Blog Post 223 – Magic in the Time of Plague

A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.

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It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.

Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.

Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.

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Print of Plague in 1665, via Wikimedia

Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:

“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”

The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.

The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such). 

Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.

Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low. 

Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins: 

“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.

What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).

Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century. 

A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:

“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)

The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt). 

Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia: 

“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).

This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4). 

None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place. 

So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complement actual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).

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Image of Amabie yokai from Edo Newspaper (1846) via Wikimedia

First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.

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Sigil for Managing Panic, designed by Laura Tempest Zakroff (2020)

These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.

Thank you for reading.

Be well,

-Cory

Blog Post 202 – What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism)

“Tituba and Giles Corey,” by John W. Ehninger. Public Domain. (via Wikimedia Commons)

It has taken nearly seven years, two hundred articles, over one hundred podcast episodes, and the formation of an interactive community of people all interested in the systems and traditions of various magic-practicing people in North America (and beyond), but now here we are. Based on the title of this post, you may be imagining that I’m about to lay out a complete definition of “New World Witchery.” One that locks down all these various strands we’ve been chasing. Or you may be thinking nothing of the sort, and instead be stumbling upon this article first and trying to decide if the rest of the material here would ever be of interest to you. I think, then, that I am bound to disappoint, because attempting to cage “New World Witchery” in one place, form, or time will never work—it seems that so long as there is still a “New World” with practicing witches in it, that definition is going to have to remain somewhat flexible and fluid.

In one of my last posts, I attempted to answer the question of whether or not I am a witch, and in doing so I covered several key points: practical (although not entirely logical), wondrous (in the sense that the world is full of strange, marvelous, and sometimes terrifying things), and traditional (in the most literal sense of the word). I realize in attempting to create some sort of categorical definition of “New World Witchery,” I’m going to at best satisfy but a very few, but hopefully if you’ve been along for the ride thusfar, you’ll at least come on the journey with me and see what makes sense to you, or what you might change or improve. I will also note that while I am drawing on sources from history and folklore, I will not only be turning to the past. Witchcraft seems to be alive and well today, so I’m inclined to pull from contemporary sources, too. Your mileage with those sources may vary.

This article will be divided into multiple posts, mostly due to length. I’m going to link to material within each part, but the full references will be added retroactively to the posts when they have all been completed, for the sake of practicality. Speaking of which, that takes us to our first major point, and the subject of this initial post.

Hamsa Hand (via Wikimedia Commons)

Irrational Pragmatism: Witchcraft Gets the Job Done (Even if No One Knows How)

I mentioned in the previous article that in many cases, witchcraft seemed to be less about formal religion than “muttering under one’s breath in a time of need, or knowing not to burn sassafras wood.” What I see repeated over and over again in witch tales is a deeply pragmatic approach to problems. A person is marginalized by their community, or denied a favor, or needs to get some milk to keep from going hungry. The only unusual aspect of the problem-solving is that it involves magic, which operates in highly irrational ways. Dorcas Hoar and Bridget Bishop in Salem both existed at the fringes of their town’s social structure, women who needed to survive without adherence to rigid Congregational conformance and who did not have the typical family structure of the community to support them. Dorcas Hoar’s husband had died the year before the trials began, but she had been engaged in acts of divination during the decade before the trials as well, and was reputed to own magical texts. Bishop was known to be strongly opinionated and ran an unofficial tavern out of her home. Hoar managed to escape the trials with a conviction but lived to tell the tale for nearly twenty more years, but Bishop was not so lucky.

Within folkloric cases of witchcraft, those who perform magic may be accomplishing their own ends, but they are also serving a bigger social function, too. I’ve mentioned Betty Booker here previously, and her case shows that a witch can stand in for a judge and jury against those who behave shamefully in a community, as Booker does by “riding” the old skipper after his miserly behavior. In a more contemporary setting, the application of folk magic might be a way to bridge the gap of personal connection (especially in an age where we tend to communicate from behind a screen). One person communicated a bit of lore to me regarding infants and the evil eye that illustrates this point: “My mom said that if someone wants to touch/hold your baby and you don’t let them then there is a chance that person will leave casting ‘mal de ojo’ (evil eye) on your baby causing them a lifetime of bad luck, conversely, she said that letting others hold your baby is good luck.” While it is always a good idea to wash one’s hands before handling a newborn, it’s also important to integrate the new child into a community, which seems to be one of the underlying themes of this lore of baby-passing. Whatever the case, New World witchcraft meets needs, and it meets them where they are without hesitation.

 

Next time: Witchcraft as an Amoral (not Immoral) Act

 

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Episode 98 – Ilvermorny

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Summary:

This episode, we turn our attention to the Potterverse and J.K. Rowling’s North American school of magic, Ilvermorny. We talk about the school house divisions, the mascots, and some of the differences between the Old World and the New that caught our interest.

 

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, Shannon, Little Wren, Michael M. 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 98 – Ilvermorny

 

 -Sources-

The main source for the show is, of course, J.K. Rowling’s work, including the Harry Potter novels and specifically the Pottermore site. You can find the Ilvermorny backstory here.

For a background on some of the various creatures and folklore in the episode, we drew from the following books:

 

If you like us discussing pop culture and media, we mentioned that we were looking back at Episode 8 – Magical Media Mania.

We should be launching our newest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, in the next month or so. If you like folklore, this show will be connecting the dots between folk tales, science, nature, pop culture, literature, and more.

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).

Episode 89 – New England Witchery

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Summary:

This episode is all about witchcraft in New England. We speak to folklorist Peter Muise and review the new folk horror film, The Witch, which is set in Colonial New England. Lots of spooky, witchy goings-on this time around! We hope you enjoy!

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, & Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

CONTEST ANNOUNCEMENT! It’s been a while, so we want to do a second round of our Audio Spellbook, so all you have to do is send us the sound of *you* describing your favorite spell which uses everyday ingredients (things you could find in a spice cabinet, grocery store, or backyard, for example). You can either record your spell and email it to us at compassandkey@gmail.com or call us and leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps). You can also get an extra entry by sharing either our Patreon page or our Contest Announcement via your favorite social media (make sure to tag us or get a screen capture you can email to us). What will you be entered to get? Well, you’ll get a NWW Annual Mailer (who can’t use an extra one of those, right?), a couple of bottles of our personally handmade condition oils, a folk charm or two, and a book or two to make it all even better!

Play:

Download: Episode 89 – New England Witchery

-Sources-

Please definitely check out Peter Muise’s blog, New England Folklore, which is full of excellent material for anyone interested in the supernatural and New England. You can also check out his book, Legends & Lore of the North Shore.

We’ve got several previous episodes and website articles that inform this episode and which might be of interest to you if you like this topic:

You may also want to read the full article version of Cory’s film review in Blog Post 199 – Film Review: The Witch.

The review has a number of resources listed at the end, but a couple of books worth checking out on the subject of magic & witchcraft in Colonial New England would be:

And of course, go check out The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers (A24, 2015).

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.”

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).

The incidental musical selections are hymns from the Congregational/Puritan tradition, called “He Leadeth Me,” and “On the Lamb Our Souls are Resting.” Songs are via Archive.org, used under Creative Commons license. Audio selections from The Witch are used according to Fair Use conditions of copyright.

Blog Post 199 – Film Review: The Witch (Spoilers)

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I am sure I am not the only person in the witchcraft blogosphere who will be venturing an opinion on Robert Eggers’ New England folk horror film, The Witch. The movie’s stylistic and narrative gravity has been pulling critics from many backgrounds into its orbit to venture commentary. It is a fine film, to be sure, and if you are looking for a recommendation, I am among dozens of others who will give one—the film currently seems to be holding a mid-to-upper-80s percentage and “Certified Fresh” rating on movie review amalgamator RottenTomatoes.com. If you’re a fan of horror movies (or at least can stomach horror genre frights), the movie is beautiful to look at and riveting from its first moment until its surprising finish. For visual impact alone, it is worth seeing in the theater. Other critics with a deeper background in film studies can and have said much more about Eggers’ diretorial debut as an artistic work, and so I will leave my simple recommendation here in the first paragraph.

Instead, I would like to comment on the elements of the film upon which I may be more uniquely qualified to offer an opinion. As a student of folklore and history, as well as someone with a more-than-passing interest in witchcraft as a particular subject, I will take a couple of paragraphs to talk about how the film uses those elements to tell a story that lingers long after a viewer departs the theater. Fair warning: while I do not wish to spoil anything, I won’t be able to discuss how history and folklore shape the narrative without referencing very specific moments in the movie. So, that is to say, many potential spoilers ahead.

Title page woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)
Title page woodcut (via Wikimedia Commons)
One of the most widely acclaimed elements of the film is its historical accuracy. Director Eggers spent four years doing intensive research, drawing upon primary source documents from the 17th century to build up the authenticity of his world. The film’s coda notes that the themes, some narrative elements, and much of the dialogue is taken directly from diaries, pamphlets, and other period materials, and that attention to detail shows. The film’s language has an immersive quality. Its costumes and physical spaces do as well, from the community plantation abandoned by the Separatist family at the beginning of the film (filmed at Plimoth Plantation) to the wild wood which hems in the clearing where they attempt to build a farm and a life. The family, led by father William (Ralph Ineson), manage to eke out a first season’s crop of corn only to have it struck by blight. Soon after, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) loses the youngest child to something which mysteriously—and with uncanny swiftness—appears from and disappears into the woods. William attempts to comfort his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), by reminding her how lucky they are to have so many children survive in the capricious Early Modern period, and that the loss of one is tragic, but understandable in a world where God must continually test his children’s faith. Katherine is broken, however, fearing her infant has been taken to Hell since William refused to have it baptized in the plantation church due to his disagreements with its less rigid brand of Puritanism. The pre-adolescent boy of the family, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), receives religious lessons from his father in the woods as they attempt to set traps to catch wild game for the winter, lessons about his corrupt and sinful nature. Caleb finds himself caught in a moral compromise after his father reveals that he sold a family heirloom without telling Katherine, a crime for which Thomasin receives the blame until the boy steps in with a protective lie, and imprecating all of them in violations of Calvinist theology.

All of this is not to spoil the film’s plot elements—these fragments do not reveal anything terribly important, and most happen within the first third of the film. I bring these details up to make the point that the film has an air of authenticity about it, both historically and psychologically. That is not to say that the historicity of The Witch is somehow above reproach. It is not. As Peter Muise of the blog New England Folklore has pointed out, “many of the film’s later images are drawn not from New England witch narratives but instead from continental European myths and narratives, which had more sexual content. Continental witch stories were quite lurid, full of orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. The New England witches, malevolent though they were, were demure Puritans at heart.” So Puritan were 17th-century witches, in fact, that their notorious leader—the Devil—frequently wore the guise of a Puritan minister. Historian Richard Godbeer notes that the inversion of specifically religious images had nothing to do with Puritanical obsessions with chastity, but with the intentional choices of the accused in connecting their religious leaders with satanic influences:

“The subversive equation of godly and diabolical communities in descriptions of witchcraft at Salem explains the almost complete absence of sex from those accounts. That absence was not due to Puritan success in ridding New England of sexual license, or any reluctance on the part of townsfolk to mention such transgression as did occur. The court records of early New England contain thousands of cases relating to sex crimes…Had deponents in 1692 wanted to fill their descriptions of witch gatherings with illicit sex, they could have drawn on the local reports and gossip…That deponents did not include sex in their descrptions of the diabolical community at Salem was, therefore, a matter of choice…[and] give the impression that layfolk in New England were imprisoned by the covenantal discourse of Puritan theology” (Godbeer 69).

That Puritan theology is something the film gets very right. At one point, William leads his son out into the woods to check some game traps, and leads him through a Calvinist catechism of sorts, which has the child confessing his debased and sinful nature and the failure of anything but God’s grace to save him. William also has to explain that Caleb’s younger brother may very well be in Hell, because only God can know the ultimate disposition of someone’s soul. William’s disagreement with his local church’s theology is very much based on this world-view, and like many Puritans, he believes the wilderness and all its trials are a godly sign of righteousness. The wilderness, and the things dwelling within it, sorely test the goodness of the family, and find it wanting.

Yet it is not just in the wild places where dangers pursue Thomasin and her kin. Even on the little farm, corrupting influences creep in. The twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), display remarkably little regard for their parents or older siblings. They play strange games with the family’s dark-hued goat, Black Phillip, and are visited by spectral fits during an attempt to exorcise the influence of witchcraft on one of the family members. Thomasin’s budding sexuality threatens the family’s stability, too, very much putting her in the line of fire for witchcraft accusations. Women were seen as particularly susceptible to witchcraft and the Devil—one part of the famous witch-hunting manual known as Malleus Maleficarum contains a section entitled “Why It is That Women Are Chiefly Addicted to Evil Superstitions.” Thankfully, the film does not oversimplify the accusations into pure psychosexual drama, but instead shows how the family begins to devour itself from the inside, with the twins just as suspect for diabolical malfeasance as their older siblings.

All of that is to say that the historical aspects of the film generally ring true, even if they muddle a bit of the Old World into the New. The language particularly crackles, immersing the audience without dumbing it down for them (and it is taken directly from trial records and journals, as mentioned above, which Eggers had to sift and stitch together into something cohesive). If the film were called Accursed Little House on the Damnéd Prairie, however, I likely would not be examining it here (although I’d still absolutely watch it). The history in the film is heavily served by its reliance on folklore, which is what makes it truly terrifying.

Almost from the very beginning, the folk world of The Witch absorbs its audience. The titular witch seems like a potential allegory or psychological symbol for only the briefest of moments, and then suddenly becomes very real within the story. To be clear, this witch is NOT an herbal healer or midwife living at the edge of a village who gets accused of crimes in some land-grab or out of fear over her quirky and peculiar ways. When Eggers gives his audience a witch, he gives them exactly what that word meant to a 17th-century audience: a wicked, dangerous, wild woman (yes, okay, sometimes witches were men, too), bent on doing harm and destruction to those that threatened her. Or, you know, just for fun, since the film is not completely clear on why the witch singles out this family for her torments beyond the possible encroachment upon her space.

So just what folkloric signs of witchcraft pepper the film? As a wise man once asked, “How do you know she’s a witch?” Well, as the answer goes, she looks like one—wild and disheveled, crone-like (except when she isn’t), and often working naked under the cover of darkness. She uses a wild-caught animal—of sorts—and turns its fat into a flying ointment, with which she anoints a staff and rides before a full moon. While much of this lore betrays the more European-style lore which Eggers admits influenced him significantly, there are a number of pieces here that absolutely get echoed in American magical and witchcraft practices. The animal-fat ointment, for example, has several parallels, including a story of “Greasy Witches,” from Roan Mountain on the Tennessee/Carolina border, and the Appalachian folkways series, Foxfire, has references to rendering all kinds of animal fat into useful cures, ointments, and greases.

As the film is a horror movie of sorts, blood is also in the mix. Animals give bloody milk as a sign of bewitchment, a theme paralleled in a number of stories from New England and the mid-Atlantic. Sadly, the family does not seem to know any of the traditional cures against witchcraft, such as scalding the milk in the fire or beating it with brambles to reverse the harm upon the witch. But then, as they are devout in their Puritan faith, they likely would agree with Cotton Mather that “[W]e ought not to practice Witchcraft to discover Witches, nor may we make use of a White healing Witch (as they call them) to find out a Black and Bloody one” (Mather 265). Black and bloody this witch can be, almost vampirically draining blood and life from the livestock and even people on the little farmstead, and leaving sickness and madness in her wake. While a more modern interpretation of this sort of story might be tempted to associate illness with a natural cause and leave witchcraft as a psychological function, Eggers resists that urge, and clearly implies the uncanny in the family’s woes. During a particularly eerie moment, a family member suffering from the witch’s influence coughs up a bloody, partially gnawed crabapple as a sign of his malefic infection, not unlike cases in which pins or stones are vomited in folk tales.

witch-hare1

The animals in the story also play a significant role in the witchcraft. A wild-eyed hare seems to taunt the family. William’s attempt to kill the thing results in a misfire of his rifle, which in turn causes him injury. Stories of bewitched guns are found in a number of tales in collections like Patrick Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs or Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet. The animal form of the witch—a hare—seems more in line with British and Scottish lore, but the concept of shapeshifting is hardly unknown on American soil (we did a pair of shows and an article on the topic recently, in fact). The other eerie beast in the film is Black Phillip, the family billy goat, with whom the twins cavort and make up rather diabolical stories. The goat seems harangued by the children, and the father struggles to catch and pen him at one point, demonstrating his tremendous physical strength. Black Phillip nearly steals the show when he’s on screen, with his strange dancing and bucking when the members of the family get too close. Animal familiars also appear in the film, such as a raven which pecks at one person’s breast, drinking blood as recorded in some of the testimonies of 17th-century witches. The deposition of New Hampshire witch Eunice Cole, for example, accused of nursing her familiar with a witch’s teat: “[L]ookeing upon hir brests under one of hir brests (I thinke hir left brest) I saw a blew thing like unto a teate hanging downeward about three quarters of an inche longe not very thick” (Demos 485). Stories from Salem also spoke of witches suckling animals, such as hairless cats.

Perhaps the darkest and finest connection to folklore is the presence of both the Devil and the Devil’s book, in which a person might sign her or his name and gain diabolical power at the cost of her or his soul. The trope of this infernal deal appears in European records, too, but became a major feature of witchcraft legends, tales, and trials in the North American colonies and states. Folklore from Maine down into Virginia and the Carolinas made mention of these dealings (which is not to exclude points outside of that range—Canada had some similar legends, as did areas south and west of the New England/Mid-Atlantic corridor). These books would frequently be signed in blood, and in the case of an illiterate person, an “X” in her or his blood would suffice for a compact. We’ve written about the subject here before, but these “Devil’s Books” and their contractual bond with Satan (or at least with a “man in black,” who often looked a great deal like a Puritan minister) made concrete the fears of Puritans—the Devil was really out to get them, and was ready and waiting to enlist any human into his service who did not keep constant vigilance. What did people hope to gain from signing on with the Devil? One witch, Mary Marston, found release from pain and grief after her mother’s death by signing the book and becoming a witch, while accused witch Mary Lacey “confessed that the Devil told her ‘we should have happy days and then it would be bett’r times for me’” (Hall 145). One witch, Mary Barker, even believed that compacting with the Devil for a witch’s powers would earn her pardon from her sins (ibid.). Frequently, witches compacted for the sole and deeply personal purpose of vengeance upon enemies whom they could not defeat through legal or licit means. Accused Salem witch Rebecca Eames explained that the Devil agreed to give her “powr to avenge her selfe on them that offended her” (Hall 192).

Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch with a great beast. Woodcut, 1720. 1720 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Woodcut, 1720. (via Wikimedia Commons)

All of these reasons come into play through the course of Eggers’ The Witch, as tragedy turns into motivation and the fallen family comes to grips with its graceless state. When piety has been exhausted, power becomes a deeply motivating incentive. Crucially, the film does not linger on any sexual compacts with the Devil, although the witches in the film are generally nude or sexualized in other ways. Instead, the embrace of witchcraft becomes a choice, indeed an almost entirely reasonable one, given the circumstances of the collapse of Puritan morality in the face of a wilderness clearly beyond the control of any Calvinist God.

Eggers has invested in this film, emotionally and intellectually, and he asks that his audience do so as well. While he is attracting a lot of attention for his detail-oriented and historical approach, the feelings conveyed by the filim have as much or more authenticity as the choice to use period costume or building materials. The folk elements of the film—which is subtitled “A New England Folk Tale”—connect it to the raw nerve of the cultures in which witches seemed to be under every dark bush or tree. As a specimen of American folk horror, the movie packs a punch, and does not attempt to explain away its terrifying elements through a single lens, like psychology or the supernatural. Instead, it lets all the pieces come together to support a story that can break your heart as easily as it makes you jump out of your seat.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the historical or folk elements which shaped The Witch, please check out the bibliography at the end of this article.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

 

References

  1. Barden, Thomas E. Virginia Folk Legends (Charlottesville, VA: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1991).
  2. Benes, Peter, ed. Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900 (Boston: Boston University/Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1992).
  3. Breslaw, Elaine G. ed. Witches of the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader & Primary Sourcebook (New York: NYU Press, 2000).
  4. Botkin, Benjamin. A Treasury of New England Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1984). Reprint.
  5. Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Publishers, 1975).
  6. Demos, John. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft & the Culture of Early New England (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004).
  7. Demos, John. “Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England,” in Witches of the Atlantic World, Elaine Breslaw, ed. (New York: NYU Press, 2000).
  8. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972). Reprint.
  9. Eggers, David. The Witch (A24, 2015).
  10. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs: Folklore in the Southern Appalahcians (Morgantown, WV: Vandalia Press, 2008).
  11. Games, Alison. Witchcraft in Early North America (American Controversies) (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
  12. Godbeer, Richard. “Chaste & Unchaste Covenants: Witchcraft & Sex in Early Modern Culture,” in Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900, Peter Benes, ed. (Boston: Boston University/Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1992).
  13. Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989).
  14. Mather, Cotton, & Increase Mather. Wonders of the Invisible World (London: John Russell Smith, 1862). Reprint.
  15. Muise, Peter. The New England Folklore Blog. 2008-2016.
  16. Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage Books, 2002).
  17. Olson, Ted, & Anthony Cavendar, eds. A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selected Readings from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin (Knoxville: Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2009).
  18. Russell, Randy, & Janet Barnett, eds. The Granny Curse, and other Ghosts & Legends from East Tennessee (John F. Blair Publishers, 1999).
  19. Wigginton, Eliot, ed. The Foxfire Book (Series). (Anchor Press, 1972-2009)

Episode 86 – Local Witchcraft with Chris Orapello

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Episode 86 – Local Witchcraft with Chris Orapello

Summary:

In this show, Cory interviews Chris Orapello and his Majestic Consort, Tara, about their work with their local folkloric spirit, as well as their personal journeys into magical practice.

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, Catherine, AthenaBeth, & Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

Play:

Download: Episode 86 – Local Witchcraft with Chris Orapello

 

-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.”

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).

Featured songs are “Tonight,” by Tuatha Dea and “Hymn to Herne,” by S.J. Tucker, used with permission.

Podcast Special – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW

Summary
In our first 2013 All Hallows Read episode, we hear the classic tale, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ by Washington Irving.

Play
Special Episode – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
https://newworldwitchery.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/special-episode-the-legend-of-sleepy-hollow.mp3

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

Blog Post 163 – New World Witchery Cartulary No. 1

Hi all!

Today I thought I’d devote a post to, well, other posts. I’m frequently reading, communicating with, or learning from other folk magicians, scholars, storytellers, and various members of the folkloric community. While much of what you find here on New World Witchery focuses on research into history, I don’t want to ever lose sight of the vibrancy and currency of many expressions of folk spirituality and magical living which surround us today. We live in an enchanted world, or at least I like to think so, and I want to share the things that are enchanting me from time to time.

So I’m going to try to start periodically posting brief annotated link rolls (the “cartulary” in this post’s title) which might be of interest to readers of this site. Some will be as simple as podcast recommendations or interesting fiction I’ve come across, and others will be more academic in nature, focused on recent research or discoveries in folklore, fairy tales, or magic in general.  And some may simply have a nice, witchy feel to them. So let’s get started!

I only recently found out that Denise Alvarado and her publishing group put out a neat little almanac last spring called The Hoodoo Almanac, which includes bits of folk magic, lunar astrology, and other almanac-y things. I don’t know if they’ll do one for 2013 or not, but here’s hoping! Alvarado and several other root workers have also started a program for learning folk magic which involves taking several online courses and apprenticing with a live root worker in your area, called Crossroads University. This seems like a great way to learn this particular branch of folk magic. Similar courses can be taken through Lucky Mojo and Starr Casas (a very knowledgeable rootworker and friend to us here at NWW).

Speaking of books and learning, I recently read a review in the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) for a 2006 book on the infamous Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Pied Piper: A Handbook, by Wolfgang Mieder, looks like exactly the kind of in-depth, thorough investigation of the story behind the fairy tale that I love. This is the sort of book I can sink into and lose a few months of my life, so it’s already on my holiday wish list, and the JAF review gave it glowing praise as well.

I’ve very recently been made aware of the delightful blog Roman and Minnie’s Satanic Cocktail Hour, which assumes the personas of two characters from Rosemary’s Baby, then proceeds to imagine their lifestyle as hip 70s witches and pseudo-Satanists. There’s a schlock value to the site, and it’s definitely not safe for work (lots of naked folks), but they also have neat little gems of folklore occasionally, as with their most recent post on Ozark witchcraft from a Time magazine story in the 1939. Special thanks to

Arrowclaire, over at her lovely blog Wandering Arrow, always puts up interesting posts. She had one on dealing with death omens recently that I greatly appreciated, because it puts into perspective the idea of living an omen-driven life without necessarily becoming fearful or overly superstitious.

Rue of Rue & Hyssop had a beautiful post welcoming the autumnal season in. Check out the rather gorgeous PDF (but high-gloss) Pagan Living Magazine in her sidebar, too!

Speaking of great and stunning periodicals, the absolutely amazing Hex Magazine: Old Ways for a New Day is very worthy of your time. It focuses very heavily on Northern European and Teutonic folkways, but also includes a good bit of New World lore, too.

To get you in the mood for a spooky October, go take a peek at the great post Peter from New England Folklore has done on “Kidnapped Witches in Plymouth.” (Storytelling is an October tradition at NWW, so this should get you ready for next month nicely).

That’s my cartulary for today! Happy reading, everyone!

-Cory

Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

Podcast Special – Learning Witchcraft

Summary: In this episode, I’ll be telling stories from American folklore about how people learn witchcraft. We’ll hear tales of initiation and apprenticeship, solitary witches, witch apprenticeships, and find out just what witches do.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery Special – Learning Witchcraft

 

Stories:

 

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

All incidental music comes from the group Falling You, from the album Touch,  on Magnatune. Songs include:

  • “Sadness of the Witch”
  • “The Art of Possession”
  • “Less Likely to Believe”
  • “Something About Eve”
  • “Reading the Leaves”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

-Cory