We draw a good bit upon Aradia, by C.G. Leland, for questions about witch mythology and abilities.
For a nice rundown of different witchcraft traditions (as touched upon in this episode) I heartily recommend the post “Introduction to Traditional Witchcraft,” by Sarah Anne Lawless, and her series of posts on various witchcraft traditiosn found in that article.
This episode centers on Cory’s new home, Pennsylvania, and its magical/mystical lore. We have interviews, stories, conversations, and songs to help get a glimpse at the enchantment of the Keystone State.
Please send in contest entries to firstname.lastname@example.org! We are giving away a copy of 54 Devils (my book, in either digital or print form, whichever you prefer) and a digital copy of Carolina Gonzalez’s book on reading the Spanish cards as well. All you have to do is send us your weirdest or most unique piece of personal holiday lore, along with a name we can read on-air and a general location (‘Illinois’ or ‘the Midwest,’ for example).
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
I’ve had several people recommend a book to me called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It’s a book that looks at the various ways in which people give and receive love. It gets into a lot of psychology and interpersonal communication theories, but in a nutshell it assumes that people tend to give or receive affection via physical touch, loving words, acts of kindness or service, quality time, or gifts. I am definitely a gift-giver when it comes to expressing my feelings—I will work for weeks to handcraft something for someone I care about. When my lovely wife and I were courting, I put hundreds of sticky notes all over her apartment with love messages so that she would constantly find them for months and months afterwords. Even when we ship products out of our Etsy shop, I tend to add layers of Spanish moss to the packing material, as well as little lagniappe touches to the shipment to make it feel magical for the person who opens the box. None of this is to brag, but simply to frame the point that giving gifts is a major part of my connection to others.
Giving gifts has been an important aspect of human relationships for a very lnog time. The Ancient Roman patronage system essentially operated on a large-scale gifting economy. In North America, giving gifts with a magical bent appears time and again. A number of superstitions and rituals surround the acts of gifting and receiving gifts. Possibly one of the gifts most beset by magical rules is the knife:
One must not give a friend a knife or other sharp instrument, as it “cuts love.” (Price 34).
“Giving a knife as a gift is bad luck as it cuts the friendship” (Hines 12).
A present of knives will break the friendship between you (the giver) and the recipient of the gift. (Hines 13)
No hillman would think of giving a steel blade to a friend such a gift is sure to sever their friendship (Randolph 58).
The ‘hillman’described in the last point would have been obliged to pay for a knife if he received it as a gift, in order to abate any potential tragedies:
Whenever a knife changes hands, it must be paid for, even if the sum is merely nominal. I have seen a salesman, a graduate of the University of Missouri, present his son with a valuable hunting knife but he never let it out of his hand till the boy had given him a penny (Randolph 58).
This is a sentiment I’ve seen echoed through other traditions as well, including some Wiccan circles and their beliefs about gifting athames. I have also seen contrary points, insisting that Wiccan ritual blades must never be purchased, but only gifted.
Knives, however, are only scratching the surface of the myriad taboos, beliefs, and customs surrounding giving and receiving. In the following paragraphs, I hope to lay out some of these traditions (though certainly not all of them… The concept of Christmas and birthday gifts is well outside the scope of a single survey article, for example, and the topic is much larger than a 2,000 word synopsis could handle). What I hope that you will see is the sheer humanity of this process. People seem to develop an entire language around gifting (see the Victorians and their flowers, for example), and understanding that language, especially within a magical context, expands the conversation on American folk magic immensely.
Since we’ve started in the domestic realm with knives, let’s continue in that vein. In the Ozarks, even very small gifts can have great significance:
A button received as a gift is always lucky, no matter what the color. Years ago, many an Ozark girl collectedbuttons from her friends and strung them together into a sort of necklace called a charm string. A charm string not only brought good fortune to the owner but also served as a sort of memory book for women who could not read one button recalled a beloved aunt, another a friend’s wedding, still another a dance or a quilting party or an apple-peelin’ or some other pleasant occasion. (Randolph 61)
These little tokens often represent a greater whole. In the example Randolph cites the ‘memory book’ aspect of the charm pushes it out of the realm of luck and into a broader realm of personal narrative. It tells the story of where the girl has been. The luck may then be a cumulative blessing from all those around her, an assembly of good wishes designed to attract further goodness into her life. Similarly, some fairly small gifts can act as predictors or insurance of future blessings, as in these two examples from Louisiana:
A midwife should plant a flower for a baby at its birth.
It is good luck for visitors to place a silver coin in a baby’s hand (Roberts 150).
Here we see blessings which ensure growth and health (the flower) and insurance against poverty (the coin) passed onto a baby, with the hopes that the child will grow and prosper in the future.
Of course, there are just as many taboos on gifting as there are joyous customs. As we saw with knives, some of those can be firmly established and nigh universal at times. Let’s look at another domestic commonplace with strong taboos:
Never borrow salt or you will have bad luck (Hines 12).
Never return salt that has been borrowed (Roberts 178)
Why salt? In my family, we frequently gave salt as a component of a new house blessing for people we knew, which as I understood it derived from Polish traditions (after investigating this a bit, I’m reasonably sure this was adopted from a similar Jewish custom picked up by my family in the area on the border between Lithuania and Poland). We give a jar of salt with some bread and a penny in it, ‘So that the family may never be hungry (bread), never be poor (penny), and their lives may never lack flavor (salt).” The salt, then, can be seen as the experience and cumulative personality of the family, its seasoning or flavor which makes it distinct. Borrowing someone else’s flavor would, in essence, give them power over you, especially when the salt is returned carrying traces of your own eau de familie. It could also be that by taking one family’s wisdom and experience, then returning it, you set off a disruptive cycle whereby your two families will be struggling to rebalance power for a long time, which definitely sounds like bad luck. A similar Louisiana superstition says ‘Don’t give spades, etc., to your neighbors; you will have a fuss if you do (Roberts 174). In that case, the tool is symbolic of a person’s work and labor, and to lend it out cheaply doesn’t bode well for anyone (and makes me think of Homer Simpson borrowing essentially every tool in Ned Flanders’ garage…a very bad neighbor).
The issue of when a gift is given can also impact its significance and magical qualities. While I will avoid holidays and the like here, there are plenty of other occasions when gift-giving is an expectation, such as at baby showers:
At a baby shower, the giver of the seventh gift to be unwrapped will be the next to have a baby (Hines 14).
In this example, the gift-giver receives the magical benefit of a prediction. I suppose that if you are not in the market to start a family, this superstition could seem more like a taboo than a blessing. Another key occasion for giving gifts is after a new family moves into a new home. I mentioned my family’s custom for making a house-blessing from my Polish roots, but it turns out that the general concept of the house-warming may come from the other side of my family tree in the British Isles. The hint of magic behind this tradition comes from the original house-warming present, which actually served to warm a new home:
“As poet John Greenleaf Whittier noted…’The Irish who settled here about the year 1720, they brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies.’…The Scots [who were also early settlers in America, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of Appalachia]…believed in ‘brownies,’ a more subdued version of the leprechaun. Brownies lived in the kitchen fireplace, and the belief was that the owners of the house had a responsibility to always keep these fairy-creatures warm by keeping a constant fire in the hearth. The Yankees noted that Scots-Americans, when moving from one house to another, would always remove burning embers from the old house to the new, to provide a warm home for the brownies that would move in right along with the family. This was how the tradition of ‘house-warmings’ started” (Cahill 32).
I tend to think this is a bit of fancy on Cahill’s part, and that the giving of gifts to new homeowners is something much older and less literal than a brownie’s ‘house-warming,’ but I would be completely unsurprised to find that the actual practice of moving hearth coals to entice fairy-beings to move houses exists in the Old World or the New.
Marriage also features a number of gift-giving customs, some with superstitious components. For example, in Kansas groups of Russian-German emigrants pin money to the bridal skirt as a way of blessing the bride and groom with prosperity. Additionally, a fun game is made of the best man’s gift, and the “custom of some young buck’s stealing the shoe of the bride. The best man had to redeem the shoe with cash, which went into the household fund” (Tallman 227-8). The best man might contribute some or all of the money, with the remainder raised by good-natured begging of the wedding guests.
A number of tales from Appalachia and New England, including stories from Hubert Davis’ The Silver Bullet and other collections of supernatural American folklore, indicate that magical gifts have particular rules when it comes to witches. For example, a witch might offer a very low price for some livestock or sundries she fancies from a local homestead. If she is refused the gift—which is all such a lowballed agreement could be seen as—she curses whatever it is she wanted, rendering it useless to the family that has it. Often she will curse a cow so it won’t produce milk, or she might even curse an entire herd of pigs or sheep rather than just the one she wanted. On the flip-side, a witch should never be given a present of anything from the household, or she could use it to harm those who dwell within. One story features a housewife who loans the local witch-woman a cup of sugar in a neighborly—if cautious—manner, only to find her butter won’t come when she churns it afterwords. She summons a local witch-doctor who takes a piece of hot silver and drops it in the churn, then spills cream on the fire and whips a pan of the scalded dairy until they hear shrieks from the direction of the witch-woman’s home. She, of course, suffers great pains and bears the marks of a whipping and burning the next day, and everyone knows just what’s what. Oh, and the butter is fine after that, too, of course.
Not all witches or magical practitioners are conniving and dangerous when it comes time to share the wealth, though. For example, many witch-doctors and conjurers in the Southern Mountains will not take direct payment for their work, but only offers of gifts made in-kind, such as foodstuffs, clothing, or other necessities. Vance Randloph noted that one witch woman in the Ozarks did not ask a fee for her work, but would accept such donations: “This woman makes no charge for her services, but if somebody offers her a present, such as a new dress or a side of bacon, she seldom refuses the gift” (Randolph 126).
Lest you think all these magical gifting traditions are limited to the realm of humanity, here’s a bit of lore from John George Hohman’s Long Lost Friend to show otherwise:
A GOOD METHOD OF DESTROYING RATS AND MICE.
Every time you bring grain into your barn, you must, in putting down the three first sheaves, repeat the following words: “Rats and mice, these three sheaves I give to you, in order that you may not destroy any of my wheat.” The name of the kind of grain must also be mentioned. (Hohman 70).
Here we see the old idea of “one for the rabbit, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to sow” extended from nursery rhyme to magical practice. Giving the animals a bit of the household bounty seems to be a way to stave off any thievery on their part, at least in this example.
Finally, I can’t help but offer up a humorous story from Maryland which shows animals getting in on the gift-giving action:
It seems that Mrs. Morison’s uncle and her father went fishing one time and as always they carried their [moonshine] jug along. They came to this water moccasin who was just about ready to swallow a frog. So Mrs. Morison’s father took a forked stick and clamped it down over the snake’s head and took it [the frog] away ‘cause they wanted to use it for bait.
Well, that snake looked so darn downhearted that they gave him a drink of moonshine, and off he went. So they went on with their fishing and about an hour later one of them felt a tug on his leg. He looked down and there was that snake back with another frog. All I can say is, that must have been awful good moonshine” (Carey 31).
I’m not sure if the ‘magic’ in that tale is so much in the moonshine or the moccasin, but I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
I’m sure there are many other magical giving traditions I’m missing here, so if you have any you want to share, please do!
It’s been almost five months since my last cartulary post, so I thought I’d touch base a bit on the various magical, folkloric, and otherwise quirky corners of the world that have caught my attention (and my be of interest to my readers).
I’ll start with a little shameless self-promotion and note that the upcoming Three Hands Press anthology, Hands of Apostasy, will have my essay on witchcraft initiation rituals of the Southern mountains in it. It’s edited by Daniel A. Schulke (Magister of the Cultus Sabbati) and Mike Howard (editor of The Cauldron), and contains eighteen essays on historical and traditional witchcraft, both from a practical and scholarly perspective. Some of the phenomenal authors contributing to this tome include David Rankine, Cecil Williamson, and even a posthumous essay by Andrew Chumbley. There will likely be more information on the Three Hands Press website as the release date approaches (sometime in the next few months).
As a side-note, I’ve been placing essays with The Cauldron for some time now, covering a variety of topics in North American folk magic, and frequently alongside art and articles by some top-notch folks (the aforementioned Howard, Chris Bilardi, Sarah Lawless, and Emma Wilby, for example). If you have any interest in folklore, magic, and little-or-big-P paganism, it’s worth subscribing.
Moving on from shameless self-promotion to the fine work of others, I’ve recently been getting very into botany and horticulture (I can’t have a garden this year since we’re moving, so that might explain it). I completed a really lovely little book called The Drunken Botanist, which looks at the plant kingdom through a shot glass, providing history, growing tips, and drink recipes along the way. I’ve also been reading The Founding Gardeners, a book which places Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and other notable American patriarchs in the context of their horticultural interests, which were plentiful and various. It turns out Washington was an excellent farmer (in no small part due to slave labor, it should be noted), and Jefferson was more theoretical (and also extensively used slave labor). I also read Bill Bryson’s At Home, a microhistory of Anglo-American culture as seen through a series of rooms in his house, which featured a nice chapter on the garden—it put me on the scent of Wulf’s Founding Gardeners, in fact. And if you can’t get enough botany, I’m going to very highly recommend a favorite book entitled Botany in a Day, which is a wonderful introduction to plant taxonomy and identification that teaches you how to build an understanding of plants intuitively based on stem and leaf shape, color, size, petal count, etc. If you are at all interested in identifying wild plants, this is a great foundational text.
Since we’re already in the garden, I’m also going to recommend you stop and smell the roses with my dear friend Jen Rue on the latest episode of Lamplighter Blues, where Hob, Dean, and Jen talk about working with what’s around and growing your own supplies. Sarah Lawless also recently (well, as recently as possible considering she did just have a baby and all) looked at the idea of what’s immediately available to magical and shamanic practitioner in an extensive article on ‘Bioregional Animism’ which I highly recommend.
In the world of gratuitous pop-culture witch-fluff, the Season of Witch continues. A recent, if unnecessary, television remake of Rosemary’s Baby aired over a few weeks recently, which I’ve not seen but which is on my watch list. I won’t say I’m particularly excited about it, as I love the original Polanski film, but if this one turns out all right, I may change my tune. A decadently dark and occult series called Salem has been airing on WGN, and while I cannot recommend it for historical accuracy (of which there’s none), its tone and deep-and-dark witchy atmosphere is just very hard to turn away from. It will do absolutely nothing to improve the image of witches, folk magicians, or really anyone, but if you want to get a little jolt of wickedness it is a lot of fun. The second season of Witches of East End will also be airing starting in July on Lifetime—the first season was another fun and guilty pleasure like Salem, so I imagine I’ll give round two a try. Oh, and Maleficent is coming out, apparently (if I’m being honest, it’s one of the few magical enchantress stories I’m not interested in, but I’ll probably see it anyway).
Moving away from the inaccuracies of popular television and back to the realm of folklore, I had a listener recently write in to ask about why our Dark Mother tribute episode featured the somewhat more docile version of the fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree,” from the Brothers Grimm. In truth, I mostly chose that version because it was at hand and fit the time frame of the show nicely, but I am absolutely at fault for not pointing out that there is a much darker (and possibly more enjoyable because of it) version of the tale. You can read it at the Sur La Lune fairy tale site if you want to get a glimpse of a very Dark Mother. While you are there, you should also check out their versions of a few of the other tales I considered for that episode, but ultimately decided against due to time, including “Snow White & Rose Red,” and “Hansel & Gretel.”
Finally, I generally try to keep these cartularies more centered on things I’m reading, doing, and so forth, but I do want to take a moment to forward a request from a friend of our site and show, Mrs. Oddly, who is dealing with some difficult legal and financial situations centering on a custody battle. She’s set up a crowdfunding campaign which needs support, so if you have a few dollars you can spare, please consider helping her out. She’s brought some real magic to my world, and she is asking for whatever help we can give.
We’ve got a number of guests lined up for upcoming shows, and I’ve got a few one-off shows I’m hoping to do as well that might be fun, too, so stay tuned to the podcast! I’ll do my best to keep adding things to the website as well, for those that like reading the articles on folk magic here.