FolkWays: Eclectic Folk Magic, Conjure, and Witchery for Every Day. Making the Most of Folk Magic & Lore

"Explore ways in which you can easily deepen and sharpen your own practical magic by incorporating methods of divination and spirit-work. There's a little something for everyone in this hoodoo gumbo!" Explore ways to add enchantment to your life and expand your Paganism beyond the basics. Learn how to mine the rich traditions of folklife for new magical practices, and add new depth to your rituals with living folklore.

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Cory Thomas Hutcheson

Cory Thomas Hutcheson

Cory Thomas Hutcheson is the author of the New World Witchery blog site, and co-host of the New World Witchery Podcast. He’s a folklore fanatic, specializing in folk spirituality and magic. His practice revolves heavily around magical traditions developed in America, particularly the American South, including hoodoo and mountain magic.

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I’ve been working on an article for my other site lately which focuses on the magical ingredients which are readily available in most places without a trip to an occult shop or the need to place an online order and wait five to seven days for delivery. I explore the supermarket, of course, although I generally try to stay out of the spice aisle since so manyother folks do a fantastic job of covering that area. In the process of writing the piece, though, I mentioned that while major chain markets can have plenty of resources for magical practice for one sharp enough to discern magical purpose behind mundane ingredients, one of the best places in my area to shop for supplies is one of our local bodegas, Asian groceries, or international markets. These stores are small and independently run, and frequently have things I might not be able to find without special ordering them otherwise, such as specialized incenses, good quantities of galangal root at a fair price, and even animal curios like sheep bones or chicken feet used in folk magic and a variety of ethnic cuisine.

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  • Necole Witcher
    Necole Witcher says #
    Thank you for this. For someone that spends profuse time in graveyards this provides a lot of information. Consider doing anothe

Traditional wisdom ranging from a bevy of global cultures—including Native American, Taoist, and West African groups—calls for honoring one’s ancestors to a specific generational threshold. I’ve most frequently heard talk of remembering to ‘seven generations,’ and trying to learn the names of one’s family up to that level. Doing the math, if you start with yourself as the first generation (1) and go back seven steps, at level seven there are 64 individuals, for a total of 127 names, lives, and personalities to remember. If you start at your parents (2), the top level has 128 people, and the total runs up to 254 persons of note. That’s only counting direct ancestors, one mother and one father for each person, with no account for brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, stepparents, adoptive family, etc. While it is certainly not impossible to remember a roster of names to that length—recitations of lineage are common in a number of cultures which rely on oral transmission of lore—it can be difficult for people in a literate society to manage. Moreover, for those of us who like to maintain ancestral altars,  keeping physical representations of between 128 and 254 people on our altar spaces can be unwieldy.

So what are our options, if we recognize the importance of maintaining an ancestral presence in our lives? Today I want to look at some of the ways we can encompass our forebears without crowding out an entire room of the house with representative knick-knacks (if you do maintain such a room, kudos to  you and I would love to visit, as that would be an intensely powerful space, I think!).

Genealogy

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Or, Material Culture without Materialism.

“’[W]hen a bear has been killed the Ainu sit down and admire it, make their salaams to it, worship it, and offer presents of inao ; when a bear is trapped or wounded by an arrow, the hunters go through an apologetic or propitiatory ceremony.’ The skulls of slain bears receive a place of honour in their huts, or are set up on sacred posts outside the huts, and are treated with much respect: libations of millet beer, and of sake, an intoxicating liquor, are offered to them; and they are addressed as ‘divine preservers’ or ‘precious divinities.’ The skulls of foxes are also fastened to the sacred posts outside the huts; they are regarded as charms against evil spirits, and are consulted as oracles.” (James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough).

 In the Book of Acts, Christian legend recounts the near-disastrous riot caused by a conflict between St. Paul and an Ephesian silversmith named Demetrius. Demetrius made his living crafting statues of Artemis, and Paul’s decrying of the idolatry in Ephesus meant an end to his lucrative trade. So the jeweler roused a crowd to religious fervor to the point where local authorities had to step in and Paul’s disciples had to restrain him from being martyred by the crowd.

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In the library of the University of South Carolina, you can peruse—with the help of a librarian and a pair of cotton gloves—a rare and marvelous text called Joshua Gordon’s Commonplace Book, which dates to 1784. Gordon’s little tome contains herbal remedies, recipes for treating livestock and human ailments, and a number of magical charms which call upon Christian concepts—the Trinity, the name of God, etc.—to do everything from revealing a thief to treating demonic torment to dealing with cuts, scrapes, and bruises. In 1820, John George Hohman produced a now (semi-)famous book called The Long Lost Friend, which outlined a number of cures from the Pennsylvania-Dutch tradition, as well as methods for magically gaining a dog’s loyalty, treating skin lesions with homemade salves, helping cherries maintain a longer shelf (or branch) life, and a method for guaranteeing a good catch while fishing which involves rose seed, mustard seed, and “the foot of a weasel.” Some houses in Berks, Lancaster, and York Counties, Pennsylvania would have had copies of Hohman’s book, and some would have manufactured their own collections of spells and recipes more in line with what Gordon did. In some places, the possession of a strange and mysterious publication known as The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses provided a person with magical powers by mere virtue of the book’s ownership—the spells within being an added bonus.

When I was training with a Gardenerian Outer Court (and I should emphasize that I never went beyond the dedicant phase, and so the inner workings of that tradition are not expressed here), I remember the concept of the Book of Shadows being explained to me as a sort of hand-copied and inherited text. Each new initiate would likely have copied down his or her own version of the High Priest and/or High Priestess’ book, and perhaps have added to it over time with new spells and rituals. Over time, the book could evolve and change, but the process would be slow and meticulous, growing with the tradition itself.

At the other end of the spectrum from the hand-copied books are the mass-marketed spellbooks available from publishers like Llewellyn or Weiser, which may cover only a set of thirty love spells or which may be encyclopedic in their scope. A few artisan publishers produce excellent and lovingly crafted grimoires which have their own life force from the moment you remove them from their slipcovers (Xoanon’s Cultus Sabbati books or the range of gorgeous texts from Scarlet Imprint are fine examples). In these cases, the spells come pret-a-porter, but may already have the essence of magic in them by dint of their ink, book boards, and binding.

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  • D. R. Bartlette
    D. R. Bartlette says #
    What a great post! I'm a bit of a journal junkie , and of course my grimoire is most special to me, so I've thought about it a lot
  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard says #
    Lovely, Cory. Thanks!

We’ve just passed that luckiest of holidays, New Year’s Day, and I hope everyone has eaten your black-eyed peas, rice, beans, greens with a dime cooked in them, etc. Luck is a funny thing, isn’t it? We talk about it as a fickle force, capricious and careless: “a stroke of good luck,” “the luck of the draw,” and “just my luck!” (implying the Murphy’s Law tendency of luck to be good for everyone but ourselves). We personify good fortune as Lady Luck, a modern manifestation of the Roman Fortuna, often depicted blindfolded and holding a cornucopia or spilling coins about her feet, spreading abundance freely but without direction.

This preoccupation with good luck (no one seems to be courting the bad kind, after all) is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Romans—from whom so many modern American superstitions seem to derive—had a plethora of ways to attract the favor of Fortune:

  • The buying and selling of cauls, the amniotic membrane which sometimes remains on a newborn child’s head after birth, and which were reputed to bring good luck to sailors in Roman seaports and towns like San Francisco and Boston during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • Roman marriages frequently took place at lucky times of the month, such as Kalends, Nones, or the Ides (bewaring the Ides of March, of course). Brides and grooms today still look for auspicious wedding dates, and days which have repeated numbers (such as 12/12/12 or 8/8/08) often find chapels crammed with couples eager to wed.
  • Athletes competing in footraces or other games would frequently touch or carry items like a piece of cloth which had touched a winning athlete previously. This is not all that far removed from the idea of a “lucky jersey” or “lucky pair of socks” worn by athletes during sports competitions today.

In America, we have taken on some distinctly Roman characteristics—the symbol of the eagle, the hand-over-heart salute to our flag, etc.—and our adoption of luck as a national totem seems right in line with that identity. We’ve even gone so far as to build a holy city to Dame Fortuna with the glitter and neon of Las Vegas, not to mention countless smaller Meccas of chance around the country.

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  • Yvonne Catherine Jackson
    Yvonne Catherine Jackson says #
    so true
  • Yvonne Catherine Jackson
    Yvonne Catherine Jackson says #
    so true
  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven says #
    We tried something different this year; under the thought that the greens + black-eyed peas wasn't a "splurge" meal in this day an

I recently read an online post about Japanese food in which the author’s grandmother advised her to chew her first bite of rice eighty-eight times. The process of taking rice from seed to tongue apparently takes eight-eight steps, including the agricultural growing process, harvesting, processing, cooking, and so forth. Chewing eighty-eight times is a way, then, of showing respect to the rice, the farmers, the cooks, and so forth.

I have long been interested in what author Margaret Visser calls “the rituals of dinner” in the book of the same title. Visser has penned several tomes on the anthropological construction of mealtimes, including the aforementioned Rituals of Dinner and Much Depends on Dinner, and she dives into everything from good table manners (children pack their mouths with food because as infants they had taste sensors in their cheeks, for example) to utensil choice to throwing dinner parties  to deciding to prepare food oneself or to have it prepared (and take the chance that someone might intentionally poison it). Perhaps my favorite chapter in Rituals, however, is “Dinner is Served,” in which she looks at hand-washing, dinner bells, the role of “tasters” (to avoid those pesky poisons), and most importantly, noticing the food, the host or hostess, the other diners, and other atmospheric elements. Such notice, and the natural expressions of appreciation which accompany it, have become the traditions of saying “grace” or “thanks” for the meal before eating.

We have passed Thanksgiving, and are moving towards the winter holidays at rapid speed. I come from a culture where saying grace before a meal is simply “what’s done,” and while it usually comes with Christian overtones or contexts, the leader of the prayer is solely responsible for its content. Much gets made of the idea of saying grace even within Pagan communities, by way of offering thanks to the plants and animals who have given their lives that we might live, and that we might show appreciation to the gods for the blessing of another meal in the company of those we love. I love the quiet moment of grace before a meal, myself, and find that food is seldom foremost on my mind during such prayers. Instead, the consumption of bodily nourishment becomes secondary to the nourishment provided by gratitude and awareness.

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My mind shifts at this time of year from the thick-blooded heat and lethargy of summer into a fervor of magical practice. In my part of the United States, we tend to have lingering heat even into October and November, but it is tempered by the crispness of evening air. When the darker days come, I feel energized, renewed, and eager to work magic and tap into the current of enchantment which emerges when summer has been left behind. And while the greenery of the floral world retreats, a different kind of stirring seems to happen below the soil. The Dead are waking up.

It seems everyone has a festival of the dead in autumn. Of course, Halloween is probably the dominant cultural paradigm for those of us living in the United States and Canada, but Hispanic folks have Dia de (los) Muertos, people of Asian ancestry have holidays like the Ghost Festival or the Chung Yeung Festival, and Catholics have All Souls’ Day. While some cultures do not seat their ancestral reverences in autumn, so many do that working with the dead during the cooling months comes naturally to a lot of folks, myself included.

Developing an ancestral practice is, in my opinion, important to those practicing spiritual systems centered on land, folklore, history, etc. It creates a sense of family and timelessness, while acknowledging the mortality that binds every living thing together. It keeps tradition alive, while allowing for new growth and understanding as descendants adapt their practices to the era in which they live. In many cases, I’ve heard people explain that they do not work with ancestors because their predecessors would not have approved of their lifestyle, or there might be a history of abuse or harm, or perhaps they simply are not close to their family in general. However, I would argue that honoring the Dead does not necessarily mean honoring blood relatives. That may be the simplest method—and often it proves rewarding even when some family relationships have a history of bitterness in them—but it is not the only method. Why not work with deceased teachers from within your tradition? Or even culture heroes, like Black Hawk in the hoodoo traditions (a teacher-ancestor) or Johnny Appleseed if you happen to be in the Ohio Valley area (a regional/land-based ancestor)? I am not here to tell anyone how to live their spiritual life or which ancestor(s) to work with, but I do want people to understand that the Dead go beyond blood-bonds and share other ties with the living, and they are eager to work with us, especially at this time of year.

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Early August in Hope, Arkansas, means it is time for melons. Specifically, it is time for the annual Hope Watermelon Festival—a three-day affair replete with watermelon-weigh-ins to determine the largest fruit, an antique car show, an arts & crafts fair, face painting for the kids, and music. A four-day weekend celebration of all things related to mules occurs in Columbia,Tennessee every spring, which they call “Mule Day.” The festivities include a flea market, a wagon train, and enough banjo-picking to make Ned Beatty very nervous. The Mountain Moonshine Festival has been held for over four decades in Dawsonville, Georgia and features storytelling, music, dance, and a history of NASCAR racing. As a fan of folk culture and anything quirky, odd, or a bit weird, attending festivals like these has always appealed to me. Recently, however, I have thought a lot about the potential such celebrations have to add enchantment to a Pagan’s life.

Heritage and history are deeply important to many Pagans, who frequently hold ancestral feasts for the dead, practice archaic arts and crafts, and generally seem interested in the preservation of land and tradition. Embracing folk festivals serves Pagans well, because folk festivals have done much of the work of maintaining Pagan interests and values for many years. In an article by scholar Robert Cantwell, entitled “Feasts of Unnaming: Folk Festivals and the Representations of Folklife,” the author notes:

“We call the ‘folk revival’ what we do because in the popular imagination, and on the historical surface, it seems temporarily to have lifted the oppressive weight of history and civilization upon old traditional music. But in fact the gravitational force of folksong, folktale, folk crafts, and folk culture generally upon the minds of ordinary people, though it subsides and revives, has, historically speaking, always been there; it has been there for hundreds of years, well before there was even a word, in English, for ‘folklore.’ This has been particularly true in America, which was not only the native home of a complex and extensive aboriginal civilization, but also has been the adoptive home, from day one, of innumerable ethic, religious, economic, regional, national, and minority groups from which have evolved, in the American setting, thousands of diverse folk communities, urban and rural, with many residual, syncretic, and emergent folk traditions...There is, in America, scarcely a realm of human endeavor that has not enlisted the force of folklife, or representations of folklife, in its service”

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  • Gillian
    Gillian says #
    Great article Cory! I think that it can take a little digging to find these festival gems but it is most always worth it. As y
  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch says #
    I couldn't agree more, and have been working to bring more folk-belief practices into modern Heathenry for some time now. An inter
  • Cory Thomas Hutcheson
    Cory Thomas Hutcheson says #
    An excellent set of points, Joseph. The ethnic component of these festivals makes them a good way to reconnect with personal or cu

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