Posted tagged ‘Native American’

Blog Post 166 – Dem Bones, part II

November 14, 2012

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).
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Podcast Special – Native Creatures

October 12, 2012

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

Blog Post 104 – (A Little) More Colonial (and Native American) Magic

November 30, 2010

I thought in honor of the recent Thanksgiving festivities—at least those here in the US (and with a belated bow to the harvest feasting in Canada), I would take a brief look at some of the magical practices circulating around the time of that “first Thanksgiving.”  The people who arrived in places like Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay to settle the New World—never mind it was already quite settled by its native inhabitants—are commonly referred to as Pilgrims, and contemporarily would have been known as Separatists.  Thinking about that late autumn gathering, when the local Pawtuxet tribe and the Separatists who had survived the harsh New England winter and managed to put together enough bounty for the coming cold season gathered at the table, is a sort of fond romance or fantasy.  Often we imagine the Indians in their deerskins and the Pilgrims in their blackest hats with the shiniest buckles on them.  The staunch Calvinism of the Separatists contrasts with the “noble savage” imagery of the Natives, their shared meal demonstrating two very different worlds breaking bread together.  Yet both groups shared many things in common, including a set of magical practices aimed at protecting their homes and blessing themselves with prosperity.

The fear of malefic witchcraft—which would eventually go on to spawn the famous “witch hunts” of Colonial America—stirred hearts on both sides of the table.  Each group had its own charms, talismans, prayers, and formulas for dealing with the dangers of spiteful magic.  The Pilgrims, drawing on their English heritage, had all sorts of magical tricks up their black-and-white sleeves for defeating evil witches and devils:

“Legal actions against malefic witchcraft merely represented the final point of defense against what were perceived as destructive magical powers.  Prior to entering his complaint into the legal domain, the colonial villager could draw upon a variety of protective magical formulas to maintain some sort of equilibrium between good and evil mystical forces.  Several of these techniques—by no means an exhaustive list—were mentioned in a sermon delivered by Deodat Lawson…’The Sieve and Scyssers [Scissors]; the Bible and Key; the white of an Egge in the Glass; the Horse-shoe nailed on the threshold; a stone hung over a rack in the Stable.’” (Weisman 40)

Looking at these specific examples, we can see a few things which indicate that magic among the Pilgrims was not so uncommon.

The Sieve & Scissors – These items were commonly used in fortune telling games by young girls, particularly on exciting nights like Halloween.  They could also be used to confuse or cut a witch, magically speaking.  The Sieve and Shears appear in Aggripa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, as well.

The Bible & Key – The Bible was considered to have inherent magical and protective abilities, and the key likely held the symbolism of “locking away” or “locking out” any harmful witchcraft.  The use of the two together also formed the basis of a spell recounted in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft:  “Popish preests …doo practice with a psalter and a keie fastned upon the 49[th] psalme, to discover a theefe” (Scot, Chapter V).

The Egg White in a Glass – This is another method of divination involving cracking an egg into a clear glass or jar of water, then reading the resulting shapes, strings, bubbles, and colors found in the glass.  Curanderismo continues to use this method as a regular part of cleansing and reading practice even today.

The Horse-shoe on the Threshold – This particular charm moves out of the realm of divination and into prosperity and protection magic.  We covered horseshoes on our Lucky Charms podcast, and you can read all about them at the Lucky W Amulet Archive page on the subject.  The iron in the shoe, plus the somewhat mystical nature of the animal associated with it, imbued this charm with the power to block witchcraft and provide good luck to those passing under it as they entered a Pilgrim’s household.

The Stone in the Stable – The stone referred to in this charm would likely have been a holed stone, one which had been naturally eroded to leave a gap by which it was then hung in places needing protection from malefic activity.  Sarah over at Forest Grove wrote a bit about these holed stones, saying “In the UK it was used as a protection charm as the locals believed that by tying their front door key or the stable door key to a hole stone they would protect the building it hung upon.”  This, much like the horseshoe, was primarily protective, but a holed stone could also be used to “see” witches and other Otherworldly entities by peering through the gap.

Looking to the Natives’ side of the table, we find that charms to provide protection and blessing were also common among the Algonquin tribes of New England (Algonquin being a language and not an actual tribe, I use the term here to blanket a wide number of groups sharing a more-or-less common landscape and tongue).  Charles Leland (admittedly a questionable source on some matters of folklore, but not without his merits) wrote of many New England Native magical practices.  He compares the workings of Native shamans with the work of Catholic priests in one passage of his book The Algonquin Legends of New England: Tales of Magic:

“For wherever Shamanism exists, there is to be found, in company with it, an older sorcery, or witchcraft, which it professes to despise, and against which it does battle. As the Catholic priest, by Bible incantations or scriptural magic, exorcises devils and charms cattle or sore throats, disowning the darker magic of older days, so the Shaman acts against the real wizard.”

Leland recounts several legends of warriors and magical Indians doing battle with terrible spirits, the dead, and other dangerous forces.  In one tale, a chief’s son, described as “a great hunter, and skilled in mysteries” decides to marry.  In his efforts to get a wife, he sets out on a journey in which he acquires many talismanic and shamanic tools.  One of them is a golden key pulled from a whale’s mouth, which the whale tells him has great protective power:  “While you have it you will be safe against man, beast, or illness. The foe shall not harm you; the spirits which haunt the wilderness shall pass you by; hunger and pain shall not know you; death shall not be in your road.”  The key, then, appears in both the European and Native magical traditions as a powerful amulet.

As a final note on the magic of Native Americans, let us turn from the groaning board of the Thanksgiving feast and look at another magical practice:  fasting.  In an 1866 article entitled “Indian Superstitions,” Francis Parkman describes the use of ritual fasting in order to acquire a Manitou, or guardian spirit:

“Each primitive Indian has his guardian manitou, to whom he looks for counsel, guidance, and protection. These spiritual allies are acquired by the following process. At the age of fourteen or fifteen, the Indian boy smears his face with black, retires to some solitary place, and remains for days without food. Superstitious expectancy and the exhaustion of famine rarely fail of their results. His sleep is haunted by visions, and the form which first or most often appears is that of his guardian manitou, a beast, a bird, a fish, a serpent, or some other object, animate or inanimate. An eagle or a bear is the vision of a destined warrior ; a wolf, of a successful hunter; while a serpent foreshadows the future medicine man, or, according to others, portends disaster…The young Indian thenceforth wears about his person the object revealed in his dream, or some portion of it—as a bone, a feather, a snake-skin, or a tuft of hair. This, in the modern language of the forest and prairie, is known as his “medicine.” The Indian yields to it a sort of wor ship, propitiates it with offerings of tobacco, thanks it in prosperity, and upbraids it in disaster. If his medicine fails to bring him the desired success, he will sometimes discard it and adopt another” (Parkman 4).

Feast or famine, magic has long been on American soil (and Canadian, Central American, & South American soils as well).  So as you eat your turkey leftovers, you could crack an egg into a glass of water, pull out some scissors and a sieve, or maybe even think about putting the food aside for a while and seeing what comes to you in your dreams.  It might add a little New World Witchery to your holiday.  Which, of course, makes me feel pretty darn thankful.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 96 – Critters 2 (Magical Animals, Part II)

October 6, 2010

Hi all!

This is a continuation from the last post about magical animals, so you may want to look at that one before diving into this one.  Or not.  It’s up to you really.  Either way, here’s some more on North American animals showing up in magical folklore.

(More) American Magical Animals

Deer – Legends about magical deer are hardly new, nor are they limited to the New World.  White stags appear in Arthurian legends, and the label of Jagermeister liqueur bears the image of an enchanted cervid.  Charlemagne also had a stag legend associated with him.   In American folktales, they retain similar significance, though often they lead hunters astray or into mischief.  In a tale from Gilmer Co., WV, a normally gifted hunter encounters a doe he can’t shoot, even at close range when he knows he should be able to.  He decides to try shooting it with a silver bullet and succeds in hitting it in the leg, and then follows the blood trail back to a cabin where an old woman is nursing her bleeding leg, thus revealing her as a shape-shifting witch (Gainer p.157).  In New York State, there’s also the tale of “Auntie Greenleaf and the White Deer,” which bears a strong resemblance to the Gainer tale.  The Huichol natives of Mexico engage in a type of spiritual quest called the Peyote Hunt in which the peyote (a type of hallucinogenic cactus) is treated as a magical deer to be caught:

The Hunt is a symbolic re-creation of “original times” before the present separation occurred between man, the gods, plants and animals; between life and death; between natural and supernatural; be-tween the sexes. On the Peyote Hunt, the men who return to their homeland become the gods, and at the climatic moment of the ceremony, they slay and eat the peyote, which is equated with the deer and with maize (“The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex…” by Barbara G. Myerhoff, Anthropological Quarterly, Apr. 1970)

It’s not surprising that a continent whose inhabitants until only fairly recently depended upon deer for food would assign it such a high mythical value, and there are plenty of good stories about witch deer or helper deer to be found in every region.

Rabbit/Hare – This is the animal most associated with witches in folklore (other than perhaps the black cat).  North American magical tales are no exception, and there are a plethora of rabbit-related witch stories out there.  As I mentioned in the Spiders/Insects section, Anansi has an avatar in the form of a rabbit in the New World, a form probably best known and realized through his appearance in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.  The Trickster Rabbit of these tales became so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we turned him into an icon recognized worldwide, even though he is distinctly American in attitude:  Bugs Bunny.  Native American legends also provide Trickster Rabbit stories, such as “Rabbit Plays Tug-of-War” from the Creek tribe.  Hares could also be less mirthful magical creatures, and often appear in American folklore as witches in disguise.  Richard Dorson records a tale in Buying the Wind of a witch-hare that could not be caught or killed by anyone.  Even when they trapped it and set everything around it on fire, the rabbit still managed to escape.  Finally a hunter thought that perhaps this hare might be a witch in disguise, and so drew a picture of it and shot it in the leg with a silver bullet.  Not long after, he found out that a local woman with a rather witchy reputation had fallen and broken her leg while sweeping the floor.  The hare was not seen again (Dorson, p. 316-17).  Stories like this are echoed in the Deer and Cat stories mentioned above and other tales of witches becoming hares can be found in the collections from Patrick W. Gainer and Hubert J. Davis, too.

Bear – The figure of the Bear is a mainstay in several traditions of American lore.  He appears as Brother/Brer Bear in the aforementioned Uncle Remus tales, where he comes off as a bit of a brute.  The bear is a key figure in Native American lore, appearing as a spiritual totem animal for chiefs and warriors, as in the tale of the “Spirit Lodge” from the Nariticong people in the northeastern U.S. A curious tale from the Pacific Northwest features a comical (and obviously fictional) encounter between a Sasquatch, a black bear, and a river boat captain.   In northern Mexico, the story of “The Bear’s Son” describes a mytho-magical quest undertaken by a brave young man.  The repeated motif of strength and battle seems to be the bear’s primary contribution to North American folklore.  Yet occasionally bears appear as guides or wise teachers as well—even unintentional ones, as in the Maine tale of “The Fisherman and the Bear,” in which a clever ursine demonstrates a remarkably effective method of fishing to a hungry human.

Birds – This is a pretty broad category, and there are many different types of birds which appear in American magical tales.  The most common appearances of birds are as magical omens or forerunners of good and bad luck.  We touched a bit on this in our Weather Lore posts, but we also had to leave a number of bits out, so I’ll share a couple of them here:

  • A bird building a nest out of your hair will cause madness or headaches.
  • A bird building a nest in any piece of your clothing (shoes, hat, pockets, etc.) means you should prepare to die within the year.
  • Loons portend bad weather (because they are the souls of dead sailors).
  • Whippoorwills calling indicate death or bad luck soon to follow (I prefer Gillian’s interpretation of this, which is that a whippoorwill call means that you’ve done a good day’s work).
  • Killing barn swallows will cause your cows to give bloody milk.
  • To cure a backache, wait until you hear a whippoorwill call then roll on the ground three times.
  • It is bad luck for a hen to crow.

(These examples are taken from Ozark Magic & Folklore by Vance Randolph, Witches, Ghosts, & Signs by Patrick Gainer, and “Odds & Ends of North American Folklore on Birds” by W. L. McAtee [in Midwest Folklore, 1955])

There are truly endless numbers of folk spells, omens, signs, stories, and legends regarding animals in North America.  And there are plenty of animals I didn’t cover here that probably deserve some attention.  Critters like possums, raccoons, gators, eagles, buffalo, cattle, sheep, pigs, mountain lions, and any number of other animals all have abundant magical lore surrounding them, which I will hopefully be able to cover someday.  For now, though, I hope this couple of posts has helped open up some areas for you to explore with regards to animals and magic.  I’m hoping to get at least one more post out this week or early next week focusing on animal parts in magic, so stay tuned for that, too.  And if you have animal lore you’d like to share, feel free to comment on the blog or email us!

And thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 43 – Fairies in the New World

April 8, 2010

The old dwarf Moggo before a pile of wood, telling the little boys that if they did not have it all split into small faggots by the time he returned to dinner, he would put them in a pot and boil them both up.

Hello readers and listeners.

First of all, I know I’m not posting much this week.  Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot to do with my day job, plus a number of other projects to work on (such as my garden).  I’m hoping to be back to daily or near-daily posting again by next week, but I hope you’ll understand if I wind up with some gaps here and there.  I really appreciate all of you who read our little site here.  I hope it continues to be worth visiting.

Now, onto the topic of the day!  I was listening to Jay O’Skully’s latest podcast (check him out if you haven’t yet—he’s quite excellent), which is all about fairies.  That got me to thinking about the role of fairies in the New World.  My first impression was that most of what we conceive of as “fairy tales” come from Old World sources, and that any stories about the Good People on this side of the Atlantic would likely have been imported.  While we certainly have our share of imported tales, I found out that we also have plenty of reason to think the Fair Folk are alive and well all around us.

There are several Native American tales which relate the adventures of fairies (or misadventures with them, in some cases).  Some of these stories don’t explicitly use the word “fairy” to describe the magical people of whose adventures they tell.  For example, there’s a Cherokee legend about “Little People,” who never get called “fairies,” though there is a reference to brownies in the version I read.  They are described thusly:

“The Little People of the Cherokee are a race of Spirits who live in rock caves on the mountain side. They are little fellows and ladies reaching almost to your knees. They are well shaped and handsome, and their hair so long it almost touches the ground. They are very helpful, kind-hearted, and great wonder workers. They love music and spend most of their time drumming, singing, and dancing. They have a very gentle nature, but do not like to be disturbed. “

Other Native American stories do use the word “fairy” when discussing the diminutive otherworldly beings which inhabit the forests, mountains, and waterways of America.  From the Ojibway legend, “The Star Maiden”:

“The Ojibways were a great nation whom the fairies loved. Their land was the home of many spirits, and as long as they lived on the shores of the great lakes the woods in that country were full of fairies. Some of them dwelt in the moss at the roots or on the trunks of trees. Others hid beneath the mushrooms and toadstools. Some changed themselves into bright-winged butterflies or tinier insects with shining wings. This they did that they might be near the children they loved and play with them where they could see and be seen.

But there were also evil spirits in the land. These burrowed in the ground, gnawed at the roots of the loveliest flowers and destroyed them. They breathed upon the corn and blighted it. They listened whenever they heard men talking, and carried the news to those with whom it would make most mischief.

It is because of these wicked fairies that the Indian must be silent in the woods and must not whisper confidences in the camp unless he is sure the spirits are fast asleep under the white blanket of the snow. ”  (from American Indian Fairy Tales, by Margaret Compton, 1907)

There are also plenty of stories from European settlers who brought fairy tale traditions with them, but then found those tales shaped by the new landscape around them.  I’ve already mentioned the little gnome-like men Henry Hudson is supposed to have encountered during his waterway explorations in Blog Post 3.  New England teems with fairy lore, from what I gather.  There’s an excellent book called The Fairies in America by preacher Spencer Wallace Cone (I haven’t found a hard copy yet, but the e-book is available through that link).  This collection of two very elaborate fairy tales includes all the wonderful elements found in Old World stories, with some nice New World twists.  One of my favorites involves two brothers—one kind and loving, the other hard and hateful—who have been saved by a fairy only to find that she must give one of them up to a mysterious Man in Black (I’ll leave witchy implications aside for the moment, there).  She tries to argue the man out of his claim, but he responds with something that struck me as quaintly American:

“’Ho! ho!’ laughed the dark man; ‘our fair mistress of the Diamond Lake has turned lawyer. I know no distinctions, madam…’”

Something about hearing a fairy accused of being “turned lawyer” just makes me smile.

Famous fairy tales were reshaped by their New World surroundings, too.  “Jack and the Beanstalk” has many iterations in the Appalachian mountains, for example.  Some of the changes involve Jack (who is a folk hero figure in many Southern folktales) stealing the giant’s gun and a golden blanket instead of a harp and a golden-egg laying hen.  There are even versions where Jack and his mother are killed by the beanstalk falling on them when they chop it down.  Oh, and I know that a giant isn’t exactly a fairy to some folks, but because he’s a powerful non-human creature inhabiting an otherworldly locale accessible only by magical means, I’m letting it slide here. 🙂

Okay, I’m going to stop here for now, but this is definitely not the end of this topic (though I may wait a few posts before returning to it).  Let me know what you think, and if you have any fairy tales set in the areas around you which you’d like to share I’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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