Episode 126 – Magic and the Great Lakes

Summary:

In our continuing quest to explore the North American magical landscape, we turn to a massive section of the continent chock-full of magic: the Great Lakes Region. Special guests Scarlet from Lakefront Pagan Voice and Witchdoctor Utu from Dragon Ritual Drummers help us get a toe in some very big, mythically deep waters!

 

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Producers for this show: Heather, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Raven Dark Moon, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Jody, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Montine, Amy, Josette, Carole, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, Sarah at ConjuredCardea,The Trinket Witch, Victoria, Jody, Sherry, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

Play:

Download: Episode 126 – Magic and the Great Lakes

Play: 

 

 -Sources-

Immense thanks to both of my guests this time! We highly recommend checking out Scarlet’s podcast, Lakefront Pagan Voice, and Witchdoctor Utu’s excellent musical group, the Dragon Ritual Drummers.

 

Want to know more about the mound-builder cultures and Native landscapes in North America? Cory recommends a good primer on pre-European Native cultures called 1491, by Charles Mann, as a way to get some good background. Several listeners have also recommended the book Star Songs & Water Spirits, by Victoria Brehm, as well.

 

The tale of the Bannockburn can be found here and here, as well as in Dwight Boyer’s Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes.

 

Cory reads from and discusses some of the “Yooper” bloodstopper and bearwalker lore found in Richard M. Dorson’s aptly titled Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers.

 

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! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune. Incidental music includes:

  • “Blessings to You,” by Victoria Guzman, licensed from Magnatune
  • “Masters of Chaos,” by the Dragon Ritual Drummers (used with gracious permission)
  • We’re Going to Pump Out Lake Erie,” by Pearl R. Nye, and “Koivun Oksat…,” by Amanda Harkonen, both from the Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress (public domain)
  • “Quiet Storm Surge,” by Stella Stormfloj; “Sedativa I & V,” by DR; and “Energy and Nothing,” by Genomic Sequence, from the Free Music Archive (CC License)

Blog Post 201 – Ilvermorny

I realize that my previous post promised a bit more exploration of the potential shape of a “New World Witchery” sort of practice, but during the drafting of that post, Ilvermorny was unveiled. I’ll get to what that means in a moment, but I wanted to just take a moment to say I am still working on the other post, and that this one may actually tie nicely into the longer discussion of New World magic (albeit from a more literary stance). I also want to note that there are most definitely *spoilers ahead* so consider this your chance to stop reading if you aren’t already somewhat familiar with what Ilvermorny is.

Platform 9 & 3/4 Sign, Kings Cross Station, London. Picture taken by fr:Steff via Wikimedia Commons.
If you have managed to see the light of day at any point in the past two decades, you are probably familiar with the world of Harry Potter. Created by J.K. Rowling, the Potterverse (as all the collective official materials of the Harry Potter fictional fandom are known) has historically centered on the adventures of Harry, “The Boy Who Lived,” and his struggles against Voldemort (a.k.a. Tom Riddle), an evil and megalomaniacal wizard bent on the purge of all “impure” wizarding families and the subjugation of Muggles (as non-magical folk are known). The places most familiar to those who have read the seven primary tomes of the Potter series (and now, the eighth installment, which is actually a stage play called Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, but which even in its dramatological format has still sold more than two million copies during its first few days of release) are generally located in the United Kingdom: Platform 9 ¾, found at King’s Cross Station in the London Underground; the wizard-and-witch shopping mecca of Diagon Alley, hidden behind the Leaky Cauldron, both also in London; and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, located in and about Scotland, where Harry and his friends learn their trade along with hundreds of other students (I emphasize the number for reasons that I hope will be clear soon enough). Pottermania has permeated literary and popular culture for well over a decade now, and Rowling’s most recent endeavors in her magical world make it clear that the Potterverse is not going to remain stagnant, but expand even further.

Photo of Mt. Greylock, MA, by By Ericshawwhite via Wikimedia Commons. Mt. Greylock is the home of Rowling's Ilvermorny school.
Photo of Mt. Greylock, MA, by By Ericshawwhite via Wikimedia Commons. Mt. Greylock is the home of Rowling’s Ilvermorny school.
Most recently, it has expanded with some detail into North America. Rowling wrote a short story that tells the history of the founding of the North American school of magic, known as Ilvermorny, in Massachussetts during the seventeenth century. I won’t do a complete recap of the events, as I encourage you to read it for yourself (it’s less than an hour’s read, really), but the gist of the tale is that an Irish witch descended from the Slytherin line named Isolt Sayre fled the Old World with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, and then high-tailed it into the woods to the west and eventually formed a magical family, adopting two boys (the Boot brothers) and marrying a kindly Muggle (or “No-Maj” as we apparently call non-magical people in North America, in a blinding fit of banality) named James Steward. Isolt befriends a number of North American mythical beasts and cryptids, including a river spirit in the form of a Horned Serpent and a pukwudgie whom she calls William. When she begins instructing other magical folk (including the local Native populations, mostly of the Wampanoag people), she establishes the school that eventually becomes Ilvermorny.

 

At a very basic level, the Ilvermorny story is a pleasant addition to the young-adult fictional world of Rowling’s imagination. Characters—despite not having much space in the narrative—generally have readily accessible personalities and even get a bit of development here and there. Rowling tries very hard to recreate the magic of Hogwarts in Massachussets, and at times, she gets pretty close to doing so, in my opinion. Given the heavy use of British and broadly European folklore and myth in the Potter series, however, her approach to North American lore and legend is strangely off-kilter. I can only really speak for North American cultural materials from the United States, here, but I imagine that Canadian and Mexican readers might also feel there is something “off” about the Ilvermorny tale. Below I will outline some of the key issues I found when reading Rowling’s backstory.

 

Thunderbird on Totem Pole By Dr Haggis via Wikimedia Commons. The Thunderbird is one of the four house creatures for the Ilvermorny school.
House Divisions

Ilvermorny’s problems often stem from a particularly British mindset transplanted into an environment that was fundamentally un-British. Firstly, very few schools in the U.S. use the “house” structure. There are certainly exceptions to that rule, notably a high school in Kentucky, but by and large even residential boarding schools do not favor house systems anymore. Of course, Ilvermorny was founded in the 1600s, so it is very likely that a house system might have been in place for a century or so, but I doubt it would have lingered there much past the public education and Sunday school movements of the nineteenth century. Instead, individual schools foster collective school pride in competition with other schools. In some instances, there might be fraternity-like divisions within a school, but they are seldom as intense as house divisions and rivalries are generally much shallower. In some cases, such divisions are even viewed with intense scrutiny: “[O]rganizations that enclose themselves in separate houses…carry the stigma of secret societies, [and] fraternities and sororities are subject to suspicion, restriction, reform, disparagement, suspension, and at many campuses, banishment” (Bronner 242). Even at colleges, where house-like divisions are more common, they seldom take on the definite shape of the divisions found in the more British antecedents. Additionally, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a founder, with a deeper backstory about why they came together to form the school Ilvermorny has a general set of founders, but they chose not to name the houses after themselves. Rowling even makes a point of joking about how the houses are not named after the individuals behind them: ”The idea of naming the houses after themselves, as the founders, was swiftly abandoned, because Webster felt a house called ‘Webster Boot’ had no chance of ever winning anything, and instead, each chose their favourite magical beast.” The author’s clever solution to the founder problem is to form the houses around the mascots, which brings us to…

 

The Menagerie of Beasts

Taken *mostly* from North American folklore and legend, the house creatures are essentially mascots for their houses. Yes, each of the houses at Hogwarts has a creature associated with it, but the creature is fundamentally linked to the founder—Gryffindor is a Griffin because a Griffin represents Godric Griffindor (and there’s a whole book about the “heir of Slytherin” and the relationship to snakes through his line). The beasts in Ilvermorny actually work better as mascots because the founders remain nominally distant from their houses (Rowling’s account of the naming of the houses makes it sound like an affable after-dinner conversation). In an American secondary education environment, however, you don’t have four mascots at one school. You have four schools, with four different mascots. I will return to that concept momentarily, but first we must discuss the mascots themselves.

 

The beasts are an odd mishmash of the North American legendary landscape. All of them are at least loosely linked to Native American or Amerinidian legends of one kind or another, but are lumped  together in such a way that they don’t suggest the distinct or distinguishable Native tribes whence they come. Pukwudgies, for example, would be primarily associated with areas under the Northeastern portion of the Algonquin-speaking America—largely New England, where much of the Ilvermorny story takes place. So far, so good, right? There are similar creatures depicted in other areas—the Cherokee have legends about “Little People,” and the Cree tell tales of the Mannegishi, who are a lot like Pukwudgies (Mooney 335). Choosing to call them Pukwudgies links them to a region, however, and complicates things, because then Rowling introduces the idea of the”Horned Serpent,” a much more generic term for a figure found in various forms throughout the Plains, Lakes, and Southeastern American regions, as well as having some cousins in the “plumed serpents” of the Southwestern and Central American zones. Why make one specific, and one generic? Why not settle on a specific term, like Uktena or Mishi Kenepikwa to attach it to a region or tribal affiliation in some way, the way she did with Pukwudgie? Thunderbirds are similarly broad, although at least potentially more connected to the region in which Ilvermorny is founded (although not massively so, as they feature much more prominently in regions much further west) (Cohen 92-4; Erdoes & Ortiz 218-22). Perhaps the most confusing is the Wampus Cat, which is usually limited to the Southeast and occasionally Deep South (Mooney 324; Schlosser 92-8). Again, its name is potentially generic, but folklorically it has almost no connection to the area of Massachussets where Ilvermorny is located.

By author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Quetzocoatl, an example of a “plumed serpent” figure.
That doesn’t mean that Rowling is wrong to draw upon these figures—it is her fictional universe, after all. It does mean, though, that she’s not really put them into any context that makes sense given the folklore at hand. This is strange, because she is very good with British folklore and fairy tales, and incorporates them frequently into her Potter series. In the case of Ilvermorny, she has Hodags (a Wisconsin-based hoax beast) and Jackalopes (mostly in the Plains and American Southwest) mingling with the creatures of New England and the Mid-Atlantic (Brunvand 831-2; Cohen 239-44) . She does not seem to realize that a Hodag would have to travel nearly a thousand miles to romp with her pukwudgies, or that a Maryland Snallygaster would need to head northwest to the tune of about four hundred miles to play with Isolt’s friendly Horned Serpent. In the end, I think that she just does not quite grasp the size and scope of America, its peoples, and their mythologies. How anyone at Ilvermorny got Wampus Cat hair for making wands during the first years of the school is a mystery, and perhaps one we will examine as she expands the Potterverse over time. Which brings me to the last point…

 

America is Very Big

Let’s think about some numbers. We’ll start with Hogwarts. Based on what we’ve read in the Harry Potter book series, we can estimate an average of of 10 new students per house per year for 7 years = 280 students at any given time. The U.K. population is around 65 million, which means that about .000004 percent of people in the United Kingdom are likely to be selected for Hogwarts (and I am assuming that Hogwarts is the only place young wizards and witches are educated in the U.K., so that number is the high end estimate of new witches & wizards per year). To compare, the U.S. population is around 320 million, nearly five times the size of the United Kingdom, spread out over an area roughly forty times as large. If we assume that wizarding populations are roughly the same worldwide (as one astute listener pointed out, that idea is canon from the Pottermore site), then using approximate statistics, there should be at least 1,000 young wizards and witches per year (closer to 1,300-1,400, really) for the U.S. population. Enough to fill four or five schools, that is.

 

Ilvermorny is a very British way of doing things, and is very out-of-joint with the American people and landscape. There’s something very Colonial and Imperialist about the way Ilvermorny is portrayed, with its founder instructing the local Natives in magic (although to her credit, Rowling does make the education more of a magical exchange; most of the magic in the story, however, is the wand-waving type, and so European magic seems to be the most prominent and dominant form). Rowling seems to be trying to create a unified and cohesive narrative about American magic, and in some places she succeeds: the idea of the Magical Congress is very sharply perceived, as is the effort to avoid an aristocracy of houses and the inclusion of a Muggle-founded house. Her efforts to concentrate everything into one time and place, and her seeming lack of understanding of American historical movements and regional interactions, undercut the story she tells, however. It’s just sloppy to dump every possible magical being from Wampus Cats and Hodags to Jackalopes and even the Snallygaster into one place, especially without giving any context. She could just as easily have started bringing in Bigfoot or Little Green Men as a part of the Potterverse, since both creatures also have antecedents in Native lore, and are perhaps as disharmonious in her setting as some of the cryptids she does include.

Mounted taxidermy “jackalope,” near Death Valley, CA. By SedesGobhani (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The jackalope is a creature found in Rowling’s Ilvermorny story (albeit strangely out-of-place)
My own reading of the situation tells me that Rowling would have been much better off dividing the school into the four mascots, and then having each mascot represent a different regional school. Ilvermorny could have been the Pukwudgie school of New England and potentially parts of the Mid-Atlantic. The Wampus Cat would then have been representative of the South (possibly started by a maroon/runaway slave community—although it would also be lovely to imagine such a school represented by the Loup Garou in Louisiana). The Thunderbird would have made much more sense somewhere in the Western Plains, the Pacific Northwest, or California. And the Horned Serpent could have represented either the Middle West and Great Lakes region effectively, or been a more “plumed serpent” creature in the Southwest. Alternatively, a fifth school would have been a good thing to add, maybe including a Jackalope to represent quick-wittedness and a bright intellect with a bit of a mischievous streak in the West or upper Southwest. Rowling’s Potterverse accounts for “skinwalkers” as a type of shapeshifting Animagus slandered by charlatan “No-Maj medicine men,” so perhaps even a school founded by such an Animagi would be appropriate—particularly as it would show the magical agency of Native sorcerors in founding their own school. A fifth school division would work because the numbers for the wizarding school in the UK—Hogwarts—are roughly one-fifth of the projected numbers in the United States (and this is not even touching Canada or Mexico, which might well have their own schools—I could easily envision one by a lake in British Columbia where Ogopogo lurked in the waters much as other mythic creatures do in the lake by Hogwarts, for example) (Cohen 136-41). These schools would likely have been founded by different witches and wizards over time and during the expansion of American westward migration, and so they would not all tie up into quite so neat a package as the Ilvermorny tale or the Hogwarts history, but America is big and messy and complicated.

 

Yes, it would have meant a less complete story for Ilvermorny. But it would also have meant room for more expansion later. Since Ilvermorny is repeatedly described as the Great North American School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, we are left to assume that it is likely the only one. Considering we are a competitive, diverse, and geographically expansive society, any school attempting to be the sole proprietor of magical knowledge on the continent is unlikely to succeed. As historian Daniel Boorstin notes, “There has never been an effective American movement for a national university. The numerous and diverse American colleges, separated by vast distances, never formed a self-conscious community of learned men”(and women, I would add) (180). Boorstin is obviously discussing higher education, but the principle of spatial separation and scholastic individualism is mirrored in secondary education, too. We just don’t do an Oxford or a Cambridge here—we prefer numerous schools representing regional identities, and that’s something the Ilvermorny story misses. Rowling has a big imagination, and this is all fiction and her universe; she can do as she pleases. From where I sit, though, it seems she has not been able to imagine just how big and diverse America can be in its landscape, peoples, and lore.

 

I’d like to note that Peter Muise of the New England Folklore blog has also tackled this topic, much more succinctly than I have here, and I highly recommend you check out his take on the subject. Also, Laine & I discussed this topic extensively on our latest episode. And, of course, this is really all just for fun anyway. While I’ve obviously taken a bit of (wait for it) Umbridge at certain folkloric pieces of Rowling’s story, really it’s just there to entertain us and she seems to do that pretty well. Plus, it gives us a place to work from when discussing things we should expect to find in New World magical practices (such as diverse forms spread over a wide set of regions, with a combination of widespread and geographically particular spirits/creatures to explore). I write what I do here with fondness for Rowling’s work (and let’s face it, she doesn’t need my approval for anything!), and in the hopes that her story might inspire deeper reading for those who are interested in American folklore.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

References

  1. Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience (Random House, 1964).
  2. Botkin, B.A. A Treasury of New England Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1947)
  3. —. A Treasury of Southern Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1949).
  4. —. A Treasury of Western Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1951).
  5. Bronner, Simon J. Campus Traditions (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012).
  6. Brunvand, Jan, ed. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing, 1996).
  7. Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Monsters (Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1982).
  8. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964).
  9. Erdoes, Richard, & Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths & Legends (Pantheon Books, 1984).
  10. Leeming, David, & Jake Page. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).
  11. Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee (Charles Elder Books, 1982).
  12. Rowling, J.K. Pottermore site (updated 2016).
  13. —. The Harry Potter book series (Scholastic Press, 1997-2007)
  14. Schlosser, S.E. Spooky South (Globe Pequot Press, 2004).

Episode 93 – Bright Mothers

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Summary:

EDIT: We’ve had a very informative and respectful email from a listener that pointed out a few errors in my retelling of the Haitian tale about Obatala, Yemoja, and Shango. I would like to note that Yemoja is not historically associated with Haitian spiritual practices, and that the selections from Teish’s book are not reflective of African Traditional Religious practice as done by initiates from those traditions (like Lukumi or Candomble). The tale of Obatala’s Yams is from Courlander’s book, which has come under critical fire at times for inaccuracies. I am leaving the story as-is and in the context of the episode because I think it does fit the overall theme and has some grounding in folk narrative from Haiti, but please do not take it as solid evidence of Haitian traditions and practices. The listener also noted that Haitian Lwa and Lukumi Orishas are not “goddesses,” which is a good point to reiterate. They are not. Nor are White Buffalo Woman or La Virgen de Guadalupe. They are “goddess figures” in an anthropological sense, but I am using a very blunt instrument in categorizing these three tales together. I hope that I have not misled anyone into thinking that the Western concept of a “goddess” is universal or fits cultural material from non-Western sources without some severe oversimplification. Again, this episode is designed as a way of looking at the “lighter” side of the Feminine Divine, and is made in a spirit of appreciation. If I’ve reduced anyone’s spiritual beliefs in any way through this material, I apologize, as that was certainly not my intention. -Cory

We spend sometime with mothers bright and beautiful, the Queens of Heaven, in lore and practice. Hear some folktales from the New World, as well as some spells, music, and other fun stuff all devoted to the Bright Mother.

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, and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

Play:

Download: Episode 93 – Bright Mothers

 

 -Sources-

The idea to do this episode is related to our previous show, Episode 63 – The Dark Mother (although obviously we’re sort of looking at the divine feminine from the other side this time).

Folklore for this episode comes from several sources:

 

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! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).

Incidental Music (from FreeMusicArchive, used under a Creative Commons License):

  • Paul Messing, “Lakota Prayer (Edited)”
  • Laurent Danis, “Lakota Prayer”
  • L’Horrible Passion, “Lucidique”
  • Mild Maynard, “Migrant Mother”
  • Canton, “Ambient Gourd”
  • Advent Chamber Orchestra, “Serenade for Strings (Dvorak)”
  • Sergei Chereminisov, “Mother’s Hands”

Additional music used by permission: “Treachery is Afoot” (Ember Days Soundtrack) and “La Sirene,” by S.J. Tucker.

Blog Post 198 – Dolls

In one of our recent holiday episodes, we discussed the way that toys, dolls in particular, seem to embody the uncanny. Dolls, doll babies, dollies, poppets—whatever you call them, figural toys seem to have the power to evoke fear in people and act as powerful proxies for magical work. I decided to cover the topic in part because several podcasts I frequently download (namely LORE and Stuff You Missed in History) have recently mentioned Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Robert’s story is full of creepy twists and turns, but nicely captures how dolls can be both innocent (as Robert is when he acts as a best friend to his young owner, Gene) and terrifying (as Robert is when he shows up on a subsequent owner’s bed, brandishing a kitchen knife). Still, most tales of dolls and magic in the New World are not as spectacular as Robert’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very interesting uses for dolls in American folk magic. There most definitely are, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the ones that I find most interesting.

Robert the Doll, in Key West, Florida. Creepy, right? By Cayobo from Key West, The Conch Republic (Robert The Doll Uploaded by LongLiveRock) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
We can start in Salem, during the famous witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. A slave from Barbados named Candy was the focus of one early investigation (although her fate was not, as far as we know, the gallows). Candy confessed her use of folk magic, including the use of a handkerchief which she transformed into a doll:

“Candy stated that her knowledge of witchcraft came from her experience in Salem and not from her home in Barbados. The magical items possessed by Candy bear closer analysis and provide evidence for a possible connection to African or Afro- Caribbean beliefs. The knotted handkerchief was obviously a doll to stick with pins or to rend to inflict pain on others. The pieces of cloth were possibly shreds of clothing to be used to identify the dolls with a particular victim, as is common in the sympathetic magic which makes up part of voodoo belief” (McMillan 104-5)

Comments about “voodoo belief” aside (here I think McMillian is simply conflating “voodoo” with the folk magic of African Caribbeans), Candy’s use of the knotted handkerchief gets at some of the main reasons that doll magic seems to be popular and widespread. Firstly, it involves easily found or acquired resources—in this case cloth from the intended target, making the materials doubly enticing. Secondly, doll magic is sympathetic magic, and the connection is easy to see. If I make a piece of someone’s long johns look like a person, particularly the person whose backside the doll so recently covered, it seems likely that those two things will share a connection.

This point, that something that looks human but isn’t has uncanny powers, gets echoed in a lot of folklore as well, some of which connects to the folk magical systems of early Americans. Imported stories, such as tales about Anansi, refer to the use of dolls as agents of trickery. One account of Anansi tells how he tricked Tiger, and Tiger avenged himself on Anansi by putting a gumdoll in a field. Anansi gets angry when the doll won’t respond to him, and strikes it, becoming stuck to it. This tale is likely best known by American audiences as the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, of course, which replaces Anansi with the wily trickster rabbit and uses tar in place of tree gum. An Apache tale recasts the narrative as Coyote fighting with a lump of pitch, placed in a field by a “white man” to catch the sneaky food thief. The story keeps reappearing across different cultural backdrops, with new characters but the same basic structure. In all cases, the doll in question does nothing—that is one of the reasons Brer Rabbit and his compatriots dislike the thing—but still manages to get the best of its target.

Illustration of Brer Rabbit & the Tar Baby. A. B. Frost [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dolls, much like the Tar Baby or gumdoll, don’t necessarily have to do anything to be effective in folk magic, either. Jason Miller recounts a story in his Protection & Reversal Magic in which a doll’s effect is clearly psychological, but nonetheless potent:

“A santera I know was having problems with her neighbor being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night and leaving garbage on her lawn. She asked her madrina (her teacher) what she should do. The madrina told her to make a doll that looked like the neighbor, blindfold it, tie its arms and legs, and nail it to the tree in her yard facing her neighbor’s front door. My friend was a bit shocked and said, “Good Lord! I don’t want to hurt him! What will happen?”

“Nothing” replied her madrina, “but it will scare the living crap out of him!”” (Miller 30)

Miller’s account of the santera’s doll experience resembles other accounts in American folk history. Newbell Niles Puckett references a similar incident in his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. In the cases Puckett describes, the dolls may or may not actually have a magical effect, or they might simply convey the sender’s sentiments about how they wish to see the recipeient suffer: “Very common also was the practice of putting small black caskets, often with skull and crossbones upon the cover, in front of a person’s door. Sometimes these would contain a small doll with pins run through the heart and with a burned-out candle at the head and another at the foot, doubtless a case of sympathetic magic, indicating a desire that the person be “laid out” according to the Catholic rites.” (Puckett 227-8).

Dolls that do nothing, however are not as much fun as dolls that do something. Fairy tales like “Vasalissa the Beautiful” from Russian lore offer dolls that seem to do little, but in fact act as powerful fetishes of protection to those that carry them. Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s doll, which carries a maternal blessing and performs tasks while the young girl and the old witch Baba Yaga are sleeping at night. Baba Yaga is always disappointed by Vasilissa’s completion of her tasks, which she knows must be done by magic but cannot figure out. Eventually the ancient cannibal witch decides not to eat the girl and instead sends her away with a magical gift when she learns that Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s blessing (although she never does puzzle out the secret of the doll).

Just as in fairy tales, dolls can have powerful magical agency, according to folklore. Several authors, including the aforementioned Jason Miller, suggest using dolls or poppets in spells, just as Candy was said to have done in Salem. Miller recommends a mirror box spell using a doll which will turn any harmful magic back on its sender or protect one from magical attack. Dorothy Morrison makes similar suggestions in her book on baneful magic, and even talks about using dollar store Barbie knockoffs stuffed with personal materials or herbs as a way of simplifying the doll-making process.

When it comes to making dolls, however, kids seem to have a knack for doing it with whatever’s at hand, which as I mentioned above, may be part of why dolls are both so ubiquitous and so powerful. Coming from materials which are already familiar to the doll-maker through use and contact, the relationship with the doll itself can be very deep once the figure has been created. Adults do sometimes craft dolls and other toys with what is around, but they are also likely to purchase materials:

“Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper, fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or “found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”). Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric).” (Leeds-Hurwitz 1477)

The fabrication of toys and dolls, including ones used for ritual or magical purposes, is not limited to post-European contact in the New World, either. According to scholar Yvonne Milspaw, Native cultures would create paper-type dolls out of natural materials with magic in mind: ““Other reported uses of paper and bark cutting among Native Americans include carefully worded reports of sorcery and cut-paper dolls among some Mexican people like the Otomi” (MIlspaw 1134). Some of these traditions may have shaped latter-day practices like the creation of skeletal papier mache dolls for Day of the Dead/Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.

So dolls can be made from lots of materials, and can be active or passive in the use of magic, as we’ve seen. They also frequently come with their own rules or taboos about how they can be used, deployed, or even simply treated. When it comes to folk magic, African American conjure traditions emphasized the choice of materials as a matter of import. Dolls are often crafted with local flora (and occasionally fauna) for a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. Spanish moss is frequently used to stuff or wrap doll babies in Delta-area conjure practices both because it grows ubiquitously on trees in the region and because as a plant it acts semi-parasitically (it doesn’t actually feed off of the oak trees it grows upon directly, but it can limit their growth), thereby sharing life with a host as a doll is supposed to. Even more potent than Spanish moss, however, are doll components that come directly from the intended target, such as pieces of their clothing, as illustrated by this example from African American folklore:

“My husband was very jealous of me, he was just insane jealous. He was always telling me he was going to put a spell on me. I was afraid of him. I went to a house where he didn’t want me to go, because a man was at that house he was jealous of. He was going away to get work…and told me not to go there. He went and took a piece of my bloomers and made a rag doll out of them, stuff it, worked black eyes like mine with silk thread; then put in the head — a needle, some of my hair, pins, rain water and a shingle nail, then sewed up the head. After that he took a small picture of me and put it on the left side of the rag doll, about where my heart is; then he filled the doll just full of pins and needles all over. He then put it in a pint jar and buried it under that house, where he didn’t want me to go — without anyone knowing it — and left town. I started to getting sick just as soon as he left, was sick all the time, could not find out what was wrong. I would start over to the house, but I could not make it. Something kept me from going. I went on this way for about a month, I was getting weaker and weaker, when one day some children playing around this house, digging, dug up this rag doll. They [the people at the house] knew right away it was to cast a spell over me, because they knew my picture was on the doll, and he was always saying he was going to make me suffer. We took the rag doll, jar and all, put it on the fire and burnt it all up; and I started to getting better right away and got well. And my husband got stab in about a month time; we threw the spell back on him by burning up everything, and he died and I am well.” (Hyatt 456)

A number of writers on conjure similarly describe the use of clothing from the intented target, including Yvonne Chireau, Starr Casas, Denise Alvarado, and Jefferey Anderson. While a doll sculpted from scratch certainly seems to be preferred in many magical practices, it is not the only way to operate. Much as Dorothy Morrison mentions using dollar-store plastic dolls to do work, Zora Neale Hurston records the repurposing of children’s toys for magical purposes in Southern African American hoodoo:

“To Keep a Person Down. Write name on paper with black ink. Rip open back of a doll and put the names in it. Sew it up with black thread. Put aloes, cayenne pepper in doll along with names. Tie the hands of the doll behind her and place her in a kneeling position in a corner, and keep her there where nobody will interrupt. They will be frustrated as long as she is not disturbed. Tie a black veil on her face and knot it in the back, so that the person will be blind and always do the things to keep himself from progressing” (Hurston 384).

"Voodoo Doll," featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
“Voodoo Doll,” featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the lore of creepy dolls and the lore about how to use dolls magically, there seem to be a few taboos about dolls which thread through different American cultural landscapes as well. For instance, many Amish communities have strict rules about children’s dolls, insisting that they cannot have faces on them for fear of violating the “graven images” commandment in the Bible (the rule also extends to things like snowmen and usually paintings as well). Hyatt notes that one superstition about dolls involves naming: “If a girl changes the name of her doll, the doll will break.” (Hyatt, p.268). He also records a much more sinister taboo about dolls which I cannot help but share here:

“A little girl died that was three years old, and her mother put a doll and a little horse in the coffin that she always played with. I said to the mother, ‘I would not do that, for there is an old saying, never bury anything with a corpse.’ And in a few weeks this little girl’s mother and sister died.” (Hyatt 374)

This last bit of folklore is fascinating to me simply because it seems to be a powerful impulse in human beings to bury toys with children when they are tragically lost. Many early human graves contain burial goods, and children’s burial goods often seem to be toys. Dolls, though, might have a special exemption from burial because of their close resemblance to a living person, although that does not seem to be a universal taboo.

Dolls today have a lot of the same stigmas attached to them: they are objects of fear and superstition as well as simple objects of play. Magically, they can be used for a number of purposes which resemble and also modify the traditional folk uses I’ve outlined here. One of our readers shared a story with us about a sloth doll she uses to overcome issues with chronic lethargy, letting the doll absorb any feelings of laziness from her (she also shared her very terrifying experiences with an American Girls doll, so that tradition is alive and well, too). The film Toy Story and its many sequels and similar movies all play upon the idea of toys having a “secret life,” which involves humans not being around, but being the prime object of the dolls’ attention. In theaters as of the date of this post, one can also see the film The Boy, about a very Robert the Doll-esque figure which seems to have a (sinister) life of its own.

All of which is to say, dolls are a big part of magical lore and practice, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And they watch you while you sleep. So sweet dreams and all.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References

  1. Alvarado, Denise. The Day of the Dead Handbook (CreateSpace Publishing, 2012).
  2. The Voodoo Doll Spellbook: A Compendium of Ancient Spells and Rituals (Weiser Books, 2014).
  3. Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society (LSU Press, 2008).
  4. Casas, Starr. The Conjure Workbook, Vol. 1: Working the Root (Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
  5. Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2006).
  6. Crowley, Daniel J. “Anansi.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 50-1.
  7. Goldberg, Christine. “Witchcraft.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1560-64.
  8. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” In Journal of American Folklore (Fall 1931). 317-417.
  10. Kirkland, James W. “Folk Medicine.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 983-89.
  11. Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. “Toys, Folk.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1477-80.
  12. McMillan, Timothy. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, & Resistance in Colonial New England.” In Journal of Black Studies (Sept. 1994). 99-117.
  13. Miller, Jason. Protection & Reversal Magick (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books), 2006.
  14. Milspaw, Yvonne J. “Paper Cutting.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1132-35.
  15. Morrison, Dorothy. Utterly Wicked: Curses, Hexes, & Other Unsavory Notions (St. Louis: WillowTree Press, 2010.
  16. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York: Dover, 1970).
  17. R. D. Personal correspondence via email. 23 Dec. 2015.
  18. Yolen, Jane, ed. “Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch.” In Favorite Folktales from Around the World (New York: Random House, 1986).

Podcast Special – Haunted Heads

SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – HAUNTED HEADS

Summary
Tonight’s spooky set of stories are based on (urban) legends from the American Southwest and parts unknown. The theme tonight? How to get a-“head” in life.

Sources

The legends in this episode come from the books American Indian Myths and Legends and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Play
Special Episode – Haunted Heads

Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com

Podcast Special – From Beyond the Grave

Podcast Special – From Beyond the Grave

SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE

Summary
Tonight we feature four short stories of the dead affecting the living from the otherworld.

Sources

Play
Special Episode – From Beyond the Grave

Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com

Podcast 56 – Harvest Home

Summary:

This episode looks at various harvest festivals, including Michaelmas, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Thanksgiving. It includes poems, songs, stories, and a pair of essays. Enjoy!

Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 56

 -Sources-
Poems

Stories & Essays

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! And check out our Facebook page!

Keep an eye out for more info on the New Orleans Magical Meetup on Novemer 8-10, 2013! You can follow the official Facebook page, or watch the website for more details!

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

Song List:

Promos:

Blog Post 167 – Corpses

To get everyone in the holiday spirit, today I thought we might head down the gruesome path to the graveyard and see what we can dig up (figuratively, of course). That’s festive, right? Deck the halls and all that? While I’ve talked recently about bones and their uses in magic, and we’ve touched on the idea of working with the dead in magical practice, too, you may not know that there is a very long and widely spread habit of using corpses—in whole and in macabre part—as magical tools in their own right. Of course, there are many societies, including some Native American tribes, with strong taboos against contact with dead bodies, yet even this geis reflects a sense of respect and awe at the power of the deceased. Sometimes the spirit of the dead person is the fuel behind the magic—in which case it can be seen as a form of necromancy—and sometimes it is simply the body voided of life—any body, really—which empowers the charm.

Probably one of the most famous and nefarious examples of corpse magic is the Hand of Glory, a special candle made from the severed and pickled hand of an executed criminal which supposedly had intense magical properties. One of its talents was its reputed ability to render anyone in a house near where it was lit unconscious, thus making them easy to rob and explaining why the Hand of Glory might have been sought after by eager thieves. Here is one of the brief-but-to-the-point recorded recipes for making a Hand of Glory, from one of my favorite spooky little tomes, Kathryn Paulsen’s Witches’ Potions & Spells (WARNING! THIS IS PROVIDED AS A FOLKLORIC EXAMPLE ONLY! DO NOT DESECRATE CORPSES—IT IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL!):

During an eclipse of the moon, sever the right hand of a corpse, preferably that of an executed murderer. Dry it and preserve it in a jar to which you have added foul smelling herbs. If you light the fingers of this hand as candles, the light can only be seen by yourself and other witches, and the light will not go out until you wish it. If you bring it into a house, sleep will reign over those within.  But you must let no one know that you posses the Hand of Glory. Use this hand to give light whenever you wish to obtain something from a graveyard (Paulsen 40).

Paulsen also mentions a variation on this spell which involves filling a human shin bone with tallow and carrying it as a candle to cause enchanted sleep. The Hand of Glory and its variants date back to at least the early Modern period, showing up in 18th century texts like the Petit Albert.

Across the Atlantic and on North American soil, corpses remained a morbid part of folk magic. Here they were granted powers of healing, crime-detection, secret-keeping, and other occult traits. The bodies of the dead figure into magical systems spanning multiple cultures, including those of Native Americans, the Pennsylvania Dutch, African Americans, and mountain folk in the Appalachians and Ozarks. First Nations practices vary between tribes, with alternating levels of prohibition and interaction when it comes to handling the dead. Randolph notes that “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist upon sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before the burial. This is done unobtrusively, without any noise or ceremony, and many whites have attended funerals where the rite was carried out without eve* noticing it. As the mourners shuffle past the body, here and there you see one drop a tiny pinch of meal into the coffin” (Randolph 316). Such a practice more rightly belongs to burial customs than necromancy, however. In general, contact with the dead can be a powerful—but frequently fearful—thing in Native societies. For example, “[o]ne of the most remarkable of Indian sacrifices was that practised by the Hurons in the case of a person drowned or frozen to death. The flesh of the deceased was cut off and thrown into a fire made for the purpose, as an offering of propitiation to the spirits of the air or water. What remained of the body was then buried near the fire” (Parkman 4). In the Pacific Northwest, there are accounts of tribes with magical groups that engaged in highly taboo behaviors to perform their roles as community sorcerors:  “There were also a number of secret societies—for example the Cannibal Society of the Kwakiutl, whose induction ceremony was believed to involve eating parts of a corpse” (Lowenstein 120). South American Natives have their own legends about how a group of witch-monsters from Chiloe, an archipelago south of the mainland, use a fearsome object called a macun. This is a leather bowl made from human skin taken from the corpse of a virgin which reveals the presence of human victims and can be used in some stories as a mode of transportation.  It can also help the evil brujos turn into animals, open locked doors, and become invisible.

Turning from the cultural backdrop of Native Americans, whose varied practices I have only skimmed in the previous paragraph, let us now look more at the specific applications of corpse magic in some of the non-Native societies of North America. In general, what follows is broken down by magical purpose into categories (legal work, divination, cures, and curses), with a few tidbits at the end. This is a far from complete examination of the topic, however, so I hope this provides an entryway into further study for those interested.

Legal Work
Fundamentally, these sorts of spells are either somewhat divinatory—helping to provide insight into crimes which remain unsolved, for instance—or make use of the dead body to provide legal aid. To this latter end, we can look in Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to find at least one instance in which the figure of the corpse is invoked to help in court-case work:

“TO RETAIN THE RIGHT IN COURT AND COUNCIL.
Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judeorum.
First carry these characters with you, written on paper, and then repeat the following words: “I (name) appear before the house of the Judge. Three dead men look out of the window; one having no tongue, the other having no lungs, and the third was sick, blind and dumb.” This is intended to be used when you are standing before a court in your right, and the judge not being favorably disposed toward you. While on your way to the court you must repeat the benediction already given above.” (Hohman #147)”

The use of actual corpses in legal work tends to be more in crime-detection, however. One piece of lore spread across several cultures describes leaving an egg in the hand of a murdered man when he is buried. The murderer will be compelled to some action, depending on the story, ranging from returning to the scene of the crime to confessing guilt to suffering illness and death himself. Sometimes the body will perform its own divination, unaided by other witnesses or participants. Kentucky lore says “If a corpse’s nose bleeds, it is a sign that the murderer is in the room” (Thomas #745). Puckett notes in African American lore that “the common Negro belief [is] that If you put your hand on the corpse the ghost will not harm you (or you will be afraid of no more dead people). This may be the remnant of an old ordeal, since the wounds are supposed to bleed if the murderer touches the corpse” (Puckett 88).

Dead bodies can predict a number of situations and conditions it seems, as we shall see in the next section.

Divination
A number of sources on African American lore mention that a corpse that “limber” corpses predict a death to follow them, and insist that mirrors and clocks be covered with cloth as soon as someone dies to prevent anyone else in the house from dying. Like Puckett’s note above about touching the body to prevent fear of dead people, the corpse can intrude upon the living. Touching the body can prevent both bad dreams and visits from an unruly spirit. Likewise, the suggestion of something corpse-like can announce important information (usually another death). Harry Hyatt had an informant who related a tale of ‘death-scent,’ for example:

“I started to eat my breakfast last week. I happened to put my hand to my face; it smelled like a corpse. I said, ‘I wonder who’s going to die.’ And the smell left right away; that is a sudden death. If the smell  stays, it will be longer. That day I had a call. My cousin died when I was eating my breakfast. If it is the left hand that smells, it’s a lady; right hand, a man” (Hyatt #8313).

The dead seem to know a lot about the affairs of the living, but they can also be entreated to hold their tongues. Zora Neale Hurston recorded a spell used for keeping secrets which required a corpse: “If you want a secret kept, put it in the care of the dead by writing it on a piece of paper and folding it small and slipping it into the hand of the corpse, of whispering it in the ear” (Hurston 361). In addition to catching criminals and revealing impending doom, corpses can also be employed in a variety of happier magics, such as healings.

Cures
The volume of cures ascribed to dead bodies is too voluminous to include in any book, so I will only briefly touch on it here.  One of the most popular healings ascribed to the dead is wart-charming, which we’ve looked at before.  In the Ozarks, “[t]here is a widespread belief that warts can be ‘charmed off’ by touching them with the hand of a corpse. I have seen this tried several times. The warts disappeared after a while, just as they generally do under any other treatment, or with no treatment at all. On the other side of the balance, I have met an undertaker who handles many bodies every year, and both his hands are covered with warts!” (Randolph 131). Similar to Randolph’s bit about wart-removal, this charm comes from Kentucky: “You may remove birth-marks by rubbing them with the hand of a corpse.” (Thomas #1067). It can supposedly treat other skin disorders like eczema as well. A variation on the birthmark-removal from Illinois contains a little verbal charm to accompany the act of touching the corpse: “A girl should visit the corpse of a boy and move his hand over her birthmark as she says What I have, take with you; In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A boy with a birthmark does this at the corpse of a girl.” (Hyatt #2685). Sometimes merely rubbing the mark or blemish with a rag and placing the rag in the coffin of a dead man is enough to remove the problem. Placing clothes and other objects from a sick person in the casket of the deceased supposedly removes everything from skin disorders to contagious diseases. Clothes taken from the corpse can also be healing: “To remove a swelling on the leg, bandage it with a piece of linen taken from a corpse” (Hyatt #5145).

Some of the other cures attributed to the dead:

  • “In other localities the body is placed on a ‘coolin’-board’ and covered with an arrangement of sheets, the one over the face being raised when the mourners address the corpse. Mourners may talk to the body to this effect: ‘Mandy, you gone an’ lef me. … I may be nex’ . . . Po’ Mandy! . . . Po’ John! .’ A plateful of salt and ashes is placed under the coolin’-board . . . whatever disease the body has goes into the ashes and salt. ‘Ashes takes up from de body de disease.’ These ashes are carried to the grave; and at the words, ‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,’ they are thrown into the grave.’” (Puckett 87)
  • “When in pain get some of this graveyard dirt from the breast of the corpse, cook it with lard, and make into a sort of pancake. Sprinkle this with turpentine and bind like a mustard plaster to the place that pains you. You will surely be cured.” (Puckett 287)
  • “Place in a coffin three lice from your head and the corpse will carry away the others.” (Hyatt #1438)
  • One of the more desecration-y methods for solving home problems with a little help from the dead comes from Harry Hyatt: “Pour some of the child’s urine into a bottle, hide this with a coffined corpse, and the child will stop wetting the bed. Sometimes a hole is punched through the stopper so that the urine can drip out — the cure being effected after the bottle becomes empty.” (Hyatt #6298)

In addition to being powerful curatives, bodies of the deceased can also cause tremendous harm.

Curses
It probably comes as no surprise that the use of dead bodies in magical rituals and spells generally gets a fairly negative portrayal. In the previous three sections, the spells were all designed to enact some positive change—albeit messy or sacrosanct in some cases—but now we shall look at a few of the nastier ways in which our dead friends can be used for magic. I’ll begin with a love spell, not because I inherently think love spells are evil curses (I don’t think that at all, actually), but rather because this one is exactly the kind of spell you could make a horror movie out of. It’s obsessive, possessive, and a little mean:

“A girl can take a needle which has been stuck into a dead body, cover it with dirt in which a corpse has been laid, and wrap the whole thing in a cloth cut from a winding sheet ; this is supposed to be a very powerful love charm, and a woman who owns such a thing can make any man fall in love with her. A needle which has been used to make a shroud is useful, too. If a girl thrusts such a needle into her lover’s footprint in her own dooryard, he is forced to remain with her whether he wants to or not. If he leaves the neighborhood he will get sick, and if he stays away long enough he will die.” (Randolph 169)

Randolph also examines witchcraft which falls in line with storybook expectations, harmful stuff perpetrated by willfully malevolent magical practitioners:

“Some witches are said to kill people with graveyard dirt, which is dust scraped from a grave with the left forefinger at midnight. This is mixed with the blood of a black bird; a raven or crow is best, but a black chicken will do in a pinch. The witch ties this mixture up in a rag which has touched a corpse and buries it under the doorstep of the person who is to be liquidated. The practice of burying conjure stuff under houses and doorsteps is well known. I have heard it said of a sick woman that she ‘must have stepped on somethin’ ‘ meaning that she was bewitched.” (Randolph 272)

Sometimes the negative effects of the corpse are inadvertent, however, and cursing is incidental. Several sources mentioned that pregnant women should not look upon a corpse, lest their child be marred in some way. Ozark lore says that using the comb of a dead person, particularly a comb that touched the deceased’s hair, will cause your own pate to go bald. Still other corpse curses seem related to harming the spirit of the departed him or herself. Kentucky lore says that you should “Put a lock of hair of a corpse into a hole in a tree to localize the spirit. If you remove the hair, the spirit will haunt you” (Thomas #741). Trapping a spirit seems like a dangerous game to me, but then, I’m not doing that particular spell anytime soon anyway. One of the quirkier ways of messing with the soul of the departed comes from Illinois: “As long as the funeral bill remains unpaid, the corpse will not rest in its grave” (Hyatt #15193).

In addition to the main methods discussed above, corpses also seem to have other magical uses. Here are a final pair from Hurston and Randolph involving some of the more unusual magic connected to the dead and their bodies:

“I. To Gain All Power. Go to the graveyard the night of All Saints at twelve o’clock. All of the blessed are gone from the cemetery at that time and only the damned are left. Go to a sinner’s grave1 and get nine hairs from his head and give the spirit in there a drink of whiskey. (They’ll do anything for a drink of whiskey.) Just leave a pint of liquor in there with the stopper out. Go home and burn nine red candles and the spirit will do anything you want.” (Hurston 361)

“When a backwoodsman dies, in certain sections of the Ozarks, it sometimes happens that one of his male relatives cuts a hickory stick just the length of the corpse. I have seen a hill farmer carrying one of these sticks on the day of his brother’s death, and I have seen one tied to the wagon which conveyed a corpse to the graveyard, but I have never been able to find out what became of them, or what their significance was. I first thought that the stick was simply to measure the body for a coffin, but it is something more complicated than that, and there is some sort of superstition connected with it.” (Randolph 314)

I hope this has been a worthwhile spin through the old boneyard to look at the dead from a more corporeal angle than we usually do in magic. None of this is to advocate any sort of desecration or anything illegal. While I imagine slipping a pinch of cornmeal into a coffin or wiping a handkerchief over a deceased family member’s hand before the casket is closed would at most raise some eyebrows, just about anything involving messing with the dead means legal problems. If you want to get a little help from the dearly departed, developing a relationship with them as spiritual beings is a much smarter way to go (I wrote about it recently on my other blog over at Witches & Pagans, if you’re interested).  If you have lore about dead bodies and the ways they have been used in magic, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks so much for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES & SOURCES

  1. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
  2. Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  3. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
  4. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois.  (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
  5. Lowenstein, Tom & Piers Vitebsky. Native American Myths & Beliefs (Rosen Pub. Group, 2011).
  6. Paulsen, Kathryn. Witches’ Potions & Spells. (Peter Pauper Press, 1971).
  7. Parkman, Francis. “Indian Superstitions.” North American Review (Univ. of Northern Iowa Press, 1866).
  8. Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
  9. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1926).
  10. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
  11. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).

Blog Post 166 – Dem Bones, part II

The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.

Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.

Healing Specimens
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:

  • To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
  • You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
  • The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay.  Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).

In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.”  What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page:  “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.”  Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.

After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:

  • TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
  • To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
  • To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
  • As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
  • If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
  • To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)

Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.

With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

Charm Curios
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:

  • Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
  • The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
  • When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
  • A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
  • Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
  • “Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)

Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).

Other methods for using bones as magical curios:

  • A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
  • Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
  • Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
  • You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
  • Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)

Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one:  the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:

To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).

Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:

“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).

I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.

With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!

Thanks as always for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES & SOURCES

  1. Anderson, Jeffery D. Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook. (Greenwood Press, 2008).
  2. Artisson, Robin. “The Toad Bone Treatise.” Self-published (2008).
  3. Brown, Michael H., Ed.S. “The Bone Game: A Native American Ritual for Developing Personal Power or Tribal Consciousness.” Journal of Experiential Education (1990).
  4. Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Book of Gypsy Magic: Travelers’ Stories, Spells & Healings. (Weiser, 2010).
  5. Chumbley, Andrew. “The Leaper Between: An Historical Study of the Toad-bone Amulet.” The Cauldron (UK) (2001).
  6. Davies, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. (Jonathan Davis Publishers, 1975).
  7. Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore.  (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1935).
  8. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
  9. Hoadley, Michael. A Romany Tapestry. (Capall-Bann, 2001).
  10. Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  11. Howard, James H. “The Akira Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle.” Plains Anthropologist. (Plains Anthropological Soc., 1974).
  12. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
  13. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois.  (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
  14. Knab, Timothy. The War of the Witches: A Journey into the Otherworld of Contemporary Aztecs. (Westview Press, 1997).
  15. Martin, Kameelah L. “Conjuring Moments & Other Such Hoodoo: African American Women & Spirit Work.” Dissertation. Dept. of English, Florida State Univ. (2006).
  16. McAtee, W. L. “Odds and Ends of North American Folklore on Birds.” Midwest Folklore.  (Indiana UP, 1955).
  17. Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
  18. Poenna, Carlos G. The Yoruba Domino Oracle. (Red Wheel Weiser, 2000).
  19. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
  20. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).
  21. —. Throwing the Bones. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2012).

Podcast Special – Native Creatures

SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – NATIVE CREATURES

Summary
Tonight we hear three tales from Native American sources about strange and unusual creatures:

Play
Special Episode – Native Creatures

Music
“Grifos Muertos” by Jeffery Luck Lucas, from his album What We Whisper, on Magnatune.com