Blog Post 223 – Magic in the Time of Plague

A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.

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It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.

Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.

Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.

Great plague of london-1665
Print of Plague in 1665, via Wikimedia

Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:

“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”

The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.

The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such). 

Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.

Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low. 

Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins: 

“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.

What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).

Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century. 

A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:

“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)

The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt). 

Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia: 

“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).

This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4). 

None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place. 

So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complement actual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).

Higo Amabie
Image of Amabie yokai from Edo Newspaper (1846) via Wikimedia

First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.

managingpanic-color
Sigil for Managing Panic, designed by Laura Tempest Zakroff (2020)

These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.

Thank you for reading.

Be well,

-Cory

Podcast Special – Haunted Heads

SHOWNOTES FOR PODCAST SPECIAL – HAUNTED HEADS

Summary
Tonight’s spooky set of stories are based on (urban) legends from the American Southwest and parts unknown. The theme tonight? How to get a-“head” in life.

Sources

The legends in this episode come from the books American Indian Myths and Legends and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Play
Special Episode – Haunted Heads

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

Podcast 63 – The Dark Mother

Shownotes for Podcast 63 – The Dark Mother

Summary:

This episode is a tribute to the figure of the Dark Mother, with songs, stories, and poetry (by a special guest!). Feel free to send in any thoughts you have about the darker aspects of the feminine divine, particularly those found in folk and fairy tales!

Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 63

-Sources-
In this show we’re featuring several stories and a few poems as well as the music listed below. Stories are:
1)      “The Juniper Tree” – by the Brothers Grimm, from Fairy Tales
2)      “Lilith’s Cave” – recorded by Howard Schwartz, from Lilith’s Cave
3)      “Leyenda de La Llorona” – recorded by Richard Dorson, in Buying the Wind
4)      “Inuit Myth of Sedna” – collected by Leeming & Page, from Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America

Poems are all courtesy of Peter Paddon, host of the Crooked Path podcast, and proprietor of the excellent Pendraig Publishing company.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page!

Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Song List:
1)      Heather Dale – Mordred’s Lullabye (Avalon)
2)      SJ Tucker – Kashkash (Solace & Sorrow)
3)      Leslie Fish – Hymn to the NIght Mare (Avalon is Risen)
4)      Casey Redmond – Mother’s Acting Strange (MusicAlley.com)
5)      Wendy Rule – Creator/Destroyer (Wolf Moon) and Singing to the Bones (World between Worlds)

Incidental music was by SJ Tucker (from the Ember Days soundtrack) and Disparition.

Blog Post 187 – Magical Hats

Cowboy hats for sale in Austin, TX (photo by Nika Vee, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a line from the classic (well, sort of) movie Smokey & the Bandit in which Burt Reynolds’s character explains to his lady of the film that he only takes his hat off for one thing, to which his female companion (Sally Field), of course, replies: ‘Take off your hat.’

Costume is frequently a reflection of ceremonial, ritual, or even magical operation, an outer manifestation of inner desire or power. A nun’s habit or a burqa can both represent a commitment to religious life, and inspire reactions from those around them. The ceremonial robes of a Thelemic magician frequently conform to specific standards to enhance invocations and rituals. The Encyclopedia of American Folklore notes:

Folklorists who discuss adornment have concentrated on costume’s socializing force and its relationship to the maintenance of individual and group identities. According to Don Yoder (1972), folk costume expresses identity in a symbolic way; functioning as an outward “badge” of community identity and expressing an individual’s manifold relationships to and within that community (Brunvand 341).

One of the items frequently associated with magicians is the magic hat—whether it’s the shiny tophat of a stage magician concealing a rabbit in its depths or the pointy, star-spangled adornment of a fantasy wizard. In American lore the hat has a special place as a magical item, frequently providing either symbolic guidance, otherworldly taboo, or a method of deployment in spell-casting.

When people think of American hats, possibly the most iconic is the cowboy’s ten-gallon hat (which, of course, does not hold ten gallons, but the galon hatband worn by Southwestern vaqueros). I remember teaching overseas and asking about impressions of America, and the most common response was that we tend to wear cowboy hats and smile a lot.

The cowboy hat—as well as a number of other elements of ‘rugged’ American folk costume—was borrowed from other cultures:

Many specifically American types of costume emerged from the interaction of diverse costume traditions in dialogue with indigenous materials and environments. Recognizable forms in Western regional costume, for example, are creolized forms resulting from the interaction of different traditions of dress. The costume of mountain men who charted new Western territory—fringed buckskin coats, breeches and shirts, fur “coonskin” hats, and thick, colorful blanket jackets—was an adaptation of Native American costume forms suitable for native environments and constructed with indigenous materials. The occupational costume of the American cowboy was also the result of the interaction of various cultural forms in dialogue with the demands of occupation and environment. Many of the recognizable elements of the classic American cowboy costume, such as spurs, hat, boots, and chaps, were the result of cultural exchanges between working Anglo and Mexican cowboys, known as vaqueros. Vaqueros were known by their wide-brimmed hats, short jackets, colorful neckerchiefs, red sashes, elaborate spurs, and protective leather leggings (Brunvand 343)

Given the emblematic nature of the Stetson and its kin and the frequently superstitious nature of life in the Old West, it is hardly surprising that lore has arisen surrounding this headgear. Probably the most common belief surrounding the cowboy hat has to do with what to do when you’re not wearing it. There seems to be an absolute taboo on placing a hat on the bed, which appears in everything from Southwestern rodeo lore to Oregon folk belief.

In both the American South and West, a particular custom of hat-burning following the birth of the first baby (or sometimes only the firstborn son) of a miner prevails. From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore comes the following account:

In some clans, when a baby boy is born, a sister of the babe’s father comes to the house, looks at the child, and then burns the first hat she finds. No matter whose it is, nor how valuable, she just picks up a hat and throws it into the fireplace. Many people laugh at this and pretend to take it lightly, but it is never omitted in certain families. I know of one case where there was some doubt about the child’s paternity, and the husband’s family were by no means friendly to the young mother, but despite all this one of the sisters came and burned the hat; she did it silently and grudgingly and most ungraciously, but she did it. This practice is never discussed with outsiders, but it is sufficiently known that a series of funny stories has grownup about hats being burned by mistake, strangers’ hats missing, doctors leaving their hats at home, and so on (Randolph 205)

This practice was also found in California by folklorist Wayland Hand, where “[o]n occasion of a miner’s first trip to the mine after the arrival of the firstborn, his comrades simply seize his hat and burn it despite any resistance or protests offered” (Hand 52). This act functions both as an initiatory rite and as a method of preventing bad luck for the child. Hand also notes that the baby was usually made to touch the hat if possible prior to its cremation. A soldier’s hat could also be worn by a woman in labor to give her strength during the birth, furthering the link between children and hats.

A number of traditions from African American folklore have been attached to hats. In most cases, headgear serves as a method for the transference of contagious magic, sometimes almost in a medical sense: “if one borrows a hat from a diseased person, and the wearer sweats round the forehead where the hat rests, he will take the disease” (Steiner 267). Harry Hyatt recorded a string of beliefs among African Americans surrounding hat lore:

9750. If a girl puts a man’s hat on her head, she desires him to kiss her; if a man puts his hat on a girl’s head, he desires to kiss her.
9751. A girl should never put a man’s hat on her head; it will cause quarrels with him.
9752. The girl who tries on a man’s hat will not get him for a husband.
9753. If a woman throws her hat and gloves on a man’s bed, she wants to sleep with him; if a man throws his hat on a woman’s bed, he wants to sleep with her.
9754. A girl can strengthen a sweetheart’s love by laying his hat on her bed when he comes to see her.
9755. The significance of a beau refusing to hand his hat to his girl when he calls on her is love growing cold. 9756. A girl stepping on a man’s hat will soon marry the owner.
9757. “The girls did this when I was young: in the spring stamp with your thumb in the palm of your hand the first twenty-seven straw hats you see and you will meet your beau.”
9758. If a girl takes the bow out of the hat of each man liked, she will marry the owner of the seventh hat.
9759. Let a girl take as many bows as possible from the hats of men liked and wear them on her garter; the bow staying on longest will reveal who among these men loves her best (Hyatt 231)

Clearly some of these are contradictory, as in the piece about one gender wearing the other’s hat breeding either contempt or desire. There does seem to be a very strong connection between hats and sexuality, however, perhaps because the hat sits so close to the brain and retains the warmth of the head, it may be seen to cause ‘feverish’ behavior, such as love, lust, or even fighting. The divinatory rites surrounding hats are also interesting, although I suspect these performances have less to do with any direct effect upon the mind and more to do with other counting rituals related to love forecasting. Several tricks in the practice of old-style hoodoo involve acquiring the band from a man’s chapeau and using it to deploy any number of tricks, mostly designed to influence him in love (or occasionally business).

A bit of lore from the Southern mountains tells about how a person can reverse bad luck caused by unfortunate omens (in particular a fearsome rabbit crossing one’s path): [If a] Rabbit runs cross yur path, turn yur hat ‘roun’. (Wear your hat with the back part in front.)” (Duncan 236). This is not much different from the idea of turning around if a black cat crosses one’s path or even turning a key or coin over in one’s pocket after seeing an unlucky sign. In an era when hats are frequently worn backward (if worn at all), this sort of act is probably much less out of place today than it would have been half a century or so ago.

Hats, then, can be deeply magical objects to those that wear them. It’s hardly surprising that Lyle Lovett sings of his size-7 Stetson, “Well if it’s her you want, I don’t care about that/ You can have my girl, but don’t touch my hat.”

So what about you? Do you have any hat-related lore? What kinds of hats hold particular magic for you? The pointy costume ‘witch’ hat? A trucker’s cap owned by a favorite grandfather? I’d love to hear what makes your hat special and whether you ever ascribe anything magical to it.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 24 – Book Review

Hello everyone,

So today I’d like to offer a review of a book I’ve cited several times on the blog already, Richard Dorson’s Buying the Wind.  It’s a book of folklore divided by region and focusing on the different stories, beliefs, and practices of those who inhabit those regions.  The regions he covers are broken down as follows:

  • Maine Down-Easters
  • Pennsylvania Dutchmen
  • Southern Mountaineers
  • Louisiana Cajuns
  • Illinois Egyptians
  • Southwest Mexicans
  • Utah Mormons

Each section then goes into further detail regarding the specific folklore of the regional group examined.  For example, under Southwest Mexicans, there is a section called “Proverbios” which contains the bits of folk wisdom like:

Dar atole con el dedo.

“To give gruel with the finger.”  (To deceive with words or acts, especially to deceive one’s husband).

Entre menos burros, mas olotes.

“The fewer donkeys, the more cobs.”  (The fewer, the better…corncobs, dried as well as green, are given burros to eat).

And under Louisiana Cajuns, in the section “Riddles,” we find:

What has a tongue and does not speak?  A shoe

What has teeth but does not bite?  A comb

If a man can lift two hundred and fifty barrels of rice when it is not raining, what can he lift during a rain?  An umbrella

Each section has its own unique attributes.  Some have the songs and proverbs of their region, some have stories and even some loose versions of “spells.”  I say loose because they aren’t exactly how-to’s on spellcraft, but provide some information that could be turned into a how-to pretty easily.  For example, the Louisiana Cajuns section has information on Hoodoo, including a tale from one informant who described a luck mojo bag that “was a little bag of linen and it had like nerves and then bones.”  The nerves are from a vulture, and the bones from a snake, which both could be used in a lucky mojo hand (though I’ve never heard of nerves being used, per se, but that’s what makes these accounts so interesting—their variety).

The entire book is loaded with bits of magic like this, as well as stories of witchcraft and magic which, while more fanciful, give insight into what the occult practices of those areas might be.  In the Southern Mountaineers section, for instance, there’s an interesting account of a “witch-ball,” which is a bit of hair, wax, and other substances rolled into a ball and “shot” at a victim to curse them.  I’ve seen similar stories in other books of American folklore, especially based in the Appalachian areas, so it’s interesting to me to see how prominent such a magical tool seems to be in that area, though it is largely forgotten elsewhere.

I learned a great deal from this book—the entire section on Illinois Egyptians, for example, was a revelation to me, and has opened up a whole new area of interest for me regarding New World Witchery.  And the stories, songs, and proverbs are fantastic!  I can’t get enough of the Southern “Jack” tales!

I should point out that Dorson uses the Aarne-Thompson system of folklore classification, which divides tales into various types for ease of cross-referencing.  It is definitely a book aimed at folklorists and not particularly at a wide audience, but I think anyone can get a great deal from reading it.  And it may open up a whole new love of folklore as a field of study for some folks.

I’ve been reading a borrowed copy from my public library, and it’s just about due to go back there, which was going to be a sad loss, as I still find myself referencing Buying the Wind frequently.  But thanks to a generous donation from reader/listener Amber (many, many thanks to her!), we’ll be able to procure a copy for future reference now.  So hooray for Amber!

That’s all for now!  Thanks for reading!

-Cory