Real American Folk Magic and Witchcraft: Initiation, Curses, Spells, and More
There's a Witch on That Mountain!
When Europeans began immigrating to the New World, they discovered it was a much different place than they were used to. Thousands and thousands of miles of wilderness laid before them, complete with creatures they'd never seen in the Old World as well as the indigenous peoples who could be helpful or deadly depending on the day. Although many of the immigrants from England were Puritans, these were people who still believed strongly in the spiritual world and therefore they had their own magical traditions and superstitions. Just as God was real to these people, so was the Devil and so were witches.
When the European immigrants spread out through the New World, some went West and on their way out West they settled in the Appalachian Mountains, the Ozarks, the Rockies and everywhere in between. The mountains were welcoming yet mysterious, and many settlers believed witches were waiting around every corner to curse them. In order to protect themselves from the evil wiles of witches in the New World, the settlers had their own forms of magic. So whether you were a suspected witch or simply a medicine man or granny woman, folk magic was an ever-present part of mountainous life. These traditions were passed down orally from the sixteen hundreds until modern times, recently being documented by folklorists and historians as early as the late eighteen hundreds, with some of the most interesting witch tales and magical practices being revealed to you here.
How a Witch Became a Witch in Early American Folklore
These days people who claim to be witches learned how to initiate themselves via sources online or through mass-produced Wicca 101 books. Some just say they're witches without any kind of knowledge of an initiation process or understanding of the history of witchcraft. Back in the early days of the United States, a witch's initiation was a terrifying and intense experience, at least according to folklore. These tales of initiation were typically passed down through families who were afraid of witches and not necessarily witches themselves. Keep in mind that history isn't always accurate, but it is often very intriguing.
One way to become a witch, according to Appalachian folklore, was to boil the meat off of a cat or a toad, then wear the bone as a charm around one's neck. Of course there was more to the process than just that—the hopeful witch had to know the right incantation to speak while performing this grisly deed. From England comes a story of initiation similar to the above—a hopeful witch was to find a large toad, adhere it to an ant-hill, allow the ants to strip the toad of its meat and leave just its bones. Then, the initiate would take the toad's bone and wear it as a charm, and throw the rest into moving water and say an incantation aloud for the Devil to hear.
Old mountain folk in the Appalachians claimed to become a witch, the person should be taught by another witch of the opposite sex. They also used to say it was natural for the seventh son of a seventh son to become a witch, as he is typically born with supernatural powers like healing, cursing, and talking to spirits. Other witches would have to give their soul to the Devil, and allow another wicked soul to take presence in their body. Then they were given the witch's abilities.
Nearly every tale of a witch's initiation in the Appalachians and Ozarks stated that witches had to renounce the Lord and swear allegiance to the Devil. Part of this was to put one hand on the top of one's head and the other hand on the bottom of one's foot and say something like "I give all between my two hands to the Devil. I'll do anything he asks of me." Others claimed new witches had to say the Lord's Prayer backwards so many times while standing on a cliff for so many mornings (nine and thirteen seemed to be popular numbers for these bizarre initiation rituals) and that the Devil would appear and bite his or her on the shoulder. I assume this was to draw blood to seal the contract. Following, the new witch would be given the Devil's Mark, which was supposedly an extra teet with which to suckle the new witch's familiar spirit (a spirit that takes up its home in an animal form, usually).
In the Ozarks, some said you could fire a silver bullet at the moon whilst saying an obscene incantation to become a witch. Others say it has to be passed down in a family, or between two intimate partners. It can lie dormant in a family for centuries, but then when a family member speaks a certain charm it will reactivate, so to speak. A witch is initiated into the craft by going to a cemetery at midnight, removing her clothing and hanging it on a criminal's tombstone, announcing her withdrawal fro Christianity and then pledging herself fully to the work of the Devil.
Clearly much of these stories are fabricated or exaggerated for entertainment or accusation purposes, but they are fascinating and may hint at older pagan traditions brought down through the ages and brought over to the United States from the European settlers.
The first part of a witch ball recipe:
A pair of dead spiders' legs,
Guts and bladder of a black cat,
Dead baby's toenails, buzzard's eggs,
Blud of a weazel and tail of a rat.— Collected by Gertrude Blair, Told to her by Aunt Lucy Skinner of Christiansburg, Virginia
Appalachian and Ozark Curses
Witches did the Devil's bidding, in the eyes of the early American settlers, so they had to be prepared for whatever curse or spell a witch would throw at them. Knowledge was power, even then, so they would pass down stories of witch's curses and spells. Here are some of their stories.
One of the more popular witch's curses was in the making and use of something called a witch ball. These were also called witch's bullets, because they were either thrown or shot at the intended victim. There were different ways to make a witch ball or bullet, most of them involving the use of specific herbs and grisly items like the fat of a baby or bat's blood, and nearly always included DNA of the intended victim. This could be the person's hair, nail clippings, urine, teeth, blood, etc. The witch ball was made in the presence of the Devil and with the Devil's help, according to Appalachian folklore, and created on a Friday the thirteenth during the witch's sabbath. Once the witch ball hit the victim, the curse would begin manifesting. Typically this was thought to make the person ill or die.
Other curses known to the mountain folk included the bewitching of livestock and tools or weapons. Milking cows were extremely valuable to early American settlers because of their ability to produce milk, not only for their own consumption but also to trade or sell for other necessary goods. Early Americans also needed milking cows in order to produce milk to make butter. When a milking cow began bleeding from their udders instead of producing milk, it was often thought the cow was cursed by a local witch. In fact, nearly any time a milking cow went sick or lame in the Appalachians or Ozarks, it was blamed on a local woman thought to be a witch. There were people who could un-do or reverse these curses, and common folk would see these people when they felt they were cursed to learn the reversal spell.
Just as a cow could be cursed, so could a butter-churn. If a woman sat at the churn for much longer than expected and couldn't get the desired effects, it was thought the butter-churn was cursed by a local witch. The same superstitions surrounded guns that wouldn't work properly. If a gun backfired or didn't fire at all—it was a witch who had cursed it!
Burying charms on an intended victim's property was another popular "curse" thought to be used by witches. One accursed spellbag involved a witch mixing graveyard dirt with blackbird blood, then tying it up in a bag that had touched a corpse, then burying it under the intended victim's front porch. This is similar to the "war water" curses and mojo bag spells performed by hoodoo practitioners and conjure men.
But don't worry, there were ways to ward off a witch. There were ways to keep a witch from entering your home. There were also ways to catch and stop a witch from doing any further witchcraft on her intended victims...
How to Ward Off and Catch a Witch in Early America
There were ways the early Americans warded off witches, so as to prevent them from every having to deal with a witch's curse in the first place. A common folk magic practice to keep a witch out of one's home was to hang an iron horseshoe above the front door with the legs pointed up in the U shape. (My parents had a horseshoe hanging above the door for years, though I'm unsure whether they knew the superstition to go along with the practice). Another popular practice to ward off witches and evil spirits was to paint one's front door or the front porch "haint blue", which is a light sky-colored blue paint that is supposed to confuse or drive off evil. Three nails driven into the door will keep a witch out, as will hanging the entrails of a fox or owl above the door. This practice might have something to do with the concept of scaring off a witch's familiar animal.
If your protection magic wasn't strong enough, sometimes you could be cursed by a local witch. In this case, there were various methods of un-doing the curse, many of which consisted of identifying the witch herself. Means of identification of the local witch included but wasn't limited to: if a man kisses a witch the coins in his pocket will turn black, raw onions will turn black in the presence of a witch, and most often the witch will have an extra "teet" or the Devil's mark somewhere on her body. Other means of catching a witch include putting a bible under her bed, scratching a cross under her seat, and feeding her salty foods. Witches supposedly can't eat salty foods and will spit it out or complain. Old timers say to add a little pawpaw to her tobacco. What these methods will actually produce isn't clear, but most likely results in the witch either reacting intensely or admitting she's a witch in some way.
Other reversal charms and spells were given to bewitched individuals by "good" witches or root doctors who knew how to un-do an evil witch's curses. Typically this would end in the local witch coming over to the victim's house to "borrow" something from the victim. At this point, the victim knows who the witch is and refuses to let her borrow anything which breaks the curse. An explanation of why the witch always tries to borrow from her victim could be in the idea of collecting the victim's DNA to use in a more powerful curse. To burn something of the witch's would affect her just as severely and she'd stay away from you.
If you had a butter-churn that was cursed, placing a piece of red cloth underneath of it would un-do the curse. So would adding a silver bullet or coin to the interior. Tying a red bag around a horse's or cow's neck would un-bewitch the creature.
Survival and Witchcraft in Early America
To the American common folk, particularly the people who lived in the mountainous regions of the United States, witches lurked around every tree, hid in the thickest parts of the forest, lived on the tallest mountain peaks. And, let's face it, life was not easy before the Industrial Revolution. No one was worried about their iphone's screen shattering or their internet not working fast enough. These people were worried about surviving the next bout of small pox, hunting and farming enough food to feed all of the mouths in their cabins, and keeping their children safe from the dangers of the American wilderness. These dangers not only included "savage" Natives, but also included the Devil's workers...i.e. witches.
Witches were blamed for nearly anything that went wrong on the farm or in the house, which included the family's milking cow growing ill, the butter-churn not putting out butter, and beer going bad. Any time guns would fail, the person would say it was "bewitched" and blame a local woman for the curse. Superstition ran rampant in early America, because religion was such a driving force in the people's lives. Death was not so far away, and they didn't have medicine to cure them like we do today, so people were more likely to try to live good lives in the fear of dying and going to hell. Survival was a very real thing, and some even say that people who took up magical practices and witchcraft did so for their own survival, too.
If you and your family were starving, sick, and poor, and someone came along and told you that you could become a witch and get whatever you needed, would you think about it? People do crazy things when they are in survival mode. This means hunting down a witch who might be to blame for your sickness and starvation, or it could mean trying to become one to alleviate your problems. Yes, this is all fascinating folklore to us in modern times, but to people who lived back then, these things were real problems. And they looked for supernatural solutions because that's what they were taught. They didn't know the scientific explanations behind storms and drought and sickness, so they attributed it to the supernatural, which often included to blame witches and the Devil for their shortcomings.
Back then, witchcraft wasn’t a hobby. It wasn’t something you pulled out of your pocket and used on a whim to entertain yourself or your friends. It wasn’t a parlor game or a silly trend. Witchcraft was survival. Pure and simple. Women were accused of witchcraft, even if they had not a single drop of magic in their blood. We were left with no choice – damn them before they damn you. We spelled, enchanted, and hexed in order to live.— Nicole Canfield, Hungry Spirits: Book 2 of the Cotton Family Series
Further Reading From the Source Used for This Article
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© 2018 Nicole Canfield