- The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
- IT, by Stephen King
- A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, by Madeline L’Engle
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
- Sula, by Toni Morrison (as well as works like Song of Solomon, Paradise, and Beloved)
Or, Notions of Magic.
We often mention that magic–folk magic, especially–is an everyday sort of affair. It lives in places like loose change and decks of playing cards, and we find spells using eggs or walnuts tucked into the corners of North American witchery.
Recently, I received a gift from a friend in the form of the Five Cent Tarot (thank you Heather!). It has fast become one of my absolute favorite decks to read with, as it has a number of symbols to draw from (and keywords pointing to meanings woven into the images, which helps with those of us who don’t do tarot quite as often as we do other systems). In this deck, the minor arcana are essentially the objects you might find in a junk drawer: sewing needles for swords, matches for clubs, buttons for discs, and teacups for, well, cups. We have already put up a post on the use of pins and needles, and matches are really more suited to their own post or one dealing with other aspects of fire magic. I’m so enamored of this deck, however, that I had to take some inspiration from it, and so the remaining suits put the idea in my head that I should look at some of the folk magic around buttons, thimbles, and other sewing notions. Given the burst of sewing going on as people make masks and other vital items during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also seemed like at least a semi-relevant topic. So let’s take the lid off grandma’s old butter cookie tin and see what sorts of lore and spells we find!
We start with buttons, which have a great deal of luck folklore associated with them. Widespread folk belief says that finding a button brings good luck to follow, somewhat similar to finding a lucky penny or other coin. In fact, one variant of this belief from North Carolina indicates that any button found and carried for luck should be smaller than a penny (or other lucky coin) (Brown). The kind of button found can also have magical significance. A button with two eyes is good luck, while a button with five eyes is bad (ibid.). A button from a coat might indicate that a letter is forthcoming soon, while a white button foretells a lawsuit (so maybe leave those where they are) (Daniels & Stevans). In the Ozarks, finding a black button indicates misfortune to follow (Steele).
A number of other notions like thimbles and ribbons have similar lore associated with them:
- To find a collar signifies that you will make an enemy…
- To find a piece of lace, signifies that you will be ill…
- To find a darning needle, signifies a disappointment in love…
- To find a hat-pin signifies a quarrel…
- To find a ribbon, a string, piece of silk or anything with color, especially if it be new and fresh will portend, signifies if red, good fortune, prosperity, successful love
- To find scissors or knives, signifies that you should beware of enemies (ibid.)
Buttons are also the focus of a number of folk spells and rituals, such as these found in Henry Middleton Hyatt’s collection Folklore from Adams County, Illinois:
- Buttons strung on a thread can be put around a baby’s neck to aid in teething. Some say the buttons should be cut from a man’s shirt for this purpose (NOTE: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING LIKE THIS AROUND A BABY’S NECK!).
- You can “sell” your wart to someone for a button, and as long as you keep the button the wart will go away
- Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish. Other sources also indicate that you can do this ritual with any button you find so long as you pick up the button and place it in your shoe (which would be most comfortable if you were wearing penny loafers, I imagine). One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish (Brown).
One particularly neat divination found in Hyatt’s collection is similar to the “calling circle” sometimes performed to discern a baby’s future on its first birthday. This time, however, the button is one of a set of objects that can be used to determine your future at any age:
“Into a pan of water on the table drop a button, coin, nut, ring and stone; then blindfold yourself and with a spoon attempt to scoop out one of the articles from the pan — three trials being allowed: if you lift out the button, you will live in single blessedness; if the coin, you will acquire wealth; if the nut, you will toil for a living; if the ring, you will marry; and if the stone, you will travel a rocky road. Halloween is the usual time for this divination.”
This sort of divination game is similar to other party games, and the Halloween setting of this ties it to similar occult play such as the use of “nutcrack night” fire rituals or even the slightly more spin-the-bottle-esque game of snap apple (or, in a similar vein, bobbing for apples).
Thread is another good source of folklore and folk magic. Most people reading this likely know about the general idea of “knot magic,” (something we’ll be covering through our Cunnigham Book Club in the show as well). Using threads for magical work is something both old and incredibly contemporary, as even children are frequently doing magic like this. Just think of the many friendship bracelets young kids make for one another, and the way those are designed to “bind” them together in the bonds of friendship forever. One of my favorite presentations of this is in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, where Chihiro/Sen’s friends make her a little friendship bracelet-like hair tie, the only physical object she gets to keep when she exits the spirit world later.
One long-standing superstition that I personally hold to is trying to save all my trimmed thread ends. I keep them in a jar in the top-most room of my house (which also happens to be my library room where I’m writing this at the moment. The tangles in the jar are thought to help prevent harm from coming to a household, much in the way that “counting objects” like beans or salt scattered by a door might. Since my wife is a knitter and I do a good bit of sewing and darning there are few weeks in a year I don’t add to the jar, yet somehow it never quite gets full. Almost like magic.
Knotting thread, especially red thread, around someone’s wrist with a certain number of knots–usually seven–was used as a magical ward against headaches and other ills (Hand) (Randolph). Cunning folk traditions from England also suggest using bits of rope from a hangman’s noose can alleviate these sorts of aches and pains (Baker). We also see the use of knots and threads in the form of a “witch’s measure,” a concept adopted in a number of occult systems like Wicca (where it is often called a cingulum and can be used to “bind” an initiate to their coven). In Hoodoo, a similar use of a measure involves taking red thread or yarn and measuring a partner’s genitals, then wetting them with sexual fluids and knotting them to prevent a partner from straying (Hurston). A similar principle was used when taking two pieces of clothing, one from each partner (preferably worn and unwashed), then knotting them together to ensure fidelity.
Untying knots also has occult power in several bits of folklore. For example, in the Appalachians and Ozarks, women were sometimes advised to unbind their hair as a way to ease birthing pains (during birth, not necessarily all the time) (Illes). Sailors heading out to sea might acquire a cord made by a local witch with a series of knots in it. If their ship were becalmed and unable to move, they could untie each knot to raise a different degree of wind. One knot could bring about a light breeze, while all the knots might summon a hurricane. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “buying the wind” using coins thrown overboard (Dorson).
And, of course, how could we talk about threads and strings and witchcraft without mentioning the popular (and often nefarious) witch’s ladder? This is a magical talisman made by braiding three cords together and knotting them nine times while placing an object into each knot. Usually, these objects were bones or feathers from birds, often geese, which may connect the charm mythologically to figures like Frau Holle. While each knot was tied, the witch would curse the intended target, then hang the ladder secretly in the home of their victim with the intent of causing them to suffer and eventually die unless the knots are unbound or the ladder is destroyed somehow. Late twentieth-century Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (mentioned above as part of our book club) revised the witch’s ladder a bit for more positive purposes, turning it into the “wishing ladder,” which uses similar magical structures to create charms that get a witch what she wants out of life.
There are so many other magical crafts and lore associated with things like strings, buttons, thimbles, and ribbons, too. Crafts like the ojo de dios or the oft-appropriated Ojibwe dreamcatcher use the concepts of threads and knots to create talismanic spells, for example. I’ve also been delighted to see the enthusiasm for needlecraft among contemporary feminist witchcraft practitioners, who cross-stitch their intentions into spell-like wall hangings with phrases like “hex the patriarchy” on them. As someone who frequently darns my own clothes and does a good bit of sewing on the side to repair the damage done to clothes by growing children (and frankly, we adults are not terribly careful either), the eager embrace of sewing and knot magic and a jar full of magical buttons makes me quite happy (you can tell I’m the life of every party, can’t you?). There’s even a new book recently released that I’m hoping to check out at some point all about contemporary needlework-and-button-bound magic called Sew Witchy, by Raechel Henderson (if you’ve read it or tried out any of the crafts in it, I’d love to hear about those below in the comments, along with any other notion-based magical work you do!).
That’s only a small bit of a much bigger line of magical work. Weaving has its own spell associations, and I’m not even touching prayer shawls at the moment, which can have an intense magical protective connection. Still, in this time when we see people making dozens or hundreds of cloth masks for public health and safety or needing to stretch their clothing’s lifespan a bit longer due to newly-tightened economic belts, it’s good to know we can still find magic and witchcraft in the very stitches, thimbles, measures, and buttons we’ve been hiding in butter cookie tins the whole time.
Thanks for reading!
- Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
- Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
- Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
- Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
- Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).
It’s strange, isn’t it, that at a time when so many of us are being asked to stay home that it feels like we have so little time to do things like read? At least, that is how it’s felt around our neck of the woods of late. But we have been managing to make headway in our ongoing Book Club, featuring the work of Scott Cunningham and focusing on the concept of folk magic in connection to nature and elemental associations.
In the past two regular episodes (on Safe Hex and Dreams) we covered the first few chapters of both Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. Those chapters began unpacking two of the major elements: Earth and Air, as well as sharing a group of spells that Cunningham associated with each of them. We talked about the use of things like sand and dirt in jars as a common folk magical trope for keeping evil at bay, and we still see that in some forms of charm work today with people leaving bottles or jars of rice, beans, pins, or more by their front doors or windows. Sprinkling salt has a similar effect when done at a threshold and that fits well with Cunningham’s ideas. We also chatted about Cunningham’s point that getting out into spaces without urbanization can be very good at connecting us to our landscapes and our planet, but that we should also be mindful that having that access is a privilege and we shouldn’t make others feel bad if they are doing the same work in a big city by going to a park or keeping potted plants.
On the Air side of things, we talked about how odd it was to see a warning in Earth Power specifically saying to be careful with air magic–why is that admonition so strong here, but not with something like earth magic? Does it have to do with the fast-changing nature of wind and storms? That also got us into the point that Cunningham makes about Air as a “twin of Fire,” which we’re still not strongly convinced about but makes for an interesting thought experiment. We noted that a lot of air-based spells have had their own evolution, with sailors likely using knot charms a lot less in an era of non-sailing ships and a recognition that spells involving tying things to trees need to be largely adapted so they don’t damage the tree (Laine and I both suggest the idea of using hair, which works well and biodegrades easily).
In our Patreon Discord discussion, we also tackled a few more particular questions on these chapters and concepts:
- What do you think of the differences in style between the books? For example, we talked about how Earth Power is obviously pulling from a lot of very practical folk magic (such as potato/apple wart curing charms) while EAFW seems to be more focused on rituals (including more incantations and rhymes). Which style works better for you, and why do you think that is?
- What do you think the magical “theory” behind some of these spells would be? For example, why does throwing a handful of dirt after someone protect them (or in a similar folk magic tack, why would throwing a handful of salt after them keep them from coming back)? What about those counting spells? Why do witches/vampires/etc. have to do all that counting? (DON’T MAKE ME DO MATH!!!)
- What do you think about including knot-magic in “Earth”? Does that make sense to you, or would you put it somewhere else?
- Some of these are clearly very short-term spells, but a lot of earth spells are longer-term. Do you prefer to do spells with short, immediate bursts of activity and results, or longer and more sustained spellwork (or do you mix it up a lot)?
- Is there a distinct difference between “air” and “wind” as a magical element or force to you? Why or why not, and how do you use air if you’re not also using wind?
- Do we also see distinctions between “elements” and “transmission” or “medium” in other forms of magic? So for example I can see water as a medium with waves and tides as transmission methods. With earth, there are the seismic waves, but are there other forms of earth “transmission” that are fairly regular? I am sure mudslides, etc. would count but in terms of the way we can let a leaf go in air or water to carry a spell is burial the earth transmission method? Similarly with fire–is fire the medium and “burning” the method? Or are light and heat the transmission forms (so a spell using light is technically a fire spell then?).
- And finally, why are birds so dang smug?
We would love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these points, so feel free to leave a comment below (or you can even shoot us an email if you’d prefer to share your ideas that way).
We’ll be tackling the powers of Fire and Water next, and then hopefully summoning Captain Planet to combat the avian smugness we will inevitably encounter. Or, at the very least, posting more questions and ideas to discuss.
For now, we hope you’re getting by okay, and we wish you happy reading and magic every day!
Cunningham often refers to what he’s doing as “natural magic,” and Cory thought that he was just using a different phrase to describe folk magic, which makes up the majority of the book. What do you think? Are there distinctions or differences between folk magic and natural magic? Are those differences present in Cunningham’s introduction, or is he using that term interchangeably?
Cory and Laine both discussed the idea of different elemental systems beyond the four-parted (or sometimes five-parted if you are reading Aristotle) Greco-Roman system. For example, Chinese metaphysics recognize a different set of elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal), and other systems get more into “hot/cold/wet/dry/moving/stable” divisions (one of our Patreon folks pointed out in their tradition they have twelve different elements, and there’s a funny XKCD comic about someone being a “Polonium bender” and thinking of elements by way of the periodic table). What exactly are the elements to you? Are they fundamental building blocks in a very material way, or simply symbolic and thus subject to change based on who’s using them and how? What elemental systems do you work with, if any?
Laine raised the point that a lot of what we see in the introduction has to be seen as a product of its time (not to excuse it, but just to give it context). One of the big points she brought up was the artificial way that elements sometimes get lumped with “masculine” or “feminine” descriptors. How do you deal with these sorts of outdated ideas when you encounter them in a book you like (especially an older one)? Do you simply dismiss the pieces that no longer work and move on, or do you process it another way? Are dichotomies (like gendered elements) even useful in an age where we understand better that gender is a spectrum rather than an either/or situation?
One great discussion that came up on our patron chat was the question of “What books were your starting point for witchcraft?” Laine and I both had several, and Cunningham’s were among our earliest, but does the book (or books) you begin with for witchcraft studies have a defining effect on how and what you study? Or is the other way around, and what you’re interested in will lead you to certain types of books (other, non-dichotomous options are welcome, too!). What was your first book of magic or witchcraft?
Finally, do we do too much idealizing of the past? Cunningham likes to paint rosy pictures at times of some sort of agrarian paradise in which nature and magic were all around the common folk (a bit like in the magic forest in Frozen II). Magic, however, always seems to be very adaptable to new situations and new eras. Some of it falls by the wayside when it’s not useful/appropriate (for example, there are some terribly racist folk charms involving stealing hair from an African American person but I don’t think anyone’s recommending those today….I hope). At the same time, while we can “yeet our woes unto the void” in a contemporary ritual, we also might still have uses for lucky horseshoes, even if we don’t ride horses regularly anymore). So what do you think? How much of the past informs your practice, and how ready are you to adapt your practice to contemporary needs?
Greetings and salutations!
If you read this blog, then it’s probably safe to assume you like to read in general (and even if you don’t, maybe books of magic are a different story). We’ve hinted a bit at something we’re trying out for 2020 in a few episodes, and with the release of our latest episode (Episode 157 – Evolving Witchery), we began what we’re calling the “New World Witchery Book Club” for 2020. The basic idea is that we’ll pick a book (or a small series of books–we know everyone already has piles of books by their bedside so we don’t want to overburden you) and then read it in sections each month. We’ll discuss the writing, the actual information, historical context, practical applications, folkloric roots, and just about anything we can come up with.
For this year, we’re going back to our own roots and looking at a pair of books that greatly influenced both Laine and I as we were starting out: Scott Cunningham’s Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. These books are chock full of folk magic, albeit somewhat adapted through Cunningham’s eclectic Wiccan approach. We think we’re going to unpack some really good material here, especially as his focus on what he calls “natural magic” very much overlaps with the sorts of folk magic we find here in North America.
The basic breakdown for reading this book will be as follows:
Reading Plan for Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water
- January: Earth Power – Preface, Introduction, and Part I (Ch. 1-4)
- February: Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Preface and Part I (Ch. 1-5)
- March: Earth Power – Ch. 5 (Earth Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 6 (Earth Power)
- April: Earth Power – Ch. 6 (Air Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 7 (Air Power)
- May: Earth Power – Ch. 7 (Fire Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 8 (Fire Power)
- June: Earth Power – Ch. 8 (Water Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 9 (Water Power)
- July: Earth Power – Ch. 9 (Stone Magic), Ch. 10 (Tree Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 10 (Stone Magic), Ch. 11 (Magnet Magic)
- August: Earth Power – Ch. 11 (Image Magic), Ch. 12 (Knot Magic), Ch. 15 (Mirror Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 13 (Star Magic), Ch. 16 (Mirror Magic)
- September: Earth Power – Ch. 13 (Candle Magic), Ch. 14 (Wax Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 12 (Candle Magic)
- October: Earth Power – Ch. 16 (Rain, fog, & storm Magic), Ch. 17 (Sea Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 17 (Wishing Well Magic), Ch. 18 (Sea Magic)
- November: Earth, Air, Fire & Water – Ch. 15 (Ice Magic), Ch. 14 (Snow Magic)
- December: Earth Power – Afterword; Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 19 (Creating Your Own Rituals), Afterword
We will also try to put out little reading-related blog posts to offer ways to expand upon whatever we discuss and keep the conversation going each month.
These books were staples on our shelves growing up, but we also know that not everyone has a copy yet, so we’ve got some good news on that front, too! Firstly, Llewellyn Publications has agreed to offer our listeners and readers a 20% discount on any orders of Earth Power or Earth, Air, Fire, & Water you make between now and June 1st, 2020. All you have to do is go to www.llewellyn.com and pick up those books, then use the code “SCOTT20” at checkout for the discount (you must be logged into your Llewellyn account to use the code, but it’s an easy and free signup). They frequently have free shipping and other discounts going on, too, so check them out and stock up on some magic books!
The other way we want to make these available to you is, of course, a contest! We’ve got two copies of each of the two books we’ll be giving away (thanks Llewellyn!), with each winner receiving a copy of both Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. How do you enter?
- Support us on Patreon! If you’re already a Patreon supporter, great news, you get an automatic entry in the contest! 🙂
- Share this post on your social media (Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram especially) and tag us (or come back and leave a comment with a link where we can see your post)
- Share a picture/post showing and/or describing what “natural magic” looks like or means to you on Twitteror Instagram. Tag us if you can, and make sure to use the hashtag #newworldwitchery when you post so we can find what you’ve shared easily.
That’s up to three entries per person! All contest entries must be completed by midnight Eastern Standard Time on January 31st, 2020. We’ll pick two lucky winners on February 1st and send them their copies of the Cunningham books (as well as maybe a bonus item or two).
So that is the basic idea, and even a chance to win some books. Not a bad way to go into the new year!
We hope you’ll join us as we work our way through these books, and share your own thoughts and interpretations of the material as well.
Thanks so much for reading (all the books!),