Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Magic in the American Fabric

“Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

      My family is typical, very American in that we are diverse and representing of every demographic that makes this country the culture it is.  My ancestors migrated from region to region all over this place, collecting the folk magic and superstitions of the cultures we encountered, adopted or descended from.  We are a blend of the typical American bloodlines; various kinds of European, Native American, African and Latin American.  My generation, my siblings and I, are the culmination of hundreds of years of immigration, adoption, homesteading and assimilating on this land.  From my family and my own experience moving along the West Coast; being raised by Southerners in the Southwest and later the Pacific Northwest, I have developed a kind of strange and intimate relationship with regional forms of folk-magic in America-- things I never really thought about as being cross-cultural syncretic religious practices turned out to have heavy and deep roots, and I've dedicated most of my life to researching the roots of magic and witchcraft through my family.
       I've got a bond with American folk-magic;  to the way we here in the New World came to have magic in our modern culture that traces its history across the planet.  It has forged a system of magical and metaphysical traditions across the country, varying from region to region with intense diversity  The difference is the specific and particular history of this country, of the cultures who met, mixed, isolated, assimilated, faded and thrived.  If you're a typical racially ambiguous mixed American like me, you may be part of many cultures, sharing in many faiths and taboos and superstitions.  My family is vast, it is built on stronger things than blood, and my life has been lived between many cultures, my identity is as diverse as the folkloric charms of my family.

  European immigration to the New World and the indigenous inhabitants there, bringing with them slaves from Africa, was laying the foundation for a large and increasingly normalized population of mixed kids like me who are rapidly becoming the new American ethnicity.   Some people grow up with common little luck charms and folklore; stepping on cracks, wishing on dandelions, face-up lucky pennies, crossing fingers, throwing salt over shoulder, ringing ears, silver coin beneath a mast, graveyard dust on the seat of an enemy, planting herbs according to the signs, ill-speaking of the dead... I like to wonder about the origin of all these little common knowledge bits of lore that are still surprisingly common in American culture.  I firmly believe the American identity of magic and witchcraft is not only unique from the cultures that originated it, but are distinct by region.  In the melting pot, even magics once conflicting are made complimentary.

           When I think of how American magic has been shaped, I think of the regions in which the history of the people really reflect how religion and magic and culture all came together.  Though history and time change many things, we have not lost some of the basic folkloric magic that binds American mysticism with the cultures who helped to stir the pot. The history of magic and witchcraft in America vary from region to region, coast to coast.  Of course, not all folk-magic is witchcraft, but witches are traditionally folk-magicians.  Each coast had its own dense populations of specific ethnicities and each culture has its own vision of magic, of spirits and witches.

Salem Massachusetts, Angelina N. 2011
            Depending on what region of this country you live in and who was settled there the longest, the folk magic and preserved superstitions vary greatly.  In the Northeast  the witchcraft of New England is still preserved by families in that area in the guise of old superstitions and urban legends, some still adhere to the old customs that the English brought with them when they first settled, creating a unique identity of witchcraft in places like Salem Massachusetts where witch-culture is tangible and in-your-face and Virginia coast where the witchlore is still associated with terror and the tensions between Native Americans and early settlers/invaders.  It's no secret that the majority of tried and convicted colonial American witches were from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Virginia.  Dutch and German folk customs and  mysticism is preserved in parts of the Northeast region as well, like Pennsylvania and Connecticut e.g some Quaker communities, pow-wow of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

         In the Northeast, the primary sources of folk magic tend to be from early English, Irish and Indigenous American descent, though each region has it's own population trends giving way to areas of completely distinguishable folklore and superstitions from the Western European diaspora.  The compiled research on the Salem witch trials are some of the most prolific sources of how witchcraft in particular was viewed in early colonial America that we have, and Salem still remains a representative of old English folk magic in the New World.  In Salem one has full access to the history of colonial American witchcraft in the form of museums and monuments, honoring the dead who were accused of dealings with the black-arts.  Of course, there were likely few witches ever actually hung in Salem, those who perished were victims of politics, land disputes and religious hysteria, but how these trials went about and what was considered the make and mark of a witch was a reflection of the persistent superstitions that crossed the pond from England. 


           In the South, the birthplace of well-known American traditions of witchcraft like hoodoo, rootwork and Conjure, folk-magic is well preserved and sometimes even celebrated; from the rural regions of Florida where the Everglades is home to a blend of the Native American folklore, medicine and witchcraft (the Seminoles were particularly superstitious of witches and witchcraft often employing charms, potions and effigies to counter bad medicine or "witchcraft") to the practices of western European settlers (many Irish) who moved into the rural regions, and most importantly the slaves of unknown West-African and Afro-Caribbean origin.  Cuban Santeria was later introduced to the Florida coast and has since become part of the magical identity of that area.

              The Southern spirit of magic move from the Appalachians; rich in rural ultra-Christianized witch-doctors, healers, grannies and root-workers--- to Louisiana where the voodoo, hoodoo and witchcraft is a unique tradition all its own.  Famous for its theatrical and celebratory relationship with the occult traditions, New Orleans is the hub of pop-culture American Witchcraft.  Syncretic religions sprung up as Catholicism and the indigenous ethnic religions of once not-too-familiar cultures (who up until that point represented drastically different ideologies and mystical beliefs) were brought together and the people assimilated accordingly. Influenced from the French, Haitian, Creole (numerous strains of Creole peoples), Native American, Latin American, African and other smaller ethnic groups, the magic of the Louisiana region sets it apart entirely from the rest of the country; it is a true melting pot of color and diversity and the magic there varied from town to town, from quarter to quarter; Haitian Vodou, Voodoo Queens, hoodoo men, root-workers, Obeah, conjurers, witches, medicine women and swamp mamas all representing the great mystical exchange between cultures in rural America. 

          The enslaved Africans who were freed intermittently over the course of early American history and later freed by constitutional law, carved a niche for the black community and the uniquely preserved religion of their ancestors who brought with them the animistic and mystic faith of their parents. The slaves of the American South were forced to acclimate to a foreign environment and foreign spirits, and assimilated their practice to fit their needs.  Abrahamic religion of a conquered people is always shaped and skewed by the original pagan faith to whom the people once willingly belonged.  These traditions weathered Christianity, weathered cultural decimation and even influenced the folk-magic of surrounding cultures-- not in its original form mind you but in pieces, spread far and thin.  By blending Christianity with Voodoo and indigenous herbal lore, some black communities of the deep South maintain the original hoodoo spirit to this day.  The South truly is the hot-bed for what would later be carried all throughout the states and even up to parts of Canada and down through Central America.  Blended, mixed, taking from each other here and there, different in every place, in every family.

The Southwest

        The Southwest is as equally distinguished in its magical culture as the Northeast and Deep South, though not as widely discussed or romanticized.  Witchcraft had and still has a long and complex history preserved in the local lore of those regions.  I was raised in California, where brujeria and santeria were commonplace, where the folk magic influences were primarily from Mexico, Central America, Cuban, Indigenous Mexican and Indigenous American roots and most of it heavily syncretic with Christianity.  The Natives of the Southwest were well known by early settlers for their legends of witchcraft, their elaborate witch-hunting rituals, trials and charms-- there are still witch markets and old witch-trial landmarks standing.  Traditional European witch lore and the existing lore of certain Southwestern tribes are notably similar; the witch is a shape-shifter who indulges in carnal acts with the dead, conduct nefarious deeds only at night, they draw their victims in ash or sand and cast stones, nuts and beans at their effigies (poppets/voodoo-dolls). 

             As the Spanish and Indigenous people in present day America and Mexico blended in cultural identity, we see the similarities between Spanish and Basque folklore, Hispano witchcraft and the indigenous lore of the people of that area; the flight of familiars and witches spirits personified in typical animals associated with witchery, the use of poppets and effigies for sympathetic magic as well as a fearful respect for the spirits.  And of course, in every place you look, the magic is as unique as the lore and the people who tell the stories:
The forms that a witch may assume tend to vary from one village to another.  At Santo Domingo Pueblo it may be a dog, coyote, or owl; at San Felipa, an owl; at Cochiti, a crow, coyote, bear, or wolf, at Zia, a donkey or rat; and at Santa Ana, an owl, dog, coyote, or a tiny figure of a man with feathers in his hair.-Marc Simmons, Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande (1980)
         The peoples of the Southwest were fearful of witches; they smoked pot and took concoctions of datura or tobacco to ward of the evils of witches who curse with red threads and lodestones.  The medicine man or woman was an entirely separate occupation from those seen as witches and those practicing magic (of which there are many confessed accounts in the region from the 19th and 20th centuries).  Often the medicine man was pitted against the self-serving witch and seen as an entirely different class of spiritualist.  In some tribes, a witch is simply a self-serving shaman of moral ambiguity- the other side of the same mystical coin... in others, the witch is an unnatural creature who stands opposed to all that is good.

        Catholicism in Mexico at one point was more accepting of the folklore of the region, after all, one cannot extinguish culture entirely from new religion.  Witchcraft was well noted by Hispanic missionaries and American traders in the Pueblo; Nambé, Zuñi, Keresan as well as in the Navajo (who were viciously opposed to witchery, historically) and the Apache.  The witchcraft of Mexico in its various regions has impacted the American Southwestern mystical identity more than any other culture, secondarily the greatest cultural impact on the magic of that area is the medicine and the witchcraft of the Native American tribes of that area.  I distinguish medicine from magic entirely; from a cultural standpoint medicine is not magic. Medicine women or men do not often associate with witchcraft, those who do are "bad medicine men" or bad shamans.  A shaman (in the broader context) was an agent of the people, who worked between the spirits of the land and the spirits of the otherworld or dead, a witch in some cultures is simply a different kind of shamans (an idea long supported by many historians and researchers, e.g Carlo Ginzburg and Emma Wilby), a witch in particular could be considered a shaman who works outside the people, rather than within society.  In the American Southwest this was an especially popular idea, a "bad" medicine man or rogue shaman is equivalent with the classic witch.

The Pacific Northwest

West Seattle, Washington Angelina N. 2012
               Not a lot of non-Native witch-lore exists in the Northwest.  The land, in a way, is newer, it has only been inhabited by outside cultures for a short space of time compared to the rest of the country and so the medicine of the Coastal Natives and their folklore of this region is somewhat unique and isolated.  There are small pockets of the Russian community and their cultural folk magic as they migrated from Russia to Alaska, then to Canada and downwards to Washington.  There is a more recent introduction of ethnic Asian religions as well (like Shinto) but in truth, it's the medicine that makes up the power of this region; orca medicine, salmon medicine, eagle medicine--the shared practices of the Coastal peoples which is now shared with the non-Native community. 

             Racial tensions exist everywhere in this country but the Northwest is definitely unique in that slavery never took root here thanks to the Northwest Ordnance of 1778.   Unlike other coastal regions in the USA, there wasn't a long-standing exchange of cultural superstitions between slave descendants and the indigenous Coastal people.  The medicine of the PNW varies from tribe to tribe, clan to clan and have fewer references to bad-medicine or outright witchcraft than other regions I've lived in or studied.  Having lived most of my life up here in the Coastal community, I can't say witchery is commonplace, but magic is plentiful.

              Without much in the way of historical accounts of actual witchery in the PNW (except the occasional tribal folktale of snake witches or old owl women), the medicine, animism and culture of land-veneration here has become a staple part of the Northwestern cultural identity shared by natives and non-natives alike.  The lands from Oregon up through beautiful British Columbia are set apart from the rest of the land in that more of the indigenous mystical identity has been preserved and isolated and less outside folk magic has been introduced.  In a way, it has a power totally different from anywhere else in the country.


            With the vast regional differences in mind, I still see the huge connections, how witchcraft is similar in almost every culture I've studied and how intrinsic I think the witch is to the spiritual world.   My family has been instrumental in helping me with my research as I seek to build a relationship with what it means to be a modern American witch.  I've reached out all across my family; the santera, the wiccan, the medicine women, the hoodoo rootworkers, and the superstitious non-pagans.  In most modern American families, the little superstitions passed from generation to generation is thoughtless, almost meaningless.  For me, it is a matter of spiritual and cultural pride.  Every penny above the door, every cobweb on a swollen eye, every jar of water collected during a lightning storm, I take pride in keeping.  While there are a lot of people out there who would claim unbroken lineage or a matriarchal line of witchcraft in their families, I won't boast such (oft unfounded) claims.  What I'm doing isn't perpetuating a single tradition, I'm not reviving some ancient magic- I'm taking the customs, taboos and traditions I learned and seeking to learn more, adding to the fabric of my identity.  I want to know everything about witchcraft in America, I love what we've done here, what we're reviving too.  My heart is in folk-magic, in cunningcraft, in plant shamanism and animism... and there's always so much to learn, even about things I've known my all my life.  I look forward to Ivy Path transforming into a place to discuss the roots of magic in America and the root it took in my family.  I am a witch, I am an American witch and I look to my ancestors and my land for guidance... and I suppose my cauldron is a melting pot.  

Further Reading

America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem by Owen Davies

Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath by Carlo Ginzburg

Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft by Robin Briggs

Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition by Yvonne Patricia Chireau

Witchcraft in Early North America By Alison Games

Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History by Robert H. Ruby, John A. Brown

Mechanics of Pueblo Witchcraft by Florence Hawley

Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande by Marc Simmons

The Candle and the Crossroads: A Book of Appalachian Conjure and Southern Root Work by Orion Foxwood

Los Remedios: Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest by Michael Moore

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Love Magic: Cupids and Corpses

Some love charms are simple; binding two dolls together with red and white rope, sowing hemp seeds in a churchyard, soaking your lover's socks in whiskey and spitting the shot (simple, and icky).  Some love charms, however, are simply gruesome.  My favorite spells from antiquity were always love spells, my favorite charms are love charms, and I love a good erotic amulet or fertility idol, especially the rare and recondite ones, or the most taboo kind.  I pour over literature relating to love spells, no matter how esoteric.  Most of the old spells involve more death than life; perhaps an example of the way in which both sinister and benevolent energy is used in virtually any well-balanced act.  The oneness of things means that building upon life or death requires a little of both.  Love is of particular importance to my craft as it is to many practitioners; folk and ceremonial alike, the great virtue of Love is the spark, the passionate fire that fills one with focus and purpose.  This sense of purpose strengthens and defines our personal Will.  Desire in the fire of the belly is like inspiration in the fire of the head, they are both the same to me, the spark of creation, fiery, nestled and connected to my masculine self.  When I participate in workings oriented around love, I feel as if I'm flowing on the right wave of my path and that my Will is absolute.  Every witch tends to learn a love charm or two, it's one of the main reasons (if not the most regular talent) he or she is asked to perform in witch literature.  And there seem to be quite a bit of necromancy-love magic crossovers in folk magic and occult history.

There's always wonderful information to find in the old love charms, and cross-culturally there seem to be a great deal of shared themes, from common correspondences to complex symbolism, there's links between love magic practiced all over the world, and the love spells common to contemporary witchcraft reflect the evolution of witchcraft across Europe and America.  Love spells, however, aren't all created equal.  A simple charm may call for as little as a bit of doves blood ink and a piece of paper, others need a bit more grit; the seed of a lover, spit of a witch, tears of the jilted, blood of an adulterer,... flesh of a fresh body?  Myself, I prefer love charms without a personal aim, the kind that draws more love and beauty to life, not the kind that dabbles in the free-will market or entails desecration of human remains.  Call me soft, but I prefer the positive erosian current.  My own practice aside, there is so much interesting, funny and downright grisly legends, poetry, folklore and cannon in the history of witchcraft pertaining to the use of corpses, spirits and necromantic magic in the working of love charms.  I've never quite understood how the use of human remains benefit spells of romantic desire, personally, but I do have to say the connection is vast and the practice, ancient.

In Roman and Greek magic, erotic spells and chthonic gods were often put together, as was the case in the Greek Magical Papyri in which Hekate and Hermes were invoked along side Aphrodite and Selene to aid in forms of erotic magic. Greek witches in literature are well acquainted with erotic/sexual magic; Deianeira's love charm of semen, oil and blood (Diodorus); Andromache's abortifacient magic (Euripedes); Amaryllis's knot-magic, suffumigation of erosian and chthonic herbs (Virgil), to name a few.

Hellenistic bucolic poet Theocritus' Idyll 2: Pharmakeutria (The Witch or The Spell): 3rd century BC, words of Simaetha: "Moon, shine brightly.  For I shall sing gently to you, goddess, and to chthonic Hecate, at whom even dogs tremble as she comes across tombs of the dead and the black blood.  Welcome frightful Hecate, accompany me to the completion of my task.  Render these drugs no less powerful than those of Circe, Medea or blonde Perimede."-translation by Daniel Ogden
Secondary translation: Theoi Greek Mythology
So shine me fair, sweet Moon; for to thee, still Goddess, is my song, to thee and that Hecat infernal who makes e’en the whelps to shiver on her goings to and fro where these tombs be and the red blood lies. All hail to thee, dread and awful Hecat! I prithee so bear me company that this medicine of my making prove potent as any of Circe’s or Medea’s or Perimed’s of the golden hair.

Necromancy to draw youth, beauty and sex were a staple of the old witches of Thessaly from literature and poetry excerpts, acquainted with the rite of drawing down the moon, gathering baleful herbs, human bones and corpse talismans. Sometimes she is a sympathetic figure seeking to fix the sorrows of unrequited love, other times she is a hilariously described hag obsessed with sexual needs.  She bewitches with dolls, lengthy spells and of course, rummages through battlefields and graveyards for the dead.  Witch Pamphile blended death with her love magic creating philtra and enchantments for her erotic purposes with flesh and bone:
She  frequents this place secretly, since it is so useful for her magical crafts.  First she organized her laboratory of death with her usual equipment.  It was full of every sort of spice, metal tablets with undecipherable inscriptions, and preserved pieces of shipwrecks, and it included an array of quite a few parts from mourned and even from buried corpses.  Here there were noses and fingers, there nails from the crucified, flesh still clinging to them.  Elsewhere she kept the gore of the slain and mutilated skulls twisted from the jaws of wild animals. - Apuleius, The Metamorphoses
The tradition of the witch as love charmer evolved in Italy, and became part of the folk magic of magicians and witches in Naples.  And like their predecessors, the Italian witches in contemporary craft turn to necromancy/nekuia as part of their workings.
Witches are much sought after in affairs of the affections between lovers, and between husbands and wives, and to restore love between parents and children. They use an "acqua della concordia" and an "acqua della discordia." To bring back an unfaithful lover the witch goes at night to the cemetery, digs up with her nails the body of an assassin, with her left hand cuts off the three joints of the ring finger, then reducing them to powder in a bronze mortar, she mixes it with "acqua benedetta senza morti," bought at the chemist's. The lover is to sprinkle the road between his house and his sweetheart's with this water, and this will oblige the beloved one to return.- Italian Witchcraft, Charms and Neapolitan Witchcraft (Folklore History Series), Various
This hearkens back to the mythos of the great witches of literature and satire who came before us, Horace's Thessalian veneficum; Folia, Sagana, Veia, Erichtho, who took to concocting a love potion with the innards of an abducted, violated, tortured boy.  This tradition of necromancy that is commonplace in traditional practices of witchcraft in Italy and in most of Europe.  English witches were also accused of necromantic undertakings to aid their spells, presumably love spells among them.  In the American traditional craft of Hoodoo and rootwork, materia of corpses is still employed of magical workings, love charms among them (many of which call for semen, urine, spit, pubic hair, or the flesh of dead animals).  

In the American Southwest, the historical incidences of native medicine and witch-doctors being sought after for love philters seems to be mostly a product of Spanish influence.  The isolation of early Hispanic settlers in that large region along side the Indigenous population (Navajos, Pueblos, Apache etc) created a very distinct variety of witchcraft from region to region, just as Southern magic is something altogether different from magic elsewhere in the world.  Having spent my childhood influenced by this world, around santera, brujeria, curanderos and root-workers, palm-readers, medicine women , and folk-healers, I can say honestly that just as is the case in most mystic-spiritual arts, death and deathly objects are used to draw at the current of love and eroticism; old pagan gods of sacrifice and blood are still appeased with the burning of ancient copal and the drinking of the poison/aphrodesiac datura, love spells are still flavored with death, a style balance that touches the nature of practitioners.  However, I never personally witnessed the employment of a love spell that included human remains in Southwestern magic even though the tales of general witchery are vast and was fairly well documented.  These days, Santa Muerte is even called upon to aid in love spells, the element of death still present.  I'd love to learn more about the use of corpses and bodily secretions in Mexican magic.

Nothing says, "I love you... to death" like a combination of poisons, body fluids and the carcass of some stranger!  The current of love flows strongly with the threads of death entwined, though HOW the presence of decay (particularly that of a stranger) can influence a spell in the direction of stimulating desire and sensuality, it was perhaps the erotic delusions of the poets themselves that drove them to describe the witch as such, and if this is true then I cannot say how much of life imitates art or vis versa.  Either way, the witch in folklore and maybe still some today include ghastly fetishes and cadavorous materia magica (human and animal) in their love magic and even draw upon the aid of underworldly gods for success.  I'm fairly certain the need will never be great enough to dig up some stranger and take their knuckles in order to get laid, but anyone worth it ought to appreciate the effort and historical value.

Aint love grand?

References and Further Reading:

Metamorphosis, Ovid
Medea, Euripedes
Greek Magical Papyri
Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: A Materia Magica of African-American Conjure, Catherine Yronwode
Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook, Daniel Ogden
Homer's The Odyssey
Italian Witchcraft, Charms and Neapolitan Witchcraft (Folklore History Series)
The Sorceress, Jules Michelet
Idyll 2: The Witch, Theocritus
The Metamorphoses of Apuleius
Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, R. Andrew Chesnut
Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande, Marc Simmons
ArgonauticaApollonius Rhodius

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Witches in Hekate's Garden

Hekate who Medea called to as she plucked vicious roots from the earth for her spells. 
What makes a witch a witch?   Is it someone selling their soul to a devil, or is it a pact with the spirit world?  Are witches shamans or sorcerers?  All of those things appear to be true.  There is a diverse world of witches out there, all of them different with different motivations, but the similarities are pretty well established across most cultures.  My studies in American Witchcraft always lead back to the witch cults of Europe and classical witchcraft of antiquity; Greek, Roman and sometimes biblical.   When trying to establish ones path, I always like the approach of vigorous research into the history of your pursuits.  The witch can be many things, but there are some characteristics that define the roll of a witch  (as opposed to any other kind of magician, mystic, shaman or occultist).  In this day and age, the argument over definitions and identity is as heated as ever, but some truths are simply historic, their precedent set in the pages of countless literature, poetry and research in the human sciences.   The witch is someone who holds some sort of mystical and magical relationship with death and nature. 

Michelet described the witch as a type of person who communes with nature in a deep and mysterious way, is capable of medical and magical remedies with plants (with whom she holds some power over), and possesses knowledge in the production of love philters, birth control and deadly poisons.  The Witches of Belvoir; Phillipa, Marguerite and Joan Flowers were infamous in 17th century witch-crazed England as herb-wives and poisoners who were said to create concoctions of water, blood, bed feathers and personal items to keep a wealthy family who scorned them from reproducing.   They were said to have admitted to visionary experiences with the devil, communion with otherworldly familiars and a knowledge of wort-cunning.  Most authors on witchcraft of the old world specifically state that a witch usually achieves her work through the use of plants, minerals and animal parts as well as manipulation of seasons and luminaries.  In one passage he mentions the most basic Arts of the witch; healing, oracle, divinationconjure, shape-shifting, charming and dowsing.

She can heal. prophecy and predict, conjure up the spirits of the dead, can spell bind you, turn you into a hare or wolf, make you find treasure, and most fatal gift of all, cast a love charm over you there is no escaping.- Jules Michelet, La Sorcière
In popular occult literature of the Renaissance, witches, sorcerers or  magicians were deemed to be those who practiced in varying degrees the "Seven Forbidden Arts" or Artes Magicae which were; necromancyscapulimancy, chiromancyhydromancy, geomancy, aeromancy and pyromancy, or to put simply in the words of my tradition; the reading of flesh, the reading of bone, communion with the dead and communion with nature. But of course, the way we have viewed witchcraft especially in the western world was influenced heavily by the motif of the classical Greek and Roman pharmakis and venefica of old and their somewhat infamous gifts.  In essence the witch by inclination, indulges in the practice of:
  • Communion with the dead (necromantic workings, or divination)
  • Oracular Mysteries (divination and fortune-telling, seeing)
  • Secret Knowledge of Plants (both benign and deadly)
  • Attainment of Familiar Spirits (fetch, familiar, fairy or spirit with whom a practitioner associates)
Green witchcraft however is a more specific kind of practice.  The cult of the witch in a traditional sense was shamanic, and has since evolved into something altogether different.  When I speak of green witches, I mean the witches of plants and seasons-- real, down to earth-magic nature worshipers, not ceremonial magicians or sorcerers.  A green witch has always existed; as a cunning person, as an herbal sorcerer, as a folk magician casting charms on the land, as a shaman, as a poisoner, as someone who communes with plant and nature and is in the deepest sense, an animist.  The witch is always associated with the dead, divination and plant medicine, especially mind-altering or shamanic herbs that illuminate the mind and free the spirit.  The use of these ancient drugs for magical use as I've come to understand in Greek antiquity was referred to as pharmakeia though I believe the only real texts existing containing that phrase are biblical.  The term is related to the word pharmakon, meaning; drug, remedy, spell, medicine (pharmaka being the plural 'drugs')- and the term pharmakis, meaning; poisoner, witch, dispenser of drugs (herbs), or, a spell given for love.  Of course, this is the etymology of our modern word: Pharmacy- a dispenser of healing drugs.  According to Rätsch, the witch or pharmakis would master these pharmakon
  • Aphrodisiacs
  • Birth control
  • Poison and medicine
  • Traveling herbs (psychoactive plants) 
  • Life-extending elixirs
The witch can also be a medicine woman as was the case in many cultures, or a kind of spiritual rootdoctor who was employed to heal and to harm using her/his extensive knowledge and mastery of plants and their spirits.  The classical witch was often depicted as taking on a type of plant familiar (vervain, ivy, rue was the herb of choice in Neapolitan witchcraft, juniper or enchanters nightshade were partial to Kirke).  Defined in literature and poetry by their methods of necromancy, their vast knowledge of sacred and vile herbs and poisons and their wildness, the witch in Greek and Roman literature is insatiably romantic, vengeful and knowledgeable in magical herbs.  Medea, Sagana, Folia, Veia, Erictho, Canidia- sacred names to many witches who value Hekatean witchcraft and magic of the ancient Greek world.  

These original archetypes for our modern Western image of the witch personified the terror man held for those women who worshiped herb and death- a fear of the remnants of the 'agrarian and funereal' nature of paganism. The balance of nature and death cults, or rather the intrinsic oneness of both things are the basis of the old world witchcraft.  It hasn't changed in modern American witchcraft in my opinion, ancestor veneration and nature veneration are still alive and important in folk magic in the New World.  Witchcraft by nature is funereal and agrarian, the dead and the land hold a significance in the classical writings on witchcraft, and from what we know of the pagan cults of Europe (and many a region) is that the dead and the land were once two things held deeply sacred, sovereignty and honoring the beloved dead is likely more the norm in paganism to this day; this is apparent in Irish and Nordic paganism which is ripe in tales of honoring the dead and mastering the land and it's beasts with a spiritual respect.  I's rather universal in paganism and also in witchcraft, this practice of honoring of life and death, often times magically.  The witch is always the herbalist, always the poisoner, always the person who was deeply attuned to garden, grove and grotto.  Medea of Colchis and Kirki had a vast knowledge of plants, an extensive pharmacopoeia with which their magic is made radiant.  Medea is of course the perfect witch; vengeful, intelligent, of divine heritage and of course, she was a master herbal sorceress who drew from the Garden of Hekate the great many herbs now associated with traditional witchcraft; henbane, nightshade, aconite, etc.  The Herbal Sorceress is personified best by Kirke the divine sorceress who conjured from her sacred garden in the willow grove a wealth of herbs which she mixed with wine and oil and ensnared Odysseus and his men.  She is one of the eldest witches of literature and represents a true sorceress who administers her concoctions with a magic branch of juniper:

She blended baleful drugs into the food, so that they should forget their homeland completely.  She immediately struck them with her wand and shut them into piglets.-Homer's Odyssey.
In this modern world's green witchcraft, especially the craft of a Hekatean, we look towards the inspired fore-mothers and forefathers of our characterization of what it means to be a witch, and how someone pursuing the folkloric and agrarian cultus at the heart of witchcraft can find the roots of the traditions that make us, us.  For some people, it's simply living a more magical life.  For others, it's ceremony and ritual and deeply held faith in personal gnosis.  For a green witch in Hekate's garden, it is a combination of death and life; a cemetery in a garden, something that seems to be a perfect harmony for a witch... Especially the kind who gets their power from oneness with their bit of land... and the spirits there.  In Hekate's garden, there is a place for the green witches, a perfect place doing what we do best; plant medicine.

Death isn't evil, it isn't something to live life afraid of, it is sacred and beautiful.  The rituals we keep to remember the beloved dead serve to remind us of the beauty in our temporary nature, in the power of memory.  The body is a shell.

For more information on witchcraft, herbal sorcery and plant medicine...

Witches, Demons, and Fertility Magic: Analysis of Their Significance and Mutual Relations in West-European Folk Religion by Arne Runeberg

Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants by Claudia Müller-Ebeling

Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century by Richard Kieckhefer

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby

Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction by Tracy Borman

Greek and Roman Necromancy and Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds by Daniel Ogden

The Sorceress by Jules Michelet

Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries by Carlo Ginzburg

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Green Witch: Textile Art and Love of Dyes

A few days ago while skimming through my normal routs for anything related to herbs, herb dye and plant textiles (all of which I utilize on a spiritual level for my charm and talisman work as a practitioner of folk arts and agrarian magic) I ran across a wonderful variety of blogs both old and new that have other pagan plant-textile enthusiasts and even one recent article in The New York Times about how DYI plant textile art is coming back! I'm happy to not be alone in this art; it's something I developed an interest in watching my art teacher Missa teach classes on how to tie-dye fabric when I was about 8 years old.  She taught me and the other students how to dye fabric, how to make art from fabric dying.  Later, as I evolved into my green path, I became enamored with how herbs with all their specific properties both medicinal and occult can be so beautiful, so endlessly useful to us.  

First it was boiling camellia flowers in the spring time and dyeing old sheets my parents would throw away, trying to capture the essence and color I would need to apply to the yarns, cotton weaves and linen bolts that would help with my dream pouches, amulets, bags of medicine and cunning, herb-storing bags, sacred and pure silk bags for my sacred stones... it has spiraled into an all out addiction!  I bend over the stove, stirring pots; chamomile and basil for that sweet icy champagne color, corn flowers and blueberries for a dreamy twilight blue, cornflower greens with fresh onion skins will make a dainty yellow that works for a seasonal charm pouch, but Oregon grape, blackberry and wild acorn is sweet for an end of summer love spell.  The red and pink roses in a tin pot will make a sweet sage green that would make a lovely charm for Aphrodite, while a half cup of pinot skins and no tin pot will make a silver gray that reminds me of pure and new love.  The safflower and st. johnswort make a perfect yellow for a dream-protection charm, though I never did quite achieve the right protection black from those nut shells...  I'm still working at it.

My sister's work in anthropology takes her into the realm of ancient indigenous textiles and its potential in modern textiles and fashion.  Of course, being influenced so much by her, I take a similar road- though my studies have taken me to the use of sacred herbs and herb dyes in any and all pagan lore.  Anything and everything I can find on how certain colors and dyes were used in the processing and creation of mystical and magical objects or clothes is my interest.  While I cannot obtain all the plants, flowers, minerals, clays and chemicals I want to produce the vibrant array of the spectrum I see in my studies, I do well in my own right, matching the herbs to the cloth material, matching those to the needs I have, finding the balance between color, material and magic- and everything in-between. 

Some domestic, kitchen and green witches of the traditional variety spin at their looms for their purposes, others knit or weave, some sew glorious ritual robes, others embroider sacred objects... and some of us dye with the herbs we cut and uproot from the wild, we stew them in cauldron's over busy burners and experiment with raw, unprotected hands, puckering flesh, yellowed nail-ends, purple cuticles.  The smell is raw and hearty   The colors are deceiving and change over the course of a week and all the while your kitchen is ever untidy as your pots boil over.  The chamomile rises and explodes and the fruit flies make suicide dives into the miasma.  I feel a real connection when I'm seeking my colors, communing with those sacred plant spirits and watching the transformation from mundane into sacred just through the sacred act of devotion to one's craft... and crafty work.

Naturally Dyeing Blog with Sonia
Creative By Nature
Dyeing With Plants