I'm currently reading, Ozark Magic And Folklore by Vance Randoph. I love this book! This book is a real treasure. It was originally published under the name of Ozark Superstitions in 1947. The book is a treasure as it collects the folk magic, lore, and legends of the Ozark region. For those who don't know the Ozark region includes Missouri, Arkansas, and parts of northern Oklahoma. The Ozark people are primarily Scott-Irish (Scottish, Irish, and English) and Native American in heritage. The Ozark folk magic traditions is very similar to the Appalachian folk magic traditions as well as hoodoo/rootwork/conjure.
When I first got the book I immediately turned to the section on witchcraft and began reading it. Now I'm working my way back and reading the rest of the material. The section on witchcraft pretty much proves that there was mixing of beliefs and practices with African Americans and the practice of hoodoo. Both traditions incorporated much Native American lore and both traditions use the term conjure. Included in the section on witchcraft is the belief that people can become cursed by stepping on something a witch has been put down for someone. There is also a story of a witch who cursed an apple orchard by drawing a circle with a cross in the center in the dirt. The phrase "goomer man" or "goomer woman", and even "goomered", is quite frequently used. I've already blogged on this term before and it is my opinion that the term "goomer" is a corruption of "goopher", as in "goopher dust". There is also references to "power doctors", which I believe is a corruption of "pow-wow doctors". What is unique to the Ozark tradition is the term, "witch master", a synonym for "witch doctor", someone who fights witches and removes witchcraft.
What is important about the section on witchcraft is that it is made very clear that folk magic and witchcraft are not the same thing. The author even discusses how newspaper writers are confusing maters by labelling clairvoyants, mystics, and prophetesses as being "witches", when in reality the older folks knew that this was not true.
So what are "witches" in the Ozark folk magic tradition?
According to belief, witches are people, usually women, who sell their souls to the devil in exchange for magical powers. There is not one reference to paganism or "the Goddess" in the book. Most importantly, real witches don't tell people they are witches. The author states that it is a highly-held belief that the most powerful witches are old women, usually spinsters or widows. Men and young women can be witches but they are not viewed as being as powerful as elderly women.
Witchcraft can be taught and it is generally passed down in families. However, it must be taught by a family member of the opposite sex, as in fathers teaching daughters and mothers teaching sons. (Reference Wicca and the Gardnerian tradition which stole this concept of opposite-sex teaching.) One can also learn witchcraft from a spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend but only if the pair has engaged in sexual intercourse. However, the teaching of witchcraft does not a witch make. The author talks about how even though this passes down in families that most members of "witch families" are only carriers of the witch knowledge and not actual witches themselves. In order for a witch to gain his/her power they must sell their soul to the Devil as well as take the life of a loved one. This step of taking the life of a loved one matches with Native American beliefs on witches.
The Devil, who is called the Black Man, is connected to the crossroads. This isn't in the book but this is what I know to be true. In the Ozark tradition, the Black Man is not an African trickster spirit but is in fact the Devil. The rituals that are used by the would-be witch to sell his/her soul to the devil can be simple or complex, but the author states that the most common belief is that they are complex and last three days. At any time during the first two days the person can back out. However, after the third day the person loses their soul and is eternally damned and can not back out. There are different tales of what is involved in the rituals over these three days. Many people believe that a backwards recitation of the Lord's Prayers must occur (Reference, Paul Huson's 1970 book, Mastering Witchcraft, in which Huson claims that the witch's initiation is the backwards recitation of the Lord's Prayer). Other elements of the ritual by which a would-be witch sells her soul to the devils includes the full moon, the crossroads, nudity, and shooting silver bullets. The final step is the taking of the life of a loved one. When this last step is accomplished the Devil appears to the witch and grants him/her their power.
The powers of the witch include:
-drying-up milk cows
-spoiling butter, cheese, meat, and other food
-preventing bread from rising
-causing illness in livestock and humans
-causing impotence in men and barrenness in women
-stopping up of the bowels or bladder
-cursing objects so that they no longer work correctly
-riding horses and cattle all night long so that they are exhausted the next day and can't work
-riding or attacking sleeping humans (hag ridden)
-shape-shifting, usually as cats or wolves
-flight, usually out of body or in spirit form
Witches can be killed with silver bullets. If a witch is injured in animal form then when he/she turns back into a human they will likewise have that same wound. There is a story in the book of a man who spend the night in a barn even though locals warned him not to as the barn was the nocturnal hang-out of witches. The man was attacked by a large cat in the middle of the night. He managed to reach for his gun and shot off one of the back paws of the cat and the cat screamed like a woman and disappeared. The man looked in horror as the bloody cat's paw on the ground slowly turned into a human foot. The next morning it was revealed that a neighbor woman was found dead in her bed from blood loss and her foot was missing.
The book gives some really good methods of ways that witches use to curse people. I won't post those here but you can read the book yourself and find out. I will share one trick with you simply because it is something that modern people don't do. In the book is a story of a woman who was rumored to be a witch. The woman's daughter noticed that when her mother killed chickens for that night's supper that she made all the kids scram. One day she decided to spy on her mother and discovered that at the same time that her mother swung the neck of the chicken she also called out the name of a local woman. The daughter then confronted her mother and asked her what would happen to the woman. The mother laughed and said, "nothing good".
Now, I will share one method listed in the book that my family practices. In the book the author claims that most people in the region will push their beds up against a wall in order to prevent witches from bewitching or cursing a person as they slept. It was believed that a witch must walk around the bed to bewitch the person so by pushing the bed up against a wall it offers some protection. Now, my family does this but it is believed that "bad guys" can't get you at night. That's what I was told as a child by my family.
So I'm writing this blog entry to reinforce for people that there is a difference between folk magic and witchcraft and that they are not the same thing. Back in the day nearly everyone performed folk magic. However, no one claimed to be witches or to practice witchcraft because they knew what the words witch and witchcraft meant. The people of the Ozark region are dedicated Christians, not pagans and modern paganism is simply that, modern and is not old.
Once again, I highly recommend this book. It's important to keep this tradition alive as it is quickly disappearing. For one, the loss of rural and farming life is slowly erasing the tradition. On top of that Wiccans and self-styled witches are also destroying the tradition by claiming it as their own, altering it, and claiming it as their heritage. This is true for both the Ozark/Appalachia practices and hoodoo/rootwork/conjure. It just makes me so sick to read these Internet sites from witches who claim they are hoodoo, Ozark, or granny magic and that their kin worshipped the goddess here in the South. That's a damn lie and though their kin may have indeed been practitioners, it has nothing to do with paganism, the Goddess, and the like and they sure as hell didn't call themselves witches!
So if you have the chance, do be sure to check this book out. You won't be disappointed!