We talk with the Riverton Witch Via Hedera in this episode about folk magic on Turtle Island (North America), intersectional magic, what folk traditions we keep alive and which ones we leave behind, and how to weave magic into the things we make.
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The main spot to check out is Via Hedera’s amazing website, full of articles on everything from “Rat Letters” to erotic apples, tarot reviews, book resources, and more! Also be on the lookout for her book, Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Multicultural Experience: A Crucible at the Crossroads, coming later this year from Moon Books.
Image sourced from Via Hedera (copyright Via Hedera).
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This is the last post in a series in which I’ve attempted to outline a loose set of categorical criteria that might offer the hint of a shape to what I’ve termed “New World Witchery.” So far, I’ve already looked at some of the ways that history, folklore, and contemporary behavior come together to form what we’ve termed “New World Witchery.” If you’re just starting with this series here, you might want to flip back the pages of this dusty old tome on the bookshelf and read the first of these posts on “What is New World Witchery, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” There are other posts that follow, on topics like the moral implications of practical folk magic in North America, and the spiritual entities that seem to hover at the edges of (or stand smack in the center of) New World magical practices, the physical “things” of North American witchcraft, and the processes by witches gain their magical experience and knowledge. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.
As I enter into this final segment, I should note that it will likely raise as many questions as it answers (if not more), but I believe that to be a good thing. If I say, for example, that witch-flight is a talent for some witches in the stories I cite, that inevitably leads to questions about which witches (hah!) do not fly, why some do and some don’t, and just what do I mean by “flight” anyway? The benefit to leaving these questions only loosely sketched out is that they invite further investigation. They prompt more reading, more interviews, more questions, more experiments, and more questions (again)! Those don’t have to be questions on my part alone, either, but can easily be questions that you explore for yourself (and hopefully share your findings with us, as that makes everyone’s knowledge a little bit better). Some of the points I raise below will be interesting to particular readers and less interesting to others. That’s fantastic, because it means you can explore just what interests you while still seeing it as part of a bigger whole. There’s room around the cauldron for just about every type of witch, I think Which brings me to the final point in my rather over-stuffed taxonomy of New World Witchery.
Witches Have a LOT of Talents
When you picture your example of a “witch” in your head, you are likely seeing something different than what others around you see in terms of precise elements, but at the same time you could likely extract that image (by magic if that’s one of your many skills) and show it to others, and at least a few people would say “Oh, yes! That’s most certainly a witch!” Leaving aside the potential aesthetic elements such as the black pointy hat or cat and cauldron, you could also likely describe a person “casting a spell,” “flying at night,” and “summoning the dead” (or other spirits as has already been discussed) and you would evoke something that others recognized as a “witch.” You might also mention full moon rituals, or the creation of herbal healing salves, or perhaps the dispelling of ghosts with piles of burning flora or a chant in an unfamiliar tongue and similarly draw forth the word “witch” from someone’s lips. A woman at a coffee shop, quietly reading tarot cards in the corner? A teenage woman lighting candles and whispering a spell to make herself feel beautiful? A young man inscribing circles and lines on the ground in chalk, muttering in Latin? The mother of a friend who leaves salt lines across her doorstep and a broom turned up in the corner when the landlord visits? Some of these may say “witch” to you, and some may skirt the edge of that word. Some of these examples may fully slide by without ever even registering as “witchy” to you, but you might be able to think of a friend who would instantly label them that way.
Whatever the case, we understand that witches do a lot of different things, even while we also understand that many of the things we see witches doing seem to be part of a spectrum of behaviors we identify as “witchcraft” or “magic.” In stories, witches do things like pass on secret magical artifacts or turn people into animals. In history, we find people called witches who told fortunes (like Dorcas Hoar in Salem), healed their neighbors (as in the case of Grace Sherwood), or even seemed to have no direct connection to magic at all until their death (as in the case of “Old Kate Batts,” better known as the Bell Witch). Trying to pin down every single talent we see in narratives about witchcraft would generate a list that grinds even the sharpest of pencils into a worn nub, while still leaving copious room at the bottom of the page for all that I’ve missed. Still, I can assemble a broadly inclusive set of practices that I have seen repeated in my research that might at least put a pin in key locations throughout the spectrum of witchy doings. So just what is a North American witch capable of?
Casting Spells – This may seem obvious, but it really shouldn’t. There have been several examples where the active casting of spells has not been a main characteristic in a witch story (for example, several of the cases involved in the Salem trials were almost explicitly focused on demonic and spectral visitations that tormented victims, and so the accused “witches” were not necessarily seen as spell-casters but night-wraiths). Given those few exceptions, however, we do see the active use of intentional magic (a definition I will return to later) in myriad tales, legends, and accounts of witchcraft. Whether it’s the act of burning candles, rubbing someone with eggs, or even “fixing” a luck charm of some kind for someone else’s use, witches often work magic through specific spells (and as I’ve noted, those spells often involve “things” as well).
Witch-Flight – Again, not all witches in not all stories share this characteristic. The use of the word “flight” is also tricky and will require further exploration but taking it to mean any form of travel through the air, whether in body or spirit, we do see a lot of witches participating in this kind of magic. Interestingly, lots of stories involve other non-witches gaining the power of flight by following the rituals of the witches they observe, only to find themselves in hot water when the effects wear off and they don’t know what to do (or how to get out of the wine cellar they’re suddenly trapped in).
Using Magical Objects – I’ve touched on this extensively in the section on the physical “things” of witchcraft, and we’ve discussed the nature of magical objects in the everyday world quite a lot as well. Creating or empowering talismans or charms, using cards or coins or bones to read a future, or tying up someone’s good luck (or reproductive functions) with a bit of cord all feature in multiple narratives of witchcraft, so it’s worth repeating. Magical objects are often crafted, of course, in every sense of the word, but a number of witches also repurpose the objects around them or even purchase magical artifacts and tools for their use, none of which makes them any less of a witch.
Harming and Cursing – If we are to listen to the stories and not simply dismiss them out of hand, a great number of witches are engaged in the practice of cursing, hexing, and magical theft. Crucially, they often have very good reasons for acting the way they do, including responding to a community’s failure to treat its members equitably or fairly, making witchcraft an informal method of “justice.”
Healing and Blessing – We have simply massive quantities of stories in which witches do their worst to those who earn their ire, but we also have more stories than you can shake a black cat at featuring a witch doing something helpful or kind for someone (even if it is done in a somewhat grudging way). Witches may execute justice on behalf of someone left out of the community, or offer a healing ointment, or even remove curses placed by other witches. One of the most common talents of those practicing magic is finding lost objects or even treasure, for example, which is a service rather than a curse. The New World Witch has complex motivations and her actions require a lot of context, it seems.
Suffering – If you think of the stereotypical folktale featuring a witch, she often winds up getting the bum end of the dea She gets shoved into an oven, hung on an old tree, burned in the town square, or swallowed up by the forces of hell. She loses a hand while transformed into a cat or gets tortured because she has a pet rat and people don’t understand that choice, or she gets scalded with hot liquid because she happened to be siphoning off some milk from a nearby farmstead (okay, that last one may be more about the repurcussions of theft than any particular act of cruelty by the neighboring farmers). Witches, however, seem to take the brunt of abuse in the stories where they are present. Their spells get reversed or undone, and they wind up the worse for casting them, even to the point of (frequent) death.
Surviving – Even in death, however, witches carry on. They may engage with the dead and the spirit world their whole lives only to become one of those spirits in the beyond. Tales of witches returning from the grave to seek revenge, as reputedly happened in the case of the Bell Witch of Tennessee or Mother Hicks of Maine, are many. Witches don’t go away easily, and almost never go down without a fight.
As I stated earlier, this is hardly an exhaustive or even particularly detailed list, but it does provide some ideas about the ways we perceive witches in stories and the ways we understand what they do. A witch is likely to engage in an act of magical theft as a response to poverty, then be caught and punished for her spells, and finally return from the grave for vengeance. Or, she might quietly cast spells and divine fortunes with cards, finding lost goods and livestock as a nervous client sits in front of her.
Our understanding of witches is shaped by their actions and behaviors far more than by the pointy hat or the bubbly cauldron, even though we often signal the idea of “witch” with those sorts of symbolic cues. Seeing these behaviors in combination helps us to see the emerging “witch” of legend and history as an active participant in her own story rather than just a victim of mislabeling by the ignorant around her (although there are certainly plenty of cases of that happening, too).
As I move forward with this website and all its related projects, I hope that these posts will be ones that we can return to as to a crossroads, with a giant post full of various arrow signs giving us all sorts of potential directions to go. We have seen the ways witches engage with the world around them here. The problems they face, they face with practical—if not necessarily logical—approaches, using magic as a specialized tool for overcoming barriers including poverty or injustice (as well as exacting personal vendettas sometimes). They understand the world to be a wonderful one—not necessarily a “good” one, but a world inhabited by the uncanny and awe-inspiring. Witches engage with that wonder, form bonds with it and with the world it shows them. Witches go beyond wonder and belief, transforming their ideas into concrete reality through spells and charms, knotted cords, bones and skins from animals, and handfuls of gathered plants. They acquire their power and knowledge through struggle and effort, often developing it over a lifetime and passing it on to others sometime before they die. They do magic, cast spells, deal with curses, provide blessings, bewitch guns and cattle, find missing animals, brew love potions, get blamed when things go wrong (sometimes because they did, indeed, have something to do with it), transform into animals, suffer for their work, and often pay very high prices for the magic they do.
The life of a New World Witch, then, is one of action. Witches do work. Witches solve problems. Witches learn and grow. Witches make things. Witches talk to things that others don’t or won’t talk to. Witches see the world differently, and it changes them. Then, they change the world.
I look forward to seeing all the things that you all do with your magic. Please continue to share your own acts of witchery and enchantment with us and help all of us here to summon forth a little more New World Witchery in the years to come.
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.
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
We’ve got a Spring Lore Contest going on until March 21, 2012! We’re looking for Springtime Lore this time around: seed planting rituals & customs, fertility charms, spring cleaning spells, etc. Anything and everything related to Easter eggs, baby animals, April showers, and (shudder) bunnies. Send your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org to enter, and be sure to put “Spring Lore” in your subject line. Three participants will win one of three prizes: a copy of Etched Offerings: Voices from the Cauldron of Story from Misanthrope press (an anthology of pagan fiction featuring stories from several podcasters like Oraia Helene, Saturn Darkhope, & me!), an email card reading from Cory, and a goody box from Compass & Key Apothecary featuring several of our oils, curios, and mojo bags. More details coming soon!