It’s hard to miss the sounds of constant explosions overhead near a number of U.S. cities during the first week of July. The Independence Day celebrations are loud, full of the sounds of wailing guitars at outdoor concerts, screams at amusement parks, and of course, the smoky shrieks and bangs of fireworks overhead. Canada Day, celebrated July 1st, is also a reason to break out the big bangs and send rockets into the sky. The substance fueling much of the fun at these celebrations is gunpowder. A volatile but useful blend of potassium nitrate (or “saltpeter”), charcoal, and sulphur, gunpowder was first developed by the Chinese in the Sung Dynasty over a thousand years ago, when rulers quickly found celebratory and military applications for the new alchemical mixture.
While incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, gunpowder has also become a ubiquitous part of human life for better or worse, and that includes in the realms of folk magic. Today I’m sharing a few examples of the way that folk magicians in North America have found uses for gunpowder that rely upon its explosive properties to create uncanny results. A NOTE: Please do not take anything in this post as advice. Messing with gunpowder is, as already stated, DANGEROUS. Everything presented here is offered as folklore and history, and not as any sort of endorsement of the behavior described.
So how have practitioners historically put gunpowder to use? As you might have guessed, the destructive qualities of black powder have been a major part of its magical applications. According to several variations of folk spells in the regions running from the northern Appalachian Mountains down into the Gulf of Mexico delta and a bit west of the Mississippi, it has several uses. Gunpowder combined with lodestone and red pepper can be turned into a mojo that will increase business. Added to foods, it also has the power to increase potency, as one hoodoo recommendation involves feeding gunpowder to a guard dog to make him vicious (DON’T DO THIS). One Pennsylvania pow-wow remedy for treating urinary disease in horses involves mixing gunpowder with flour, gentian, and calamus and feeding it to the animal until the disease clears. Perhaps one of the most surprising applications is in the area of women’s reproductive health, where gunpowder was once believed to stimulate expulsive contractions, with results varying depending on when the woman used the remedy. Harry M. Hyatt found that gunpowder was used as an abortifacient to induce miscarriage in Adams County, Illinois, including a topical remedy that required a woman to rub her breasts with it every night until the desired outcome occurred. A belief from the mountainous area of eastern Kentucky says that a small dose of gunpowder given right before birth will help to ease the labor, as well.
Most hoodoo and Southern conjure-based magical applications incorporate the magical properties of the particular ingredients, especially the bad luck-breaking power of sulphur, as a component of the spell. Mixed with ingredients like salt and sugar, it can be turned into bathing scrubs that take off negative effects in hurry. In some cases, only the ingredients (usually sulphur but sometimes saltpeter as well) would be added to a bath, and in other accounts, gunpowder itself would be added to other components to actively destroy the harmful effects of a curse, as in this example from Hyatt’s five-volume collection of (mostly) African American magical practices [dialect left mostly intact from Hyatt’s transcriptions]:
Mah husband , he wus witchcraft heah a little before Christmas , an’ when he begin , he begin as a chills-an’ fevah. An’ course I didn’t know, you know, right then…an’ I had [the] doctor…They say he had the flu. An’ so he wusn’t whut you call real, you know, sick like a medical doctor [says], you know. The medicine he give ‘im—he give ‘im medicine an’ it didn’t seem to do him no good. So his mind led’ im that he knew it wusn’t pure sickness. So I had my fortune told an’ it…wusn’t pure natural. So they fixed ‘im—a root doctor fixed him some medicine. An’ it holp him, too; but you see, jis’ like they put [something] down for yah, all the medicine you take it won’t cure you. So I had someone to come to pick it [an object she found] up. I don’t know exac’ly wut it wus, but it was down under the—kin’a in the south part of the house an’ right in the middle, jis’ like you walk over it. An’ this filth, of course you have to step in it. An’ they [the root doctor] taken it up, an’ after takin’ it up, you know, they kill it. They kill it with salt. An’ then I had to—after takin’ it up they put salt on it, wash it off, an’ put it in a paper an’ let it dry. Then I had to take it an’ put lye, an’ sulphur, red pepper, an’ gunpowder, put it in a quart up an’ put a quart of water in it an’ boil it [every] bit of the water out it, right dry, an’ then take an’ [carry] it to a runn’ water an’, you know, put it in. That’s called, that’s turnin’ back on the one that did it.
One of the best (and most explosive applications) involves mixing gunpowder and other ingredients with an enemy’s footprint, then lighting the mixture on fire and watching it explode. This supposedly causes them to leave town in a hurry (possibly due to the strange explosions they keep hearing). Because it contains sulphur, variations on the hexing compound known as “Goopher Dust” can also have gunpowder mixed in. Mixed with other repelling herbs like asafetida the gunpowder could be worn in shoes or carried in a pouch around a person’s neck to ward off harm. Jason Miller’s Protection and Reversal Magick mentions a “jinx-breaker” mojo bag a person can carry which has sulpher and saltpeter (and thus everything but the charcoal in gunpowder) as well as lemongrass. Miller doesn’t specifically mention using gunpowder, but it is likely that some extant variations of the hand would use it as a necessary substitution.
Of course, gunpowder’s application in celebrations can also have a magical or spiritual significance. Spinning fire-wheels powered by gunpowder fireworks are often used in ceremonies honoring the dead or unseen spirits. The Urglaawe Heathen tradition uses such a “Catherine Wheel” in its Sunneraad (Yuletide) celebrations, and similar wheels can be found in Mexican Dia de los Muertos festivities. Similarly, many Appalachian people would celebrate the arrival of the New Year by “shooting in” the day with live ammunition fired into the air, which was also thought to induce good luck or scare away bad luck. Shooting in also happened in cities, where it could pose a significant safety threat, and often those not directly participating would sequester themselves indoors to avoid the “Calithumpian” revelries which also included costumes, masks, and a lot of heavy drinking. In some Vodoun rituals, celebrants may make the veve designs of a particular loa out of gunpowder, especially if that loa is “hot” in nature, such as the Petro spirits. In other cases, gunpowder may be specifically avoided to prevent inciting spirits to become destructive or to avoid any potential spiritual insults.
Gunpower was also sometimes employed to spark a sudden or rapid change in less personal conditions as well, for example in weather magic. In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, the author notes that out in the frequently dry prairie areas of North America such as Nebraska and Kansas, “professional ‘rainmakers’ sought to earn their pay by firing explosions from balloons, building large, smoky fires, or setting off gunpowder explosions from high peaks” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In most cases, the essential magical nature of gunpowder is driven by one of two factors: its ability to explode on ignition or its ingredients’ magical properties. Many applications, such as the jinx-breaking in the hoodoo examples, rely on a mixture of both aspects: a symbolic rapid change and the physical presence or properties of the sulphur and saltpeter (the charcoal seldom gets a mention, but its “neutralizing” nature seems to be a good fit, too). The abortifacient uses of gunpowder also could be an extension of these characteristics. One of the most interesting things about gunpowder is its relative predicatibility for an explosive substance (as opposed to say, nitroglycerin, which can be incredibly volatile). Gunpowder is even used to create artworks in seriously cool ways because it can be controlled. At the same time, this substance continues to be dangerous, causing more than a few lost digits or limbs every year during July celebrations and fueling firearms that can do immense damage to life and property. In some ways, gunpowder is almost a perfect metaphor for folk magic more generally—deployed with intention and thought, it can do wonderful things, but carelessly handled it can cause irreparable harm.
So as the fireworks are booming overhead during this first week of July in North America, I hope you will look up at the bright and beautiful patterns and think about some of the magic in them that goes beyond the visual awe and glamor. Although, if you prefer to “ooh” and “aah” at them instead, I can hardly blame you.
Thanks for reading!
References and Further Reading
- Brunvand, Jan, ed. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Press, 1996.
- Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1986.
- Corbett, Bob. “Eshin-Fun Answers: African Religion Syncretism.” Webster University Website (http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/voodoo/syncretism.htm).
- Hohman, John George, and Daniel Harms, ed. The Long-Lost Friend: A 19th-Century American Grimoire, Llewellyn, 2012.
- Hyatt, Harry M. The Folklore of Adams County, Illinois. New York: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935.
- —. Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork (5 Vols.). New York: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1970.
- Miller, Jason. Protection and Reversal Magick. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2006.
- Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Knoxville, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2007.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic and Folklore. Dover Publications, 1964.
- Schreiwer, Robert L. “Yuletide Sunneraad 2017.” Urglaawe: Deitsch-Pennsylvania German Heathenry Website. (http://urglaawe.blogspot.com/2017/12/yuletide-sunneraad-2017.html).
- Thomas, Daniel, and Lindsey Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2012 (reprint).
- yronwode, catherine. Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic. Forestville, CA: Lucky Mojo Curio Co., 2002.
For this episode, we’re looking at our personal practices and figuring out how we decide what ingredients to use, when, and why. We talk about sourcing magical ingredients, using spell kits, and how we “shop” for magic in the everyday world.
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: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Jessica, Victoria, Daniel, Plum Deluxe Teas, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Montine, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, and Hazel (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
We’ve covered magical ingredients in a couple of different episdoes, including Episode 11 – Magical Tools, Episode 60 – Aesthetics and Mechanics, Episode 88 – Everyday Magic, and one of our recent Patreon-only episodes on magical gifts.
We talk about the excellent (and now gone, although back episodes are still available) Lamplighter Blues show, which featured a regular “mundane ingredient” segment. Similarly, the Witches Brewhaha show frequently did a mundane magic section (although we cannot speak for its back episode status).
We’ll be launching a contest, which we literally come up with as we do the episode. A full announcement will come in the next week or so, but it will involve you sending us ideas for potential objects to use in magical ways. Sounds fun, right?!?
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Promos & Music
“As soft as silk,
As white as milk,
As bitter as gall,
A strong wall,
And a green coat covers me all”
Walnut riddle from H.M. Hyatt, Adams Co., Entry No. 14379
Continuing with the Thanksgiving ingredient theme (i.e. Apples), I thought today it would be good to look at a fairly common tree and nut that has been woven into magic for hundreds of years. I’m speaking of course of the unassuming but delicious walnut which tops brownies, finds its way into salads, and makes a delicious candied treat. Don’t worry, though, my next topic will not be mayonnaise and I am not subtly leading up to any kind of enchanted Waldorf salad.
I’d like to briefly start in the Old World and mention a legend which had some influence on 19th-century occult folklorist Charles Leland. In “Neopolitan Witchcraft” by J.B. Andrews and James Frazer, a rhyme appears which translates roughly:
Beneath the water and beneath the wind,
Beneath the walnut trees of Benevento,
Lucibello bring me where I need to go.
This charm would help a witch magically fly to her Sabbat, supposedly. The idea of witches gathering beneath a walnut tree in Benevento, Italy clearly impacted Leland, who includes a tale in his “witch gospel” Aradia called “The House of the Wind” (which is what Benevento means in English). [EDIT: See comments below for a correction on this translation] Myth Woodling, who runs a marvelous set of pages on Italian folk magic and witchcraft, has this to say about the walnut:
Walnut shells, in Italian fairy tales, were often used to contain something precious or magical. A walnut branch was said to protect one from lightening. There were stories of witches and spirits gathering under walnut trees”
In the New World, walnuts gained a number of powers and attributes, while the lore about walnuts and lightning becomes reversed, as found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, where he tells how black walnuts are now thought to draw lightning and hillfolk refuse to plant these trees near their homes for that reason (72). Some of Randolph’s other interesting tidbits about walnuts are here:
- “A big crop of walnuts indicates cold weather to come” (26)
- A good season for tomatoes is a bad season for walnuts (39)
- Fresh walnut leaves scattered about the house can deter insects (68)
- Walnut shells must not be burned, or bad luck will come (71)
- The juice of a green walnut can help cure ringworm (110)
- “The shell of a black walnut is supposed to represent the human skull, and the meat is said to resemble the brain, therefore people who show signs of mental aberration are encouraged to eat walnuts. I know of one case in which an entire family devoted most of the winter to cracking walnuts for a feebleminded boy. They kept it up for years, and I believe the poor fellow ate literally bushels of walnut goodies” (114)
- “A mountain girl of my acquaintance placed a lock of her hair under a stone in a running stream, believing that the water would make her hair glossy and attractive. Another way to promote the growth of hair is to bury a “twist” of it under the roots of a white walnut tree, in the light of the moon” (165)
Similar lore exists in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, with the addition of magical wart charming ascribed to the humble walnut. Daniel & Lucy Thomas, in their Kentucky Superstitions, say that green walnuts can be rubbed on warts, then buried to charm the wart away. This makes for an interesting variant on the standard wart-charming method of cutting a fruit or vegetable in half before using it to cure the wart (but I’ll address those ideas in a different post entirely). Heading into Illinois, Henry Hyatt reports a mix of magical and medical uses for walnuts:
- Thin walnut shells mean a light winter, while thick shells mean a heavy one
- A black walnut carried at all times prevents headaches
- A mixture of boiled walnut leaves, water, and sulphur makes a powerful anti-itch wash
- Dreaming of opening or eating walnuts means money is coming soon
In this latter example, we can see the walnut being used as a divinatory aid, which makes sense when we think of the strong ‘brain’ association with the little wrinkled nut (since it has a brain, it must know something, so why not the future, right?). Hyatt also shares a lovely little love divination with walnuts:
9033. Her future husband’s occupation can be learned by a girl who grates three nuts — a hazelnut, nutmeg and walnut — mixes these grated nuts with butter and sugar, makes pills of this paste, and swallows nine of them on going to bed: if she dreams of wealth, she will marry a gentleman; of white linen, a clergyman; of darkness, a lawyer; of noises, a tradesman or laborer; of thunder and lightning, a soldier or sailor; and of rain, a servant
This sense of a walnut as a ‘knowing’ curio seems to be tied again to its brain-like appearance, but also with the idea of the little nut containing some special knowledge the way it contained magical charms in an Old World context. The tree even seems to know what is growing around it in some cases. Patrick Gainer says that the presence of a white walnut tree indicates ginseng growing underneath it (120).
Another key use of the walnut in magic has to do—or at least I think it does—with its bitterness and perhaps the deep blackness of the flesh surrounding the nut. Walnuts can strip away negativity nearly as well as eggs, lemons, salt, or any of the other major magical cleansing agents. Draja Mickaharic includes a cleansing bath which uses walnuts in order to sever ties with an unwanted person or influence. He warns that it can only be used once, and that going back to the person after ties are severed will have dire results. The basic formula involves boiling six unshelled walnuts in a pot for three hours, adding water if needed. After that time, there will be a black broth that should be added to a bathtub, and the person using the bath should immerse themselves seven times in it, saying prayers as appropriate (Spiritual Cleansing 58).The dark color absorbs all negativity, and the galling nature of the fruit works the way a lemon does to sever evil from one’s person. Cat Yronwode suggests a similar bath to Mickaharic, adding the important step of disposing of the used bathwater at a crossroads. She also indicates that walnut leaves can be used in a spell to hurt an enemy’s luck (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic 205).
One use for a walnut I’ve never seen but which I really think would be interesting to try would be as a head for a doll baby working. Considering the brain associations and the fleshiness of the fruit, I’m not sure why this is not a common-place use of the walnut, but c’est la vie. If you happen to know why they’re not used in doll magic, I’d love to hear it! Or if you have any other uses of walnuts in New World folk magic, please feel free to share!
Thanks for reading!
Inside a red barn,
A white star…
-Part of a riddle, the solution to which is “an apple”
Do you remember that moment in Snow White & the Seven Dwarves when the evil Queen is using all manner of occult ephemera to poison a single apple which she will use to kill Snow White? What about all those baroque and medieval paintings of the Garden of Eden showing a dispassionate Eve holding a bitten apple in one hand? Or the Greek myth of the golden apple given to Prince Paris of Troy that he might award it to the fairest of the goddesses (thus sparking the Trojan War).
Apples appear throughout folklore and myth as symbols of magical power, sacred knowledge, and intoxicating sweetness. American lore has its own apple-toting legend in the form of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, who crossed the upper Midwest planting apple orchards as he went (Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Botany of Desire explores how Chapman—a mystical Christian practicing a philosophy called Swedenborgianism—actually planted orchards not for eating apples, but for making hard cider, thus linking him to the magical practice of brewing as well). Today I thought I’d look at some of the magical manifestations of this ubiquitous fruit. After all, it is as American as, well, apple pie.
I’d like to start with some of the apple lore and superstitions found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, primarily because I love one of the first tidbits I found:
- “A bad woman can’t make good applesauce” (65)
I have no idea about the veracity, implications, or thought processes behind this statement, but it was just too wonderful to pass up. So if you can’t make good applesauce, you should clearly consider it a moral failing of some kind. Randolph also lists a number of other bits of common apple lore:
- A goiter can be removed or reduced by rubbing it with half an apple, burying it in the cemetery, then eating the other half (148)
- Two apple seeds, named for a boy and a girl, dropped onto a hot shovel can predict love. If they move closer together, they will marry; if they part, the love will not last (184)
I’ve covered a bit of the love magic involving apples in another post and podcast episode, but this latter method is one I’d not seen before, and has a very ‘country’ feel to it. Listener and fellow folk-magic blogger Claire shared that instead of peeling the apple in one strip, she and her childhood playmates would twist the stem, saying a letter with each twist, until the thing came loose revealing the initial of one’s future beau.
Many of Randolph’s recorded superstitions can be found in other places as well, such as these wonderful examples from Kentucky folklore:
- Breaking an apple in two means luck in love (especially if you “name” the apple for someone special)
- An apple peel removed in a single strip then tossed over the shoulder will land in the shape of a lover’s initial
- Apple seeds can be counted like flower petals in the “loves me, loves me not” style
- Apple seeds are used to tell which direction a lover will come from by spitting them in the air, or can be used to divine how long it will take before one sees a sweetheart again by slapping a handful against one’s forehead—the number that stick are the days until the lover arrives.
- Naming apples on Halloween and then bobbing or playing ‘snap-apple’ for them predicts a future mate
- Finding twinned apples (or any fruit really) on a tree means a marriage soon
- Warts can be cured with apples, either by burying an apple and saying ‘As this apple decays, so let my wart go away,” or by scarring an apple tree’s bark—when the bark grows over, the wart will disappear
- Apples gathered in moonlight will not bruise or rot
- “If you can break an apple with your hands, you will always be your own boss”
(from Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lucy Thomas)
Vance Randolph also references the wart-removal charm which involves cutting notches in an apple tree, although in this case it’s a stranger’s apple tree and done in secret, as ‘stolen’ things have tremendous magical curing power (130).
Henry Middleton Hyatt also has several pieces of folklore about apples, some of which contradict the Kentucky beliefs above:
- Apples which fall in moonlight get ‘soft-rot,’ while apples falling during a dark moon get ‘dry-rot’
- If you want your next calf to be a female, bury the placenta from the most recent calf birth under an apple tree
- Girls eat the first apple of June and count the seeds to see how many children they will have
- Eating ‘twinned’ apples is said to cause twin births
- Rubbing a piece of apple over a newborn’s tongue ensures that they will have a beautiful singing voice
- Apple peels, especially those in June, can be rubbed on the face to improve complexion
- Eating an apple on an empty stomach on Easter ensures good health
- Menstrual flow can be regulated by boiling the inner bark (or cambium) of an apple tree
- If you always burn your apple peelings you will never have cancer
Hyatt also reiterates the wart cures involving rubbing sliced apples over the wart and burying them, usually under the eaves of a house (Folklore of Adams County, 146).
In New England, apples also have a love association, as well as some rather more foreboding connotations. The excellent blog New England Folklore provides a wonderful rhyme for counting apple seeds here. The blog author, Peter M., also shares a bit of the darker lore of apples, including the strange coincidence of deaths with apples in New England lore. And what could be creepier than an apple tree eating a person?
Finally, looking towards the deep South and the folk magic of hoodoo, I found that the apple can be used for a variety of purposes. Cat Yronwode suggests using the apple as an agent in sweetening spells, especially those for love. She points out that it can be used as a receptacle for sweetening agents like honey or sugar and it provides sweetness itself in the spell (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, 32-3). Denise Alvarado mentions that the Voodoo lwa known as Papa Guede appears as a skeletal figure with a tophat and an apple in one hand in her Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook. And then there’s this very interesting spell involving apples and court-case work:
Take green and yellow candles, enough to last for nine days, and with a sharp object write on them the names of the chief prosecution witness, the judge, and the district attorney, in that order. Burn the candles upside down to ‘upset the heads’ of these people. Bore a hole in each of three apples and put the name of each of the three above-mentioned persons in the apples. Set them before the candles while they burn the requisite nine days. At the end of nine days take the apples to the vicinity of the jail. Roll one from the entrance, one from the right side, and one from the left side, thereby rolling the prisoner out of jail (Haskins, Voodoo & Hoodoo, 185).
This spell is supposed to be used during an appeals process or after a new trial has been ordered. Perhaps it is tied to the sweetening effect mentioned by Yronwode as a way of urging a new judge or jury to look upon your case favorably?
In any case, the apple has certainly earned its place in American magical lore. If you know of other magical uses for the apple, feel free to post them here. And next time you’re eating an apple, do as the wicked queen suggests—make a wish, take a bite.
Thanks for reading!