Old American Witchcraft & Folk Magic: Initiation, Curses & Spells
When Europeans began migrating to the North America, they discovered it was a much different place than they were expecting. Threats lay around every turn, including their very real fear of witches and devils. In this article, we examine Old School American Witchcraft. Initiations, curses, spells and the Devil were very real to the American settlers.
The Settlers Come to America
Thousands of miles of wilderness laid before the European settlers in the New World. Complete with creatures they’d never seen, as well as indigenous people both helpful or deadly. Although many from England were Puritans, there were those who believed strongly in the spiritual world. Moreover, some had their own folk magic traditions. Just as God was real to these people, so was the Devil and witches. When the immigrants spread through the New World, some went West and settled in the Appalachian Mountains. Some in the Ozarks, the Rockies and everywhere in between. The mountains were mysterious, and many believed witches were waiting around every corner to destroy them. From these times, we get a glimpse of old school American witchcraft.
Old School American Witchcraft: Folk Magic in the Mountains
To protect from evil, the settlers had their own forms of magic. Whether you were a suspected witch or layperson, folk magic was an ever-present part of mountain life. These oral traditions began in at least the sixteen hundreds, documented by folklorists as early as the eighteen hundreds. We share some of the most interesting witch tales and magical practices with you here.
Initiation: How a Witch Became a Witch in Old School American Witchcraft
These days self-proclaimed witches mostly initiate themselves via sources online or through Wicca 101 books. Some just say they’re witches without any knowledge of an initiation process or understanding the history. In the early days, a witch’s initiation was a terrifying and intense experience, at least according to folklore. Tales of initiation may have been fabricated and told by families afraid of witches and not necessarily by witches themselves.
The Toad Bone Rite: An Old School American Witchcraft Tradition
One way to become a witch, according to Appalachian folklore, was to boil the meat off a cat or toad, then wear the bone as a charm. Of course there was more to the process – the hopeful witch had to know the right incantation too. From England comes a similar story. A hopeful witch was to find a large toad, pin it to an ant-hill. Then the ants stripped the toad of its meat and left its bones. Following, the initiate took the toad’s bone as a talisman. Then threw the rest into moving water while saying an incantation aloud for the Devil.
Witch Initiation: Taught, Inherited, and Souls Sold
Old mountain folk claimed to become a witch, the person should be taught by another witch of the opposite sex. Witches typically only passed down their knowledge and powers to another family member. It was natural for the seventh son of a seventh son to become a witch, as he is born with supernatural powers. 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 powers.
Nearly every tale of a witch’s initiation in the U.S. stated witches had to renounce the Lord and swear allegiance to the Devil. He or she would put one hand on top of the head and the other hand on the bottom of the 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 while standing on a cliff for so many mornings (nine and thirteen seemed to be popular numbers for these initiation rituals). Then the Devil would appear and bite his or her shoulder. This was to draw blood to seal the contract.
Silver Bullets and Tombstones
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. A witch is initiated by going to a cemetery at midnight, removing her clothing and hanging it on a criminal’s tombstone, announcing her withdrawal from the Church and then pledging herself fully to the work of the Devil.
Appalachian and Ozark Curses
Witches did the Devil’s bidding, in the eyes of the settlers, so they had to be prepared for whatever curse a witch threw at them. Knowledge was power, even then, so they would pass down stories of witch’s curses to their young. Here are some of their stories.
Witch’s Curse: The Witch’s Ball or Bullet
One witch’s curse was the witch ball. These were also called witches’ bullets, because they were thrown or shot at the victim. There were different ways to make a witch ball or bullet, involving herbs and grisly items like the fat of a baby or bat’s blood, and always included DNA of the victim. This could be the person’s hair, nail clippings, piece of clothing, 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 Friday the thirteenth. Once the witch ball hit the victim, the curse would begin to manifest. 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. Milking cows were valuable to early American settlers. Early Americans needed milking cows to produce milk and so they could make butter. The milk and butter was also used as a trading item in exchange for other goods. When a milking cow began bleeding from their udders, went ill or lame, it was thought the cow was cursed by a local witch.
Cursed Butter Churns & Guns
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, the butter-churn was cursed. 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 Cursed Bags
Burying charms on an intended victim’s property was a “curse” thought to be used by witches. One accursed spellbag involved a witch mixing graveyard dirt with blackbird blood, tying it up in a bag that had touched a corpse, then burying it under the victim’s front porch.
How to Catch a Witch in Early America
There were ways the early Americans warded off witches. 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. Another popular practice was to paint one’s front door or porch “haint blue”, which is a sky-colored blue paint that confuses and drives away evil spirits. 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.
How to Break a Curse in Old School American Witchcraft
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 consisting of identifying the witch. Means of identification included: 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. 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.
Don’t let the witch borrow anything!
Other reversal charms were given to bewitched individuals by “good” witches or root doctors who knew how to un-do an evil witch’s curses. The witch visited the victim’s house to “borrow” something. At this point, the victim knows who the witch is and refuses to let her borrow anything, which somehow breaks the curse. To burn something of the witch’s would affect her severely and keep her away. If your butter-churn was cursed, placing a piece of red cloth under it broke the curse. So would adding a silver bullet or coin. Tying a red bag around an animal’s neck would un-bewitch the creature.
Old Wives Tales About Bad Luck & Curses
Just as there are portents of good luck and health, there are also Old Wives Tales about curses and bad luck. If you break a mirror, you will have seven years of bad luck. In witchcraft, mirrors are sacred tools connected to the water element and the other realms. They can also be a portal for spirits. Don’t ever pick up a black button off the road – it’s believed to be cursed and will bring you bad luck. If you drop your comb, put your left foot over it to dispel bad luck. Breaking glass three times in one day is a sign you’ve been hexed.
Birds in the House
Birds are a huge omen in witchcraft and Old Wives Tales. If a bird is sitting on a windowsill or knocking on the window, it means death is sure to come to someone in the household. If a turtledove flies into the house, someone will die soon. Also, if an owl flies into the house…this is the worst of all. Though this is debated. A bird smacking into the window is another bad omen.
More Bad Luck
Saying anything backwards is considered to be evil in Old Wives Tales, particularly prayers like The Lord’s Prayer. It will bring on bad luck or curses, and has long been associated with witchcraft in the old world. Witch Trial documents and folklore demonstrate the concept of witches being initiated while saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards. One is never to walk under a ladder, as this will bring bad luck. Also, never open an umbrella inside of the house.
Survival & Old School American Witchcraft
To the American folk, particularly the people who lived in the mountainous regions, 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 Wi-fi bandwidth. These people were worried about surviving the next bout of small pox, hunting and farming to feed their families, and keeping safe from the dangers of the wilderness.
Death wasn’t far away…
Superstition ran rampant in early America, because religion was such a driving force in the people’s lives. Death wasn’t far away, and they didn’t have medicine to cure them like we do today. Survival was a real thing, and some say people who took up magical practices and witchcraft did so for their own survival. If your family was starving, sick, and poor, and someone came along and told you you had only to become a witch and survive, wouldn’t you think about it?
THEIR reality was WAY different than ours.
People do crazy things in survival mode. This means hunting down a witch who’s to blame for sickness and starvation, or it could mean becoming a witch to alleviate problems. Yes, this is all fascinating folklore to us in modern times, but to people who lived back then, these were real problems. And they looked for supernatural solutions because that’s what they were taught. They didn’t know the science of storms and drought and sickness, so they attributed it to what they did know. The supernatural – witches and devils.
A Few Book Recommendations on Old School American Witchcraft:
- New World Witchery by Cory Thomas Hutcheson (REALLY good read!)
- Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure and Folk Magic from Appalachia by Jake Richards
- Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Multicultural Experience: A Crucible at the Crossroads by Via Hedera
What About Old Wives Tales? Are They Rooted in Magic and Witchcraft?
Did your grandmother ever tell you if your ears were ringing it meant someone was talking about you? How about when you spilled the salt and she threw it over her left shoulder? There’s a name for these seemingly-silly superstitions: Old Wives Tales. They can be found in many places in the U.S. including the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and in the Deep South. There’s much magick to be found in folklore and superstition. Here’s the witchcraft in Old Wives Tales…
Old Wives Tales: Household Chores and Daily Occurrences
If you drop your dishrag while doing the dishes, a dirty visitor will visit soon. When it falls in a wad, it will definitely be a woman. If it falls spread out, it will be a man. An itchy nose means poor or needy company is coming, but an itchy eye means your luck is about to change. Left eye – bad luck and the right eye – good luck. It also means company is coming if your broom falls over.
Salt and Pepper
Many of us have heard it’s bad luck to spill the salt at the table. People in the Ozarks throw a bit of the spilled salt over their left shoulder to “take the cuss off”. Some would say if the salt was spilled, it means a fight will break out among the family before the day’s end. Some of the older folks would say the only way to avoid this is to pour water over the spilled salt. Salt was a big portent for bad or good luck in Old Wives Tales. Salt is tied to old myths i.e. salt has been used to ward off evil since the Dark Ages and before. The salt caves in Germany are directly linked to the old gods and goddesses of Germanic tribes. Salt is also connected to the purifying energy of the sea.
Bread Magick and Superstition
There’s a lot of Old Wives Tales about bread. Bread was the only thing mountainous people had to eat in times of famine and harsh weather. Burning the bread means different things depending on the time of day the bread is burnt. For example, if a woman burnt the bread before breakfast, it meant that her husband would be hungry all day (is this because the bread was burnt and he wouldn’t eat it?) Also, if you cut cornbread, this brings bad luck; always break the cornbread. My husband tells our daughter if she eats the crust it will make her eyes browner…this is similar to the Old Wives Tales about eating crusts of bread to make one’s hair curlier.
Moon Phase and Cooking/Chores
Women in the Ozarks observed the phases of the moon and their own moon cycles before making and fermenting different foods. NEVER make pickles while menstruating. If the moon was waning, never make cider or wine because it will spoil every time. Using the phases of the moon in household chores and cooking dates to ancient times. The same goes with gardening according to the moon phases. Witchcraft uses timing for nearly all rituals and spells – moon phase, season, planetary hours, day and time, etc.
Old Wives Tales: Pregnancy and Childbirth
Pregnancy and childbirth were a big deal for Mountain and Southern folk, as many women had multiple children back in the day. And because these people were poor and technology was far behind, women looked mostly to midwives to aid them in pregnancy and birth. These midwives were sometimes called granny-women.
Teas for Maternal Needs
Different teas were drank to produce abortion of a baby, if the women needed it. Cedar-berry tea was one; chamomile another. Different teas were also given to ease the pain of menstruation or to aid in returning the flow. These recipes were provided by granny-women or “yarb doctors” (folk doctors or herbal medicine men of sorts). A tea made of blackberry root was said to be used to make a labor and delivery move along faster.
Baby Gender Old Wives Tales and Divination
Guessing the sex of baby – there are Old Wives Tales that say to hold a necklace over the belly and let it swing one way or another, the way in which it swings tells the sex. Left for a boy, right for a girl. Sounds like divination or dowsing to me! The way in which a woman carries the baby tells the sex of the baby. If the woman carries in the hips and back, it will be a girl. If the woman carries all in the belly, it will be a boy. I have found this Old Wives Tale to actually be true in the case of my children and how I carried them.
Depending on what day of the week the child is born tells its characteristics, similar to zodiac and moon signs:
Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child has far to go
Thursday’s child is full of woe
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child must work for a living.
A child that is born on a Sabbath day is blithe and bonnie, rich and gay.