We dampen our spirits–in the best possible way–and take a look at the folk magic of storms, fog, rain, and other wet weather in our latest Cunningham book club episode.
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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 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.
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 ourPatreon 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!
John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare” (1781 – via Wikimedia)
Author’s Note: This post is largely based on material I gathered for an entry in the upcoming ABC-CLIO three-volume series, American Myths, Legends, & Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore. The views and lore presented here, however, do not explicitly reflect the views of that publisher, and are entirely my own.
American history—and more generally, legend—contains its share of witches. In most cases, we hear or read about a witch at the receiving end of a lot of harsh accusations: milk stealing, poisoning livestock, and so forth. Not infrequently, however, a witch’s story takes a slightly different turn, and she becomes something more like a protagonist than a villain, albeit one with shades of gray around her morals. One of the best examples of just such a story is from rural nineteenth-century Maine, and it tells of a woman named “Old Betty Booker,” who gets a bit of a raw deal from a local captain and brings the full brunt of her witchcraft to bear on him for a bit of gleeful justice. The account below is found in Benjamin Botkin’s collection, A Treasury of New England Folklore:
HOW OLD BETTY BOOKER RODE SKIPPER PERKINS DOWN TO YORK
These two skippers, Mitchell and Perkins, were both Kittery salts, but of the two Skipper Perkins was the worst curried. Old Betty Booker wanted some fish, and she suggested her need to the skipper, “Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper, when you git in—.”
“Show me your sixpence, ma’am,” was the thrifty reply.
And with an ill-boding scowl, and a shake of—
“Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,
And nose of a hawk, and eyes like a snake,”
She watched the skipper sail away. The sea beat him up and down. The gale tore his sails, and the fish sheered away from his trawls. His men got sick, and his schooner came home poorer than she went. Then it got bruited about that Betty Booker was making a witch-bridle for the skipper, and was going to ride him down to York some wild night, whereat, the skipper, when it came to his ears, got into a mortal terror. He was sure to be at home, always, before dusk; and his doors were barred double, and he quaked and shivered and shook until the sun came up. Finally Betty sent the skipper word that the first stormy night she would ride him to York…
[H]e waited for Betty Booker; nor was she long in coming. An unearthly wail came down the wind, and there was a scratching of a hundred witch-claws on his door, and above all sounded the cracked notes of Betty Booker’s voice—
“Bring me a bit o’ hal’but, skipper!”…
With the cry of the hag, the gale rose higher, and with rougher buffetings it smote the old door that was built to look out on the sea; and then it began to open so the skipper felt a spatter of rain on his face. He heard the wild chatter of the witches, but he still held to his pushing, until he felt himself sliding along the rough floor. He made a leap for his bed, winding himself about in its coverings; the door flew open and in trooped the witches. They pounced upon the skipper, and stripped him to his skin; and while he cowered in his fear, old Betty bridled him and got upon his back, while the other witches climbed upon hers, and off they raced through the gale to York Harbor. When he lagged, they pricked him with their claws to make him go faster; and so they rode him as long as they wished, to get him back to Kittery before cock-crow, more dead than alive.
“Don’t say sixpence, skipper, to a poor old woman again,” was Betty booker’s parting admonition, as she and her familiars vanished into the mists of the darkest part of the night.
After that the skipper took to his bed, where for three weeks he nursed his wounds and told his story to his neighbors.
Botkin reports that the legend of Old Betty Booker may have been in some part based in real witchcraft performed in the York area, or at least in the practice of regional and maritime folk magic. He notes that one of the Kittery houses was torn down and inside a “witch-bridle” was found, composed of horsehair, tow, and yellow birch. Witch-bridles were thought to be a tool essentially similar in design a horse’s bridle, which a witch could slip over the head and into the mouth of a person or animal to force it to do her bidding. Accounts from both sides of the Atlantic describe situations in which witches use the bridles to force someone (or in some instances, a neighbor’s horse or other livestock) to become a mode of transport for the witch. Belief in witch-bridling was widespread during the Colonial era, and the phenomenon even appeared during the infamous witch trials of Salem. As a mode of transportation, they are coequal to flying ointments and broomsticks in most accounts. In the collection of Irish folktales assembled by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, similar stories of spectral bridling pepper legends of witches. George Lyman Kittredge’s Witchcraft in Old and New England contains an account of a man bridled in the same way as Skipper Perkins. In almost all instances, the victim remains aware of what is happening throughout the ride, but his or her memories of the event quickly fade in the morning, leaving only bruises and a battered, weary body as proof of any supernatural occurrence. The folk phenomenon of “hag riding,” which has been linked to sleep apnea and sleep paralysis in modern medical diagnosis, may offer some explanations to the stories behind the malady, if one is inclined to make such connections (I personally tend to keep the two ideas only loosely connected for my purposes, and try not to make assumptions about medical conditions two centuries hence without at least entertaining the supernatural explanation with equal credence). A person under the influence of the witch-bridle felt no control of his or her body, but remained lucid and felt the pressure of someone on top of him or her. In the medical phenomenon of sleep paralysis, sufferers report a feeling like a great weight on their bodies and an inability to control their limbs, which very much resembles the conditions described in the folklore (see Baughman motif G241.2 “Witch rides a person”).
Possibly my favorite element of the Betty Booker story is its clear assumption that Booker is not out of order for her treatment of Perkins. The story seems to recognize that Booker is in a vulnerable position in the community, and that Perkins is not doing his duty by acting in such a miserly way. Women like Old Betty provided social good in some ways, selling outbound sailors magical charms to raise winds or prevent drowning. For example, cords with knots tied in them could be used to raise winds on a becalmed ship, and dried cauls (amniotic sacs which sometimes surround a baby’s head after birth) taken from newborn infants were alleged to protect sailors from drowning. Widowed women and social outcasts were particularly susceptible to suspicions of witchcraft. In stories like that of Old Betty, witches were seen as a form of moral enforcement. The sailor’s miserly behavior goes counter to acceptable standards, and even the structure of the narrative seems to blame him for the misfortunes that follow. Maine witches in other stories often have righteous retribution as motivation for their occult activities. In one tale, a witch named Emma Alley gets slighted by a fish boat skipper in much the same way as Old Betty Booker, and curses him for his stinginess, which results in him not catching anything else for the remainder of the season.
Old Betty is associated with several other witches who lived in the “Brimstone Hill” area of Kittery, namely Mary Greenland and a woman named “Aunt” Polly Belknap. She may also have taken on other names during her tenure as resident witch, including Betsy Booker, Easter Booker (who is also referred to as Esther Booker and associated with a woman named Betty Potter, further adding to the confusion) or a character called “Black Dinah,” who reputedly used weather-pans in her magic and dowsed for buried treasure. According to George Alexander Emery, Old Betty’s home was on the land between Kittery and York, marked by “a stone wall extending north-west and south-east,” on which she and a companion raised a meager patch of vegetables and some chickens. An 1896 newspaper account from the Boston Evening Transcript recounts the Skipper Perkins story, but attributes the storm-raising and subsequent torments directed against the captain to a witch named Hetty Moye, and relocates the narrative to within fifty miles of Boston (to be fair, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820, so the fine line between one state and the other can be muddled in tales from the early-to-mid nineteenth century).
Witch Woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)
None of this is to say that Old Betty comes out with a completely clean nose in all narratives. Other tales associate her firmly with diabolical activities. In one story, she allegedly dances with the devil out on the village green to fiddle music on moonlit nights. Additionally, witches were believed to have control over weather and storms by using devices such as “weather-pans,” which a sorceress would heat up over a fire to release a tempest out at sea.
In at least one account, however, I find it extremely heartening that a witch comes out very well, even dispensing a bit of needed justice without doing too much serious harm in the process. That seems much better than days spent stealing milk or blighting cattle, in my opinion, which are often ways in which a witch might express her ire in folklore. What do you make of Old Betty? Is she the sort of witch you would include in your spiritual ancestry as an American witch? Or do you see her story as just another sensational portrayal with a slightly positive twist?