Episode 83 – Shapeshifting Revisited
Tonight we have a special guest with us to discuss shapeshifting once more. Plus we’ll hear an Appalachian folktale and a few shapeshifting spells, too!
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Producers for this show: Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, AthenaBeth, & Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Download: Episode 83 – Shapeshifting Revisited
Our friend Achija Branvin Sionnach of Spellbound Bookbinding is our special guest this evening, and he’s also offering a special service to all of our listeners: If you have a paperback book you want leatherbound, he will do it for you for the costs of materials and shipping! Just mention you heard him on our show.
- The Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells, by Judika Illes
- Call of the Horned Piper, by Nigel Aldcroft Jackson
- Human Animals, by Frank Hamill
- Monsters, by John Michael Greer
- The Celtic Golden Dawn, by John Michael Greer
- Circles of Power, by John Michael Greer
- Resurrection of the Meadow, by Robin Artisson
- Transcendental Magic, by Elphias Levi
- By Oak, Ash, & Thorn, by D.J. Conway
Cory also mentions the short film Foxes, which involves shapeshifting. Our guest tells the story of “Cat & Mouse,” an Appalachian Jack tale. And we also mention the story of Nebuchadnezzar from the biblical book of Daniel.
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
Promos & Music
Podcast recommendation: Check out the latest episode of Infinite Beliefs, which features our friend (and sometime shapeshifting witch) Sarah Anne Lawless!
Last time, I looked at a few of the standard products found in a typical supermarket which could be easily used within a folk magical context. I’m continuing that theme today, and while I’ll still be doing my best to stay out of the ubiquitous enchanted spice aisle, I will be touching on a few ingestibles. Please note, however, that as I frequently say: THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE SHOULD BE TAKEN AS MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE. Before you start popping things into your mouth or rubbing them on your skin, you should make sure with your doctor that doing so will not lead to genetic mutation, pestilence, plague, or ennui of any kind.
I’m going to start in what my part of the country likes to think of as the “ethnic foods” section, which generally speaking involves a portion of the produce area and an aisle with Asian, Hispanic, and perhaps Italian meal ingredients. It’s where I found the candles I showed in the previous post, but in most of the grocery stores around here, despite the obviously oblivious marginalization that comes with a label like “ethnic” or “international” cuisine, the diversity of the consumer population has made a lot of once-rare items much easier to find. The section of these stores directed at Hispanic consumers provides a number of tools for folk magic that fall under the practices of curanderismo and/or brujeria. I’ve covered supermarket staples like eggs already, so today I thought I’d look at three somewhat more distinctive items: corn husks, hot peppers, and coconuts.
The papery, stiff-but-pliant corn husk is absolutely essential for making really good tamales. Usually these come in huge packs (because if you’re going to go to the trouble of making tamales, you may as well make a lot of them), and they’re often dirt cheap. In fact, in the late summer, I frequently fine freshly stripped corn husks in buckets next to the corn displays, and few grocery store managers care if you grab a sackful to take home with you for free. So what sorts of magical mischief can you get up to with all those husks?
If you’re not making ensorcelled tamales, you might consider saving a few husks and turning them into doll babies for working various kinds of poppet magic. In some cases, the husks would be bound to the cob, along with various herbs and things like hair or clothing from the intended target to work a spell on them. Texan rootworker Starr Casas describes one such baby in The Conjure Workbook, vol. 1:
“When I was caring my daughter [sic] I was very ill. I was put on bed rest for five months. My Grandma knew this lady and asked her to come to my house and help me during the week. She treated people who were ill. I think that due to her efforts my daughter is alive today. I trusted her because my Grandma trusted her…She prayed over me every day; one day she asked if she could have some of my hair. She could have just taken the hair from my brush, at this time my hair was very long. She told me the hair needed to come from the crown of my head.
A few days later she came with this Dollie. This was the first time I had ever seen a doll like this. The body of the doll was a corn cob and the doll was covered in corn husk. When I asked her what it was for all she told me was to keep me and my baby safe. After I had my daughter the Dollie disappeared. When I asked her about the missing doll she told me the doll wasn’t needed anymore. I have never seen another Conjure doll like that one again” (Casas 246-7).
Starr’s encounter with this type of doll is not typical of conjure practice, something even she notes, but the use of doll baby magic is fairly common and corn husks make a simple, cheap, easy-to-make-and-destroy sort of doll. One reason that Starr may not have seen them since is that they are less directly associated with hoodoo and more directly associated with mountain crafts, particularly the crafts of the Appalachians. In fact, you can find wonderfully detailed instructions and step-by-step photos on constructing corn dollies in Foxfire 3, which records the folk practices of the southern Appalachians (a later compendium called The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Toys & Games also discusses the corn dolls, but doesn’t give the detail the actual anthology book does). That’s not to say that such dolls are not found in any version of conjure—Dr. E mentions them in his article on doll making, found in The Black Folder, for example—but that they very likely drifted in from non-African sources. Their provenance matters not, though, because they are incredibly useful magical tools in any case.
Have you ever seen the sheer plethora of peppers available in a bodega? Even at the chain supermarkets, you can now find dozens of choices, ranging from fresh jalapenos and big, fat Anaheims to the huge sacks of tiny dried japones peppers and the small-but-potent habaneros. So what to do with all those peppers?
Of course, the obvious answer would be hot-foot work in hoodoo, but you can also get a little more creative than that. Using the peppers as a vessel, it takes very little effort (but a good bit of practice and caution) to slit open a habanero, stuff someone’s name inside and bind it back up. Doing that works sort of like a vinegar jar cranked up to eleven, in that it puts a lot of unpleasantness into someone’s life. Peppers don’t have to be all bad, either, as cooking them with something like chocolate creates a very different effect—a good hot cocoa with a hint of chili pepper makes an enlivening winter beverage, and a heck of an aphrodisiac! A little rum in that latter option helps, too, of course.
Speaking of rum, one of the more interesting uses for all those hot peppers in magic—and here I’m stretching the term to incorporate a certain degree of magical religion—is to soak the peppers into an alcohol like rum until it is nigh undrinkable. Why would you do that, you ask? Maya Deren explains the use of the drink during a Vodoun rite in her book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti:
“As Lord of Eroticism, he [Ghede] embarrasses men with his lascivious sensual gestures; but as God of the Grave he terrifies them with the evidence of the absolutely insensate: he will not blink even when the most fiery liquid is sprayed into his eyes, and only Ghede can swallow his own drink—a crude rum steeped in twenty-one of the hottest spices known. Thus he may alternately remind men that he is their past, their present and their future, that he is master of their compulsive drive to life and the inevitability of their death” (Deren 104).
Deren also notes that anyone claiming possession by Ghede is subject to both of the tests she mentions: having the hot rum sprayed in their eyes and being told to drink it. A truly possessed devotee will have no problem doing so (and likely be able to down the entire bottle of rum and show no effects after the possession ends).
If you ever need to pretend to ride a horse, you will probably automatically feel the need to buy a coconut and bang the two empty halves together to simulate the sound. At least if you grew up watching a lot of Monty Python that’s probably what you’d do. The coconut is good for more than equine simulations, however, and you can use the whole fruit/nut and its liquid for several magical functions.
Drilling holes in the coconut will allow you to do two things: firstly you can get at the precious liquid, coconut milk, inside. It’s delicious and a wonderfully refreshing drink, but if you can resist the urge to down it all in one go, save some for later. Now that you have a semi-empty coconut with holes in it, why not stuff it full of name papers, sweet things like raw turbinado sugar (also available in the Hispanic section usually) and create a natural honey-jar spell? This sort of spell will, of course, not last as long as an actual honey-jar, but it has the advantage of being very quick and due to the sympathetic magic connected to the coconut’s skull-like density and shape, it works right on the minds of the folks targeted with the spell.
Speaking of heads, if you saved that liquid, you can turn that into a powerful magical formula as well. An African-derived magical practice known alternately as “feeding the head,” or in Vodoun as a lave tet ceremony (literally “head washing”) involves using a coconut wash on the head and hair during a ritual setting in order to fill it up with good spiritual forces. The feeding usually follows a simple head washing, either with natural water (sea water, spring water, etc.) or a number of aqueous formulae found in various traditions. Then comes the feeding:
“The process of feeding the head is simplicity itself. The coconut milk or cream is scrubbed into the head, just like the head-washing compound or a shampoo. Once the compound has been worked into the head, the hair may be combed out again. However, unlike a head-washing compound, the coconut compound should be left to dry on the head—preferably, overnight. A scarf or towel may be wrapped around the person’s head to insure this…In the morning, the coconut compound may be rinsed out and the person’s hair washed with a shampoo and dried, as it would normally be” (Mickaharic, Spiritual Cleansing, 101).
The richness of the coconut milk causes the spirits which guard a person (frequently though to be connected to a person’s head in African tradition) to be refreshed and take a renewed interest in the person’s well-being. It’s sort of like bribing a guardian angel with a good pina colada, which would be another fun way to use that coconut milk if you’re so inclined.
Of course, you don’t even have to open the coconut up to use it magically. I’ve seen a house cleansing method which involves simply kicking a coconut around a new home, through every room from top to bottom and back to front. You might say a psalm as you go, or repeat the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. Other traditions use other incantations, songs, or words, but the point is the same: get the coconut all over the house, kicking it as you go, letting it soak up bad vibes like a sponge. When you finish you can either pick it up in your left hand and take it to a far away tree, where you crack it open and leave it at the roots, or you can drop it into running water heading away from your home. It essentially functions as an egg cleansing for a domicile, but coconuts tend to be less messy than eggs when kicked (Mickaharic has a variant on this practice using a head of lettuce in his Spiritual Worker’s Spellbook).
There’s an entire pharmacopeia in a well-stocked bodega, with everything from aloe vera gel (and the live plants) to nopales (prickly pear cactus, sometimes used in curanderismo for treating diabetes) to chicken feet and cattle tongues (both edible, but also both used in various hoodoo spells as well) available to an informed shopper. I mention these three ingredients solely as a way to begin to see the shelves as stocked with more than marketing gimmicks and high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden beverages. While having a good local witch shop is invaluable for many reasons, the grocery store may be your best friend when it comes to simple, practical magic.
I know this article barely scratches the surface of the subject, and I highly encourage you to look at some other sources on making the most of a grocery store’s shelves for your spell work. As I said before, much of my own inspiration came from Sarah Lawless’ post on the topic and Cat Yronwode’s compilation The Black Folder, which features not only an article on grocery store magic (covering things like onions and lemons) by Cat herself, but other useful tidbits such as Norwegian bread charms (from Dr. Johannes Gardback) and an article on “kitchen witchery” by Sister Robin Petersen. Of course there are probably dozens of books on this subject, many of which I’ve sadly neglected here. Do you know of any good grocery-store spells? If so, please feel free to post them to the comments below!
I may eventually come back to this topic another time, but for now I hope this has been a useful glimpse beneath the barcodes into the magic of the market.
Thanks for reading!
If you have that song by the Clash in your head now, congratulations, that was my primary purpose in writing this article. Kidding.
Last time I took you on a quick but fun tour of my home to show how I’ve applied some of the folk magic I’ve picked up over the years in my personal life. Today, I’m drawing some inspiration from Sarah Lawless, whose article on “Pantry Folk Magic” is one of the finest pieces on using what’s at hand for practical spellwork that I’ve ever read. I’m also inspired by an article on “Grocery Store Magic,” in The Black Folder, a compilation of workshop notes by Cat Yronwode (which I recently reviewed), and I’ll be citing both of these sources as well as several others in the coming few paragraphs.
There are plenty of articles out there on doing magic from the grocery store, but I wanted to go beyond the spice aisle a bit and look at the vast number of folk magical items that may go a little under the radar in a standard shopping trip.
Before we go much further, I do want to mention that I don’t think the grocery store is the end-all be-all of magical supply houses. I prefer by far to grow or wildcraft my own botanicals, use hand-crafted incenses from a local occult shop, and carry talismans picked up at the nearby Catholic bookstore in a lot of cases. Supporting community commerce and doing work oneself fits in as well or better with most magical practices than grabbing a mass-produced box of incense from a five-and-dime shelf, but there are always going to be cases where magic must be done on short notice or with supplies not readily purchased at the witchy store. In some of the cases below, it should also be noted that the grocery stores where one can find these ingredients are not the big chains, but rather local bodegas or international markets. You are far more likely to find chewing john (galangal root) in an Asian market than in a big chain one, for example. Now, on to the tour!
One of the big resources that frequently gets missed in grocery store magical item lists is the cornucopia of candles that can sometimes be found. Of course, a lot of stores carry scented jar candles and those are reasonable enough for doing some workings, but if you look in the Latin American or Hispanic section you can often find a number of saint candles as well. I’ve found everything from the standard Virgen de Guadalupe to Santa Muerte, Seven African Powers, Just Judge/Justo Juez, and even a Lucky Lotto Numbers candle just by browsing a little. Below you can see a pair of very cute candles which look like children’s novenas for working with Guadalupe or St. Jude, found at a mid-level chain grocery store.
The novena candles are also frequently available unlabeled and sometimes in multiple colors. It’s fairly easy to customize them to your own needs and do extended spellwork using these tools.
The candles don’t stop there, though. Say you want to do a quick-and-easy candle spell, but you know you won’t have time to burn a candle 1-2 hours per night for nine nights. Stop by the baking section and grab birthday candles, which are small and burn very quickly. Will it change the potency? Perhaps, but you’ll be able to at least do what you want to do. They also frequently have letter or number shaped candles, so you might be able to use those to target a specific goal or person with the spell (especially if you’re knowledgeable about numerology and can figure out the right number(s) for the job).
If your grocery also has a Jewish section with kosher options, check to see if they sell Shabbat candles. They frequently come in boxes at a very reasonable price, and are specifically designed to be used for spiritual purposes (albeit non-magical ones in most cases). These burn longer than the birthday candles but much more quickly than novenas, and so would be good for mid-range spell work.
We’ve mentioned these a bit in our previous post on Spiritual House Cleaning, but here I mean less of the whole-herb types and more of the mass-produced stuff. Harshly-scented cleaning solutions with abrasive chemicals and artificial odors may not seem like a particularly likely place to find folk magic, but it’s there if you look for it. One of the most common of household cleaning agents, ammonia, acts as a substitute for urine in some spells. Cat Yronwode suggests in her Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic that ammonia can be used in spells focusing on protection and spells designed to improve sales, either at a business or of a home (Yronwode 29). In Spiritual Cleansing, Draja Mickaharic mentions ammonia’s great psychic cleaning powers and notes that putting a little bit down the drain after a house blessing & cleansing will help finish the job.
In a similar vein, we find plenty of uses for that old pantry/laundry/cleaning-closet standby, vinegar. Sarah plainly mentions vinegar as one of her grocery store finds for the working magician. All vinegars can be good for simple crossing work, according to Southern folk magic, and it would be very easy to turn cider or wine vinegars into a variety of Four Thieves Vinegar for both aggressive protection and subtle cursing. I mentioned on our Spell Failures episode that I had attempted to work a vinegar jar with poor results (mostly due to my lack of dedication). I found an interesting hexing combination of both vinegar and ammonia in Zora Neale Hurston’s article on “Hoodoo in America,” too:
i. To Punish.
When you want a person who is indited punished, write the name of the person in jail on a slip of paper and put it in a sugar bowl, or some other receptacle of the kind. Put in red pepper, black pepper, one penny nail, fifteen cents of ammonia and two keys. Drop one key down in the bowl and lean the other against the side of the bowl. Go to the bowl every day at twelve and turn the key that is standing against the side of the bowl to keep the person locked in jail. Every time you turn the key, add a little vinegar (Hurston 382).
I find it interesting that both ammonia and vinegar seem to be able to perform cleansing functions in a household, but applied to an individual their corrosive nature seems to become destructive. I think this illustrates the principle of the two-sided coin of magic nicely, though, as the same ingredient that can save you from nasty spirits might also be turned around to damn an enemy.
Before I move off of cleaners, I want to mention a couple of the commercial products out there that have some magical history and applications. First, the famous Pine-Sol cleaner, which has been found in grocery stores for almost 60 years. The product was born in Mississipi, and even today contains pine oil to give it cleaning power and its trademark scent (along with a hefty dose of chemical salts and alcohols). Pine oil is another spiritual cleanser and refresher, in addition to having some mundane cleaning properties as an antibacterial and antiseptic disinfectant. It works a lot like lemon does in spiritual cleansing—so much so that one of Pine-Sol’s first offshoot scents was lemon, although now they have half-a-dozen different aromas to choose from. While I’d never suggest using a commercial pine cleaner on the body (or in the body especially…that’s a big no-no!), some folk magical traditions have used pine oil-based treatments for medical ailments (there’s a fine example in Hohman’s Long Lost Friend, for instance). So the presence of lemon and pine has the power to cut through spiritual ailments as well as the nasty germs lingering on your kitchen floor. You can make a variant of your own pine oil cleaner by simply adding pine oil to some salted water with some castile soap dissolved in it. It won’t be as strong as Pine-Sol, but it also won’t be quite as harsh. You could even add a bit of lemon juice or lemon oil to that, too, for extra kick (both spiritually and microbially speaking).
Since we’re talking of lemons and soap, I can’t help but at least briefly mention Murphy Oil Soap, which has been treating hardwood floors for over a century (although only in a mass market for about half that time). The cintronella oil in Murphy’s has a citrusy, lemony scent, and is both a lucky and cleansing ingredient in spiritual work (it’s one of the oils used in Van Van Formula). Queen of Pentacles Conjure notes that both Murphy’s and Pine-Sol make great additions to the spirit worker’s cleaning closet. Citronella keeps away mosquitoes, too, which makes me love it even more.
I’m going to pause here before continuing through the aisles, as this article is already quite long. There is plenty more to see as we make our way through the store, though, so stay tuned!
Thanks for reading,
This seems to be a great time to work with American folk magic. Not only have a number of people begun working with the systems that have evolved here (like hoodoo, pow-wow, and all the other flavors of North American magic you probably come to this site to investigate), but the vast amount of information on the various branches has become legion. Thanks very much to author-teachers like Cat Yronwode, Conjureman Ali, and Denise Alvarado, the opportunity to learn folk magic has expanded beyond a few internet sites and hard-to-find instructors to entire shelves of books and even folk magic festivals where students can gather together and learn from a bevy of the brightest minds in practical magic today.
Keeping up with the tremendous reading list available to someone interested in folk magic is no easy task. My current pace is roughly a book a week to a book every two weeks, and that includes the books I review for the Journal of American Folklore, texts on folk magic, books on literature and criticism, science writing, etc. Occasionally I manage to squeeze one in for fun, too!
That’s not to say that my ‘required’ reading list can’t be fun, too, of course. Two recent entries into the pile of texts on folk magic that have been absolute pleasures to read are The Black Folder, compiled by Cat Yronwode and The Conjure Workbook, v. 1: Working the Root, by Starr Casas.
The Black Folder is the assembly of a number of workshop handouts from a variety of events and educational opportunities presented by Yronwode’s Lucky Mojo Curio Company and Missionary Independent Spiritual Church over the past decade or so. Many of the entries, particularly the early ones, are by Yronwode herself. Her section on working hoodoo based on items you can pick up at the grocery store or pull from your pantry is first-rate, and doesn’t simply focus on the spice rack but includes work with onions and other produce as well. Other top-notch contributors include Conjureman Ali, Sindy Todo, Robin York, Dr. E, Starr Casas, and many others. Topics range from the oft-covered bottle spells and honey jars to very detailed and unique pieces on foot-washing, the use of skulls in magic, and even some Swedish troll-magic courtesy of Dr. Johannes Gardback. The design of the book really looks like a collection of newsletters that have been bound up in a black cover (it is, however, a trade paperback version of the original Black Folder, which Yronwode used to keep up with all the informational pamphlets used by teachers in Lucky Mojo’s courses). Reading through this book provides a bit of a biography of Lucky Mojo as well, as the evolution of the company and its teaching role can be seen in the more-or-less chronological progression of the pamphlets. The work provided varies in quality according to the author, with some authors giving standout spells and methods, and some which focus more on theory than technique. I found a few entries that seemed more conjectural and less based on inherited practices or research, but for the most part the book is an absolute treasure-trove of information. While it does not replace the opportunity to learn from these folks in person, it certainly does a phenomenal job of feeling like field notes from working magicians. It is published by Lucky Mojo, so you can buy it directly from them or through Amazon and other booksellers. Because of the difficult layout work that must be required to piece together all those pamphlets, it seems like the kind of text that will not likely ever appear in eBook format, so a physical copy is the only way to go, but highly worth the purchase price.
In The Conjure Workbook, Casas—who contributed to The Black Folder as well, noted above—also does a tremendous amount of assembly, piecing together essentially an entire lifetime of conjure knowledge in a little under 300 pages. Casas has been teaching and writing for several years, and has formerly produced texts on doll baby work, money magic, basic Southern conjure, and Blackhawk independently. For this endeavor, however, she has joined up with Pendraig Publishing (Peter Paddon’s company). At the very outset, I will say the biggest problem with the book has nothing to do with the work presented, but rather the frequent typos, spelling errors, and odd edits that plague the text. Hopefully future volumes and editions will corret those issues, though, because this book is highly valuable and informative. Starr’s workbook reads like a master class with a highly skilled and practiced conjure worker. She makes no bones about the type of work she does, which she labels as specifically Southern conjure and ties to working with the Bible (please note, she does not say one must be a Christian to do this work, but that one must be comfortable with the Bible as a source of spellwork and power—this point frequently gets misunderstood in her writing). She has been practicing within a Catholic strain of the work for many years, so the Saints make a strong entry into this book. She doesn’t shy away from the darker side of saints like St. Lucy and St. Ramon, and includes work with Mary and several of the prophets, too—which are spirits that receive relatively little attention in other works on Biblically-framed folk magic despite their powerful natures. Casas puts the work first in this book, and if you’re looking for actual spells to do, this is certainly the kind of text to keep handy. She also does not regurgitate anyone else’s spellwork (at least as far as I can see) and gives the reader a piece of her own history and philosophy in between the spells. More than anything, this book reads like a conversation with her, and provides loads of new conjure projects to an aspiring worker, including doll babies made with shrunken apple heads, medicine bottle spells, and even a good reason to invest in getting a box of chalk from the dollar store to keep handy. Starr has put together a book that, despite its proofreading issues, manages to be absolutely invaluable to anyone who likes to get their hands a little dirty in folk magic.
Both of these books are born from years of practical experience, and they both have more of a classroom feel than most titles on folk magic do, which may make them more accessible than other texts on similar subjects. It is highly likely both books will be the initial entries into multi-volume series as well, which hopefully means that classes will continue, so to speak, for a long time to come.
Yronwode and Lucky Mojo have also begun producing a number of smaller books, like The Art of Hoodoo Candle Magic in Rootwork (by Ms. Cat) and Hoodoo Honey & Sugar Spells (by Deacon Millet), but I’ve yet to read most of those. Casas also has released a small book on reading “conjure cards,” and she’s put out a deck and a special deluxe set that includes the cards, book, and blessing oil through Pendraig. They look absolutely stellar, though I’ve not laid hands on a set yet, only seen the online previews. I mention these because both Pendraig and Lucky Mojo seem to be strong contenders in terms of putting out useful texts on folk magic now, and I’m very happy to see them expanding their offerings. Hopefully that means an ever-growing source of knowledge and spellwork for all of us.
There are plenty of other texts I’d love to explore (including one that I’ll try to get to with a bit of fanfare soon, called Fifty-Four Devils, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, who seems a rather promising fellow, if a bit silly at times), but for now I hope you’ll check out The Black Folder and Working the Root and let me know what you think.
Wishing you all the best, and happy reading!
Tonight we’re looking at the concept of “magical Catholicism,” or folk magic using Catholic symbols. We’ll have a couple of saint stories, a brief history of the traditions, and a bevy of practical applications.
Download: Episode 53 – Papisticall Charmes
Relevant blog posts (and podcasts) mentioned in this episode:
- Blog Post 115 & 116 (Cursing Psalms)
- Blog Post 122 (Bibliomancy)
- Blog Post 134 (Brujeria & Curanderismo Intro)
- Blog Post 135 (The Magical Catholic)
- Blog Post 136 (Papisticall Charmes/More Catholic magic)
- Blog Post 137 & 138 (Curandro Spells)
- Blog Post 160, 161, & 176 (Saint Magic)
- Podcast 34 (Biblical Magic)
- Podcast Special (Magical Saints)
(All of these can be easily found by navigating to the “Magical Systems” resource page of the NWW site, then looking at the subheadings of ‘Curanderismo & Brujeria’ and ‘Other Magical Systems’)
Books worth seeking out on the topic:
- Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft
- Draja Mickaharic’s Magical Spells of the Minor Prophets, Spiritual Cleansing, & A Spiritual Worker’s Spell Book
- Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic & Superstition
- A chapbook called The Magical Powers of the Holy Death
- Chris Bilardi’s The Red Church and John G. Hohman’s Long Lost Friend
- Curandero by Cheo Torres
- Magical Powers of the Saints by Ray T. Malbrough
- Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook
- Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages, by Judika Illes
- Gerald Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery
- Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints
- I didn’t mention it in the episode, but I’d HIGHLY recommend the new release The Conjure Workbook: Working the Root, vol.1, by Starr Casas—it’s conjure and rootwork, but heavily influenced by the author’s Catholicism and very useful stuff, to boot!
Other worthwhile resources:
- Check out the Yahoo! Group Catholic Folk Magic
- The site fisheaters.com which has several pieces of information that veer towards the esoteric which are worth checking out (such as “St. Anthony’s Brief” or “Holy Oils”) [A warning: this site is very traditional, and thus its viewpoints may be controversial; browse at your own risk]
- I would highly recommend the Library Page of the Curious Curandera website, where you’ll find a number of free titles on magical Catholicism, including “How to Pray the Rosary,” “Saints and their Patronage,” and “Prayers for Different Needs.” There are a few (very good) pay titles, too, but it’s hard to beat the wonderful free texts. Her courses are marvelous, too!
- Legends of St. Expedite come from http://saintexpedite.org/history.html and luckymojo.com/saintexpedite.html
- The legend of Saint Charlene was adapted from an essay by Donna McGee Onebane (http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/CharleneRichard.html#tab2)
- Special thanks to Listener “V” for your spells from Cartagena!
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
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Promos & Music
- “Veni Creator Spiritus – Gregorian Chant” – performed by Coral Vertice – from archive.org
- “St. Stephen” – live track performed by the Grateful Dead – from archive.org
Today we’re taking a brief look at the folk magical system of the Pennsylvania German (or “Dutch”) community, known as Powwow or Braucherei. We’ve got an interview with braucher Robert Schreiwer, several readings on the topic, and some charms, spells, and songs, too.
Download: Episode 49 – Powwow and Braucherei
Books mentioned within the show
- Discovering American Folklife: Essays on Folk Culture & the Pennsylvania Dutch, by Don Yoder
- The Long Lost Friend, or The Pow-wow Book, by John George Hohman
- American Shamans: Journeys with Traditional Healers, by Jack Montgomery
- The Red Church, or The Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, by Chris Bilardi
- Hex and Spellwork, by Karl Herr
- Buying the Wind, by Richard Dorson
- Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister, by Lee R. Gandee
- Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald C. Milne
- Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph (section: “Power Doctors”)
- Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, David W. Kriebel
- Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols, by Don Yoder
- New World Witchery Podcast 29 featured an interview with author Jack Montgomery, who presented some good information on powwowing
- Urglaawe – Braucher Rob Schreiwer’s site on Heathen braucherei
- Three Sisters Center for the Healing Arts – A place to learn more about braucherei & associated practices
- Braucher.webs – Braucher Rob Chapman’s site for powwow and braucherei
- New World Witchery posts on Braucherei: Intro Part I, Part II, and Part III (also see our page Resources: Magical Systems, under the heading “Braucherei, Hexenmeisters, & Pow-wow”)
- We have a great written interview with braucher Chris Bilardi here: Part I & Part II
- An online essay on Powwow by David W. Kreibel is available here
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!
Promos & Music
German folk songs came from the site Mamalisa.com. The songs played in this episode were:
- Winter, Ade!
- Taler, Taler du musst wander
- Meine Hande sind verschwunden
- Rolle, Rolle, Rolle
- Guten Morgen ruft die Sonne
Incidental music was Johannes Brahams, Symphony No. 4, found at Archive.org
Promo 1- Lamplighter Blues
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,
- Bivens, N.D.P. Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau (1994, new ed.)
- Cross, Tom. “Witchcraft in North Carolina.” Studies in Philology (Jul. 1919).
- Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1935)
- Hohman, John George. The Long Lost Friend (1820).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Dec. 1931).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
- Neighbors, Keith A. “Mexican-American Folk Disease.” Western Folklore (Oct. 1969).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
- Snow, Loudell F. “Mail Order Magic: The Commercial Exploitation of Folk Belief.” Journal of the Folklore Institute (Aug. 1979)
- Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic (2002).
This episode is a grab-bag of different items: a recap of PPSM3, some music from artist Leslie Fish, a recording of a mini-class, and listener feedback. Think “Mary Poppins’ traveling bag,” but full of NWW goodies.
Download: Episode 45 – The Bag Lady Show
- You can read all about PPSM3 and find a list of the attendees and sponsors at the official Supermoot site
- Much of the class discussion is also recapped in Blog Post 164 – Superstitions & Omens, Redux
- I quote from Toni Morrison’s excellent book Sula in the class as well
- Here are some of the books mentioned in the feedback section of the show:
- A Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk, by Peter Paddon
- The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill, by Robin Artisson
- The Call of the Horned Piper, by Nigel Jackson
- Conjure Tales, by Charles W. Chesnutt
- The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, by Joel C. Harris
- In a Graveyard at Midnight, by Edain McCoy
- Orlean Puckett: The Life of a Mountain Midwife, by Karen Cecil Smith
- Bluenose Magic, by Helen Creighton
- The Midwife & the Witch, by Thomas Forbes
- Peculiarities of the Appalachian Mountaineers, by Ora Jones
- Green Hills of Magic, by Ruth Musick
- Appalachian Magic, by Janet Rice
- Staubs & Ditchwater, by H. Byron Ballard
- Grimoires, by Owen Davies
- Mules & Men, by Zora N. Hurston
- Here’s the link to homemade Peeps candies, as shared by a listener
- You can read more about the crossroads legend mentioned in the feedback section at Lucky Mojo’s website
- An author list of suggested witchy reading, sent in by a listener: Patricia A. McKillip, Cecelia Dart-Thornton, Jim Butcher, Diana Wynne Jones, Juliet Marillier, & Jan Siegel
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!
We feature three songs by artist Leslie Fish, from her album Avalon is Risen: ““Hallows Dirge,” “Hymn to the Night-mare,” & “Lucifer”
To get everyone in the holiday spirit, today I thought we might head down the gruesome path to the graveyard and see what we can dig up (figuratively, of course). That’s festive, right? Deck the halls and all that? While I’ve talked recently about bones and their uses in magic, and we’ve touched on the idea of working with the dead in magical practice, too, you may not know that there is a very long and widely spread habit of using corpses—in whole and in macabre part—as magical tools in their own right. Of course, there are many societies, including some Native American tribes, with strong taboos against contact with dead bodies, yet even this geis reflects a sense of respect and awe at the power of the deceased. Sometimes the spirit of the dead person is the fuel behind the magic—in which case it can be seen as a form of necromancy—and sometimes it is simply the body voided of life—any body, really—which empowers the charm.
Probably one of the most famous and nefarious examples of corpse magic is the Hand of Glory, a special candle made from the severed and pickled hand of an executed criminal which supposedly had intense magical properties. One of its talents was its reputed ability to render anyone in a house near where it was lit unconscious, thus making them easy to rob and explaining why the Hand of Glory might have been sought after by eager thieves. Here is one of the brief-but-to-the-point recorded recipes for making a Hand of Glory, from one of my favorite spooky little tomes, Kathryn Paulsen’s Witches’ Potions & Spells (WARNING! THIS IS PROVIDED AS A FOLKLORIC EXAMPLE ONLY! DO NOT DESECRATE CORPSES—IT IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL!):
During an eclipse of the moon, sever the right hand of a corpse, preferably that of an executed murderer. Dry it and preserve it in a jar to which you have added foul smelling herbs. If you light the fingers of this hand as candles, the light can only be seen by yourself and other witches, and the light will not go out until you wish it. If you bring it into a house, sleep will reign over those within. But you must let no one know that you posses the Hand of Glory. Use this hand to give light whenever you wish to obtain something from a graveyard (Paulsen 40).
Paulsen also mentions a variation on this spell which involves filling a human shin bone with tallow and carrying it as a candle to cause enchanted sleep. The Hand of Glory and its variants date back to at least the early Modern period, showing up in 18th century texts like the Petit Albert.
Across the Atlantic and on North American soil, corpses remained a morbid part of folk magic. Here they were granted powers of healing, crime-detection, secret-keeping, and other occult traits. The bodies of the dead figure into magical systems spanning multiple cultures, including those of Native Americans, the Pennsylvania Dutch, African Americans, and mountain folk in the Appalachians and Ozarks. First Nations practices vary between tribes, with alternating levels of prohibition and interaction when it comes to handling the dead. Randolph notes that “Some hillfolk of Indian descent insist upon sprinkling a little cornmeal over a corpse, just before the burial. This is done unobtrusively, without any noise or ceremony, and many whites have attended funerals where the rite was carried out without eve* noticing it. As the mourners shuffle past the body, here and there you see one drop a tiny pinch of meal into the coffin” (Randolph 316). Such a practice more rightly belongs to burial customs than necromancy, however. In general, contact with the dead can be a powerful—but frequently fearful—thing in Native societies. For example, “[o]ne of the most remarkable of Indian sacrifices was that practised by the Hurons in the case of a person drowned or frozen to death. The flesh of the deceased was cut off and thrown into a fire made for the purpose, as an offering of propitiation to the spirits of the air or water. What remained of the body was then buried near the fire” (Parkman 4). In the Pacific Northwest, there are accounts of tribes with magical groups that engaged in highly taboo behaviors to perform their roles as community sorcerors: “There were also a number of secret societies—for example the Cannibal Society of the Kwakiutl, whose induction ceremony was believed to involve eating parts of a corpse” (Lowenstein 120). South American Natives have their own legends about how a group of witch-monsters from Chiloe, an archipelago south of the mainland, use a fearsome object called a macun. This is a leather bowl made from human skin taken from the corpse of a virgin which reveals the presence of human victims and can be used in some stories as a mode of transportation. It can also help the evil brujos turn into animals, open locked doors, and become invisible.
Turning from the cultural backdrop of Native Americans, whose varied practices I have only skimmed in the previous paragraph, let us now look more at the specific applications of corpse magic in some of the non-Native societies of North America. In general, what follows is broken down by magical purpose into categories (legal work, divination, cures, and curses), with a few tidbits at the end. This is a far from complete examination of the topic, however, so I hope this provides an entryway into further study for those interested.
Fundamentally, these sorts of spells are either somewhat divinatory—helping to provide insight into crimes which remain unsolved, for instance—or make use of the dead body to provide legal aid. To this latter end, we can look in Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to find at least one instance in which the figure of the corpse is invoked to help in court-case work:
“TO RETAIN THE RIGHT IN COURT AND COUNCIL.
Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judeorum.
First carry these characters with you, written on paper, and then repeat the following words: “I (name) appear before the house of the Judge. Three dead men look out of the window; one having no tongue, the other having no lungs, and the third was sick, blind and dumb.” This is intended to be used when you are standing before a court in your right, and the judge not being favorably disposed toward you. While on your way to the court you must repeat the benediction already given above.” (Hohman #147)”
The use of actual corpses in legal work tends to be more in crime-detection, however. One piece of lore spread across several cultures describes leaving an egg in the hand of a murdered man when he is buried. The murderer will be compelled to some action, depending on the story, ranging from returning to the scene of the crime to confessing guilt to suffering illness and death himself. Sometimes the body will perform its own divination, unaided by other witnesses or participants. Kentucky lore says “If a corpse’s nose bleeds, it is a sign that the murderer is in the room” (Thomas #745). Puckett notes in African American lore that “the common Negro belief [is] that If you put your hand on the corpse the ghost will not harm you (or you will be afraid of no more dead people). This may be the remnant of an old ordeal, since the wounds are supposed to bleed if the murderer touches the corpse” (Puckett 88).
Dead bodies can predict a number of situations and conditions it seems, as we shall see in the next section.
A number of sources on African American lore mention that a corpse that “limber” corpses predict a death to follow them, and insist that mirrors and clocks be covered with cloth as soon as someone dies to prevent anyone else in the house from dying. Like Puckett’s note above about touching the body to prevent fear of dead people, the corpse can intrude upon the living. Touching the body can prevent both bad dreams and visits from an unruly spirit. Likewise, the suggestion of something corpse-like can announce important information (usually another death). Harry Hyatt had an informant who related a tale of ‘death-scent,’ for example:
“I started to eat my breakfast last week. I happened to put my hand to my face; it smelled like a corpse. I said, ‘I wonder who’s going to die.’ And the smell left right away; that is a sudden death. If the smell stays, it will be longer. That day I had a call. My cousin died when I was eating my breakfast. If it is the left hand that smells, it’s a lady; right hand, a man” (Hyatt #8313).
The dead seem to know a lot about the affairs of the living, but they can also be entreated to hold their tongues. Zora Neale Hurston recorded a spell used for keeping secrets which required a corpse: “If you want a secret kept, put it in the care of the dead by writing it on a piece of paper and folding it small and slipping it into the hand of the corpse, of whispering it in the ear” (Hurston 361). In addition to catching criminals and revealing impending doom, corpses can also be employed in a variety of happier magics, such as healings.
The volume of cures ascribed to dead bodies is too voluminous to include in any book, so I will only briefly touch on it here. One of the most popular healings ascribed to the dead is wart-charming, which we’ve looked at before. In the Ozarks, “[t]here is a widespread belief that warts can be ‘charmed off’ by touching them with the hand of a corpse. I have seen this tried several times. The warts disappeared after a while, just as they generally do under any other treatment, or with no treatment at all. On the other side of the balance, I have met an undertaker who handles many bodies every year, and both his hands are covered with warts!” (Randolph 131). Similar to Randolph’s bit about wart-removal, this charm comes from Kentucky: “You may remove birth-marks by rubbing them with the hand of a corpse.” (Thomas #1067). It can supposedly treat other skin disorders like eczema as well. A variation on the birthmark-removal from Illinois contains a little verbal charm to accompany the act of touching the corpse: “A girl should visit the corpse of a boy and move his hand over her birthmark as she says What I have, take with you; In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A boy with a birthmark does this at the corpse of a girl.” (Hyatt #2685). Sometimes merely rubbing the mark or blemish with a rag and placing the rag in the coffin of a dead man is enough to remove the problem. Placing clothes and other objects from a sick person in the casket of the deceased supposedly removes everything from skin disorders to contagious diseases. Clothes taken from the corpse can also be healing: “To remove a swelling on the leg, bandage it with a piece of linen taken from a corpse” (Hyatt #5145).
Some of the other cures attributed to the dead:
- “In other localities the body is placed on a ‘coolin’-board’ and covered with an arrangement of sheets, the one over the face being raised when the mourners address the corpse. Mourners may talk to the body to this effect: ‘Mandy, you gone an’ lef me. … I may be nex’ . . . Po’ Mandy! . . . Po’ John! .’ A plateful of salt and ashes is placed under the coolin’-board . . . whatever disease the body has goes into the ashes and salt. ‘Ashes takes up from de body de disease.’ These ashes are carried to the grave; and at the words, ‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,’ they are thrown into the grave.’” (Puckett 87)
- “When in pain get some of this graveyard dirt from the breast of the corpse, cook it with lard, and make into a sort of pancake. Sprinkle this with turpentine and bind like a mustard plaster to the place that pains you. You will surely be cured.” (Puckett 287)
- “Place in a coffin three lice from your head and the corpse will carry away the others.” (Hyatt #1438)
- One of the more desecration-y methods for solving home problems with a little help from the dead comes from Harry Hyatt: “Pour some of the child’s urine into a bottle, hide this with a coffined corpse, and the child will stop wetting the bed. Sometimes a hole is punched through the stopper so that the urine can drip out — the cure being effected after the bottle becomes empty.” (Hyatt #6298)
In addition to being powerful curatives, bodies of the deceased can also cause tremendous harm.
It probably comes as no surprise that the use of dead bodies in magical rituals and spells generally gets a fairly negative portrayal. In the previous three sections, the spells were all designed to enact some positive change—albeit messy or sacrosanct in some cases—but now we shall look at a few of the nastier ways in which our dead friends can be used for magic. I’ll begin with a love spell, not because I inherently think love spells are evil curses (I don’t think that at all, actually), but rather because this one is exactly the kind of spell you could make a horror movie out of. It’s obsessive, possessive, and a little mean:
“A girl can take a needle which has been stuck into a dead body, cover it with dirt in which a corpse has been laid, and wrap the whole thing in a cloth cut from a winding sheet ; this is supposed to be a very powerful love charm, and a woman who owns such a thing can make any man fall in love with her. A needle which has been used to make a shroud is useful, too. If a girl thrusts such a needle into her lover’s footprint in her own dooryard, he is forced to remain with her whether he wants to or not. If he leaves the neighborhood he will get sick, and if he stays away long enough he will die.” (Randolph 169)
Randolph also examines witchcraft which falls in line with storybook expectations, harmful stuff perpetrated by willfully malevolent magical practitioners:
“Some witches are said to kill people with graveyard dirt, which is dust scraped from a grave with the left forefinger at midnight. This is mixed with the blood of a black bird; a raven or crow is best, but a black chicken will do in a pinch. The witch ties this mixture up in a rag which has touched a corpse and buries it under the doorstep of the person who is to be liquidated. The practice of burying conjure stuff under houses and doorsteps is well known. I have heard it said of a sick woman that she ‘must have stepped on somethin’ ‘ meaning that she was bewitched.” (Randolph 272)
Sometimes the negative effects of the corpse are inadvertent, however, and cursing is incidental. Several sources mentioned that pregnant women should not look upon a corpse, lest their child be marred in some way. Ozark lore says that using the comb of a dead person, particularly a comb that touched the deceased’s hair, will cause your own pate to go bald. Still other corpse curses seem related to harming the spirit of the departed him or herself. Kentucky lore says that you should “Put a lock of hair of a corpse into a hole in a tree to localize the spirit. If you remove the hair, the spirit will haunt you” (Thomas #741). Trapping a spirit seems like a dangerous game to me, but then, I’m not doing that particular spell anytime soon anyway. One of the quirkier ways of messing with the soul of the departed comes from Illinois: “As long as the funeral bill remains unpaid, the corpse will not rest in its grave” (Hyatt #15193).
In addition to the main methods discussed above, corpses also seem to have other magical uses. Here are a final pair from Hurston and Randolph involving some of the more unusual magic connected to the dead and their bodies:
“I. To Gain All Power. Go to the graveyard the night of All Saints at twelve o’clock. All of the blessed are gone from the cemetery at that time and only the damned are left. Go to a sinner’s grave1 and get nine hairs from his head and give the spirit in there a drink of whiskey. (They’ll do anything for a drink of whiskey.) Just leave a pint of liquor in there with the stopper out. Go home and burn nine red candles and the spirit will do anything you want.” (Hurston 361)
“When a backwoodsman dies, in certain sections of the Ozarks, it sometimes happens that one of his male relatives cuts a hickory stick just the length of the corpse. I have seen a hill farmer carrying one of these sticks on the day of his brother’s death, and I have seen one tied to the wagon which conveyed a corpse to the graveyard, but I have never been able to find out what became of them, or what their significance was. I first thought that the stick was simply to measure the body for a coffin, but it is something more complicated than that, and there is some sort of superstition connected with it.” (Randolph 314)
I hope this has been a worthwhile spin through the old boneyard to look at the dead from a more corporeal angle than we usually do in magic. None of this is to advocate any sort of desecration or anything illegal. While I imagine slipping a pinch of cornmeal into a coffin or wiping a handkerchief over a deceased family member’s hand before the casket is closed would at most raise some eyebrows, just about anything involving messing with the dead means legal problems. If you want to get a little help from the dearly departed, developing a relationship with them as spiritual beings is a much smarter way to go (I wrote about it recently on my other blog over at Witches & Pagans, if you’re interested). If you have lore about dead bodies and the ways they have been used in magic, I’d love to hear them!
Thanks so much for reading!
REFERENCES & SOURCES
- Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
- Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
- Lowenstein, Tom & Piers Vitebsky. Native American Myths & Beliefs (Rosen Pub. Group, 2011).
- Paulsen, Kathryn. Witches’ Potions & Spells. (Peter Pauper Press, 1971).
- Parkman, Francis. “Indian Superstitions.” North American Review (Univ. of Northern Iowa Press, 1866).
- Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
- Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1926).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
- Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).