Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Living In Folklore

 

I'm coming to a place in my sense of myself as a witch and polytheistic animist that identifies most with the place and culture in which I live. I am seeing how it’s worked its way into me, and how I am, in turn, feeding it in my own way. Appalachia is a biologically and culturally diverse region, a place made up of many peoples, many spirits: Gods and spirits of the mountains and waterways; the railroads and mines; the cities, towns, and hamlets sprawling across the valleys; the frequent thunderstorms in the summer and snow in the winter; the birds, snakes, deer, coyotes, bears, and so much more. Life is abundant here.

 

The dominant culture here is not ancient, and it isn't static. It is constantly being revised -- and has been from the beginning. But certain themes persist, and as I learn about my Appalachian ancestors -- their names, livelihoods, the places where they lived and died -- as well as the arts and traditions of this area that were shaped by many peoples, I catch a glimpse of a part of me that I couldn't connect to before. Appalachian culture is often defined as a patchwork of West African, Native (in my area, Tutelo and Monacan), and Scotch-Irish folkways, but there's also a hefty amount of German and Scandinavian heritage here, too. And as more people make their way to this region and bring their traditions with them, it will continue to grow and change. More than anything, however, we are defined by the mountains that surround us. We are mountain people. They hem us in, protect us, support us.

 

It seems that mountain folk have always been viewed as rough, wild, superstitious, and backward. In “The Alpine Model of Witchcraft: The Italian Context in the Early Modern Period,” Vincenzo Lavenia quotes Trevor Roper:

 

“‘The thin air of the mountains breeds hallucinations, and the extreme phenomena of nature -- the electric storms, avalanches, cracking and calving of the mountain ice -- easily lead men to believe in demonic activity.’ Mountain inhabitants…’were racially distinct’ within the European populations...and they had not fully undergone transition to the Christian religion, still rather labile in the sixteenth century.” (152-153)

 

We still see this kind of attitude toward mountain folk here in the United States, in the 21st century, towards Appalachians. We're viewed as backward, superstitious, religiously zealous, strange and Other. Books and movies like Deliverance and Hillbilly Elegy capitalize on it. We are, of course, more than the stereotypes, but there are slivers of truth in them. It's perhaps less true for younger generations, but older folks sometimes tell stories about the traditions of their families that remind me how much we love (and, often, fear) spiritual mystery, how we accept that some things can’t be explained but are still worth doing and believing. We are in awe of our mountains -- we identify as a part of them, feel protected by them -- and the forces of nature at which we are at mercy.

 

There’s a reason witches fly off to mountain peaks in folklore, as in the Danish tale  “Esben and the Witch,” Walpurgisnacht lore, and the Bohemian story “Johnny and the Witch Maidens.” Mountains, perhaps by virtue of their stubborn impassivity and challenging, dramatic natures, are safe places for spirits and magic, from prying eyes and judgement. The people who live here know that they can’t be tamed, not really, only respected and loved and warily regarded.

 

My house was built ca. 1920, when orchards were being planted in the area. There’s a community sign across the highway from the road that leads to my house with an apple on it, a nod to that part of my area’s history. My house is what a friend of mine has called “a classic Virginia farmhouse” -- two-story, originally symmetrical, with a simple rectangular facade except for a small covered porch just large enough for a rocking chair, a small table, and some plants. The ceiling above the porch is that particular light blue that we call “haint blue” in the South. This tradition began within the Gullah culture of coastal South Carolina, from which it spread throughout the South, even into Appalachia. Blue is an apotropaic color -- think of the blue and white nazars of the Middle East -- which both draws in and traps malignant spirits. They are held there in the blue until dawn, when they are destroyed by the light of the sun.

 

When the house was first built, my bedroom must have been the kitchen, given the walled-up chimney beside my bed. On the circular, sealed-off chimney port are a series of intersecting Xs -- witch marks, to keep out evil and bad luck -- scratched into the plaster. Similar witch marks are found in Tudor-period homes in England as well. It’s compelling to me that some of the people who lived in this house before me, in the 20th century, were still scratching apotropaic marks into the chimney.

 

Wineberry canes -- a species of raspberry native to China, Japan, and Korea but introduced and now invasive in the Appalachian mountains -- are scattered throughout the woods near my home, especially at the edges near my fence. Like other raspberries and blackberries, the canes are thorny, but they also have fuzzy wine-colored hairs around the thorns that make them easy to distinguish from a distance. They have the habit of growing straight and then falling to the side once they reach a certain height, their tips grazing the ground, forming an arch. In Appalachian Folklore: Omens, Signs and Superstitions, Nancy Richmond and Misty Murray Walkup state that “A person who is seriously ill can be cured by passing under a bramble arch, since the thorns will snag any evil spirits as he goes through, thus separating them from the sick person” (102). The concept of illness being caused by spirits is ancient. I’ve written before about how the Plague was envisioned as an old woman with a rake or a broom in the early modern period, and Anglo-Saxon charms to cure maladies caused by elves are well known. Elizabeth Wayland Barber describes a Bulgarian tradition in which “A sick person or sickly child might also shed their illness by creeping between two close-set magical bushes, such as rose, blackberry, or thorn, tied together at the top to form a hoop” (102). So this idea of healing by passing through a hoop of thorns is widespread. I think of it every time I pass by the looped, wine-red canes.

 

I don’t see these household traditions as “backward” or merely “superstitious.” They are a sign of firmly grasped threads to our past, one that we are constantly needled to release because too many people have too little value of them these days. But these folk traditions are part of what makes us -- the things we remember, the stories we tell, what we do. It’s what I love about living in an old house: it's like living inside a kind of ancestor. I can gaze up at the haint blue porch ceiling as I enter my home, reach out my hand to the chimney port and touch the witch marks, or look to the wineberries in the woods, and feel the thrum of the threads that bind me to the past, to my culture, and to the spirits of the place I love.



Works Cited

 

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. W.W. Norton, 2014.

 

Lavenia, Vincenzo. “The Alpine Model of Witchcraft: The Italian Context in the Early Modern Period.” Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/29857735/The_Alpine_Model_of_Witchcraft_The_Italian_Context_in_the_Early_Modern_Period. Last accessed 10 Apr 2021.

 

Richmond, Nancy and Misty Murray Walkup. Appalachian Folklore: Omens, Signs, and Superstitions. CreateSpace, 2011.

 

Photo by Stephen Ellis on Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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