Or, Notions of Magic.
We often mention that magic–folk magic, especially–is an everyday sort of affair. It lives in places like loose change and decks of playing cards, and we find spells using eggs or walnuts tucked into the corners of North American witchery.
Recently, I received a gift from a friend in the form of the Five Cent Tarot (thank you Heather!). It has fast become one of my absolute favorite decks to read with, as it has a number of symbols to draw from (and keywords pointing to meanings woven into the images, which helps with those of us who don’t do tarot quite as often as we do other systems). In this deck, the minor arcana are essentially the objects you might find in a junk drawer: sewing needles for swords, matches for clubs, buttons for discs, and teacups for, well, cups. We have already put up a post on the use of pins and needles, and matches are really more suited to their own post or one dealing with other aspects of fire magic. I’m so enamored of this deck, however, that I had to take some inspiration from it, and so the remaining suits put the idea in my head that I should look at some of the folk magic around buttons, thimbles, and other sewing notions. Given the burst of sewing going on as people make masks and other vital items during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also seemed like at least a semi-relevant topic. So let’s take the lid off grandma’s old butter cookie tin and see what sorts of lore and spells we find!
We start with buttons, which have a great deal of luck folklore associated with them. Widespread folk belief says that finding a button brings good luck to follow, somewhat similar to finding a lucky penny or other coin. In fact, one variant of this belief from North Carolina indicates that any button found and carried for luck should be smaller than a penny (or other lucky coin) (Brown). The kind of button found can also have magical significance. A button with two eyes is good luck, while a button with five eyes is bad (ibid.). A button from a coat might indicate that a letter is forthcoming soon, while a white button foretells a lawsuit (so maybe leave those where they are) (Daniels & Stevans). In the Ozarks, finding a black button indicates misfortune to follow (Steele).
A number of other notions like thimbles and ribbons have similar lore associated with them:
- To find a collar signifies that you will make an enemy…
- To find a piece of lace, signifies that you will be ill…
- To find a darning needle, signifies a disappointment in love…
- To find a hat-pin signifies a quarrel…
- To find a ribbon, a string, piece of silk or anything with color, especially if it be new and fresh will portend, signifies if red, good fortune, prosperity, successful love
- To find scissors or knives, signifies that you should beware of enemies (ibid.)
Buttons are also the focus of a number of folk spells and rituals, such as these found in Henry Middleton Hyatt’s collection Folklore from Adams County, Illinois:
- Buttons strung on a thread can be put around a baby’s neck to aid in teething. Some say the buttons should be cut from a man’s shirt for this purpose (NOTE: DO NOT PUT ANYTHING LIKE THIS AROUND A BABY’S NECK!).
- You can “sell” your wart to someone for a button, and as long as you keep the button the wart will go away
- Picking up a button you find as you leave your home allows you to make a wish. Other sources also indicate that you can do this ritual with any button you find so long as you pick up the button and place it in your shoe (which would be most comfortable if you were wearing penny loafers, I imagine). One variation from North Carolina also says throwing a found button over your left shoulder will offer you a wish (Brown).
One particularly neat divination found in Hyatt’s collection is similar to the “calling circle” sometimes performed to discern a baby’s future on its first birthday. This time, however, the button is one of a set of objects that can be used to determine your future at any age:
“Into a pan of water on the table drop a button, coin, nut, ring and stone; then blindfold yourself and with a spoon attempt to scoop out one of the articles from the pan — three trials being allowed: if you lift out the button, you will live in single blessedness; if the coin, you will acquire wealth; if the nut, you will toil for a living; if the ring, you will marry; and if the stone, you will travel a rocky road. Halloween is the usual time for this divination.”
This sort of divination game is similar to other party games, and the Halloween setting of this ties it to similar occult play such as the use of “nutcrack night” fire rituals or even the slightly more spin-the-bottle-esque game of snap apple (or, in a similar vein, bobbing for apples).
Thread is another good source of folklore and folk magic. Most people reading this likely know about the general idea of “knot magic,” (something we’ll be covering through our Cunnigham Book Club in the show as well). Using threads for magical work is something both old and incredibly contemporary, as even children are frequently doing magic like this. Just think of the many friendship bracelets young kids make for one another, and the way those are designed to “bind” them together in the bonds of friendship forever. One of my favorite presentations of this is in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, where Chihiro/Sen’s friends make her a little friendship bracelet-like hair tie, the only physical object she gets to keep when she exits the spirit world later.
One long-standing superstition that I personally hold to is trying to save all my trimmed thread ends. I keep them in a jar in the top-most room of my house (which also happens to be my library room where I’m writing this at the moment. The tangles in the jar are thought to help prevent harm from coming to a household, much in the way that “counting objects” like beans or salt scattered by a door might. Since my wife is a knitter and I do a good bit of sewing and darning there are few weeks in a year I don’t add to the jar, yet somehow it never quite gets full. Almost like magic.
Knotting thread, especially red thread, around someone’s wrist with a certain number of knots–usually seven–was used as a magical ward against headaches and other ills (Hand) (Randolph). Cunning folk traditions from England also suggest using bits of rope from a hangman’s noose can alleviate these sorts of aches and pains (Baker). We also see the use of knots and threads in the form of a “witch’s measure,” a concept adopted in a number of occult systems like Wicca (where it is often called a cingulum and can be used to “bind” an initiate to their coven). In Hoodoo, a similar use of a measure involves taking red thread or yarn and measuring a partner’s genitals, then wetting them with sexual fluids and knotting them to prevent a partner from straying (Hurston). A similar principle was used when taking two pieces of clothing, one from each partner (preferably worn and unwashed), then knotting them together to ensure fidelity.
Untying knots also has occult power in several bits of folklore. For example, in the Appalachians and Ozarks, women were sometimes advised to unbind their hair as a way to ease birthing pains (during birth, not necessarily all the time) (Illes). Sailors heading out to sea might acquire a cord made by a local witch with a series of knots in it. If their ship were becalmed and unable to move, they could untie each knot to raise a different degree of wind. One knot could bring about a light breeze, while all the knots might summon a hurricane. This is somewhat similar to the concept of “buying the wind” using coins thrown overboard (Dorson).
And, of course, how could we talk about threads and strings and witchcraft without mentioning the popular (and often nefarious) witch’s ladder? This is a magical talisman made by braiding three cords together and knotting them nine times while placing an object into each knot. Usually, these objects were bones or feathers from birds, often geese, which may connect the charm mythologically to figures like Frau Holle. While each knot was tied, the witch would curse the intended target, then hang the ladder secretly in the home of their victim with the intent of causing them to suffer and eventually die unless the knots are unbound or the ladder is destroyed somehow. Late twentieth-century Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (mentioned above as part of our book club) revised the witch’s ladder a bit for more positive purposes, turning it into the “wishing ladder,” which uses similar magical structures to create charms that get a witch what she wants out of life.
There are so many other magical crafts and lore associated with things like strings, buttons, thimbles, and ribbons, too. Crafts like the ojo de dios or the oft-appropriated Ojibwe dreamcatcher use the concepts of threads and knots to create talismanic spells, for example. I’ve also been delighted to see the enthusiasm for needlecraft among contemporary feminist witchcraft practitioners, who cross-stitch their intentions into spell-like wall hangings with phrases like “hex the patriarchy” on them. As someone who frequently darns my own clothes and does a good bit of sewing on the side to repair the damage done to clothes by growing children (and frankly, we adults are not terribly careful either), the eager embrace of sewing and knot magic and a jar full of magical buttons makes me quite happy (you can tell I’m the life of every party, can’t you?). There’s even a new book recently released that I’m hoping to check out at some point all about contemporary needlework-and-button-bound magic called Sew Witchy, by Raechel Henderson (if you’ve read it or tried out any of the crafts in it, I’d love to hear about those below in the comments, along with any other notion-based magical work you do!).
That’s only a small bit of a much bigger line of magical work. Weaving has its own spell associations, and I’m not even touching prayer shawls at the moment, which can have an intense magical protective connection. Still, in this time when we see people making dozens or hundreds of cloth masks for public health and safety or needing to stretch their clothing’s lifespan a bit longer due to newly-tightened economic belts, it’s good to know we can still find magic and witchcraft in the very stitches, thimbles, measures, and buttons we’ve been hiding in butter cookie tins the whole time.
Thanks for reading!
- Baker, Jim. The Cunning Man’s Handbook (Avalonia, 2018)
- Brown, Frank C. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Newman I. White, ed. Vol. 6 (Duke Univ. Press, 1961)
- Daniels, Cora L., and C.M. Stevans. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, & Occult Sciences of the World (J.H. Yewdale & Sons, 1903)
- Hand, Wayland D. Popular Superstitions from North Carolina (Duke Univ. Press. 1961)
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 44, no. 174, 1931, p. 361-62.
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois (Forgotten Books, 2018).
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells (HarperOne, 2009).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
- Steele, Phillip W. Ozark Tales & Superstitions (Pelican Publishing, 1983).
The Rabbit Tarot, by Nakisha Elsje Vanderhoeven
- Title and closing music is “Homebound,” by Bluesboy Jag, and is used under license from Magnatune.
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We launch our eighth year of podcasting with an episode that looks forward to the coming months through divination. Lots and lots of divination! Laine and Cory try out several different divinatory methods (some they’ve used before, and some they haven’t), then break down what they see in the cards, beans, bones, or stones for the year ahead. Plus we do our Magical Object, which seems like child’s play but also has plenty of magical uses, too!.
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Producers for this show: Heather, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Raven Dark Moon, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, Sarah at ConjuredCardea,The Trinket Witch, Victoria, Sherry, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
Download: Episode 122 – Divining the New Year
Both of us use Cory’s method of cartomancy for one of our readings. You can find out more about that in his book, 54 Devils, or by reading these posts from our past:
- Blog Post 82 – Cards, an Overview
- Blog Post 83 – Pips & Faces (Cards, part II)
- Blog Post 84 – Diamonds & Clubs (Cards, part III)
- Blog Post 85 – Hearts & Spades (Cards, part IV)
- Blog Post 88 – Spreads (Cards, part V)
- Blog Post 89 – The New World Witchery Guide to Cartomancy
Laine also uses the following methods/tools:
- The Javamancy Board by Chas Bogan of Carnivalia/The Mystic Dream
- The Rabbit Tarot, by Nakisha Elsje Vanderhoeven
Cory also uses the following methods/tools:
- Rune Stones given to him as a gift, read using some of the information in Diana Paxton’s Taking Up the Runes
- The Haindl Tarot pack, by Hermann Haindl (Rachel Pollack’s books are the top recommended interpretation guides)
- His personal “bones” collection for bone readings. He uses elements of the technique in cat yronwode’s Throwing the Bones, as well as drawing on his experience. Some photos are below:
Thank you to listener Maria, who suggested the Everyday Magical Object of marbles for this episode. Please feel free to send in your own suggestions for future objects!
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
Incidental Music is “Laid Ten Dollars Down,” by the Black Twig Pickers, and is used under a Creative Commons License from the Free Music Archive.
Let me first say that I know it would be fairly impossible for me to explain a divination system thoroughly in one post. So this will likely be the first of several posts addressing the use of playing cards as a magical tool. What I would like to do is explain my personal system of card divination, as well as some of the variants and influences which have shaped my practice. I’m not going to dive into an extensive history of playing cards or tarot cards, as those subjects are well-covered and well-documented in other sources. However, a little of the history that sometimes slips through the cracks (especially regarding playing cards) might be worth mentioning here.
While the absolute origin of pictographic cards is unknown, many folks believe they came out of India, China, or Turkey, or with the travelling Romany people (also frequently called “Gypsies”). What is known is that by the 1500’s, playing cards were very popular with the lower classes, and often cited as a vice by clerical and governmental documents throughout Europe. They received wide-spread appreciation from the highest ranks, including Bohemian emperor Rudolph II and Napoleon’s spiritual advisor, Madame Lenormand. Yet cards have almost always been popular among the lower classes, too. Cards came to America with settlers, sailors, and soldiers. In fact, in the late 1700’s, a popular ballad called “The Soldier’s Prayer-Book” described the suits, pips, and enumeration of playing cards in terms of biblical metaphor. For example, the fives represent the five wounds of Christ, the nines are the nine lepers healed by Jesus, and the tens are the Ten Commandments. While this song may have been a white-wash for gambling soldiers eager to keep one of the few portable entertainments allowed them, it does register an important point: cards make wonderful tools for metaphoric interpretation.
So why playing cards instead of tarot cards? For one thing, playing cards have been more or less easily accessible since the 1600’s, and are versatile. The cards you play a game of blackjack with one day can be used to reveal the future the next. They also travel well in a pocket and are easily replaced if they get torn or damaged. Plantation owners in the antebellum South often thought little of slaves having decks of playing cards to amuse themselves in their few off hours (though in some places stricter masters prohibited them altogether). William Wells Brown, who provided a slave narrative for a character named “Uncle Frank,” claimed that each plantation also had at least one fortune-teller somewhere on the premises, and at least few of them used playing cards. Today, playing cards are an excellent way of divining even in plain sight. No one thinks much of two people over a table full of diamonds, spades, clubs, and hearts, while a Devil or Lovers card might raise eyebrows.
My own system of playing card divination is largely based on the book It’s All in the Cards, by Chita Lawrence and the rhyme “For the Witch of Poor Memory” by Dawn Jackson, with a significant amount of additional material I’ve picked up from other books, teachers, and experiences over time. What I outline here will be my own understanding of these cards, so please do not take it as gospel, and find a method that works for you.
Like most who practice cartomancy, I break the major meanings of the cards down by color and suits. However, unlike a lot of other practitioners, I don’t ascribe these suits to tarot parallels or elemental attributes. There are some connections, of course, as hearts and cups both signal emotion-based interpretations, but it’s not a hard-and-fast link.
First, black cards indicate “negative” or “no” answers, while red cards are “positive” or “yes” answers. This is most important in short readings, which I’ll address in a later post. Some will say that having more black cards than red is a sign of negativity, but honestly, the only truly “negative” cards in an extended reading are the spades, in my opinion. For me, I look at the suits in the following way:
Hearts – Family, friends, love, and lovers. Also emotions and things which are deeply felt.
Clubs – Work and business. One’s “calling” or destiny. Also conflict, discussion, and debate.
Diamonds – Money, luck, fortune, happiness. Also news, letters, and socializing.
Spades – Tears, suffering, woe. War, fighting, violence. Also change, warning, and doubts/fears.
I’ll get into each of these suits a little more when I break down the individual cards, but this should give you some idea what I see when I do a layout for a reading. If I see lots of diamonds and clubs, I know that someone’s got some good work he or she will be well compensated for coming around the bend. All hearts means that the client is emotionally invested in the reading, or that he or she is dealing with deep family or friendship questions. Spades and clubs together would be a sign that the client’s job might be in jeopardy, or that work is very unfulfilling for him or her.
In the next post, we’ll get into the actual significance of particular cards, but it is good to keep the overall meanings of the suits in mind as we go forward. If you have any questions, please ask, and I’ll be happy to answer as best I can (from my own personal perspective…did I mention that yet?).
For today though, thanks for reading!