We cover magical travel from a few different angles in this episode, including protection while traveling, bringing magical supplies with you when you’re on the road, and folklore about traveling.
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Some of the lore mentioned can be found at S.E. Schlosser’s AmericanFolklore.net site, the AtlasObscura site, and in the books under the Weird US imprint. Make sure to check your local bookstores as well for regional folklore materials (look under Dewey Decimals 390 and 398).
Laine mentions the groups MUFON and BFRO, both in connection with finding sites for strange occurances like UFOs and Bigfoot.
We mention our excursion on June 3rd to see the ancient magical artifacts exhibit at the Penn Museum and we’d love for you to join us! You can find out about it in our Special Update post on it, or check out the Facebook Event page. We’ll also have a cemetery tour/ghost walk that afternoon!
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We begin 2015 wih a look at protection spells, as well as some talismans of interest. We also have an adorable background guest star visitng us. Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 73
Some of the various protective charms and talismans we discuss include: horsehoes, silver (including Mercury dimes), salt, iron, evil eye beads, the ojo de dios/God’s eye, dreamcatchers, gargoyles, the rowan cross, the SATOR and Abracadabra charms, and High John root.
I mention (and recommend) the Sweet Dreams oil from Mrs. Oddly
I don’t normally post on stones or gems, as they aren’t a major component of historic folk magic in North America, but some stones do appear and are extremely important. Sometimes the stones in question will be a generic type of stone—one with a natural hole worn in it or sea glass of some kind—but every once in a while we find a North American magical practice which makes specific use of a particular type of mineral.
Today I want to briefly look at the dark, beautiful volcanic glass known as obsidian. It is a very special sort of mineral, because its edge can be sharpened finer than surgical steel and cuts incredibly smoothly, and its glassy black surface seems to be endlessly deep. Both of these attributes have influenced obsidian’s place in folk magic.
Blades made of obsidian have been around for a very long time. They were used as part of Aztec sacrificial rituals as well as implements of war, as you can see from this fragment of Aztec poetry glorifying the role of the sacrificial offering/victim:
O Giver of Life!
Your sacrifice is like emeralds and turquoises.
It is the happiness and wealth of princes
To die at the edge of the obsidian,
To die in war (Kelly 525)
Obsidian was sometimes carved into funerary ornaments as well, and placed with corpses along with other grave goods. The precedents set by native ancestors has translated into the use of obsidian in Hispanic magical work today, such as the practices of curanderos and brujos. The cutting edge of the stone has kept its significance, albeit adapted to an era in which human sacrifice is not common practice.
Dr. Timothy Knab’s War of the Witches mentions flaked obsidian blades as something used for protection:
As soon as the door was closed, we barred it, and then Rubia opened her reed box. Inside, wrapped in an embroidered cloth, were the same dozens of parches of fur, buzzard beaks, and claws from different animals, but there wer also some flakes of obsidian and potsherds that I hadn’t seen in Inocente’s bag. I asked her about those objects first, and she told me they were from the ancestors and that they would help me see and talk with those who still lived in the world of darkeness (Knab 91)
Knab also notes that Rubia told him to use an obsidian blade to help locate his friend in the Otherworld. The ancestral connection and the link to the dead is important. Obsidian is not typically used as a gravestone by itself, yet its dark color and the ease with which it can be used to kill (not to mention that some obsidian even has blood-red flecks and streaks in it) seem to tie it to the realm of death.
A chapbook on prayers to the Holy Death (Santa Muerte) also has a specialized spell focusing on blessing obsidian blades to be placed over the doorways to the home (razor blades or knives can also be used, but it seems obsidian was the original form):
To Protect the Home (Shielding Blades)
Lady of the darkness
Watch over the space and destiny,
For your humble servant and keep the
Loved ones away from those of evil will,
Let them change their ways to please your will,
Let the light come after the dark
So that your kingdom is before us all day long.
Bless these blades,
Allow them to cut the evil winds before they eneter,
To give advice on how to push enemies away,
To keep away the fury of the elements,
Repel negative intentions
And fill my home with joy,
For all this is not possible without you.
(Place blades in the high parts of the doors and windows in places where they will not fall nor be reached by underaged kids. Every full moon they must be replaced. These blades can be small obsidian edges or shaving blades) (Casa 32)
Of course, if you’re using obsidian blades, throwing them away every month is wasteful—so is throwing away a shaving blade, really—so I would be interested to see if some lore may yet surface about recharging the existing blades, perhaps blessing and cleansing them prior to a second use.
While much of the lore of obsidian in magic ties it to Central American and Latin American cultures, I have been able to find it in other places and among other groups as well. One source notes that a California tribe called the Wiyot performed a jumping-dance while holding blades of obsidian (Sparkman 38). The Pacific Northwest, which has its share of obsidian scattered across the region, also has some Native lore about the ink-dark mineral. The Hoh and Quileute tribes of Washington state have a folktale about “Obsidian Boy,” whose body is so hard it breaks the hands, feet, and heads of those who attempt to strike him (Reagan 333).
When I visited the British Museum a decade or so ago, I got to glimpse Dr. John Dee’s famed magic mirror, which is also said to be made of obsidian taken from the New World. He used it to communicate through his compatriot, Edward Kelley, with angels and discovered Enochian magic. I am not sure of how widespread obsidian’s use might have been in Europe, but Dee clearly valued it highly enough to make one of his primary tools out of the substance.
Obsidian’s sharpness and hardness make it symbolically very powerful for protection, and its murky luster adds to the sense of holiness and mystery. I can very well imagine that it might be used for all its purposes simultaneously, acting as a defensive weapon during shamanistic trance states. Obsidian is still easily found, and some surgeons even use it in place of steel due to its keen edge. Within modern contexts it has become a popular New Age stone, although I couldn’t begin to tell you what its applications are in modern metaphysics. Obsidian, born of fire and earth, used to sacrifice and protect, sacred and mysterious, certainly captures the imagination. If you have any lore regarding its use or meaning, I’d love to hear it!
On Wednesday, I attended the Ash Wednesday mass at a Catholic church near my workplace, which begins the Lenten season. The pull of tradition sometimes brings me back to the church rituals of my childhood, and while I’m spiritually aligned else wise now, I take comfort in some of these practices, too. The ashes used in Ash Wednesday services are a powerful ritual tool, made from the palms left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, mixed with incense and holy water, and blessed by the priest. They mark the bearer as a member of the church, a mortal person living in a mortal world, and someone aware of death’s role in our lives. The ashes, which serve as a spiritual tool for unification with divinity and with mortality, got me to thinking about some of the other ways in which ashes can be used in folk religious or magical practices.
And so today, I thought we’d explore the very rich traditions of magical work which incorporate ashes. I shall endeavor to stay focused on the practical application of ashes, rather than the mere presence of ashes in a spell, but in some cases that line blurs (or smudges) a bit. In researching the topic, I was astounded to see how many different methods for working with ashes I found: banishing, cursing, healing, money work, omens about bad luck and loss, and even some quasi-magical gardening tips. This, to me, is an example of how an extraordinarily normal item—ashes—can be a useful magical tool if a practitioner knows a little about what to do with them. Truly, a clever witch or magical worker can read his or her environment and see it loaded with enchantment and possibility, but I digress. On to the ash spells!
One of the most common ways to counteract bewitchment was to burn the affected object—usually a cow, butter-churn, etc.—“to ashes” which would render the witch who cast the enchantment powerless or cause her tremendous pain. Often the ashes would have to be dispersed even more extensively by being scattered to the four winds to render the spellcaster completely impotent and/or destroyed. Similarly, feathers from black fowls could be burned and the ashes sprinkled or blown over a bewitched person to remove the bewitchment.
An account of a Bell Witch-style haunting in Wiltshire, North Carolina, noted that the wicked spirit “sprinkled ashes in the beds” (Cross 243). Some hoodoo spells deploy the ashes of particularly nasty spells in the way one might lay a magical powder, sprinkling at someone’s doorstep so that they must step in the baneful trick.
Cat Yronwode mentions rubbing alfalfa ashes on one’s money to improve business, especially if the money is in a cash register. She also has this excellent and interesting recipe for a floorwash designed to bring clientele to a cathouse:
To Draw Trade to a Whorehouse: On a Friday morning, build a fire outdoors and burn a man’s worn-out left SHOE with a pinch of SUGAR in it. Put the SHOE ashes, a tablespoonful each of AMMONIA, SALT, and SUGAR, plus your own URINE, into a bucketful of water. Mop from the sidewalk inward, to attract men (Yronwode 29).
Ashes can also be used in hoodoo love charms (perhaps in conjunction with the above business charm?), as in this method from Zora Neale Hurston:
Cut some hair from under your left arm-pit and some from the right side of the groin. Then cut some from the right arm-pit and from the left side of the groin. Burn this hair with a wish for this man to love you. Put the ashes – made into fine dust – in his food secretly and he will love you and do as you wish (Hurston 361-2).
A magical charm called the “Chinese Snake Stone” from an account of North Carolina witchcraft tells how the amulet could be used to draw poison and how ashes were used to re-charge it after its work was done:
Directions for using The Chinese Snake Stone. Scarify the wound before applying the Stone-take it off every morning and evening-put the Stone at each time, when taken off, into a glass of milk-warm water, and let it remain a few minutes, until it discharges itself of the poison-wash the wound in a strong solution of salt water, and scarify again, if necessary. After taking the Stone from the water, rub it dry in moderately warm ashes, and apply as before. This course should be repeated for the space of nine days, when a cure will be effected (Cross 264)
In some cases, ashes have to be handled carefully in order to prevent illness from getting worse. When someone in a family is sick, for example, removing the ashes from the fireplace and taking them out of the building is said to be very bad luck, possibly even fatal to the ailing person.
A Pow-wow hair removal charm taken from older European sources recommends burning a frog to ashes and mixing them with water to make an ointment “that will, if put on any place covered with hair, destroy the hair and prevent it from growing again” (Hohman 14). I also found the same cure echoed in witchcraft practices from North Carolina.
Curandera recipes sometimes call for white ashes, which are powdery and fine and must be sifted from the gray and black ashes. Mrs. Mercedes Castorena of Sonoma gave the following recipe for dealing with empacho, a stomach and intestinal ailment:
“You crack an egg and get the yolk, being very careful not to break the yolk, because it has to be all in one piece. Then lay the sick person on the bed, put the egg on his stomach and let the egg slide all over the stomach. Wherever the spot is (where the food is stuck), the egg yolk will break. You leave the egg here. Then you take some herb called rosa de castilla, and some ashes-just the white part of the ashes-and put this on the stomach and wrap a bandage around the stomach to keep it on. Then you give them a dose of Baby Percy (a patent medicine)” (Neighbors 251).
Mrs. Castorena also mentioned a cure involving mixing avocado seed ashes with oil to treat indigestion. Ashes are also used in other home remedies from other traditions: “To cure toothache, place a bag of warm wood ashes on the side of the face where the tooth is aching” (Farr 327). Vance Randolph mentions the Ozark method of treating an itch using a mix of gunpowder, wood ashes, and sweet cream. He also talks about a method of staunching a wound using the ashes of a man’s shoe.
In the garden, ashes can be mixed into soil around fruit trees to improve their growth. My mother used to have me take our fireplace ashes and put them around our blueberry bushes at the beginning of the spring to promote big, juicy berries later on. Supposedly, doing this on Ash Wednesday ensured a pest-free garden all year long (I don’t recall if I was usually enjoined to this particular chore in conjunction with the holiday or not, but our plants were not bug-free).
Harry M. Hyatt recorded a number of beliefs about sprinkling ashes around a hen-house to prevent lice on the birds (and he also mentions the Ash Wednesday ritual for gardening success). Some of the other magical ash-lore he shared includes:
“Epileptic attacks are checked, if you remove the person’s undershirt immediately after an attack, let it smolder on live coals, mix a teaspoonful of these ashes in a glass of holy water, and say In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. These ashes in holy water must be administered three times a day.”
“An old shoe should be burned and the ashes used in washing out the mouth of a child with thrush.”
Several of his informants recommended burying objects that have touched a wart in ashes in order to cure the growth
Dreaming about ashes is very bad luck, usually foretelling a significant loss or a death in the near future
Strangely, dreaming of fire is frequently a good sign, but the ashes tend to be a bad-luck indicator.
As you can see, even the lowly ashes from your fireplace can become useful magical aids if you know what to do with them. I hope this little exploration is useful to you! Please feel free to share your own ash lore in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”
In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.
Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:
To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay. Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).
In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.” What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page: “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.” Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.
After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:
TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)
Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.
With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:
Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
“Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)
Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).
Other methods for using bones as magical curios:
A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)
Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one: the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:
To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).
Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:
“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).
I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.
With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!
I imagine that I’ll get a sharp increase in visitors from Ohio with this article. Today’s featured botanical is the buckeye, which is both the name of the tree and the fruit (or nut) of that tree. It grows in a wide variety of locations, including all over Europe and North America, and is also frequently referred to as a “horse chestnut” (which is actually a very specific species within the bigger buckeye family). Since you can find a great deal of botanical information on the tree elsewhere (like at the USDA Plants database), I’ll narrow my focus here to the folklore and magical uses of the nut.
T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, author of the botanical mythography classic The Folk-lore of Plants, makes the following observations about the horse-chestnut:
“A Worcestershire name for a horse-chestnut is the ‘oblionker tree.’ According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th Ser. x. 177), in the autumn, when the chestnuts are falling from their trunks, boys thread them on string and play a ‘cob-nut’ game with them. When the striker is taking aim, and preparing for a shot at his adversary’s nut, he says:—
My first conker (conquer).’
The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the fruit itself.” (CH XVIII)
Already I love this plant, don’t you? Essentially they seem to be used as marbles in children’s games (give them one point for that), and they also have a nice phonetic connection to the powerful hoodoo charm, John the Conqueror root, which is frequently called John de Conker (and that’s another point to the buckeye!). They actually look llike smoother versions of High John roots in some ways, so it doesn’t surprise me to find that they sometimes get substituted in for their powerful underground counterpart:
“Buckeye nuts are believed by some hoodoo “doctors” to increase a man’s sexual power. Shaped like miniature testicles, they are sometimes carried in the pants pockets as charms to bring men “good fortune in sexual matters.” In the southern and eastern regions of the United States, buckeyes are carried in mojo bags to cure or prevent such ailments as arthritis, rheumatism, and migraine headaches” (Gerina Dunwich, Herbal Magic, 86).
Cat Yronwode similarly cites buckeyes as charms for increasing male potency. Both Yronwode and Dunwitch, however, make it clear that a buckeye’s primary powers are to aid as a gambling charm and to help stave off aches and pains—particularly rheumatism and headaches. This view is heavily supported by a number of folklore sources:
Where the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, a buckeye, a horse chestnut, and a luck bone from a pig ham are put together for good luck [A charm for good luck] (316)
A buckeye carried in the pocket will surely bring one good luck (314)
A buckeye carried in the left pocket is generally supposed to work a cure for rheumatism as well as for piles, a belief apparently English (360)
Red pepper rubbed up and down the back ‘warms up de system,’ as does also a new domestic sack half full of salt into which nine grains of red pepper and four buckeyes have been put. Wear this around your waist and you will never again be bothered with chills (366)
In Mississippi and Alabama it is believed that if one carries buckeyes in the pocket he will have no chills through the year (366)
1328. “My brother always carries a buckeye in his pocket to get money.” (28)
1329. “I always carry three buckeyes in my pocket to always have money. My grandfather did this through the Civil War, my mother did this, and I am carrying three buckeyes too.” (28)
4534. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never becomes sick. (99)
4688. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never suffers from backache. (103)
5233. A buckeye carried in your pocket or the band of your hat prevents headache. (118)
5588. As a treatment for piles, a buckeye is worn: in the pocket (usually the left), or one in each pocket, or one pinned to the underclothes, or one round the neck, or one rolled in the top of each stocking. (126)
5684. One buckeye is worn in one of several places as a rheumatism remedy: about the neck, on the breast, in a pocket (especially a hip pocket), round the waist, and under the bend of the knee. Sometimes, they say buckeyes are ineffective for rheumatism, unless you begin by using an unripe one. Moreover, it is occasionally said, to lose this nut in the process of curing yourself brings bad luck. And finally, because a buckeye is also called a horse chestnut, the real chestnut is worn as a substitute, but this seems to be rare. (129)
5685. Buckeyes used for curing rheumatism should always be carried in pairs. This also makes you lucky at the same time. (129)
5686. “If you carry three buckeyes in a sack so they will be on your skin, good for rheumatism; if the buckeyes dry all up when wearing, then they are doing you good; but if they don’t dry all up, they are doing you no good.” (129)
11073. It is lucky to keep a buckeye in your purse, on your person, or in your house. (262)
13443. Keep a buckeye in your pocket while playing baseball and you will have good luck. (310)
13984. You obtain good luck for a card game, if a buckeye is worn in your right pocket. (319)
2889 – If one eats a buckeye, his head will turn around (219)
Vance Randolph devotes a sizeable amount of space to the folklore of buckeyes among the hillfolk of the Ozarks, also pointing out their strong associations with healing and protection from painful diseases. He relates an excellent story about just how deeply ingrained the belief in buckeye powers was in the mountains:
There is an old saying that no man was ever found dead with a buckeye in his pocket, but this is not to be taken seriously. Most people who carry buckeyes regard them as a protection against rheumatism, or hemorrhoids. One of the most successful physicians in southwest Missouri always carries a buckeye ; when it was mislaid once he was very much disturbed and let an officeful of patients wait until his pocket piece was recovered. It is very bad luck to lose a buckeye. I asked this doctor about it once. “No, I’m not superstitious,” he said grinning, “I just don’t want to get the rheumatism!” (Ozark Magic & Folklore, 153)
There is some excellent lore about the buckeye and just why it became the namesake for Ohio from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. They mention the lucky association, likening it to a four-leaf clover or rabbit’s foot, and links the state nickname to William Henry Harrison or alternatively to Col. Ebenezer Sproat (a simply fantastic name), both Ohioans of historic and heroic stature.
Probably my favorite bit of folklore concerning the lovely horse-chestnut comes from an online forum I found while researching this topic. You can read the full thread here, but I simply cannot fail to mention this fantastic tidbit:
There is a belief by some that only half the buckeye is poisonous, and that only squirrels know which half that might be in a particular nut. Squirrels do sometimes eat a part of the nut.
There you have it: squirrels are smarter than we are. But I’ve known that for a while (at least in my case it’s true).
At any rate, the buckeye can be carried as a lucky charm or worked into other magical preparations, and it has a huge body of lore associated with it. So much, in fact, that I’ve barely (prepare for pun) cracked the shell here. If you know of great buckeye lore and magic, I’d love to hear about it! Or if you just want to pelt me with horse-chestnuts for making bad puns, I’ll be here all day.
This is our long-in-the-making audio spellbook episode! Listener contributions abound, as well as a few spells from your New World Witchery Hosts. Plus we announce the contest winners from our Speak-a-Spell giveaway.
1. Armand van Helden – “Witch Doctor”
2. Michael & Spider – “Enchanted”
3. Dreamline – “The Day the World Stood Still”
4. Todd Parker & the Witches – “Greetings from the Star Chamber”
5. Witcher – “Astral Phantasm”
6. Clouseaux – “Jungle Witch”
7. Witcher – “Kuin Metsaan Huuta”
Coins as magical objects in folklore are ubiquitous, appearing in multiple forms and for multiple purposes. Just think of the common-place act of flipping a coin, which is essentially allowing chance (or Fate) to decide the outcome to a given situation. People frequently carry lucky pennies or coins from their birth year to provide a little extra good fortune in their lives. Many people collect coins from foreign lands because of their exotic and seemingly mystical nature (the I Ching coins of Asia are a good example). Today I thought I’d take a very brief look at magical coins in American folklore. I’ll primarily focus on two key denominations, the dime and the penny, though these will be entry points for examining other aspects of coin magic, too.
The most famous of these magical coins is the “Mercury dime.” While actually inscribed with a picture of embodied Liberty, the idea of Mercury has long been attached to this coin. Cat Yronwode says “this makes sense, because Mercury was the Roman god who ruled crossroads, games of chance, and sleight of hand tricks” and associates him as well with Papa Legba (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic). Coins from a leap year between 1916 and 1946 are especially lucky. Yronwode lists it as among one of the most potent hoodoo tokens, and tells of its uses in aiding gamblers, helping one get a job, or fighting off evil. In this last capacity, the easiest method is to simply punch a small hole in the dime and tie it with a red thread around one’s ankle. The dime will turn black in the case of magical attack, simultaneously deflecting it and warning of its presence. In her book Black Magic: Religion & the African-American Conjuring Tradition, Yvonne P. Chireau mentions this use of the dime, along with several other forms of dime divination, including boiling the dime with items suspected to be tricks to see if they contained malefic magic. According to Chireau, a person suspected of being jinxed could put a dime under his or her tongue to detect the presence of evil work, too.
Silver coins in general are thought to be useful in counteracting witchcraft. From A Collection of Folklore by Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University: “The method to ward off witches was to carry a piece of silver money or to wear a piece of silver on a string around the neck. The coin most commonly used was a dime” (64). In a story called “A Doll and a Bag of Money,” from The Silver Bulletby Hubert J. Davis, a woman named Aunt Nan Miller tells a tale in which a bag of silver and gold coins magically comes to her. One of those silver coins later saves her family when they melt it down and use it to shoot a doll of a witch who has been plaguing them.
A silver coin placed under a butter churn could help counteract minor witchcraft and get butter to come unless the spell was severe. In that case the milk was scalded in fire or whipped with switches to torment the witch spelling the churn. An informant cited in Gerald C. Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery seemed to think that the coin should be heated to a high temperature and added to the churn, and that the presence of the words “In God We Trust” on the coin had something to do with its power, though that would only date the practice to the 1860’s, when that motto first appeared on U.S. coinage.
The presence of silver in the coin seems to be its key to potency, as modern dimes (those produced after 1963 when the U.S. Mint drastically reduced the silver content of the coins) are not frequently used to the same effect.
The concept of the lucky penny is widespread in America. I even have a lucky penny keychain given to me by my younger brother from a trip he made to Las Vegas. They apparently sell them in the casino lobby. Patrick Gainer describes a lucky penny worn as a podiatric accessory: “If you wear a penny in your shoe, it will bring good luck” (Witches, Ghosts, & Signs 123). This is quite likely the origin of penny loafers. And of course, there’s always the nursery rhyme/thinly-veiled-bit-of-witchery:
See a penny, pick it up,
All the day you’ll have good luck.
See a penny, let it lay,
Bad luck follows you all day (this is my own recollection of the rhyme, and there are many variants of it)
The “Indian Head” cent, a copper coin produced between 1859 and 1909 in the United States, is thought to be an especially useful incarnation of the lucky penny, able to perform almost conscious acts of magic on their own. Yronwode describes them as ‘Indian Scouts’ which can be used to keep the law away from your property (especially if you are engaged in illicit activity). The easiest way is to simply nail them around doors or windows. One method described by Yronwode has the penny being placed between two nails which are then flattened into an ‘X’ shape over it to cross out the law’s power to find the place.
Yronwode’s Lucky W Archive has a very in-depth study of lucky coins, including the penny, which I will avoid quoting as simply visiting her site will provide far more insight than any summation I can give here. We also discussed lucky pennies and coins a bit in Podcast 13 – Lucky Charms, so give that a listen, too.
Magical coins aren’t solely limited to these denominations, of course. The more general idea of a magical coin appears in a variety of literature and folklore. In Melville’s Moby Dick, for example, Captain Ahab nails a coin to the mast of the ship as a temptation to the men to seduce them into his quest for the white whale. This is related to maritime folklore in which coins would be nailed to the mast for good winds and luck (American Folklore 962). From Hubert Davis comes the story of Pat who tricks the Devil into becoming a coin to pay a bartab and then puts him in an enchanted purse (this is a variation on a Jack tale in which Jack outwits the Devil—in the Jack variants he frequently uses a Bible or something marked with a cross to contain the Devil). Pat refuses to free him until the Devil promises never to take Pat to hell. This becomes the story of the Jack-o-Lantern in some versions, of course (Davis 163-166).
One of the most interesting applications of magical coins I’ve found comes out of Appalachia (and has precedents going back further) and has to do with curing warts. People with a certain gift could rub a person’s wart with a coin, usually a penny, and then tell him or her to spend the penny and thus give away the wart. My brother-in-law’s grandfather reputedly had this ability, being the seventh son of a seventh son. He had an upstanding reputation as a good Christian man, but he was able to do both wart charming and well dowsing, showing (to me at least) that magic can easily transcend religious barriers. This sort of curing is also described in Milne’s book, along with other wart cures favored by Appalachian healers (Milne 159). Coins can also be used to pay the dead who work with you; my own teacher taught me that graveyard dirt should be bought with three pennies and a shot of whiskey or rum. And a court spell from Voodoo & Hoodoo by Jim Haskins also mentions the coin as a useful component of love spells, particularly ones which require someone to stick close b you physically (Haskins 185).
There are many other bits of lore regarding coins and magic, of course, but sadly I must draw this entry to a close somewhere, and for now I think it’s best to cash out here. If you have good magical uses of coins, please feel free to share them!
Today’s entry is not about the crazed cartoon sorceress from Warner Bros. cartoons (voiced by the inimitable June Foray), but instead we’ll be looking at the remarkable fall-blooming witch hazel tree. Really, the Hamamelis virginiana is not exactly a tree, but a woody shrub which can be found growing near water sources or in forest undergrowth throughout the Eastern United States (as well as in parts of Europe). It bears gorgeous yellow flowers in fall which look almost like a deep yellow honeysuckle bloom or a spidery golden star. It has a number of medical applications (you can usually find an astringent extract of the same name in your pharmacy), and has been used as a tea, poultice, extract, and tincture to treat bleeding wounds for a long time, according to botanical.com. The handy little book Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia names witch hazel as a topical treatment for hemorrhoids and sunburn, and mentions it as an infusion for treating menstrual discomfort.
But you’re probably not here for the medical qualities of the plant (although I should quickly make my regular disclaimer that nothing herein contained is intended as medical/legal advice and you should see professional guidance when using any herb, plant, or botanical). So let’s look at the folklore surrounding this plant.
The name is a good jumping-off point. Wikipedia (forgive me, please) indicates that the appellation of “witch” to this plant is related to an Old English word meaning “bendable” or “pliant,” due to witch hazel’s extremely flexible branches. It also tangentially relates it to its folkloric use as a dowsing tool. Since being able to dowse for water or other hidden substances is often referred to as “witching” for such things, connecting the tree name to its application makes some sense. Essentially this could be a chicken-and-egg argument about which idea came first, so I’ll just leave the question hovering in the ether for you to contemplate.
Since we’re mentioning witch hazel’s connection to dowsing, let’s look at one method of using it in this way, from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:
“Well, I just cut me a green fork off a peach tree some fellows use witch hazel or redbud, but peach always works better for me and take one prong in each hand. Then I walk slowly back and forth, holding the fork in front of me, parallel with the ground. When I cross an underground stream the witch stick turns in my hands, so that the main stem points down toward the water. Then I drive a stake in the ground to mark the place, and that’s where I tell ’em to dig their well” (p.83)
In this example, the informant shows a preference to peach branches over witch hazel (which I found in several other sources as well, particularly those focused on the American Southeast). Another informant of Randolph’s, one Mr. A.M. Haswell of Joplin, Missouri, espouses a staunch preference for witch hazel. Regardless of the tree, the technique remains the same. This account does not mention the holding method, which usually involves a palms-up grip, with the thumbs pointing out and away from the body. The stick ‘turning’ is a violent bobbing action, and truly accomplished dowsers can count the bobs to indicate approximately how deep the well is (thirty bobs equals thirty feet, for example).
Witch hazel can be used for other magical applications, too. A technique which seems—to me, anyway—related to its pharmaceutical properties involves using hazel branches to cure warts, scars, or blemishes. The patient takes a hazel stick, cuts three notches into it, applies some blood from the afflicted body part, and casts it into running water (Folklore of Adams County, Hyatt). One version of this method recorded in Folk Medicine by William Black involves writing one’s name on the branch and filling those grooves with blood.
The plant can also be used in protection magic. Randolph mentions that Ozark hillfolk would tie hazel twigs into little crosses and hung on their walls to guard against disease, especially in barns to safeguard the animals (p.284). This is somewhat like the rowan tree charm, which involves crosses of rowan twigs bound by red thread used as protective aids.
So as you are out on your autumn evening walks, keep an eye out for this gorgeous and rather useful magical plant. Try your hand at dowsing, or just make some healing or protective charms. But make friends with the poor, sweet witch hazel. She gets awfully lonely, and we don’t want her out hunting wabbits, do we?