10 March 2007

Ozarks Witchcraft

I've got quite a vested interest in the lore and magic of my area, the Ozarks and I'd like to share some of that with the blogosphere. For those of you who don't know, I'm referring to the Ozarks highlands area that encompasses the southern half of Missouri and northern Arkansas as well as extreme southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma. This area has the culture and folklore very similar to that of Appalachia, with most of the locals being of Scotch, Irish or English decent. There's also the fact that the people of this region held on to their old ways longer than in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, I've never met anyone knowledgeable about the actual practice of witchcraft of the Ozarks. There may be some old folks who remember things their elders did but I've never met them. So I've had to turn to other sources. The primary written sources of information about the old Ozarks are the books of folklorist Vance Randolph. Luckily, I happen to own two of his books "Ozark Magic and Folklore" and "Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozarks folktales". These books are rich with superstitions, magic, herb usage and other interesting bits of Ozark culture. And, wow, what a culture it was.

First of all, the reader must understand that these folktales were collected and written down around the 1940s, so the mindset of these books is very different than from our modern neo-pagan movement. For instance, the author held most of these beliefs and practices he recorded in disdain and his writing style and word usage expresses that quite clearly. So if you ever decide to pick up any of his books you'll have to get past his sometimes derisive tone to get to the meat of the matter.

From the Ozarkers point of view in the first half of the last century the risk of being bewitched or otherwise negatively affected by witchcraft was a very real issue. The magic practiced by some is considered evil but the magic of other people is considered protection against evil. And as is often the case when studying witchcraft I've found that there are many tales in which the interested parties condemn magic of all kinds then turn around and speak an age-old rhyme while hanging up sometimes gruesome good luck charms. There were many different types of magic folks: power doctors, witch masters, white witches, faith doctors, goomer doctors, conjure folks, water witches, witch wigglers and yarb doctors. Now the water witches and witch wigglers were concerned with finding ley lines and water sources but the others specialized in fighting off the harmful magic of evil witches; the yarb doctor was the local herbal healer. The most fascinating aspect of this old time magic is to be found in the chapter entitled "Ozarks Witchcraft" from the book "Ozarks Magic and Folklore". In it, a witches' initiation is described as a ritual repeated over three nights. As a part of initiation the would-be witch must renounce Jesus and the Christian church. Also included is intercourse between the new witch and the devil, i.e. the high priest. Sounds familiar doesn't it? It seems that the old witchcraft of Britain really did survive in these hills, just as it did in Appalachia.


Jeffery said...

I was given "Ozark Magic and Folklore" as a gift just recently, and find it a delightful read despite the author's (and many of his sources') misconception of witches as satanists, etc. Although I live in the North, my dad is from Clay County, Arkansas, and as an inquirer of Wicca and Neopaganism I'm delighted to know that witchcraft is a part of my ethnic heritage.

Livia Indica said...

Hi Jeffrey!! What a great gift! Yeah, once you get past the misconceptions it's a very interesting read. But the ideas of witchcraft being Satanistic and all that are direct hangovers from Europe so it speaks to history as well, even if it is an unpleasant history. Thanks for stopping by!!

SoulFire said...

Love this blog entry. I'm one of those "old folks who remember things their elders did." ;) I was born and raised in the Ozarks of MO by my great-grandparents (my parents died when I was 6). Gram as I called her practiced folk magic and healing, though she never called it that. Some folks called her a "witch". Her own grandchildren were afraid of her, but I loved her. She told me how she used to cure warts with chicken blood and a piece of corn. She also described making what she called "witch bullets" (Randolph calls them "witch balls" I think). Her most noxious remedy was an odoriferous salve made from skunk fat that she called "polecat grease". Whenever I was sick with the flu, she'd warm a tbsp on the woodstove and rub the grease on my throat, chest, and back. Then she'd tear a piece of flannel from an old shirt and lay that on my chest under my pajama top. Yes, the grease stunk, but it also worked! When Gram died in '77, relatives fought over her remaining quarter jar of polecat grease.