- Blog Post 58 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part I
- Blog Post 59 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 2
- Blog Post 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part 3
- Blog Post 173 – Spring Tonics
- Blog Post 194 – Plugging (Healing with Trees)
- Episode 91 – Appalachian Plant Lore with Becky Beyer
- Episode 145 – Southern Cunning with Aaron Oberon
- Blog Post 220 – Book Club Discussion #1
- Blog Post 222 – Book Club Discussion #2
- Blog Post 224 – Book Club Discussion #3
- Episode 166 – The Fire Magic Book Club
- Blog Post 228 – Book Club Discussion #4
I have to admit something slightly shameful about my time during the pandemic. I have not undertaken the task of making my own sourdough starter. Now, before you judge me too harshly, I should note that it’s not as though I haven’t been baking anything, just that I tend to do most of my baking using store bought yeast, eggs, or leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder. Our area did run out of yeast in the stores for a while, but somehow I’ve managed to back-stock just enough of it to last us for the few months it took for yeast to begin appearing on our shelves again. I’ve made starter-based breads before (yummy Amish friendship bread that lasted a few loaves before I failed miserably as a fermentation parent, for example), but I just haven’t needed to do the sourdough yet so it remains off of my “pandemic skills checklist.”
However, the popularity of bread baking did spark one of my other skills: research! I have been looking into a few of the folklore collections I have access to and finding all sorts of doughy, yeasty, yummy notes about the uses of bread in North American folk magic. So I thought today I’d share a few of the notes I’ve gleaned with all of you! Hopefully if you’ve been doing some resting, rising, and toasting of your own you’ll see some things here that spark your witchy senses and maybe make the act of bread-baking a little more magical the next time you go to top up that bottle of starter in the corner of your pantry.
I’ve already written a bit on things like the magic of cakes before, but I’ll start here by mentioning a cake of a sort. This is the “witch cake” used during the Salem Witch trials (and also occasionally found in other places, as it seems to derive from some English antecedents). The basic idea, as found in historical accounts such as town church documents from the trial period and reprinted in George L. Burr’s Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, is that a bewitched person’s “water” (urine, as it always seems to come back to collecting someone’s pee here at New World Witchery) is added to a rough loaf of rye or barley, then baked and fed to a dog. If the dog grows ill, convulses, or dies, it indicates witchcraft, or alternatively may be able to reverse harm, causing the witch to suffer visibly and thus identifying them. Mary Sibley, the neighbor of the Parris family who recommended the magical loaf cure, was later intimidated into confessing that the cake was diabolical in nature, a sort of “using witchcraft to fight witchcraft” approach that was found throughout Colonial New England folk practices (see the excellent book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement by David Hall for more on these sorts of folk magical practices in wide circulation).
These sorts of curative bread recipes, even if they are a bit unappetizing to us today, were widely known across traditions in North America. Oftentimes, bread was used as a delivery method for a variety of unsavory magico-medical treatments, creating rolled “bread pills” to treat ailments using herbs, medicinal mixtures, or even insects like lice and spiders to fend off sickness (Brown v.6 #806). A similar remedy could be used when treating animals, feeding them medicine or folk remedies along with bread to ensure they took them, as evidenced by an entry in Hohman’s Pennsylvania Deitsch tome, The Long-lost Friend:
#91 – For vomiting and diarrhoea [sp] – Take pulverized cloves and eat them together with bread soaked in red wine, and you will soon find relief. The cloves may be put upon the bread.
Hohman also mentions a similar method of delivering a chickweed based rabies cure in that book.
While baking a magical loaf of dark bread is certainly an intense way to mingle witchcraft and daily baking, many other beliefs and rituals surrounding meal, dough, and a warm oven could be found throughout the continent and across a wide range of people. In terms of superstitions, a massive number exist surrounding everything from baking the bread to burning it to taking a piece of it:
- Set bread to rise before the sun rises (Brown v.6 #2771)
- Make a cross in bread dough to make it rise right (Brown v. 6 #2772) (This ritual is also mentioned in Robert Herrick’s Charmes and cited in Kittredge’s book on witchcraft. Rhyme: “This Ile [I’ll] tell ye by the way,/ Maidens when ye leavens lay:/ Cross your dow [dough] and your dispatch/ Will be better for your batch.” In the US this was also done to keep “witches from dancing over the dough” and thus cursing it and keeping it from rising.)
- Cutting an unbaked loaf of bread is bad luck (Brown v.6 #2774)
- Bread that cracks down the middle while baking is a sign of bad luck (Appalachian Magazine)
- Burning your bread is a sign of bad luck, especially because it is likely to cause a quarrel. Beliefs from North Carolina, Tennessee, and even California all have similar variations. Many say that if a girl burns her bread or biscuits, it’s a sign she’ll fight with her sweetheart, for example, while a married person who burns bread is likely to fight with neighbors (Brown, Randolph).
- Burning bread can also mean the preacher is coming to visit soon (which may or may not be bad luck or the sign of a quarrel about to start, I suppose) (Brown v.6 #4000). Intentionally burning bread by throwing it into the fire will result in punishment, as the Devil will make you pick out every piece from the coals of hellfire later, according to Kentucky lore (Thomas).
- You should never turn bread upside down once it’s baked, or you will bring bad luck (Brown, Randolph, Hines)
- It’s bad luck to take the last piece of bread (Brown, Hyatt). Taking the last piece has a number of folkloric meanings, as well. For example, there’s a very gender-biased set of beliefs that a girl who takes the last piece of bread will be an “old maid,” while a boy is simply obligated to kiss the cook! (Which makes me think it was a clever ploy by many a mother to get a kiss from a child when giving the last piece away, but that’s simply my supposition). One variation also says that a woman who takes the last piece will also marry rich, so I guess one rolls the dice and takes their chances? (Brown v.6 #4735–a Nebraskan tidbit of lore)
- Taking bread while you have bread on your plate already will also cause someone to go hungry (usually the person who has done the taking, but sometimes it is treated more as a portent for someone else) (Brown, Randolph)
- A bit of Ozark lore says “I know of several families near Big Flat, Arkansas, who have a strange notion that one should never allow a piece of bread to fall upon the ground–the idea is that to do so will somehow injure the next crop of corn” (Randolph 62).
- Another bit of Ozark folklore says that eating bread crusts makes one a better hunter or fisherman, and that it leads to curly hair! (Randolph).
This last bit about the curly hair is one of the strangest but most pervasive beliefs about bread I found while researching loaf-lore. A number of sources indicate that if a person eats bread crusts, it will cause the person’s hair to curl, which is usually presented as a desirable outcome (Brown, Randolph, Farr). Sometimes those curls are ringlets, and at other times more like curly bangs or forelocks. In other cases, the curly hair actually predicts something about the bread, as in one North Carolina belief that says a baby with two curls of hair on its forehead will eventually “break bread on two continents,” indicating a life of travel (Brown v.6 #259). This may have something to do with the fact that the crust is the outermost part of the bread and often what visually draws us in (although the smell is certainly a factor, too, as many realtors know). Similarly, the hair or outer appearance of a person could be linked to this visual enticement through the bread. Or, it could simply be a way for a frugal parent to convince a child to eat the crusts, too!
Continuing the theme of good looks and good bread, several wart or blemish cures are connected to a well-baked loaf. Most of these depend upon the use of cornbread rather than other forms of grains, with cornbread “sweat” being invoked most frequently as a curative for things like warts, pimples, and freckles (for those that don’t know, “sweat” is the condensation layer that settles on top of cornbread as it cools). Cornbread factors into several other cures and rituals as well. An Ozark cure for bewitched cattle involves feeding the cow a combination of burnt cornbread, soot, and salt (Randolph). In parts of Appalachia, there are superstitions that say a person should never break cornbread from both ends, or else there will be bad luck (Brown). A Georgia folk ritual says to feed a dog cornbread that has been rubbed on his left hind-foot in order to get him to follow you or stay loyal to you (Steiner).
Bread features in a number of magical rituals beyond ensuring canine companionship, too. One of the better-known rites is probably the Dumb Supper, which we’ve covered a few times and even done as a story episode during our annual All Hallows Read. A specific version of the working from Watauga County, North Carolina, involved even baking the bread backwards:
“Cook bread backwards, by sifting with the flour sifter behind you, and the like; also eat it with your back toward the table, and you’ll dream of whom you will marry” (Brown v.6 #4296).
The “reversal” power of the Dumb Supper works magically by inverting the typical order of things, allowing the user of the spell to see an end result (a future partner) earlier in their life. However, there are also consequences to that working in many cases (as you hear in our spooky retelling of the tale). It may also be that the Supper works to sort of ‘short circuit’ the brain by making it do a rote task in an unfamiliar way, thus causing a sort of distorted reality reaction and an altered state of consciousness, which might make a person much more susceptible to things like visions. Bread, as a staple ingredient and something so ordinary and frequently made, would be a perfect base for that kind of rite. It also has long-standing associations with strength and body, which could be another reason it gets used to call forth a corporeal image of a future lover. This body association also makes bread a key component of the modern Traditional Witchcraft rite of the Housle or “Red Meal.” In that rite, dark bread is presented as part of a ceremonial meal shared with Otherworldy spirits or the Dead (Artisson). That association of bread with the land of the dead also plays out in many customs and folkways from cultures that have ancestral reverence as a part of their practice. For example, in Mexican American traditions, a sweet bread flavored with orange essence and anise seed called “pan muerto”/”pan de muerto,” or “bread of the dead” is offered to ancestors during holidays like Dia de Muertos (Fernandez Kelly).
Bread’s association with the strength also leads to a curious bit of lore from Georgia, which says that a knife with a “soft” blade can be strengthened by simply putting it into hot cornbread, then into hot water (Steiner).
Bread also features in a variety of other folklore as well, even metaphorically. For example, many people almost instinctively say the phrase “bread and butter” when passing someone on the street with a light pole or other object between them. This is thought to ward off bad luck (another variation has one party say “bread and butter” while the other says “come to supper,” as well) (Brown, Randolph). A Pennsylvania Deitsch idiom says that a person who can use braucherei magic or other supernatural gifts is someone that “Hot meh du kenne wie Brod esse,” or that “he knows how to do more than eat bread!” (Dorson 112n1). Even in dreams, bread can have significance, as evidenced by this interpretation from the well-known and widely available Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream-book from the early twentieth century: “To eat wheaten bread, gives great gain to the rich, but loss to the poor; to eat rye bread is the reverse” (9). The commonness of the bread seems to be underlying most of its metaphorical value in these folk beliefs, sayings, and symbols–a person who can do more than eat bread can do more than the ordinary, and a rich person who eats the sort of bread only available to rich people (the more expensive and finer-milled “wheaten” bread) will see their gains continue.
A House Blessing Charm (with bread!)
Perhaps my favorite bread-based magical working is one that I’ve done for a lot of folks when they move into a new home. It’s a little house blessing that I learned from my mother, who claimed it derived from Polish customs (we have a section of our family who all come from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well as the Bialystok region of Poland). I’ve also seen this represented as a Jewish house blessing, as well as a few other ethnicities, but thus far I’ve not found a single “source” for it. My guess is that it builds upon some fairly widespread Central and Eastern European symbols, and may even have been widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean through the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (which still uses house blessings today). The basic practice involves taking a small jar and filling it partly with salt, then adding a piece of homemade bread (just a small, crouton-sized cube would be enough), and a single coin. You can say a blessing over this (such as the Catholic rite of house blessing or Psalm 122:7, “Peace be in thy walls, and prosperity in thy dwelling”), simply explain the symbolism when you give the gift, as well. The individual components each have a meaning:
- Bread – that those who dwell in the house may never know hunger
- A Coin – that they may never know poverty
- Salt – that their lives may never lack for flavor (i.e. good experiences)
There are lots of magical variations you could make here, too, including selecting specific kinds of coins (or ones with significant minting years printed on them). A silver “Mercury” dime would be a very protective one to include. You might also make a special kind of bread using herbs that convey specific blessings (although you do want to make sure the bread is somewhat dry when fully baked–it will essentially “mummify” in the salt over time so it won’t spoil, but only if it’s not a particularly moist bread to begin with…no zucchini bread, please!). You might even mix in spices or herbs with the salt, or consider using black salt as a way to specifically repel evil.
However you slice it, there’s a lot of magic in the lore of bread! If you’re baking up a storm during these mad, mad days of plague and pandemic, I hope that this post will inspire you to mix in a little magic along with your leaven, and add some enchantment to your bread basket!
Thanks for reading!
- Appalachian Magazine. Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Superstitions, Ghost Stories, & Haint Tales (Independently Published, 2018).
- Artisson, Robin. The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill (Pendraig Publishing, 2009).
- Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Volume 6), Wayland Hand, ed. (Duke Univ. Press, 2018 ).
- Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore of the United States (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972)
- Farr, T.J. “Riddles and Superstitions of Middle Tennessee,” in Journal of American Folklore 48:190, 1935.
- Fernandez Kelly, Patricia. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” in American Quarterly 26:5, 1974.
- Hall, David. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement (Harvard Univ. Press, 1990).
- Hines, Donald. “Superstitions from Oregon,” in Western Folklore 24:1, 1965.
- Hohman, John George. The Long-lost Friend, Daniel Harms, ed. (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Witches Almanac/Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 2020 )
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
- Steiner, Roland. “Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia,” in Journal of American Folklore 12:47, 1899.
- Thomas, Daniel and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions (Franklin Classics, 2018 ).
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).
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.
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).
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!
- Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
- Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
- Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
- Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
- Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).
And ye shall all be freed from slavery,And so ye shall be free in everything;And as the sign that ye are truly free,Ye shall be naked in your rites, both menAnd women also: this shall last untilThe last of your oppressors shall be dead;-From Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland
Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Jean-Léon Gérôme 1896 [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)
A lot of modern witchcraft intersects with our bodies. We expect to experience magic as a visceral force, dance ecstatically, use the remnants of bodies–both plant and animal–in our spells, or alternately slather or dab our bodies with magical concoctions to gain a little advantage in a harsh world. In particular, some branches of witchcraft religion, such as British Traditional Wicca, emphasize the importance of bodily acceptance and embrace the human body as a source of power. That power, according to Wiccan progenitor Gerald Gardner, is pulled from the freeing of an “electromagnetic field” by the removal of clothing (although Gardner did allow that he thought “slips or Bikinis could be worn without unduly causing loss of power,” for what that is worth (and please note, I’m not particularly taking Gardner to task here, nor disavowing the traditions he launched, but pointing out that his theories about nudity were influenced largely by his own ideas and experiences).
Recently, people engaged with magic–especially magic and ritual where engagement means contact with other people–have been raising their voices over systematic and ongoing abuse at the hands of elders and community members. Women and young people seem particularly vulnerable as targets of groping, unwanted pressure for sexual initiation, or having bodies simultaneously treated as sacred and sexualized as objects. I am not going to recapitulate the entire discussion of these abuses here, although I will highly recommend spending some time really processing posts like the tough-but-vital ones posted by Sarah Lawless in recent months. Her writing has been excellent and influential, and I have seen countless victims (including many men who experience abuse in neo-Pagan circles) step forward to talk about what has happened to them and insist that it stop (and stop it should!).
That is not my aim today, however, although my topic is tangled into the net of that discussion. I was curious about the role of the witch’s body, specifically the witch’s naked body, as a component of her power or her craft. I knew well the line from Leland’s Aradia quoted above, but I also know that Leland’s sources do not always speak to a broad experience (or even an historically verifiable one, although I value much of his work). Leland’s goddess insists that nudity is an unshackling from the bonds of slavery and a sign of freedom, and Gardner seems to have run with nudity as a liberating experience as well within his own coven. Yet we also see nudity being used to degrade witches, shame them, or force them into the role of living succubus or “red woman” seductress. Where does nudity fit into a New World magical practice? Are there precedents for nude practice, does nudity have any value in practical magic, and does nudity still matter today?
There are essentially two situations in which witches might practice nude in New World witchcraft: alone and in groups. However, even here there are some gray areas, because when a witch is “alone,” they are often not entirely alone. They may be meeting an Otherworldly entity for an initiation rite, for example, and be expected to offer their body up for sexual congress, or even a simple washing ritual. In Appalachian lore, however, the favors were not always sexual, as some initiation rites involved offering a literal piece of one’s body, where “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.”
Just as often, these initiation rites involve a solitary witch stripping bare, but only as a precursor to other solitary action: cursing or shooting at the moon or (more practically) wading into a river or stream to wash away a previous baptism in some symbolic way. The sexualization of the witch in these encounters is virtually nil, except as perhaps a titillating detail for the listener or a matter of practical necessity for the witch. The act itself is symbolic because the witch is abandoning a previous life–usually a Christian one–and the removal of clothing is much like the washing away of the baptism.
Other parts of the New World also held that witches might strip bare on their own as an abandonment of social order. That was the common perception in Puritan New England, where witches were believed to travel into the woods to meet with “devils” or “Indians” (who were sometimes regarded by European colonists as essentially interchangeable). The idea that witches practiced magic in the buff, however, varied immensely from place to place. Sometimes it is included as a detail in stories of hag-riding, for example, especially in cases where the witch needed to apply a flying ointment of some kind before taking off.
AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)
Group rituals are often a mixed bag as well, since witches might work in conjunction with another witch at times or meet up with a number of other witches for special events (such as during Walpurgisnacht-type celebrations). In one Ozark story, a would-be witch undergoes her initiation when she “removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s [non-believer’s] tombstone.” This rite is witnessed by two other nude initiates, but the sexual congress is relegated solely to the witch and “the Devil,” and not any human initiates. One tale of a pair of sister-witches on Roan Mountain in the Smokies tells of two witches removing their clothing before greasing up and flying up the chimney, for example. Other accounts describe groups of women slipping out of their clothes–or more potently, their skins–before flying off to perform dances. Details of sexual congress appear in European accounts, but are often minimized in North American ones, and frequently even the more diabolical descriptions of group nudity tend not to emphasize sexuality. A number of African tales about witches do indicate that they might have traveled naked to do their work (which was often desecrating graves or hunting children, work that hopefully contemporary witches are not doing). In these cases, however, the nudity was often solitary and never sexual, as the emphasis was on the witch’s wildness and cannibalistic nature rather than her sexual one. I’d also note that in cases where groups of nude witches meet, they are often all one gender (with the exception being the presence of an Otherworldly figure like the Devil), and that when someone intrudes on magical nudity–as happens in the Roan Mountain story–that person is usually punished.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules & Men, she recounts an initiation ceremony experienced at the hands of Louisiana conjure-man Luke Turner (who claimed a lineage with Marie Leveau). In that ritual, Hurston was indeed stripped of her clothing and required to lie on a couch with no food for three days while she waited for a spirit to claim her. Then she was carefully bathed and had a symbol painted upon her, and finally “dressed in new underwear and a white veil…placed over [her] head” after which no one was allowed to speak to her until the ritual was concluded. The nakedness here is again symbolic, but Hurston very much demonstrates that there is no sexual component to it. She is most powerful during the ritual when she is veiled, then eventually has the veil lifted and she is given a “crown of power.”
Some of the most sensational accounts that involve witchcraft-like practices and nudity are those that come out of places like New Orleans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or out of Europe in the early Modern period around the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In both cases, one group sought to exoticize another group and ascribing their rituals with depraved sexual fantasies made the stories of witchcraft all the more thrilling (in the same way that many horror films use flesh to both allure and repulse). Simply reading the Malleus Maleficarum opens up a realm of psychosexual fixations that reflect far more on the priest writing the stories than on any reported activities of witches. Scholar Ronald Hutton links some of these concerns to the long entanglement of witches as magic workers to night-stalking demons like succubi, who stole semen from sleeping men and tormented them with sexual dreams. The New Orleans press, in a similar vein, frequently featured stories of “primitive” African American “voodoo dances,” in which scores of naked or nearly-naked black men would dance. The scandal of these stories would escalate–often with particularly dire consequences to the black men–when papers reported white women joining the dances, again often nude. In these sensationalized accounts, the stripping of the body was highly sexualized and often showed the readers of such stories that magic, witchcraft, voodoo, or other forbidden topics would inevitably corrupt those who came too close. Those who know much about Vodoun as a religion, however, know that nudity is not typical to the formal celebrations and rituals to honor the lwa or invite them into a practitioner’s body. Clothing is often very specifically a part of the rites, with specific colors like white being appropriate when performing music or dance or offerings to invite divine interactions.
As often as there are stories of witches removing clothing, there are stories of witches slipping their skins off entirely–something I imagine most witches today won’t do readily–or donning animal skins as a precursor to shapeshifting, as often happened with the skinwalkers of Dine/Navajo tradition. Such practices were also echoed by those who hunted witches, as in Zuni rituals designed to help cleanse a community of witches when witch-hunters wore bear skins to enable them to track witches wearing the skins of creatures like coyotes. It’s worth noting as well that in the Zuni world, many of the accused witches were men, and contact with them required a special water-cleansing ceremony in which those afflicted with witchcraft would be stripped and bathed.
Albert Joseph Penot [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)
So do witches go about in the nude? Absolutely. There’s no reason to think that they don’t. At the same time, do they have to go around in the nude? Absolutely not. Plenty of stories show witches putting on special clothing such as a fur or a veil in order to work witchcraft, and it does not seem to interfere at all with Gardener’s “electromagnetic field” (which, to be fair, even he conceded was not absolutely bound by clothing). Most crucially, except in sensationalized accounts, the nudity involved with witch stories is not particularly sexualized in the New World. There are many tales in which a magic worker might be bare but their nakedness is a symbolic act for them alone, and never an invitation for another person to violate their body. There are always exceptions, of course, but in most cases, we see examples like Hurston’s where a nude witch (or magical practitioner) is treated with extreme reverence and respect, rather than objectified for their body. Only when the nude witch is caught in the gaze of someone outside of her practice (and by someone untrustworthy) does her nakedness become a sexual problem, which seems to say much more about the one doing the gazing (and I, for one, am all for reviving a Euripedes-esque tearing asunder of those who would impose themselves on any gathering of witches in any state of undress).
Naked or not, the witch is powerful. Naked or not, the witch is not to be messed with. Naked or not, the witch does her work, and it is best to let her be.
Thanks for reading!
Breslaw, Elaine G., ed. Witches of the Atlantic World. NYU Press, 2000.
Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Univ. of California Press, 2011 ed.
Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. DaCapo Press, 1996.
Darling, Andrew. “Mass Inhumation & the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest.” American Anthropologist 100 (3), 1998. 732-52.
Garcia, Nasario. Brujerias: Stories of Witchcraft and the Supernatural in the American Southwest and Beyond. Texas Tech Univ. Press, 2007.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Maria Tatar. The Annotated African American Folktales. Liveright, 2017.
Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. Citadel, 2004 ed.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules & Men. HarperCollins, 2009 ed.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica. HarperCollins, 2008 ed.
Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale Univ. Press, 2017.
Leland, Charles. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. Witches’ Almanac, 2010 ed.
Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2012 ed.
Paddon, Peter. Visceral Magic. Pendraig, 2011.
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover, 1964.
Russell, Randy, and Janet Barnett. The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee. Blair, 1999.
Sprenger, James, and Henry Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum. Public Domain (Sacred-texts.com)
Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. Pelican, 1984 ed.
In previous posts in this series, 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, and the physical “things” of North American witchcraft. You can certainly start here, though, and go where you wish, and let your intuition act as a compass for these explorations.
This time, I’m addressing a topic I’ve addressed before in a few different ways: how witches learn to do the magic associated with them. I’m revisiting these points here because the other posts on them all go into more detail on specifics, and I believe that a more general summary of themes and methods is useful here. As you’re digging into this subject, feel free to spend some time in those older posts, too, as they do provide more depth than this one will. As you will likely see early and often through the following examples, witches can gain their magical prowess in a lot of different ways, and so it can be hard to compare one witch to another in folklore and history. At the same time, there are themes that do unite the different stories, or at least themes that overlap with one another, creating a sort of “spectrum.” What is certain, though, is that those who claim magical power develop it in some way to eventually become what people call a “witch.”
Witches Become Witches
In the time I’ve spent reading accounts of witchcraft in books of history and folklore, the time I’ve spent interviewing contemporary practitioners or examining specific magical artifacts, and the time I’ve spent consulting with other people who study this engrossing topic, I’ve learned that over-generalizations are not terribly useful when it comes to witchcraft. By reducing witchcraft into motifs and components, we tend to miss the highly individual experiences of the people actually practicing the magic. At the same time, it helps us a lot to look for patterns, and when it comes to just how witches gain their magical powers, we can see a set of patterns in the New World (or at least, specifically in North America) that point the way towards a better understanding of how these practices move between people. Tradition, as one of my folklore mentors has pointed out, comes from a Latin root having to do with “handing” things over, and witchcraft generally seems to be a “tradition” in that sense—it is handed over from one person (or entity) to another.
The exception to that rule is hereditary witchraft, although in this case I’m not referring to grandiose initiation stories of secret Granny Witches conducting rituals in their kitchens to initiate their grandchildren (looking at you here Alex Sanders). Rather, I’m referring to the wide body of lore that says that witches can often be “marked” from birth with special powers. For example, the presence of a caul around a newborn’s head is frequently noted as a source of spiritual power, and even when detatched the caul retains some magical abilities—sailors paid a pretty penny for dried cauls to stave off drowning, for example. In mountain lore inherited from European traditions, the seventh son of a seventh son is often reputed to have the ability to heal or do certain types of magic, setting him apart. Other birth-related demarcations of magical power include unusual moles, the presence of teeth in a newborn, extra fingers or toes, or a baby who is particularly hairy. One account of witchcraft among Pueblo Native Americans in the American Southwest showed that popular opinions claimed that witches often passed on their abilities to their children (albeit powers of malediction and harm in that example). A West Virginian herbal healer named Dovie Lambert who also “took off” bewitchments from others claimed that the passage of magical power occurred when secret words were transmitted across gender lines in families: father-to-daughter or mother-to-son, or even among aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Dovie believed that if the power didn’t get transmitted before the witch’s death, the power of that line of witchcraft would die out, although she herself believed that was unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Even in cases of a “witch from birth,” which is not always the same thing as these examples of magical “election,” the person has to choose to use their ability, and often develops it during a later point in life. This power was not solely limited to magic, however, but often reputed to impart special gifts to children based on birth order that might include a talent for medicine or a need for expanded education. Vance Randolph recorded some such beliefs in his examination of the Ozarks and their lore:
“If there are seven sons in a family, and no daughters, the seventh son is clearly intended to be a physician. The seventh son of a seventh son is a physician in spite of himself, endowed with healing powers which cannot be denied. Even if such a man does not study or practice medicine, he is very often called “Doc” or “Doctor” by common consent. However, small-time gamblers are often called “Doc” too, just as every backwoods auctioneer becomes a “Colonel.”
If there are ten sons in a family, and no daughters, the tenth son must be a preacher. “God meant it to be that-a-way,” an old woman once told me. “He knows how many preachers we need in this world.” She would not go so far as to say, however, that it is a mistake to call men who are not tenth sons into the ministry.
Many hillfolk believe that a third son is more intelligent than his brothers and should therefore be encouraged to “git more book-larnin’.” Others contend that, other things being equal, the fourth child has the brains of the whole family.”
Frequently the turning point in a “natural” magician’s life is adolescence or young adulthood, when the person’s power fully manifests for the first time and they learn the techniques of healing from someone else in their community, usually a family member. For example, West Virginian folk healer Johnny Arvin Dahmer spoke of inheriting a copy of The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus from his grandfather, who was also known as a folk magician and charmer. While a person may be predisposed to magical talent, then, their use of that talent comes only with guidance and training.
That instruction forms is very much the “marrow of tradition” that underlies almost all other forms of witches-becoming-witches. Just how involved that training is depends on the type of magic being transmitted, the cultural context in which it is found, and the particular individuals involved. In most cases, magical practitioners do not hang out shingles and advertise their services as instructors in witchcraft, but over the course of a long-standing and developed relationship with another person they may decide to share their secrets. In Dovie Lambert’s case above, that may happen as a matter of survivial of the magical tradition—if it is not transmitted it will “die out.” Lambert’s cross-gender transmission appears in a number of European-derived practices, including those from German-speaking, English-speaking, and French-speaking groups. A detailed study of powwowing magic in Pennsylvania Dutch communities by David W. Kriebel sums up a number of these ideas:
“Training procedures vary greatly, although one rule is nearly universal, namely, that only a woman can teach a man and only a man can teach a woman…training time can take anywhere from a few minutes to a year. The training procedure used by [one informant] and passed on to [two others] consisted of a ten-week program with all information imparted orally. When the initiate returned for the second session he (or she) had to repeat all the incantations and gestures perfectly, as a sign the initiate was meant to become a powwower.”
Kriebel’s account brings up the concept of a “calling” to do magic, which may be an echo of the idea of a hereditary practice or may signify the same kind of “calling” experienced by a religious or political leader. Kriebel also notes that one of his informants draws attention to the “price” of teaching magic, with one informant claiming “that when one powwower trains another the teacher gives up half his power to the student.” Several instances of this sort of transmission appear in folklore about witches who share their secrets or pass on their power only in the moments before their own death. A number of accounts make the claim that magical power can only be taught or transmitted at most three times within a person’s lifespan before the magic “runs out” or the practitioner dies.
Beyond the element of a calling to witchcraft, some witches may seek out their power in various ways. One Northern Mexican informant described the application of a special set of powders to his body, followed by a ritual bath, that gave him the ability to transform into animals. Notably, he learned the process by watching two other witches do the same in secret, and initially failed to do it correctly because he was wearing a scapular (a Catholid object designed to confer the blessings of Saints on the wearer). Only after removing the holy item was he able to begin his transformations. Many such initiations involve a renunciation of Christian practices or beliefs. Several accounts from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet note that witches become witches by “throw[ing] rocks at the moon and cuss[ing] God Almighty” or writing the Lord’s Prayer on a plate in grease paint, then washing it in a river or stream in an act of inverse baptism. Vance Randolph’s informants note that the initiation experience could be “a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion,” at least according to his sources.
In some cases of initiation, witches were expected to pay a price similar to the one noted in the accounts Kriebel found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That price might be an obligation to a specific spirit (most commonly framed in the American traditions as “the Devil,” although specific descriptions and formulations of diabolic initiation vary). It might also involve the death of a relative, or a period of intense sickness or near-death illness. Once initiated, however, a witch retained her power until her death or until she elected to pass it on to someone else. Other magical powers often followed this line of transmission: a calling or marking from birth followed by a powerful experience in young adulthood or adolescence that confirmed magical ability; the transmission of specific knowledge about witchcraft through the passage of oral lore or even the handing over of a book; and finally, the dispersal of that knowledge and power to another generation, often only in very limited quantities.
Contemporary practitioners tend to derive their magical knowledge in similar ways to the ones already outlined, but with some distinctions. For example, the emphasis on learning from books has become a de facto aspect of magical training. In some cases, the same books used in previous generations, like Egyptian Secrets, still hold sway, although in truth there are so many options available the older books are only a small sliver of the greater body of knowledge being used (I’m not complaining here, as I think many fantastic books have been produced in recent years, including some that surpass the older tomes in terms of breadth and depth of magical information). Several correspondents I’ve had have told me they look for “classes” in witchcraft, too, with structure and lesson plans and even homework. Some prefer classes focused on specific skills, as with Becky Beyer’s Appalachian wildcraft workshops, while others follow initiatory magico-religious traditions like Christopher Penczak’s Inner Temple structure. Training from groups directly (either in person or via postal correspondence) was the norm during the heyday of British Traditional Wicca in the 1970s and 1980s, but that is only a singular form of training now among many other forms available. Some practitioners still take on apprentices, especially in traditions like powwow or curanderismo, although both of those traditions are sometimes taught in whole or part within a class environment, too.
The one element that seems to have dissipated over time is the concept of the “price” paid for magical knowledge. The price has become the time and commitment required to learn the skills and magical techniques associated with a particular tradition. There are still some initiatory groups that do extract a price, such as requiring potential initiates to fast or wear special clothing for a certain length of time—something common in Lukumi traditions, for example. Occasionally the idea of the price being a loved one’s death surfaces, too, although that has become increasingly rare. So, too, has the idea of passing on the tradition before death as a matter of continuing a line of magical practice. Instead, practitioners often pass on their knowledge as more of a public service or as an aspect of their calling (some speak of being “called to teach” within a “training coven” structure, for example). Passing knowledge has also moved beyond rules about gender lines, too, instead becoming a more egalitarian and open-access approach.
Given the many roads into witchcraft, however, the road out is still in the transmission, even if the reasoning has changed. Witches become witches, and they do so because other witches make that possible. The stereotype of witches gathering in huge covens on Walpurgisnacht to engage in Satanic rites may be a medieval fabrication and fantasy, but in the act of sharing magical knowledge, there does seem to be a continuity of magical community. Almost like a family.
N.B: I will be doing one more entry in this series on the many and various talents of witches, but I am likely to set aside that post for a bit to cover a few other topics. This series has been rather grander in scope than I think I originally envisioned, but I hope it is useful to some of you. For now, I am so grateful to those of you sticking with me even with the longer gaps between posts.
Thanks for reading!
Special Episode – The Dumb Supper
This is our first 2017 #AllHallowsRead tale, “The Dumb Supper.” A girl and her friends try out a marriage divination ritual, and find out that things don’t always go according to plan.
Download: Special Episode – The Dumb Supper
This story is loosely based on a version of the tale found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, as well as a number of other versions.
Promos & Music
Incidental music by Olssons (“Ambient One”); DR (“Sedativa I & II”); Byzons (“Apatheia (Or, The Story of a Girl Trapped in a World of Madness)),” all of which are used through Creative Commons license on SoundCloud.
Sound effects are sourced from Creative Commons licensed recordings at Sound Bible.
Welcome! If you’re just starting here, you should know that this post is part of my ongoing series trying to use folklore, history, and contemporary accounts of folk magic to paint a picture of what “New World Witchery” might look like. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read the first post, “What is New World Witchery?, Part I (Irrational Pragmatism).” Then, at least logically, you might want to read the second post, which looks at how Witchcraft is an Amoral (not an Immoral) Act. But who needs logic? Start here if you please, or go back, or divine the content of future posts through by throwing bones, pulling cards, or shaking a Magic 8 Ball. I am just happy you’re here. Please note: my attempt to lay out some sort of shape that defines New World Witchcraft practices here is likely to satisfy no one (not even me). I undertake this effort largely because I think it gives me a point of reference when I’m developing other articles and trying to see how distinctly “New World” certain practices are. So let’s see where that leads us today (or perhaps, let’s not see…there’s a good bit of shapeshifting and invisibility ahead).
Witches Have a Lot of Friends (You Just Can’t See All of Them)
Anyone familiar with British cunning-folk practices has probably run across the concept of the “fairy familiar” through the works of scholars and authors like Owen Davies, Emma Wilby, and Ronald Hutton. English magical folk frequently entered into short- and long-term relationships with otherworldly beings. Sometimes these relationships were straightforward and reciprocal, and sometimes they seemed to be nearly unwanted but inevitable for the person selected by a fairy for contact and assistance. These are not elvish shoemakers doing a day’s work for a kindly cobbler, but often beings who seem to be able to impact the human world without fully understanding it, and beings who sometimes exact steep prices for their services. Wilby notes the phenomenon in her book, citing several well-known cunning folk and their fairy familiars:
“Susan Swapper (Wales, 1607), for example, claimed that she had been told by a companion that if she knelt to the queen of the fairies the latter would give her ‘a living’ while Joan Tyrry (Somerset, 1555) claimed that the fairies ‘taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’…Jonet Rendall (Orkney, 1629) was told by her fairy familiar ‘Walliman’ that ‘He sould learne yow to win almiss be healling of folk’, while Anne Jeffries (Cornwall, 1645), by virtue of the healing powers she gained as a result of her liaison with the fairies, had ‘monies, at all times, sufficient to supply her wants.”
These fairy relationships enabled many magical folk to get by, and even do some good, although one could also turn the power to do harm as well.
In the New World, relationships with spiritual folk from other realms has almost always been suspect, even diabolical. Trial records from Salem show accused practitioners of magic confessing to secret meetings in the woods with devils (although there are also potential readings that might suggest meetings with local Indian tribespeople, who were often viewed as satanic savages by English settlers). During the examination of Tituba, for example, the accused slave confessed to meeting with a Devil-figure in the home of her master, Samuel Parris. She claimed to have signed the Devil’s book and to have been forced into doing ill to the children of the household. In another round of examination, she described the familiar spirits of another accused witch, Sarah Good, as a “yellow bird” that drank blood from Good’s hand and which had “wings and two legs and a head like a woman.” The foundation of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which made the Salem trials so particularly heinous, was the permission granted by the court to allow “specral evidence,” or the suffering of the victims at the hands of unseen spirits, as concrete proof of witchcraft. Of course, many of these details derive from European witchcraft beliefs inherited from earlier trials and confessions, and we should not lay too much stock by them, but they do illustrate an interesting transition within the New World context. In many cases, the concept of “fairy” spirits who aided witches and magical practitioners shifted towards animal familiars (often uncanny animals) and spectral beings that could take the witch’s shape or work on the witch’s behalf (even if it was not in the witch’s best interest, as the specters often “attacked” Salem witchcraft victims in open court as the accused witches tried to defend themselves as innocent).
Witches in North America seemed to spend a lot of time either communicating with their spiritual allies (often in transfigured shapes) or gallivanting around in spirit form themselves. A common motif of “spirit flight” would allow witches to grease themselves up with a flying ointment to travel to distant towns and steal from the local larders and dry goods stores (or, even more often, the wine or whiskey stores of the well-to-do—perhaps another incarnation of the class equity balancing act I’ve already mentioned). Keeping witches out of such places involved spreading salt grains or mustard seeds on the porch or roof, hanging a sieve over the door handle, or otherwise forcing the witch to count some minute object like seeds or holes in order to frustrate her entry. Witches were thought to cavort with devils and wicked spirits in their invisible and insubstantial forms, or to go out working all kinds of mischief. A story from the Mississippi Delta region speaks of a “boo hag” that would travel out at night and leave her skin behind. Only when a young man put salt and hot pepper into her skin before she returned could she be defeated. The mindset of diabolical worship and revelry lingered in the popular imagination about witches well past the Colonial period. In the mid-nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne published his story, “Young Goodman Brown,” which was riddled with such witch lore. In more recent times, magical practitioners such as self-proclaimed “hexenmeister” Lee Gandee reported the constant presence of spirits, who he called his “boys.” Such spirits heightened or enabled magical practices for those who knew them and worked with them, even without the pretext of diabolical pacts.
Of course, not all spirits were unseen by those around the witch. Just as often, the witch’s companions would be animals like Sarah Good’s alleged yellow bird. A Virginia tale about a witch named Rindy Sue Gose tells of her diabolical pact to become a sorceress, for which she received a little black beetle in a medicine bottle, which she fed with blood from her shoulder. The sucking familiar was a trope widely found in European witch tales, and many believed that the animal would do the witch’s bidding by carrying out her orders or doing dark deeds on her behalf. The Southern tale of “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” describes a witch whose prized razorback hog is slaughtered by local ne’er-do-wells only to be resurrected by her magic to seek vengeance on those who took her friend away from her (again, a form of justice and rebalancing). A subtler way of viewing the animal relationship, however, might suggest that the witch did not so much employ the creature as a servant, but as a second self. Many witches in stories engaged in forms of shapeshifting, turning into black cats, large hares, insects, or other beasts in order to travel swiftly and unseen throughout their portion of the world. In shapeshifted form, witches were particularly vulnerable, and any harm that came to them—being cut with a silver knife or shot by a silver bullet—would leave a mark upon their human body that allowed them to be identified later or kill them outright.
They could transform others as well, using them has horses (as Betty Booker did to the old Skipper). One legend from Acoma describes two evil “warlocks” who used a magic hoop to turn themselves into coyotes in order to kidnap a beautiful girl from a nearby tribe. Interestingly, the medicine man of the tribe tracks them through the help of animals, telling the braves following him “Listen to the bird singing in yon bush. It is warning us of the great danger we ace. It says to hurry for Isleta [the girl] will be abused if she is not rescued soon.” Animal friends with spiritual connections appear to help both “good” and “bad” magicians, and the Acoma tale reads much like European fairy tales that feature animal helpers warning of danger.
Speaking of fairies, did they all disappear in the New World? Not quite. The unseen powers of fairies do linger on in parts of North America, although many of the tales involving them seem to emphasize the need to counteract their work. The concept of being “elf-shot” or attacked by fairy magic seems to have transferred into areas where large Irish and English populations thrived, including parts of the Ozarks and Appalachians. Vance Randolph speaks of “power doctors,” which are remarkably similar to the “fairy doctors” found in Irish folklore, for instance. There are also plenty of tales of “little people” in the New World, often from Native American sources, although the close interactions noted between cunning folk and fairies are largely absent. In more recent years, however, fascination with fairies and similar beings has captivated American imaginations. There are fairy-oriented gatherings, such as FaerieCon and Mythic Worlds, that seek to connect fairy beings with spiritual identity (and have a rollicking good time doing so). Threads of Traditional Witchcraft in North America have made much of connecting with a “fetch beast,” which is similar to but distinct from the familiar spirits seen in earlier periods of American witchcraft. The broad picture of North American witchcraft certainly has room for the fairy brides and husbands and teachers of British lore, of course, but on the whole North American witchcraft seems to lean more towards the animal kingdom, tales of diabolical meetings, and invisible specters than the Good People Under the Hill. Perhaps much of that has to do with the aversion to aristocracy and courtly systems in North America—the fairies of Europe often seem to organize themselves in ways that parallel the human nobles around them. North Americans are largely removed from such formal aristocracies (although they certainly still exist in the forms of social classes, as evidenced by cotillions and debutante balls). We turn, instead, to wilder things—beasts and haints and devils—to connect to magic.
Next time: Witchcraft Makes Things (Happen)
Thanks for reading!
“My ears are burning; who’s talking about me?”
“If your nose is itching, someone wants to kiss you.”
“Your feet itch? You must be about to go somewhere.”
I remember my mother often sharing the little bits of proverbial wisdom throughout my childhood.
Usually they were delivered with a wink or a wry smile, and I don’t think she took them particularly seriously, but then she also wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that any one of these tokens had borne some fruit in the real world. If you think about it, assumptions about the intimate connection between a person’s body and the world around him or her are not anything new or unusual. Plenty of people have an uncle whose bunions predict snowstorms, or a grandmother whose arthritis tells of coming rain, or headaches that detect heatwaves moving in. There are plenty of other ways one’s body might help one prepare for a day outdoors, according to American lore:
Beyond those sorts of weather-related phenomena, however, bodies are reputed to be in touch with all sorts of esoteric information. Of course, obtaining pieces of a person’s body is a primary way of gaining magical control over him or her, but that, I fear, goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this brief examination will focus on the body as a giver or receiver of information, rather than a source of spell ingredients. For example, often the physical features of a person imply certain characteristics about their intellect or psychology, according to American lore:
- A fat person is believed to have a good disposition and a friendly nature
- A big head can be the sign of great intelligence, provided it’s not too big (which would mean a person of no wit whatsoever)
- A person with a “long head” is thought to be someone of dubious morality and “unscrupulous” character
- A person with a broad face is thought to be warm and friendly, while a narrow face indicates shrewdness and insensitivity
- “Dimple on the chin,/ Devil within” – A dimpled chin indicates a troublemaking personality
- Long arms indicate someone with a “grasping” nature, someone who will do whatever it takes to geth what he or she wants
- Trimming a baby’s fingernails will turn it into a thief
- And of course, cold hands mean a warm heart.
What do all of these sorts of lore have in common, then? They all seem to operate off of the ever-present Doctrine of Signatures, which we’ve seen before, and which fundamentally states that like affects like. By that logic, we can see how things like “broad face” and “big head” can be indicators of abundance with regard to particular character traits (I can only assume that the same sort of logic applies to the “fat person,” in that they have general abundance in their figure and thus must have some in their disposition towards others as well). More interesting are the less direct connections between things like trimming fingernails and later thievery in life. I would suggest that because a baby is supposed to undergo very little “reduction” during the first year or so of life (a period when their hair, body, and in some cases, teeth, are all growing more abundant), that trimming something off of the baby’s hand will make it always look for something to fill the void. That, in turn, might lead the baby to fill it with other people’s things, and thus the fear of thievery is attached to the belief. Makes sense? Coming with me on that one? (It’s fine if you don’t, of course, as these sorts of lore-bits often can have multiple meanings and origins).
Some of my favorite bodily predictors come in the form of love (and lust) lore, because they seem so appropriate to connect to how we experience our fleshly existence. I always heard that if your nose itched, someone wanted to kiss you, as I noted above (which may indicate either a lustful flag of interest if one subscribes to the nose/penis symbolism that some folklorists do, or a simple sense of “rooting out” such a person, as indicated in the paragraph on itching below). Another fairly common bit of folklore says that “a hair in your mouth means someone wants to kiss you.” Hair can have very sexual connotations (which is why it frequently gets associated with sexuality in Abrahamic religions), so its presence in the mouth would be a very reasonable indicator of lustful intent. Another bit of lore deals more with what to do if your paramour wanders off: “Throwing nail parings into a fire is a way to call a lover back to you” (okay, so this is more of a spell, but it does seem as though the nail trimmings are communicating with the other person, so I’m calling it a fit).
Itches or burning sensations on the body are of particular importance, and seem to offer very particular meaning depending on where they occur. Some examples from Kentucky lore:
- If your ears burn some one is talking ill of you, while if your hand itches you will receive a present, or shake hands with a stranger.
- If your right foot itches, you are to go on a journey; if the left, you are going where you are not wanted.
- When your nose itches, some one is coming. If it is when you are away from home, you may know you are wanted at home.
- If your right eye itches, you will cry; if the left, you will laugh.
Again, we see elements of the Doctrine of Signatures, in that ears receive the voice of others in most circumstances, so if they act in an uncharacteristic manner, they must indicate an unheard voice somewhere out in the world. Feet carry us on journies, of course, so the interesting element in that superstition is the association with particular feet and the type of journey. With the long-standing stigma against “sinister” (the original meaning of that word being “left-sided”) use of limbs, the connection between the left foot and an unpleasant journey makes some sense. The less obvious one is the nose, although we may make some guesses about why a nose would be a barometer for upcoming human contact. We might think of proverbial phrases like “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong” or a “nosy person,” and understand that noses are believed to be the body part which roots for information, particularly about the lives of others, and so the nasal connection does have some precedent.
In Mexican-American folklore, bodily functions are often regulated by “hot” or “cold” natures (not dissimilar from Ayurvedic medicine). Because of those temperature associations, people can figure out important information about a person’s state of well-being based on whether small signs on the body indicate larger imbalances within the person. A great example would be hair, which is thought to be “hot” while it grows. A person whose “heat” dies away quickly, however, will likely begin to go gray, as though his or her vitality were turning to ash on his or her head. Having long hair can also help one lose weight in this estimation, because longer hair burns off more energy, thus depleting the body of its energetic fat stores.
Surprisingly few death omens connected to anything body related. This likely reflects an anxiety that bodily warnings are incredibly frequent and common, and that death should be a rare and unusual occurance, rather than anything commonplace. One of the few bits of bodily lore connected to death has to do with the loss of a limb and its disposal. Supposedly, if one loses a limb through combat or other misfortune, and fails to take off any shoes or other vestments on the detatched extension, the person will experience phantom pains so long as the problem is not corrected.
Vance Randolph collected some interesting lore which borders on a divinatory method using the appearance of spots on fingernails:
“White spots on fingernails are supposed to represent lies, and little boys often hide their hands to avoid betraying falsehoods. However, there is a fortunetelling rhyme children use when counting these white spots :
A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, A letter to come, a journey to go.
Some people say that a large white spot means a journey.”
These sorts of counting-out rhymes often figure in children’s play, sometimes as a means of selecting play partners and sometimes with more occult connotations, as in the spot-counting rhyme above. Why white spots should indicate lies remains open to interpretation, but if I had to guess I’d assume that the spots are thought to be the actual lies trapped beneath the glass-like surface of the nail, demonstrating that lies always come up for air, sooner or later.
I’ll close today with a little tidbit from a somewhat older book (originally published in England, but likely in circulation throughout the British colonies), which is devoted to divination via dreams and moles on the body. The entire second half of the pamphlet is about moles and their meanings, and often provides startlingly specific and inalienable interpretations of mole size, shape, and position. One such indicator: “If a Mole is on the crown of the head, it shews another on the nape of the neck, and the party witty, and to have good natural parts: but that he will die poor.” I would say that indicates that a pair of moles is a bit of a mixed bag, wouldn’t you? I think I’ll go back to being a bit heavyset and being perceived as friendly, then.
Thanks for reading!
- Bronner, Simon J. Explaining Traditions. 2011.
- Bronner, Simon J. American Children’s Folklore. 2006.
- “Dreams & Moles, with their Interpretation & Signification.” Published by the Royal Society of London, 1750.
- Dundes, Alan. Interpreting Folklore. 1980.
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois. 1935.
- Ingham, John M. “On Mexican Folk Medicine.” American Anthropologist. 17, (1): 76-87.
- Price, Sadie F. “Kentucky Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore. 14, (52): 30-38.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. 1964.
- Smith, Grace. “Folklore from ‘Egypt.’” Hoosier Folklore. 5, (2): 45-70.
I’ve had several people recommend a book to me called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It’s a book that looks at the various ways in which people give and receive love. It gets into a lot of psychology and interpersonal communication theories, but in a nutshell it assumes that people tend to give or receive affection via physical touch, loving words, acts of kindness or service, quality time, or gifts. I am definitely a gift-giver when it comes to expressing my feelings—I will work for weeks to handcraft something for someone I care about. When my lovely wife and I were courting, I put hundreds of sticky notes all over her apartment with love messages so that she would constantly find them for months and months afterwords. Even when we ship products out of our Etsy shop, I tend to add layers of Spanish moss to the packing material, as well as little lagniappe touches to the shipment to make it feel magical for the person who opens the box. None of this is to brag, but simply to frame the point that giving gifts is a major part of my connection to others.
Giving gifts has been an important aspect of human relationships for a very lnog time. The Ancient Roman patronage system essentially operated on a large-scale gifting economy. In North America, giving gifts with a magical bent appears time and again. A number of superstitions and rituals surround the acts of gifting and receiving gifts. Possibly one of the gifts most beset by magical rules is the knife:
- One must not give a friend a knife or other sharp instrument, as it “cuts love.” (Price 34).
- “Giving a knife as a gift is bad luck as it cuts the friendship” (Hines 12).
- A present of knives will break the friendship between you (the giver) and the recipient of the gift. (Hines 13)
- No hillman would think of giving a steel blade to a friend such a gift is sure to sever their friendship (Randolph 58).
The ‘hillman’described in the last point would have been obliged to pay for a knife if he received it as a gift, in order to abate any potential tragedies:
Whenever a knife changes hands, it must be paid for, even if the sum is merely nominal. I have seen a salesman, a graduate of the University of Missouri, present his son with a valuable hunting knife but he never let it out of his hand till the boy had given him a penny (Randolph 58).
This is a sentiment I’ve seen echoed through other traditions as well, including some Wiccan circles and their beliefs about gifting athames. I have also seen contrary points, insisting that Wiccan ritual blades must never be purchased, but only gifted.
Knives, however, are only scratching the surface of the myriad taboos, beliefs, and customs surrounding giving and receiving. In the following paragraphs, I hope to lay out some of these traditions (though certainly not all of them… The concept of Christmas and birthday gifts is well outside the scope of a single survey article, for example, and the topic is much larger than a 2,000 word synopsis could handle). What I hope that you will see is the sheer humanity of this process. People seem to develop an entire language around gifting (see the Victorians and their flowers, for example), and understanding that language, especially within a magical context, expands the conversation on American folk magic immensely.
Since we’ve started in the domestic realm with knives, let’s continue in that vein. In the Ozarks, even very small gifts can have great significance:
A button received as a gift is always lucky, no matter what the color. Years ago, many an Ozark girl collectedbuttons from her friends and strung them together into a sort of necklace called a charm string. A charm string not only brought good fortune to the owner but also served as a sort of memory book for women who could not read one button recalled a beloved aunt, another a friend’s wedding, still another a dance or a quilting party or an apple-peelin’ or some other pleasant occasion. (Randolph 61)
These little tokens often represent a greater whole. In the example Randolph cites the ‘memory book’ aspect of the charm pushes it out of the realm of luck and into a broader realm of personal narrative. It tells the story of where the girl has been. The luck may then be a cumulative blessing from all those around her, an assembly of good wishes designed to attract further goodness into her life. Similarly, some fairly small gifts can act as predictors or insurance of future blessings, as in these two examples from Louisiana:
- A midwife should plant a flower for a baby at its birth.
- It is good luck for visitors to place a silver coin in a baby’s hand (Roberts 150).
Here we see blessings which ensure growth and health (the flower) and insurance against poverty (the coin) passed onto a baby, with the hopes that the child will grow and prosper in the future.
Of course, there are just as many taboos on gifting as there are joyous customs. As we saw with knives, some of those can be firmly established and nigh universal at times. Let’s look at another domestic commonplace with strong taboos:
- Never borrow salt or you will have bad luck (Hines 12).
- Never return salt that has been borrowed (Roberts 178)
Why salt? In my family, we frequently gave salt as a component of a new house blessing for people we knew, which as I understood it derived from Polish traditions (after investigating this a bit, I’m reasonably sure this was adopted from a similar Jewish custom picked up by my family in the area on the border between Lithuania and Poland). We give a jar of salt with some bread and a penny in it, ‘So that the family may never be hungry (bread), never be poor (penny), and their lives may never lack flavor (salt).” The salt, then, can be seen as the experience and cumulative personality of the family, its seasoning or flavor which makes it distinct. Borrowing someone else’s flavor would, in essence, give them power over you, especially when the salt is returned carrying traces of your own eau de familie. It could also be that by taking one family’s wisdom and experience, then returning it, you set off a disruptive cycle whereby your two families will be struggling to rebalance power for a long time, which definitely sounds like bad luck. A similar Louisiana superstition says ‘Don’t give spades, etc., to your neighbors; you will have a fuss if you do (Roberts 174). In that case, the tool is symbolic of a person’s work and labor, and to lend it out cheaply doesn’t bode well for anyone (and makes me think of Homer Simpson borrowing essentially every tool in Ned Flanders’ garage…a very bad neighbor).
The issue of when a gift is given can also impact its significance and magical qualities. While I will avoid holidays and the like here, there are plenty of other occasions when gift-giving is an expectation, such as at baby showers:
- At a baby shower, the giver of the seventh gift to be unwrapped will be the next to have a baby (Hines 14).
In this example, the gift-giver receives the magical benefit of a prediction. I suppose that if you are not in the market to start a family, this superstition could seem more like a taboo than a blessing. Another key occasion for giving gifts is after a new family moves into a new home. I mentioned my family’s custom for making a house-blessing from my Polish roots, but it turns out that the general concept of the house-warming may come from the other side of my family tree in the British Isles. The hint of magic behind this tradition comes from the original house-warming present, which actually served to warm a new home:
“As poet John Greenleaf Whittier noted…’The Irish who settled here about the year 1720, they brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies.’…The Scots [who were also early settlers in America, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of Appalachia]…believed in ‘brownies,’ a more subdued version of the leprechaun. Brownies lived in the kitchen fireplace, and the belief was that the owners of the house had a responsibility to always keep these fairy-creatures warm by keeping a constant fire in the hearth. The Yankees noted that Scots-Americans, when moving from one house to another, would always remove burning embers from the old house to the new, to provide a warm home for the brownies that would move in right along with the family. This was how the tradition of ‘house-warmings’ started” (Cahill 32).
I tend to think this is a bit of fancy on Cahill’s part, and that the giving of gifts to new homeowners is something much older and less literal than a brownie’s ‘house-warming,’ but I would be completely unsurprised to find that the actual practice of moving hearth coals to entice fairy-beings to move houses exists in the Old World or the New.
Marriage also features a number of gift-giving customs, some with superstitious components. For example, in Kansas groups of Russian-German emigrants pin money to the bridal skirt as a way of blessing the bride and groom with prosperity. Additionally, a fun game is made of the best man’s gift, and the “custom of some young buck’s stealing the shoe of the bride. The best man had to redeem the shoe with cash, which went into the household fund” (Tallman 227-8). The best man might contribute some or all of the money, with the remainder raised by good-natured begging of the wedding guests.
A number of tales from Appalachia and New England, including stories from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet and other collections of supernatural American folklore, indicate that magical gifts have particular rules when it comes to witches. For example, a witch might offer a very low price for some livestock or sundries she fancies from a local homestead. If she is refused the gift—which is all such a lowballed agreement could be seen as—she curses whatever it is she wanted, rendering it useless to the family that has it. Often she will curse a cow so it won’t produce milk, or she might even curse an entire herd of pigs or sheep rather than just the one she wanted. On the flip-side, a witch should never be given a present of anything from the household, or she could use it to harm those who dwell within. One story features a housewife who loans the local witch-woman a cup of sugar in a neighborly—if cautious—manner, only to find her butter won’t come when she churns it afterwords. She summons a local witch-doctor who takes a piece of hot silver and drops it in the churn, then spills cream on the fire and whips a pan of the scalded dairy until they hear shrieks from the direction of the witch-woman’s home. She, of course, suffers great pains and bears the marks of a whipping and burning the next day, and everyone knows just what’s what. Oh, and the butter is fine after that, too, of course.
Not all witches or magical practitioners are conniving and dangerous when it comes time to share the wealth, though. For example, many witch-doctors and conjurers in the Southern Mountains will not take direct payment for their work, but only offers of gifts made in-kind, such as foodstuffs, clothing, or other necessities. Vance Randloph noted that one witch woman in the Ozarks did not ask a fee for her work, but would accept such donations: “This woman makes no charge for her services, but if somebody offers her a present, such as a new dress or a side of bacon, she seldom refuses the gift” (Randolph 126).
Lest you think all these magical gifting traditions are limited to the realm of humanity, here’s a bit of lore from John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to show otherwise:
A GOOD METHOD OF DESTROYING RATS AND MICE.
Every time you bring grain into your barn, you must, in putting down the three first sheaves, repeat the following words: “Rats and mice, these three sheaves I give to you, in order that you may not destroy any of my wheat.” The name of the kind of grain must also be mentioned. (Hohman 70).
Here we see the old idea of “one for the rabbit, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to sow” extended from nursery rhyme to magical practice. Giving the animals a bit of the household bounty seems to be a way to stave off any thievery on their part, at least in this example.
Finally, I can’t help but offer up a humorous story from Maryland which shows animals getting in on the gift-giving action:
It seems that Mrs. Morison’s uncle and her father went fishing one time and as always they carried their [moonshine] jug along. They came to this water moccasin who was just about ready to swallow a frog. So Mrs. Morison’s father took a forked stick and clamped it down over the snake’s head and took it [the frog] away ‘cause they wanted to use it for bait.
Well, that snake looked so darn downhearted that they gave him a drink of moonshine, and off he went. So they went on with their fishing and about an hour later one of them felt a tug on his leg. He looked down and there was that snake back with another frog. All I can say is, that must have been awful good moonshine” (Carey 31).
I’m not sure if the ‘magic’ in that tale is so much in the moonshine or the moccasin, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
I’m sure there are many other magical giving traditions I’m missing here, so if you have any you want to share, please do!
Thanks for reading,
- Cahill, Robert Ellis. Olde New England’s Strange Superstitions (1990).
- Carey, George G. Maryland Folklore (Tidewater Pub.: 1989).
- Davis, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, & Other American Witch Stories (Jonathan David Pub.: 1975).
- Hines, Donald M. “Superstitions from Oregon,” Western Folklore, Jan. 1965.
- Hohman, John George. The Long-Lost Friend (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Price, Sadie. “Kentucky Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Jan-Mar 1901.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover: 1964).
- Roberts, Hilda. “Louisiana Superstitions,” Journal of American Folklore, Apr-Jun 1927.
- Tallman, Marjorie. Dictionary of American Folklore (Philosophical Library, NYC: 1959).