In honor of the Hallowe’en season, Misty Skaggs brings you a special series profiling some of the honest-t’-god granny witches from the Appalachian hills and hollers. Follow along as Misty talks healing and hexing, herbcraft and auguries, with the fierce wise-women who practice mountain magick.
I was about eleven, and the moon was fat and full and just right, when Great-Mamaw witched a wart off of me. I’d been fussing and itching at it incessantly, and we were both getting real sick of Great-Papaw’s jokes about me and frog pee. There wasn’t much ceremony to it, no boiling cauldrons or eye-of-newt. She didn’t even wait ‘til the moon woke up. It was broad daylight in her warm sunshiny kitchen, and I knew she was serious when she sliced off a careful sliver of fat back bacon for wart-removal purposes. Great-Mamaw loved her fat back and hardly anybody raised hogs anymore. She took my grubby little hand in hers and located the trouble spot on the back of my middle finger. Then she slathered it up good and warned me not to wipe grease down the knees of my jeans. There were no magic words, but the next step struck me as mysterious and exciting. Great-Mamaw smacked the warm slick pork chunk into the palm of my hand and told me to go find a good heavy rock to bury it under. She told me when that meat rotted away to nothing, my wart would fall off. But only if I didn’t tell where I’d buried it and I didn’t peek at the progress. The secret of the spell was patience; the ability to wait it out and keep your mouth shut and let nature work its course. Patience was never my most abundant quality. Now I had an itchy wart and an itchy thought in the back of my brain. To keep myself from returning to the rock, I tried to imagine that meat rotting away to nothing. I envisioned the bits and pieces gnawed up and packed off by army ants and beetle bugs. I could almost catch a whiff of the sick, sweet, rancid smell. It was an exercise in visualization. I tried so hard not to stare at the offending blemish to decide if it was shrinking or not. I don’t know what to tell y’all, except one mornin’ I woke up and the wart was gone. Maybe the infection ran its course, maybe I scratched it loose during a particularly restless night. Or maybe Great-Mamaw’s witching worked.
I grew up believing that there are things in the world that can’t be understood or explained away. Ghost stories were embellished as they got a little wear, sure. The attic haints, and eerie lights in the woods, and the big black dog trotting up like Death on four quiet paws; those came from a true place. They were believable and believed. They had a point of origin, and they had purpose. The spirituality I witnessed growing up sprouted in the woods as much as it rose up from the aisles of a church. It had an earthy quality. Stars came down to meet plowed ground and make the green beans grow. And where I grew up, witches were real. There’s one in my family lore. Great-Papaw’s Papaw’s second wife was the bad kind of witch. The kind who cursed your crops and would give your baby the croup. Great-Papaw referred to the woman only as Asshole Annie, but he didn’t find it funny when we kids giggled over the cuss word. Asshole Annie was serious business, and Great-Papaw took up the serious business of makin’ sure a tree was planted on her grave to keep her malevolent spirit six-feet-down to stay. There were other witches, too. Women with gifts, women who might be called a little tetched behind their backs, but never called a witch at all. These were women who dug herbs for teas and poultices, and used the deep forest to cure deep wounds. There were women who delivered babies, and dreamed the future, and told you where to dig your well. There were women who read tea leaves, and spotted omens and signs cutting through the air like crows; granny witches and yarb women, women who tended to the physical and mental health of their rural communities as a calling, without an expectation of payment or even respect.
I’m no expert on witchery or its history. I’m not a practitioner of hill magick. I’m an open-minded agnostic and a superstitious bumpkin at best. But I’m also a daughter of the place that conjured me up. And I realize the importance of folk magic and medicine in the Appalachian region. Here in these mountains, magic has grown and evolved out of necessity. The isolation of the region, the exploitation of its people and resources, can’t be ignored in favor of spooky haunted trails and visits to witches’ graves. The mystery of these hills and hollers, seasonally manufactured or handed down like heirloom seeds, is easy to get lost in. But the truth behind the importance of the folk magic tradition is more pragmatic and sociopolitical. There has been historically, and there is currently, a need for supplemental healthcare in East Kentucky. Decent, readily-available medical help at the very least. The last time I had to call an ambulance, a beleaguered dispatcher called me back, with tears and frustration in her voice, to tell me that the paramedics broke down somewhere between town and the ridge. Making use of available medicinal herbs and traditional knowledge still plays a vital part in the lives of many Appalachians. The Granny Witch of the Week series started as a kitschy little thought I had while breaking off fresh mint to scare away mice. In the end, it has transformed into a modern look at some seriously badass hillfolk who have made serious commitments to nature, community, activism, and creating their own traditions.
Misty Skaggs, Rabble’s Appalachian Features Editor, is an author, artist, and activist from Eastern Kentucky.
Follow her on Twitter @mistymarierae.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain.