Blog Post 8 – Seaside Sorcery

De Windstoot, by Willem van de Velde II (from Wikimedia Commons)

Hello!  Today I’m going to take a look at some of the coastal magic found in Northeastern America and Canada (Southern coastal magic will be in a later post, I hope).  In the early days, American colonies and states depended greatly on foreign trade for supplies.  The wealth of natural resources here were valuable to people across the sea as well, and so much of the commercial backbone of North America during those years depended on seaports and sailing vessels and all those men and women who operated them.

I’ve always found that folks involved in seafaring business are a superstitious lot (and I mean that as a compliment, as I find superstition fascinating and useful in many cases).  At the very least, the vast ocean inspires people to consider their own smallness and to take precautions against their mortal end at the sea’s merciless whim.  With that said, let’s look at some stories, anecdotes, and practices from the Northeastern coasts of North America.

Some stories from Maine:

“The Cursing of Colonel Buck”, as retold by S. E. Schlosser.  In this story, an unscrupulous colonel takes advantage of one of his maids, then turns her out when she bears his sadly misshapen child.  In order to prevent any claims on his name, he accuses her of witchcraft and has her burned at the stake.  She curses him (perhaps his claims of witchcraft were not so unfounded) as she dies, and her leg falls from the pyre, where her son gathers the leg and runs away.  After the colonel dies, his tombstone develops a funny leg-shaped mark on it, which embarrasses the townsfolk.  They toss it in the ocean, but it comes back ashore.  Then they smash it and put up a new stone, but the leg-mark comes back.

So where’s the New World Witchery in this story?  Well, this tale is probably extremely exaggerated.  The main clue is that the witch is burned at the stake, a holdover from European witch-lore, but not a punishment found in the New World.  However, there’s one small fragment of worthwhile witchery in this tale:  the first reaction of the townspeople is to throw the stone into the sea.  The idea that natural water sources, especially moving ones like oceans and rivers, can cleanse cursed objects is solidly founded in other magical lore (see Albertus Magnus or hoodoo trick deployment practices).

Buying the Wind, by Richard M. Dorson, contains several excellent bits of Maine magical lore.  For example, in the title passage, the practice of “buying wind” is discussed.  Captains and crewmembers on becalmed ships would often be tempted to throw money overboard in order to purchase a quantity of wind from God/nature/the sea/etc.  The problem arises in that the quantity purchased is always vastly more than one expected to buy.  As one of Dorson’s informants puts it:

“Never buy wind when you’re on a boat.  You’re daring God Almighty, and he won’t stand for that.  You’ll get all the wind you want.”

In one tale, a captain tosses a quarter overboard, and immediately such a gale rises that it tears off the sails and mast from the ship and pushes it into shore, where it barely holds together as the crew disembarks.  The captain remarks that if he’d known God sold wind so cheaply he’d only have got a nickel’s worth.

Is this witchcraft?  Well, no, not exactly.  But the practice of buying something to control the weather is fairly common witch-lore.  Many tales exist of sailors buying cauls (the membrane which sometimes covers a newborn’s head after emerging from the womb) from dockside witches to prevent drowning at sea.  And those same dockside sorceresses sometimes sold knotted cords to help sailors call up wind as needed—each knot, when undone, would release an increasing amount of wind.  So buying the wind is certainly a magical maritime practice, if not outright witchery.

Magic and Witchcraft in Nova Scotia:

An interesting tale regarding a hidden treasure is recorded in Folklore of Nova Scotia, by Mary L. Fraser.  She writes:

“An old sailor who spent his life as a deep-sea fisherman around the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland told of a great iron chest that was buried just beneath the water, so that its outline could be seen very distinctly. Every time the crew tried to work around it and, raise it up, thousands of crows, one of which was headless, would swarm around them, so that it was impossible for them to get at it. These crows they believed to be helpers of the decapitated guarding spirit.”

This tale is interesting, to me, because of the clear association of spirit allies with a sacred duty (such as guarding a treasure).   I can’t think of many witchier images than a murder of crows—including a headless one—swarming all over treasure-grabbers.

The same volume has several good bits of weather-lore, too:

  1. “If Candlemas day be fine and fair, The half of the winter’s to come an’ mair.”
  2. “Mackerel skies and mare’s tails, Make lofty ships carry low sails.”
  3. “A rainbow in the morning the sailor’s warning, A rainbow at night is the sailor’s delight.”
  4. “Heavy winds kick up a rain.”

The first of these is an old tradition which most people now know as a component of Groundhog Day.  I plan to do a post specifically on some of the traditions associated with early February sometime soon, so I’ll save further exposition on it here.  The second proverb refers to cloud patterns in the skies.  If high wispy clouds (“mare’s tails”) were seen along with clumpy scale-like cloud patterns (“mackerel skies”), then it was a good indication a storm would be coming soon and the sails should be lowered.  The third bit of wisdom is fairly common, though sometimes in different iterations (I know it as “red skies at morning, sailor take warning; red skies at night, sailor’s delight”).   Basically it just means that the weather conditions at dawn or dusk foretell the weather to come.  And the fourth quote is a logical enough assertion that where high winds blow at sea, rain is sure to follow.

Again, are these witchy?  Only insofar as the astute witch would know such proverbs and make use of them in his or her daily practice.  Reading the signs Nature provides has a lot to do with the mentality of witchcraft, which is constantly looking to the natural-and-other-worlds for guidance, instruction, and wisdom.

A Sailor’s Treasury, by Frank Shay, also supposedly provides a good many of early American sailors’ tales and charms (I cannot give a full recommendation as I have only been able to view snippets online, and no nearby library seems to have a copy of this out-of-print text).

Whew!  I’ve only presented a fragment of the nautical witchcraft out there, and already it’s a lot.  So I’ll save more seaside witchery for another day.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 2 – Broom Closets and an Interview with Sarah Lawless

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 2-

Summary

On this, the second episode of New World Witchery, Laine and Cory discuss the ins and outs of broom closets.  In the second segment, we hear from the lovely Sarah Lawless, proprietress of the Forest Grove Botanica and keeper of many irons in many fires.  Then, we wrap up with a call for comments and emails from our listeners.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 02

-Sources-

Websites

From our guest, Sarah Lawless:

Forest Grove Botanica – a top-notch source for hand-crafted witchy and rootworking goods.

The Witch of Forest Grove – Sarah’s amazingly informative blog

Hedgefolk Tales – Sarah’s podcast on storytelling and lore with a witch-oriented slant

Lilith’s Lantern – A good overview of the Vicia branch of the Andersons’ Feri Tradition

Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1-The Celtic Myth Podshow

Promo 2-Witchery of One

Promo 3- Pagan Parents on the Edge

Blog Post 7 – Into the Woods

I don’t get out into the woods as often as I like anymore.  I have an infant son to help care for, and a steady 9-to-5 job that eats up most of the best time for tramping through the forest.  Still, when I have the opportunity, I love to put on some old shoes and jeans (and a heavy coat in our current weather) and wander out into the thickest parts of the brush.  In summer, I have to carry a walking stick, as we are in rattlesnake country here (a rake works even better but is a bit more unwieldy), but in winter I can just bring a satchel for collecting things that I find out there.

I generally don’t go out expecting to find anything, though I do bring offerings and hand shears in case anything strikes my fancy.  Sometimes I get lucky and find a good set of fir or juniper branches for making incense or smudge sticks.  Often, I simply find animal trails and follow those to see where they lead.  Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of interesting wildlife near our home, including bobcats, wild pigs, turkeys, deer, and—on one memorable occasion—a gorgeous smoke-colored owl.  It’s a great way to spend a day, getting lost in the winding trails and then finding my way home again when I can feel the sun starting to set.

Forests can be frightening, too, though.  Nature, red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson wrote, is not a gentle place.  There are many stories from around the world which use the forest motif to represent a “dark night of the soul” or a period of primal self-transformation, from which the heroes of the tales emerge stronger and wiser than before:  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Gawain and Dame Ragnell (itself based on the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Chaucer).  From even a simply physical standpoint, the woods can be frightening simply because there are truly wild animals there, some of which are very hungry.

Part of being a witch, in my opinion, is overcoming fear.  If a person fears the woods, that is fine, because a little fear is healthy and may keep him or her alive for another day.  But a witch should know that taking a deep breath and stepping off the path and into the woods is an act of fearlessness that can be rewarded by gifts greater than mere survival.  I’m not advocating that everyone must immediately go out into the forest and start poking at badgers with sticks, mind you—wisdom should temper boldness.  If one has no experience in traipsing about the wild places of the world, then hiking the nature trails in the local national park is a good place to start; at least, it’s a better place than wandering off into a bobcat’s den and surprising the rather toothy and claw-y beast unawares.

However, for the witch who can walk the wilds and follow an animal trail, there are often rewards for that fearlessness if he or she keeps eyes wide open.  This past weekend, while following a deer trail in the woods near my home, I was given a little gift for my efforts:

I found the skull and bones of what looks like a juvenile deer (I can’t tell the species exactly because some of the bone has been chewed away and there are no antler buds to go by either).  The bones were picked clean, likely at least 6 months old, and had only been partially buried by leaf litter.  I said a prayer of thanks to the spirits there, and poured out an offering before proceeding.  I had brought plastic bags in my satchel, so I used those to pick up and wrap the skull, some leg bones, what appears to be a piece of the sternum, and some vertebrae.  They were muddy, but partially sun-bleached, and when I got them home I managed to clean them off with a mild soap-and-water combination.  They still need to be set to soak in a peroxide solution to finish the bleaching, and then I will have to decide if I want to seal them or carve them first.  I’m thinking I may use the skull for some Otherworld workings, and I will probably try to carve the two leg bones into tools of some kind.  The vertebrae will likely be used for candle-holders.

I should note I wore gloves during the cleaning process, and until I have bleached them in peroxide, I probably won’t touch the actual bones—bacteria can be present for a long time in a dead animal’s remains.

I have deep reverence for the animal which has been gifted to me, and a fine appreciation of the wild place in which I found its bones.  I have to keep this respect front and center, because there’s always a chance that one day my own bones will be out there, buried in leaves and picked clean by wild things.  I can certainly think of worse fates than that, but for now I’ll be bold only so far as it is wise.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 3 – Some Examples of Colonial Magic & Witch-lore

Magic in America has been around for a long time.  Today I thought I’d present a few examples of magical lore and charms as practiced in America from its first contact with European culture through around the early 19th century.  Note that this is not an attempt to create any kind of authenticated, unbroken lineage for the practice of religious witchcraft, but rather some illustrations of American witchcraft in its practical and literary forms.  I hope you enjoy!

“[T]his way of discovering Witches [by forcing a confession or demonstration of witchcraft], is no better than that of putting the Urine of the afflicted Person into a Bottle, that so the Witch may be tormented and discovered: The Vanity and Superstition of which practice I have formerly shewed, and testified against. There was a Conjurer his name was Edward Drake who taught a Man to use that Experiment for the Relief of his afflicted Daughter, who found benefit thereby; But we ought not to practice Witchcraft to discover Witches, nor may we make use of a White healing Witch (as they call them) to find out a Black and Bloody one.”

-From The Wonders of the Invisible World, by Cotton & Increase Mather, 1693

In the passage above, taken from a text by two rather notorious witch-hunters in Colonial history, there are a couple of things well worth noting.  First, there’s a good broad reference to the famous witch-bottle, about which there are plenty of theories.  Generally a witch-bottle is a glass or ceramic jar filled with pins, nails, bits of iron and glass, and other unpleasant things.  Urine is then added to the bottle (depending on who you talk to, it may be one’s own urine or the urine of a “target;” some modern witches use spit instead of urine).  The bottle is the buried, again depending on the lore you find, in either one’s yard or far, far away from one’s home.  It then acts to tear apart any harmful spells or spirits that come against the bottle’s creator, or in some cases it may cause a particular wicked witch physical torment, thereby revealing her.  I tend to go with the protective interpretation of it, and the burial on my own property.  In that way it works sort of like a “ward” to me.  But I could go on forever about witch-bottles, and might spend some time on a future podcast discussing them.  For now, their existence in Colonial New England is enough to go forward.  The second point of interest in this passage is the reference to the “White healing Witch” near the end of the entry.  This relates back to the Cunning Folk of Merry Olde England, who were known to repel the spells and works of “Black and Bloody” witches (their “repelling” power earned them the nickname “pellars” or “pellers,”  a term which is sometimes used by modern Wiccans as a derogatory epithet).

Next, let’s look at some of the charms used in rural New England pre-20th century:

“For generations back the Gloucester [Rhode Island] farmers have believed in wizardry.  They will do much of their work only during the full of the moon.  Otherwise they would expect to die or have very bad luck.  Planting must not be done until the signs of the zodiac are propitious, and gardens must never be plowed on Fridays.  Even a tooth must not be pulled unless the stars are right; if it is, it will come hard and cause great suffering.

Pork, if killed during the small of the moon [waning], will shrink to nothing in cooking, while that butchered at the full moon will continue white and firm.  To insure luck in the management of domestic animals, the sign of the zodiac must be in the leg.  The wishbones of all fowls are preserved on sticks.  Some families keep hundreds on hand all the time.  When the zodiacal sign is in the head, then the Gloucester people believe that one can do the most at catching pickerel and can hook the biggest fish.  Hence the almanac hung by the kitchen fireplace in all Gloucester houses is a thing that settlers could not live without.  Its study, if one would reap good harvests, ‘catch’ good clamming tides, and avoid misfortune, is imperative.

These people also believe that if you take up a black snake and bite it your teeth will never decay; that if the nails are pared on a Friday, toothache will be prevented, and that a child born in the heat of the day can see into the future, and will be exempt from the influences of witchcraft.  A ship that has such a one on board they say will never sink.”

-From “Ghosts and Witchcraft:  A region in New England where superstition thrives,” New York Times.  6 April 1889

This little entry—which dates from the late 19th century but relates traditions likely stretching back to pre-Revolutionary times—is loaded with interesting magical lore.  Much of it relates to the practice of farming according to the phases of the moon or the signs of the zodiac (see the excellent first volume of the Foxfire book series for more information on this concept).  The inclusion of healing by the zodiac is also interesting, and I believe that it also shows up along with farming by celestial design in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore.  The basic idea behind this practice is that the influence of the moon—and to some extent the stars—on the natural cycles of earth and people can be predicted and used to improve conditions.  For example, one would plant root crops and tubers in the dark of the moon because they grow in darkness.  There are many who swear by this kind of farming.

The other scatterings of folk charms and remedies, such as biting a black snake to carry away tooth rot, are based more on the principle of sympathetic magic.  The black snake carries the black rot into the black earth, where it will dissipate and never harm the person again.

What has all this to do with witchcraft, then?  Well, a good witch is usually aware of natural cycles (even if he or she is not an astrologer, a witch should be able to tell you the phase of the moon and pick out a couple of constellations in the sky, in my humble opinion).  And, as a witch would likely be sought out to help bring prosperity or to heal certain afflictions, having this kind of knowledge certainly can’t hurt from a magical standpoint.  Again, in my opinion.

Finally, I thought I’d leave you today with a little bit of lore from rural New York:

CATSKILL GNOMES

Behind the New Grand Hotel, in the Catskills, is an amphitheatre of mountain that is held to be the place of which the Mohicans spoke when they told of people there who worked in metals, and had bushy beards and eyes like pigs. From the smoke of their forges, in autumn, came the haze of Indian summer; and when the moon was full, it was their custom to assemble on the edge of a precipice above the hollow and dance and caper until the night was nigh worn away. They brewed a liquor that had the effect of shortening the bodies and swelling the heads of all who drank it, and when Hudson and his crew visited the mountains, the pygmies held a carouse in his honor and invited him to drink their liquor. The crew went away, shrunken and distorted by the magic distillation, and thus it was that Rip Van Winkle found them on the eve of his famous sleep.

-From Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner, [1896], at sacred-texts.com).

There are lots of lovely craft-related bits to unpack in this tiny tale:  metal-working, shape-changing liquors, supposedly long-dead men cavorting with the living, etc.  But I’ll leave it to the attentive reader to make of this story what he or she will, because I’m just a wee bit diabolical that way.

I will go ahead and point out that Skinner’s story was published in 1896, and while some of his stories in that same volume have precedents dating back to at least the early 19th century, I’ve also seen some indications that he elaborated his tales occasionally, too.  The connection to the Washington Irving tale of “Rip Van Winkle,” however, makes me feel that this story is at least connected to the same folklore that Irving (who published around the 1820’s) was drawing from.

That’s it for today!  Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 1 – Introduction

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 1-

Summary

For Episode 1 of New World Witchery, Cory and Laine try to come up with a quick and simple definition for New World Witchery, including a brief overview of the traditions we consider to be under the umbrella of American Witchcraft.

We talk a bit about ourselves, our path to witchcraft, and how it has brought us to where we are today. And later on, Cory will give you a little bit of history on witchcraft in America.

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 01

-Sources-

Websites

An extensive and very interesting list of witchcraft trials in America can be found at: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~Marc-Carlson/witchtrial/na.html.  This site also does the reader a service by providing direction to original source material and making it clear when details are too vague to make definitive statements about the trial.

Two websites which reveal a great deal about Hispanic magical practices are the Curious Curandera and Brujo Negro.   While they may seem diametrically opposed in some ways, they actually have quite a lot in common, and a good overview of Hispanic magical traditions can be worked out between the two.

Lilith’s Lantern, a site dedicated to the Feri  & Vicia branches of Anderson’s witchcraft, is a wonderful resource for learning more about this tradition.

Books

Narratives of the witchcraft cases, 1648-1706, ed. by George Lincoln Burr.  Dover, 2002.

Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald C. Milnes.  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2007.

Her Hidden Children, by Chas S. Clifton.  AltaMira Press, 2006.

Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1-The Irish & Celtic Music Podcast

Promo 2-The iPod Witch

Promo 3-Witchery of One

Blog Post 01 – Introductions

A general introduction to the blog and podcast, plus a brief outline of New World Witchery.

Hello!

Welcome to New World Witchery, the Search for American Traditional Witchcraft.  This is a show/blog about magic, specifically the magic practiced in North America.   Your hosts are Cory & Laine, practicing witches who work with several New World systems.  If you like magic, particularly American folk magic, this is the show for you.

What is this Podcast/Blog About?

This project is—hopefully—going to help all of those magical practitioners out there who identify with their New World roots make sense of magic as it happens on the American landscape.

Some of the magical praxes we’ll be covering include (but are not limited to):

  • Hoodoo/rootwork
  • Pow-wow (PA Dutch Magic)
  • New Orleans-style Vodou
  • Appalachian Granny Magic
  • Ozark Mountain Magic
  • Brujeria/Curanderismo
  • Victor Anderson’s Feri Tradition/Vicia
  • New England Witchery

In addition, we’ll be having discussions about things like:

  • Effective spell crafting
  • Spell crafting successes and failures
  • Magic for oneself and magic for others
  • Magical terminology
  • Hexing
  • Being in or out of the “broom closet”

This show will be semi-monthly, with (hopefully) one podcast early in the month and one closer to the end of the month.  One podcast will be our regular discussion & banter, plus a segment on lore, history, and/or practice of New World Witchery.  The second podcast will have more discussion & banter, then an interview segment with a notable witch, scholar, or expert on some aspect of American traditional witchcraft.

We’ll also be trying out segments from time to time which we think might enhance the show.  Some of the ideas we’re kicking around are a handicrafts segment, poetry or stories related to American witchcraft, book recommendations, and highlights on magical ingredients and tools.  If you have a suggestion for one of these short segments, please contact us.  We’d love to hear from you!

The blog will be updated more frequently than the podcast, probably once or twice per week.  It will have show notes, short essays, links, and various odds and ends that we think might be worth a look. Again, suggestions are welcome.