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:
- “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:
- 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.”
- 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,
Since we just passed that high holy day of good fortune, January 1st, luck has been on my mind. We’ve certainly discussed a lot of tradiitons associated with the New Year and good luck before, so this isn’t going to be a particularly in-depth post, but I had the tickling little idea in my head that it might be interesting to round up a number of the different ways in which people “eat their luck,” especially in conjuction with New Year’s Day (be it the January date or an alternative annual commemoration, such as Chinese New Year). I, of course, eat my black-eyed peas every year for good fortune and health in the coming twelvemonth, but since I’ve covered that before, I’ll skip it here and instead start with some of the other staples from the table of Fortuna.
I’ve covered cakes more generally in a separate post, but I wanted to mention here the typical Epiphany treat for Mexican and Mexican American families, the rosca de los reyes (or Kings’ Bread, after the three wisemen/kings who visited Jesus on Epiphany according to some Christian lore). The cake would include a number of fruits, nuts, and spices, all of which had connotations of prosperity. According to the book Mexican-American Folklore, “The bread is formed into a ring resembling a crown, and baked into it are a tiny doll representing the Baby Jesus, along with whole almonds and coins…Anyone who weats a piece of the bread with a coin or almond in it is assured of good luck for the coming year; the finder of the Baby Jesus is expected to give a party for the group on the Feast of Candelaria, February 2nd” (p.219).
Cakes also show up in some Gypsy/Romany lore, with a bit more of an emphasis on luck in love. According to A Romany Tapestry, by Michael Hoadley, Gypsy girls would indicate their approval of a potential love-match by tossing him a cake with a coin inside over a hedge (p. 33).
Pork & Cabbage
When I moved to Pennsylvania this past year, I knew I was entering the heart of a highly folk-oriented culture, and during the holiday season a number of folk traditions became near and dear to me. One new tradition we incorporated into our New Year’s festivities was the eating of pork and sauerkraut (athough we actually did roasted cabbage lightly treated with lemon juice, so it wasn’t completely traditional). The lore surrounding the consumption of these dishes on New Year’s in Pennsylvania Dutch culture ties to the need for forward momentum and prosperity in the coming year. According to the American Folklife Center, “Some traditional foods include pork, because the hog roots forward, symbolic of progress (chicken or other fowl is avoided because it scratches backwards).” Don Yoder, the dean of PA-German folklore, devotes an entire chapter to the subject in his book, Discovering American Folklife.
The tradition of eating pork and sauerkraut (or some other variant cabbage dish) has imbued New Year’s with a connection to pigs beyond the handed-down menus of ethnic groups. Jack Santino, in his classic holiday survey All Around the Year, mentions a fabricated event called the Hungry Hog Society dinner, which features a “hog cake” designed to fill and warm those who eat it, and leave them feeling fat and happy as hogs. The holiday, which was developed by the Blaho family of Ohio, now also include pig-shaped cookies and other pig memorabilia as well (p. 27-29). Cabbage can also be substituted for collard greens (at least as far as symbolism goes), in Appalachian areas.
We know about black-eyed peas (I think, anyway; I’m fairly sure we covered it in our episode on New Year’s traditions). The culinary site Epicurious also notes that other beans and legumes carry a fair load of luck for those who consume them on New Year’s Day. “Legumes including beans, peas, and lentils are also symbolic of money. Their small, seedlike appearance resembles coins that swell when cooked so they are consumed with financial rewards in mind. In Italy, it’s customary to eat cotechino con lenticchie or sausages and green lentils, just after midnight.” Pork shows up again, of course. The site also lists rice as a popular accompaniment to the protein-laden lucky dishes as they have a similar symbolic association with money and abundance (hence the “lucky green rice” sometimes found in curio shops).
In Chinese cooking traditions, as well as some other Asian ones, the use of noodles provides an extra boost of luck and longevity to those who consume them. Frequently noodles are served for birthdays, anniversaries, or other festivals marking passages of time. According an article on the Washington Post website, “noodle dishes are a staple for birthdays and Chinese New Year because they signify a long life for whoever is eating them — as long as the noodles are not cut short. The longer they are, the better.” Chinese lore also ascribes longevity to other foods, such as peaches (I won’t be making any dishes that combine noodles and peaches anytime soon, though, if you’re wondering).
There are plenty of other interesting beliefs about food and luck which are not as widely distributed as the ones noted above. A small potpourri of interesting culinary superstitions includes:
- It is bad luck to eat peanuts in the dressing rooms of theaters. (Lynell Burns from Muriel Hite) (“Beliefs of New Mexico,” James Penrod, 182).
- At automobile races it is unlucky to eat peanuts in the pits. (Florine Hop- kins from Monty Owens) (“Beliefs of New Mexico,” James Penrod, 183)
- Some believe that the luckiest food on New Year’s is whatever you have on hand, so long as your pantry is fully stocked. An English proverb states “Empty pokets or an empty cupboard portend a year of poverty” (The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions, by Opie & Tatem, p. 295).
- According to an article in the 2009-2010 Witches’ Almanac, when you make hot chocolate you should whisk it until it’s nice and foamy, then sever, because “Montezuma belived the foam contained the spirit of a god” (p. 42).
These are hardly extensive or even cursory examinations of the many, many foodways associated with luck and good fortune. Do you have food traditions related to luck in your family? If so, I’d be very interested to hear them!
Thanks for reading,
I’ve had several people recommend a book to me called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It’s a book that looks at the various ways in which people give and receive love. It gets into a lot of psychology and interpersonal communication theories, but in a nutshell it assumes that people tend to give or receive affection via physical touch, loving words, acts of kindness or service, quality time, or gifts. I am definitely a gift-giver when it comes to expressing my feelings—I will work for weeks to handcraft something for someone I care about. When my lovely wife and I were courting, I put hundreds of sticky notes all over her apartment with love messages so that she would constantly find them for months and months afterwords. Even when we ship products out of our Etsy shop, I tend to add layers of Spanish moss to the packing material, as well as little lagniappe touches to the shipment to make it feel magical for the person who opens the box. None of this is to brag, but simply to frame the point that giving gifts is a major part of my connection to others.
Giving gifts has been an important aspect of human relationships for a very lnog time. The Ancient Roman patronage system essentially operated on a large-scale gifting economy. In North America, giving gifts with a magical bent appears time and again. A number of superstitions and rituals surround the acts of gifting and receiving gifts. Possibly one of the gifts most beset by magical rules is the knife:
- One must not give a friend a knife or other sharp instrument, as it “cuts love.” (Price 34).
- “Giving a knife as a gift is bad luck as it cuts the friendship” (Hines 12).
- A present of knives will break the friendship between you (the giver) and the recipient of the gift. (Hines 13)
- No hillman would think of giving a steel blade to a friend such a gift is sure to sever their friendship (Randolph 58).
The ‘hillman’described in the last point would have been obliged to pay for a knife if he received it as a gift, in order to abate any potential tragedies:
Whenever a knife changes hands, it must be paid for, even if the sum is merely nominal. I have seen a salesman, a graduate of the University of Missouri, present his son with a valuable hunting knife but he never let it out of his hand till the boy had given him a penny (Randolph 58).
This is a sentiment I’ve seen echoed through other traditions as well, including some Wiccan circles and their beliefs about gifting athames. I have also seen contrary points, insisting that Wiccan ritual blades must never be purchased, but only gifted.
Knives, however, are only scratching the surface of the myriad taboos, beliefs, and customs surrounding giving and receiving. In the following paragraphs, I hope to lay out some of these traditions (though certainly not all of them… The concept of Christmas and birthday gifts is well outside the scope of a single survey article, for example, and the topic is much larger than a 2,000 word synopsis could handle). What I hope that you will see is the sheer humanity of this process. People seem to develop an entire language around gifting (see the Victorians and their flowers, for example), and understanding that language, especially within a magical context, expands the conversation on American folk magic immensely.
Since we’ve started in the domestic realm with knives, let’s continue in that vein. In the Ozarks, even very small gifts can have great significance:
A button received as a gift is always lucky, no matter what the color. Years ago, many an Ozark girl collectedbuttons from her friends and strung them together into a sort of necklace called a charm string. A charm string not only brought good fortune to the owner but also served as a sort of memory book for women who could not read one button recalled a beloved aunt, another a friend’s wedding, still another a dance or a quilting party or an apple-peelin’ or some other pleasant occasion. (Randolph 61)
These little tokens often represent a greater whole. In the example Randolph cites the ‘memory book’ aspect of the charm pushes it out of the realm of luck and into a broader realm of personal narrative. It tells the story of where the girl has been. The luck may then be a cumulative blessing from all those around her, an assembly of good wishes designed to attract further goodness into her life. Similarly, some fairly small gifts can act as predictors or insurance of future blessings, as in these two examples from Louisiana:
- A midwife should plant a flower for a baby at its birth.
- It is good luck for visitors to place a silver coin in a baby’s hand (Roberts 150).
Here we see blessings which ensure growth and health (the flower) and insurance against poverty (the coin) passed onto a baby, with the hopes that the child will grow and prosper in the future.
Of course, there are just as many taboos on gifting as there are joyous customs. As we saw with knives, some of those can be firmly established and nigh universal at times. Let’s look at another domestic commonplace with strong taboos:
- Never borrow salt or you will have bad luck (Hines 12).
- Never return salt that has been borrowed (Roberts 178)
Why salt? In my family, we frequently gave salt as a component of a new house blessing for people we knew, which as I understood it derived from Polish traditions (after investigating this a bit, I’m reasonably sure this was adopted from a similar Jewish custom picked up by my family in the area on the border between Lithuania and Poland). We give a jar of salt with some bread and a penny in it, ‘So that the family may never be hungry (bread), never be poor (penny), and their lives may never lack flavor (salt).” The salt, then, can be seen as the experience and cumulative personality of the family, its seasoning or flavor which makes it distinct. Borrowing someone else’s flavor would, in essence, give them power over you, especially when the salt is returned carrying traces of your own eau de familie. It could also be that by taking one family’s wisdom and experience, then returning it, you set off a disruptive cycle whereby your two families will be struggling to rebalance power for a long time, which definitely sounds like bad luck. A similar Louisiana superstition says ‘Don’t give spades, etc., to your neighbors; you will have a fuss if you do (Roberts 174). In that case, the tool is symbolic of a person’s work and labor, and to lend it out cheaply doesn’t bode well for anyone (and makes me think of Homer Simpson borrowing essentially every tool in Ned Flanders’ garage…a very bad neighbor).
The issue of when a gift is given can also impact its significance and magical qualities. While I will avoid holidays and the like here, there are plenty of other occasions when gift-giving is an expectation, such as at baby showers:
- At a baby shower, the giver of the seventh gift to be unwrapped will be the next to have a baby (Hines 14).
In this example, the gift-giver receives the magical benefit of a prediction. I suppose that if you are not in the market to start a family, this superstition could seem more like a taboo than a blessing. Another key occasion for giving gifts is after a new family moves into a new home. I mentioned my family’s custom for making a house-blessing from my Polish roots, but it turns out that the general concept of the house-warming may come from the other side of my family tree in the British Isles. The hint of magic behind this tradition comes from the original house-warming present, which actually served to warm a new home:
“As poet John Greenleaf Whittier noted…’The Irish who settled here about the year 1720, they brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies.’…The Scots [who were also early settlers in America, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of Appalachia]…believed in ‘brownies,’ a more subdued version of the leprechaun. Brownies lived in the kitchen fireplace, and the belief was that the owners of the house had a responsibility to always keep these fairy-creatures warm by keeping a constant fire in the hearth. The Yankees noted that Scots-Americans, when moving from one house to another, would always remove burning embers from the old house to the new, to provide a warm home for the brownies that would move in right along with the family. This was how the tradition of ‘house-warmings’ started” (Cahill 32).
I tend to think this is a bit of fancy on Cahill’s part, and that the giving of gifts to new homeowners is something much older and less literal than a brownie’s ‘house-warming,’ but I would be completely unsurprised to find that the actual practice of moving hearth coals to entice fairy-beings to move houses exists in the Old World or the New.
Marriage also features a number of gift-giving customs, some with superstitious components. For example, in Kansas groups of Russian-German emigrants pin money to the bridal skirt as a way of blessing the bride and groom with prosperity. Additionally, a fun game is made of the best man’s gift, and the “custom of some young buck’s stealing the shoe of the bride. The best man had to redeem the shoe with cash, which went into the household fund” (Tallman 227-8). The best man might contribute some or all of the money, with the remainder raised by good-natured begging of the wedding guests.
A number of tales from Appalachia and New England, including stories from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet and other collections of supernatural American folklore, indicate that magical gifts have particular rules when it comes to witches. For example, a witch might offer a very low price for some livestock or sundries she fancies from a local homestead. If she is refused the gift—which is all such a lowballed agreement could be seen as—she curses whatever it is she wanted, rendering it useless to the family that has it. Often she will curse a cow so it won’t produce milk, or she might even curse an entire herd of pigs or sheep rather than just the one she wanted. On the flip-side, a witch should never be given a present of anything from the household, or she could use it to harm those who dwell within. One story features a housewife who loans the local witch-woman a cup of sugar in a neighborly—if cautious—manner, only to find her butter won’t come when she churns it afterwords. She summons a local witch-doctor who takes a piece of hot silver and drops it in the churn, then spills cream on the fire and whips a pan of the scalded dairy until they hear shrieks from the direction of the witch-woman’s home. She, of course, suffers great pains and bears the marks of a whipping and burning the next day, and everyone knows just what’s what. Oh, and the butter is fine after that, too, of course.
Not all witches or magical practitioners are conniving and dangerous when it comes time to share the wealth, though. For example, many witch-doctors and conjurers in the Southern Mountains will not take direct payment for their work, but only offers of gifts made in-kind, such as foodstuffs, clothing, or other necessities. Vance Randloph noted that one witch woman in the Ozarks did not ask a fee for her work, but would accept such donations: “This woman makes no charge for her services, but if somebody offers her a present, such as a new dress or a side of bacon, she seldom refuses the gift” (Randolph 126).
Lest you think all these magical gifting traditions are limited to the realm of humanity, here’s a bit of lore from John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to show otherwise:
A GOOD METHOD OF DESTROYING RATS AND MICE.
Every time you bring grain into your barn, you must, in putting down the three first sheaves, repeat the following words: “Rats and mice, these three sheaves I give to you, in order that you may not destroy any of my wheat.” The name of the kind of grain must also be mentioned. (Hohman 70).
Here we see the old idea of “one for the rabbit, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to sow” extended from nursery rhyme to magical practice. Giving the animals a bit of the household bounty seems to be a way to stave off any thievery on their part, at least in this example.
Finally, I can’t help but offer up a humorous story from Maryland which shows animals getting in on the gift-giving action:
It seems that Mrs. Morison’s uncle and her father went fishing one time and as always they carried their [moonshine] jug along. They came to this water moccasin who was just about ready to swallow a frog. So Mrs. Morison’s father took a forked stick and clamped it down over the snake’s head and took it [the frog] away ‘cause they wanted to use it for bait.
Well, that snake looked so darn downhearted that they gave him a drink of moonshine, and off he went. So they went on with their fishing and about an hour later one of them felt a tug on his leg. He looked down and there was that snake back with another frog. All I can say is, that must have been awful good moonshine” (Carey 31).
I’m not sure if the ‘magic’ in that tale is so much in the moonshine or the moccasin, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
I’m sure there are many other magical giving traditions I’m missing here, so if you have any you want to share, please do!
Thanks for reading,
- Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
- Carey, George G. Maryland Folklore (Tidewater Pub.: 1989).
- Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, & Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Pub.: 1975).
- Hines, Donald M. “Superstitions from Oregon,” Western Folklore, Jan. 1965.
- Hohman, John George. The Long-Lost Friend (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Price, Sadie. “Kentucky Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Jan-Mar 1901.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover: 1964).
- Roberts, Hilda. “Louisiana Superstitions,” Journal of American Folklore, Apr-Jun 1927.
- Tallman, Marjorie. Dictionary of American Folklore (Philosophical Library, NYC: 1959).
If you’ve been following us on Twitter, you know we’ve passed some milestones recently and have been thinking of fun ways to celebrate. So what are we excited about?
- We just passed 666 followers on Twitter. Who doesn’t get excited about nefarious numbers?
- We’ve received over 100 reviews on iTunes, making us one of the top-reviewed magical/pagan shows there. Can we just say how much y’all rock for that?!?
- We’re entering our 4th season, which means we’ve got three years of New World Witchery under our belts!
- It’s a new year! Lucky 2013! What’s not to celebrate about that?!?
- Laine recently taught my wife and I how to play Cards Against Humanity. It’s sort of the cherry on the sundae of celebration we’ve got going on.
With all that cause for excitement, we thought it would be high time for a contest. We’re going to have a somewhat broader focus this year, and hopefully spend some time looking at spiritual and magical paths from places across the country, so in order to do that, we want some of your lore and magic! We’ve done this before for holiday lore, but this time around we want lore related to the following categories:
- Love (example: “When your nose itches, someone wants to kiss you”)
- Luck (example: “Babies born at 12:12 on 12/12/12 are considered extra lucky”)
- Money (example: “An itch in your left palm means money’s coming your way soon”)
- Health & Healing (example: “Putting a wad of chewing tobacco on a bee sting will stop the pain and heal it faster”)
- Fortune-telling/Predicting the Future (example: “Monday’s child is fair of face…”)
- Protection from Harm: (example: “Putting a piece of lightning-struck wood in your rafters will prevent storm damage and fires”)
Now, obviously, don’t use any of the ones from that list, but otherwise, it’s pretty much fair game what you want to send in. Each bit of lore gets you an entry in the contest. Just make sure that if you send multiple entries in the same email, you number them separately (i.e. in a numbered list, if possible).
When you do send your entry in, please use the following format guide:
[Name – preferably one we can use in the show, but let us know if you’d rather us keep it anonymous]
[Region/Location – as localized as possible; we don’t need an address, but “Southern Illinois” or “Foothills of the Rockies” would be lovely]
[Ethnic/Cultural Association – if applicable; such as “Italian-American” or “based on something my Lakota Sioux grandmother told me”]
[Type of Lore – love, luck, money, etc.]
[Your bit of lore]
So a sample entry might look like this:
Nigel Aloysius Gimmelschtump (but call me “Smackdown” on the show, please)
Something from my German-English grandfather’s family
“You should always hold on to the first dollar you make at any job. As long as you have it, you cannot be fired from that job.”
That might seem a little complicated, but it will be enormously helpful if you can follow that format. And, hey, free contest, right? Also, my apologies to Nigel Aloysius Gimmeschtump, wherever he may be. And to anyone calling themselves “Smackdown,” for any reason at all.
So what’s in it for you? Good question! Well, we’re putting together three prizes, based on three areas of North American folk magic:
- The Braucher Basket – featuring a copy of Hex & Spellwork by Karl Herr, a copy of the new translation of The Long Lost Friend by Daniel Harms, a small folio of hand-written/painted charms, and a few other little goodies.
- Granny’s Gunny-Sack – featuring a copy of Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph, a copy of The Candle & the Crossroads by Orion Foxwood, and a little sack full of curios, herbs, and magical charms from the Appalachians.
- The Hoodoo Hamper – featuring Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic by Catherine Yronwode, The Master Book of Candle Burning by Henri Gamache, a candle or two, a lucky rabbit’s foot, and a selection of oils from our Compass & Key Apothecary.
See? Good stuff! Send us a couple of emails and you could win one of these awesome prizes! Just because I’m nitpicking, here are some other rules though:
- You can only win one prize. If your name comes up after you’ve already won once, we’ll pull another name for the next prize. Let’s not get greedy.
- No entering under multiple names/emails. If we catch you doing that, you get no prizes. Possibly we will also curse you. Or sell your name to telemarketers. Sort of the same thing.
- While we are looking primarily for North American lore, we welcome lore from around the world as well.
This contest is going to have a deadline of March 31st 2013, so please get your entries in by then!
Thank you all so much for three great years of New World Witchery! We love y’all to bits and pieces, so good luck in the contest!
All the best, and thanks for reading & listening,
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”
In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.
Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:
- To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
- You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
- The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay. Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).
In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.” What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page: “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.” Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.
After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:
- TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
- To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
- To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
- As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
- If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
- To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)
Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.
With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:
- Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
- The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
- When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
- A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
- Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
- “Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)
Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).
Other methods for using bones as magical curios:
- A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
- Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
- Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
- You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
- Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)
Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one: the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:
To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).
Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:
“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).
I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.
With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!
Thanks as always for reading!
REFERENCES & SOURCES
- Anderson, Jeffery D. Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook. (Greenwood Press, 2008).
- Artisson, Robin. “The Toad Bone Treatise.” Self-published (2008).
- Brown, Michael H., Ed.S. “The Bone Game: A Native American Ritual for Developing Personal Power or Tribal Consciousness.” Journal of Experiential Education (1990).
- Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Book of Gypsy Magic: Travelers’ Stories, Spells & Healings. (Weiser, 2010).
- Chumbley, Andrew. “The Leaper Between: An Historical Study of the Toad-bone Amulet.” The Cauldron (UK) (2001).
- Davies, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. (Jonathan Davis Publishers, 1975).
- Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore. (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1935).
- Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
- Hoadley, Michael. A Romany Tapestry. (Capall-Bann, 2001).
- Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Howard, James H. “The Akira Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle.” Plains Anthropologist. (Plains Anthropological Soc., 1974).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
- Knab, Timothy. The War of the Witches: A Journey into the Otherworld of Contemporary Aztecs. (Westview Press, 1997).
- Martin, Kameelah L. “Conjuring Moments & Other Such Hoodoo: African American Women & Spirit Work.” Dissertation. Dept. of English, Florida State Univ. (2006).
- McAtee, W. L. “Odds and Ends of North American Folklore on Birds.” Midwest Folklore. (Indiana UP, 1955).
- Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
- Poenna, Carlos G. The Yoruba Domino Oracle. (Red Wheel Weiser, 2000).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
- Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).
- —. Throwing the Bones. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2012).
I recently helped out on a project for a local folklorist looking for information on broom lore, and wound up with easily twenty pages of notes on the topic from a wide variety of sources. I thought that today I would share a few of the commonly held beliefs regarding brooms, as well as look at some of the most unusual practices surrounding this wonderful household item.
Of course there are many instances of witches riding broomsticks in art and media, but of course brooms were only one of the preferred methods for nocturnal transportation to Sabbat rites. Other mounts included pitchforks, stangs, goats, and eggshells (and even the occasional human being fitted with a magical bridle, in the cases of alleged ‘hag-riding’) (The Historical Dictionary of Witchcraft, Bailey: 23-4). Brooms served magical folk for more than hobby-horses and transport, though. In European culture, broom magic goes back at least as far as Ancient Rome. In that culture, the broom’s sweeping function translated into a purification rite. Eli Edward Burriss notes in his Taboo, Magic, Spirits that the Romans believed a new baby and its mother were in danger of being tormented by woodland spirits—particularly one called Silvanus—and goes on to quote St. Augustine about a three-part, three-tool ritual in which several spirits were invoked to provide protection. Let’s see what the good saint himself says on the subject (from Burriss’ book, and his translation of Augustine):
‘. . . After the birth of the child, three protecting divinities are summoned lest the god Silvanus enter during the night and harass mother and child; and to give tokens of those guardian divinities three men by night surround the threshold of the house and first strike it with an ax and a pestle; then they sweep it off with a broom, that, by giving these signs of worship, the god Silvanus may be kept from entering. For trees are not cut nor pruned without iron; nor is spelt powdered without a pestle; nor is grain piled up without a broom. Now from these three objects are named three divinities: Intercidona from the intercisio of the ax; Pilumnus from the pilum; Deverra from the sweeping (verrere) of the broom; and by the protection of these divinities new-born babies are preserved against the violence of Silvanus.’ (Burriss 28)
Burriss goes on to note that the iron in several of the implements provide the expected protection from evil, but the ceremonial sweeping is what actually drives away the wicked spirit. He also notes that Sir James Frazer observed something similar in his book The Golden Bough, which included sweeping salt out of a dwelling and disposing of it in a churchyard to remove any vengeful souls of the dead from the premises (Frazer 144, Burriss 35). Charles Leland noted that Gypsies used broom straws in spells to protect a mother during childbirth (echoing St. Augustine’s writings) and also says that Romanian Gypsies would use iron and broomstraws interchangeably as protective wards placed beneath pillows at night (Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling, Leland: 47-48, 136).
In the New World, brooms retain much of their old purifying & protective power, but also begin to adopt new abilities within the new culture. African American folk practices show a strong connection to brooms and domestic bonds. African American cultural tradition (as well as other cultures) have a wedding practice of “jumping the broom” to seal the ceremony. It’s common enough that in 2011 a romantic comedy film about an African American wedding was entitled Jumping the Broom. This connection to marriage and the household also involves a number of superstitions and folk spells centered on weddings and love in association with brooms. Here’s a short collection of such beliefs:
From Harry M. Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams County, Illinois
- 9614. To sweep under the feet of someone sitting on a table signifies that person will marry before the year ends.
- 9615. Do not let anyone sweep entirely around the chair on which you are sitting; you will remain single seven years longer.
- 9616. The person under whose chair you sweep will marry once say some, twice say others — soon after his or her mate dies.
- 9617. If you sweep your own feet, you will never get married.
- 9618. Whoever breaks a broom handle will soon break someone’s heart.
- 9619. For luck in love, a woman may wet the bushy part of her broom and sprinkle the water about the house.
- 9935. The significance of an engaged girl dropping a broom is as follows: if the handle points to the north, she or her fiancee will break the engagement; if to the south, she will marry him and live a happy life.
- 10129. It is very unlucky for a bride to see a broom on her wedding day before she goes to church.
From Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lindsey Thomas
- 1614. If you let some one sweep under your feet, you will never be married.
- 1615. If you sweep your feet with a broom, you will never be married.
- 1619. If the broom falls across the doorway, someone will call.
- 1620. If two people sweep a floor together, they may expect bad luck.
- 1621. If you sweep after dark, you will bring sorrow to your heart.
- 1625. If you sweep the house after the sun goes down, you may expect a man caller.
I should note that these are only a very small handful of the superstitions associated with brooms in these two texts. Hyatt’s book alone has easily five hundred individual entries featuring various examples of broom magic and lore.
Of course, the broom’s protective power and its association with witches also become increasingly complex in the New World. Many sources (Hyatt, Thomas, Randolph, Puckett, etc.) all say that witches will not cross over a broom, and so it can be a powerful protective charm to put one across your doorway. Similarly, one could reverse a jinx or witchcraft by stepping backwards over a broom. Brooms can also be a component of spells to reverse the evil eye, according to curandero lore:
A treatment for mal ojo (the evil eye) – “She got some kind of herb from the garden. I don’t know what kind it was. She made signs of the cross with the herb by his head and all over his body, and his feet. All this time she was saying something in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand what it was. Then she turned him over and did the same thing on the other side. She got an egg and did the same thing with the egg, holding the egg and making signs of the cross all the way down his body and across. She told me to get a cup with some water. She cracked open the egg and put it in the water in the cup. Then she had me get a broom straw, which she cut, and made a little sign of the cross that she put on top of the egg. She told me to put the egg under his crib at night while he slept, under his head, and the next day he would be O.K. I looked at the egg the next day, and, my God, it was cooked! I was so surprised! The yolk and the white were hard and cooked like a hard-boiled egg. She told me to bring the egg to her and she could tell if it was a man or woman who had done it. If the cross went one way it was a male, and if it went the other way it was a female” (“Mexican American Folk Disease,” Keith Neighbors, Western Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1969): 254).
Here again we have a connection to magical protection, especially for children, much as we saw in the European lore. Brooms can also cure physical ailments, like warts, as well.
One of the most interesting themes in broom lore has to do with relocating a household. If one is moving, for example, one should not take the old broom along. Likewise, when you are moving, you should break your old broom and burn it before leaving the house. The superstitious believe that a new broom should be one for the first things you bring into a new home:
- 11288. You will be lucky, if before moving out of the old house you send a broom and a loaf of bread to your new home.
- 11289. To have luck in the new house, take in the broom and a loaf of bread before anything else; the broom first, the bread next. Then sweep with the broom.
- 11290. A broom and a dish pan should be the first things taken into your new home for luck.
- 11291. A broom and a dish towel should be the first things taken into your new home for luck.
- 11292. The woman who takes a broom and a dust pan into her new home first will always be lucky there. (Folklore of Adams County, Hyatt)
A number of superstitions also note that the first thing a person does in his or her new home should be to sweep it with a broom, then throw the ashes out the door to ensure that all bad luck is swept clean of the house before anyone sleeps there. Likewise, a new home can be blessed with good luck by throwing a broom over it.
While there’s much, much more that could be said on the topic of brooms, I’ll finish up today with a small grab-bag of the more unusual beliefs and practices involving these wonderful magical tools:
- If a bunch of straw comes out of a broom when sweeping, name it and place it over the door, and the person named will call (“Kentucky Folk-lore,” Sadie F. Price, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 14, No. 52 (Jan. – Mar., 1901), 34).
- 12368. If you sweep on New Year’s Day, your house will be dirty all year; but if you leave the dirt in a pile on the floor until the next day, clean all year.
- 12369. To sweep on Monday causes bad luck; all week say some.
- 12370. The bad luck that comes from sweeping on Monday can be warded off by keeping the dirt in the house until the following day.
- 12371. The bad luck that comes from sweeping on Monday can be warded off by sprinkling salt over the dirt and burning it.
- 12372. Sweep on Monday and you are sweeping away all your company that week. (previous five from Hyatt)
- To draw your enemies to you (so that you may know who they are), clean out your stove, all the time keeping your wish in your mind, but don’t speak it. Then break a stick into four pieces, all of them the Same length, and pin them together in the middle like this and set them afire in the middle. Then go to the four corners of the room, with your wish in your heart and mind, (but don’t say it), and sprinkle salt. Then, when you see your enemies coming, go outside your door and throw your broom down careless and step over it into the house and talk to them across it and they can’t come in, but they can’t help from coming to your gate. (“Hoodoo in America,” Hurston: 393).
- It is bad luck to sweep the dirt out of a house at night; sweep it up into a corner and sweep out in the daytime. If obliged to sweep it out at night, take a coal of fire and throw it first in front of you (“Superstitions & Beliefs of Central Georgia,” Roland Steiner, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 12, No. 47 (Oct. – Dec., 1899), pp. 261-271).
- To make a guest leave, place a broom upside down behind the door (Puckett 317).
- If a very young child, without being told, picks up a broom and starts sweeping the house, you might as well prepare for a visitor, the idea apparently being that an innocent child can see things in the future that grown-ups cannot, and knows that the house must be tidied up for the company. (Puckett 444).
And just for fun, you should listen to blues legend Robert Johnson singing “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.”
Some of our own NWW posts which have featured other broom lore:
So there’s my brief take on magical brooms. The short, sweet version is that they’re not just for riding up to unholy Sabbats upon anymore. I hope this information is useful to you! Until next time, thanks for reading!
Hi all! No, this is not a shameless effort to harvest as many birthday wishes as I can, but today happens to be my birthday and I remembered a bit of magical lore that says it is particularly good luck to receive white flowers on one’s birthday. That got me to thinking about some of the other fun birthday folklore and little bits of magic, and so I thought I’d do a little compilation post on the topic. Some of this has likely been covered in our show on New Year’s, Anniversaries, & Birthdays, but I think I’ll get into some new material, too, so I hope you enjoy!
Starting with probably the most unpleasant aspect of birthday folklore, the birthday spanking, let’s look at a fairly detailed explanation of this superstition, which I am pulling from Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lindsey Thomas:
“On a child’s birthday, he should receive a blow with a switch or other instrument of pain for each year of his life. Each blow should be accompanied by the pronouncing of one line of the following or a similar incantation, adapted to fit the age of the child:
One to live on;
One to grow on ;
One to eat on;
One to be happy on;
One to get married on” (#96)
Building on the “instrument of pain” idea, Thomas also records this rather morbid tidbit:
“If you let your birthday pass without thinking of it, you will die before the next birthday” (Thomas #2854)
Here are several bits of birthday lore in the form of admonitions about what not to do on your birthday, from Europe and the Caucasus regions:
- One should not celebrate one’s birthday before the actual date of one’s birth. It will bring bad luck.
- It is bad luck to be wished a happy birthday if one is over the age of 40 (instead, many people will have parties on their ‘name day’ instead, which is the feast day of the Saint with whom they share a name).
- If you stumble with your right leg, and your birthday is an odd day, it is good luck. If you stumble with the left and your birthday is an even day, it is good luck. But stumbling with the wrong combination (right leg, even day or left leg, odd day) is very bad luck.
- You should always have an odd number of candles on the cake or pie for a birthday, even if you have to add an extra candle.
Of course, almost everyone knows that blowing out your candles brings you good luck and wishes, but they can also be divinatory tools. In an article which probably has my favorite title of any folklore article (“Signs & Superstitions Collected from American College Girls,” by Martha W. Beckwith), I found this bit of birthday augury:
“Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake will tell you how many years it will be before you are married:
(a) By the number of times you have to blow to put them all out.
(b) By the number of candles left lighted after the first blow.”
This latter belief is supported by superstition from Kentucky as well (Thomas #246, #247), so perhaps the birthday folklore from Kentucky isn’t all bad news. Vance Randolph notes that Ozark natives regard birthdays as powerfully divinatory days, especially in terms of determining bad luck:
“The typical hillman is upset by any trifling piece of ill luck which happens on his birthday, knowing that one who is unfortunate on this particular day is likely to have bad luck all year” (Randolph 66).
Randolph also records a wonderful method of bibliomancy related to one’s birthday:
“Many hillfolk tell fortunes and predict marriages by means of certain quotations from the Bible. For example, the twentyfirst and thirty-first chapters of Proverbs have thirty-one verses each. Chapter 21 is man’s birthday chapter; chapter 31 is woman’s birthday chapter. A boy looks up his proper verse in the man’s chapter, according to the date of his birth. A man born on the twenty-third of any month, for example, reads Proverbs 21 : 23 the content of this verse is supposed to be especially significant to him” (Randolph 184).
My particular verse using this method (and the King James) is: “The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want.” So apparently, I should spend some time in diligent thought, today? Hmm, I’ll need to think on that a bit.
A fairly common divination performed for young children is to place a number of items around them on their first birthday and see which one they pick up. That will determine their future occupation. Harry M. Hyatt records this belief in several forms:
“3529. On a boy’s first birthday lay before him on the floor a deck of cards, a bottle, a Bible and a piece of money: if the deck of cards is selected, he will be a gambler; if the bottle, a drunkard; if the Bible, a preacher; and if the money, a hard worker.
3530. The day a boy is a year old put down before him on the floor a pocket- book, a whiskey bottle and a deck of cards: if he reaches for the pocketbook, he will be opulent; if for the bottle, a drunkard; and if for the cards, a gambler.
3531. A boy’s future can be discovered on his first birthday by laying in front of him on the floor a book, a dollar and a hat: if he clutches the book, he will be a good learner; if the dollar, a miser; and if the hat, a stylish dresser” (Folklore from Adams Co.)
Hyatt also records an interesting variation on the birthday-candle-wish belief, saying “The person whose candle burns out first at a birthday party may make a wish,” which indicates that perhaps each party guest lights one of the birthday candles on the cake (Hyatt #8715).
Mixing the good with the bad, American Folklore: An Encyclopedia shares these pieces of birthday folk belief:
- The best day to start a business is on your birthday
- If a slice of birthday cake tips over on your plate, you will not marry
- You should put a pat of butter on your nose on your birthday for good luck (Brunvand 170-2)
The book also mentions the carnival-esque atmosphere of birthdays, in which an ordinary person might become “Queen” or “Boss” for the day—echoing the elevation of the Fool during Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations, and the idea of baking a birthday cake with little divinatory charms inside echoes the “King Cake.”
So there’s a bit of fun birthday lore for you. I don’t know which of these I’ll try out this year, though I might just secretly be hoping for that birthday spanking. One to grow on and all that. It’s all in the name of folklore, I promise.
Thanks for reading!
I love a good summer peach. Or peach cobbler. Or homemade peach ice cream. And I can’t tell you how much I miss my mother’s homemade brandied peaches (which were amazing over some hand-churned vanilla). If you live in North America, it’s likely you’ve encountered peaches everywhere from grocery stores to roadside stands to neighbors’ backyards. They’re ubiquitous, which also means they’ve been a major player in the foodways of America.
Today I’m going to briefly look at the peach from another folkloric perspective, focusing on its relevance in magical lore as opposed to its purely culinary uses (though I imagine the two are not ever to be completely disentangled from one another).
The flesh of the peach is frequently regarded as a nearly sacred food in its homeland of China, where it is thought to aid immortality. The lore of the peach is extensive there, with every part of the tree and fruit making an appearance. Peach pits are worn as amulets to ward off demons, while blossoms are used to enhance love, luck, & beauty. Peaches are left in family shrines, and feature prominently in the literature and art of China. You can read a good deal more about the role of the peach in Chinese lore here and here.
Peaches were highly valued in places like the Appalachian Mountains, too. According to the third Foxfire book, one of the most common varieties was the Indian peach, a shrubby variety with small, firm peaches:
“Indian peaches are small trees, spreading with scraggly branches, said to be descendants of those trees planted by the Cherokees around their villages…The fruit of the Indian peach is white with a rosy cheek, white-meated with a red heart…All have a most delicious flavor, raw or cooked. Peaches are rich in iron, and peach leaf tea was a medicine for bladder troubles or used as a sedative” (Foxfire 3 303)
In North American folklore, all parts of the peach have their value as well. In Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, one of the author’s informants says this of the peach tree: “The peach tree was justifiably described by herbalist Tommie Bass of northern Alabama as ‘a drugstore on its own’ in recognition of its many medicinal uses” (Cavender 64-5). Below you’ll see a sampling of the many different magical and/or medicinal uses of the peach and its parts:
- “A baby that refuses to come can be brought at once and the labor pains will stop, if the woman drinks tea made from bark scraped downwards off a young peach tree.” (Hyatt #2972) Hyatt also states in several other places that peach branches were used to help bring a baby into the world by magical means.
- “Peach tree root or bark was also commonly used [to treat diarrhea]” (Cavender 88)
- Peach wood can be used in a magical cure for warts by cutting as many notches in a peach branch as one has warts (Thomas #1493) (see also “Leaves”)
- Peach wood is one of the reputed choices for making dowsing forks, according to many sources (Thomas #105; Brunvand 432, Steiner 271, Randolph 83)
- Ozark lore specifies that peach bark scraped upward prevents vomiting and/or diarrhea, but scraped downward it is a strong emetic (Randolph 95)
- “A mess of peach roots, ground up and mixed with lard, is said to cure the seven-year itch” (Randolph 109)
- A piece of Kentucky lore states that twinned peaches found together indicate that you will be married soon (Thomas #593)
- Eating a peach pecked by a bird is said to lead to poisoning (Steiner 267)
- John George Hohman mentions the use of “peach-stones” as a cure for “gravel” (kidney stones). He attests to it especially because it cured him of his own gravel (Long-Lost Friend #84)
- Hohman attests that peach pits can also be taken to remedy drunkenness (#185)
- The seeds reputedly can help stimulate hair growth in some people (Todd 55)
- Vance Randolph describes an Ozark love charm consisting of a carved peach stone filled with “some pinkish, soap-like material” which he could not identify (Randolph 166)
- Both Randolph and Newbell Niles Puckett mention the peach-pit charm as a powerful one, akin to the lucky rabbit’s foot charm (Puckett 437)
- Peach leaves were thought to be a Colonial-era cure for worms (Black 199)
- Cat Yronwode mentions using dried peach leaves in wisdom oil blends to help students focus on studies (HHRM 143)
- Kentucky lore says that rubbing warts with peach-leaves, then burying them will remove warts (Thomas #1492)
- The leaves were frequently made into a poultice, which could be used to treat headaches, bruises, and “pumpknots (bumps caused by a blow or knock to the head)” (Cavender 98, 109)
- One of the Foxfire informants recommended a peach leave poultice mixed with salt and cornmeal to treat an abscessed tooth (Foxfire 9 70).
- Herbalist Jude C. Todd recommends the use of peach leaves as a part of a dandruff treatment (Todd 53)
- Hohman says that “The flowers of the peach-tree, prepared like salad, opens the bowels, and is of use in the dropsy” (Long-Lost Friend #185)
- Hohman also recommends the use of the flowers as a cure for worms and constipation (#185)
- Girls in the Ozarks pierce their ears when peaches are in bloom, believing that piercing them any other time will lead to infection (Randolph 164)
Vance Randolph has a great bit of lore regarding the planting of peaches as well:
“In planting peach trees, it is always well to bury old shoes or boots near the roots. Not far from Little Rock, Arkansas, I have known farmers to drive into town and search the refuse piles for old shoes to be buried in peach orchards. The older and more decayed the leather, the better it works as fertilizer” (Randolph 39)
From my own perspective, I really like the dowsing power of the peach, but I also have a great fondness for the carved peach pit charms. They seem like they would be beautiful and incognito ways of carrying natural amulets about on one’s person. I can also easily see using the flesh of a peach like the flesh of an apple, carving things into it before eating to absorb those qualities. The peachy pulp, which bears such a strong resemblance in so many ways to human flesh, also suggests a use as a makeshift dolly. When the “heart” of the peach, its stone, is considered, this is likely a very apt application of magic to the rosy-golden fruit.
I thought I’d finish up today with something non-magical, but which certainly has an enchanting power: brandied peaches like my mother used to make (I sadly do not have her exact recipe anymore, so the one I’m sharing is adapted from the excellent Putting Food By, by Greene, Herzberg, & Vaughan). We used to have a spoonful of these over ice cream after dinner sometimes, and they were simply otherworldly. They’re not as sweet as you might think, but that’s part of their charm. Plus, you can’t go wrong with a little booze in your dessert. I hope you enjoy!
Peaches (1 lb.)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Whole cloves (optional)
Whole cinnamon sticks (optional)
Clean & dry your one-pint canning jars. Score skin of peaches, then blanch them in boiling water and dunk them into an ice bath. Slip the skins off and slice the peaches into halves and quarters (removing stones).
Make a simple syrup by boiling the cup of sugar with the water. Cook the peaches in the sugar syrup for about 5 minutes, then transfer peaches into individual jars. To each jar add 1-3 cloves (optional), 1 cinnamon stick (optional), and 2-3 tablespoons of brandy. Seal jars and process in a hot water bath for about 20-25 minutes, then carefully remove the jars and allow them to seal.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at peaches. If you have any other ideas about using peaches in magic, please leave them in here or drop us a line.
Thanks for reading!
I imagine that I’ll get a sharp increase in visitors from Ohio with this article. Today’s featured botanical is the buckeye, which is both the name of the tree and the fruit (or nut) of that tree. It grows in a wide variety of locations, including all over Europe and North America, and is also frequently referred to as a “horse chestnut” (which is actually a very specific species within the bigger buckeye family). Since you can find a great deal of botanical information on the tree elsewhere (like at the USDA Plants database), I’ll narrow my focus here to the folklore and magical uses of the nut.
T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, author of the botanical mythography classic The Folk-lore of Plants, makes the following observations about the horse-chestnut:
“A Worcestershire name for a horse-chestnut is the ‘oblionker tree.’ According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th Ser. x. 177), in the autumn, when the chestnuts are falling from their trunks, boys thread them on string and play a ‘cob-nut’ game with them. When the striker is taking aim, and preparing for a shot at his adversary’s nut, he says:—
My first conker (conquer).’
The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the fruit itself.” (CH XVIII)
Already I love this plant, don’t you? Essentially they seem to be used as marbles in children’s games (give them one point for that), and they also have a nice phonetic connection to the powerful hoodoo charm, John the Conqueror root, which is frequently called John de Conker (and that’s another point to the buckeye!). They actually look llike smoother versions of High John roots in some ways, so it doesn’t surprise me to find that they sometimes get substituted in for their powerful underground counterpart:
“Buckeye nuts are believed by some hoodoo “doctors” to increase a man’s sexual power. Shaped like miniature testicles, they are sometimes carried in the pants pockets as charms to bring men “good fortune in sexual matters.” In the southern and eastern regions of the United States, buckeyes are carried in mojo bags to cure or prevent such ailments as arthritis, rheumatism, and migraine headaches” (Gerina Dunwich, Herbal Magic, 86).
Cat Yronwode similarly cites buckeyes as charms for increasing male potency. Both Yronwode and Dunwitch, however, make it clear that a buckeye’s primary powers are to aid as a gambling charm and to help stave off aches and pains—particularly rheumatism and headaches. This view is heavily supported by a number of folklore sources:
From Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro
- Where the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, a buckeye, a horse chestnut, and a luck bone from a pig ham are put together for good luck [A charm for good luck] (316)
- A buckeye carried in the pocket will surely bring one good luck (314)
- A buckeye carried in the left pocket is generally supposed to work a cure for rheumatism as well as for piles, a belief apparently English (360)
- Red pepper rubbed up and down the back ‘warms up de system,’ as does also a new domestic sack half full of salt into which nine grains of red pepper and four buckeyes have been put. Wear this around your waist and you will never again be bothered with chills (366)
- In Mississippi and Alabama it is believed that if one carries buckeyes in the pocket he will have no chills through the year (366)
From Harry M. Hyatt, Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois
- 1328. “My brother always carries a buckeye in his pocket to get money.” (28)
- 1329. “I always carry three buckeyes in my pocket to always have money. My grandfather did this through the Civil War, my mother did this, and I am carrying three buckeyes too.” (28)
- 4534. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never becomes sick. (99)
- 4688. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never suffers from backache. (103)
- 5233. A buckeye carried in your pocket or the band of your hat prevents headache. (118)
- 5588. As a treatment for piles, a buckeye is worn: in the pocket (usually the left), or one in each pocket, or one pinned to the underclothes, or one round the neck, or one rolled in the top of each stocking. (126)
- 5684. One buckeye is worn in one of several places as a rheumatism remedy: about the neck, on the breast, in a pocket (especially a hip pocket), round the waist, and under the bend of the knee. Sometimes, they say buckeyes are ineffective for rheumatism, unless you begin by using an unripe one. Moreover, it is occasionally said, to lose this nut in the process of curing yourself brings bad luck. And finally, because a buckeye is also called a horse chestnut, the real chestnut is worn as a substitute, but this seems to be rare. (129)
- 5685. Buckeyes used for curing rheumatism should always be carried in pairs. This also makes you lucky at the same time. (129)
- 5686. “If you carry three buckeyes in a sack so they will be on your skin, good for rheumatism; if the buckeyes dry all up when wearing, then they are doing you good; but if they don’t dry all up, they are doing you no good.” (129)
- 11073. It is lucky to keep a buckeye in your purse, on your person, or in your house. (262)
- 13443. Keep a buckeye in your pocket while playing baseball and you will have good luck. (310)
- 13984. You obtain good luck for a card game, if a buckeye is worn in your right pocket. (319)
From Daniel & Lucy Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions:
- 1224 – One subject to a headache may prevent it by carrying a buckeye in his pocket (105)
- 1288 – Carry a horse chestnut [another name for a buckeye] in the pocket, to avert piles (110)
- 1299 – To avert rheumatism, carry a horse-chestnut in the pocket (111)
- 2887 – You will have good luck if you carry a horse-chestnut (219)
Kentucky Superstitions also has this rather fantastic bit of lore about the good ole horse-chestnut:
- 2889 – If one eats a buckeye, his head will turn around (219)
Vance Randolph devotes a sizeable amount of space to the folklore of buckeyes among the hillfolk of the Ozarks, also pointing out their strong associations with healing and protection from painful diseases. He relates an excellent story about just how deeply ingrained the belief in buckeye powers was in the mountains:
There is an old saying that no man was ever found dead with a buckeye in his pocket, but this is not to be taken seriously. Most people who carry buckeyes regard them as a protection against rheumatism, or hemorrhoids. One of the most successful physicians in southwest Missouri always carries a buckeye ; when it was mislaid once he was very much disturbed and let an officeful of patients wait until his pocket piece was recovered. It is very bad luck to lose a buckeye. I asked this doctor about it once. “No, I’m not superstitious,” he said grinning, “I just don’t want to get the rheumatism!” (Ozark Magic & Folklore, 153)
There is some excellent lore about the buckeye and just why it became the namesake for Ohio from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. They mention the lucky association, likening it to a four-leaf clover or rabbit’s foot, and links the state nickname to William Henry Harrison or alternatively to Col. Ebenezer Sproat (a simply fantastic name), both Ohioans of historic and heroic stature.
Probably my favorite bit of folklore concerning the lovely horse-chestnut comes from an online forum I found while researching this topic. You can read the full thread here, but I simply cannot fail to mention this fantastic tidbit:
There is a belief by some that only half the buckeye is poisonous, and that only squirrels know which half that might be in a particular nut. Squirrels do sometimes eat a part of the nut.
There you have it: squirrels are smarter than we are. But I’ve known that for a while (at least in my case it’s true).
At any rate, the buckeye can be carried as a lucky charm or worked into other magical preparations, and it has a huge body of lore associated with it. So much, in fact, that I’ve barely (prepare for pun) cracked the shell here. If you know of great buckeye lore and magic, I’d love to hear about it! Or if you just want to pelt me with horse-chestnuts for making bad puns, I’ll be here all day.
Thanks for reading!