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


  1. Beautiful words and very informative. Thank you for sharing this :)