appalachian-folk

At mamaw’s funeral this week, my daddy (her son-in-law), read selections of her notes she’d write in the margins of her Bible as she read it every year. This is a very old folk magic belief she had written in the opening flap: Ezekiel 16:5 stops bleeding. Many of the older generation believe if you pray over someone who’s bleeding and recite this verse the bleeding will stop.

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Appalachian Cunning - Psychic Self Defense - The Seat of Your Power
Part of our ongoing series on "Not Conjure", also called Appalachian cunning or cunning work, this class focuses on a psychic self-defense technique of knowi...
Witches Salt

Witches Salt, or Black Salt, is a very cheap and powerful ingredient in protection spells. It has independent origins in Hoodoo, Western Alchemy, Appalachian Folk Magic and European folk magic, and is made of ingredients friendly to even the tightest budget. 

Combine coarse salt (purifying), black pepper (protection from bad people), cast iron scrapings (protection from bad spirits/Faeries), campfire/wood ashes (concealing and protecting) and ground-up charcoal (filters bad magic), in varying measures until you have a nice, black salt. 

Tip: Add a protective sigil to the container you keep it in. 

Try using it for things like:

-Draw lines across your windows and doorways to keep out bad magics/people 
-Mix it in water and pour it over your car tires to protect your car
-Put it in a sachet along with other protective herbs, and hang it somewhere to protect that area
-Pour a pile under your bed to protect you from nightmares/bad spirits

Day 99: Exorcism in the Ozarks

To understand the place of spirit possession and exorcism within the context of Ozark folk beliefs, we first have to explore where this belief in the spirit world comes from. Now, before I continue I want to clarify some possible misunderstandings about folk traditions like this. These are not to be considered “pagan” or “witchcraft” traditions, because, from the context of the people who belong to this tradition these words would be considered heretical and directly against their orthodox religious beliefs. While it could be said that these folk beliefs represent remnants of much more ancient pagan practices, from the standpoint of studying a living folkloric tradition we must use the vocabulary given to us by the people who are from within this tradition.

Therefore, this worldview in relation to spirits and the spirit world is completely within the context of Christian, specifically Protestant Christian, values and doctrine. That’s to say that the “spirits” are divided into the categories of angels, demons (which includes the Devil, or “Old Scratch” as he’s sometimes called), or ghosts (also called “haints”, which often represent long dead relatives).

The settler families in the Ozark Mountains were mostly descendants from Appalachian Mountain folk who were descendants of Scots-Irish and German immigrants, with a few exceptions of families of immigrants who mixed with either the Native American populations or with Africans brought over in the slave trade, or some combination thereof. My own family is of mixed racial heritage. This means that for the Ozarks there is a uniquely rich folkloric heritage that can be claimed by several different traditions, that’s to say that there are many different sources for beliefs on the spirit world, all of which have added their own ingredients to the common folklore stock.

For people in the Ozarks (at least for the old timers) the world of spirit and this world were uniquely intertwined with one another, so that in certain places, or at certain times of the day/year, the veil between the spirit world and this world is a little bit thinner. Much of this belief system was influenced by Irish and Scottish beliefs in the otherworld and the “Fair Folk” or “People of the Hills”. Still to this day, in many of the more rural places in the Ozarks, Halloween is seen as a time of the year when spirit activity is more active and certain precautions, such as leaving out food for passing ghosts, or lighting a candle in the front window, are taken as a way of not offending the spirits of the land.

Remedies against this spirit work can be seen in the use of herb packets, charms, or other ingredients that are placed inside the sole of your shoe as a way of safeguarding against any tricks that are laid down. There’s also an important tradition of keeping a watchful eye on the landscape when walking or hiking. Certain trees or rocks that seem out of place or ominous might contain a spirit that if angered could cause harm to anyone near it. I’ve seen old timers wear various charms to safeguard from spirits like this, and on more than one occasion I’ve seen farmers refuse to cut a lone tree in their fields for fear of causing any harm to its spirit.

But as we see, these are just preventatives of spirit work or spirit possession. What can we do when the harm has already been done to us?

This is where exorcism or spirit healing would come into play. Now, I will reiterate what I said earlier on, that we must use the vocabulary of the people within this tradition. Here I am using the word exorcism, when in fact that word is very rarely used in this folkloric tradition, mostly because of its connection to Catholicism, which was often condemned by Protestant hillfolk. Many of the Ozark families still pass on stories of their Protestant ancestors who were arrested, killed, or driven out of their homelands by the established Church. I myself have ancestors who were Huguenots, Dunkards, Quakers, and Brethren, all of whom immigrated because of religious persecution. So, when talking about this subject it’s perhaps more appropriate to approach it from the standpoint of spirit healing or faith healing, rather than exorcism.

In the Ozark folk magic tradition there are many categories of healers or folk magicians. Some of these are the “yarb doctors” who mostly work with plant based cures and charms, “power doctors” or “goomer doctors” who heal with the use of prayers, verbal charms, and physical talismans or amulets, and “witch doctors” who specifically focus on the healing of certain bewitched or “goomered” conditions. It should be noted that in no case do hillfolk themselves call these people witches, magicians, shamans, sorcerers, or any other term that may be wrongfully applied to them today. You may occasionally hear people refer to “white witches” in the case of healers, or “water witches” who are able to find water sources deep below the ground, and sometimes “conjurer” will be used, but these are rarities.

The faith healer or local pastor and the power doctor were often one in the same, and it shouldn’t be thought that there was always a distinction between the two occupations. In the Ozarks the healer is usually always seen as a person of strong faith, and oftentimes the pastor or preacher is sought in cases of healing where herbal remedies are not working or there’s a powerful spiritual dimension to the sickness. There are a variety of ways that this spiritual healing might happen. I always like to say that the folk magic tradition has as many practices as there are healers, but one practice of particular interest to me is the use of animal products in spirit healing.

Three examples of these animal products are: skulls, eggs, and chicken/bird feet. Skulls are used mostly in the case of mental illness or severe head pains/wounds. This form of sympathetic magic works on the principle that a magical animal skull is used to draw out a malicious spirit (sometimes referred to as poison) from a person’s head, and then the skull is cleansed in water or other liquids or sometimes set on fire as a way of destroying the sickness of the patient.  Eggs (specifically eggs laid by black hens) are used much in the same way, where the egg is drawn along a patient’s body, drawing in all evil spirits or poisons, and then the egg is either buried or cracked open, thereby releasing the illness and healing the patient. There are variants of the egg cure in cultures all over the world, but one living tradition that still heals with eggs is Curanderismo. A black chicken’s foot (or black bird’s foot in general) can be used to scratch out an evil spirit from inside someone’s body. This is more sympathetic magic, the idea being that a bird that scratches out in the yard, is going to be good at scratching up evil from out of a person’s body.

There’s an interesting folk disease that probably deserves its own article, called “live things” or sometimes just “things” and it can be seen in the Ozarks as well as in a lot of different traditions from around the world. It involves a person who feels like they have living reptiles, insects, or sometimes small mammals, inside their body. These critters were put there by a witch who fed the person some part of the animal, or made them step on it. The goomer or power doctors are able to exorcize these spirits through various different ways, most of which involve a strong purgative.

The Ozark folklore tradition is rich with stories and practices relating to the spirit world. There’s no way that one article can fully explain the significance of these spirit beliefs to the people who hold this worldview. I can only hope to give a small glimpse of these beliefs to people who might not have otherwise known they existed, and in my own way I hope to change the view many people have of the Ozarks and its peoples.

Another Holler Folk Magic Story: Markin’

My family loves that old time religion (serious Freewill Baptists on my dad’s side and holy-rollin’, tongues-speakin’ Pentecostals on mama’s) but that doesn’t mean they don’t indulge in good, creepy, magical stories and traditions well outside the realm of Christianity. Most of their cautionary tales revolve around pregnancy and reproduction for some reason, and my favorite by far is what they call markin’.

Pregnant women, according to both my mamaws, have special powers. They wouldn’t phrase it that way, it sounds too pagan, but that’s essentially what they mean. For example, if a pregnant woman becomes obsessed with something, if she loves it too much or reacts to it with any emotion too strong while she’s pregnant, she can mark her baby to have features or characteristics that reflect the impact that object, person, idea, etc. made on her.

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Appalachian Witch Initiation

An excerpt taken from Hubert J. Davis’ The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories

“Liz then said, "This is whut the Devil wants the most: promise you won’t never preach no more, nor go to a ‘ligious meetin. Then effen you git to be a witch, promise to do ennything you can to keep your pappy frum preachin’ agin witches. Now, hit ain’t a goin’ to be easy, and I 'low you mought have to try more'n onct afore you git in. Whatever happens, you have to foller 'structions zactly.”

Jonas promised, “Yep, Liz. I’ll do zactly whut I’m told to do.”

So, following instructions, at midnight he sneaked into his father’s field and stole one of the black rams. He killed it and cut off its left horn, hiding the rest of the carcass in the woods.

The next day being Sunday, he got a boy to steal a silver coin out of the collection plate of his father’s church. He melted down the coin and made it into a silver bullet, which he put to soak in toad’s blood. He also went to Gladeville where he bought a pewter plate. Next, he scoured the hills until he found a spring whose stream flowed directly east.

He then waited until Friday the thirteenth and returned to the spring as the morning turned gray over the ridge. He dipped some water from the spring with his ram’s horn and poured it over the pewter plate. He did this seven times and repeated the verses Liz had taught him:

As I dip the water with a ram’s horn,
Cast me cruel with a heart of thorn,
As I now the Devil do my soul lease.

I renounce Christ as my Savior,
And promise the Devil my behavior
'Til my life on earth will cease.

May my black and evil soul be
Of Christian love and grace free
As this plate is of grease.

And effen I become an evil crone
From my outer skin to inner bone,
I’ll never given any Christian peace.

Rain and shine, for eight mornings, Jonas came to the spring and repeated this ritual. On the ninth morning, he was supposed to become a witch and he took his gun and the silver bullet with him. He shot the bullet toward the sun as it came up over the ridge. They had told him that if the sun looked as if it were dripping blood as it came up, then he would be a witch. Jonas thought it did, and started home.

He had also been told that if he had become a witch, he would find a toad waiting for him when he got home which would be his familiar spirit or “imp.” But, there was no toad near the door, look as he might. This meant he hadn’t passed, and he’d have to do this all over again the next Friday the thirteenth.

The second time, there was till no familiar waiting, either. But Jonas was stubborn, and he tried a third time before he became a conjure man. This took him two full years, but he said it was worth the time and trouble. Liz told him that it took so long because of the preachers in his family.“

Collected by James Taylor Adams, Big Laurel, Wise County, Virginia, May 17, 1939. Told to him by his grandfather, Spencer Adams. It was Spencer Adam’s son, James Taylor’s uncle, who became the witch. Spencer Adams, his father, and his grandfather were all hardshell Baptist Preachers.

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Here are just a few publishers that bring us many of the amazing books out there…and maybe some not so good ones. A wide spectrum of occult topics and genres from New Age, Eastern Spirituality, Traditional witchcraft, Luciferianism, Satanism, Shamanism, Wicca, neo-paganism, Druidism and the list goes on.

Top Left we begin with Xoanon, one of my favorites. THE publisher of the cultus sabbati, and Three Hands Press their American Branch. They deal in exquisite special edition prints that are beautifully bound and embossed.

Top Right: Inner Traditions, publishes a wide spectrum of literature from the scholarly works of Claude Lecouteaux and the well researched work by academic Thomas Hastis, who is an expert in the Entheogens of medieval witchcraft. They have everything from books on Reiki and alternative healing methods; and even some great books about lost civilizations and other conspiracies.

Second from top: Weiser Books, feature some great authors such as Orion Foxwood, who has a very unique perspective on Appalachian Folk Magic and Souther Conjure. He is an experienced root worker and is very down to earth.

Dark Moon Press: This is an occult publishing company that was actually started by a local from my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA; ironically. The cohesive theme here is the darker side of the occult; vampirism, demonaltry, erotic fiction, and the darkest schools of magic. Definitely some very insightful works by up coming authors that remain in the shadows.

Three Hands Press, as previously mentioned is the daughter company of Xoanon, publishers of the Cultus Sabbati. Based in Hercules, California, USA.

Ixaxaar: Another darksome publishing company, many of the books here focus on Satanism, Luciferianism, Quimbanda, and the darkest of sorceries. They also are the publishers of Clavicula Nox, an awesome periodical of anthologies on various topics by witches such as Sarah Anne Lawless and Gemma Gary.

Troy Books is a publishing company affiliated with the previously mentioned Gemma Gary who has written some of my favorite books on Traditional Witchcraft specifically The Black Toad and other works West Country Witchcraft in Cornwall.

concept: up northish, walkin thru the woods w/ my dogs and a new friend, trading old appalachian/scottish/irish folk songs and sea shanties and vaudeville jokes and Dean Martin one-liners back and forth. we’ll be so tired by the time we reach home, but the good, earthy, primordial, fulfilling, warm-blooded, animal kind of tired that comes from purposeful travel among wildlife. as soon as we reach fresh water we strip down and swim. we can smell the night-blooming jasmine all over every time we come up for air. inside, we dry ourselves next to a warm hearth. i cook a cast-iron dinner from scratch for us and the dogs, and we listen to some favorite Burns & Allen radio shows over a game of checkers. we watch The Big Parade until it’s very late. we drag ourselves and the dogs to bed. they give us very little room but we’re so tired we can only laugh. we’ll go driving tomorrow. we fall asleep wondering aloud what other places on earth we could go

It’s true. The popular conception that country music is a primarily white genre is, well, a white lie. Country is a combination of Appalachian folk music and blues. Some of the very first artists to build out the country appellation were black artists, such as DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player and Grand Ol’ Opry star, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Charley Pride, who became RCA’s best-selling artist since Elvis in the ‘70s. Then there’s the little-known history of the banjo — it’s not as white as you think.

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summer song vibes

I was tagged by the lovely @msculper (thank ya ma’am!). 

rules: list 10 songs you’re ~vibing~ this summer and then tag 10 people. 

1. Something to Tell You- HAIM 

2. Watching From a Distance- David Ramirez 

3. Skydiving- Lights

4. Carry You- Novo Amor

5. The Fox- Nickel Creek

6.  Icky Thump- The White Stripes 

7. Rock and Roll- Led Zeppelin 

8. Barcelona- Ed Sheeran 

9. Ain’t No Grave- Crooked Still 

10. Jump Mountain Blues- Mandolin Orange 

(Bonus) 11. Gravity- The Infamous Stringdusters 

Tagging: @sam-farm  @wewillfindanewtomorrow  @nataliemarieandonecc  @notquitehermione @bravebattalion @nofuhckingway and anyone else! 

Day 212: Healing with Stumpwater

Stumpwater, that is water that has collected in the hollow bowl of a tree stump, is an interesting part of folk materia medica. Its use can be found throughout the Ozarks and the Appalachians, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other cultures were to use the mystical substance as well. Stumpwater is mostly connected to the healing of certain dermatological issues like warts, rashes, and sometimes even freckles. But the water has also been used in the making of herbal infusions. The idea being that the stumpwater has more power than regular water because it is elevated above the rest of the land.

Vance Randolph mentions stumpwater several times in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore,” here are a few quotes:

“The skin disease called tetter is treated with spunk water or stump water simply rain water which happens to be retained in a hollow stump.”

“When a hillman tries to remove warts by applying stump water he repeats this formula: Stump water, stump water, Kill these — warts! The dash represents the number of warts that the patient has, and it is essential to state this number correctly. If a man says six when he has only five warts, the warts will not be cured, and another one will appear in a few days.”

“Most of the old-timers believe that a woman should never be bathed ‘all over,’ or her bedding completely changed, for nine days after the child is born. Some say that the palms of a child’s hands should not be washed until the child is three days old to do so washes away the infant’s luck, particularly in financial matters. It is always best to bathe a new baby’s head with stump water; if ordinary water is used, the child is likely to be prematurely bald when it grows up.”

One can say that most of the lore behind stumpwater likely came into the Ozarks from the Appalachian people. A similar wart-cure can be found in the book “A Tennessee Folklore Sampler” by Ted Olson and Anthony P. Cavender:

“To remove a wart go to an old hollow stump that contains water and wash the hands or warts in the stump water. After doing this, walk home without looking back and the wart will go away.”

A few more Appalachian uses of stumpwater come from the wonderful book “Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia” by Anthony Cavender:

“To treat and prevent pimples and blackheads, the face was washed with buttermilk, a solution of Epsom salts or soda, human urine, stumpwater (water collected in a tree cavity or stump, also called ‘spunkwater’), a decoction made from witch hazel or ratsbane leaves, or dew of the first day in May.”

“Stumpwater, buttermilk, dew of the first fay in May, and a cow manure facial also were used to remove freckles.”

“Southern Appalachian folk medicine is abundant with beliefs about contracting and removing warts. Some of the more frequently mentioned naturalistic remedies were rubbing warts with castor oil, a chicken gizzard, a slice of Irish potato, bean leaves, or stumpwater and inserting a hot needle into the warts.”

In my last post on the interactions between white and Native medicines I mentioned the use of stumpwater as a practice shared by both the white and Cherokee communities. Who gave the practice to whom is still debatable, but the fact remains that both communities considered stumpwater as an important part of the materia medica. Frans M. Olbrechts, in “The Swimmer Manuscript” mentions a Cherokee medicine man who only used water in healing:

“Spencer Bird, an old medicine man, now dead, used to rely on the sole purifying power of water. The informant who told me this vaguely hinted at the probability of the water being some ‘special water,’ such as that scooped out of a stump (‘stump water’) or even out of the stump of a lightning-struck tree.”

The use of stumpwater bears some semblance to other folk medicines such as the use of certain “flying” plants, meaning plants that are growing out of trees, or rock faces, that have never touched the ground. The power here is that the “flying” plant has some mystical connection to the sky, and is therefore given an added potency as a medicine or magical item. A common example of this idea is the mistletoe plant, which has been considered a mystical or magical plat partially because it hangs in the air without touching the ground. There’s a tradition throughout the Ozarks and Appalachians (and one can see the original belief throughout Europe) that the mistletoe will only be effective in protecting the home when it is cut and never allowed to touch the ground. We can see the same concept with the stumpwater, the idea here being that the water fell from the sky and hangs in the air, not touching the ground. The power of the stumpwater then isn’t in the chemical makeup of the water itself, but in the fact that it has been given a magical quality by being set apart from other puddles, creeks, and water sources.

Folk Magick Reading List

Interested in Folk Magick? 

Not sure where to begin?

Most of the information available on the internet regarding Folk Magick is, at best, rife with errors and misconceptions. At worst, it’s downright dangerous!

The secluded mountains of  Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, the Virginias, and the Carolinas provided the isolation to preserve Folk Magick traditions in a way that wasn’t possible in the rest of America. The people of Appalachia held fast to their traditions long after “city folk” discarded them as backwoods superstitions. 

Hoodoo, Conjure, Rootwork, and other forms of folk magick have been the subject of renewed public interest. It seems everyone is borrowing a pinch of this and a dash of that from southern conjure and adding it to their magickal repertoire. Other traditions are appropriating, adapting, and (let’s call it what it is……stealing) cultural traditions and “re-labeling” them as their own. As a result, information is being lost, distorted, and destroyed for future generations.

So, what if you really want to learn Folk Magick?

The best way to learn is directly from an experienced, legitimate conjure worker with several years of experience. Unfortunately, that just isn’t possible for everyone. If you feel you are being called to learn, then start reading! It won’t replace a hands-on apprenticeship with a worker, but it will get you started. 

Dig in and learn everything you can. If you are being called to learn, the teacher you have been looking for might be just around the next corner.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started on your journey. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will give you an excellent foundation in Appalachian Folk Magick:

Mountain Magick: Folk Wisdom from the Heart of Appalachia — Edain McCoy

Staubs and Ditchwater: An Intro to HillFolks Hoodoo — Byron Ballard

Ozark Magic and Folklore — Vance Randolph

Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia — Anthony Cavender

Any and all of the “Foxfire” book series.

The Secret of the Psalms — Godfrey Selig

Long Lost Friend — John George Hoffman

The Red Church — C.R. Bilardi

Day 50: Tobacco

Tobacco has had a place in Ozark and Appalachian folk healing for centuries. Most often it’s used in its “chaw” or snuff form or as loose pipe tobacco since cigarettes were most always too expensive for hillfolk to keep around. Tobacco was almost always grown locally to cut down on costs. My great-grandpa always had a huge patch of it on his farm that he would cure to make his own “chaw” and rolling tobacco. Many home remedies include tobacco, most often for skin complaints and bug bites where the soft, wet plug of chaw could be taken out of the cheek of the nearest dipper and pressed to the irritated spot for relief. Many an Ozark rural child has been subjected to such remedies in the summertime.

A remedy for chest congestion or a wet cough includes smoking tobacco mixed with what’s called “rabbit tobacco” or “sweet everlasting” (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, pictured below). It’s a plant that grows everywhere in the Ozarks and gets it’s name from the fact that the leaves and flower heads stay on the dead plant through the winter. That’s the best time to harvest the fuzzy, sweet smelling leaves, when the plant has died and the active chemical compounds in the leaves and flower heads are said to have “caramelized.” I’m not so sure that’s true, but I do know the fresh leaves have a very different taste than the dead ones, and although I’ve never mixed mine with tobacco I can personally attest to the effectiveness of smoking some to help clear the chest.

It’s highly likely that people would have been using tobacco even before they came into the Ozarks, and certainly before they came to America, but many of the settlers to the area, and certainly to the Appalachian Mountains would have been exposed to a different tobacco culture coming in from the indigenous peoples of the area. Native Americans have been using tobacco for medicinal and religious purposes for far longer than Europeans. Originally the tobacco of the Americas would have mostly been Nicotiana rustica, a “wild” variety of the plant, although certain Native American groups had been cultivating the plants for centuries. It’s often referred to as “sacred tobacco” because of it’s use in certain ceremonies and healing practices. Nicotiana tobaccum, or what we know of as “tobacco” today would have been cultivated much later in history, predominately for sale to Europeans who didn’t have a taste for the much stronger Nicotiana rustica. There are many accounts of French explorers in Arkansas encountering tobacco through the “calumet” ceremonies of the nations along the Mississippi Rivers. Eventually the French would provide such a demand for the leaf that the Natchez nation would become the largest supplier of Nicotiana tobaccum in the French South around the mid 18th century. The Quapaw “Robe of Splendor” (pictured below) even documents this tobacco use among the French in a small panel showing two Frenchmen smoking European-style pipes between two cabins. I think it should be noted that none of the indigenous peoples depicted are shown smoking tobacco in this way, and this panel is distinguished from one of the large central pieces which shows two “calumets” which would have not only served as the ceremonial tobacco pipes of the nation but also as a powerful symbol of their connection to the plant versus that of the Europeans. 

I’ve mentioned these two tobacco stories from the Cherokee before, but I think it would be appropriate to include them here. These stories are two Cherokee folk tales told by the storyteller and healer A’yûñ’ini (Swimmer) and collected by James Mooney for his “Myths of the Cherokee”.

“How They Brought the Tobacco Back”

First Version:
‘In the beginning of the world, when people and animals were all the same, there was only one tobacco plant, to which they all came for their tobacco until the Dagûlʻkû geese stole it and carried it far away to the south. The people were suffering without it, and there was one old woman who grew so thin and weak that everybody said she would soon die unless she could get tobacco to keep her alive.

“Different animals offered to go for it, one after another, the larger ones first and then the smaller ones, but the Dagûlʻkû saw and killed every one before he could get to the plant. After the others the little Mole tried to reach it by going under the ground, but the Dagûlʻkû saw his track and killed him as he came out.

“At last the Hummingbird offered, but the others said he was entirely too small and might as well stay at home. He begged them to let him try, so they showed him a plant in a field and told him to let them see how he would go about it. The next moment he was gone and they saw him sitting on the plant, and then in a moment he was back again, but no one had seen him going or coming, because he was so swift. ‘This is the way I’ll do,’ said the Hummingbird, so they let him try.

“He flew off to the east, and when he came in sight of the tobacco the Dagûlʻkû were watching all about it, but they could not see him because he was so small and flew so swiftly. He darted down on the plant—tsa!—and snatched off the top with the leaves and seeds, and was off again before the Dagûlʻkû knew what had happened. Before he got home with the tobacco the old woman had fainted and they thought she was dead, but he blew the smoke into her nostrils, and with a cry of “Tsâlû! [Tobacco!]” she opened her eyes and was alive again.”

Second Version:
“The people had tobacco in the beginning, but they had used it all, and there was great suffering for want of it. There was one old man so old that he had to be kept alive by smoking, and as his son did not want to see him die he decided to go himself to try and get some more. The tobacco country was far in the south, with high mountains all around it, and the passes were guarded, so that it was very hard to get into it, but the young man was a conjurer and was not afraid.

“He traveled southward until he came to the mountains on the border of the tobacco country. Then he opened his medicine bag and took out a hummingbird skin and put it over himself like a dress. Now he was a hummingbird and flew over the mountains to the tobacco field and pulled some of the leaves and seed and put them into his medicine bag. He was so small and swift that the guards, whoever they were, did not see him, and when he had taken as much as he could carry he flew back over the mountains in the same way. Then he took off the hummingbird skin and put it into his medicine bag, and was a man again.

“He started home, and on his way came to a tree that had a hole in the trunk, like a door, near the first branches, and a very pretty woman was looking out from it. He stopped and tried to climb the tree, but although he was a good climber he found that he always slipped back. He put on a pair of medicine moccasins from his pouch, and then he could climb the tree, but when he reached the first branches he looked up and the hole was still as far away as before. He climbed higher and higher, but every time he looked up the hole seemed to be farther than before, until at last he was tired and came down again.

“When he reached home he found his father very weak, but still alive, and one draw at the pipe made him strong again. The people planted the seed and have had tobacco ever since.”

Mooney also talks a little about the significance of tobacco in his section on plant lore:

“Tobacco was used as a sacred incense or as the guarantee of a solemn oath in nearly every important function—in binding the warrior to take up the hatchet against the enemy, in ratifying the treaty of peace, in confirming sales or other engagements, in seeking omens for the hunter, in driving away witches or evil spirits, and in regular medical practice. It was either smoked in the pipe or sprinkled upon the fire, never rolled into cigarettes, as among the tribes of the Southwest, neither was it ever smoked for the mere pleasure of the sensation. Of late years white neighbors have taught the Indians to chew it, but the habit is not aboriginal. It is called tsâlû, a name which has lost its meaning in the Cherokee language, but is explained from the cognate Tuscarora, in which charhû’, ‘tobacco,’ can still be analyzed as ‘fire to hold in the mouth,’ showing that the use is as old as the knowledge of the plant. The tobacco originally in use among the Cherokee, Iroquois, and other eastern tribes was not the common tobacco of commerce (Nicotiana tabacum), which has been introduced from the West Indies, but the Nicotiana rustica, or wild tobacco, now distinguished by the Cherokee as tsâl-agăyûñ’li, ‘old tobacco,’ and by the Iroquois as ‘real tobacco.’ Its various uses in ritual and medicine are better described under other headings…The cardinal flower (Lobelia), mullein (Verbascum), and one or two related species are called tsâliyu’stĭ, ‘like tobacco,’ on account of their general resemblance to it in appearance, but they were never used in the same way.”

The sacred uses of tobacco definitely reached the Ozarks, mostly through people of Native American descent. These traditions can be seen in many farming beliefs. I’ve known several old farmers who would lay some tobacco in with their planted seeds as a blessing to help them grow better. It’s also not as common, but still prevalent, to see old folks who keep their tobacco in certain buckskin pouches and treat it with great respect. I had the great fortune to inherit my great-grandma’s beaded tobacco pouch that she wore (pictured below).

Of course today it’s hard to find many of these tobacco beliefs and practices still alive and kicking. It’s become the recreation of most hillfolk, and there’s little sacredness surrounding their actions anymore. Personally I use Nicotiana rustica in much of my healing work. Years ago I was introduced to sacred uses piciete, derived from the Nahuatl word, picietl, Nicotiana rustica. I was taught to use the plant by my teacher Don Jorge who was a Mazatec from Oaxaca. The Mazatec use of piciete is interesting among other Central and South American indigenous peoples. Mapacho (pictured below) is another form of Nicotiana rustica that is most often smoked in cigars or snorted through the nose. The Mazatec rarely smoke their tobacco, but instead either roll a quid out of the fresh green leaves that is then placed between the cheek and teeth and allowed to sit (the saliva that is produced is never swallowed) or they will crush the green leaves into a paste called San Pedro (not to be confused with the cactus) that is mixed with lime then applied topically or snorted through the nose. San Pedro is most often used in conjunction with Xka Pastora, which is a subject for another time.

It’s sad to see the direction this plant has gone in, all because of this addiction to poisons that colonizers have had for centuries (a good series to watch that is related to that idea is “Addicted to Pleasure” from the BBC). But there is hope, at least among certain Native American groups, where there are national organizations with an active effort to reaffirm traditional views on tobacco amongst their peoples. The tobacco industry in America has, since it’s inception, targeted indigenous populations (much like the alcohol industry) in many of its advertising and active campaigns. This targeting, along with poor availability of affordable healthcare on reservations has created a major problem, to say the least. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed and fought on every level, starting with our own personal consumption of this healing plant. It’s not about being mindful of where the tobacco comes from when you’re puffing on a cigarette, but it’s about choosing whether or not to support an industry that has actively caused the destruction of indigenous cultures note only here in America but around the world. It may seem like a small issue, and here I’ll cite the craze for “additive-free tobaccos” like those provided by American Spirits, but any recreational tobacco use, whether “additive-free” or not, is still contributing to a culture of addiction and destruction. 

I’ll conclude with the image “Raleigh’s First Pipe in England” showing a reclined Sir Walter Raleigh smoking what I can only assume is a stolen indigenous tobacco pipe while his servant looks on in horror.

Back-woods down-home Appalachian folk magic

My father told me (again) his story about the color “haint blue.” I’ve heard it so many times that when he tells it I can finish his sentences for him.

The Africans that were taken and sold as slaves in U.S. carried some of their magical heritage with them. Hoodoo practices were first formed in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and it changed through time and distance, and filtered through Americanization, which led to the commonplace use of the bible in hoodoo.

Through this diffusion of culture, the fear of haints (from haunts, meaning ghosts or evil spirits) carried through to South Carolina. African-Americans painted their porches, or windowsills a light blue or very light turquoise, on the logic that a spirit can’t cross flowing water, and the paint color will trick a spirit into thinking that the paint is flowing water, and will not enter the warded home.

Previously I had always dismissed this story as just another worn out tale, until I realized what was going on. It hit me as a big “Aha!” moment. They were practicing folk magic. Not with herbs, candles, and cauldrons, but with intent, an internal system of rules, and a bit of blue paint.

In many ways, magic, by other names, is still a prominent part of American culture.