Posted tagged ‘Massachusetts’

Blog Post 105 – Magic Books in the American Colonies: The Devil’s Book

December 3, 2010

In an effort to blend the subjects of recent blog posts, I thought today I’d start to look at a few of the key magical texts which would have had an influence on the American Colonies.  Much of this entry will be directed by a reading of Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books and Witchcraft, Magic, & Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts by Richard Weisman, both of which I highly recommend reading.  I am also pulling from The Silver Bullet by Hubert J. Davis and Witches, Ghosts, & Signs by Patrick Gainer.  I’ll mostly be looking at the English colonies, but the French and Spanish colonies will also enter into the discussion a bit during later articles.

In general, the magical books of the early colonies came in three flavors:  devil’s books, witch-hunting manuals, and grimoires.  The Devil’s Book was frequently thought by Puritan settlers to be the ultimate embodiment of human sin—a willful signing away of one’s soul to infernal powers.  By simply signing one’s name to such a book, a witch gained all her power and lost all her salvation (I use “her” because the popular conception of a witch tended towards the feminine, though male witches were not uncommon either).  Some of the key features of a Devil’s Book and its accompanying rituals were:

The Profaning of the Bible – The witch would have to stamp upon a Bible or otherwise deface it before being allowed to sign.  In some cases, a Bible itself was used to sign the witch into the Devil’s service.  Several Appalachian tales record instances of witches simply making an “X” in a marred Bible to indicate their pact.  In The Silver Bullet, witch Rindy Sue Gose performs this sort of ritual to seal her contract with the Devil:

“Fust, Rinday Sue cut her finger with a knife, and when hit started to bleed, she opened a little Bible and ‘peared to write sumpthin’ in hit with the blood from her finger.  The Devil then nipped her on the left shoulder to give her a witchmark so’s she could suckle her familiar.  Rindy Sue swore to give her soul to the Devil and to work for him the rest of her born days.  Then, the Devil danced with her, and then went into the woods behindst thet tree” (Davis 17).

This action echoes the profaning of the Lord’s name or the recitation of a reversed “Our Father” as a way of breaking the bonds of Christianity for a witch.  Not that you should read much into that, of course.

The Use of Blood as Ink – When witches made their mark, they often didn’t actually sign their name.  In a time when general literacy was still low (though it should be noted that literacy among Puritan men was quite high for the era), not everyone would be expected to have a “signature.”  Instead, they would have a “mark,” often an “X” which they used as an indication of their agreement to a contract.  To personalize this mark in the rituals of witchcraft, a witch wouldn’t simply take an inked quill and make a fancy “X,” though.  Instead, her blood was an indication that the pact bound her body and soul to the Devil.  Puritan minister William Perkins described the process (most business-like) as follows:

“The express and manifest compact is so termed, because it is made by solemn words on both parties.  For the satisfying hereof, he [the future witch] gives to the devil for the present, either his own handwriting, or some part of his blood as a pledge and earnest penny to bind the bargain” (Weisman 36).

The Devil sometimes used a great iron pen to draw the blood from the witch before having him sign his name, and in cases where the book was not a defaced Bible, the great book contained hundreds of other blood signatures from other witches.

Owen Davies observes in his book that the drawing up of a pact between a witch or sorcerer and an infernal representative was nothing new—look at the legend of Faust for example.  What made these New World magical compacts unique was that the witch did not draw up the document herself, but rather was lured into signing a book which she would not take possession of, but rather which remained in the custody of her magical Master.  All her magic, then, would be learned without the aid of books, at least in this model of New England Colonial witchcraft.  Indeed, the Devil presented himself or his imps to the witch as her means for accomplishing malefic magic rather than gifting her the use of dusty tomes of magical lore and spells.  In short, the Devil’s Book was merely a roster of the souls won to his service, and possessed little magical power in and of itself, at least superficially.  However, many witches might claim that a deeper reading of the Devil’s Book phenomenon reveals that the act of writing in blood on a sacred object in fact demonstrates a type of very old and powerful magic.  Thus, such a book, if it could be wrested from the Devil, would be very powerful, indeed, perhaps containing the magic of all those who had signed before.

Next time we pick up this thread, we’ll be looking at the witch-hunting books, and why they may have actually helped more witches in their spellcrafting than they actually hurt by “revealing” them.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 3 – Hot & Cold Spells, A Story, and A Contest

February 8, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 3-

Summary

In this episode, we talk about periods of waxing and waning interest in witchcraft, and how to get out of non-practicing rut.  Then we have a reading of “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  We also announce our first ever contest (make sure to listen all the way to the end of the show).

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 3

-Sources-

Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

We also mention A Pagan in the Threshold in this podcast, which is another excellent Pagan podcast.

Promos & Music

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

Promo 1- A Pagan in the Threshold

Promo 2- Forest Grove Botanica

Promo 3- The Celtic Myth Podshow

Contest

Our first ever contest!  We’re looking for weather lore, so please submit yours for a chance to win our prize, a copy of Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root & Herb Magic. Please see Blog Post 11 – A Contest! for more details.

Blog Post 6 – More Colonial Witchcraft

January 19, 2010

I couldn’t resist the urge to share a few more witchy stories and spells from the early American period.  Let’s start with a little history.  Most folks know about the famous Salem, MA (or rather, Danvers, MA to be more accurate) witch trials.  While these were certainly a major phenomenon in our collective history, Massachusetts was only one colony among thirteen.  So what about witchcraft in the other colonies?

Generally speaking, witchcraft was not treated with such a hard nose nor such an iron fist in other parts of Colonial America.  Witchcraft was generally frowned upon, true, but only in that the term “witchcraft” meant intentional magical malfeasance against one’s neighbors.  Any such bad behavior—stealing, slandering, etc.—was met with equal disdain.  There were witchcraft trials, but these were mostly settled with civil penalties rather than criminal punishments, and religious insurrection did not seem to enter into the argument.  Gerald C. Milne, in his tome, Signs, Cures, & Witchery, describes one a Pennsylvania witch trial as overseen by state founder William Penn himself:

“Penn dismissed the charge of bewitching cattle…and suggested (tongue in cheek)that there was no law against ‘riding a broom’ in Pennsylvania.  He found her guilty onlyof having a ‘witch’s reputation’ and ordered her to practice good behavior.”

In Pennsylvania, the growing tradition of Pow-wow meant that most settlers in that area were at least familiar with the idea of magic, and recognized that it could be used to heal as well as harm.  Chris Bilardi, in his excellent book The Red Church, discusses braucheri, or German-American folk magic and healing.  He makes the point that in many communities, a braucher was an essential part of local life, and would no more have been thought of as a “witch” than a country doctor or veterinarian.

In Virginia, by 1706 it was a crime to accuse someone of being a witch at all, as it was a form of slander to a person’s character.  No acts of witchcraft after that time were brought to capital trial in that state.  In North Carolina, a similar legal precedent was set when a case was dismissed against a woman in 1712, despite her clear confession to the practice of witchcraft.  More is available on these incidents here and here.

Still, despite the leniency of most colonies, the chief impressions of American witchcraft from the early days of the Republic have been drawn from those dark days in Salem.  To that end, I thought it would be worth looking at a literary example of witch-lore.

Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (I like this version myself, as it is a PDF, but a quick Google search of the title will yield webpage versions of the tale).

I’ll not reprint the entire story here, but I do recommend reading this chilling—and weirdly funny at times—tale of witchcraft in a Puritan village.  Hawthorne had a conflicted relationship with witches (his great-great grandfather was a judge at the Salem trials, a fact young Nathaniel would do his best to overcome).  The entire tale portrays the spectral encounter of its title character with a town full of occult and devilish witches, and doesn’t make the witches particularly sympathetic at first glance—in fact, the witches seem to be primarily interested in corrupting Goodman Brown and turning him into a diabolical reveler.  However, I tend to take the story’s “wicked witch” bent as being critical of the Puritan society to which Hawthorne was so embarrassed to have been connected.  There are MANY elements of traditional witchcraft embedded in this piece of fiction, including:

  • Meeting a fetch-self/”devil” on a crooked road
  • Crossing thresholds (forest boundaries or doorways, for example)
  • A serpentine staff, not entirely unlike a stang
  • A “flying ointment” recipe, of sorts
  • “Staff-riding” to travel great distances quickly
  • A Witches’ Sabbath, and an initiation (sort of)

In the end, Goodman Brown is unsure if his encounter was a dream or reality, but it leaves him changed anyway, which can be said for many witches and their experiences between the worlds, I think.

Finally, I thought another witchy (and somewhat less grave) story set in those early days might be a good way to end this post.  This one is from Rhode Island, and is recorded in In Old Narraganset, by  Alice Morse Earle-1898 (a word of warning, this tale is recorded from an earlier time, and the author clearly did not have a problem portraying racial stereotypes in the broadest and most demeaning fashion…I present the tale here because its magical significance is real, not because its characters or authorial tone are worthy of emulation).  From archive.org:

“The Witch Sheep” by Alice Morse Earle.

There are a few things I like about this story.  Firstly, that the magical aspects of the tale are fully integrated with daily life—no one questions Tuggie’s abilities, and her occult power doesn’t lead others to shun her unless she’s actually doing a working against them.  That the wife actually likes to have Tuggie around during soap-making because she can charm the project and make it work is particularly noteworthy to me.  Secondly, I think it’s interesting that “Voodoo” (which sounds more like hoodoo in this story) was a part of the magical landscape up in Rhode Island at this point, and that there are several types of spells with good hints as to how they might be executed in this tale.  The rabbit’s foot that Tuggie boils in the pot to work her “project” on Mum Amey makes me think that she was trying to cause her lots of little accidents and stumbles, but nothing seriously harmful.  Well, that or there was some kind of Fatal Attraction thing going on.  And the final thing I enjoy about this tale is that it is funny.  For all the magic in the story, and the hexing and witchery and other toil-an-trouble, in the end it’s a story about a sheep in drag, and that’s downright amusing.  At least to me.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 3 – Some Examples of Colonial Magic & Witch-lore

January 14, 2010

Magic in America has been around for a long time.  Today I thought I’d present a few examples of magical lore and charms as practiced in America from its first contact with European culture through around the early 19th century.  Note that this is not an attempt to create any kind of authenticated, unbroken lineage for the practice of religious witchcraft, but rather some illustrations of American witchcraft in its practical and literary forms.  I hope you enjoy!

“[T]his way of discovering Witches [by forcing a confession or demonstration of witchcraft], is no better than that of putting the Urine of the afflicted Person into a Bottle, that so the Witch may be tormented and discovered: The Vanity and Superstition of which practice I have formerly shewed, and testified against. There was a Conjurer his name was Edward Drake who taught a Man to use that Experiment for the Relief of his afflicted Daughter, who found benefit thereby; But we ought not to practice Witchcraft to discover Witches, nor may we make use of a White healing Witch (as they call them) to find out a Black and Bloody one.”

-From The Wonders of the Invisible World, by Cotton & Increase Mather, 1693

In the passage above, taken from a text by two rather notorious witch-hunters in Colonial history, there are a couple of things well worth noting.  First, there’s a good broad reference to the famous witch-bottle, about which there are plenty of theories.  Generally a witch-bottle is a glass or ceramic jar filled with pins, nails, bits of iron and glass, and other unpleasant things.  Urine is then added to the bottle (depending on who you talk to, it may be one’s own urine or the urine of a “target;” some modern witches use spit instead of urine).  The bottle is the buried, again depending on the lore you find, in either one’s yard or far, far away from one’s home.  It then acts to tear apart any harmful spells or spirits that come against the bottle’s creator, or in some cases it may cause a particular wicked witch physical torment, thereby revealing her.  I tend to go with the protective interpretation of it, and the burial on my own property.  In that way it works sort of like a “ward” to me.  But I could go on forever about witch-bottles, and might spend some time on a future podcast discussing them.  For now, their existence in Colonial New England is enough to go forward.  The second point of interest in this passage is the reference to the “White healing Witch” near the end of the entry.  This relates back to the Cunning Folk of Merry Olde England, who were known to repel the spells and works of “Black and Bloody” witches (their “repelling” power earned them the nickname “pellars” or “pellers,”  a term which is sometimes used by modern Wiccans as a derogatory epithet).

Next, let’s look at some of the charms used in rural New England pre-20th century:

“For generations back the Gloucester [Rhode Island] farmers have believed in wizardry.  They will do much of their work only during the full of the moon.  Otherwise they would expect to die or have very bad luck.  Planting must not be done until the signs of the zodiac are propitious, and gardens must never be plowed on Fridays.  Even a tooth must not be pulled unless the stars are right; if it is, it will come hard and cause great suffering.

Pork, if killed during the small of the moon [waning], will shrink to nothing in cooking, while that butchered at the full moon will continue white and firm.  To insure luck in the management of domestic animals, the sign of the zodiac must be in the leg.  The wishbones of all fowls are preserved on sticks.  Some families keep hundreds on hand all the time.  When the zodiacal sign is in the head, then the Gloucester people believe that one can do the most at catching pickerel and can hook the biggest fish.  Hence the almanac hung by the kitchen fireplace in all Gloucester houses is a thing that settlers could not live without.  Its study, if one would reap good harvests, ‘catch’ good clamming tides, and avoid misfortune, is imperative.

These people also believe that if you take up a black snake and bite it your teeth will never decay; that if the nails are pared on a Friday, toothache will be prevented, and that a child born in the heat of the day can see into the future, and will be exempt from the influences of witchcraft.  A ship that has such a one on board they say will never sink.”

-From “Ghosts and Witchcraft:  A region in New England where superstition thrives,” New York Times.  6 April 1889

This little entry—which dates from the late 19th century but relates traditions likely stretching back to pre-Revolutionary times—is loaded with interesting magical lore.  Much of it relates to the practice of farming according to the phases of the moon or the signs of the zodiac (see the excellent first volume of the Foxfire book series for more information on this concept).  The inclusion of healing by the zodiac is also interesting, and I believe that it also shows up along with farming by celestial design in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore.  The basic idea behind this practice is that the influence of the moon—and to some extent the stars—on the natural cycles of earth and people can be predicted and used to improve conditions.  For example, one would plant root crops and tubers in the dark of the moon because they grow in darkness.  There are many who swear by this kind of farming.

The other scatterings of folk charms and remedies, such as biting a black snake to carry away tooth rot, are based more on the principle of sympathetic magic.  The black snake carries the black rot into the black earth, where it will dissipate and never harm the person again.

What has all this to do with witchcraft, then?  Well, a good witch is usually aware of natural cycles (even if he or she is not an astrologer, a witch should be able to tell you the phase of the moon and pick out a couple of constellations in the sky, in my humble opinion).  And, as a witch would likely be sought out to help bring prosperity or to heal certain afflictions, having this kind of knowledge certainly can’t hurt from a magical standpoint.  Again, in my opinion.

Finally, I thought I’d leave you today with a little bit of lore from rural New York:

CATSKILL GNOMES

Behind the New Grand Hotel, in the Catskills, is an amphitheatre of mountain that is held to be the place of which the Mohicans spoke when they told of people there who worked in metals, and had bushy beards and eyes like pigs. From the smoke of their forges, in autumn, came the haze of Indian summer; and when the moon was full, it was their custom to assemble on the edge of a precipice above the hollow and dance and caper until the night was nigh worn away. They brewed a liquor that had the effect of shortening the bodies and swelling the heads of all who drank it, and when Hudson and his crew visited the mountains, the pygmies held a carouse in his honor and invited him to drink their liquor. The crew went away, shrunken and distorted by the magic distillation, and thus it was that Rip Van Winkle found them on the eve of his famous sleep.

-From Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner, [1896], at sacred-texts.com).

There are lots of lovely craft-related bits to unpack in this tiny tale:  metal-working, shape-changing liquors, supposedly long-dead men cavorting with the living, etc.  But I’ll leave it to the attentive reader to make of this story what he or she will, because I’m just a wee bit diabolical that way.

I will go ahead and point out that Skinner’s story was published in 1896, and while some of his stories in that same volume have precedents dating back to at least the early 19th century, I’ve also seen some indications that he elaborated his tales occasionally, too.  The connection to the Washington Irving tale of “Rip Van Winkle,” however, makes me feel that this story is at least connected to the same folklore that Irving (who published around the 1820’s) was drawing from.

That’s it for today!  Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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