- Blog Post 58 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part I
- Blog Post 59 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 2
- Blog Post 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 3
- Blog Post 173 – Spring Tonics
- Blog Post 194 – Plugging (Healing with Trees)
- Episode 91 – Appalachian Plant Lore with Becky Beyer
- Episode 145 – Southern Cunning with Aaron Oberon
We spend some time outside in this episode, where we talk Appalachian magic and plants with Becky Beyer of Blood & Spicebush. In the second part of the show, Cory tries something new and does a “practical pathworking” in the woods.
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, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, & Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
FINAL MONTH! It’s been a while, and we want to do a second round of our Audio Spellbook, so all you have to do is send us the sound of *you* describing your favorite spell which uses everyday ingredients (things you could find in a spice cabinet, grocery store, or backyard, for example). You can either record your spell and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us and leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps). You can also get an extra entry by sharing either our Patreon page or our Contest Announcement via your favorite social media (make sure to tag us or get a screen capture you can email to us). What will you be entered to get? Well, you’ll get a NWW Annual Mailer (who can’t use an extra one of those, right?), a couple of bottles of our personally handmade condition oils, a folk charm or two, and a book or two to make it all even better!
You should most definitely check out Becky’s EXCELLENT site, Blood & Spicebush. You may also really enjoy some of the other sites and people she recommends, such as:
There are some books worth looking at, too:
- Folk Medicine of Southern Appalachia, by Anthony Cavendar
- Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald Milnes
- The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis
- Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, by Patrick W. Gainer
- Staubs & Ditchwater, by Byron Ballard
- Invasive Plant Medicine, by Timothy Scott & Stephen Buhner
- Any of the Foxfire books
We’ve got several previous episodes and website articles that inform this episode and which might be of interest to you if you like this topic:
- Post 49 – Snakes
- Posts 58, 59, & 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Parts 1-3
- Post 74 – Sassafras
- Post 144 – Walnuts
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Promos & Music
The incidental musical selections is “Cabin in the Woods,” by the Be Good Tanyas feat. Jolie Holland (from the Free Music Archive/Soundcloud, used under a Creative Commons License). Additional incidental music is “Lucidique,” by L’Horrible Passion, via Soundccloud.com and used under a CCL. Sound effects derived from original material at SoundBIble.
Watch out for the Hill Witch! Today we look at magical lore from the mountains (Ozarks and Appalachians). We’ll have discussion, stories, and even some music!
Download: Episode 50 – Mountain Magic
Recommended Reading on Mountain Magic
- American Shamans: Journeys with Traditional Healers, by Jack Montgomery
- Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald C. Milne
- Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph
- Candle at the Crossroads, by Orion Foxwood
- Staubs & Ditchwater, by H. Byron Ballard
- The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis (Selection read: “How to Make a Witchball”
- Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, by Patrick W. Gainer (Selection read: “The Witch of Booger Hole”)
- The Foxfire books are hands-down the most broadly reaching and marvelous assembly of Appalachian lore you can find, including lore on folk magic, belief, and witchcraft
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!
- Celtic Woman Mavis McGee
- Skye Boat Blues
- Mulligan Stew
These songs were from the album Kith & Kin. Tuatha Dea is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund their next album, so please head over and help support them if you can!
Ah! Spring is in the air! The warm breezes, the crisp blue skies, the flowers poking their heads from beneath the stiff and frosty soil…wait, never mind. It’s still winter, isn’t it? But I did see a few daffodils showing their buttery yellow tops recently, so spring can’t be too far away. That brings me to the topic of the day: spring tonics. These are potions, concoctions, teas, tisanes, and other preparations which are taken not to react to a medical problem (although some do claim to treat a specific disorder) but to provide general or specific proactive health support. I make the standard disclaimer before we begin that this is not a medical blog and nothing herein should be construed as medical advice; it is provided in a historical and folkloric context only and any medical treatments should only be undertaken with the advice of a trained physician.
Tonics of one kind or another can be found in many places, but I will specifically be looking at the mountain traditions of eastern North America today (the Ozarks and Appalachians). This region has a long history with tonics as part of its medical culture, and even in its economy (which we’ll get to in a bit). Just what is a spring tonic, though? Let’s look to the sourcebook series on Appalachia, The Foxfire Books for a definition:
“After a long winter, spring was the time to refresh the spirit and tone up the system with a tonic. The mountain people used teas and beverages as tonics. They would gather the roots or barks in the proper season, dry them, store them in a dry place, and use them as they wanted them. People used sugar, honey, or syrup to sweeten the teas. Common spring tonics were sassafras, spice bush, and sweet birch” (Foxfire 2, 49).
The book says they were used to treat everything from digestive disorders to gout, sore eyes, skin problems, and liver ailments. They were usually used by making a strong tea (or tisane) and sweetening to taste. Spring greens could also have a tonic/purifying effect, such as wild asparagus, dandelions, dock, poke, wild onion, ramps, and nettles. So the simple answer is that a tonic is a plant based, preventative medical remedy aimed at improving overall health. They are frequently taken in the spring, but in some cases might be used throughout the year.
What kind of tonics were—and in some cases are—common in the mountains. One of the most widely used was sassafrass, which we’ve looked at before. According to Appalachian healer Emogene Nicholas Slaughter:
“We always have a spring tonic of sassafras tea. The red is the best. It makes the best tea. It’s the same thing but in different localities the roots are different because of the soil. I get mine generally over here along the river, and it’s the red roots but I can go back up here against the mountain on the north side of the hill and it’s the white roots. The old people always say that it (spring tonic) thins your blood after the wintertime you know. Cleared out the blood stream. Just makes you feel better. I really feel that it does” (Milne 94)
As you can see, even the specific location from which the roots were dug could have an impact on the healing quality of the tonic. Folklorist Vance Randolph recorded the use of sassafras and similar roots in Ozark tonics:
“Many Ozark people make a tea from the bark of the spicebush (Benzoin aestivale) in March and April. They drink this just as they do sassafras tea and regard it as a tonic and blood thinner. It tastes quite as good as sassafras, I think. Some old folks say that in pioneer days the spicebush was used to season game it softened the wild taste of venison and bear meat. Spicebush twigs are still used as a mat beneath a possum, when the Ozark housewife bakes the animal in a covered pan or a Dutch oven. Choctaw-root or dogbane (Apocynum) is also made into a tea, mildly laxative, which is said to “thin the blood an’ tone up the system.” I have never tasted this but have met men who say that it is better than either sassafras or spicebush. Some yarb doctors fortify their choctaw-root with wild-cherry bark and ‘anvil dust,’ whatever that may be” (Randolph 105)
Randolph also identifies wild-cherry preparations which would be used to make “bitters,” similar to those used in making cocktails but specifically focused on health benefits. He also mentions the purple coneflower (Echinacea), which has been touted in contemporary times as an immunity booster.
Sassafras and spicebush were far from the only spring tonic taken regularly in the mountains. Here are some other examples of spring tonics:
- Seventy-seven willow leaves boiled down in water to a pint of liquid is a good chills tonic (Hyatt 109)
- Ginseng, which we’ve covered in another post, was reputed to have a number of tonic properties
- To regulate the flow in menstruation, boil the inside bark of a sweet- apple tree and use as a tonic: if flowing too much, the bark must be scraped upwards from the tree; if too little, downwards (Hyatt 111)
- “An amateur herbalist at Pineville, Missouri, told me that a tonic mixture of whiskey, tansy, and ragweed leaves was indicated in all such cases ; “I take it every day myself,” said he, “an* it agrees with me fine. I aint had the hiccoughs but once in fourteen year!” (Randolph 100)
- A strong tea of red-clover blossoms is highly regarded in some quarters as a blood purifier and general tonic. It is used in the treatment of whooping cough, too, but if the whooping cough is really bad nothing will help it but mare’s milk. Many a father has been routed out in the night to ride to some farm where a mare has lately foaled (Randolph 105)
- “Bloodroot or red puccoon (Sanguinaria) is also supposed to be a great blood remedy, apparently because it has bloodred sap. By the same token a leaf shaped like a kidney, or a liver, or an ovary, or what not is supposed to designate a remedy for disorders of the organ which it resembles. The yarb doctors are all familiar with this principle, but they don’t seem to take it very seriously or follow it consistently.” (Randolph 105-6)
- “Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey” (Foxfire 3, 247)
- “Corn whiskey was a common cure for many ailments, many of which were feigned, people say. A mixture of whiskey and honey was used to treat toothaches, sore throats, and minor stomach ailments” (Montell 103)
Whiskey played a major role in the decoction of tonics, as you can see in some of the above examples. Likewise strong solvents like vinegar could be used to draw out the wonderful properties of plants and create a powerful tonic. We touched on this in our post on Four Thieves Vinegar, for example. At the top of this article you can see an example of a brochure for a vinegar-based tonic (I picked this up at a nearby Amish market). The inside portion is below:
Several of the tonics we’ve mentioned so far specifically speak of their effect on the blood, either as “blood-thinners” or “blood toners.” These preparations were supposed to help undo the sluggishness and thickening that occurred during the winter within the body.
“Tonics known as ‘blood toners’ or ‘blood builders’ were used mainly in the spring to restore vital properties to the blood. One of the most popular was sulfur and molasses. ‘Blood purifiers’ or ‘blood thinners’ were also used in the spring and during episodes of sickness to clear the blood and organs of toxic waste, or what Southern Appalachians termed ‘pizins’” (Cavendar 65)
They also made herbal bitters which helped digestion and purified the blood. Eventually, tonics were commercialized and turned into wonder pills and patent medicines. Some examples of the many patent medicines available throughout the early twentieth century: Dr. Enuf, Peuna, Dr. Simmons’ Liver Regulator, Dr. Thatcher’s Liver & Blood Syrup, Dr. Taylor’s Family Cordial, and Thedford’s Black Draught. Some, like Dr. Enuf, were essentially caffeine and sugar energy pills claiming marvelous properties. Some legitimately helped. Most were made not in the mountains, but in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, or Baltimore. The Chattanooga Medicine Company made two successful medicines, however: Wine of Cardui for ‘female complaints,’ and the laxative Black Draught (Cavendar 72-3). These patent medicines (which I may cover in another post at some point) had a huge impact on Appalachian economies, especially for people trying to get out of the farming life:
“The J.R. Watkins Medical Company, founded in 1868 in Winona, Minnesota…enjoyed great success in selling their medicines in Southern Appalachia…[They] offered men, and later women, the opportunity to have their own business by becoming local sales representatives. For many, it was a way to escape farming life and become prosperous. A 1916 issue of the Watkins Almanac has a picture of a man in a hat and overalls standing beside a horse-drawn plow. His head is turned toward a Watkins truck rolling down a road in the distance. Beneath the picture is the caption ‘I wish I were a Watkins Man.’ The company’s recruitment efforts were successful, for in 1911 it had over 2,500 sales representatives across the nation. Sales representatives not only operated in towns and cities but also served the remote rural communities on horseback. Families in the rural communities often provided food and lodging for the ‘Watkins man’…Watkins Blood and Skin Purifier, for example, was recommended [in their almanacs, another source of revenue and advertisement as well as a pharmacopeia for the rural Appalachian] as a curative or preventative for influenza, catarrh, headache, boils, acne, blackheads, ‘change of life’ (menopause), languor, and diarrhea because these disorders were all thought to be caused or complicated by defiled or weak blood” (Cavendar 74-5)
As medicine became restricted and patent medicines came under increasing scientific and legal scrutiny, these “Watkins men” and their ilk slowly disappeared, but the tonics have remained popular up to the present day (as illustrated by the Yoder’s Good Health brochure above).
Some tonics also got administered to animals for their general benefit, too: “Ordinary soft soap made with wood ashes is regarded as a sort of universal tonic for hogs, so the hillman just mixes a little soap with the hog feed occasionally. ‘Soap will cure a hog no matter what ails him, if you git it to him in time,” said one of my neighbors’”(Randolph 50). In some cases, plant materials were completely unnecessary and a tonic could be made by simply using water from a natural mineral spring. I hope to cover the many miracle curing hot springs at some point in the future, but I’ll briefly mention one such spring due to its connection to tonics:
“The unique sulphur spring was promoted as a cure for a variety of illnesses, but especially for influenza…promoters boasted that one could drink the waters and bathe in them for a few weeks each summer and thus prevent catching the dreaded disease during the winter months. The water was even bottled for a while and distributed throughout the nation as a cure-all” (Steele, 63)
If you’re already seeing the word “tonic” connected to the spring water and you’re thinking cocktails, you’re in good company. Tonic water, the kind you mix with really good Old Tom gin (am I showing a bias there?), comes out of the tonic-brewing tradition. Happy hour for your health, anyone?
I hope this has been a nice—if brief—look at spring tonics in their various forms. If you know of tonic recipes or variations I’ve missed, feel free to post them in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading,
- Cavendar, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia (2003).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
- Milne, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery (2007).
- Montell, William L .Upper Cumberland Country (1993).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
- Steele, Phillip.Ozark Tales & Superstitions (1983).
- Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 2 (1973).
- Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 3 (1975).
I imagine that I’ll get a sharp increase in visitors from Ohio with this article. Today’s featured botanical is the buckeye, which is both the name of the tree and the fruit (or nut) of that tree. It grows in a wide variety of locations, including all over Europe and North America, and is also frequently referred to as a “horse chestnut” (which is actually a very specific species within the bigger buckeye family). Since you can find a great deal of botanical information on the tree elsewhere (like at the USDA Plants database), I’ll narrow my focus here to the folklore and magical uses of the nut.
T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, author of the botanical mythography classic The Folk-lore of Plants, makes the following observations about the horse-chestnut:
“A Worcestershire name for a horse-chestnut is the ‘oblionker tree.’ According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th Ser. x. 177), in the autumn, when the chestnuts are falling from their trunks, boys thread them on string and play a ‘cob-nut’ game with them. When the striker is taking aim, and preparing for a shot at his adversary’s nut, he says:—
My first conker (conquer).’
The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the fruit itself.” (CH XVIII)
Already I love this plant, don’t you? Essentially they seem to be used as marbles in children’s games (give them one point for that), and they also have a nice phonetic connection to the powerful hoodoo charm, John the Conqueror root, which is frequently called John de Conker (and that’s another point to the buckeye!). They actually look llike smoother versions of High John roots in some ways, so it doesn’t surprise me to find that they sometimes get substituted in for their powerful underground counterpart:
“Buckeye nuts are believed by some hoodoo “doctors” to increase a man’s sexual power. Shaped like miniature testicles, they are sometimes carried in the pants pockets as charms to bring men “good fortune in sexual matters.” In the southern and eastern regions of the United States, buckeyes are carried in mojo bags to cure or prevent such ailments as arthritis, rheumatism, and migraine headaches” (Gerina Dunwich, Herbal Magic, 86).
Cat Yronwode similarly cites buckeyes as charms for increasing male potency. Both Yronwode and Dunwitch, however, make it clear that a buckeye’s primary powers are to aid as a gambling charm and to help stave off aches and pains—particularly rheumatism and headaches. This view is heavily supported by a number of folklore sources:
From Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro
- Where the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, a buckeye, a horse chestnut, and a luck bone from a pig ham are put together for good luck [A charm for good luck] (316)
- A buckeye carried in the pocket will surely bring one good luck (314)
- A buckeye carried in the left pocket is generally supposed to work a cure for rheumatism as well as for piles, a belief apparently English (360)
- Red pepper rubbed up and down the back ‘warms up de system,’ as does also a new domestic sack half full of salt into which nine grains of red pepper and four buckeyes have been put. Wear this around your waist and you will never again be bothered with chills (366)
- In Mississippi and Alabama it is believed that if one carries buckeyes in the pocket he will have no chills through the year (366)
From Harry M. Hyatt, Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois
- 1328. “My brother always carries a buckeye in his pocket to get money.” (28)
- 1329. “I always carry three buckeyes in my pocket to always have money. My grandfather did this through the Civil War, my mother did this, and I am carrying three buckeyes too.” (28)
- 4534. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never becomes sick. (99)
- 4688. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never suffers from backache. (103)
- 5233. A buckeye carried in your pocket or the band of your hat prevents headache. (118)
- 5588. As a treatment for piles, a buckeye is worn: in the pocket (usually the left), or one in each pocket, or one pinned to the underclothes, or one round the neck, or one rolled in the top of each stocking. (126)
- 5684. One buckeye is worn in one of several places as a rheumatism remedy: about the neck, on the breast, in a pocket (especially a hip pocket), round the waist, and under the bend of the knee. Sometimes, they say buckeyes are ineffective for rheumatism, unless you begin by using an unripe one. Moreover, it is occasionally said, to lose this nut in the process of curing yourself brings bad luck. And finally, because a buckeye is also called a horse chestnut, the real chestnut is worn as a substitute, but this seems to be rare. (129)
- 5685. Buckeyes used for curing rheumatism should always be carried in pairs. This also makes you lucky at the same time. (129)
- 5686. “If you carry three buckeyes in a sack so they will be on your skin, good for rheumatism; if the buckeyes dry all up when wearing, then they are doing you good; but if they don’t dry all up, they are doing you no good.” (129)
- 11073. It is lucky to keep a buckeye in your purse, on your person, or in your house. (262)
- 13443. Keep a buckeye in your pocket while playing baseball and you will have good luck. (310)
- 13984. You obtain good luck for a card game, if a buckeye is worn in your right pocket. (319)
From Daniel & Lucy Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions:
- 1224 – One subject to a headache may prevent it by carrying a buckeye in his pocket (105)
- 1288 – Carry a horse chestnut [another name for a buckeye] in the pocket, to avert piles (110)
- 1299 – To avert rheumatism, carry a horse-chestnut in the pocket (111)
- 2887 – You will have good luck if you carry a horse-chestnut (219)
Kentucky Superstitions also has this rather fantastic bit of lore about the good ole horse-chestnut:
- 2889 – If one eats a buckeye, his head will turn around (219)
Vance Randolph devotes a sizeable amount of space to the folklore of buckeyes among the hillfolk of the Ozarks, also pointing out their strong associations with healing and protection from painful diseases. He relates an excellent story about just how deeply ingrained the belief in buckeye powers was in the mountains:
There is an old saying that no man was ever found dead with a buckeye in his pocket, but this is not to be taken seriously. Most people who carry buckeyes regard them as a protection against rheumatism, or hemorrhoids. One of the most successful physicians in southwest Missouri always carries a buckeye ; when it was mislaid once he was very much disturbed and let an officeful of patients wait until his pocket piece was recovered. It is very bad luck to lose a buckeye. I asked this doctor about it once. “No, I’m not superstitious,” he said grinning, “I just don’t want to get the rheumatism!” (Ozark Magic & Folklore, 153)
There is some excellent lore about the buckeye and just why it became the namesake for Ohio from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. They mention the lucky association, likening it to a four-leaf clover or rabbit’s foot, and links the state nickname to William Henry Harrison or alternatively to Col. Ebenezer Sproat (a simply fantastic name), both Ohioans of historic and heroic stature.
Probably my favorite bit of folklore concerning the lovely horse-chestnut comes from an online forum I found while researching this topic. You can read the full thread here, but I simply cannot fail to mention this fantastic tidbit:
There is a belief by some that only half the buckeye is poisonous, and that only squirrels know which half that might be in a particular nut. Squirrels do sometimes eat a part of the nut.
There you have it: squirrels are smarter than we are. But I’ve known that for a while (at least in my case it’s true).
At any rate, the buckeye can be carried as a lucky charm or worked into other magical preparations, and it has a huge body of lore associated with it. So much, in fact, that I’ve barely (prepare for pun) cracked the shell here. If you know of great buckeye lore and magic, I’d love to hear about it! Or if you just want to pelt me with horse-chestnuts for making bad puns, I’ll be here all day.
Thanks for reading!
Hello dedicated (and not abandoned!) readers!
This month, I’m going to be spending a lot of time looking at various botanicals found throughout North American magical practice. What with it being springtime and all, I thought a little stroll through our native meadows, forests, fields, and fens would be a good way to get back in the swing of things, and might even open up some new avenues of exploration for somebody. As always let me emphasize that THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND THE INFORMATION HERE IS NOT INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE MEDICALLY PROVIDE FOR ANY ILLNESS OR AILMENT. ALL INFORMATION IS PROVIDED AS FOLKLORE ONLY!!!
I’m starting with a plant that may or may not be familiar to most people: American Ginseng (panax quinquefolia). This plant can be found throughout the mountainous regions of North America ranging from Canada down to the Southern states. It’s long been highly valued in Chinese medicine, and has been considered a panacea (hence its botanical Latinate name of panax) for a wide variety of complaints. You can read a good bit about the botanical and medical side of the plant at its Botanical.com entry, so I’ll focus today more on the folklore side of this incredibly useful root.
When I was growing up in the rural South, I had a good friend in high school whose father would regularly take him ginseng hunting (or “sanging”) in the hills and mountain areas a few hours away. It was a profitable side business for them, as it has been for mountain folk for nearly three centuries. In the Foxfire Book #3, which includes a whole chapter dedicated to ginseng, there’s a history dating back to the early 18th century in which Father Joseph Lafitau had local Mowhawk tribes in Canada begin gathering and curing native ginseng for sale on the Chinese market (244). At one point, ginseng was reputed to be worth its weight in gold, literally. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies includes this tidbit about the economic value of the root: “Even Daniel Boone gathered it [ginseng] to sell because it was more profitable than hunting and trapping” (18). Unfortunately this demand led to an overzealous glut of wild harvesting, and ginseng’s botanical population dwindled steadily into the early 20th century. It’s made something of a comeback in the last 50-60 years due to stricter laws governing its harvesting, but as my story about my friend’s family demonstrates, it’s still a very common practice and hard to regulate.
Mountain communities have long known the curative and tonic value of ginseng root. Looking again to Foxfire #3, we find the following:
“The early colonists not only gathered ginseng for sale, but used it in tea to encourage the appetite or strengthen the digestion, especially of elderly persons or puny children. Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey. An early herbal suggested gathering ginseng root and steeping it with chamomile flowers for fainting females” (247)
Its primary powers are to enhance male vigor, and its described as a potent aphrodisiac in a number of sources. This may be due to either its stimulant effect on the circulatory system or the distinctively humanoid shape of the root (a factor which has earned aphrodisiac and potentcy attributions for other roots like mandrake and ginger). Preparations vary from chewing slices of the fresh root to brewing teas to even more unorthodox decoctions. One informant’s method:
“‘You can take the roots that are dry and take a sausage mill or something and grind’em up and drop a pretty good little handful down into your vial of conversation juice [moonshine]. Take this ginseng and liquor and pour out just a small little amount of that ina teacup and set it afire. Strike a match to it, you know, and it’ll burn. And I mean burn it good. And then turn it up and drink it. It’s an awful bitter dose to swallow, but if it don’t do you some good you better get to a doctor and pretty durn fast. It really is good for that [male vigor]. And it’s also good for female disorders. Very good, they tell me, for that’”(Foxfire #3 250-1)
In one example I found, the act of finding ginseng has its own value. From Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia: “For some, the pursuit of ‘sang’ and other herbs is a therapeutic activity in itself. A ninety-year-old woman from eastern Tennessee said: ‘When I feel down in the dumps, I go sangin’” (60).
Therapeutic uses of ginseng in modern preparations reflect its historical value. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies recommends it as a tonic and aphrodisiac, and gives this recipe for a male tonic:
“TONIC FOR MEN: Mix ½ ounce each of ginseng, shepherd’s purse, corn silk and parsley. Mix well and add 1 teaspoon of the mixture to 1 cup of boiling water. Let steep 15 minutes, covered. Strain and sweeten if desired. Drink several cups per day for 1 week. This helps to tone up the male reproductive organs. The stimulation to the prostate is helpful to all parts of the system” (120)
It also considers ginseng one of the great coffee subsitutes available in the wild. It is still considered a great digestive aid, as well. The folklore tome Kentucky Superstitions calls it “A sure remedy for all kinds of stomach trouble” (107).
In the folk magical realm, ginseng again parallels its medicinal uses, as well as adding a few new tricks to its repertoire. Cat Yronwode describes a recipe for soaking a ginseng root in Holy Oil which can then be used to anoint the male genetalia to enhance sexual performance. She also mentions it’s a key component of an old-timey gambling mojo, too. The root seems to have made its way into curanderismo practice as well, as the Curious Curandera lists the following uses for it: “Love, wishes, protection, luck, spirit communication, visions, divination, male vigor, gambling luck, to control another.” And Judika Illes, in her oft-recommended tome The Encylopedia of 5000 Spells, gives a number of great magical applications for ginseng root:
- Tie a red thread around a ginseng root and carry with you for beauty and grace (1026)
- Wrapping the first dollar earned at a new business around a ginseng root w/ red thread will help improve income (167)
- Mentions its name as “Wonder of the World root,” and tells how it can be used in hoodoo to enhance longevity, libido, & performance in sexual situations (527). Also says you can carve a wish on a whole root & toss it into running water to gain what you desire (763).
- Can be burned to break curses (598)
This incredibly verstatile root definitely has a place in a folk magician’s cupboard, though I would recommend acquiring it from legal sources. While I’m normally an advocate of wild harvesting roots for practice, in ginseng’s case three centuries of such harvesting have taken a toll, and since it grows well in cultivation I’d rather see the wild stocks remain alive and untouched for a long time to come.
If you have experience with ginseng or know of any unique magical applications for it, I’d love to hear them! Until next time, thanks for reading!
Whew! Sorry about that, folks. Last week was a heckuva beast so I didn’t wind up getting to post all that much. Or at all, other than the podcast. I’m hoping that I’ll have more this week, especially considering that after this week, posts will be rather infrequent for the next two months due to grad school. Anyhow, enough about me; on to the topic!
Today I thought I’d talk a little about charms. The problem with talking about charms, though, is that it’s hard to define just what a “charm” is. For some, they’re spoken words used along with other spell components to get results. Others may take the view that charms are talismans or magical objects, usually fairly small, which are carried like a portable personal spell. Some think of them as written spells, others mainly include love spells in this category, and some simply think of “charm” as another word for spells.
For my own purposes, though, I’m going to define “charm” thusly: A spell composed of words, spoken or written. There, now that’s settled. So now we have the question, what’s so special about charms? Well, for one thing, they’re usually simple. Simple enough, in fact, that ordinary folk who might not otherwise engage in magical practice often work a charm without giving it a second thought. There are lots of these kinds of little workings to be found throughout the various New World magical systems, but here are a few of my favorites:
Finding Lost Objects
St. Anthony Prayer (Catholic, Strega, Saint-based Hoodoo, Curanderismo)
This prayer is used when an item (or sometimes person) is lost and you need to find it in a hurry. The first version is slightly formal (though not nearly so formal as the prayer on his prayer card). From the Lucky Mojo site:
St. Anthony, St. Anthony
Please come down
Something is lost
And can’t be found
My own family used a variant of this which was much more informal:
Help me find
What can’t be found
I always repeat the prayer at least once out loud and then under my breath as I search for the missing item. I’d say I have about a 75-80% success rate with this one. I do know that traditionally if you find your missing item, you should give to the poor in St. Anthony’s name (a practice called “St. Anthony’s Bread”). This can be as simple as writing “Thank you St. Anthony!” on the edge of a dollar bill and giving it to a homeless person (or leaving it in a poorbox collection of some kind).
Halting a Thief
Three Lilies Charm ( Pow-wow)
This one comes from John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend. I’ve had no reason to use it yet, thankfully, but I like the poetry of this one (or at least, I think it sounds very poetic). The portions where you see the “+++” symbols indicate making the sign of the cross in the air with your hand as part of the charm:
A GOOD CHARM AGAINST THIEVES.
There are three lilies standing upon the grave of the Lord our God; the first one is the courage of God, the other is the blood of God, and the third one is the will of God. Stand still, thief! No more than Jesus Christ stepped down from the cross, no more shalt thou move from this spot; this I command thee by the four evangelists and elements of heaven, there in the river, or in the shot, or in the judgment, or in the sight. Thus I conjure you by the last judgment to stand still and not to move, until I see all the stars in heaven and the sun rises again. Thus I stop by running and jumping and command it in the name of + + +. Amen.
This must be repeated three times.
INRI Cross (Pow-wow, Hoodoo, Mountain Magic, most folk magical systems)
This one can again be found in Hohman’s book, as well as many other magical texts. It’s a written charm, primarily used against harmful magic directed against you, as well as fire. There are plenty of ways to use this charm, from marking it in a magical oil or water on your door to putting it on a small piece of paper and hiding it in the lintel of your doorframe. It can also be carried with you for magical protection. This is the version from Hohman:
A CHARM TO BE CARRIED ABOUT THE PERSON
Carry these words about you, and nothing can hit you: Ananiah, Azariah, and Missel, blessed be the Lord, for he has redeemed us from hell, and has saved us from death, and he has redeemed us out of the fiery furnace and has preserved us even in the midst of the fire; in the same manner may it please him the Lord that there be no fire.
N I R
The simple form of this is to just draw out that last bit, rather than worrying about the prayer before it, but the prayer can also be a powerful addition to the charm.
SATOR Square (Pow-wow, Hoodoo, Mountain Magic, Curanderismo, most folk magical systems)
Another powerful and widely found magical charm, the SATOR square is written out and used much like the INRI cross:
These words are written out (try to make them as “square” as you can) and again posted or carried to protect you from harm, theft, fire, and any number of other ills.
St. Michael the Archangel (Catholic, Strega, Saint-based Hoodoo, Curanderismo)
This is a common prayer among Catholics facing spiritual struggles, and it’s made its way into magical practice, too. In the film The Gangs of New York, a priest (played by Liam Neeson) recites this prayer before leading his band of Irish immigrants into battle with another gang. It’s particularly effective if done in conjunction with the St. Michael medal or candle, but I think you can use it on its own as well. The main target of this protective charm is evil—if you feel beleaguered by any harmful person or force (and you don’t have a problem invoking this particular spirit), this is a very potent way to deflect that trouble:
Great Archangel Michael Archangel, defend us in battle,
be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the
May God rebuke our enemies, we humbly pray; and
do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of
God, thrust into Hell the Adversary and all other evil
spirits who prowl about the world for the ruin of
I like to use all of these protective charms, though the SATOR square is my favorite. I generally renew these charms once per year in conjunction with a few other key rituals (and a particular holiday, which I’ll get to eventually).
Well, I’m not quite through with charms yet, but there is plenty here to digest, so I’ll save the rest of them for another day. Thank you all for being patient, and for being such a wonderful readership! I’ll be trying to catch up with blog responses and emails over the next day or two, so don’t hesitate to keep up the fantastic comments!
Thanks for reading!
Today, I’m continuing the look at Appalachian mountain magic by focusing on a few of the specific “jobs” performed by mountain magicians.
Grannys, Dowsers, and Yarb Doctors
In general, the current incarnation of Appalachian magic is broken into a few categories. Mountain witches may do only one “magical” thing all their lives, or they may perform a broad array of tasks for their communities, some magical and some not. Often, the word “witch” never enters the picture or has a negative connotation (with one very key exception, explained below). But the basic functions of a mountain magician can be broken down into a set of roles, as follows.
This is probably the best known and most ambiguously defined magical “job” in the mountains. Granny women filled several roles in the community:
- They acted as healers in communities where trained doctors were scarce, nonexistent, or deeply distrusted.
- They assisted doctors when professional medicine was required, and often during childbirth.
- They acted as midwives and postpartum caretakers for new babies and mothers.
- They might be called upon to perform blessings for livestock or land before planting, owing to their roles as birth-helpers (thus helping the earth and one’s livestock birth the food one would eat for the coming year).
- In some cases, they might also perform basic divinations, like determining the sex of a baby by dangling a wedding ring over the woman’s palm or belly.
Often the work done by these women was broader in scope than mere medicine. It took into account a patient’s whole state, including spiritual or psychological. Sometimes the work done by Grannies baffled the doctors performing the births, though they obviously were a great comfort to the mothers:
“Granny-women might perform a number of rituals which doctors found silly and irrational. Some were designed to give the mother psychological, if not physical, relief from her pain. She might give the woman her husband’s hat to hold during the ordeal, thus bringing him symbolically into the delivery room. If the labor were particularly severe, she would place an axe or knife under the bed to “cut” the pain in two. Sometimes, weather permitting, she would throw open every door and window in the house, in a symbolic representation of opening the birth canal” (from “In Defense of Granny Women,” by Janet Allured)
The term “Granny women” isn’t exactly accurate, either. Many women were not particularly old when they learned about midwifery from their own female relatives, and even some men were known to assist during childbirth. While much of the training to become a Granny was on-the-job, there were surprisingly sophisticated teaching materials as well:
“To train them [potential midwives], we had a very large wooden box. At the bottom and on the top, there was a simulated abdomen and perineum—just like the mother—so we could actually teach them the mechanism of labor, and so we could teach them what was going on inside” (Foxfire 2, p.277)
Payment for a Granny woman’s services varied, often depending on the economic state of those she helped (which was usually fairly poor). A passage from Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, by Anthony Cavender, illustrates the point:
“A typical fee charged by a physician in Kentucky for delivering a baby in the latter part of the nineteenth century was about $10, a substantial sum for an average farming family. Physicians were often paid in commodities, such as corn, timber, pigs, cows, and corn mash whiskey, or labor in kind. Some granny women charged a modest fee of a dollar or two or its equivalent in materials, but many did not” (FMSA, p.129)
These women served a vital role in their communities, and while some of them were labeled as “witches,” they seldom endured physical persecution as they were far too valuable.
The exception to the rule of bad “witches” were the dowsers, often called “water witches.” These were people—most often men, though women were certainly known to perform water witching as well—who could locate underground streams through the use of various magical techniques. The most common method was to use a forked branch cut from a witch hazel tree (some sources list other trees, like willow) and to walk slowly along a piece of property until the rod reacted by bobbing up and down or giving some other sign. Despite being called “water witches,” there were seldom any negative connotations to the profession, as it was an absolutely necessary service in a time when digging wells was costly and difficult business. Vance Randolph describes them thusly:
“Nearly all of the old settlers…believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks. These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers, and the forked switches they carry are known as witch sticks. Despite this sinister terminology, the waterfinder has no dealings with the Devil, is not regarded as dangerous by his neighbors, and has nothing to do with witchcraft proper…Nearly all of the really old wells…were located by witch wigglers. Even today there are many substantial farmers who would never think of drilling a well without getting one of these fellows to witch the land” (OM&F, p.82)
In addition to locating underground water currents, dowsers could also locate other materials, like oil or precious metals. Some practiced what is called “map dowsing,” where a map would be laid out in front of the dowser and he or she would use a pendulum to figure out where to start the search for whatever material was being sought. This practice is very well accepted in the mountains and throughout the rural parts of North America. In Signs, Cures, & Witchery, Gerald C. Milnes examines the widespread nature of dowsing, as well as some of its history:
“Water witching (rhabdomancy) is very common in West Virginia. According to a study done about fifty years ago, at that time there were twenty-five thousand practicing water witches in this country. The actual practice of divining with a forked stick, as we know it, began in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century in Germany. Martin Luther believed the practice violated the first commandment. Through the ages it has been roundly denounced as the devil’s work and praised as a remarkable aid to a basic necessity of rural life—finding water. It is often categorized with such rural customs as planting by the signs” (SC&W, p.133)
There have been many efforts to scientifically prove or disprove dowsing, all with varying degrees of success and failure. It seems that there is something to it, but that it may have a great deal more to do with the person doing the dowsing than the actual practice itself, at least as far as science is concerned. However, from my personal point of view, the practice of water witching is akin to pendulum divination of any kind and something worth adding to a witch’s repertoire. In one of Peter Paddon’s Crooked Path episodes, for example, he talks about ley lines and the currents of magical energy flowing through the world. Dowsing is a great way to help detect those currents and to tap into and work with them to improve one’s witchcraft (again, in my opinion).
Whew! This is already getting to be a long post, so I’m going to stop here for today and save the last little bit of this topic for tomorrow. Please feel free to add any comments or questions, and if you have any family stories about Grannies or dowsers, I’d love to hear them!
As always, thanks for reading!
Today, I thought I’d start to tackle in brief a subject which deserves its own book. Or several books. Perhaps even a library. I’d like to do an overview of the loose collection of occult, healing, and divinatory practices practiced by the mountain folk found in the Appalachian range. This is not going to be a comprehensive post, just a general snapshot of the different components of mountain magic, so if I don’t cover something in detail I will likely be coming back to it again eventually. First, though, let’s start with a little bit about where this system comes from.
When European settlers moved into these mountains, they found that the lore and landscape they suddenly occupied was not entirely different than what they’d left behind in Europe. Many of the Native American tribes like the Cherokee and Shawnee already associated these ancient mountains with magic and otherworldly power. There were even beings which very much resembled fairies living in those ridges and valleys, as illustrated in the Cherokee tale of the “Forever Boy”:
“As he looked behind him, there they were, all the Little People. And they were smiling at him and laughing and running to hug him. And they said, ‘Forever Boy you do not have to grow up. You can stay with us forever. You can come and be one of us and you will never have to grow up… Forever Boy thought about it for a long time. But that is what he decided he needed to do, and he went with the Little People” (Native American Lore Index – Legends of the Cherokee).
The presence of fairies in the mountains would have been familiar to groups like the Germans and the Scots-Irish, the latter of whom had their own tradition of “fairy doctoring” which would eventually shape a portion of Appalachian magical practice.
Germans also brought in astrology, particularly astrology associated with things like planting, healing, and weather. Despite a strongly Christian background (and strongly Protestant and Calvinist at that), most settlers accepted a certain amount of magical living in the mountains. As George Milnes says in his Signs, Cures, & Witchery:
“Among the early German settlers in West Virginia, religion was thoroughly mixed with not only astrology but also esoteric curing practices tied to cosmic activity. Folk curing bridged a gap between the religious and the secular mind-set. And forms of white magic were not disdained; in fact, they were practiced by the early German clergy” (SC&W, p. 31).
The Scots and Scots-Irish who settled in the mountains were often displaced due to land struggles back home. After long struggles with England for an independence which clearly would never be theirs, clan leaders traveled across the Atlantic and began building new territories. The mountains running between Georgia and West Virginia were a perfect fit for them, according to Edain McCoy:
“The Scots found the southern Appalachians very remote, like their Highland home, a place where they could resume their former lifestyle and live by their ancient values without interference from the sassenach, or outsiders. So isolated were they that many of the late medieval speech patterns and terms remained intact in the region until well into [the 20th] century” (In a Graveyard at Midnight, p. 6).
Once these various elements were situated in the mountains together, they began to merge and blend, mixing Native and European sources to create something else. The introduction of hoodoo elements eventually changed the mixture again, though much later, and there are still old-timers in the hills practicing many of these techniques even now, though it is unlikely the entire system will remain intact for more than a generation or two as many mountain folk are being forced by poverty or circumstance to give up their highland homes. Still, for the moment, there are lots of people trying to get Appalachian folkways recorded and preserved before they perish from the earth (this blog being one very infinitesimal drop in the bucket as far as that goes). So for that, at least, we can be thankful.
Okay, I’ll stop here for today. Tomorrow, I’ll be picking up with a little bit on each of the current components of Appalachian magical practice. Until then…
Thanks for reading!