Folk Magic: Appalachia

The following article is presented for entertainment puproses. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the subject.

Welcome to Freaky Friday: Paranormal Edition.  Most of you know I write paranormal mysteries.  Today’s topic–folk magic–comes from research for a work in progress.  The sources for today’s post come mostly from Appalachia.

As any fiction writer knows, research is like an iceberg in the ocean.  Only a tiny bit of the source material studied is visible in the finished product.  However, piles and piles of books, videos, and articles stay hidden in authors head.  Until now.

[Note:  I am not a scholar on any kind of witchcraft or folk magic.  What is posted here is not intended as a final word on the subject.  It is simply to share some interesting stuff I’ve read.]

My paternal grandmother is a great storyteller. Years ago, she told me a story about her grandmother being a witch.  This story has stayed with me over the years and inspired me to create a witch character for my fiction.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I would have to do quite a bit of research to create a believable witch.  I read about Wicca, Paganism, and Voodoo and realized I am–and likely always will be–unqualified to create a character who practices any of these religions.

Then I began finding mentions of folk magic.  Folk magic seems to consist of old ways passed down from one generation to another.  The information that exists is cryptic at best.  It is a great starting place for ideas.

One of my sources is The Foxfire Book: Hog Dressing, Log Cabin Building, Mountain Crafts and Foods, Planting by the Signs, Snake Lore, Hunting Tales, Faith Healing, Moonshining, and Other Affairs of Plain Living.  The Foxfire books are a great source for the old way of doing anything.  Foxfire 2 contains a section on Boogers, Witches, and Haints.

Page 333 — Jim Edmonds

In this story, a man is unable to shoot accurately with his gun.  He decides the gun has been cursed–or “witched.”  He visits a male witch and asks him to take the spell off the gun.

This witch loads the gun and shoots it in every corner of his house while chanting, “Hurrah fer th’Devil.”  It is noted that the witch only loaded the gun once, indicating the gun was a single shot.

The witch gives the gun’s owner a prescribed course of action.  He is to watch a covey of quail fly over him without shooting. After they leave, a buck was promised to approach.  The guns owner was to shoot the buck and nothing else.

The gun’s owner shot the buck and killed him.  After this event, he believed the spell was removed from his gun.

Page 355 — Jim Edmonds

This passage relates a couple of rules on dealing with witches.

The first one is that a witch needs a item belonging to his/her victim’s in order to cast a spell on them.

The second rule is more cryptic.  It is hidden in a story about being made into a witch.

The witch tells a man to follow him in order to become a witch.  Repeating a chant grants them entry to a house through the keyhole.  When the man fails to repeat the witch’s words exactly, he is unable to perform “magic.”

As I said, it seems that a message may be hidden within this second story.  Perhaps it’s a warning to people who want to become witches to listen carefully to their mentors.  Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale against getting sucked into witchcraft.

Ozark Magic and Folklore has a chapter titled “Ozark Witchcraft.”

This book defines a witch as someone who has acquired supernatural powers by communicating with the Christian devil.  The author goes on to say, however, that of the twenty-four people he interviewed who were thought to be witches, only three said they’d entered into dealings with the devil.

The other practitioners claimed what they did was to thwart evil forces and to do good.  They were known as “witch masters, white witches, witch doctors, faith doctors, goomer doctors, and conjure folks.”

Most of Mr. Randolph’s information came from the latter group.  They mostly seemed to be related information about “bad” witches.  This is interesting because they kept their practices secret by talking about other people.

The methods by which people became witches ranged from firing a silver bullet at the moon and uttering obscene sayings to being taught the old ways by a witch of the opposite sex.

The knowledge of witchcraft is occasionally passed to several generations without being used.  Thus, a family witch might have been active in the early 1900s, but another witch might not appear until the next century.

In some accountings, a witch’s conversion into witchcraft is often marked by the death of a person to whom the witch is close.  In Ozark Magic and Folklore, this deceased person is referred to as the “witch’s sixpence.”  It is only after the death of this person that the witch can come into her full powers.

In some folklore, it is implied that witches are shape shifters.  They can assume the form of any beast, but are most likely to change into a cat or a wolf.  If killed in this form, the witch will die.  Witches also have the power to make themselves invisible.

A mirror framed on only three sides is said to grant a witch the power to watch her enemies no matter where they are. I suspect she’d be able to spy on people just out of plain, old fashioned curiosity as well.

Methods folk magic witches use varies from the simple to the complex.

  • In some tales, a witch can cast a spell simply by drawing a circle in dust.
  • Some witches use graveyard dirt for their spells.
  • A more gruesome accounting has witches speaking the name of an enemy as they butchered farm animals for cooking.
  • Witches can also affect a parts of the victim’s body by obtaining the corresponding body part from an animal, naming it for the victim, and burying it or suspending it in water.
  • Witches were thought to obtain baby corpses to burn and use the ashes for spells.  Midwives (or granny women) were thought to sell stillborn babies to witches for this purpose.

In most folklore regarding witches, it’s a bad idea to let a witch get hold of something that is part of you–fingernail clippings, hair trimmings, or even…bodily fluids. According to Ozark Magic and Folklore, witches make a “hairball” out of a lock of black hair mixed in beeswax and rolled into a hard pellet.

This young woman has a You Tube channel where she talks about all sorts of interesting folk magic topics.  In this video, she lists various body stuff that can be used in folk magic:

To ward off a witch, a horseshoe can be nailed to the outer door of a house.  The open end of the horseshoe must point upward for this to work, though.  Three nails driven into the door in the shape of a triangle will also do the trick.  A door painted blue will also ward off a witch.

The information here was presented in a fairly scary manner, perhaps to discourage the curious.  As evil and weird as much of it sounds, I still think whatever the truth was is hidden somewhere within.  Either way, it’s a great source for creating a witch and all the world building rules that would accompany such a character.