Blog Post 230 – Changing Your Luck

Image of silhouetted animals including cat, skunk, and rabbit
Any number of animals crossing one’s path was considered bad luck and required turning around and beginning a journey again. (Image by author (c) 2021).

As we turn the page on the past year (and I think there are plenty of people who would agree that they’re ready to not just turn the page but rip the whole accursed chapter out of the book), I know many of us are going to make resolutions, plan to live a better version of our lives, and do any number of things to improve situations for ourselves and others. That is all well and good, but if there’s one thing that last year seems to have demonstrated time and again, it’s that at a certain level we also are operating at the hands of Fate. Fortunately, if you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in folk magic, and if there’s one point that many branches of folk magic emphasize, it is that Fate is not a fixed, unshakable future, but something that we can influence through enchanted manipulations and the subtle weaving of our intentions through charms, talismans, and other tools.

Today I want to briefly visit a few of the magical ways in which people have sought to change their luck through folk magic in America. Some are focused on very specific forms of luck, such as gambling, while others are much broader. I’ve already written before about ways in which people can “eat their luck,” for example, as we see with widespread practices of consuming specific “good luck” foods on New Year’s Day. Black eyed peas and greens appear in African American and broader Southern traditions. Pork and sauerkraut are a must-have for those in German American communities, such as those of central Pennsylvania. Likewise, many Latinx people consume foods like grapes—one for each of the twelve days following New Year’s Day—as a method of ensuring prosperity and good fortune in the year to come. Some other food-based luck transformations include:

  • Kissing the cook after taking the last piece of bread to avoid having bad luck (Brown 370).
  • Don’t throw away broken dishes but keep them piled in the back yard/back of the house and they will keep you from going hungry (Hyatt 274)
  • Turning plates at the end of the meal before getting up ensures that any bad luck in the room will be reversed so long as everyone does it (but the same lore warns never to turn a plate during a meal, because it allows “the witches [to] partake of the meal” (Brown 370)
Image of salt shaker
Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper. (Image by author (c)2021)

Perhaps the best-known food based form of reversal magic comes from the superstition that spilled salt brings bad luck. According to wide-spread folk belief, this is thought to be related to the idea that Judas must have spilled salt during the Last Supper (a folk legend not directly recorded in biblical accounts, which only mentions “dipping into the bowl” at the same time as Jesus). The remedies for this failure of luck, however, are wide-ranging, including tossing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder—sometimes to chase away or blind the Devil. Other versions of this reversal say to throw a bit of salt over either shoulder, or even “on the hot stove” (although tossing salt directly in the fire is thought to cause you to become “very angry”) (Brown 372-74). Throwing food away, however, doesn’t seem very lucky, so fortunately there are also beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good (Hyatt 25).

Image of Grandpa Simpson telling rambling story about tying an onion to his belt
Beliefs like those found in Britain and parts of North America that say carrying food like potatoes and onions in one’s pockets would reverse bad luck and bring good. So Grandpa Simpson may have been on to something. (Image from “The Simpsons,” (c)Fox Studios).

Beyond the culinary luck-changers, there are a number of other things a person could do to ensure favorable fortune. Gestures and behaviors that might protect one from bad luck and invite good luck include:

  • Catching a caterpillar, keeping it in your home until it hatches, then freeing it when it becomes a moth or butterfly. It should be noted that the lore is very insistent that you not kill the creature in any of its life stages, as that will bring bad luck (Hyatt 30).
  • Frederick Douglass famously carried a root given to him by a conjure man in his pocket as a way to deflect the “misfortune” of abuse by his overseer, a devil of a man named Covey. It’s possible this was a “master root” or even a “John the Conqueror” root (Douglass 111). Douglass later revised his account of this incident, downplaying the role of conjure and rootwork to distance himself from what was seen as a Black stereotype and the “tomfoolery of the ignorant” (Martin 57).
  • A bit of North Carolina lore says that if you have trouble with being a butterfingers and breaking dishware, you can find a shed snake skin and rub your hands with it to remove that condition (Brown 375) 
  • “It is considered lucky to keep a living plant in your bedroom at night” (Hyatt 21) but there are also admonitions that any cut flowers (or plants that are otherwise in the process of decay) should be removed before sleeping in a room to reverse any potential poor luck in health
  • Several sources indicate that you must restart a journey if a black cat crosses your path. Similarly, other black-completed animals such as skunks, rabbits, or squirrels can all require such a turning back and beginning again (Hyatt 53)
  • Related to the turning back is the idea that if you do turn back, you shouldn’t keep going the same day, but wait until the next day to ward off bad luck (this also ties into the belief that you shouldn’t watch someone’s plane take off). You can also wait until the animal crosses the path of another person, which cancels the bad luck (possibly for both of you)
  • Despite their bad rap as path-crossers, black cats can also reverse bad luck. A bit of lore says that stroking the tail of a (strange) black cat seven times is thought to reverse misfortune and bring good luck (Hyatt 54)
  • Snakes also get a bit of a bad reputation in the path-crossing department. Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. This is true whether you see the snake that left the tracks or just the tracks themselves. The cross is thought to cancel out the bad luck (and is likely related to the idea of the “cross” from a Christian context acting against the dangerous and “sinful” nature of the snake from the Garden of Eden story (Hyatt 34). A Kentucky variant, however, totally bypasses the snake and instead simply says that you can reverse bad luck by drawing a cross in the dirt and spitting on it (Thomas no. 1032)
Image of a snake
Several people describe the ritual of drawing a cross in a snake track if you see it in your path. (Image by author (c) 2021)

In many of these examples, animals and other living things (like the houseplant—which makes me glad for my spider plants all the more) are the impetus for the luck-changing magic at work, something I’ve also mentioned when writing about the very strange (and often quite racist) lore associated with lucky rabbits’ feet. Similar animal-bone talismans include the jawbone or breastbone of a frog or the familiar wishbone from a bird like a turkey, which can be carried as luck-giving charms.

Beyond the power of various living things to perform misfortune management, there is a whole cadre of lore connected to sharp and pointy things that are able to reverse the curse:

  • Accidentally crossing two knives brings bad luck, and it can only be undone by the person who crossed the knives picking them up again. Similarly, if a person finds a pair of open scissors, they close them right away, or else “she will quarrel with her dearest friend before the moon changes” (Randolph 58).
  • Another remedy from Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” (Brown v7 108)
  • Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck (Hyatt 273)
  • Similarly finding a pin or penny is potentially bad luck but is easily reversed by simply picking it up and carrying it with you (multiple variations found in Brown 437-38). 

Personally I’ve also often commingled this last charm with the belief that a penny found heads up is good luck, which is great until you find a tails-up penny but also need to pick it up. So my own response is to pick up these “bad luck” pennies and turn them over, then set them down on another surface (usually higher up than the ground), so that I fulfill the basic idea of the charm while also not carrying the bad luck with me. Also, in general I’d prefer not to carry change I pick up off the street for health reasons, but that may just be me.

Image of pocket knife
Finding open pocket knife and picking it up gives you good luck. (Image by author (c) 2021)

Of course, you might also be suffering a run of bad luck because of something you did, or something someone else did. For example, you might have snubbed your local witch (a very bad idea) and thus have fallen under a curse. If the bad luck is the result of conjury or witchcraft, visiting the curse-caster’s front steps is a good way to deal with the problem. Several different traditions, but especially Hoodoo, mention remedies such as spitting on the front step, digging some dirt from under it, or leaving the broken charm under the stair (Brown v7 105-6). There are also long-standing beliefs from a number of cultures that implore you to be humble, because speaking too highly of yourself or your luck courts disaster. Speaking of any good fortune you’ve had recently can invite bad luck to follow, unless you knock or “peck” on wood to counteract that effect (Brown v7 167-8). There’s also a great deal of evil eye lore connected to beliefs like this, but that is its own (rather enormous) topic.

Image of nine pins
Nova Scotian lore suggests that a person take “nine new needles, put them in a dipper of water, [and] boil until all the water is gone” to reverse bad luck. (Image by author (c) 2021).
Some of these reversal charms, spells, and beliefs may seem a bit esoteric to us today. Few of us are going around rubbing our hands with snakeskin or collecting piles of broken dishware in our back yards. But knocking on wood has managed to linger on in widespread use, along with a few other very common bits of magic (some of which people perform without ever even thinking of them as “magical”):

  • A bit of lore found in Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, and more says that in a time of danger a person should cross their fingers to prevent bad luck (Brown v7 169)
  • “The first dollar collected in a new business should be framed for good luck. 
  • (Mary E. Price from Bill Garrett)” (Penrod, New Mexico article). I know I have seen many businesses that do this and put it on display near the cash register or front door, probably not thinking about the idea that it keeps misfortune at bay and invites good financial luck in.
  • Superstitions about sneezing and luck are common, with many believing that wicked spirits or devils are about when someone sneezes. Hence, the “bless you” or its many variants that you might say are a way of reversing any potential harm, bad luck, or evil that might be close by (Brown v7 153). 

You can see that there are a LOT of options when it comes to luck-reversal, then. There are all sorts of ways that a person can cut their losses through magic, and those I’ve mentioned here are just the very tip of the iceberg (or the found pocket knife or pin, perhaps). I’m always interested in seeing what other rituals people have developed in contemporary times to change luck in their favor, too. Like the lore about not watching one’s loved ones off in an airport, newer technologies breed newer folklore and thus newer folk magic. Surely at some point we’ll have lore about reversing the bad luck of playing online casinos or sports betting apps by doing things like opening other apps first (perhaps ensuring that the betting app is the seventh one opened that day or something similar). Perhaps people will buy wooden phone cases so they can knock on wood more easily whenever they feel a streak of bad luck coming on. Or maybe they will have phone charms resembling rabbits or cats or four-leaf clovers to help them. I should also note that this isn’t strictly about gambling, either (and that gambling can be very addictive so please seek help if you’re worried about that getting out of control). As more of our lives move into the ether of online space, or we see technologies like Roombas running around our house, we may develop new responses to all of these things (perhaps we will begin believing that we must leave the room when our iRobot vacuum is cleaning so it doesn’t go under our feet, which would carry forward a belief about not having your feet “swept” from older lore). 

Wherever our life goes in response to new developments, we will likely always retain a little bit of magical thinking about how to make fortune favor us a little bit more. After the year so many of us have just had, I know there were lots of people who warned against the hubris of claiming 2021 as “your year” out of (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) fear that it would somehow invite another 2020 to rear its ugly head. But taking control through these little rituals—carrying a charm or putting a dollar bill up on the wall or even just tending to a little netted cage of butterflies in your home and then releasing them in the wild—this is something we have done for a long time. What magic do you bring to the table to change things for the better? I’d love to know!

Wishing you a bright and happy beginning to your 2021, and thank you for reading.

-Cory

 

REFERENCES

  1. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 6, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  2. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 7, Wayland Hand, ed. Duke Univ. Press, 1964.
  3. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Publications, 1995.
  4. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935. 
  5. Martin, Kameelah L. Conjuring Moments in African American Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.
  6. Thomas, Daniel, and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Princeton Univ. Press, 1920.
  7. Penrod, James H. “Folk Beliefs about Work, Trades, and Professions from New Mexico,” in Western Folklore, vol. 27, no. 3 (Jul. 1968), pp. 180-83.
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover Publications, 1964.

Episode 133 – From You to Us – Listener Feedback 2018

Summary:

We’re digging through listener responses to our shows and topics to bring you an apology, some thoughts on the Sephora witch kit controversy, and folklore about rabbits and red hats.

 

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time.  Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

 

Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding,  Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Carole, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Donald, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

Play:

Download: Episode 133 – From You to Us – Listener Feedback 2018

Play: 

 

 -Sources-

We start off with an apology about a misstep that may have hurt some of our listeners in the disability community. The episode we address is 130 – Dirt Sorcery and Six Ways with Aidan Wachter. We are truly sorry for not being better about watching our own words and getting better clarity from our guest, which we know is our job. We will try to improve upon that, and thank you to the listener who pointed out our fumble.

If you want some background and perspective on the Sephora witch kit controversy, Fire Lyte of Inciting a Riot has a great post going over many of the key points.

Thanks also to AthenaBeth, whose YouTube channel you should check out! She sent in our (terrifying) rabbit lore in relation to our previous posts on things like lucky rabbit’s feet.

There was also a mention of an episode in which we shared lore on fairies wearing red caps, which is Episode 8 – Magical Media Mania, and there was a follow-up blog post about it as well.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” You can follow us on Instagram or check out our new YouTube channel with back episodes of the podcast and new “Everyday Magic” videos, too! Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

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

 

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

Podcast 76 – Spring Symbols

Summary:

Today we’re tackling a hodgepodge of springtime symbols, including rabbits, eggs, maypoles, and flowers. We’ll discuss some of the myths and folklore surrounding these icons of spring, as well as some of the spells and magic that use these elements.

Play:

Download: New World Witchery – Episode 76

-Sources-

We draw upon several sources for this episode, including some of our own blog posts:

A nice skeptical analysis of the Easter/Eostre fakelore can be found here.

Rabbit books/text mentioned include Watership Down and the Uncle Remus Tales.

An excellent source on the limpia egg cleansing is the Curious Curandera’s site.

Some springtime symbols in fiction that might be of interest include Louisa May Alcott’s “May Flowers“ and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-pole of Merry Mount.”

Friends:

Sindy Todo of Todomojo.com is hosting the Northwest Crossroads Retreat soon. Check it out!

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.

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!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.”

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promos:

  1. Welcome to Night Vale
  2. The Wigglian Way

Blog Post 98 – Critter Bits (Magical Animals, Part III)

So I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to talk a little about the use of animal parts in magic.  Animals and magic have gone hand-in-hand for a very long time.  The reading of entrails from ritually slaughtered animals has been used as a divination technique since at least the pre-Roman era.  Talismans designed to imbue the carrier with the particular power of an animal were often made from that animal’s fur, bone, or skin.  Owen Davies chronicles the frequent use of virgin parchment—a type of scroll medium made from a highly treated animal skin, usually from a creature like a lamb or goat—in the construction of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean grimoires (in his book appropriately entitled Grimoires).  The thought was that this particular material would endow whatever was written on it with an extra layer of power, thereby charging sigils, elevating incantations, and generally adding a little va-voom to the inscribed workings of magicians.

On North American soil, many of the old rituals and magical practices found in places like Europe and Africa took root.  Some of them changed quite a bit as they grew here, and some stayed more or less recognizable.  I thought a brief survey of the common animal curios used in witchcraft—both folklorically and practically—might be a good way of seeing the connection between critters and crafting.  Please take note now, I AM NOT ADVOCATING THE INJURY, SENSELESS SLAUGHTER, TORTURE, OR HARM OF ANY ANIMAL.  This information is for educational purposes.  If you choose to use this information in your own practice, please do so responsibly and without resorting to cruelty.  There are lots of ways to gather magical tools and ingredients from animals which are already dead (see Ms. Graveyard Dirt’s excellent site for some great examples).  Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at some of these critter bits:

1)      Rabbit’s Foot – We’ve covered this here in the podcast (on Episode #13) and the blog (in the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot entry), so I won’t spend a lot of electrons on it here.  It suffices to say that the rabbit’s foot remains one of the most popular luck charms in the canon of animal curios.  It may have significant underworld ties, and it may simply be related to speed and fertility. Whatever its originally intended meaning, it stands for good luck now, especially in gambling.

2)      Toad’s Bone/Black Cat Bone – These are some of the darkest and most disturbing of animal curios, as the rituals required to obtain them are brutal.  The Toad’s Bone is mostly found in British magical lore, and was written about extensively by Andrew Chumbley, former Magister of the Cultus Sabbati.  Scholar Ronald Hutton also details the significance of this bone to members of the Toadsmen, a secret society along the lines of Freemasonry, in his excellent history of modern witchcraft Triumph of the Moon.   This ritual artifact was obtained (at least in one version—there are multiple ways this ritual can play out, depending on what source  you look to) by burying a toad alive in an anthill and letting the ants  strip it down to the bones.  The bones are then taken to a stream and floated one by one until one bone floats agains the current.  This bone is then the magic bone, and can imbue the witch carrying it with all sorts of interesting powers from spirit summoning to invisibility.  The black cat version of this same rite is even more gruesome.  As it is recounted in Mules & Men by Zora Neale Hurston, the cat is thrown into a pot of boiling water (also alive), and cooked until all the flesh falls from the bones.  The bones are then either floated in a stream (the same as the toad’s bones) or passed under the tongue of the magician.  The magic bone in this tradition turns the user invisible, and can also be used in some powerful love spells.  Most places selling this bone today are actually selling chicken bones painted black, and hopefully few people are actually performing this ritual as it occurs in folklore.  Again, I don’t condone this rite, and present it as a curiosity of history and culture rather than a suggested magical practice.

3)      Racoon Penis Bone – This is a popular charm in hoodoo, used in luck and love magic.  The bone itself, which is usually very thin and has a curved shape, has no disturbing ritual for obtaining it, but can simply be taken from an animal killed for meat or even from a roadkill hit (though I’d suggest being very careful how you handle remains of this nature, as they can often be riddled with diseases).  Cat Yronwode suggests that this particular curio entered American magical practice by way of Native American sources, and points out that the Pawnee often placed these bones along with ears of corn into sacred bundles.  I’ve heard that in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, it was common for boys to give girls these bones on red thread necklaces as love tokens (though I’ve not yet found a primary source for this claim).  Raccoons are not the only animal to have this bone—or “baculum”—and in fact many mamal species have it.  Other animals like foxes and dogs also have these bones, and occasionally these will turn up in magical charms, too.

4)      Rattlesnake Rattle – Snakes in general have a lot of lore about them, but the rattlesnake is particularly of note because its rattlemakes it a unique member of its family.  The rattles themselves have been collected for years as lucky charms.  Cat Yronwode suggests uses including:

  • A charm to help musicians play well
  • A simple “Live Things in You” curse
  • A personal power token
  • A gambling charm to bring luck

Rattlesnake rattles are fairly delicate things, especially once they’ve been dessicated for use in crafts and magic.  You can occasionally find one which has been turned into a key ring or charm, but the best way to handle these is to put them in a little vial or a small box of some kind and carry that with you.

5)      Snake Fangs/Bones/Skin – As I said earlier, snakes generally have all sorts of magical connotations.  You can look back at our blog entry on them (Snakes) and find out a good bit there, but here are some highlights:

  • Fangs can be worn as necklaces or carried as tokens of protection (from snakebite in some cases)
  • The bones or skin can be powdered and added to food to cause a “Live Things in You” curse
  • The skin of a snake soaked in vinegar can be used to treat boils in the Ozark magical tradition
  • The shed skins can be powdered and added to all sorts of crossing and jinxing formulae, including goofer dust and a variant on hot foot powder

Many pet stores will happily give you any leftover snake sheds they have if you call and ask politely, and if you develop a good enough relationship, you can sometimes wrangle dead snakes and/or bones out of them, too.  Roadkilled snakes are also good, but be absolutely sure they’re dead before approaching them.

6)      Dog/Cat Hair – These curios are nice because the animals don’t have to be hurt to acquire them.  Usually black hair is used, and preferably from all-black animals.  When the two hair types are mixed together in a mojo bag or vinegar jar, they can cause people to fight “like cats and dogs.”  Black cat hair can also be used to gain good luck, and black dog hair can be used to inspire feelings of loyalty or obedience in others.  If you have a black cat or dog, you probably have plenty of this available to you on furniture, carpet, etc. (I speak from experience here).  If you don’t, you might find a friend who does and see if they will let you have some of it for use in your magical workings.  At worst, you might have to snip off a little from the animal, but thankfully that does no harm (unless it’s the middle of winter and you leave a bald patch—don’t do that).

7)      Chicken Legs/Feet/Feathers – Chickens are popular creatures for magic, mostly because they are expendable (I call them like I see them) and ubiquitous.  Black hens and their feathers are wonderful for curse-breaking, according to Cat YronwodeStarr Casas, a notable rootworker from Texas, often speaks of using chicken legs or feet during cleansing work.  Even just having chickens can be particularly magical, since they will scratch up and destroy any curses laid for you on your property.  A Pow-wow charm from John George Hohman suggests that you do the following to prevent house-fires:

Take a black chicken, in the morning or evening, cut its head off and throw it upon the ground; cut its stomach out, yet leave it altogether; then try to get a piece of a shirt which was worn by a chaste virgin during her terms, and cut out a piece as large as a common dish from that part which is bloodiest. These two things wrap up together, then try to get an egg which was laid on maunday{sic} Thursday. These three things put together in wax; then put them in a pot holding eight quarts, and bury it under the threshold of your house, with the aid of God, and as long as there remains a single stick of your house together, no conflagration will happen. If your house should happen to be on fire already in front and behind, the fire will nevertheless do no injury to you nor to your children. This is done by the power of God, and is quite certain and infallible. If fire should break out unexpectedly, then try to get a whole shirt in which your servant-maid had her terms or a sheet on which a child was born, and throw it into the fire, wrapped up in a bundle, and without saying anything. This will certainly stop it. (#114)

The chicken’s wings can also be used to make a fan which some magical folk use to direct smoke during spiritual fumigations.  So popular is this animal in magic that one of my favorite grimoires is actually called The Black Pullet (a pullet being another name for a hen).

8)      Eggs – These are often used for spiritual cleansing, across several traditions.  In Mexican folk healing (curanderismo), an egg can be used to sweep, massage, and mark a person’s body to remove the Evil Eye (mal ojo) or harmful witchcraft.  The egg can also be “read” after this process to determine things like spiritual attachments, disease, bad luck, etc.  Another Pow-wow cure with a curious resemblance to the Toad’s Bone ritual earlier mentioned directs anyone suffering from failing health to catch rain water in a pot before sunrise without speaking to anyone, boil an egg in it, poke holes in the shell, and leave the egg on an anthill to be devoured.  This will supposedly allow the ailment to be “eaten” by the ants.  Eggshells also have some magical significance.  When powdered, they become cascarilla, which is used in Afro-Caribbean magic.  Cat Yronwode also lists several really interesting spells that can be done with black hens’ eggs.  For example, boiling a black hen’s egg and feeding half to a black cat and half to a black dog while saying two people’s names will cause them to have a falling out.  There is also a rather fascinating magical detective spell that can be done by placing an egg in each of a murder victim’s hands.  After the burial, the eggs will rot and eventually burst, at which time the murderer will return and be caught.

9)      Animal Fat – This is less of a curio than an ingredient, and the different fats from different animals (often referred to as that animal’s “grease”) have distinct properties.  According to Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, “Rattlesnake fat is a powerful ointment.  Rub it on any painful body part, or stroke the whole body downward to expel conjure poisons” (p. 162).  Ozark healers commonly used “skunk grease” to cure various rhumetoid conditions.  Vance Randolph says “The grease from skunks or civet cats, mixed with peppermint leaves, is highly praised by some hillfolk as a lubricant for rheumatic joints. It is said that the fat of a male wildcat is best of all” (OM&F, p. 108).   In Pow-wow magic, a range of animal fats is used to make a potent anti-rust treatment for firearms:

Take an ounce of bear’s fat, half an ounce of badger’s grease, half an ounce of snake’s fat, one ounce of almond oil, and a quarter of an ounce of pulverized indigo, and melt it altogether in a new vessel over a fire, stir it well, and put it afterward into some vessel. In using it, a lump as large as a common nut must be put upon a piece of woollen cloth and then rubbed on the barrel and lock of the gun, and it will keep the barrel from rusting.  (#110)

Wild animal fat has mostly gone out of use, though it can occasionally still be found, particularly in the mountain regions of America.

10)   Bear/Badger/Other Teeth – These curios are usually gambling, luck, or protection charms.  Hohman mentions the badger’s tooth as a wonderful gambling talisman.  Bear teeth appear in protective necklaces (along with claws in many cases).  One of Vance Randolph’s stories from the Ozarks recounts a man who kept a big boar’s tooth on a leather thong over his fireplace.  Whenever any of his children would get a toothache, he’d make them wear the necklace until the pain went away.  These charms are common in many places, and hardly unique to the New World (the badger is an Old World animal, after all).  Plenty of places, including the wonderful site The Bone Room, sell teeth, bones, and other animal curious for use in crafts, magical or otherwise.

I think that will end our survey for today.  There are still plenty of parts and pieces I’ve missed, including gator paws and heads, various animal skins, porcupine quills, and the myriad insect charms that could still be discussed (and hopefully will be at some future date or dates—ants alone obviously have plenty of magical uses).  If you can think of other charms, I’d love to hear them, and feel free to share your folklore regarding animal remnants and magic in the comments section!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 81 – Van Van Oil

Greetings everyone!  Today, I’m going to cover another piece of our recent Lucky 13 podcast:  Van Van oil.  This is one of the most common hoodoo oils around, and actually  shows up in other places fairly often, too.  Because it is made from grasses found in Southeast Asia, it has a long history in medicine and magic from those areas.  Some of the grasses used in Van Van are also grown in West Africa, which is likely one route through which Southern conjure practices adopted this formula.

The basic ingredients in a Van Van blend are oils from:

Most of these are not easily available in bulk herb form, with the exceptions of lemongrass (which you can find at almost any Asian market) and vetiver (which can often be found in herb or metaphysical shops).  All of the oils except gingergrass are readily available from any aromatherapy or herbal extract dealer.  Gingergrass oil, which can be hard to find, is often left out of homemade Van Van recipes, or something else might be substituted for it.

The proportions heavily favor lemongrass in the recipes I’ve seen, almost to the point of exclusivity.  There are some who solely use lemongrass oil and add dried botanicals to it in order to round out the recipe.  Generally speaking, a home blender would use:

  • 5-10 parts lemongrass oil
  • 3-5 parts citronella oil
  • 2-3 parts vetiver root or oil
  • 1 part palmarosa
  • 1 part gingergrass

All of these would be carefully blended in a sterile jar, then topped with a carrier oil (sweet almond or jojoba would be excellent).  The proportions above are merely suggestions, and you would do well to contact a trained herbalist before blending these on your own.  In reality, you might be able to use just the first three oils and have some pretty solid Van Van oil, so don’t spend loads of money tracking down rare herbal ingredients unless you really feel compelled to do so.

Additions to the recipe vary by practitioner and region.  For example, in New Orleans, one might find lemon verbena added to the mix.  In fact, this may be how the formula got its name.  According to Cat Yronwode, Creole rootworkers would sometimes use lemon verbena in their blends in order to supplement the strong lemon-musk scent of the oil.  Verbena—a related herb—was often called vervain, and that was given a pidgin phoneme of “van van.”  The name does NOT have anything to do with vanilla, which is not found in any traditional recipes for this formula.  Judika Illes, whom we’ve referenced several times before, suggests adding another wild Asian grass—patchouli—to the blend, but I’ve never done this myself (I’m not a fan of patchouli, personally).  Other additions might include pyrite chips or “lucky” things like four leaf clover charms (which can also be anointed with Van Van and carried for luck).

So just what is Van Van oil for and how does it work?  Well, it’s considered a sort of ultimate luck formula, having sway over money, prosperity, gambling, love, and anything else that might need a little luck.  It’s often used to anoint talismans—like the rabbit’s foot—or mojo hands made for gambling or love.  As for how it works, lemongrass (and all citrus grasses) has a powerful “cut and clear” effect…think of how many lemon-scented cleaning agents there are.  They just make things seem cleaner (lemon also has some antibacterial/antimicrobial properties, and is a potent preservative in small doses—sliced apples are often treated with a lemon juice extract to keep them from browning).  Citronella does something similar (think of how citronella candles, torches, and oils repel nasty insects like mosquitoes).  These grasses cut and clear any negative influences, warding off bad luck. Palmarosa and gingergrass (which come from the same plant, in reality, Cymbopogon martine) are muskier, and so have a slight sexual connotation.  If you think of something being clean, bright, and sexy, it’s not hard to imagine lucky in the mix, too (think James Bond in a casino).  Vetiver is the muskiest of all, with strong earthy tones.  Earth has connections to abundance and prosperity (think of fertile black soil planted with seeds which grow into crops), plus there is a strong sexual current again.  Sex + money + nothing standing in your way?  Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty lucky.

A few quick notes:

Magico-botanical notes come primarily from Cat Yronwode’s book, Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic.

You can find Van Van oils at the Lucky Mojo Co.,  Music City Mojo, Toads Bone Apotheca, Queen of Pentacles Conjure, The Conjure Doctor, and just about any botanica or root shop around.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 13 – Lucky 13

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 13-

Summary
On this, our Lucky 13th episode, released on Friday the 13th, we’re looking at luck charms and where they come from.  We’ve also got a money bowl spell in WitchCraft, and Van Van oil in Spelled Out.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 13

-Sources-
We reference lots of sources, including:
-Cat Yronwode’s Lucky W Amulet Archive
-The Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris
-Harry M. Hyatt’s Hoodoo – Conjuration – Witchcraft – Rootwork
-The article “Charles Chestnutt & the Doctrine of Conjuration”) by Bettye Jo Crissler Carr
-Judika Illes’s book Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells
Ozark Magic & Folklore by Vance Randolph
-The Chan Chu money frog of Chinese lore
-Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1- Witchery of One
Promo 2- Media Astra ac Terra
Promo 3- Borealis Meditation
Promo 4 – Iron Powaqa

Blog Post 79 – Lucky Rabbit’s Foot

For today’s post, I’m looking at the folklore and magic surrounding one of the most ubiquitous pieces of conjure paraphernalia, the rabbit’s foot.  There are plenty of theories about this particular luck charm, but not much that can be definitely put down regarding its origin or provenance.  Rabbit foot charms have been around since at least the mid-to-late 19th century in North America, and likely predate the Civil War.  They are used for general luck, gambling aids, love enhancers, and other areas where a bit of extra luck might help.

A quick word of warning, however.  Many of the sources I’ll be citing in this post also date from earlier eras, and thus have a great deal of offensive material in them.  There are words that appear here which would likely incite violence if used lightly today, so please understand that I present them here as a piece of the folklore to which they belong.  Just as a smart modern magician finds a reasonable substitution for liquid quicksilver/mercury (and thus avoids madness and poisoning), a wise student of folklore and folk magic remembers that just because a sentiment appears in print doesn’t make it right or appropriate.

There, now let’s move on to some of the good stuff about rabbits’ feet.

Catherine Yronwode provides information on the rabbit’s foot on her Lucky W Amulet Archive, describing  the foot as catalogue offerings from the early-to-mid twentieth century:

As for the foot itself, a circa-1940 mail order catalogue from the Standard O and B Supply Company, a Chicago-based distributor of African-American hoodoo material, offered undyed rabbit foot charms “made with a metal band and a link to attach on chain.” The Johnson-Smith Novelty Company offered identical charms in its 1941 catalogue. The advertisement shown here goes these one better and promises a free vial of Van Van oil with each rabbit’s foot; the formula is a Louisiana hoodoo favourite that “clears away that evil mess” and increases the strength of any good luck charm to which it is applied. Since none of the older catalogues or ads mention any colour when describing rabbit’s foot charms, it can be assumed that the items were undyed and came only in natural tan or white.

She goes on to talk about her uncertainty regarding why a rabbit’s foot might be so lucky:

Why is the rabbit foot lucky? I am not sure. Rabbits are swift and they reproduce prolifically, but the luck of the rabbit foot is monetary and sexual; as far as i know, it is not related to swiftness or fertility. There is considerable evidence that the lucky rabbit foot is a remnant of an African clan totem, an importation related somehow to Br’er Rabbit, the famous protagonist of an African trickster-god myth-cycle.

Yronwode points out that the rabbit’s foot appears in the famous Uncle Remus stories, written by Joel Chandler Harris in 1881.  In a tale entitled “Brother Rabbit and his Famous Foot,” Uncle Remus describes the tricky Br’er (or Brother) Rabbit’s prosperity-drawing mojo bag (which he refers to as a money purse, or dialectically a “money-pus”):

Brer Wolf look at de money-pus, en see w’at in it. Hit ‘uz one er deze yer kinder money-pus wid tossle on de een’ en shiny rings in de middle. Brer Wolf look in afar fer ter see w’at he kin see. In one een’ dey wuz a piece er calamus-root en some collard-seeds, en in de tier een’ dey wuz a great big rabbit foot (Harris p. 223)

So even a rabbit carries a rabbit’s foot for luck and money.  How’s that for strange?  But why is it so lucky?  In a 1973 thesis on conjuration in the works of African-American author (and somewhat accidental folklorist) Charles Chestnutt, Bettye Jo Crisler Carr uncovers some possible reasons behind this talisman:

One might have expected Chesnutt to refer to ghosts who haunt graves, to witches ‘riding’ their hapless victims by night, to conjurers tying bits of roots in tiny bags to ward off evil. But surely his reference to the efficacy of ‘de lef hin’ foot er a graveya’d rabbit, killt by a cross-eyed nigger on a da’k night in de full er de moon’—surely that is something Chesnutt (or Uncle Julius, who seems equally real) has made out of whole cloth.

An examination of folklore sources, however, justifies Chesnutt’s requirements for the rabbit-foot good-luck charm. An informant from Atlanta states that the talisman must, indeed, be the ‘left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit.  Mary Owen, recording her collected tales prior to 1893, adds to the requirement that it must be ‘de lef hine-foot ob er grabe-yahd rabbit kilt in de dahk o’ de moon.’ A Memphis informant states further that the graveyard rabbit must have been killed by a cross-eyed person. Louise Pendleton, also writing before the publication of Chesnutt’s stories, comments that the use of the rabbit foot for good luck ‘may be traced to the fetishism, or worship of guardian spirits dwelling in inanimate objects, of their African ancestors.’ (Carr,  “Charles Chestnutt & the Doctrine of Conjuration”)

So now we can see the process of making the charm has something to do with its luck associations.  If a cross-eyed person could catch a rabbit in a graveyard in the dark, he would indeed have to be very lucky, and thus his luck might transfer to the animal’s foot (this is a bit of a stretch for a reason, in my opinion, but there certainly seems to be a specific tradition involved in collecting this talisman).  Much of this lore is corroborated by Harry M. Hyatt in his five-volume compendium on African-American folk magic, Hoodoo – Conjuration – Witchcraft – Rootwork.   Two prime examples are included here:

Vol.2,p.1541

A RABBIT’S LEFT HIND LEG, TAKEN WHILE THE ANIMAL IS STILL WARM
AND SEWN INTO A BAG, SHOULD BE CARRIED WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES,
AND KEPT UNDER YOUR PILLOW AT NIGHT FOR LUCK.

If yo’ wanta go git a job agin, yo’ could use a rabit’s foot – yo’ use a rabbit’s left foot. Ketch a rabbit, if yo’ kin kill him; if yo’ can’t ketch it, kill it. Well, befo’ he gits cold, take de left laig of dis rabbit off. (Front or back?) De back laig. Take de back laig off while it’s warm an’ yo’ sew it up in some cloth an’ when yo’ go tuh bed at night, yo’ jes’ carry it an’ push it in yore pillah. If yo’ git up tuh go in de daytime, wear it in yore pocket or either yo’ could have it in yore stockin’. Put it in yore hat or shoe or anything an’ jes’ keep it wit chew all de time. Yo’ll have good luck wit de rabbit’s left hind laig. (When you are going out to get a job?) Yes sir.

[Savannah, GA; Madam Pauline; Informant #1274. C575:1-C586:10 = 2136-2167.]

Vol.2,pp.1486-7

A CHARM TO CARRY

BURY THE RIGHT FRONT FOOT OF A RABBIT IN THE CEMETERY.
AFTER NINE DAYS AND NINE NIGHTS, DISINTER IT.
WEAR IT ON A CHAIN OR FASHION IT INTO SOMETHING SIMILAR TO WEAR
AND CARRY IT WITH YOU.

You take off his right feet, yo’ bury it in de cemetery – let it stay dere fo’ nine days an’ nights. Yo’ go an’ git it out from under dere an’ make yo’ a chain an’ put it on yo’ fo’ a locket or either, yo’ know, yo’ kin jes’ have it made into somethin’ den – yo’ know, somethin’-like. Dat’s de rabbit foot. [She laughs.] Den y’ jis’
tote it wit yo’ or either place it fo’ a watch charm or anythin’ like dat – right feet, jes’ one, de front.

[Waycross, GA; Informant # 1125 (Contact man Edwards’s landlady); Cylinder C235:4-C250: 1 = 1816-1831, and C384:1-C392: 5 = 1965-1973]

One of the common threads to the rabbit’s foot seems to be an intimacy with death or the dead.  The rabbit must be freshly killed (or “warm”) or found in a cemetery.  This may have something to do with its luck.  The dead are able to provide luck to the living in some folkloric accounts, and a magical animal like a rabbit which becomes tied to the dead may well be “running” luck back and forth from them to you.  If you are interested in more spells like the two immediately above, by the way, you can find many of Hyatt’s spells transcribed in the Hyatt Spells Yahoo! Group.  If you manage to find actual text volumes of his work and you have an interest in folk magic, buy them.  They will be worth it.

Finally, Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph records a couple of uses of the rabbit’s foot charm in his Ozark Magic & Folklore:

  • Some healers claim to cure hiccoughs by rubbing a rabbit’s foot on the back of the patient’s neck unexpectedly.
  • I recall a girl near Lanagan, Missouri, who wore a peach stone love-charm on one garter and a rabbit’s foot fastened to the other.

This particular lucky charm can be found throughout North America, often sold in roadside stores, children’s candy-and-prize machines, and even gas stations.   It’s commonly rubbed to actually activate the luck, and “fed” with an oil like Fast Luck or Van Van on a regular basis.  If you happen to have one of these in keychain or charm form, I’d love to hear your experiences with it.  Have rabbit’s feet ever brought you extra luck?  Or, as the joke is often made, is it just “unlucky for the rabbit”?

Thanks for reading (and reading and reading)!

-Cory

Podcast 11 – Magical Tools

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 11-

Summary
Today we announce the upcoming break due to Cory’s grad school (don’t worry, we’ll be back sooner than you think!).  Then we talk about magical tools in American witchcraft, and we have our WitchCraft and Spelled Out segments.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 11

-Sources-
Mules & Men, by Zora Neale Hurston – mentioned in the show
Lucky Mojo site – particularly rabbits’ feet, gator parts, and raccoon bones
Hoodoo Root & Herb Magic, by Catherine Yronwode – lots of info on magical curios
Mojo:  Conjure Stories, by Nalo Hopkinson – the book I’m reading now which I mentioned when discussing gator heads

Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – Iron Powaqa
Promo 2-  Witches’ Brewhaha