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

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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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  • 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!).

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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.

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