of spots on fingernails:

“White spots on fingernails are supposed to represent lies, and little boys often hide their hands to avoid betraying falsehoods. However, there is a fortunetelling rhyme children use when counting these white spots :

A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, A letter to come, a journey to go.

Some people say that a large white spot means a journey.”

These sorts of counting-out rhymes often figure in children’s play, sometimes as a means of selecting play partners and sometimes with more occult connotations, as in the spot-counting rhyme above. Why white spots should indicate lies remains open to interpretation, but if I had to guess I’d assume that the spots are thought to be the actual lies trapped beneath the glass-like surface of the nail, demonstrating that lies always come up for air, sooner or later.

I’ll close today with a little tidbit from a somewhat older book (originally published in England, but likely in circulation throughout the British colonies), which is devoted to divination via dreams and moles on the body. The entire second half of the pamphlet is about moles and their meanings, and often provides startlingly specific and inalienable interpretations of mole size, shape, and position. One such indicator: “If a Mole is on the crown of the head, it shews another on the nape of the neck, and the party witty, and to have good natural parts: but that he will die poor.” I would say that indicates that a pair of moles is a bit of a mixed bag, wouldn’t you? I think I’ll go back to being a bit heavyset and being perceived as friendly, then.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Sources:

  1. Bronner, Simon J. Explaining Traditions. 2011.
  2. Bronner, Simon J. American Children’s Folklore. 2006.
  3. “Dreams & Moles, with their Interpretation & Signification.” Published by the Royal Society of London, 1750.
  4. Dundes, Alan. Interpreting Folklore. 1980.
  5. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois. 1935.
  6. Ingham, John M. “On Mexican Folk Medicine.” American Anthropologist. 17, (1): 76-87.
  7. Price, Sadie F. “Kentucky Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore. 14, (52): 30-38.
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. 1964.
  9. Smith, Grace. “Folklore from ‘Egypt.’” Hoosier Folklore. 5, (2): 45-70.

Blog Post 128 – Iron

North American history has a funny relationship with iron.  On the one hand, iron is largely behind the early expansion that allowed Europeans to dominate the continent so completely with weapons, locomotives, and durable goods and architecture.  On the other hand, it has also been a curse used to inflict injury and death on undeserving people and leading others to rip the very soil of the land apart in search of it.  So maybe it’s not so much of a “funny” relationship as it is one fraught with difficulty and complexity.

American folklore, however, has largely good things to say about iron.  It’s a powerful anti-witchcraft charm and can be used to repel things like wicked fairies attempting to replace a baby with a changeling.  It can come in the form of nails, railroad spikes, horseshoes, or even just random flakes falling as refuse from a blacksmith’s anvil.

Today I thought I’d look at a few of the bits of folklore regarding iron.  Before we look at the New World side of things, though, let’s look at iron in a slightly older context: Roman superstition.

“The taboo on iron dates from the beginning of the Iron Age when religious conservatism forbade the use of the strange new material in place of the usual bronze. It has been suggested that the magic significance of iron arose from its susceptibility to magnetism which, as the superstitious Romans often believed, it derived from witchcraft” (from Taboo, Magic, Spirits, by E.E. Burriss)

Here we see that iron is associated with witchcraft and has a somewhat negative reputation.  Even the Romans, though, were not averse to using witchcraft to fight witchcraft, and so iron became a de facto tool for combating wicked witchery, and by extension, any other harmful supernatural force (ghosts, demons, fairies, etc.).

Other cultures picked up the thread (or started their own threads), seeing iron as a powerful magical tool.  African, pan-Celtic, and Northern European cultures all had particular beliefs about iron and its more enchanted properties, so it probably surprises no one that the Old World traditions regarding iron became the standard beliefs in the New World.

So what are those New World beliefs?  Let’s look at some examples from a few different areas:

From the Colonial Period, South Carolina
In the Joshua Gordon “Witchcraft Book,” (also sometimes called a Commonplace Book) dated from 1784, there is an example of the type of charm typically imported to the colonies from places like England and Ireland in which a heated iron is used to scald milk from a bewitched cow in order to undo witchcraft:

“A cow losing milk could be cured if its owners would ‘take a heather belonging to a box Iron, put it in the fire, and make it Red hot [and then] take the milk of the cows thats hurt [and] power [i.e., pour] on the hot iron repeating the names of the blessed trinity’” (from “ Magic, Astrology, and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760,” by Jon Butler in The American Historical Review).

This method is commonly found in folktales from Appalachia, such as the next entry.

From the late 19th- or early 20th-century, Tennessee (Appalachian foothills)
Again, a hot iron is used to scald milk and thus undo bewitchment:

“Another case of the use of heat, combined with iron and steel, is shown in the following account, also resulting in injury to the witch and her exorcism. Lewis Hopkins, formerly of Big Creek just beyond the park bounds [The Great Smoky Mountains National Park] told this unusual tale:
My grandmother’s folk had a cow and she give bloody milk.  An old lady, a Phillips, was accused of being a witch. So they got to talkin’ to Sam Evans who said he was a witch doctor and knowed about witches. The witch doctor told the folks to put a baker lid [i.e., the lid of a Dutch oven] in the fire. So they pecked it on with a reap hook [like a scythe or sickle]. So this old women Phillips come to this old man Evans and raised a fuss with him about tellin’ him what to do. They got into a fight and this old man pulled her dress up and they saw the pecks where they was a reap hook a-hackin’ at her. [But] she jumped out and got away from him” (from A Tennessee Folklore Sampler, by Ted Olson, et al).

Other cases of heated irons being used to procure magical results also abound, as we shall see momentarily.

From the 19th-century, Mississippi
In some places, iron implements are not so much valued as remnants of iron from a blacksmith’s shop.  Here is one account of “anvil dust” as it relates to Southern conjure practices:

“Anvil dust is also greatly valued as conjure material. One educated blacksmith of Columbus, Miss., tells me that people are constantly coming into his shop to get the black flakes that fall from the hot iron when it is pounded, although they always look ashamed and give a fictitious reason as to why they want it” (from Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro by Newbell N. Puckett).

This anvil dust is basically iron filings or flakes, and can be found in hoodoo practice as food for magically empowered lodestones.  Or it can be used to help create a cursing formula known as War Water (I’ll hopefully address the creation of this product in a separate post).  Interestingly, these two uses would seem diametrically opposed, with one being the food for an attracting magical fetish, and the other being an ingredient in a banishing potion. I would assert, however, that in these cases the iron serves a similar function on a magical level—with the lodestone it helps broaden the field of attraction for the stone while simultaneously running bad luck away, and in the War Water it’s repelling evil.  So in both cases, there is an element of something being turned away.  That is simply a way for me to reconcile these differences, however, and my come down to rationalization.

From the 19th– or 20th– Century, Ozark Mountains
Old favorite of New World Witchery, Vance Randolph, lists several methods for using iron as a magical tool (I omit the horseshoe lore which I have previously covered in another post, however):

  • “Nails taken from a gallows are supposed to protect a man against venereal disease and death by violence. Country blacksmiths used to secure these nails and hammer them out into finger rings”
  • “A little iron wire worn as a necklace, according to some power doctors, will protect a child from whooping cough”
  • “The water in which a blacksmith cools his irons is supposed to be good for witched cattle and is  sometimes given to human beings also, particularly children” (from Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph)

The last method mentioned is one I found repeated in several sources.  The power and provenance of “anvil water” or “slack water” seems to be well known across several cultures.

From the 20th-century, Illinois
To illustrate my point from the last section, I thought I’d share a bit of folklore from the Midwest, collected by ethnographer Harry M. Hyatt (who famously collected much of the lore about Southern conjure and hoodoo practices):

  • “A piece of old iron hung over the front and back door prevents the spirit of the recent dead from haunting you”
  • “Five nails driven into the trunk prevent the fruit from falling off the tree.  ‘My father did this when fruit was dropping off: drive those old- fashion square iron nails in the tree to hold the fruit on the tree. Never use wire nails; it must be the old iron nails’”
  • “Water from the tub in which a blacksmith cools hot iron is a good wash for the sore udders of a cow”
  • “A broken-winded horse (a horse with heaves) becomes well, if given water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron”
  • “Your looks will be improved if you wash your face frequently with the water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron”
  • “Slack-water, the water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron, is a good wash for poison ivy” (from Folklore of Adams County, by Harry M. Hyatt).

The first two bits are interesting, especially with the death connection, but the last four show that the slack water was considered a sort of cure-all magical formula.  I don’t know about you, but I think I need to make friends with a blacksmith, and quickly!

That’s it for iron, for now at least.  What I’ve written here is only the tip of a very large and ferrous iceberg.  As I said, I didn’t get into the related topic of War Water in the hopes it will appear in another post at a later date.  And I also didn’t touch on the lore of blacksmiths, specifically, as I hope to cover that in some depth later (our next podcast will have a bit about them, in fact).

If you have any local or family lore regarding iron and its magical properties, I would love to hear them!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Blog Post 55 – Games

May Day is just around the corner, and since I’ve been talking about songs and riddles this week, I thought it might be fun to talk a little about games.  Sport and fun may not seem like a particularly witchcraft-tinged topic, but au contraire! I say.  There are lots of magical subtexts to games, from the sacrificial-animal nature of a colorful piñata to the gambling mojo or lucky rabbit’s foot stuffed in a card-player’s pocket.

Getting Lucky
Winning games by magic is a primary focus of many types of hoodoo workings.  Some of the various techniques for improving one’s luck include:

  • The creation of gambling mojo hands, often “fed” with a woman’s urine (because of her connection to Lady Luck)
  • The appropriately named “Lucky Hand” root, which resembles a human hand and which is reputed to bring good luck to one in games of chance
  • A buckeye with a hole bored in it, filled with liquid mercury (quicksilver), and sealed with wax was considered incredibly lucky.  WARNING:  Don’t do this.  Mercury is VERY dangerous and VERY poisonous, even in tiny amounts.  Modern root workers often use sliver Mercury-head dimes instead.
  • The popular alligator-foot or rabbit-foot keychains found in roadside stops throughout the country are considered potent gambling charms.
  • One of my favorites is the “coon dong” charm, which is a raccoon penis bone wrapped in a currency note (the higher the better, of course) to ensure continued luck.

Of course, there are lots of other hoodoo charms related to luck and good fortune.  Simply carrying a High John root in your pocket is a good way to ensure luck at all you do, including games.  Another big game-related piece of hoodoo magic comes in the form of “dream books,” which purport to help the dreamer turn symbols and images from the night’s slumber into winning lottery numbers.  Catherine Yronwode has an excellent page on this topic, so I’ll just suggest you visit her site for more on those.

Magical Games
There are many games that have interesting magical undertones (or overtones…maybe highlights or roots?).  I thought it might be fun to include a few games that you could include in your own May Day celebrations today.  I’m skipping out on the traditional Maypole as that is well documented in many places.  I hope you enjoy them!

From Central Illinois (in Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind, paraphrased)

LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN

Two players are named “Takers,” and each chooses an object or idea that represents him/her (such as one player being “bees” and the other “flowers,” or one the “sun” and the other “the moon.”  The Takers do not tell the other players which Taker is which object however.  The other players form a circle, and the Takers join hands, one outside the circle and one inside.  They raise their arms, and the circle begins to turn as everyone sings:

London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down;
London Bridge is falling down, and caught my true love in it.

The Takers can drop their arms at any point during the singing, and the circle stops.   Whoever the Takers have “trapped” must choose one of the objects and whisper it to the Takers.  The Taker whose object is named grabs the trapped player and moves them behind him/her, and then the Takers raise their joined hands again.  The singing and circling continues in this way until all the players have been caught and moved behind their chosen Taker.

The Takers keep their hands joined and each player wraps his/her hands around the player before them, forming two human chains linked by the Takers.  The game ends with a tug-of-war between the two sides.

This game could be a wonderful way to have some fun while enacting a sort of ritualized drama, such as the struggle between light and dark.  It is best with a large group of people of course, and the “prize” for winning could have to do with the losing side serving the winning side at a feast, or something to that effect.  Or winning could just be its own very fun reward.

From Appalachia (in Foxfire 6)

DEVIL IN THE PROMISED LAND

“We played a game called ‘The Devil in the Promised Land.’  A big branch went down through our pasture.  Some places it was wide and some places were narrow enough to jump across pretty good.  There’d be about eight or ten of us on one side.  We’d put one on the other side and he was the devil.  Now we had to cross the branch and go around him and jump the branch back.  Now if he caught us before we made the run around him, we had to go on to the devil’s side” (p. 282)

I love this one, and you could definitely play it without having a huge tree or creek (I’m not 100% sure what that informant meant by “branch”).  Just making a big circle with rope or setting boundaries for the “Devil’s land” with stones would be pretty easy.  You could also think of this as “a witch and her spirits,” with the Witch being the primary tagger, and her Spirits being the players she catches, who help her catch other players (I would say they can’t “tag” a player, but might help to corral the other players towards the Witch…but that’s just my take on it).

From the Southwest and Mexico

THE PINATA

The piñata has an interesting history dating back to at least Mayan times, and possibly even back to China.  There’s an excellent short history of the game here, including many traditional rhymes and songs associated with the game, such as:

“Dale, dale, dale, no perdas el tino,
porque si lo perdes, pierdes el camino.
Esta piñata es de muchas mañas, sólo contiene naranjas y cañas.”

Hit, hit, hit.
Don’t lose your aim,
Because if you lose, you lose the road.
This piñata is much manna, only contains oranges and sugar cane.”

Making paper mache representations of animals, spirits, demons, gods, stars, or almost anything magical would add to the occult significance of a game like this.  After the candy’s been collected, some of it could be turned into an offering as well, if that’s part of your tradition.  The bright colors of most piñatas make them perfect for May Day gatherings, in my opinion.

There are lots of other games you could play as well, like Nature Bingo or Horseshoes, that would fit a spring or summer gathering.  This post is already plenty long, though, so I’m going to end it here.  Feel free to share your own witchy games, if you have them!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 27 – More Signs & Omens

Hi everyone.  I received a fantastic email From Sarah R. about a number of traditions she remembered from a book called The Fortune Telling Book, by Gillian Kemp.  I thought I’d share a few of the wonderful tidbits she sent me, along with some other signs and omens we didn’t get to in the podcast.

Marriage Omens (from Sarah R.)
1. It is considered unlucky to be married in a church where there is an open grave.
2. A solitaire cut engagement ring indicates a solitary existence.
3. If three women sitting together at a dinner table possess the same initial to their Christian name, one of the three women will soon marry.
4. It is considered lucky to have an even number of guests at the wedding and unlucky to have an odd number.
5. Wedding Dress Omen:

Married in white you will have chosen alright,
Married in green ashamed to be seen,
Married in grey you will go far away,
Married in blue you will always be true,
Married in yellow you’re ashamed of your fellow,
Married in black you will wish yourself back,
Married in pink of you he will think.

6. To see a flock of birds in flight on your wedding day is a sign of fidelity and a long and happy marriage blessed by heaven.

Here are some signs from Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind, from the “Illinois Egyptians” section.  The “Egyptians” he refers to occupy the southern “triangle” of Illinois, beginning “when the flat prairie lands of grain-rich central Illinois turn to foothills” (p.289).  The culture here is influenced by several ethnic groups, including the Irish, the French, and African-Americans.

A Death Omen
The McConall Banshee
Before anyone of the McConnal family died, a banshee [sic] would scream, and it would take the route that the family would go to the cemetery.  The neighbors along the route would hear it.

When old lady Brown died—she was a McConnall—the banshee came into the house and got in bed.  It looked like a little old woman about a foot high, with a rag tied around its head.  John Gentry was going to kill it, but Mrs. Brown said, ‘Don’t bother that.  That’s my baby.’

Some folks said that the banshee was a curse sent by the church, for the McConnalls had once burned a church.

When Walter Fraley’s baby died, the banshee cried all over the place, but no one could see it” (p.313)

Birth and Infancy Signs
“A baby speaks with angels when it smiles”
“An ugly baby makes a pretty adult.”
“It is bad luck to name a first child after its parents.”
“You should not cut a baby’s hair before it is a year old.”
“A baby will be a prophet if it is born with a veil over its face.”*
*This veil is known as a caul, and is somewhat common in births.  I’ve got more about it in Blog Post 8 – Seaside Sorcery

Dream Signs and Omens
“Dream of a funeral and attend a wedding.”
“It is bad luck to tell a dream before breakfast.”
“It is bad luck to dream of muddy water.”
“It is good luck to dream of clear water.”
“You will have enemies if you dream of snakes.”
“Count seven stars for seven nights, and you will dream of the man you will marry”
“You will be successful if you dream of being dead.”
“Marry soon if you dream of a corpse.”
“You will make true friends if you dream of ivy.”
“Dream of letters and receive good news.”
(all preceding quotations from Dorson, pp. 338-340)

That’s plenty of prophetic phraseology for today, so I’ll wrap it up.  But I still have many more tokens to tell of, so I’ll likely do another post on them later this week.  If you have any folklore regarding forecasting future events (or even current or past ones) via dreams, signs, etc., we’d love to hear them!  Feel free to add them as a comment to this post, or send us an email.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 24 – Book Review

Hello everyone,

So today I’d like to offer a review of a book I’ve cited several times on the blog already, Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind.  It’s a book of folklore divided by region and focusing on the different stories, beliefs, and practices of those who inhabit those regions.  The regions he covers are broken down as follows:

  • Maine Down-Easters
  • Pennsylvania Dutchmen
  • Southern Mountaineers
  • Louisiana Cajuns
  • Illinois Egyptians
  • Southwest Mexicans
  • Utah Mormons

Each section then goes into further detail regarding the specific folklore of the regional group examined.  For example, under Southwest Mexicans, there is a section called “Proverbios” which contains the bits of folk wisdom like:

Dar atole con el dedo.

“To give gruel with the finger.”  (To deceive with words or acts, especially to deceive one’s husband).

Entre menos burros, mas olotes.

“The fewer donkeys, the more cobs.”  (The fewer, the better…corncobs, dried as well as green, are given burros to eat).

And under Louisiana Cajuns, in the section “Riddles,” we find:

What has a tongue and does not speak?  A shoe

What has teeth but does not bite?  A comb

If a man can lift two hundred and fifty barrels of rice when it is not raining, what can he lift during a rain?  An umbrella

Each section has its own unique attributes.  Some have the songs and proverbs of their region, some have stories and even some loose versions of “spells.”  I say loose because they aren’t exactly how-to’s on spellcraft, but provide some information that could be turned into a how-to pretty easily.  For example, the Louisiana Cajuns section has information on Hoodoo, including a tale from one informant who described a luck mojo bag that “was a little bag of linen and it had like nerves and then bones.”  The nerves are from a vulture, and the bones from a snake, which both could be used in a lucky mojo hand (though I’ve never heard of nerves being used, per se, but that’s what makes these accounts so interesting—their variety).

The entire book is loaded with bits of magic like this, as well as stories of witchcraft and magic which, while more fanciful, give insight into what the occult practices of those areas might be.  In the Southern Mountaineers section, for instance, there’s an interesting account of a “witch-ball,” which is a bit of hair, wax, and other substances rolled into a ball and “shot” at a victim to curse them.  I’ve seen similar stories in other books of American folklore, especially based in the Appalachian areas, so it’s interesting to me to see how prominent such a magical tool seems to be in that area, though it is largely forgotten elsewhere.

I learned a great deal from this book—the entire section on Illinois Egyptians, for example, was a revelation to me, and has opened up a whole new area of interest for me regarding New World Witchery.  And the stories, songs, and proverbs are fantastic!  I can’t get enough of the Southern “Jack” tales!

I should point out that Dorson uses the Aarne-Thompson system of folklore classification, which divides tales into various types for ease of cross-referencing.  It is definitely a book aimed at folklorists and not particularly at a wide audience, but I think anyone can get a great deal from reading it.  And it may open up a whole new love of folklore as a field of study for some folks.

I’ve been reading a borrowed copy from my public library, and it’s just about due to go back there, which was going to be a sad loss, as I still find myself referencing Buying the Wind frequently.  But thanks to a generous donation from reader/listener Amber (many, many thanks to her!), we’ll be able to procure a copy for future reference now.  So hooray for Amber!

That’s all for now!  Thanks for reading!

-Cory