Posted tagged ‘offering’

Blog Post 124 – Tobacco

April 14, 2011

[A note here:  This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. Additionally, I am NOT condoning the use of cigarettes, snuff, or any other tobacco product, especially for minors. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions.  Leave me out of it.  Thank you!]

This particular magical herb/plant/ingredient is rather controversial. As a reformed smoker, I know the power of tobacco’s hold on a person—it’s not just the nicotine, but a whole range of psychological dependencies that develop when one is a smoker.  What I’m looking at in this post, however, is not really tobacco as a commodity sold in convenience stores using cartoon animals, but instead the plant found in the Nicotiana genus. Tobacco is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes other rather magical plants like belladonna, datura, and mandrake as well as common (yet mythically significant) edibles like the tomato, potato, and chili pepper.  The plant is also a potent natural insecticide—or insect deterent, rather—and an infusion of tobacco leaves in water is often sprayed in organic garden to keep pests away.

Tobacco, like corn, is deeply significant to certain Native American tribes, who incorporate tobacco into ceremonies and offerings.  Cherokee shamans, for example, would use sacred tobacco in ceremonies designed to combat “night-goers,” evil spirits or people who invaded the dreams of others.  Tobacco smoke was also used as a curative for a number of ailments, and these uses filtered into non-Native practices over time (which we’ll see in just a moment).

When tobacco met European colonists, it experienced a boom in popularity that has kept it one of the top cash crops worldwide ever since—for better or for worse.  It has been deeply wound up in the lives of most North Americans for centuries now, including in their folk medical and magical practices.  One oft-repeated use of the leaf was as a treatment for insect stings and bites, as well as other types of wounds:

  • Tobacco used as a poultice to soothe “abdominal pain…cuts, stings, bites, bruises, and even bullet wounds.” It is thought to “draw out poison” (Randolph, p. 98)
  • “TOBACCO. The leaves are put on a wound to stop bleeding or to prevent infection” (Gainer, p.109)
  • Tobacco, especially homegrown, is good for insect stings and bites (Foxfire 9, p. 66)
  • Wet leaves are wrapped on feet to prevent infection of “full sores” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • Tobacco juice/tea used to wash wounds from snake/dog bites (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • A personal informant told me that her grandmother used to put wads of chewing tobacco on cuts, bug bites, and stings to help heal them (informant “Darlene”)

The other chief folk medicinal use for tobacco was the application of smoke to sick or troubled persons.  There were almost as many mentions of this method as there were of the poultice method.  Here are a few:

  • Tobacco smoke can be held in the mouth as a cure for a toothache (Cavendar, p. 118-19)
  • Smoke was blown into an ear for an earache, accompanied by the rhyme “Hurt, Hurt, go away/go into a bale of hay” (Cavendar, p. 118-9)
  • Tobacco smoke is blown into the clothes of colicky children to quiet them, or blown through a straw and “bubbled” in milk as a sedative (Randolph, p.98)

This method clearly derives (I think, anyway) from the Native American medical practices which Europeans adopted in the New World.

The use of tobacco has always had its controversies, of course.  Some objected to it on aesthetic grounds, thinking the act of smoking vulgar and primitive.  Others were disgusted by the smoke and smell associated with the burning leaves.  Still others thought it a waste of money or even a diabolical entrapment for hapless Christians.  One poem I found was circulated in the middle-Appalachians during the nineteenth century and covered all these points:

“Tobacco is an Indian weed,

The Devil himself sowed the seed;

Robs your pockets, burns your clothes,

And makes a chimney out of your nose” (Milne, p. 58)

The religious objections to tobacco were primarily on its use as a vice and an intoxicant.  According to Foxfire 7, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had especial objections to it, and for quite intriguing reasons:  “Smoking has always been completely out of vogue among Jehovah’s Witnesses…As the Society researched the derivations of tobacco and smoking, they found it to be associated with spiritism.”  They also related tobacco to “drugs” used by “priests in pagan ceremony and worship” (Foxfire 7, p. 152-3).

When it comes to purely magical uses of tobacco, the information I found varied a good bit.  Zora Neale Hurston mentions it as a cursing ingredient in a powerful separation spell.  She also tells a very interesting story about a man who takes shelter in an abandoned house only to be joined by a mysterious old man who begins spitting tobacco across the fire at him. When the man attempts to fight the old fellow, he finds himself thrown across the room over and over again.  In this context, there seems to be a subtle current relating the “old man” of the story to the Crossroads Man, Papa Legba, or perhaps the Devil (or maybe even all three from a certain perspective).

One article from 1890 indicated that tobacco was included in mojo bags made with the famous lucky rabbit’s foot.

Cat Yronwode recommends tobacco as an ingredient in court case and spirit contact work.  In this latter capacity, I’ve see tobacco used as an offering to various spirits, particularly crossroads entities and spirits of the dead (Central American folk-saint/crossroads spirit Maximon frequently smokes cigarettes or cigars).  Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook indicates that tobacco is frequently offered to Baron Samedi in the New Orleans Voodoo tradition.

I would also suggest that due to the calmative and drawing effects that tobacco exhibits in folk medicine, it makes a useful addition to house-cleansing and blessing incenses.  A very small pinch added to another incense blend in a well-ventilated house should draw evil spirits out of your home and welcome friendly (and particularly, ancestral) spirits into it.  If you or anyone you live with cannot abide tobacco smoke, however, consider burying a little cut tobacco leaf at the four corners of your property to produce a similar effect.

Lastly, if you choose to smoke tobacco in a ritual context, consider whispering prayers as you exhale smoke.  It makes a fantastic visual focus point to see your requests and adoration slowly rising from your mouth and into the air.  Again, I don’t condone smoking (especially not outside of a very occasional ritual setting), but if you do incorporate it into your practices, I hope that this suggestion helps.

That’s it for the devil-weed tobacco!  I hope this proves useful to some of you out there.  Please let me know if you have any other magical or folk remedy uses for tobacco leaf in the comments below.

As always, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Advertisements

Blog Post 123 – Corn

April 12, 2011

[A note here:  This is NOT a medical blog, and the information here should not be treated as medical information. I present only folkloric examples of practices historically done by certain people at certain times. If you choose to put into practice anything you find here, you take responsibility for your own actions.  Leave me out of it.  Thank you!]

Today’s topic may not exactly pop out at you as a magical one (I beg forgiveness in advance for the bevy of bad puns this article may include), but corn is actually spiritually and magically significant in several parts of the North American continent.

Corn, or as most of the rest of the world knows it, maize (of the species Zea mays) is a crop which was domesticated by early Mesoamerican cultures and which has been a native staple food for thousands of years now (though its widespread use throughout all of North America may only be about one millennium old).  It has proven both extremely useful and occasionally problematic.  It is fairly easy to grow, and can be processed into any number of products, from food and food additives to industrial lubricants and even plastics.  I’m not going to get into the heavily heated debate about corn as a commodity crop and its place in modern economics and agriculture, as this is not a blog about either of those topics.  I will say, however, that while corn may have its downsides, it also has much to offer culturally and culinary, especially the homegrown sweet varieties (can’t imagine a summer barbecue without it!).

Native Americans depended greatly on corn for survival, and it figured in several native mythologies.  One of the best known stories is that of Kana’ti and Selu, the Hunter and the Corn Mother, from Cherokee mythology.  In this story, mother Selu tells her children that they must drag her body over the land when she dies and that corn will sprout wherever her corpse has been.  In this respect, her tale is not so very different than the John Barleycorn legend.  Folklorist James Mooney demonstrated that this story has parallels in Huron mythology as well (he also mentions that the Iroquois grow a specific type of magical tobacco, which is the subject of an upcoming post).

Picture of a Mid-Atlantic Cornfield with a Remnant Corn Offering, via listener Chet

Listener Chet wrote in with a bit of folklore regarding the Corn Mother from the Central Atlantic coast:

“I read an article, while researching the corn maiden aspect, that covered the offering and adoration of a field spirit not only in NA culture, but all over the world…what quite a few would do is, leave a section of the field uncut, as an offering to the Maiden. I had seen these areas, the past few years where I live, and really had no idea what the uncut areas were about until I read this article. So here we are at harvest time again, and I am seeing these areas once again. So I took a pic of one (see attached corn pic). I have a feeling these farmers are not actually making an offering to the Miaden per se, but the tradition seems to have carried over, so maybe it’s bad luck, to not leave part of the field uncut.”

Chet also included a bit of information on his own practices, including his practice of reburying part of any harvest as an offering to the Corn Mother.  Big thanks to him for the local lore and for the photo!

Moving into the Appalachians, corn becomes magical and medicinal, depending upon its application.  A variety of sources indicate that tea made from corn silk (the long, slightly sticky strands which jut out from the top of the ear and which serve as pollination conduits during the corn’s growth cycle) is excellent for clearing up kidney and urinary tract ailments.  This sentiment popped up in Foxfire 9, Anthony Cavendar’s Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, and even Karl Herr’s Hex & Spellwork (which indicates to me that it found a home with the PA-Dutch and the mountain folk alike).  Patrick Gainer shares an interesting West Virginian folk magical technique for healing warts.  According to his Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, warts are cured by making them bleed, rubbing the blood on corn kernels, and feeding the kernels to chickens.  This could be very similar to jinx-removing practices in hoodoo which also use chickens.

Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia rates corn as a top botanical panacea for mountain people:

“It may come as a surprise to some that Southern Appalahcians used cultigens like apples, corn, [etc.] as much as, if not more than, herbs for many illnesses.  The juice, silk, kernels, and shucks of corn, for example, wereused for a variety of illnesses” (p. 64).

Some of the cures listed in the book’s pages:

  • Corn milk/juice used to treat skin irritation
  • Warm cornmeal to treat sprains and mastitis
  • Corn fodder burned to smoke/sweat out measles

In the Ozark Mountains, Vance Randolph records a couple of bits of lore about corn, one of which is quite unique: “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist on sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before burial” (p. 315).  In light of Chet’s lore about burying corn as an offering to a Mother-figure and/or the land, I think this is pretty fascinating.  Is the corn an offering, and if so, is it for the actual deceased person, or for the land which will be surrounding that person soon?  Randolph also mentions a bit of weather lore, noting that the thickness of corn shucks indicates the severity of the coming winter.

Finally, I can’t discuss corn without at least mentioning the corn dolly which is so ubiquitous around Imbolc/Candlemas.  I won’t go into that particular association, as it seems to be well covered in other places, but I will say a corn dolly makes a very useful poppet for working figure magic, especially since it’s easy and cheap to find the basic materials you need (if you don’t have corn growing anywhere around you, look in the Hispanic portion of your local grocery—husks are almost always available there as tamale wrappers, and usually quite inexpensively as well).  Recent New World Witchery interviewee Dr. E mentioned the corn dolly poppet, if you’ll recall, and I think it’s an excellent way to craft a magical doll, especially one for burial or burning.  They tend to be easy to stuff with herbs and things like hair or fingernail clippings, and they can be made without requiring much skill (trust me on this, I know from experience, or rather, obvious inexperience). There are plenty of great places to learn dolly-making, but since I like the series so much I’ll go ahead and eagerly recommend the corn dolly tutorial found in Foxfire 3 (on pp. 453-460).

That’s it for corn (at least for now).  If you’ve got some magical lore regarding the use of corn, I’d love to read it!  Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 50 – A Witch’s Initiation

April 22, 2010

For my 50th blog post, I thought I’d do something special, something that really tickles my fancy.  I’ll be talking about the various types of witch initiations found in New World folklore.   I’ve already touched on this in Blog Post 45 – Witches, but today let’s expand a little bit on the concept.

In general, witch initiations in North American folklore share a few commonalities:

  • The renunciation of Christianity, often through a ritual like repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards
  • The giving of oneself to an otherworldly entity, such as the Devil or a “Man in Black” in exchange for magical powers
  • An act of exposure, such as being naked or sexual union of some kind, though in some cases this is not necessary
  • A sign or omen of the candidate’s acceptance as a witch
  • The transmission of magical knowledge in a ceremonial way, and/or the presentation of a familiar or fetch animal

Not all of these components are found in every case, of course, and the nature of the witch may be such that he or she is not an “initiated” practitioner, but merely someone who has picked up magic throughout his or her life.  This last circumstance is often found in places where magic is prevalently mixed with Christian practice, such as in the Appalachians (Granny magic) or among the Pennsylvania-Dutch (Pow-wow).  Of course, in these cases, the magical worker is seldom called a “witch,” though sometimes the term “witch doctor” is used.  It’s funny, to me anyway, to think about how a witch is “made” through initiation, much like someone can be “made” in the Mafia.  But I digress…

Now let’s take a look at how witches were/are initiated according to specific folklore examples.  From German Appalachian lore, there are stories of witches being initiated by obtaining a “Black Bible.”  Scholar Gerald C. Milnes links this tome to the Key of Solomon, a grimoire with many reputed magical properties and a host of instructions  on how to accomplish various magical tasks.  One of his informants outlines the basic ritual thusly:

“Now say you’re going to be a witch.  Okay, now I don’t know where you get ‘em, but they call e’m the little Black Bible.  Take that little Bible and you go to a spring where it’s a-running from the sun…not towards the sun, away from the sun…Take that little Black Bible and go to that stream, strip off, and wash in there—take a bath in that water—and tell God you’re as free from him as the water on your body” (Signs, Cures, & Witchery, p. 162).

Milnes also describes a similar Appalachian rite of this nature involves taking dirt and shaking it off of a plate or dish while stating aloud that you are as clear of Jesus Christ as the dish is of dirt.  Something more is added to this folklore:

“If, through a pact, the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return.  This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger” (SC&W, p.164).

Such a “sacrifice” is not uncommon in witch-lore, with the physical offering being anything from a bit of blood to sign a pact to a body part like a finger or toe to—at the extreme end—the death of a loved one.  This is a story commonly applied to many chthonic cult deities or spirits.  Santa Muerte in the Latin-American magical traditions has also been accused of this sort of thing.

I outlined one type of witch-initiation culled from Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet in Blog Post 45, an initiation which involved a type of blood offering in exchange for the presentation of a magical imp.  That version of initiation is only one of many methods presented by Davis.  Here’s another one, from Wise County, Virginia:

“She [Granny, the narrator of the tale] began: ‘I’ve been told thet annuder way to git to be a witch is to fust go to the top of a high mountain, throw rocks at the moon and cuss God Almighty.  Then, go find a spring where the water runs due east.  Take a brand new knife and wash hit in the spring just as the sun rises.  Say, “I want my soul to be as free from the savin’ blud of Jesus Christ as this knife is of sin.”  Do this fer twelve days in a row.  Effen on the thirteenth day the sun rises a drippin’ blud, hit’s a shore sign thet you’re becomin’ a witch’” (TSB, p. 11).

This variant is interesting, to me, because of a few elements.  First, in this initiation, the spring must flow east (or towards the rising sun, though against the natural path of the sun), which seems to be different than in the Milnes version.  In this initiation, too, the witch isn’t naked, but a new knife is washed in the stream while a renunciation is made.  Finally, the bloody sunrise is a sign to the witch indicating acceptance or denial of the initiation—this feature is common in several variations of the rite.  Davis also mentions another witch-making method which bears some of the trademarks of the process:

“He [the potential witch] then waited until Friday the thirteenth and returned to the spring as the morning turned gray over the ridge.  He dipped some water from the spring with his ram’s horn and poured it over the pewter plate.  He did this seven times and repeated the verses Liz [a witch] had taught him:

‘As I dip the water with a ram’s horn,
Cast me cruel with a heart of thorn,
As I now to the Devil do my soul lease…
May my black and evil soul be
Of Christian love and grace free
As this plate is of grease’ (TSB, p. 24).

This, to me, bears a strong similarity to the dirt-and-plate version of the ritual outlined in Signs, Cures, & Witchery.

I mentioned a ritual involving the reversed Lord’s Prayer from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore in my post the other day.  Randolph discusses several other ways of becoming a witch in that work, some simple, and some more complicated:

  • A woman could fire a silver bullet at the moon and “mutter two or three obscene old sayin’s” (p. 265)
  • Repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon will do the trick
  • Magical information can only passed across gender lines (man-to-woman or vice versa), or between partners united by sexual intercourse
  • Widows were the best candidates for becoming witches, as they only had to learn “the Devil’s language,” whatever that might be.

Randolph goes on to say that the transformation of a person into a witch was a moving one, and often one with a morbid downside:

“I am told, by women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch’s initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the Witch” (OM&F, p. 268).

In this case, the lost loved one is called a “Witch’s sixpence,” and is the “price” paid for the witch’s powers.  This is not a universal belief, however, as many witches do not lose anyone close to them, and instead gain a new friend:  the familiar, fetch, or imp.  I’ll be doing something more extensive on this aspect of witchcraft in the future, so for now, I will just say that the familiar of the witch is a big subject with as much (often conflicting) information floating around about it as, well, the subject of initiation.

Finally, here are some examples of witch-induction from Kentucky.  I’ve gleaned these from the book Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel and Lucy Thomas.

  • To become a witch, go to a mountain top at dawn, shoot through a handkerchief at the rising sun, curse Jehovah three times, and own the Devil as master. When you shoot through the handkerchief, blood will fall from it (Mountains, #3773)
  • To become a witch: the candidate goes with the Devil to the top of the highest hill at sunrise nine successive days and curses God; the Devil then places one hand on the candidate’s head and one on his feet, and receives the promise that all between his hands shall be devoted to his service.  (Mountains, #3774)
  • To become a witch, you shoot at the moon nine times with a silver bullet, cursing God each time (Mountains, #3775)
  • You can become a witch by taking a spinning-wheel to the top of a hill, giving yourself up to the Devil, and waiting until the wheel begins to turn. The witches will then come to instruct you (Mountains, #3776)

These are similar to other folkloric initiation ceremonies already discussed, with the exception of the last one.  The inclusion of the spinning wheel here is interesting to me, because it seems to be connected to an idea I find very witchy: the threads of Fate.  It also reminds me of the Irish folktale “The Horned Women,” which is a story I glean much in the way of witchery from.  In this case, the wheel’s turning is much like the rising of a bloody sun—it provides an omen that the witch has been accepted into the fold of witches before her.

So what do I make of all of this?  Well, my own opinion (and I stress that it is only my take on the phenomenon of witch initiations, and no one else’s) is that each of these stories contains little pieces of initiatory lore, but always with a layer of sensationalism on top.  These folk tales were intended to amuse and spark curiosity, after all, so it doesn’t surprise me that a small offering of blood, say on an new witch’s cingulum or a few drops in a cup of wine poured out to the god, gods, or spirits to which the witch is binding herself, has become exaggerated into the death of a family member or the withering of a limb.  I think that initiations have a profound impact on those that undergo them, and that many of the common elements (the renunciation, the vow to serve a witch-god/goddess/devil/etc., and the granting of magical gifts like certain charms or familiars) are profound acts that may well belong in an initiation ceremony. Many of these features are also found in other initiation ceremonies and Traditional Witchcraft works, such as Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft or Nigel Jackson’s Call of the Horned Piper. I also think that some elements are overlooked in these sorts of folkloric imaginings of “witch-making”.  For instance, one thing Sarah at Forest Grove mentioned in her post on initiations is that once one becomes a witch (or takes initiation), one finds “Growth and strength of abilities and experiences the more one practices and keeps their promises.”  Most stories about witches seem to either end at the oaths taken upon becoming a witch, or to start in medias res of a witch’s career, showing a witch operating in one way, unchanging, until she is (inevitably) defeated.  That makes for good storytelling, but perhaps not for so much good practical witchery.  Witchcraft is wonderful in that the more you do it, the better it gets!

In the end, I like this topic, but I should say one more thing.  I don’t think that a person-to-person initiation is necessary to practice witchcraft.  If you’ve not taken an initiation, or don’t ever plan to, but find you are good at witchcraft anyway, keep doing it.  You certainly don’t need anyone to validate your magic if it’s working, and if whatever forces you draw your magic from one day choose to initiate you, I have a feeling that much like Don Corleone, they’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.

My apologies if this post has been overlong, but I hope it’s useful to somebody out there.   If nothing else, you’ve worked out your scrolling finger for today.

All the best, be well, and thanks for reading!

-Cory


%d bloggers like this: