We look at the supernatural folklore and mythology of the Borderlands area along the Mexican-U.S. boundary in this episode. We talk to author, professor, and story collector David Bowles about his experiences growing up there, the legends that permeate the culture in that region, and we share one of the stories from his collections.
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Finally, we highly recommend reading Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” which can be found in her book, Borderlands/La Frontera.
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Incidental music is “Were-Owl,” by S.J. Tucker, used with permission. Additional incidental music includes “Sedativa V,” by DR (FreeMusicArchive); “La Gitane,” by Eric Kamen (Magnatune); and “Soul’s Journey,” by Viviana Guzman (Magnatune).
One of the talents attributed to witches in a number of cultures is self-transformation. If you’ve plunged more than ankle-deep into witchcraft research, you’ve likely run across famed Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie’s charm, which she reputedly used to transform into a hare, which begins “An I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and sighing in mickle care…” Gowdie was not alone in her belief that through the force of her magic and her will (and perhaps some psychoactive botanical substances or a judicious application of rendered animal fat), she could change her form to that of an animal. Perhaps the most famous example of this power is the werewolf, which sometimes changes of its own volition, but more often is a victim of the shiny moonlight’s powers.
In the New World, plenty of witches also had the power of transformation. This article will look at a few key tales of shapeshifting from New World lore, and ask questions about what the stories could mean for a magically inclined person with an interest in exchanging human form for an animal’s.
Perhaps the best-known and most widespread incarnation of the shapeshifting legend east of the Mississippi is the story of the loup-garou (sometimes also rou-garou, rugaru, or a similar variation). The beast can be found just about anywhere which saw frequent contact with French Colonial influences, such as in Canadian border zones or Louisiana. Often the loup-garou is essentially a werewolf, a human being who can—through magical means often diabolical in nature—become a wolf-like beast. Some versions of the story, recorded by University of Louisiana professor Barry Ancelet, describe the beast as more of a thief than a predator for humans, stealing fishermen’s clams while they sleep. The exact nature of the creature is also indeterminate, since depending on one’s location, it can “range from the rougarou as a headless horseman to a wolf that prowls the forest at night” (Lugibihl). The actual transformation may be permanent (or even ghostly, as some accounts tell of the beast as the remnant of a cruel old man), or may only last for 101 days, after which time the loup-garou transfers its curse to another person through a bite or drinking his or her blood. A person under the curse seems to know whether he or she is suffering from the transformation, and becomes rather wan and unhealthy, but usually remains silent about the condition with others. A major variation on the loup-garou is the bearwalker, about which Richard Dorson recorded several stories in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the mid-20th century. As you can probably guess, the assumption of a bear form (or at least an animal form which resembles a bear more than a wolf) is more common in the lore of the borderlands on the north of the Great Lakes.
In the mid-section of the United States, particularly from the mid-Atlantic down to the upland South and across into the Midwest, the power of transformation is far less canine in nature. While the loup-garou certainly fell into the purview of New World magical lore (albeit lore largely imported from Europe), the tales of transformation one finds in places like Appalachia skew distinctly witchy in flavor. Several stories, including one which we’ve recorded here before called “The Black Cat Murders,” talk about witches transforming into cats in order to visit harm on prospective victims. Patrick Gainer recorded his version of the tale in West Virginia from Mrs. Robert Pettry, whose account included a man with a pet bear that struck off the witch-cat’s paw only to have it transform into a human hand once it was severed. This is a very common feature of witch transformation tales, and often once a witch has been injured in her animal state, she bears the marks of her injury in human form as well (which proves helpful to neighbors in identifying her). One of the remarkable points about these transformations remains that in many cases the witch has a physical human body in one place and a spectral body (with some corporeal aspects, as in the case with the bear above) that can travel around at her behest while remaining deeply linked with her. That trait appears throughout North America (again, with some Old World antecedents, including Africa as well as Europe). A tale from Virginia recorded in The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis, tells of women who turns into a cat only to have her hand whacked off with a knife. The next day, when the man who did the whacking tries to shake hands with the suspected witch, she refuses because her hand is now missing. Davis also reports a tale of a witch who becomes a cat only to be caught by a lonely mountain man, and transformed back into a woman, she marries him and bears him two children. When he begins drunkenly telling someone how they met, she turns herself and the kids into cats and kittens and they disappear forever through a hole in the wall.
Of course, not all witches turn into cats, and not al were-cats are witches, exactly, either. In Utica, New York, Davis found a tale of a witch who turned herself into a black colt that would appear in neighbors’ fields and graze among their horses. When a man sneakily catches the colt and has it shod at the blacksmith’s (I’d note the importance of iron to this story, by the way), the colt then gets put into a pasture, then disappears. However, a neighbor-woman is seen with bandages on all her hands and feet the next day. New York is also the home of famed witch Aunty Greenleaf, who reportedly would turn herself into a white deer rather than a cat or a horse. She managed to elude hunters constantly until one hunter got the idea to use melted silver for bullets and struck her in her transformed state. She, of course, took ill and died (Schlosser 2005). Another famed shapeshifting creature, however, is not a witch at all, but a Native woman who has been cursed into cat form known as the Wampus Cat (Schlosser 2004). Lest you think that all those who are animagi (to steal a term from Harry Potter) are female, an African American tale speaks of a male witch whose form is that of a boarhog, and who uses his powers of magic and transformation to gain a pretty wife with lots of land. Interestingly, a little boy in the story—often called the “Old Witch Boy”—knows the boarhog witch’s secret and reveals it to the girl’s father, resulting in the death of the hog-witch (Leeming & Page).
Some of the most pervasive and powerful witch-stories of transformation come from the American Southwest. Navajo skinwalker tales abound with narratives about evil witches who could use the pelts of animals to take on different shapes, usually to terrorize outsiders or those they did not like on the reservations. Some accounts claim that the witch who could take on the skin of another creature was the most powerful type of witch, and had mastered what was known as “The Witchery Way.” Such a creature was to be greatly feared, and trade in certain skins and furs was severely limited within Navajo culture. Skinwalkers could be recognized by some of their supernatural abilities, but more especially by their eyes: in animal form, their eyes looked human, and vice versa when in their human form. Nasario Garcia recorded many tales in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and California from people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who reported knowing about or having seen witches that had taken on animal forms, just as skinwalkers do. One story related by a a man who recalled the events of the tale from when he was eight years old told of how his father had been driving an oxcart on a dark night with his son (the narrator) and a few farmhands along with him. Suddenly, two sheep appeared alongside the cart, one white and one black, and simply followed them, always matching pace with the cart. Eventually, they simply disappeared. Many others recorded by Garcia spoke of witches taking on owl forms to travel out by night, or occasionally coyote or dog forms, in which case they seemed to want to bite errant travelers (although never in such a way as to cause permanent injury or death, although most who see these creatures report being terrified).
So just what do witches do once they are transformed? In many of the stories, they seem to be up to no good. The tales of witch-cats often speak of numerous murders or unexplained deaths attributed to the shapeshifting sorcerers in the area. In some tales, witches take on cat forms to sneak into the houses of children and steal their breath (which is obviously related to the superstition about cats stealing babies’ breath). In some cases, the witches seem to be up to mischief, as in the case of Aunty Greenleaf, who likes to lead hunters on wild chases and get them lost, or cause their guns to fail. The loup-garous steals food, or worse, passes its curse on to others, sometimes even drinking the blood of another person to accomplish its nefarious task. The near-universal terror of skinwalkers in the Southwest is attributed to their powers to cause sickness and death as witches, although they seldom seem to kill or even severely maim while in animal form (although there are often reports of animal mutilation later connected to them). Richard Dorson records one tale from the Southwest in which shapeshifting witches seem to threaten each other more than the average person. He speaks of a pair of witches who make a bet about which one is faster in horse form. The loser has to stay a horse, which is accomplished by means of a magical halter. The winning witch sells the loser to a man, whose son accidentally removes the halter, and the witch transforms into a fish and swims away in a nearby river, then continues to transform until he’s a coyote. The coyote is tracked and killed by dogs in the end, and notably the witches have done no harm to anyone but themselves.
Why do shapeshifting witches get a bad rap, then? I would like to suggest that the real uneasiness among those who tell the stories is a fear that witches can be anywhere, and anyone, and just about anything. You never know when you might offend a hidden witch, who could be the cat twitching its tail by the fire or a horse in a pasture across the road. A healthy show of respect (even one tinged with fear) makes for a good insurance policy against the witch’s other fearful talents. Of course, being able to take on animal forms also means that the witch knows just how well you treat the lower orders of species, which might also inspire one to act a little better around the flocks and fields, or to pass an extra dog biscuit to the pooch curled up at your feet. Who knows, that might just be all that stands between you and a rather nasty hex, right?
This episode is a tribute to the figure of the Dark Mother, with songs, stories, and poetry (by a special guest!). Feel free to send in any thoughts you have about the darker aspects of the feminine divine, particularly those found in folk and fairy tales!
In this show we’re featuring several stories and a few poems as well as the music listed below. Stories are:
1) “The Juniper Tree” – by the Brothers Grimm, from Fairy Tales
2) “Lilith’s Cave” – recorded by Howard Schwartz, from Lilith’s Cave
3) “Leyenda de La Llorona” – recorded by Richard Dorson, in Buying the Wind
4) “Inuit Myth of Sedna” – collected by Leeming & Page, from Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America
1) Heather Dale – Mordred’s Lullabye (Avalon)
2) SJ Tucker – Kashkash (Solace & Sorrow)
3) Leslie Fish – Hymn to the NIght Mare (Avalon is Risen)
4) Casey Redmond – Mother’s Acting Strange (MusicAlley.com)
5) Wendy Rule – Creator/Destroyer (Wolf Moon) and Singing to the Bones (World between Worlds)
Howdy everyone! In the next couple of posts I’m just going to toss a few spells, charms, herbs, and other tools and techniques gleaned from Hispanic folk magical practices out there for you to peruse. As always, let me state clearly that these ideas ARE NOT MEANT TO REPLACE MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE, but are merely provided as folkloric examples of a vibrant cultural practice. With that out of the way, let’s look at the magic!
Illnesses and Maladies Curanderos treate a variety of different ailments of both physical and spiritual natures. Some of the best known and most commonly treated are:
Empacho – a digestive disease caused by a perceived blockage in the intestines
Susto – a type of soul-shaking fright that causes a person’s spirit to leave their body, which becomes weak and vulnerable
Desasombro – an intensive form of susto which leaves its victim debilitated after severe trauma
Mal de ojo – the famous ‘evil eye,’ which can have a number of symptoms, such as bad luck, ill health, or anxiety and depression
Mal puesto/brujeria – essentially a curse or malignant witchcraft, which is ‘put on’ a person and must be taken off with spiritual tools and prayer
Nervios – nervous diseases that cause emotional distress and suffering
Bilis – a type of anger sickness caused by a perceived backup of ‘bile’ in a person’s system, and which is usually treated with a laxative of some kind
Muina – a more intensive anger sickness which results in an outward rage of some kind. treated with tranquilizing herbal remedies (like orange blossoms, also called flor de azahar)
Latido – a sort of eating disorder which is primarily seen in young women which results in anorexia and bodily weakness, treated with repeated herbal and physical healing practices
Impotence/Infertility – sometimes linked to a psychic cause, sometimes a physical one, sometimes both; usually treated herbally or with techniques like massage combined with prayer
Menstrual/Gynecological disorders – irregular menstruation, prolapsed uteruses, and other problems related to the female reproductive system which are almost always treated without requiring the patient to disrobe (a major reason why some people turn to curanderos instead of conventional doctors)
There are plenty of diseases I’m not listing here, of spiritual and medical natures. Accounts of these disorders and their treatment by curanderos can be found in a number of resources, such as Curandero by Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, “Mexican-American Folk Diseases,” by Keith A. Neighbors, and this article from the Western Journal of Medicine in 1983. Folk practitioners generally deal with these maladies on a case-by-case basis, and attempt a holistic cure which integrates body, mind, and spirit in the healing process.
The tools of curanderos are generally easy to find, household items. Combined with the power of prayer and focused intent, their magical or miraculous qualities emerge and they can be used to to treat the illnesses listed above. Some tools are a little more difficult to acquire than simply going to your local grocery store, but almost any of them are available cheaply and easiliy either online or through mail-order.
Yerbas (Herbs) – These are probably some of the most common and important components of curanderismo practice. A number of different herbs are used, often in a variety of forms. They can be bundled and used like a broom or small scourge (see “Rubbing” in the Techniques section), turned into a tea, burned, or even taken in pill form. Some curanderos grow their own, and others purchase herbs at a yerberia, which is similar to a natural health food store or Chinese apothecary. Since there are so many herbs available, I am only going to select a small handful to mention here in the interest of saving space:
Ruda (Rue) – primarily used (as it is in other cultures) as an anti-evil charm and a general spiritual curative, it can also bring prosperity and wealth
Cenzino/Salvia (Sage) – in most cases the white sage (Salvia apiana) found in the American Southwest, though in some cases culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) may be substituted; protects, cleanses, reverses evil witchcraft and susto, and provides long life and wisdom
Anis (Aniseed) – a licorice-flavored seed used in cooking and liqueur-making, which also aids all sorts of digestive problems when chewed or administered as a tea; also used after susto treatments to help the patient’s spirit settle back into his or her body
Calendula (Marigold) – used for a number of psychic phenomenon, from prophetic dreaming to helping one to have visions or find stolen property
Cascara sagrada – a tree bark which helps with legal issues and court cases, as well as providing general good luck
Amuletos (Amulets) – A variety of amulets, from the very simple to the very complex, are used to create magical conditions for clients and/or patients. Most are carried in pockets or purses, though some can also be worn, usually around the neck. Some of the most famous amuletos are the Milagros which are little tin, lead, or otherwise metallic charms in a variety of shapes such as heads, hearts, hands, pigs, Blessed Virgins, and even ears of corn. These are frequently left at the shrine of a saint with especial patronage of a particular type of healing or miracle, but can also be incorporated into other charms. Horseshoes are sometimes found as amulets, either in milagro form or actual horsehoes. One of the most interesting charms I’ve found is the piedra iman, or lodestone charm, which is made in the following way (from Torres’ Curandero):
“I discovered that the piedra iman [lodestone] is the basis for what is called piedra iman curada (a cured lodestone), in the form of an amulet (amuleto) which is a specially prepared plastic bag containing a number of items or trinkets, including a small piedra iman rock. Each item in the bag is significant and represents the following:
-A gold colored bead signifies the need for wealth or money (oro para mi uena );
-A silver colored bead, or silver taken from old jewelry, is for harmony in one’s home (plata para mi casa y hogar);
-A copper coin such as a penny is for the poor and needy (cobre para el pobre);
-A red bead or red bean signifies coral, to rid you of envy and all that’s bad (coral para que se me quite la envidia y el mal);
-A horseshoe or wire bent in the shape of ahorseshoe to prosper in business or in personal work (la heradura para un buen negocio o trabajo); and
-A piece of lodestone for good luck and fortune (la piedra iman para la uena suerte y fortuna).
People carry the plastic bag with all these items in their pockets or cars, or hang the bag in their homes or businesses” (p. 54)
Eggs, Limes, & Lemons – These are used to perform limpias, or spiritual cleansings. In most cases, the food item is rubbed over the body of the patient, then either destroyed in a ritual manner or “read” for information on the person’s condition. Egg limpias are especially common and reading an egg’s contents after a cleansing is done by dropping the cracked egg into a glass of water and interpreting things like bubbles, strands, and coloration of the egg itself. Blood on the egg is a very bad sign, as is a foul odor emanating from the egg. In these cases, multiple limpias may be performed to rid the patient of his or her magical affliction. You can read an excellent description of both the egg cleansing and how to interpret the signs of the egg over at Concha’s Curious Curandera website.
Candles – These probably don’t need a whole lot of elaboration, but it should be pointed out that a number of different candles are used within curanderismo. Saint candles are common, of course, but so are the candles frequently found in other traditions, like hoodoo. For instance, one might see a St. Michael candle burning alongside a Fiery Wall of Protection candle or a Sacred Heart of Jesus candle burning with a Reversing candle. Votive candles and tapers are also used for various types of work, from cleansing to simple prayers.
Prayer – Probably the most important and powerful tool in a curandero’s bag is his or her selection of prayers. Usually these are liturgical prayers, such as the Apostles Creed, certain Psalms, or the Lord’s Prayer, but occasionally one can find a folk prayer or one that has simply grown up out of the curandero’s personal tradition. Usually prayers are said multiple times, often over extended periods of time, and as often as possible the patient is asked to pray with the worker.
That will just about cover us for today. Next time we’ll have a look at the techniques used by curanderos, as well as a couple of other interesting spells.
Today, I’m going to tackle of few of the modern rootworkers I know and/or admire. This is most certainly is not a comprehensive list of professional hoodoo practitioners in North America, so please don’t start throwing rotten vegetables at me for not listing one of your favorite rootworkers. But DO feel free to leave a comment on this post with the name/contact info of any professional hoodoo you think the world should know about!
Okay, on with the show!
Catherine Yronwode – I believe she actually prefers “catherine yronwode,” without capitalization. If you are reading about hoodoo on the web and you don’t know who she is yet, you should immediately head over to the Lucky Mojo page and read her online text on the history and practice of hoodoo. She is probably one of the most prominent profiles in modern conjure work, and she runs one of the biggest supply houses for magical and occult goods specializing in traditional hoodoo recipes and formulae. Yronwode was featured in Christine Wicker’s Not in Kansas Anymore, which profiled magical practitioners across the United States. She was also a famous comic book artist back in the 1970’s, and judging by the colorful designs on her wares, I’d say she still has an eye for a good picture. She’s also been instrumental in keeping hoodoo a vital, living tradition rooted in history but adapting to modern times. Her course for prospective students of hoodoo is almost a pre-requisite for any rootworker, and her Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers provides a stamp of quality which ensures that those seeking magical help don’t get ripped off. Seriously, if you’re reading this and don’t know who she is, go to Lucky Mojo right now!
Dr. Christos Kioni – This Florida-based rootworker is host of the Lucky Mojo Hoodoo Rootwork Hour. He is also one of the best known professional conjure men working today, and the active owner of the MyHoodooSpace website. Dr. K also works very hard to preserve the African Diasporic traditions (such as the ATR practices discussed in the introductory post on hoodoo earlier this week. I think he works both with the left hand and the right (meaning he will curse if he sees a need for it), though I’m basing that on some of the discussions from his radio show and he may well have changed ideologies since then. He was also mentioned in Not in Kansas Anymore, and actually knows where to find the grave of Zora Neale Hurston (which very few folks do). He is definitely a big personality, but he has a friendly and warm demeanor about him, and I believe he’s got a fairly high rate of success with his work, too. He also happens to be friends with cat yronwode (if you didn’t guess that from the name of his radio program). As he says of himself “I can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick!”
Michaele Maurer – Miss Michaele (pronounced mi-KAY-luh, I believe) is the owner of the Hoodoo Foundry, a site dedicated to traditional rootwork. One of the reasons I really like her practice is that she focuses on Southern-style rootwork, including a lot of Bibliomancy and using Biblical prayers and magic to accomplish her goals (not that I think all great rootworkers are Bible-thumping Christians, mind you…see Karma Zain or Papa Toad Bone for contrast). I really value her deeply traditionalist approach, however, and I also like that she has a broad range of reading styles, including tarot, pendulum, and ceromancy (reading candle wax). She’s not one who does jinxing or crossing work, but she does at least acknowledge that sometimes it is justified and she helps clients needing those services to find a root worker who will attempt those tricks. She seems to be very tender-hearted and kind, and works for the good of her clients with deep sincerity.
Starr – An old-fashioned Southern hoodoo woman from Texas, Starr has been steeped in conjure work for most of her life. She’s quite sassy and funny, and also very straightforward. She’s another traditionalist who works closely with Christian religious figures, including Saints. While much of her work is focused on things like spiritual cleansing, sweetening, and healing, she also does vinegar jars, hot foot workings, and as she puts it, “I will do separation and break up work on a case by case basis if so guided by the spirit.” She also runs the Old Style Conjure site, and offers mini-courses which compliment a broader study of hoodoo quite nicely.
Karma Zain – Ms. Zain is not only a great rootworker, she’s also a bishop in the Franco-Haitian Gnostic Vodoun tradition. I know, I’ve said I really like old-style conjurers who stick to certain historical precepts regarding the incorporation of Biblical elements, but that doesn’t mean I think all good hoodoo men and women must be Judeo-Christian. Karma Zain proves that point, because besides being a Vodoun bishop, she’s an honest, straightforward worker who isn’t afraid to say “no” to a client if she doesn’t feel their cause warrants the action they ask for. She’s the kind of rootworker who isn’t afraid to dig in the dirt and use the less savory curios like bone fragments and fur. She seems like an incredibly down-to-earth and sensible woman, and one I wouldn’t want t cross!
Papa Toad Bone – This Mississippi based conjure man is the proprietor of the Toad’s Bone Apotheca, one of the funkiest and witchiest sites I’ve seen. Just looking at his webpage makes me want to lay a trick or two or take a walk to the crossroads. He’s also Pagan, and very much a non-Christian kind of Pagan, again proving that great conjurers needn’t be entirely wrapped up in the Biblical worldview. I’ve known him through several different avenues over the last couple of years, and he’s always struck me as someone who really spends time with spirits and understands them incredibly well (I think he even found a great way to play card games with them, but hopefully I’ll get him to tell about that at some point). He’s also a nitty-gritty sort of worker, spending a good deal of time out in the swamps and wild places gathering materials for his shop and clients. Again, someone I wouldn’t want to cross, and a rootworker who gets things done.
Carolina Gonzalez – Another Pagan rootworker, Ms. Gonzalez incorporates her Latin roots into her magic, offering a particularly unique blend of brujeria, hoodoo, and witchcraft to her clients. She runs The Hoodoo Shop on Etsy, and she’s the resident hoodoo expert for sites like The Noble Pagan and The Modern Pagan. She’s located in the Canary Islands, proof that hoodoo is a worldwide phenomenon at this point. Her site offers her products as well as courses and LOTS of great information from her many different areas of expertise.
Sarah Lawless – I certainly can’t leave out Sarah, a friend to New World Witchery and a heckuva witch and conjure woman in her own right. She practices her root work out in the wilds of British Columbia, carefully adapting the fundamental practices of traditional Southern rootwork to her immediate environment. We’ve talked to and about her a lot on this blog, so rather than sound like a rampaging fan boy, I will simply suggest you go check out her blog and store and see how magical she is for yourself.
Stephanie Palm – The wonderful proprietress of Music City Mojo, and my personal hoodoo teacher. She is not one to pull punches or sugar-coat things, though she is also incredibly warm and friendly. Stephanie is the High Priestess of a Traditional Witchcraft coven, as well as a devotee of Vodoun. She’s a gifted teacher, as well as a gifted conjure woman, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in a graveyard or to lay down a jinx if the situation calls for it. More importantly, she isn’t afraid to let someone know that the situation DOESN’T call for a jinx. I really could go on and on about how much I adore her and how thankful I am to her for all she’s taught me, but for now I’ll just say that if you’re looking for someone who knows their stuff, she’s one to talk to.
I know there are lots more rootworkers out there, and I’d love to hear about them from all of you, so please feel free to post a comment on this blog about your favorite hoodoo men and women.