American Folk Magic: 6 Types from New Orleans to the Ozarks
American folk magic comes in all shapes and sizes and is 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, their various folk magic practices intertwined and sometimes mixed with the Native American peoples’ practices. Learn about the main types of American Folk Magic like Granny magic, hoodoo, Ozark magic, and pow-wow magic.
Appalachian Granny Magic
Until recent years, this form of American Folk Magic didn’t have a name…it just was. Today we call it Appalachian Granny Magic because: A. it came from the Appalachian Mountain Region and B. it was well known that old housewives (grannies) practiced these beliefs and traditions. Granny Magic is said to be a mixture of Irish, Scottish, and Native practices, but that would exclude the other cultures who have lived in the Appalachians for centuries. Like 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 flourished in the Appalachian region, prior to the Great Depression. To put it simply, Appalachian Granny Magic is a HUGE blend of superstitions and magical practices passed down for generations.
Salt, Horseshoes, and Chores
Appalachian granny magic involved everyday household items and chores. And were not elaborate rituals but practical routines. For example, a horseshoe was hung over the doorway to prevent evil spirits from entering. This practice most likely comes from the Irish immigrants, as they believed iron warded off witches and fairies. Another way to keep spirits at bay was to sprinkle salt over the hearth fire or wear a rabbit’s foot. To this day, some people still carry a rabbit’s foot on a keychain for good luck.
Healing with Granny Magic
Healing was a big practice in Appalachian Granny Magic. The Appalachian families were not rich folk, so licensed doctors were uncommon. The next best thing was to consult the local “granny” or midwife for a healing remedy. Herbs from the garden, alcohol, and other household items were used in granny 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
- many “old wives tales” originate in Appalachian granny magic
The Appalachian grannies and midwives were held in high regard by the local folks. These women (and sometimes men) didn’t just provide herbal remedies, they were called on to be guides to people in transitional times. They helped birth babies and comforted those who were at the end of life.
Hoodoo: American Folk Magic in the Deep South
The most well-known American folk magic originated with the African slaves 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 traditions; however, it’s NOT the same thing as Voodoo. Voodoo is a religion, not a magical practice. The American folk magic practice of Hoodoo has its roots in the Deep South of the U.S. – from Louisiana to Alabama, from Mississippi to Georgia.
Herbs, Roots & Powders
Hoodoo magical items include: herbs, roots, stones, powders, coins, animal curios, and household items. The “mojo bag” is originally a hoodoo practice of adding contents to a bag for a purpose. Then the practitioner “feeds” the spirits in the bag with oils, liquor, herbs, etc. to increase the power of the spell. Hoodoo was used by African slaves and others in the Deep South for survival: to gain power over a bad situation. “Hot foot powder” was sprinkled in an enemy’s shoes to send them away for good. Dusting powdered-brick over thresholds protected the home from negative spirits/people. And sometimes “war water” was used to send an enemy away indefinitely. These powders and waters were made of a solvent and infused with roots, herbs, powders, etc. This practice has survived and is still used by people today, all over 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 from the Ozarks, which covers a large amount of land from Missouri to northern Arkansas. The Ozark people come from some of the same line of ancestors as the Appalachian people. They are of Scottish, Irish, Native American, and 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.
Luck, Eggs & Booger Dogs
Most of Ozark Folk Magic would seem like silly superstition to outsiders, but if you were to be born and raised in the Ozarks you’d realize how deep these beliefs are rooted in the culture. Ozark Folk Magic shares similarities with Appalachian Granny Magic but they are by no means the same. Similarities include using everyday household items in magical practice, as well as similar superstitions.
Some Bits of Ozark Folk Magic:
- If salt spills on the table, 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 read lines and patterns in egg shells to tell the future
- Be careful going out at night you don’t run into a shapeshifter witch called the “booger dog”
- Draw a cross in the dust outside your home for protection
Pow-wow Folk Magic (Pennsylvania Dutch)
Pow-wow Folk Magic (also known as Braucherei in Deitsch) is a type of American Folk Magic once prominent in Pennsylvania among the Pennsylvania Dutch people. Braucherei magic originated in the nineteenth century and is based on a book by John George Hohman called Pow-wows. Pow-wows is a collection of spells and charms. Much of the Pow-wow folk magic is based on Christian beliefs. But I believe it goes back much further than the nineteenth century. The Germans and Swiss immigrants brought it to the United States, but it was probably passed down to them from their ancestors and so on and so forth.
The Bible & Hex Signs
No pow-wow practitioner would be seen without his or her Holy Bible. They believed words have power, and they quoted passages from the Bible to heal and cast spells. They also used words for protection. In addition to their strong affinity for Biblical passages, they also believed symbols held power. Hence these are called “hex signs” and are still seen on the sides of barns in Pennsylvania today. Despite the name, hex signs weren’t used to curse, but were symbols of protection. Other symbols and talismans were used for purposes like keeping peace in a household or protecting the family from disease.
Books of Moses & Urglaawe
In addition to hex signs and bibles, the Pow-wow folk magic practitioners used the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses as well as other religious texts. Some people believe pow-wowers mixed in a religion known as Urglaawe, which is a form of pagan Germanic beliefs in old gods from pre-Christian times. It’s intriguing to see how Christian and Pagan beliefs mix and form a folk magic tradition all their own. Is Pow-wow folk magic still alive today? There seems to be a resurgence of it, or at least an interest, in modern times with the rise of paganism and witchcraft.
Old Florida Folk Magic
Not so long ago, I embarked on a journey to find my local folk magic traditions. Numerous people said Florida didn’t have folk magic traditions OR it was simply wrote off as Hoodoo. The more I asked around and the more I dug into Florida’s archives, the more I found that Florida DID have its own unique form of folk magic. And it wasn’t exactly Hoodoo either.
Native Floridian Shamanism
The magic in Florida begins with the indigenous tribes who lived here long before anyone else. The Timucuans, Tocobagans, and Seminoles are just a few who lived, loved and made magic in the sunshine state. There are old tales of runaway slaves who were brought in by the Seminoles. And of whose conjure mixed with the Seminole’s traditions to create a new form of folk magic. The Florida Natives speak of alligator gods in the lakes, elemental guardians that must be appeased, and much more. You just have to look in the right places to find their stories.
Zora Neal Hurston, 2-Headed Doctors and Florida Granny Midwives
By the early twentieth century, Florida’s population was forty percent African descent. A folklorist and literary trailblazer emerged during this time – Zora Neale Hurston. Zora grew up in Eatonville, FL and spent part of her life gathering stories from Floridians of African heritage. In her book Mules and Men, Hurston describes “Hoodoo” as a religion brought to America from Africa. Hurston, in attempt at collecting information on said religion, studied under at least five “two-headed doctors” (called such because these individuals would heal and harm with magical customs). Some of these two-headed doctors were Floridian (Mules and Men).
Yet the more I read Hurston’s work, the more I realized the two-headed doctors she studied under in Florida practiced something a bit different from Marie Laveau’s Voodoo in New Orleans. I believe the Conjure in Florida was influenced heavily by the Florida midwives practicing throughout the state until the 1930s-40s. And I also believe the various people living in Florida influenced one another’s beliefs. Read my Old Florida Folk Magic duology to learn more.