Posted tagged ‘wart charming’

Blog Post 166 – Dem Bones, part II

November 14, 2012

The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone
And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.

Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.

Healing Specimens
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:

  • To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
  • You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
  • The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay.  Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).

In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.”  What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page:  “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.”  Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.

After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:

  • TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
  • To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
  • To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
  • As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
  • If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
  • To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)

Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.

With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.

Ossuary at Sedlec. Photo by my lovely wife.

Charm Curios
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:

  • Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
  • The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
  • When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
  • A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
  • Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
  • “Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)

Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).

Other methods for using bones as magical curios:

  • A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
  • Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
  • Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
  • You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
  • Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)

Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one:  the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:

To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).

Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:

“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).

I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.

With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!

Thanks as always for reading!

-Cory

REFERENCES & SOURCES

  1. Anderson, Jeffery D. Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook. (Greenwood Press, 2008).
  2. Artisson, Robin. “The Toad Bone Treatise.” Self-published (2008).
  3. Brown, Michael H., Ed.S. “The Bone Game: A Native American Ritual for Developing Personal Power or Tribal Consciousness.” Journal of Experiential Education (1990).
  4. Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Book of Gypsy Magic: Travelers’ Stories, Spells & Healings. (Weiser, 2010).
  5. Chumbley, Andrew. “The Leaper Between: An Historical Study of the Toad-bone Amulet.” The Cauldron (UK) (2001).
  6. Davies, Hubert J. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. (Jonathan Davis Publishers, 1975).
  7. Farr, T. J. “Riddles & Superstitions of Middle Tennessee.” Journal of American Folklore.  (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1935).
  8. Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. (Vandalia Press, 2008).
  9. Hoadley, Michael. A Romany Tapestry. (Capall-Bann, 2001).
  10. Hohman, John George, ed. Daniel Harms. The Long Lost Friend. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  11. Howard, James H. “The Akira Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle.” Plains Anthropologist. (Plains Anthropological Soc., 1974).
  12. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” Journal of American Folklore (Amer. Folklore Soc., 1931).
  13. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore from Adams County, Illinois.  (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1935).
  14. Knab, Timothy. The War of the Witches: A Journey into the Otherworld of Contemporary Aztecs. (Westview Press, 1997).
  15. Martin, Kameelah L. “Conjuring Moments & Other Such Hoodoo: African American Women & Spirit Work.” Dissertation. Dept. of English, Florida State Univ. (2006).
  16. McAtee, W. L. “Odds and Ends of North American Folklore on Birds.” Midwest Folklore.  (Indiana UP, 1955).
  17. Pinckney, Roger. Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People. (Sandlapper Pub., 2003).
  18. Poenna, Carlos G. The Yoruba Domino Oracle. (Red Wheel Weiser, 2000).
  19. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. (Dover, 1964).
  20. Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2002).
  21. —. Throwing the Bones. (Lucky Mojo Press, 2012).
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Blog Post 157 – Peaches

May 22, 2012

I love a good summer peach. Or peach cobbler. Or homemade peach ice cream. And I can’t tell you how much I miss my mother’s homemade brandied peaches (which were amazing over some hand-churned vanilla). If you live in North America, it’s likely you’ve encountered peaches everywhere from grocery stores to roadside stands to neighbors’ backyards. They’re ubiquitous, which also means they’ve been a major player in the foodways of America.

Today I’m going to briefly look at the peach from another folkloric perspective, focusing on its relevance in magical lore as opposed to its purely culinary uses (though I imagine the two are not ever to be completely disentangled from one another).

The flesh of the peach is frequently regarded as a nearly sacred food in its homeland of China, where it is thought to aid immortality. The lore of the peach is extensive there, with every part of the tree and fruit making an appearance. Peach pits are worn as amulets to ward off demons, while blossoms are used to enhance love, luck, & beauty. Peaches are left in family shrines, and feature prominently in the literature and art of China. You can read a good deal more about the role of the peach in Chinese lore here and here.

Peaches were highly valued in places like the Appalachian Mountains, too.  According to the third Foxfire book, one of the most common varieties was the Indian peach, a shrubby variety with small, firm peaches:

“Indian peaches are small trees, spreading with scraggly branches, said to be descendants of those trees planted by the Cherokees around their villages…The fruit of the Indian peach is white with a rosy cheek, white-meated with a red heart…All have a most delicious flavor, raw or cooked. Peaches are rich in iron, and peach leaf tea was a medicine for bladder troubles or used as a sedative” (Foxfire 3 303)

In North American folklore, all parts of the peach have their value as well. In Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, one of the author’s informants says this of the peach tree:  “The peach tree was justifiably described by herbalist Tommie Bass of northern Alabama as ‘a drugstore on its own’ in recognition of its many medicinal uses” (Cavender 64-5). Below you’ll see a sampling of the many different magical and/or medicinal uses of the peach and its parts:

Tree/Wood

  • “A baby that refuses to come can be brought at once and the labor pains will stop, if the woman drinks tea made from bark scraped downwards off a young peach tree.” (Hyatt #2972) Hyatt also states in several other places that peach branches were used to help bring a baby into the world by magical means.
  • “Peach tree root or bark was also commonly used [to treat diarrhea]” (Cavender 88)
  • Peach wood can be used in a magical cure for warts by cutting as many notches in a peach branch as one has warts (Thomas #1493) (see also “Leaves”)
  • Peach wood is one of the reputed choices for making dowsing forks, according to many sources (Thomas #105; Brunvand 432, Steiner 271, Randolph 83)
  • Ozark lore specifies that peach bark scraped upward prevents vomiting and/or diarrhea, but scraped downward it is a strong emetic (Randolph 95)
  • “A mess of peach roots, ground up and mixed with lard, is said to cure the seven-year itch” (Randolph 109)

Fruit

  • A piece of Kentucky lore states that twinned peaches found together indicate that you will be married soon (Thomas #593)
  • Eating a peach pecked by a bird is said to lead to poisoning (Steiner 267)

Pit

  • John George Hohman mentions the use of “peach-stones” as a cure for “gravel” (kidney stones). He attests to it especially because it cured him of his own gravel (Long-Lost Friend #84)
  • Hohman attests that peach pits can also be taken to remedy drunkenness (#185)
  • The seeds reputedly can help stimulate hair growth in some people (Todd 55)
  • Vance Randolph describes an Ozark love charm consisting of a carved peach stone filled with “some pinkish, soap-like material” which he could not identify (Randolph 166)
  • Both Randolph and Newbell Niles Puckett mention the peach-pit charm as a powerful one, akin to the lucky rabbit’s foot charm (Puckett 437)

Leaves

  • Peach leaves were thought to be a Colonial-era cure for worms (Black 199)
  • Cat Yronwode mentions using dried peach leaves in wisdom oil blends to help students focus on studies (HHRM 143)
  • Kentucky lore says that rubbing warts with peach-leaves, then burying them will remove warts (Thomas #1492)
  • The leaves were frequently made into a poultice, which could be used to treat headaches, bruises, and “pumpknots (bumps caused by a blow or knock to the head)” (Cavender 98, 109)
  • One of the Foxfire informants recommended a peach leave poultice mixed with salt and cornmeal to treat an abscessed tooth (Foxfire 9 70).
  • Herbalist Jude C. Todd recommends the use of peach leaves as a part of a dandruff treatment (Todd 53)

Flowers

  • Hohman says that “The flowers of the peach-tree, prepared like salad, opens the bowels, and is of use in the dropsy” (Long-Lost Friend #185)
  • Hohman also recommends the use of the flowers as a cure for worms and constipation (#185)
  • Girls in the Ozarks pierce their ears when peaches are in bloom, believing that piercing them any other time will lead to infection (Randolph 164)

Vance Randolph has a great bit of lore regarding the planting of peaches as well:

“In planting peach trees, it is always well to bury old shoes or boots near the roots. Not far from Little  Rock, Arkansas, I have known farmers to drive into town and search the refuse piles for old shoes to be buried in peach orchards. The older and more decayed the leather, the better it works as fertilizer” (Randolph 39)

From my own perspective, I really like the dowsing power of the peach, but I also have a great fondness for the carved peach pit charms. They seem like they would be beautiful and incognito ways of carrying natural amulets about on one’s person. I can also easily see using the flesh of a peach like the flesh of an apple, carving things into it before eating to absorb those qualities. The peachy pulp, which bears such a strong resemblance in so many ways to human flesh, also suggests a use as a makeshift dolly. When the “heart” of the peach, its stone, is considered, this is likely a very apt application of magic to the rosy-golden fruit.

I thought I’d finish up today with something non-magical, but which certainly has an enchanting power: brandied peaches like my mother used to make (I sadly do not have her exact recipe anymore, so the one I’m sharing is adapted from the excellent Putting Food By, by Greene, Herzberg, & Vaughan). We used to have a spoonful of these over ice cream after dinner sometimes, and they were simply otherworldly. They’re not as sweet as you might think, but that’s part of their charm. Plus, you can’t go wrong with a little booze in your dessert. I hope you enjoy!

Ingredients:
Peaches (1 lb.)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Good brandy
Whole cloves (optional)
Whole cinnamon sticks (optional)

Clean & dry your one-pint canning jars. Score skin of peaches, then blanch them in boiling water and dunk them into an ice bath. Slip the skins off and slice the peaches into halves and quarters (removing stones).

Make a simple syrup by boiling the cup of sugar with the water. Cook the peaches in the sugar syrup for about 5 minutes, then transfer peaches into individual jars. To each jar add 1-3 cloves  (optional), 1 cinnamon stick (optional), and 2-3 tablespoons of brandy. Seal jars and process in a hot water bath for about 20-25 minutes, then carefully remove the jars and allow them to seal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at peaches. If you have any other ideas about using peaches in magic, please leave them in here or drop us a line.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 145 – Wart Charming

November 28, 2011

The image of the fairy-tale witch often comes complete with a big, nasty wart perched at the end of her nose. The association of witches with warts could come from a variety of folk beliefs and superstitions: the close ties between warty toads and witches, the idea of a ‘devil’s mark’ which the witch uses to suckle her familiar, or even just a desire to make a something ugly out of something ‘evil.’ The association is not always a purely negative one, however. Folk magicians in the New World (as well as those in the old, though I’ll not be addressing them here) have a long-standing history of curing warts through magical means. In fact, that is frequently one of the most commonly found magical services provided by a community magician (or faith-healer, traiteur, pow-wow, etc.).

Today I thought it would be good to look at a few different methods, stories, and charms associated with wart-removal in American folk magic. I’d like to start in Pennsyvlania-Dutch country, with some of the wart charms found in Chris Bilardi’s The Red Church:

WARTS, CORNS (GEWECKS, GEWEX, WARZ)

[Do whole body Brauche treatment to eliminate any root causes of warts. Bilardi then gives an extensive treatment involving the mimicking of cutting the wart off using an imaginary knife, a process I will refrain from detailing here as it is somewhat lengthy and I’d rather encourage you to buy his book by leaving a little mystery to it…]

To remove warts using the moon: instruct the patient to go somewhere s/he can observe the moon. This is one of the very few wart charms that utilize the waxing moon. Once the moon in in sight, the afflicted wil say:

‘Was ich raib, nem ab; was ich sen, nem tsu.’
English, ‘What I rub, decrease; what I see, increase.’

The Brauche is done three nights in a row. This is begun two nights prior to the moon being full (251).

In the braucherei tradition, then, there is a sense that warts have a spiritual side, hence the full-body treatment before the specific attempt to cure the wart and the influence of lunar cycles on wart growth or removal. Yet they are also a practical matter, dealt with by simple folk magic and a relatively unassuming charm. Other methods listed in The Red Church:

  • Rubbing warts with cloths that have touched a dead body
  • Scratching a wart with a coffin nail
  • Rubbing the wart with a freshly killed eel or rooster, then burying the body part under the eaves of one’s house
  • Rubbing the wart with pebbles which are then thrown into a grave
  • Using a red string with as many knots as there are warts, rubbing each wart with a knot, then burying the string under the house’s eaves (252-3):

Moving down into the Appalachians, there are a number of variant methods for dealing with warts that parallel—if they don’t exactly duplicate—the methods described by Bilardi. In the hills of West Vriginia, we find these wart cures from Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs:

  • To cure warts, wash your hands in stump water.
  • A ninth son can remove warts.
  • Drop dirt from a newly-made grave on a wart and the wart will disappear.
  • To cure warts, pick them with a pin and bury the pin.
  • To cure warts, take a hair from the tail of a gray horse and wind the hair around the warts.
  • To cure warts, steal a dishrag and rub it on the warts, then bury the dishrag. When it rots, the wart will disappear.
  • To cure warts, cut as many notches in a stick as there are warts, throw the stick in a swamp, then bury the dishrag.
  • To cure warts, rub a rock ovr the warts, wrap it in a neat package and throw it away. Whoever finds the package will get the warts.

Already we can see some patterns developing in wart cures. There are essentially three methods which appear over and over again: 1) Rubbing the wart with something and burying it to decay the wart, 2) Scratching or pricking the wart and disposing of either the scratching implement or something marked with blood from the wart, and 3) Passing the warts to someone else in a variant of magical commerce. There are exceptions or variations in each of these, of course. The corpse-touching method might be seen as a way of passing the wart to the corpse, but it may also be seen as symbolically burying it. The stump water method doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. And the notion of a ninth son removing warts is strange, as it does not indicate exactly how they are able to do this (I mentioned in the post on Coins that my brother-in-law’s grandfather could charm warts using pennies because he was the seventh son of a seventh son, but that may be more specific to our region).  From these three methods, most other treatments become variants, though exceptions do still occur.

Exchanging the Appalachians for the Ozarks, we find more variants of this type, and a few new tricks. From Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:

  • He mentions the notched stick method referenced above, but also adds “bury the stick on the north side of the cabin and never mention it to a living soul”
  • Suggests using an onion for a wart cure: cut the onion in half, rub the wart with one half and bury it, then eat the other half. When the onion rots, the wart disappears.
  • Spitting on a hot stovelid, once for each wart, gets rid of them
  • Letting a grasshopper or katydid bite a wart will make it go away
  • Touching a wart with the hand of a corpse will remove them

Here again we have the burial method, the pricking/bleeding method (with the grasshoppers), and the transference method (with the corpse). But we also have the novel stove-top method, which is interesting to me because of the mixture of sympathetic and contagious magic it contains: the spittle on the hot stove looks like a wart sizzling away into nothingness (sympathetic) and it is the spit of the person with the wart which is evaporated (a sort of inverted contagious magic).  Randolph also includes an interesting charm associated with the corpse method:

At the funeral of a close friend, a ‘warty feller’ is supposed to touch his warts and repeat the following jingle:

They are ringing the funeral bell,
What I now grasp will soon be well,
What ill I have do take away
Like jn the grave does lay.

This is believed to benefit tumors, sores, boils, and even cancers as well as warts. (131)

In my Apples post, I cited some Kentucky lore about using that fruit to do the rubbing-and-burial method. A reader mentioned that they had heard something similar to that technique, only using potatoes (which I’ve also heard as well, especially in relation to Irish folk magic or some Appalachian charms). The book I cited, Kentucky Superstitions, mentions the potato method, and also has these interesting variants on wart charming:

  • There are a number of ‘burying’ charms, involving the interment of things like beans, steak, bacon, peach tree leaves, potatoes, walnuts, etc.
  • ‘Picking’ cures are also popular, in which a wart is bled by puncturing it with a brass pin, corn kernels, needles, etc.
  • A variety of substances, including cat’s blood, coffee grounds, dandelion juice, eggs, fish, goose feathers, chicken gizzards, etc. are also rubbed on warts to remove them
  • One of the most popular and common cures involves bleeding the wart, dabbing the blood on corn kernels, then feeding those to chickens—especially a neighbor’s hens—to remove the offending blemish
  • Lemon juice or milkweed are supposed to be good cures for warts
  • Warts can be charmed off by some people with a gift for doing so; some are able to ‘count’ warts off, others can pray them off, and still others ‘buy’ the warts off of someone
  • Warts can be magically passed to another person by leaving them at a crossroads; simply leave a paper spotted with blood from the wart in the middle of the crossing, and walk away without looking back; whoever picks up the paper picks up the warts
  • The stick-notch method or knotted cord method are two popular remedies for warts in which the number of warts is counted by notching a stick or tying a cord, then the burying it or dropping it into running water (121-30)

The corn method is something I found in several places, including Harry M. Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams County. In many cases, the corn must be fed to a neighbor’s chicken, which makes me think it is another technique for passing the warts to someone else, just in a very roundabout way. Hyatt also mentions many of these cures in his books, and offers an interesting addition to the bark-notch method of curing: “I know this works, for my daughter had a wart. She tried several things, and this took her wart away: walk up to a young apple tree — if you have a wart — walk around to the opposite side and cut two notches in the bark, then rub your wart over the two notches, then walk back the same way you came; when the bark grows over the cut places, your wart will be gone” (146).

As always, there’s much more to say on the subject of charming warts, but hopefully this gives a nice broad look at the subject. I need to be very clear, of course, that none of the charms, lore, techniques, or superstitions here are presented as medical advice—a good doctor can freeze a wart off without making you go through the trouble of finding an eel to kill or figuring out which of your neighbors might have some hungry chickens around. But for those interested, wart charming seems to be a simple way to get into traditional folk magic, and who knows, you might just have a knack for it. At the very least, hopefully the warts on that old witch’s nose in the storybook won’t seem so scary anymore.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 144 – Walnuts

November 22, 2011

“As soft as silk,
As white as milk,
As bitter as gall,
A strong wall,
And a green coat covers me all”
Walnut riddle from H.M. Hyatt, Adams Co., Entry No. 14379

Continuing with the Thanksgiving ingredient theme (i.e. Apples), I thought today it would be good to look at a fairly common tree and nut that has been woven into magic for hundreds of years. I’m speaking of course of the unassuming but delicious walnut which tops brownies, finds its way into salads, and makes a delicious candied treat. Don’t worry, though, my next topic will not be mayonnaise and I am not subtly leading up to any kind of enchanted Waldorf salad.

I’d like to briefly start in the Old World and mention a legend which had some influence on 19th-century occult folklorist Charles Leland. In “Neopolitan Witchcraft” by J.B. Andrews and James Frazer, a rhyme appears which translates roughly:

Beneath the water and beneath the wind,
Beneath the walnut trees of Benevento,
Lucibello bring me where I need to go.

This charm would help a witch magically fly to her Sabbat, supposedly. The idea of witches gathering beneath a walnut tree in Benevento, Italy clearly impacted Leland, who includes a tale in his “witch gospel” Aradia called “The House of the Wind” (which is what Benevento means in English). [EDIT: See comments below for a correction on this translation] Myth Woodling, who runs a marvelous set of pages on Italian folk magic and witchcraft, has this to say about the walnut:

Walnut shells, in Italian fairy tales, were often used to contain something precious or magical. A walnut branch was said to protect one from lightening. There were stories of witches and spirits gathering under walnut trees”

In the New World, walnuts gained a number of powers and attributes, while the lore about walnuts and lightning becomes reversed, as found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, where he tells how black walnuts are now thought to draw lightning and hillfolk refuse to plant these trees near their homes for that reason (72). Some of Randolph’s other interesting tidbits about walnuts are here:

  • “A big crop of walnuts indicates cold weather to come” (26)
  • A good season for tomatoes is a bad season for walnuts (39)
  • Fresh walnut leaves scattered about the house can deter insects (68)
  • Walnut shells must not be burned, or bad luck will come (71)
  • The juice of a green walnut can help cure ringworm (110)
  • “The shell of a black walnut is supposed to represent the human skull, and the meat is said to resemble  the brain, therefore people who show signs of mental aberration are encouraged to eat walnuts. I know of one case in which an entire family devoted most of the winter to cracking walnuts for a feebleminded boy. They kept it up for years, and I believe the poor fellow ate literally bushels of walnut goodies” (114)
  • “A mountain girl of my acquaintance placed a lock of her hair under a stone in a running stream,  believing that the water would make her hair glossy and attractive. Another way to promote the growth of hair is to bury a “twist” of it under the roots of a white walnut tree, in the light of the moon” (165)

Similar lore exists in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, with the addition of magical wart charming ascribed to the humble walnut. Daniel & Lucy Thomas, in their Kentucky Superstitions, say that green walnuts can be rubbed on warts, then buried to charm the wart away. This makes for an interesting variant on the standard wart-charming method of cutting a fruit or vegetable in half before using it to cure the wart (but I’ll address those ideas in a different post entirely). Heading into Illinois, Henry Hyatt reports a mix of magical and medical uses for walnuts:

  • Thin walnut shells mean a light winter, while thick shells mean a heavy one
  • A black walnut carried at all times prevents headaches
  • A mixture of boiled walnut leaves, water, and sulphur makes a powerful anti-itch wash
  • Dreaming of opening or eating walnuts means money is coming soon

In this latter example, we can see the walnut being used as a divinatory aid, which makes sense when we think of the strong ‘brain’ association with the little wrinkled nut (since it has a brain, it must know something, so why not the future, right?). Hyatt also shares a lovely little love divination with walnuts:

9033. Her future husband’s occupation can be learned by a girl who grates three nuts — a hazelnut, nutmeg and walnut — mixes these grated nuts with butter and sugar, makes pills of this paste, and swallows nine of them on going to bed: if she dreams of wealth, she will marry a gentleman; of white linen, a clergyman; of darkness, a lawyer; of noises, a tradesman or laborer; of thunder and lightning, a soldier or sailor; and of rain, a servant

This sense of a walnut as a ‘knowing’ curio seems to be tied again to its brain-like appearance, but also with the idea of the little nut containing some special knowledge the way it contained magical charms in an Old World context. The tree even seems to know what is growing around it in some cases. Patrick Gainer says that the presence of a white walnut tree indicates ginseng growing underneath it (120).

Another key use of the walnut in magic has to do—or at least I think it does—with its bitterness and perhaps the deep blackness of the flesh surrounding the nut. Walnuts can strip away negativity nearly as well as eggs, lemons, salt, or any of the other major magical cleansing agents. Draja Mickaharic includes a cleansing bath which uses walnuts in order to sever ties with an unwanted person or influence. He warns that it can only be used once, and that going back to the person after ties are severed will have dire results. The basic formula involves boiling six unshelled walnuts in a pot for three hours, adding water if needed. After that time, there will be a black broth that should be added to a bathtub, and the person using the bath should immerse themselves seven times in it, saying prayers as appropriate (Spiritual Cleansing 58).The dark color absorbs all negativity, and the galling nature of the fruit works the way a lemon does to sever evil from one’s person. Cat Yronwode suggests a similar bath to Mickaharic, adding the important step of disposing of the used bathwater at a crossroads. She also indicates that walnut leaves can be used in a spell to hurt an enemy’s luck (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic 205).

One use for a walnut I’ve never seen but which I really think would be interesting to try would be as a head for a doll baby working. Considering the brain associations and the fleshiness of the fruit, I’m not sure why this is not a common-place use of the walnut, but c’est la vie. If you happen to know why they’re not used in doll magic, I’d love to hear it! Or if you have any other uses of walnuts in New World folk magic, please feel free to share!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 143 – Apples

November 17, 2011

Inside a red barn,
A white star…
-Part of a riddle, the solution to which is “an apple”

Do you remember that moment in Snow White & the Seven Dwarves when the evil Queen is using all manner of occult ephemera to poison a single apple which she will use to kill Snow White? What about all those baroque and medieval paintings of the Garden of Eden showing a dispassionate Eve holding a bitten apple in one hand? Or the Greek myth of the golden apple given to Prince Paris of Troy that he might award it to the fairest of the goddesses (thus sparking the Trojan War).

Apples appear throughout folklore and myth as symbols of magical power, sacred knowledge, and intoxicating sweetness. American lore has its own apple-toting legend in the form of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, who crossed the upper Midwest planting apple orchards as he went (Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Botany of Desire explores how Chapman—a mystical Christian practicing a philosophy called Swedenborgianism—actually planted orchards not for eating apples, but for making hard cider, thus linking him to the magical practice of brewing as well).  Today I thought I’d look at some of the magical manifestations of this ubiquitous fruit. After all, it is as American as, well, apple pie.

I’d like to start with some of the apple lore and superstitions found in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore, primarily because I love one of the first tidbits I found:

  • “A bad woman can’t make good applesauce” (65)

I have no idea about the veracity, implications, or thought processes behind this statement, but it was just too wonderful to pass up. So if you can’t make good applesauce, you should clearly consider it a moral failing of some kind. Randolph also lists a number of other bits of common apple lore:

  • A goiter can be removed or reduced by rubbing it with half an apple, burying it in the cemetery, then eating the other half (148)
  • Two apple seeds, named for a boy and a girl, dropped onto a hot shovel can predict love. If they move closer together, they will marry; if they part, the love will not last (184)

I’ve covered a bit of the love magic involving apples in another post and podcast episode, but this latter method is one I’d not seen before, and has a very ‘country’ feel to it. Listener and fellow folk-magic blogger Claire shared that instead of peeling the apple in one strip, she and her childhood playmates would twist the stem, saying a letter with each twist, until the thing came loose revealing the initial of one’s future beau.

Many of Randolph’s recorded superstitions can be found in other places as well, such as these wonderful examples from Kentucky folklore:

  • Breaking an apple in two means luck in love (especially if you “name” the apple for someone special)
  • An apple peel removed in a single strip then tossed over the shoulder will land in the shape of a lover’s initial
  • Apple seeds can be counted like flower petals in the “loves me, loves me not” style
  • Apple seeds are used to tell which direction a lover will come from by spitting them in the air, or can be used to divine how long it will take before one sees a sweetheart again by slapping a handful against one’s forehead—the number that stick are the days until the lover arrives.
  • Naming apples on Halloween and then bobbing or playing ‘snap-apple’ for them predicts a future mate
  • Finding twinned apples (or any fruit really) on a tree means a marriage soon
  • Warts can be cured with apples, either by burying an apple and saying ‘As this apple decays, so let my wart go away,” or by scarring an apple tree’s bark—when the bark grows over, the wart will disappear
  • Apples gathered in moonlight will not bruise or rot
  • “If you can break an apple with your hands, you will always be your own boss”

(from Kentucky Superstitions, by Daniel & Lucy Thomas)

Vance Randolph also references the wart-removal charm which involves cutting notches in an apple tree, although in this case it’s a stranger’s apple tree and done in secret, as ‘stolen’ things have tremendous magical curing power (130).

Henry Middleton Hyatt also has several pieces of folklore about apples, some of which contradict the Kentucky beliefs above:

  • Apples which fall in moonlight get ‘soft-rot,’ while apples falling during a dark moon get ‘dry-rot’
  • If you want your next calf to be a female, bury the placenta from the most recent calf birth under an apple tree
  • Girls eat the first apple of June and count the seeds to see how many children they will have
  • Eating ‘twinned’ apples is said to cause twin births
  • Rubbing a piece of apple over a newborn’s tongue ensures that they will have a beautiful singing voice
  • Apple peels, especially those in June, can be rubbed on the face to improve complexion
  • Eating an apple on an empty stomach on Easter ensures good health
  • Menstrual flow can be regulated by boiling the inner bark (or cambium) of an apple tree
  • If you always burn your apple peelings you will never have cancer

Hyatt also reiterates the wart cures involving rubbing sliced apples over the wart and burying them, usually under the eaves of a house (Folklore of Adams County, 146).

In New England, apples also have a love association, as well as some rather more foreboding connotations. The excellent blog New England Folklore provides a wonderful rhyme for counting apple seeds here. The blog author, Peter M., also shares a bit of the darker lore of apples, including the strange coincidence of deaths with apples in New England lore. And what could be creepier than an apple tree eating a person?

Finally, looking towards the deep South and the folk magic of hoodoo, I found that the apple can be used for a variety of purposes. Cat Yronwode suggests using the apple as an agent in sweetening spells, especially those for love. She points out that it can be used as a receptacle for sweetening agents like honey or sugar and it provides sweetness itself in the spell (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, 32-3). Denise Alvarado mentions that the Voodoo lwa known as Papa Guede appears as a skeletal figure with a tophat and an apple in one hand in her Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook. And then there’s this very interesting spell involving apples and court-case work:

Take green and yellow candles, enough to last for nine days, and with a sharp object write on them the names of the chief prosecution witness, the judge, and the district attorney, in that order. Burn the candles upside down to ‘upset the heads’ of these people. Bore a hole in each of three apples and put the name of each of the three above-mentioned persons in the apples. Set them before the candles while they burn the requisite nine days. At the end of nine days take the apples to the vicinity of the jail. Roll one from the entrance, one from the right side, and one from the left side, thereby rolling the prisoner out of jail (Haskins, Voodoo & Hoodoo, 185).

This spell is supposed to be used during an appeals process or after a new trial has been ordered. Perhaps it is tied to the sweetening effect mentioned by Yronwode as a way of urging a new judge or jury to look upon your case favorably?

In any case, the apple has certainly earned its place in American magical lore. If you know of other magical uses for the apple, feel free to post them here. And next time you’re eating an apple, do as the wicked queen suggests—make a wish, take a bite.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 142 – Coins

November 9, 2011

Coins as magical objects in folklore are ubiquitous, appearing in multiple forms and for multiple purposes. Just think of the common-place act of flipping a coin, which is essentially allowing chance (or Fate) to decide the outcome to a given situation. People frequently carry lucky pennies or coins from their birth year to provide a little extra good fortune in their lives. Many people collect coins from foreign lands because of their exotic and seemingly mystical nature (the I Ching coins of Asia are a good example). Today I thought I’d take a very brief look at magical coins in American folklore. I’ll primarily focus on two key denominations, the dime and the penny, though these will be entry points for examining other aspects of coin magic, too.

Silver Dimes
The most famous of these magical coins is the “Mercury dime.” While actually inscribed with a picture of embodied Liberty, the idea of Mercury has long been attached to this coin. Cat Yronwode says “this makes sense, because Mercury was the Roman god who ruled crossroads, games of chance, and sleight of hand tricks” and associates him as well with Papa Legba (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic). Coins from a leap year between 1916 and 1946 are especially lucky. Yronwode lists it as among one of the most potent hoodoo tokens, and tells of its uses in aiding gamblers, helping one get a job, or fighting off evil. In this last capacity, the easiest method is to simply punch a small hole in the dime and tie it with a red thread around one’s ankle. The dime will turn black in the case of magical attack, simultaneously deflecting it and warning of its presence. In her book Black Magic: Religion & the African-American Conjuring Tradition, Yvonne P. Chireau mentions this use of the dime, along with several other forms of dime divination, including boiling the dime with items suspected to be tricks to see if they contained malefic magic. According to Chireau, a person suspected of being jinxed could put a dime under his or her tongue to detect the presence of evil work, too.

Silver coins in general are thought to be useful in counteracting witchcraft.  From A Collection of Folklore by Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University: “The method to ward off witches was to carry a piece of silver money or to wear a piece of silver on a string around the neck. The coin most commonly used was a dime” (64). In a story called “A Doll and a Bag of Money,” from The Silver Bullet by Hubert J. Davis,  a woman named Aunt Nan Miller tells a tale in which a bag of silver and gold coins magically comes to her. One of those silver coins later saves her family when they melt it down and use it to shoot a doll of a witch who has been plaguing them.

A silver coin placed under a butter churn could help counteract minor witchcraft and get butter to come unless the spell was severe. In that case the milk was scalded in fire or whipped with switches to torment the witch spelling the churn. An informant cited in Gerald C. Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery seemed to think that the coin should be heated to a high temperature and added to the churn, and that the presence of the words “In God We Trust” on the coin had something to do with its power, though that would only date the practice to the 1860’s, when that motto first appeared on U.S. coinage.

The presence of silver in the coin seems to be its key to potency, as modern dimes (those produced after 1963 when the U.S. Mint drastically reduced the silver content of the coins) are not frequently used to the same effect.

Lucky Pennies
The concept of the lucky penny is widespread in America. I even have a lucky penny keychain given to me by my younger brother from a trip he made to Las Vegas. They apparently sell them in the casino lobby.  Patrick Gainer describes a lucky penny worn as a podiatric accessory: “If you wear a penny in your shoe, it will bring good luck” (Witches, Ghosts, & Signs 123). This is quite likely the origin of penny loafers. And of course, there’s always the nursery rhyme/thinly-veiled-bit-of-witchery:

See a penny, pick it up,
All the day you’ll have good luck.
See a penny, let it lay,
Bad luck follows you all day (this is my own recollection of the rhyme, and there are many variants of it)

The “Indian Head” cent, a copper coin produced between 1859 and 1909 in the United States, is thought to be an especially useful incarnation of the lucky penny, able to perform almost conscious acts of magic on their own. Yronwode describes them as ‘Indian Scouts’ which can be used to keep the law away from your property (especially if you are engaged in illicit activity). The easiest way is to simply nail them around doors or windows. One method described by Yronwode has the penny being placed between two nails which are then flattened into an ‘X’ shape over it to cross out the law’s power to find the place.

Yronwode’s Lucky W Archive has a very in-depth study of lucky coins, including the penny, which I will avoid quoting as simply visiting her site will provide far more insight than any summation I can give here. We also discussed lucky pennies and coins a bit in Podcast 13 – Lucky Charms, so give that a listen, too.

Magical coins aren’t solely limited to these denominations, of course. The more general idea of a magical coin appears in a variety of literature and folklore. In Melville’s Moby Dick, for example, Captain Ahab nails a coin to the mast of the ship as a temptation to the men to seduce them into his quest for the white whale. This is related to maritime folklore in which coins would be nailed to the mast for good winds and luck (American Folklore 962). From Hubert Davis comes the story of Pat  who tricks the Devil into becoming a coin to pay a bartab and then puts him in an enchanted purse (this is a variation on a Jack tale in which Jack outwits the Devil—in the Jack variants he frequently uses a Bible or something marked with a cross to contain the Devil). Pat refuses to free him until the Devil promises never to take Pat to hell. This becomes the story of the Jack-o-Lantern in some versions, of course (Davis 163-166).

One of the most interesting applications of magical coins I’ve found comes out of Appalachia (and has precedents going back further) and has to do with curing warts. People with a certain gift could rub a person’s wart with a coin, usually a penny, and then tell him or her to spend the penny and thus give away the wart. My brother-in-law’s grandfather reputedly had this ability, being the seventh son of a seventh son. He had an upstanding reputation as a good Christian man, but he was able to do both wart charming and well dowsing, showing (to me at least) that magic can easily transcend religious barriers. This sort of curing is also described in Milne’s book, along with other wart cures favored by Appalachian healers (Milne 159). Coins can also be used to pay the dead who work with you; my own teacher taught me that graveyard dirt should be bought with three pennies and a shot of whiskey or rum. And a court spell from Voodoo & Hoodoo by Jim Haskins also mentions the coin as a useful component of love spells, particularly ones which require someone to stick close b you physically (Haskins 185).

There are many other bits of lore regarding coins and magic, of course, but sadly I must draw this entry to a close somewhere, and for now I think it’s best to cash out here. If you have good magical uses of coins, please feel free to share them!

Thanks for reading,

-Cory


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