We return under cover of darkness to the creaky gates and mossy tombstones of graveyards and crypts for this show. We cover a witch ring in a New York cemetery, spooky teenage trips to haunted graveyards, and holding your breath as you pass the local churchyard.
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Download: Episode 136 – Graveyard Lore Part II
Big thanks to many of our listeners, including AthenaBeth, Michelle, Katie, Emma, Annie, and Thornwald who submitted to this show. We definitely expect to keep mining this topic for more, as we still have tons of great listener submissions to share with you! Keep those coming!
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In previous posts in this series, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just starting with this series here, you might want to flip back the pages of this dusty old tome on the bookshelf and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices, and the physical “things” of North American witchcraft. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.
This time, I’m addressing a topic I’ve addressed before in a few different ways: how witches learn to do the magic associated with them. I’m revisiting these points here because the other posts on them all go into more detail on specifics, and I believe that a more general summary of themes and methods is useful here. As you’re digging into this subject, feel free to spend some time in those older posts, too, as they do provide more depth than this one will. As you will likely see early and often through the following examples, witches can gain their magical prowess in a lot of different ways, and so it can be hard to compare one witch to another in folklore and history. At the same time, there are themes that do unite the different stories, or at least themes that overlap with one another, creating a sort of “spectrum.” What is certain, though, is that those who claim magical power develop it in some way to eventually become what people call a “witch.”
Witches Become Witches
In the time I’ve spent reading accounts of witchcraft in books of history and folklore, the time I’ve spent interviewing contemporary practitioners or examining specific magical artifacts, and the time I’ve spent consulting with other people who study this engrossing topic, I’ve learned that over-generalizations are not terribly useful when it comes to witchcraft. By reducing witchcraft into motifs and components, we tend to miss the highly individual experiences of the people actually practicing the magic. At the same time, it helps us a lot to look for patterns, and when it comes to just how witches gain their magical powers, we can see a set of patterns in the New World (or at least, specifically in North America) that point the way towards a better understanding of how these practices move between people. Tradition, as one of my folklore mentors has pointed out, comes from a Latin root having to do with “handing” things over, and witchcraft generally seems to be a “tradition” in that sense—it is handed over from one person (or entity) to another.
The exception to that rule is hereditary witchraft, although in this case I’m not referring to grandiose initiation stories of secret Granny Witches conducting rituals in their kitchens to initiate their grandchildren (looking at you here Alex Sanders). Rather, I’m referring to the wide body of lore that says that witches can often be “marked” from birth with special powers. For example, the presence of a caul around a newborn’s head is frequently noted as a source of spiritual power, and even when detatched the caul retains some magical abilities—sailors paid a pretty penny for dried cauls to stave off drowning, for example. In mountain lore inherited from European traditions, the seventh son of a seventh son is often reputed to have the ability to heal or do certain types of magic, setting him apart. Other birth-related demarcations of magical power include unusual moles, the presence of teeth in a newborn, extra fingers or toes, or a baby who is particularly hairy. One account of witchcraft among Pueblo Native Americans in the American Southwest showed that popular opinions claimed that witches often passed on their abilities to their children (albeit powers of malediction and harm in that example). A West Virginian herbal healer named Dovie Lambert who also “took off” bewitchments from others claimed that the passage of magical power occurred when secret words were transmitted across gender lines in families: father-to-daughter or mother-to-son, or even among aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Dovie believed that if the power didn’t get transmitted before the witch’s death, the power of that line of witchcraft would die out, although she herself believed that was unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Even in cases of a “witch from birth,” which is not always the same thing as these examples of magical “election,” the person has to choose to use their ability, and often develops it during a later point in life. This power was not solely limited to magic, however, but often reputed to impart special gifts to children based on birth order that might include a talent for medicine or a need for expanded education. Vance Randolph recorded some such beliefs in his examination of the Ozarks and their lore:
“If there are seven sons in a family, and no daughters, the seventh son is clearly intended to be a physician. The seventh son of a seventh son is a physician in spite of himself, endowed with healing powers which cannot be denied. Even if such a man does not study or practice medicine, he is very often called “Doc” or “Doctor” by common consent. However, small-time gamblers are often called “Doc” too, just as every backwoods auctioneer becomes a “Colonel.”
If there are ten sons in a family, and no daughters, the tenth son must be a preacher. “God meant it to be that-a-way,” an old woman once told me. “He knows how many preachers we need in this world.” She would not go so far as to say, however, that it is a mistake to call men who are not tenth sons into the ministry.
Many hillfolk believe that a third son is more intelligent than his brothers and should therefore be encouraged to “git more book-larnin’.” Others contend that, other things being equal, the fourth child has the brains of the whole family.”
Frequently the turning point in a “natural” magician’s life is adolescence or young adulthood, when the person’s power fully manifests for the first time and they learn the techniques of healing from someone else in their community, usually a family member. For example, West Virginian folk healer Johnny Arvin Dahmer spoke of inheriting a copy of The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus from his grandfather, who was also known as a folk magician and charmer. While a person may be predisposed to magical talent, then, their use of that talent comes only with guidance and training.
That instruction forms is very much the “marrow of tradition” that underlies almost all other forms of witches-becoming-witches. Just how involved that training is depends on the type of magic being transmitted, the cultural context in which it is found, and the particular individuals involved. In most cases, magical practitioners do not hang out shingles and advertise their services as instructors in witchcraft, but over the course of a long-standing and developed relationship with another person they may decide to share their secrets. In Dovie Lambert’s case above, that may happen as a matter of survivial of the magical tradition—if it is not transmitted it will “die out.” Lambert’s cross-gender transmission appears in a number of European-derived practices, including those from German-speaking, English-speaking, and French-speaking groups. A detailed study of powwowing magic in Pennsylvania Dutch communities by David W. Kriebel sums up a number of these ideas:
“Training procedures vary greatly, although one rule is nearly universal, namely, that only a woman can teach a man and only a man can teach a woman…training time can take anywhere from a few minutes to a year. The training procedure used by [one informant] and passed on to [two others] consisted of a ten-week program with all information imparted orally. When the initiate returned for the second session he (or she) had to repeat all the incantations and gestures perfectly, as a sign the initiate was meant to become a powwower.”
Kriebel’s account brings up the concept of a “calling” to do magic, which may be an echo of the idea of a hereditary practice or may signify the same kind of “calling” experienced by a religious or political leader. Kriebel also notes that one of his informants draws attention to the “price” of teaching magic, with one informant claiming “that when one powwower trains another the teacher gives up half his power to the student.” Several instances of this sort of transmission appear in folklore about witches who share their secrets or pass on their power only in the moments before their own death. A number of accounts make the claim that magical power can only be taught or transmitted at most three times within a person’s lifespan before the magic “runs out” or the practitioner dies.
Beyond the element of a calling to witchcraft, some witches may seek out their power in various ways. One Northern Mexican informant described the application of a special set of powders to his body, followed by a ritual bath, that gave him the ability to transform into animals. Notably, he learned the process by watching two other witches do the same in secret, and initially failed to do it correctly because he was wearing a scapular (a Catholid object designed to confer the blessings of Saints on the wearer). Only after removing the holy item was he able to begin his transformations. Many such initiations involve a renunciation of Christian practices or beliefs. Several accounts from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet note that witches become witches by “throw[ing] rocks at the moon and cuss[ing] God Almighty” or writing the Lord’s Prayer on a plate in grease paint, then washing it in a river or stream in an act of inverse baptism. Vance Randolph’s informants note that the initiation experience could be “a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion,” at least according to his sources.
In some cases of initiation, witches were expected to pay a price similar to the one noted in the accounts Kriebel found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That price might be an obligation to a specific spirit (most commonly framed in the American traditions as “the Devil,” although specific descriptions and formulations of diabolic initiation vary). It might also involve the death of a relative, or a period of intense sickness or near-death illness. Once initiated, however, a witch retained her power until her death or until she elected to pass it on to someone else. Other magical powers often followed this line of transmission: a calling or marking from birth followed by a powerful experience in young adulthood or adolescence that confirmed magical ability; the transmission of specific knowledge about witchcraft through the passage of oral lore or even the handing over of a book; and finally, the dispersal of that knowledge and power to another generation, often only in very limited quantities.
Contemporary practitioners tend to derive their magical knowledge in similar ways to the ones already outlined, but with some distinctions. For example, the emphasis on learning from books has become a de facto aspect of magical training. In some cases, the same books used in previous generations, like Egyptian Secrets, still hold sway, although in truth there are so many options available the older books are only a small sliver of the greater body of knowledge being used (I’m not complaining here, as I think many fantastic books have been produced in recent years, including some that surpass the older tomes in terms of breadth and depth of magical information). Several correspondents I’ve had have told me they look for “classes” in witchcraft, too, with structure and lesson plans and even homework. Some prefer classes focused on specific skills, as with Becky Beyer’s Appalachian wildcraft workshops, while others follow initiatory magico-religious traditions like Christopher Penczak’s Inner Temple structure. Training from groups directly (either in person or via postal correspondence) was the norm during the heyday of British Traditional Wicca in the 1970s and 1980s, but that is only a singular form of training now among many other forms available. Some practitioners still take on apprentices, especially in traditions like powwow or curanderismo, although both of those traditions are sometimes taught in whole or part within a class environment, too.
The one element that seems to have dissipated over time is the concept of the “price” paid for magical knowledge. The price has become the time and commitment required to learn the skills and magical techniques associated with a particular tradition. There are still some initiatory groups that do extract a price, such as requiring potential initiates to fast or wear special clothing for a certain length of time—something common in Lukumi traditions, for example. Occasionally the idea of the price being a loved one’s death surfaces, too, although that has become increasingly rare. So, too, has the idea of passing on the tradition before death as a matter of continuing a line of magical practice. Instead, practitioners often pass on their knowledge as more of a public service or as an aspect of their calling (some speak of being “called to teach” within a “training coven” structure, for example). Passing knowledge has also moved beyond rules about gender lines, too, instead becoming a more egalitarian and open-access approach.
Given the many roads into witchcraft, however, the road out is still in the transmission, even if the reasoning has changed. Witches become witches, and they do so because other witches make that possible. The stereotype of witches gathering in huge covens on Walpurgisnacht to engage in Satanic rites may be a medieval fabrication and fantasy, but in the act of sharing magical knowledge, there does seem to be a continuity of magical community. Almost like a family.
N.B: I will be doing one more entry in this series on the many and various talents of witches, but I am likely to set aside that post for a bit to cover a few other topics. This series has been rather grander in scope than I think I originally envisioned, but I hope it is useful to some of you. For now, I am so grateful to those of you sticking with me even with the longer gaps between posts.
Thanks for reading!
We’re back with our eyes on the sky, talking about the role of the moon in magic. We’ll discuss the divinity, folklore, and practical spellwork we associate with our lovely satellite, and make a plan for kick-starting our witchy engines in the moonlight. Plus, a new contest!
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 75
Please continue to keep Laine in your thoughts and prayers, as she is dealing with a serious (but thankfully not life-threatening) medical issue.
- Aradia, by C.G. Leland
- The Sea Priestess, by Dion Fortune (also check out her book, Moon Magic)
- Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, Water, by Scott Cunningham
- Almanacs in general, like The Old Farmer’s Almanac or The Witches’ Almanac
- Cory mentions his article “Killing the Moon,” found in Hands of Apostasy, from Three Hands Press
- You can also look at our post on Moon Magic for more information
Big thanks again to Atticus Hob, who recently announced that his show is indefinitely off the air, but who did a marvelous job as our co-host last month. Check out his Orphan’s Almanac site for updates.
We talk about the concept of moon calendar names, a subject derived from a recent discussion on Betwixt & Between.
Our apologies for the technical glitch in the middle of the episode. We’ll try harder next time, we promise!
Also, check out the Spring Lore 2015 contest, and win one of three great prizes!
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 32-
For our first regular episode after our summer lull, we’re looking at secrecy in magic. We also talk a bit about technology and Paganism, and we discuss initiations, too.
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 33
The post that got this topic started: NWW Blog Post 132 – The Value of Silence
Don’t forget about the Second Annual Pagan Podkin Supermoot in Salem, MA, on the weekend of Sept. 17th, 2011. Find out more details about the event and opportunities to come meet us in person at the PPSM2 Website. [Laine respectfully asks that she not be in any photographs, due to privacy concerns—Cory will be happy to wear a wig and pretend to be Laine, however].
During the Supermoot, NWW favorite Peter Paddon will be teaching a class on ritual trance and possession. Sign up here.
I’ll also be at the West KY Hoodoo Rootworker Heritage Festival teaching a course on “Biblical Magic & Sorcery.”
In Blog Post 126 we looked a little bit at the Devil as a folkloric figure in American witchcraft. One of the questions I received in response to that post was, “but how do I meet him?” Is the Devil an entity anyone can just summon up? Do you have to be careful to call the “right” devil so as not to wind up with more on your plate than you can handle? And if you do meet the Devil, how do you come away with your soul intact (assuming you want to)?
Today I thought I’d look at some of the ways, folklorically speaking, that people have been known to get into contact with the Devil or other “dark” spirits. Some of these are based on old European folk traditions, and some call a figure which may or may not be the Devil, but which certainly shares traits with him (trickster nature, otherworldly knowledge, granting of gifts, etc.). A word of warning before we dive in, though: Do NOT attempt any spiritual summoning work or diabolical contact without the proper precautions—while dark spirits can be powerful allies, they also can have a dangerous side and should be treated with respect and caution.
So, with that being said, let’s look at some of the main ways to meet your devil.
Invocation & High Magic
If you’ve ever read Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, you’ll be quite familiar with this method. In this late 16th century play, Dr. Faustus (quite possibly based on a real person), learns the art of high magic and uses a magic circle to call forth a devil named Mephistopholes, who will act as his servitor on Earth in exchange for his soul. He seals his pact with blood, and pretty much gets what he wants for a while (including Helen of Troy), then gets dragged off to hell for his final punishment.
In Marlowe’s version, the imp is a distinct entity, and in some versions of the legend he takes on the form of a dog or other animal to serve Faustus as a familiar. Shakespeare, contemporary to Marlowe, also knew a bit about diabolic invocation through high magic. In his Henry VI, part 2, Shakespeare demonstrates a different version of how such a meeting might go. In Act I, scene iv, a conjurer named Bolingbroke summons the spirit of a devil named Asmath into a witch named Margaret Jourdain (based on a real woman and accused witch named Margery Jourdayne), then proceeds to interrogate the demon for information. He dismisses the devil just before royal authorities break in and arrest everyone present for heresy and treason.
So here we have two methods inherited from the grimoire traditions of old Europe: direct appearance and possession. Owen Davies gives an excellent overview of these traditions in his appropriately titled Grimoires: a history of magic books. These late-antiquity and medieval methods of making contact with nefarious forces also found popularity in the New World, mostly through grimoires like the Grimoire Verum, Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets, and derivative texts drawn from such sources. These tomes influenced magical systems like Pow-wow and hoodoo, though the specifically diabolic elements were often highly diminished by the time they reached the hands of folk practitioners. The exception to this is that the seals found in the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses were still used for magical purposes, and several of those seals are specifically designed to invoke diabolic aid from entities like Mephistopholes and Leviathan.
Should you get the urge to perform any of these types of invocations—and I reiterate my warning about being prepared and knowing what you’re doing first—here are several rituals you might try:
- The Grimoire Verum – This text says that America is ruled by the devil Astaroth, whose sigils are included for your invocational purposes. Please note that you should probably learn a little bit about basic Solomonic invocation and banishing from the Key of Solomon first, though the Grimoire Verum does give a little instruction in these areas as well.
- The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses – There is a lot less instruction here than you would find in some of the other grimoires, so if you’re not versed in summoning and dispelling, you may need to look elsewhere.
- Dr. Faustus – Here is the text used by Marlowe for his Faustian invocation. Bear in mind that this was designed to be staged, so use it more as a guide than a rote ritual to be followed.
- Henry VI, part 2 – Shakespeare’s text for invocation and bansishment. Take with the same grain of salt you used with Marlowe’s work.
Meeting the Devil
On the more folkloric side of things, the common method for contacting a devil of some kind involves a journey to a liminal or wild place where he is thought to reside. In most cases, the Devil can be found either at a crossroads or in a forest of some kind, though there are exceptions (many modern stories of meeting the Devil involve transportation or big cities, e.g. Robert Bloch’s Hell-Bound Train, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, and the cult film Rosemary’s Baby). Probably the most famous ritual is the crossroads ritual, which I’ve mentioned here before. As I’m planning to do an article on the crossroads as an independent magical space, I won’t go into great detail, but rather just say that Cat Yronwode has a great entry on the crossroads for those who are interested.
The forest or wild place meeting is a common folkloric theme across many cultures. There are, of course, the Teutonic tales of meeting various wild spirits or devils in the forest, as in the Grimms’ tales of the Devil (see “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” or “The Devil’s Grandmother”). There are biblical precedents for these sorts of meetings as well—Moses encounters the burning bush in the desert, which is at least terrifying if not outright diabolic. Three of the gospels also recount the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert (an analog for wilderness in biblical terms). American folklore picks up this thread, and stories of meeting the devil in wilderness are quite common. “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, features such a meeting, and at least one scholar has brought the idea into the twentieth century by suggesting that “Men in Black” sightings associated with UFO’s in rural areas may be connected to devil lore.
The other alternative to the forest meeting is the graveyard meeting. Usually in this version of the story, the person meeting the Devil must also do battle with him. It can be a battle of wits, but just as often it is a physical wrestling match which parallels the interior struggle of the person confronting his or her fears by meeting the Devil in a graveyard in the firstplace.
So how does someone put this kind of meeting into practice? Will devils always show up in graveyards after dark? Will someone wandering in the forest or through a crossroads inevitably meet a Man in Black of some kind? Sadly, I have no answers here. All I can say is that if you’re truly moved to attempt these sorts of rituals, the Devil tends to show up in some form or fashion. So if you’re interested in pursuing this line of contact, you could:
- Attempt the Toad’s Bone ritual, which terminates with a graveyard wrestling session or a bout in a river
- Give the Greased Plate method a try (mentioned in Blog Post 50 and found in The Silver Bullet, p.24)
- See what happens if you do a Crossroads Ritual for a certain amount of time
- Or, just wander to any of these kinds of places, swear yourself to the Devil (or in many cases, against God), and call out to the Devil to come and offer you terms of some kind—a new skill, riches, knowledge, etc. in exchange for service or something intangible like, oh, say, your soul.
One final thing I should mention is that the best-case scenario in many of these stories usually involves a person quick-witted enough to outsmart the Devil. So always be aware of just what you say to any devil you meet, and make sure you leave loopholes for yourself if you promise them anything. They seem to enjoy a good trick, so it’s a win-win if you can outsmart them.
Again, please be careful with this sort of magic. It has the potential to be dangerous, and at the very least it’s a little intense and can run you afoul of the law if you’re not cautious (loitering at crossroads or in graveyards tends to get the police rather grumpy). If you do have any good experiences with this sort of work, though, please share! I’d love to hear it!
Thanks for reading,
In an effort to blend the subjects of recent blog posts, I thought today I’d start to look at a few of the key magical texts which would have had an influence on the American Colonies. Much of this entry will be directed by a reading of Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books and Witchcraft, Magic, & Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts by Richard Weisman, both of which I highly recommend reading. I am also pulling from The Silver Bullet by Hubert J. Davis and Witches, Ghosts, & Signs by Patrick Gainer. I’ll mostly be looking at the English colonies, but the French and Spanish colonies will also enter into the discussion a bit during later articles.
In general, the magical books of the early colonies came in three flavors: devil’s books, witch-hunting manuals, and grimoires. The Devil’s Book was frequently thought by Puritan settlers to be the ultimate embodiment of human sin—a willful signing away of one’s soul to infernal powers. By simply signing one’s name to such a book, a witch gained all her power and lost all her salvation (I use “her” because the popular conception of a witch tended towards the feminine, though male witches were not uncommon either). Some of the key features of a Devil’s Book and its accompanying rituals were:
The Profaning of the Bible – The witch would have to stamp upon a Bible or otherwise deface it before being allowed to sign. In some cases, a Bible itself was used to sign the witch into the Devil’s service. Several Appalachian tales record instances of witches simply making an “X” in a marred Bible to indicate their pact. In The Silver Bullet, witch Rindy Sue Gose performs this sort of ritual to seal her contract with the Devil:
“Fust, Rinday Sue cut her finger with a knife, and when hit started to bleed, she opened a little Bible and ‘peared to write sumpthin’ in hit with the blood from her finger. The Devil then nipped her on the left shoulder to give her a witchmark so’s she could suckle her familiar. Rindy Sue swore to give her soul to the Devil and to work for him the rest of her born days. Then, the Devil danced with her, and then went into the woods behindst thet tree” (Davis 17).
This action echoes the profaning of the Lord’s name or the recitation of a reversed “Our Father” as a way of breaking the bonds of Christianity for a witch. Not that you should read much into that, of course.
The Use of Blood as Ink – When witches made their mark, they often didn’t actually sign their name. In a time when general literacy was still low (though it should be noted that literacy among Puritan men was quite high for the era), not everyone would be expected to have a “signature.” Instead, they would have a “mark,” often an “X” which they used as an indication of their agreement to a contract. To personalize this mark in the rituals of witchcraft, a witch wouldn’t simply take an inked quill and make a fancy “X,” though. Instead, her blood was an indication that the pact bound her body and soul to the Devil. Puritan minister William Perkins described the process (most business-like) as follows:
“The express and manifest compact is so termed, because it is made by solemn words on both parties. For the satisfying hereof, he [the future witch] gives to the devil for the present, either his own handwriting, or some part of his blood as a pledge and earnest penny to bind the bargain” (Weisman 36).
The Devil sometimes used a great iron pen to draw the blood from the witch before having him sign his name, and in cases where the book was not a defaced Bible, the great book contained hundreds of other blood signatures from other witches.
Owen Davies observes in his book that the drawing up of a pact between a witch or sorcerer and an infernal representative was nothing new—look at the legend of Faust for example. What made these New World magical compacts unique was that the witch did not draw up the document herself, but rather was lured into signing a book which she would not take possession of, but rather which remained in the custody of her magical Master. All her magic, then, would be learned without the aid of books, at least in this model of New England Colonial witchcraft. Indeed, the Devil presented himself or his imps to the witch as her means for accomplishing malefic magic rather than gifting her the use of dusty tomes of magical lore and spells. In short, the Devil’s Book was merely a roster of the souls won to his service, and possessed little magical power in and of itself, at least superficially. However, many witches might claim that a deeper reading of the Devil’s Book phenomenon reveals that the act of writing in blood on a sacred object in fact demonstrates a type of very old and powerful magic. Thus, such a book, if it could be wrested from the Devil, would be very powerful, indeed, perhaps containing the magic of all those who had signed before.
Next time we pick up this thread, we’ll be looking at the witch-hunting books, and why they may have actually helped more witches in their spellcrafting than they actually hurt by “revealing” them.
Thanks for reading!
For my 50th blog post, I thought I’d do something special, something that really tickles my fancy. I’ll be talking about the various types of witch initiations found in New World folklore. I’ve already touched on this in Blog Post 45 – Witches, but today let’s expand a little bit on the concept.
In general, witch initiations in North American folklore share a few commonalities:
- The renunciation of Christianity, often through a ritual like repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards
- The giving of oneself to an otherworldly entity, such as the Devil or a “Man in Black” in exchange for magical powers
- An act of exposure, such as being naked or sexual union of some kind, though in some cases this is not necessary
- A sign or omen of the candidate’s acceptance as a witch
- The transmission of magical knowledge in a ceremonial way, and/or the presentation of a familiar or fetch animal
Not all of these components are found in every case, of course, and the nature of the witch may be such that he or she is not an “initiated” practitioner, but merely someone who has picked up magic throughout his or her life. This last circumstance is often found in places where magic is prevalently mixed with Christian practice, such as in the Appalachians (Granny magic) or among the Pennsylvania-Dutch (Pow-wow). Of course, in these cases, the magical worker is seldom called a “witch,” though sometimes the term “witch doctor” is used. It’s funny, to me anyway, to think about how a witch is “made” through initiation, much like someone can be “made” in the Mafia. But I digress…
Now let’s take a look at how witches were/are initiated according to specific folklore examples. From German Appalachian lore, there are stories of witches being initiated by obtaining a “Black Bible.” Scholar Gerald C. Milnes links this tome to the Key of Solomon, a grimoire with many reputed magical properties and a host of instructions on how to accomplish various magical tasks. One of his informants outlines the basic ritual thusly:
“Now say you’re going to be a witch. Okay, now I don’t know where you get ‘em, but they call e’m the little Black Bible. Take that little Bible and you go to a spring where it’s a-running from the sun…not towards the sun, away from the sun…Take that little Black Bible and go to that stream, strip off, and wash in there—take a bath in that water—and tell God you’re as free from him as the water on your body” (Signs, Cures, & Witchery, p. 162).
Milnes also describes a similar Appalachian rite of this nature involves taking dirt and shaking it off of a plate or dish while stating aloud that you are as clear of Jesus Christ as the dish is of dirt. Something more is added to this folklore:
“If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return. This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).
Such a “sacrifice” is not uncommon in witch-lore, with the physical offering being anything from a bit of blood to sign a pact to a body part like a finger or toe to—at the extreme end—the death of a loved one. This is a story commonly applied to many chthonic cult deities or spirits. Santa Muerte in the Latin-American magical traditions has also been accused of this sort of thing.
I outlined one type of witch-initiation culled from Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet in Blog Post 45, an initiation which involved a type of blood offering in exchange for the presentation of a magical imp. That version of initiation is only one of many methods presented by Davis. Here’s another one, from Wise County, Virginia:
“She [Granny, the narrator of the tale] began: ‘I’ve been told thet annuder way to git to be a witch is to fust go to the top of a high mountain, throw rocks at the moon and cuss God Almighty. Then, go find a spring where the water runs due east. Take a brand new knife and wash hit in the spring just as the sun rises. Say, “I want my soul to be as free from the savin’ blud of Jesus Christ as this knife is of sin.” Do this fer twelve days in a row. Effen on the thirteenth day the sun rises a drippin’ blud, hit’s a shore sign thet you’re becomin’ a witch’” (TSB, p. 11).
This variant is interesting, to me, because of a few elements. First, in this initiation, the spring must flow east (or towards the rising sun, though against the natural path of the sun), which seems to be different than in the Milnes version. In this initiation, too, the witch isn’t naked, but a new knife is washed in the stream while a renunciation is made. Finally, the bloody sunrise is a sign to the witch indicating acceptance or denial of the initiation—this feature is common in several variations of the rite. Davis also mentions another witch-making method which bears some of the trademarks of the process:
“He [the potential witch] then waited until Friday the thirteenth and returned to the spring as the morning turned gray over the ridge. He dipped some water from the spring with his ram’s horn and poured it over the pewter plate. He did this seven times and repeated the verses Liz [a witch] had taught him:
‘As I dip the water with a ram’s horn,
Cast me cruel with a heart of thorn,
As I now to the Devil do my soul lease…
May my black and evil soul be
Of Christian love and grace free
As this plate is of grease’ (TSB, p. 24).
This, to me, bears a strong similarity to the dirt-and-plate version of the ritual outlined in Signs, Cures, & Witchery.
I mentioned a ritual involving the reversed Lord’s Prayer from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore in my post the other day. Randolph discusses several other ways of becoming a witch in that work, some simple, and some more complicated:
- A woman could fire a silver bullet at the moon and “mutter two or three obscene old sayin’s” (p. 265)
- Repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon will do the trick
- Magical information can only passed across gender lines (man-to-woman or vice versa), or between partners united by sexual intercourse
- Widows were the best candidates for becoming witches, as they only had to learn “the Devil’s language,” whatever that might be.
Randolph goes on to say that the transformation of a person into a witch was a moving one, and often one with a morbid downside:
“I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).
In this case, the lost loved one is called a “Witch’s sixpence,” and is the “price” paid for the witch’s powers. This is not a universal belief, however, as many witches do not lose anyone close to them, and instead gain a new friend: the familiar, fetch, or imp. I’ll be doing something more extensive on this aspect of witchcraft in the future, so for now, I will just say that the familiar of the witch is a big subject with as much (often conflicting) information floating around about it as, well, the subject of initiation.
Finally, here are some examples of witch-induction from Kentucky. I’ve gleaned these from the book Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel and Lucy Thomas.
- To become a witch, go to a mountain top at dawn, shoot through a handkerchief at the rising sun, curse Jehovah three times, and own the Devil as master. When you shoot through the handkerchief, blood will fall from it (Mountains, #3773)
- To become a witch: the candidate goes with the Devil to the top of the highest hill at sunrise nine successive days and curses God; the Devil then places one hand on the candidate’s head and one on his feet, and receives the promise that all between his hands shall be devoted to his service. (Mountains, #3774)
- To become a witch, you shoot at the moon nine times with a silver bullet, cursing God each time (Mountains, #3775)
- You can become a witch by taking a spinning-wheel to the top of a hill, giving yourself up to the Devil, and waiting until the wheel begins to turn. The witches will then come to instruct you (Mountains, #3776)
These are similar to other folkloric initiation ceremonies already discussed, with the exception of the last one. The inclusion of the spinning wheel here is interesting to me, because it seems to be connected to an idea I find very witchy: the threads of Fate. It also reminds me of the Irish folktale “The Horned Women,” which is a story I glean much in the way of witchery from. In this case, the wheel’s turning is much like the rising of a bloody sun—it provides an omen that the witch has been accepted into the fold of witches before her.
So what do I make of all of this? Well, my own opinion (and I stress that it is only my take on the phenomenon of witch initiations, and no one else’s) is that each of these stories contains little pieces of initiatory lore, but always with a layer of sensationalism on top. These folk tales were intended to amuse and spark curiosity, after all, so it doesn’t surprise me that a small offering of blood, say on an new witch’s cingulum or a few drops in a cup of wine poured out to the god, gods, or spirits to which the witch is binding herself, has become exaggerated into the death of a family member or the withering of a limb. I think that initiations have a profound impact on those that undergo them, and that many of the common elements (the renunciation, the vow to serve a witch-god/goddess/devil/etc., and the granting of magical gifts like certain charms or familiars) are profound acts that may well belong in an initiation ceremony. Many of these features are also found in other initiation ceremonies and Traditional Witchcraft works, such as Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft or Nigel Jackson’s Call of the Horned Piper. I also think that some elements are overlooked in these sorts of folkloric imaginings of “witch-making”. For instance, one thing Sarah at Forest Grove mentioned in her post on initiations is that once one becomes a witch (or takes initiation), one finds “Growth and strength of abilities and experiences the more one practices and keeps their promises.” Most stories about witches seem to either end at the oaths taken upon becoming a witch, or to start in medias res of a witch’s career, showing a witch operating in one way, unchanging, until she is (inevitably) defeated. That makes for good storytelling, but perhaps not for so much good practical witchery. Witchcraft is wonderful in that the more you do it, the better it gets!
In the end, I like this topic, but I should say one more thing. I don’t think that a person-to-person initiation is necessary to practice witchcraft. If you’ve not taken an initiation, or don’t ever plan to, but find you are good at witchcraft anyway, keep doing it. You certainly don’t need anyone to validate your magic if it’s working, and if whatever forces you draw your magic from one day choose to initiate you, I have a feeling that much like Don Corleone, they’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.
My apologies if this post has been overlong, but I hope it’s useful to somebody out there. If nothing else, you’ve worked out your scrolling finger for today.
All the best, be well, and thanks for reading!
Stories about witches in the New World are plentiful. Early historical accounts of witch trials in America show that the belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout the colonies, though the degree to which each colony acted on those beliefs varied quite a bit (see Blog Post 3 and Blog Post 6 for some good background on these).
Often, it seems that the stories about witches that appeared in the New World were linked to Old World roots. Tales of witch-flights in the Appalachians parallel similar stories from the British Isles. German stories about witches casting spells on hunters’ guns show up in the Ozarks. In general, many of these stories can be broken up into a few key categories: how to become a witch, what witches do, and how to deal with witches.
How to Become a Witch
There are several different ways a person (usually a woman in folklore) becomes a witch. The act of initiation usually involves a pledge of some kind to a dark figure—usually the Devil, though I would argue that this “Devil” is something other than Satanic. But I digress, and will address this topic further in another post. In Vance Randolph’s excellent book, Ozark Magic & Folklore, he outlines how the mountain folk thought a witch was initiated:
“Some parts of the witches’ routine are well known, even to people who deny all acquaintance with such matters. The trick of reversing the Lord’s Prayer is a case in point… When a woman decides to become a witch, according to the fireside legends, she repairs to the family buryin’ ground at midnight, in the dark of the moon. Beginning with a verbal renunciation of the Christian religion, she swears to give herself body and soul to the Devil. She removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s tombstone, and delivers her body immediately to the Devil’s representative, that is, to the man who is inducting her into the ‘mystery.’ The sexual act completed, both parties repeat certain old sayin’s, terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead and end by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. This ceremony is supposed to be witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude, and must be repeated on three consecutive nights. After the first and second vows the candidate is still free to change her mind, but the third pledge is final. Henceforth the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity” (Randolph pp. 266-67)
In Appalachia, another witch-making process is described in Foxfire 2:
“JIM EDMONDS: I heard about a man—a witch said he’d make a witch out a’him if he followed him. They come to this door and th’witch said ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! In th’keyhole I go.’ He went on in and got all he wanted.
Th’old witch came and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! Out th’keyhole I go,’ and went on out.
Th’old man came and thought he’d do what th’other did and said, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho! Up th’high hole I go,’ and fell t’th’floor!
You just had t’pay no ‘tention t’witches. They can put a spell on you, but they can’t turn you into a witch if you pay them no mind.” (p. 355)
Hubert J. Davis, in his astoundingly good compilation of American witch-lore entitled The Silver Bullet, outlines another method of becoming a witch:
“’Fust, he’d [the potential witch] have to climb to the top of the highest knob on Witch Mountain and tote either a black cat or a black hen. Then, he’d have to find the Indian graveyard at the place nigh where two Indian trails cross. There, he’d have to draw a big ring in the dust ‘bout fifteen feet acrost, and dance in this circle each morning at break of day for eight mornings in a row. Then, on the ninth morning, he’d have to put one hand on the top of his head and ‘tother on the sole of his foot and say ‘ I give all betwixt my two hands to the Devil…Then the Devil comes…and nips him on the shoulder so hit bleeds. Then, the Devil tells him to wet his finger in the blood and sign an X to this pact…the Devil will same some magic words over the cat or the hen and change hit into an imp [another name for a familiar]” (Davis pp.14-15)
Various other methods of becoming a witch are recounted in these texts, too, including firing a gun nine times at a full moon, shooting at the rising sun and watching to see if it “bleeds,” or simply being taught the ways of the witch by a family member of the opposite sex. On this last point, I will note that the writers generally say cross-gender transfer of information is de rigeur, and just because one learns the spells and ways of a witch doesn’t make one an initiate of witchcraft.
I think I should point out that Sarah at Forest Grove did an amazing blog post on initiation recently which I recommend reading. Particularly because I think there are some pretty strong parallels between the folklore I’m presenting here and the steps towards initiation she mentions in her post. Let me know what you think, though.
What Witches Do
Having a witch in the neighborhood was a mix of good and bad for early settlers. On the one hand, witches tended to be able to make potions and counter-charms to help with curses and bad luck, among many other talents. But on the other hand, a local witch meant that there was a good chance your livestock would end up cursed or dead or both.
A common curse witches could use involved bewitching cattle so that they would not produce milk. Or rather, the only person who could milk the cow was the witch—she would usually use an axe-handle or an old rag tied to a fence post held over a bucket. She’d squeeze the object, and milk would pour out, while the cow’s udders slowly drained in a distant pasture. In one of the stories from The Silver Bullet called “No Milk on Saturday,” Hubert Davis recalls a story about a witch who put a spell on a cow so it would only give bloody milk. The cow’s owner consulted a witch doctor (see “Dealing with Wicked Witches” below) and figured out how to reverse the curse, eventually.
Witches also had the power to curse people. One of the main methods of performing such a curse involved the creation of a “witch ball.” This was a little ball made of black hair from a dog, cat, horse, etc. and wax, which was then thrown or “shot” at the target. If the victim didn’t get magical remediation immediately, the witch ball could lead to his or her death in fairly short order. From Ozark Magic & Folklore:
“I have been told of another Ozark witch who killed several of her enemies by means of a “hair ball” just a little bunch of black hair mixed with beeswax and rolled into a hard pellet. The old woman tossed this thing at the persons whom she wished to eliminate, and they fell dead a few hours later. It is said that the fatal hair ball is always found somewhere in the body of a person killed in this manner. In one case, according to my informant, the little ball of combings was taken from the dead girl’s mouth” (Randolph pp.271-272).
Some of the many other sinister tasks a witch might do included bewitching butter churns or soap tubs, causing them to fail to produce any butter or soap. They could also summon storms and blight crops, as well. In Randolph’s work, he mentions that one witch ruined a tomato crop by simply drawing a circle inscribed with a cross in the dirt, then spitting in the center.
Of course, the witch could also shapeshift, turning into her animal self easily and slipping off to Sabbaths, into the homes of innocent farmers and their families, or into the bed of a lover while her husband dozed dumbly in bed. Common shapes for witches included the ubiquitous black cat, the hare, mountain lions, and dogs. There are plenty of stories about a hunter being unable to shoot a particular animal until he manages to get a silver bullet in his gun. Then, he mortally wounds the beast, which gets away, and later hears that some local woman is lying in bed missing a hand or a foot—the very part shot off by the hunter!
I’ll refrain from offering too much commentary here on these ideas (though I will be revisiting them at a later date), but I would like to say that many of these common elements have a place in modern witchcraft, albeit not a literal one. Understanding these stories metaphorically, or understanding the basic kernels of practical witchcraft embedded in these tales, is an exercise worth the undertaking for an aspiring New World witch.
Dealing with Wicked Witches
Randolph makes a key point in his text on Ozark magic that many clairvoyants, mediums, card readers, conjure men, etc. get called “witches” by outsiders, but the Ozark resident made a distinction between them. Witches were almost always nefarious in purpose, according to Randolph, though he himself revealed that out of nearly two dozen witches he’d interviewed, almost twenty of them reported working against evil rather than for it.
In the Old World, these counter-cursing magical folk were often known as fairy doctors, cunning folk, or pellars. In the New World, these names sometimes surface, but just as often, they are called witch doctors or conjure folk (which is confusing when you realize that hoodoo and witchcraft cross cultural boundaries in many places, and thus this term may have had different meanings to different people). In a Works Project Administration report about Tennessee, the folklorist makes the following observation: “Cunjur [sic] doctors will sell you ‘hands’ or ‘tobies’ enabling you to detect witches and ward off their spells” (Ch. 14, par. 19). Here, the line between hoodoo (or “cunjur”) and what is typically thought of as European witchcraft is heavily blurred, and the magic of one is used to affect the magic of the other.
Undoing the harm caused by a witch could involve a number of different techniques. In Hubert Davis’s work, he talks about how the unfortunate farmer with the bloody milk dealt with his problem:
“Steve milked his cow, brought the milk into the cabin and put it in a big flat pan. Then, he went out on a ridge and cut three birch withes and tied them together. He built a big fire under the pan of milk and, as it boiled, he flailed as much milk as he could out of the pan into the fire with the birch withes. As the milk burned with a blue-green flame, Steve saw Granny Lotz’s face in the flames and he knew that it was indeed she who had witched the cow” (Davis p.35)
In the case of a bewitched butter churn, placing a piece of silver under the cursed object would stop the magic sometimes, or burning some of the butter with hot coals would do the trick too. Other curse-breaking methods included using witch bottles to reverse a curse and shooting an image of the witch with a silver bullet. This last method could theoretically kill the witch, and often was performed in the nick of time (at least as far as the folklore goes), just before a witch could complete a particularly nasty curse. Other methods of removing a witch’s curse involved “scoring her” above her eyes, or making her bleed on her forehead. If that happened, or if you could make her see her own blood in some cases, her powers would be broken.
Another common enchantment involved the bewitching of a hunter’s gun. A hunter who normally did well would suddenly find he couldn’t hit a thing he aimed at. In many cases, an elaborate ritual had to be performed to remove such an bewitchment. As Foxfire informant Jim Edmonds relates:
“Old Billy Jesse claimed he was a witch. Ol’Gran’daddy couldn’t shoot a thing. Somebody put a spell on his gun. He went over to Billy Jesse t’take th’spell off. He lived in what they call Bitter Mountain Cove. Told him he wanted him t’take th’spell off him. Somebody had witched his gun.
So Billy loaded that gun and went t’every corner of th’house and shot sayin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’ Run t’every corner and shot—never did load it but once—hollerin’, ‘Hurrah fer th’Devil!’
Billy then said, ‘Now th’next thing you will see will be a great covey of quail. Now don’t you shoot at nothin’. Then th’next thing you see will be a big buck. You can kill him. Just shoot nothin’ else.
Gran’daddy done just like he told him, and here come a big drove a’birds. He just held still. He went on and there was this big ol’ buck. Shot and killed him. Th’spell was off his gun.” (Foxfire 2, p.333)
All of this folklore may just be storytelling. Or it may be a way of hiding secrets in plain sight. Or it may be to-the-letter true, for all I know. But at the very least, I know that I enjoy these stories. And personally, I get a lot out of them that isn’t just related to campfire entertainment. Though I don’t mind mixing s’mores and witchcraft, should the occasion call for it.
Okay, a long post today, but hopefully a useful one! Thanks for sticking with it, and as always, thanks for reading!