Types of American Folk Magic from New Orleans to the Ozarks
What is American Folk Magic?
Folk magic is a term that is used to describe a set of magical practices that is usually practiced by "common folk" or country dwellers, to put it simply. Sometimes folk magic incorporates religious practices and beliefs, and sometimes it has its own set of traditions. Folk magic is a practice that can be found in almost every country, in almost every culture, all over the world. The United States of America is no exception to this rule. American folk magic comes in all shapes and sizes, and it can be found in every region of the U.S.
From the Ozark Mountains to the Appalachians, from New York to New Orleans, American Folk Magic is woven into our unique American culture. A melting pot of superstitions, energy, and spiritual will...as our ancestors moved to the United States we began intertwining practices from various countries and origins, including the Native American people who already lived and practiced on this land. Learn about the main types of American Folk Magic and some interesting facts behind each.
Appalachian Granny Magic
Up until recent years, this form of American Folk Magic didn't necessarily have a name...it just was. Today we call it Appalachian Granny Magic because:
A. it came from the Appalachian Mountain Region
B. it was well known that old housewives (grannies) practiced these beliefs and traditions.
Some sources claim this form of American Folk Magic is a mixture of Irish, Scottish, and Native practices, but that would mean we would be excluding the other cultures who have lived in the Appalachians for centuries. That would mean we would be excluding the rich traditions of the German and English immigrants, and let's not forget that African Americans have also dwelt in the Appalachian region since the 18th century. Italian and Welsh immigrants were also known to have flourished in the Appalachian region, particularly prior to the Great Depression.
To put it simply, Appalachian Granny Magic is a very big blend of superstitions and magical practices that have been passed down from generation to generation of people living in the Appalachian Mountain range. Much of granny's magic involved everyday household items and chores and were not elaborate rituals but very practical routines. For example, they would hang a horseshoe over their doorway to prevent evil spirits from entering. This practice most likely comes from the Irish immigrants, as they believed iron and other metals would ward off mischievous spirits and faeries. Another way to keep spirits at bay in the Appalachians was to sprinkle salt over the hearth fire or wear a rabbit's foot. To this day many people all over the U.S. will carry a rabbit's foot on a keychain for good luck.
Healing ailments was a big practice in Appalachian Granny Magic. Most of the families and individuals living in the Appalachian Mountain range were not rich folk, so doctors were not common. The next best thing was to consult the local "granny" or midwife in order to acquire a healing remedy. Herbs from the garden, alcohol, and other household items were used in granny's healing magic, including:
- to cure a headache, place a bit of salt on your head
- to numb a baby's mouth during teething rub the gumline with whiskey/rum
- sassafras root tea was brewed to cure scurvy (this is believed to have come from the Natives' healing traditions)
- shrub yellowroot was an herb used as a remedy for stomach and liver ailments
- put a knife under a pregnant woman's bed to "cut the pain" of childbirth
Some of what we call "old wives' tales" originated in Appalachian Granny Magic. This type of American folk magic lives on today in the Appalachians and throughout the country in various ways.
Perhaps the most well-known form of American folk magic originated with the African slaves in Colonial times and is called Hoodoo. There are other names for it such as root-work and conjure. Hoodoo is a magical practice that stemmed from a mixture of African and Native American supernatural traditions; however, it is NOT the same thing as Voodoo. Voodoo is a religion, not a magical practice; whereas, hoodoo is a magical practice and not really a religion. Hopefully that clarifies the two a bit for those who might be wondering. The American folk magic practice of Hoodoo has its roots in the Deep South of the U.S. - from New Orleans to Alabama, from Mississippi to Georgia (and everywhere in between).
Now you might be thinking, how about voodoo dolls? In fact, "voodoo" dolls would be more appropriately termed "hoodoo" dolls; that being said, most hoodoo practitioners do not use dolls as a mainstay in their magical practices. Some of the tools used in Hoodoo include but aren't limited to: herbs, roots, stones, powders, coins, and everyday household items. The "mojo bag" is originally a hoodoo practice of adding contents to a bag that are meant for a certain purpose. Then the practitioner would "feed" the spirits in the bag with oils, liquor, herbs, whatever they had on hand in order to increase the power behind the spell.
Hoodoo was used by African slaves and others in the Deep South in order to gain power over a bad situation and even for everyday needs such as drawing in money or keeping a lover faithful. I.E. putting "hot foot powder" in an enemy's shoes to send them away for good. Dusting powdered brick over the front door threshold to protect the home from any negative spirits/people from entering. And sometimes "war water" was used to send an enemy away...indefinitely. These powders and waters were constructed of some sort of solvent and infused with various materials such as roots, herbs, powders, oils, etc. This practice has survived and is still used by some today in the Deep South and elsewhere in the U.S. and throughout some places in the world.
Ozark Folk Magic
One of the richest and most fascinating of the American Folk Magic traditions is Ozark Folk Magic. This is a tradition of folk magic circulating the Ozark Mountains, which pervade a large amount of the landscape from Missouri through northern Arkansas. The people who live and have lived in the Ozarks come from much of the same line of ancestors as the Appalachian folk. These include cultures of Scottish, Irish, Native American, and some German descent. So we could assume that Ozark Folk Magic is very similar to Appalachian Granny Magic. We could assume...but we would only be partially correct.
Ozark Folk Magic does share quite a few similarities with Appalachian Granny Magic but they are by no means the same thing. Similarities would include using everyday household items in magical practice, as well as similar superstitions.
Some bits of Ozark Folk Magic:
- It was said that if the salt on the table spilled, a quarrel among family members would happen before the day was through
- If you drop your comb, step on it as it could mean bad luck
- Don't pick up a black button if you find it in your path, it means someone is trying to curse you
- Women in the Ozarks would read lines and patterns in egg shells in order to tell the future
- Be careful going out at night as you might run into a shapeshifter witch called the "booger dog"
- Draw a cross in the dust outside of your home to protect you and your home
Most of what we call the Ozark Folk Magic would seem like silly superstition to outsiders, but if you were to be born and raised in the Ozark Mountains you would realize how deep these beliefs are rooted in the culture.
Magical Things in American Folk Magic
Pow-wow Folk Magic (Pennsylvania Dutch)
Pow-wow Folk Magic (also known as Braucherei in Deitsch) is a type of American Folk Magic prominent amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch people. These were a group of German immigrants who lived in Pennsylvania beginning in the late seventeenth century. Only a part of this cultural group actually practiced pow-wow magic, but this form of folk magic is now widespread due to its decorative hex signs.
Pow-wow magic is believed to have originated in the nineteenth century, and is based off of a book by John George Hohman called Pow-wows. To put it lightly, this book is a detailed grimoire of European spells, incantations, and charms used to heal ailments and to perform other types of magic. A large part of pow-wow folk magic is rooted in Christianity. No "pow-wow" practitioner would be seen without his or her Holy Bible. They believe that words have power, and that they can quote passages from the Bible in order to magically heal people or livestock. They also use words as a means of protection. In addition to their strong affinity for words and passages, they also use symbols as talismans of sorts. These symbols are most often referred to as "hex signs" and can be seen on the sides of barns in Pennsylvania to this day (see picture below). Hex signs were not necessarily signs used to curse people, but were actually symbols of power that were thought to protect the livestock inside of the barn or the people inside of a home from lightning strikes or thieves. Other symbols and talismans were used for other purposes such as keeping peace in a household or protecting the family from disease, etc.
In addition to hex signs and holy bibles, the pow-wow practitioners also used the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses as well as a few other magical and/or religious texts. Some people believe that pow-wowers also mixed in a religion known as Urglaawe, which is a form of pagan Germanic beliefs in old gods and traditions from pre-Christian times. It is intriguing to see how Christianity and pagan beliefs can mix and form a folk magic tradition all their own. Is pow-wow magic still alive and kicking today? I couldn't tell you for sure, though some people claim to be practitioners of it.
© 2014 Nicole Canfield