Posted tagged ‘Indiana’

Blog Post 196 – Body Lore & Magic

October 22, 2015

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!



  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 194 – Plugging (Healing with Trees)

March 30, 2015

Kirkridge Shelter sign, Appalachian Trail near Fox Gap, Monroe and Northampton Counties. Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli (Wikimedia)

Exploring American folk magic means looking under lots of stones, poking about in the weeds on the roadside, and scaring furry little critters out of their hiding spots as we try to discover the methods that have been used to solve problems throughout the years. Whether it’s using potatoes to cure warts or making your spare change break an incoming hex, the techniques of folk magic demonstrate a masterful application of resources at hand to get the results a body needs. Which brings me to the subject of this article, the practice of “plugging” to heal disease.

Largely found in the mountain regions of America, although it also appears in a few other places as well, the basic practice of plugging consists of measuring a person against a tree, boring a hole in the tree, then filling and stuffing the hole (or “plugging” it, obviously). Some folks also call the practice “pegging” rather than “plugging,” since the bored out chunk of tree forms a natural peg (and since the image of a peg may have a more biblical connotation to some practitioners, since a tent peg is used in the Book of Judges to kill an enemy of the Israelites). Once the person measured against the tree grows past the height of the hole, he or she should be cured of the disease. Of course, this means that the person must still be growing, which essentially means this method is used to help children with chronic illness rather than adults. There are a few variants in the practice, which we’ll get to, and some of those provide relief for adults, but for now let’s look at some of the typical examples:

“Drill a hole in a black oak or sourwood tree just above the head of the victim [of asthma], and put a lock of his hair in the hole. When he passes that spot in height, he will be cured. (Another person told us that if the person died, the tree would also.)” –Foxfire Book, p. 231

This is probably the most basic version of the method, although it is more specific about the tree than many versions. For the most part, the remedies simply say “a tree,” although some will indicate a preferred species to affect a cure. One Southern spell says that “chills can be driven away by boring a deep hole in the sunny side of an oak tree, blowing your breath into it, and plugging up the hole, with the result that the tree dies” (Botkin, Treasury of Southern Folklore, p. 630). Variants from the Foxfire 40th Anniversary book also say you can do the remedy with a black gum tree, and interestingly, you can use a detached form of the plugging remedy: “Take a sourwood stick the size [height] of the child when he’s two or three years old. Put it in the top of the house where it won’t get wet. When the child outgrows the stick, the asthma will be gone. This also works for hay fever, and some say it can be done with any “dry stick” by placing it “under the doorstep” (p. 349). The last examples show that the power to heal is not directly tied to a living tree, but simply to the qualities of wood, since the twigs are detached form their trunk before use in the spell.

Plugging is hardly an Appalachian phenomenon, however. A bit of lore from Indiana is very similar to the mountain method: “Measure the baby’s height on a tree and make a hole at this point in the tree. Then cut off a lock of the baby’s hair and put it in the hole. When the bark of the tree grows so as to cover the place, the baby will be well” (Grace Smith, “Folklore from ‘Egypt’,” p. 70). John George Hohman reports a version of plugging which resembles the detached plugging in the sourwood stick example above: “Cut three small twigs from a tree — each to be cut off in one cut — rub one end of each twig in the wound, and wrap them separately in a piece of white paper, and put them in a warm and dry place” (Hohman, Long-lost Friend). One collection of lore from Louisiana is rife with examples of plugging:

379. To cure a child of asthma stand him up by a post and lay a knife on his head and run it into the post. When the child grows above this knife he will no longer have asthma.
380. Negroes cure asthma by taking some of the victim’s hair, tying it up in red flannel, and putting it in the crack of the door.
381. To cure a child of asthma stand him up against a tree and bore a hole just above his head. Into this hole put some of the child’s hair and then stop it up. When the child grows above the hair he will no longer have the asthma.
382. To cure a child of croup stand him up against a tree and run a knife through his hair into the tree burying some of his hair. When the child grows above the hair he will no longer have the croup…
385. A way to cure croup is to bore a hole in the wall behind a door at the height of the child’s head. Put some of the child’s hair into the hole and cork it up. The child will no longer have croup…
389. To keep a child from having whooping-cough take him to a house that is just being built, stand him against the wall, and bore a small hole in it just above his head. Then put some of his hair into it, plug up the hole, and cut the hair off. As he grows above this he will not have the whooping-cough. (Hilda Roberts, “Louisiana Superstitions”)

Many of these are in “Superstitions from Oregon,” by Donald Hines, demonstrating that the practice is hardly a unilocal one. Henry Middleton Hyatt recorded dozens of incidents of plugging in his “Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois” collection. One such example somewhat resembles the practice of plugging without the use of a tree mentioned in the collection above:

  1. “If you have asthma, take and stand the person up against a door — the door must be an outside door — bore a hole in the door at the top of their head, save the sawdust, then put a lock of their hair in this hole, then the sawdust, then the plug. When the person grows above that hole, they will be well. Do you see that hole in the kitchen door over there? Well, that is where we tried this on my niece, and she got well.” (Hyatt).

The use of the wall or door as a substitute for a tree may stem from the fact that—at least in most homes prior to very recent times—these objects would have all been made of wood, and so might have retained the general properties of trees. Since it is unlikely that those doing the boring would know exactly what wood their walls or doors are made of (although in some older cases they might have known), I think this demonstrates the point that the type of tree used for the cure was less important than the fact that it was a tree.

While a number of these techniques do specifically apply to children, in some cases the practice was extended to adult patients as well. In several of Hyatt’s examples, plugging is used to cure excessive bleeding without any relationship to the patient’s growth:

  1. Profuse bleeding in a horse is stopped by boring a hole into a tree, putting in it some of the blood, and plugging up the hole with a wooden peg.”
  2. To check a bleeding caused by a cut, bore a hole into a soft maple tree and plug up in this hole some of the blood”

In this pair of examples, we can see a general sympathetic magical principle at work, since the stopping of the hole represents the stopping of the wound, and the symbolic transfer of the hurt to the tree. In many cases, the plugging action creates a symbiotic enchantment between the patient and the tree. Several accounts claim that if the tree sickens and dies at some point in the future, so will the person healed by its intervention.

Healing is not always the aim of the plugging, either. One Appalachian plugging says, “When you pull a tooth, drive it in an apple tree, and good luck will follow” (Gainer, 125). Likewise, the healing accomplished in some cases may not be physical, but mental. Some Appalachian lore says that putting hair from a recent haircut under a rock will prevent headaches, a sort of form of plugging (probably because birds can’t get the hair and weave it into their nests, which is believed to cause headaches or madness). Surprisingly, plugging has received little attention as a magical practice (although I somewhat suspect that its lack of marketability and a general inclination against drilling holes in things in the modern age have something to do with that). I hope this brief glimpse into the practice gives readers a chance to explore plugging a bit further, as we really only have the very tip of a rather large iceberg here. If you have additional information on plugging you’d like to share, we’d love to hear it!

Thanks for reading,


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