Blog Post 225 – Button Button

Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish…One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish. (image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson)

Or, Notions of Magic.

We often mention that magic–folk magic, especially–is an everyday sort of affair. It lives in places like loose change and decks of playing cards, and we find spells using eggs or walnuts tucked into the corners of North American witchery.

Recently, I received a gift from a friend in the form of the Five Cent Tarot (thank you Heather!). It has fast become one of my absolute favorite decks to read with, as it has a number of symbols to draw from (and keywords pointing to meanings woven into the images, which helps with those of us who don’t do tarot quite as often as we do other systems). In this deck, the minor arcana are essentially the objects you might find in a junk drawer: sewing needles for swords, matches for clubs, buttons for discs, and teacups for, well, cups. We have already put up a post on the use of pins and needles, and matches are really more suited to their own post or one dealing with other aspects of fire magic. I’m so enamored of this deck, however, that I had to take some inspiration from it, and so the remaining suits put the idea in my head that I should look at some of the folk magic around buttons, thimbles, and other sewing notions. Given the burst of sewing going on as people make masks and other vital items during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also seemed like at least a semi-relevant topic. So let’s take the lid off grandma’s old butter cookie tin and see what sorts of lore and spells we find!

We start with buttons, which have a great deal of luck folklore associated with them. Widespread folk belief says that finding a button brings good luck to follow, somewhat similar to finding a lucky penny or other coin. In fact, one variant of this belief from North Carolina indicates that any button found and carried for luck should be smaller than a penny (or other lucky coin) (Brown). The kind of button found can also have magical significance. A button with two eyes is good luck, while a button with five eyes is bad (ibid.). A button from a coat might indicate that a letter is forthcoming soon, while a white button foretells a lawsuit (so maybe leave those where they are) (Daniels & Stevans). In the Ozarks, finding a black button indicates misfortune to follow (Steele).

A number of other notions like thimbles and ribbons have similar lore associated with them:

  • To find  a collar signifies that you will make an enemy…
  • To find a piece of lace, signifies that you will be ill…
  • To find a darning needle, signifies a disappointment in love…
  • To find a hat-pin signifies a quarrel…
  • To find a ribbon, a string, piece of silk or anything with color, especially if it be new and fresh will portend, signifies if red, good fortune, prosperity, successful love
  • To find scissors or knives, signifies that you should beware of enemies (ibid.)

Buttons are also the focus of a number of folk spells and rituals, such as these found in Henry Middleton Hyatt’s collection Folklore from Adams County, Illinois:

  • Buttons strung on a thread can be put around a baby’s neck to aid in teething. Some say the buttons should be cut from a man’s shirt for this purpose (NOTE: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING LIKE THIS AROUND A BABY’S NECK!). 
  • You can “sell” your wart to someone for a button, and as long as you keep the button the wart will go away
  • Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish. Other sources also indicate that you can do this ritual with any button you find so long as you pick up the button and place it in your shoe (which would be most comfortable if you were wearing penny loafers, I imagine). One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish (Brown).
Horn 'hunting' buttons with shanks
Buttons made of animal horn (photo by Tyranny Sue / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

One particularly neat divination found in Hyatt’s collection is similar to the “calling circle” sometimes performed to discern a baby’s future on its first birthday. This time, however, the button is one of a set of objects that can be used to determine your future at any age:

“Into a pan of water on the table drop a button, coin, nut, ring and stone; then blindfold yourself and with a spoon attempt to scoop out one of the articles from the pan — three trials being allowed: if you lift out the button, you will live in single blessedness; if the coin, you will acquire wealth; if the nut, you will toil for a living; if the ring, you will marry; and if the stone, you will travel a rocky road. Halloween is the usual time for this divination.”

This sort of divination game is similar to other party games, and the Halloween setting of this ties it to similar occult play such as the use of “nutcrack night” fire rituals or even the slightly more spin-the-bottle-esque game of snap apple (or, in a similar vein, bobbing for apples).

Thread is another good source of folklore and folk magic. Most people reading this likely know about the general idea of “knot magic,” (something we’ll be covering through our Cunnigham Book Club in the show as well). Using threads for magical work is something both old and incredibly contemporary, as even children are frequently doing magic like this. Just think of the many friendship bracelets young kids make for one another, and the way those are designed to “bind” them together in the bonds of friendship forever. One of my favorite presentations of this is in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, where Chihiro/Sen’s friends make her a little friendship bracelet-like hair tie, the only physical object she gets to keep when she exits the spirit world later.

One long-standing superstition that I personally hold to is trying to save all my trimmed thread ends. I keep them in a jar in the top-most room of my house (which also happens to be my library room where I’m writing this at the moment. The tangles in the jar are thought to help prevent harm from coming to a household, much in the way that “counting objects” like beans or salt scattered by a door might. Since my wife is a knitter and I do a good bit of sewing and darning there are few weeks in a year I don’t add to the jar, yet somehow it never quite gets full. Almost like magic.

Jar full of thread and yarn ends to protect family and house from harm. Photo by Cory Thomas Hutcheson. Image in background by Rima Staines.

Knotting thread, especially red thread, around someone’s wrist with a certain number of knots–usually seven–was used as a magical ward against headaches and other ills (Hand) (Randolph). Cunning folk traditions from England also suggest using bits of rope from a hangman’s noose can alleviate these sorts of aches and pains (Baker). We also see the use of knots and threads in the form of a “witch’s measure,” a concept adopted in a number of occult systems like Wicca (where it is often called a cingulum and can be used to “bind” an initiate to their coven). In Hoodoo, a similar use of a measure involves taking red thread or yarn and measuring a partner’s genitals, then wetting them with sexual fluids and knotting them to prevent a partner from straying (Hurston). A similar principle was used when taking two pieces of clothing, one from each partner (preferably worn and unwashed), then knotting them together to ensure fidelity.

Untying knots also has occult power in several bits of folklore. For example, in the Appalachians and Ozarks, women were sometimes advised to unbind their hair as a way to ease birthing pains (during birth, not necessarily all the time) (Illes). Sailors heading out to sea might acquire a cord made by a local witch with a series of knots in it. If their ship were becalmed and unable to move, they could untie each knot to raise a different degree of wind. One knot could bring about a light breeze, while all the knots might summon a hurricane. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “buying the wind” using coins thrown overboard (Dorson). 

The Witch’s Ladder is a charm made from rope or thread knotted around objects, usually including feathers, as a way to create a long-term curse or spell on a person (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020)

And, of course, how could we talk about threads and strings and witchcraft without mentioning the popular (and often nefarious) witch’s ladder? This is a magical talisman made by braiding three cords together and knotting them nine times while placing an object into each knot. Usually, these objects were bones or feathers from birds, often geese, which may connect the charm mythologically to figures like Frau Holle. While each knot was tied, the witch would curse the intended target, then hang the ladder secretly in the home of their victim with the intent of causing them to suffer and eventually die unless the knots are unbound or the ladder is destroyed somehow. Late twentieth-century Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (mentioned above as part of our book club) revised the witch’s ladder a bit for more positive purposes, turning it into the “wishing ladder,” which uses similar magical structures to create charms that get a witch what she wants out of life.

There are so many other magical crafts and lore associated with things like strings, buttons, thimbles, and ribbons, too. Crafts like the ojo de dios or the oft-appropriated Ojibwe dreamcatcher use the concepts of threads and knots to create talismanic spells, for example. I’ve also been delighted to see the enthusiasm for needlecraft among contemporary feminist witchcraft practitioners, who cross-stitch their intentions into spell-like wall hangings with phrases like “hex the patriarchy” on them. As someone who frequently darns my own clothes and does a good bit of sewing on the side to repair the damage done to clothes by growing children (and frankly, we adults are not terribly careful either), the eager embrace of sewing and knot magic and a jar full of magical buttons makes me quite happy (you can tell I’m the life of every party, can’t you?). There’s even a new book recently released that I’m hoping to check out at some point all about contemporary needlework-and-button-bound magic called Sew Witchy, by Raechel Henderson (if you’ve read it or tried out any of the crafts in it, I’d love to hear about those below in the comments, along with any other notion-based magical work you do!). 

That’s only a small bit of a much bigger line of magical work. Weaving has its own spell associations, and I’m not even touching prayer shawls at the moment, which can have an intense magical protective connection. Still, in this time when we see people making dozens or hundreds of cloth masks for public health and safety or needing to stretch their clothing’s lifespan a bit longer due to newly-tightened economic belts, it’s good to know we can still find magic and witchcraft in the very stitches, thimbles, measures, and buttons we’ve been hiding in butter cookie tins the whole time.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References:

  1. Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
  2. Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
  3. Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
  4. Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
  5. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
  6. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
  7. Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
  8. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
  9. Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).

Podcast Special – The Boo Hag

-SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL-


Summary
This tale relates the events of a marriage that takes a turn for the worse when the husband finds out his new bride is a skin-shedding witch.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Special – The Boo Hag

-Sources-
“The Boo Hag,” retold by S.E. Schlosser, in her collection Spooky North Carolina. Also available on her website.


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

Podcast Special – The Devil’s Marriage

-SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL-


Summary
The story of a brother, a sister, the devil, and a helpful witch.  From the folklore of North Carolina.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery Special – The Devils Marriage

-Sources-
Tales from Guilford County, North Carolina,” by Elsie Clews Parsons.  In The Journal of American Folklore, v. 30, no. 116, 1917.
“The Devil’s Marriage,” retold by S.E. Schlosser, in her collection Spooky South.


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

Blog Post 28 – Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign…

Do I date myself by referencing that song in the title of this blog post?  Oh well…
I thought I’d wrap up the week with a few more examples of signs, tokens, and omens from American folklore.  We’ll be up in the mountains today, both the Appalachians and the Ozarks.
From the Appalachian History blog:

News Bees

“In both Appalachian and Ozarks folklore, news bees appear as omens to those wise enough to read them.”

News bees are not actually bees, but flower flies from the Syrphidae family.  They are marked with bands of black and yellow, much like bees, but are harmless.  They do look an awful lot like sweat bees, however, which can sting a person (though not as severely as other bees or wasps).

News bees, which also go by names like “sand hornets,” “sweat flies,” or “Russian hornets” derive their folk name from the belief that these hovering insects watch the events of humanity unfold, then fly off to deliver their news to others.  According to the folklore, “There are yellow news bees, which mean that good things are in the offing– it’s good luck if you can get one to perch on your finger–and black news bees, which warn of imminent death. The black news bees fly in the windows and out again, and fly straight for the nearest cemetery; they hover making a sound like a human being talking.” (Tabler, par.2)

From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore:

Some Animal Lore

“It is very generally believed that the appearance of an albino deer is a bad sign ; some hillfolk think it has something to do with witches’ work, others that it is an indication of disease among the deer, and that venison will be unwholesome for seven years” (p. 241)

“Groundhogs are hunted by boys with dogs, and young groundhogs are very good eating. But some of the old-timers frown on the modern practice of shooting groundhogs. They don’t mind if city sportsmen do it but often forbid their own children to shoot groundhogs, because it is supposed to bring bad luck” (p. 243)

Household Signs & Omens

“The Ozark housewife seldom begins to make a garment on Friday never unless she is sure that she can finish it the same day. Many a mountain man is reluctant to start any sort of job on Saturday, in the belief that he will ‘piddle around’ for six additional Saturdays before he gets it done” (p. 69)

“It is bad luck to burn floor sweepings or shavings that have been produced inside the house. An old-time Ozark housewife seldom sweeps her cabin after dark, and she never sweeps anything out at the front door” (p. 70)

The fantastic Appalachian blog Blind Pig and the Acorn has a fascinating entry on a death omen called a “belled buzzard.”

Belled Buzzards

According to the site, which cites a newspaper story about this phenomenon, in King George County, VA, a buzzard was observed flying low by houses with a bell around its neck and streamers tied to its body.  Similarly adorned birds figure in tales from the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas.  According to the blog’s author:

“Most of the sightings or ‘hearings’ caused folks to believe the belled buzzards foretold death. One legend even tells the story of a belled buzzard harassing a man after he killed his wife-to the point of the man turning himself in for her murder” (Tipper par.2).

So if you happen to see any big birds around your neighborhood with bells, chimes, or any musical instrument on their person, take heed!

Personal Lore

Finally, today, I thought I’d share a few of the things I was brought up believing.  Most of this information is from my mother.

  • When cooking soups, stews, and sauces, she’d often include a bay leaf in the pot.  Whoever found the bay leaf was thought to be in for some good luck.
  • If rain broke out of a clear sky, my mother always said that “the Devil is beating his wife.”
  • She taught me that if your ears burn, someone’s talking about you.  If your nose itches, someone wants to kiss you.  And if your hands itch, money’s coming your way soon.
  • You should never kill a spider or a frog indoors, as it will bring bad luck, she always said.  Unless the spider was a black widow or brown recluse.  Then it seemed to be okay.
  • She always kept an aloe plant in her kitchen window, both for an easy source of bug-bite and sunburn treatment and to bless the house in general with good fortune.

Okay, that will do it for today, I think.  Please feel free to share your own lore.  I’m always eager to hear it!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 6 – More Colonial Witchcraft

I couldn’t resist the urge to share a few more witchy stories and spells from the early American period.  Let’s start with a little history.  Most folks know about the famous Salem, MA (or rather, Danvers, MA to be more accurate) witch trials.  While these were certainly a major phenomenon in our collective history, Massachusetts was only one colony among thirteen.  So what about witchcraft in the other colonies?

Generally speaking, witchcraft was not treated with such a hard nose nor such an iron fist in other parts of Colonial America.  Witchcraft was generally frowned upon, true, but only in that the term “witchcraft” meant intentional magical malfeasance against one’s neighbors.  Any such bad behavior—stealing, slandering, etc.—was met with equal disdain.  There were witchcraft trials, but these were mostly settled with civil penalties rather than criminal punishments, and religious insurrection did not seem to enter into the argument.  Gerald C. Milne, in his tome, Signs, Cures, & Witchery, describes one a Pennsylvania witch trial as overseen by state founder William Penn himself:

“Penn dismissed the charge of bewitching cattle…and suggested (tongue in cheek)that there was no law against ‘riding a broom’ in Pennsylvania.  He found her guilty onlyof having a ‘witch’s reputation’ and ordered her to practice good behavior.”

In Pennsylvania, the growing tradition of Pow-wow meant that most settlers in that area were at least familiar with the idea of magic, and recognized that it could be used to heal as well as harm.  Chris Bilardi, in his excellent book The Red Church, discusses braucheri, or German-American folk magic and healing.  He makes the point that in many communities, a braucher was an essential part of local life, and would no more have been thought of as a “witch” than a country doctor or veterinarian.

In Virginia, by 1706 it was a crime to accuse someone of being a witch at all, as it was a form of slander to a person’s character.  No acts of witchcraft after that time were brought to capital trial in that state.  In North Carolina, a similar legal precedent was set when a case was dismissed against a woman in 1712, despite her clear confession to the practice of witchcraft.  More is available on these incidents here and here.

Still, despite the leniency of most colonies, the chief impressions of American witchcraft from the early days of the Republic have been drawn from those dark days in Salem.  To that end, I thought it would be worth looking at a literary example of witch-lore.

Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (I like this version myself, as it is a PDF, but a quick Google search of the title will yield webpage versions of the tale).

I’ll not reprint the entire story here, but I do recommend reading this chilling—and weirdly funny at times—tale of witchcraft in a Puritan village.  Hawthorne had a conflicted relationship with witches (his great-great grandfather was a judge at the Salem trials, a fact young Nathaniel would do his best to overcome).  The entire tale portrays the spectral encounter of its title character with a town full of occult and devilish witches, and doesn’t make the witches particularly sympathetic at first glance—in fact, the witches seem to be primarily interested in corrupting Goodman Brown and turning him into a diabolical reveler.  However, I tend to take the story’s “wicked witch” bent as being critical of the Puritan society to which Hawthorne was so embarrassed to have been connected.  There are MANY elements of traditional witchcraft embedded in this piece of fiction, including:

  • Meeting a fetch-self/”devil” on a crooked road
  • Crossing thresholds (forest boundaries or doorways, for example)
  • A serpentine staff, not entirely unlike a stang
  • A “flying ointment” recipe, of sorts
  • “Staff-riding” to travel great distances quickly
  • A Witches’ Sabbath, and an initiation (sort of)

In the end, Goodman Brown is unsure if his encounter was a dream or reality, but it leaves him changed anyway, which can be said for many witches and their experiences between the worlds, I think.

Finally, I thought another witchy (and somewhat less grave) story set in those early days might be a good way to end this post.  This one is from Rhode Island, and is recorded in In Old Narraganset, by  Alice Morse Earle-1898 (a word of warning, this tale is recorded from an earlier time, and the author clearly did not have a problem portraying racial stereotypes in the broadest and most demeaning fashion…I present the tale here because its magical significance is real, not because its characters or authorial tone are worthy of emulation).  From archive.org:

“The Witch Sheep” by Alice Morse Earle.

There are a few things I like about this story.  Firstly, that the magical aspects of the tale are fully integrated with daily life—no one questions Tuggie’s abilities, and her occult power doesn’t lead others to shun her unless she’s actually doing a working against them.  That the wife actually likes to have Tuggie around during soap-making because she can charm the project and make it work is particularly noteworthy to me.  Secondly, I think it’s interesting that “Voodoo” (which sounds more like hoodoo in this story) was a part of the magical landscape up in Rhode Island at this point, and that there are several types of spells with good hints as to how they might be executed in this tale.  The rabbit’s foot that Tuggie boils in the pot to work her “project” on Mum Amey makes me think that she was trying to cause her lots of little accidents and stumbles, but nothing seriously harmful.  Well, that or there was some kind of Fatal Attraction thing going on.  And the final thing I enjoy about this tale is that it is funny.  For all the magic in the story, and the hexing and witchery and other toil-an-trouble, in the end it’s a story about a sheep in drag, and that’s downright amusing.  At least to me.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory