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.
Misty: Byron! I fell in love with the way you referred to yourself in another article as a forensic folklorist. That turn of phrase strikes me so vividly, as a third generation hardcore hillbilly storyteller! Can you explain it to us and little bit? And how does the title connect to your spirituality and beliefs?
Byron: As far as I know, I’m the only person to claim this profession. I was at a conference in Maryland, sitting on a panel discussing myth and practice. One of the speakers was talking about the use of fairy tales in the exploration of folklore practices. That is certainly part of the work I do, digging into stories to find the hidden nuggets, the information that was encoded into the European fairy tales that I grew up hearing and reading. It occurred to me that I was sifting through layers to get at the kernel and the phrase came into my head, a forensic folklorist. I did a Google search, as one does, and couldn’t find that anyone else had put that thought together. And here I am. (I just did that Google search again and my name came up.)
My spirituality is completely nature-based and animist, and my practice is Appalachian folk magic, what I have taken to calling hillfolks’ hoodoo. I say it that way because the folkways aren’t dependent on particular spiritual systems. They are a series of practices that have their roots in the British Isles, Ireland, Pennsylvania Dutch culture and First Nations people in the southern Appalachian highlands. Some of these practices are received as gifts, I assume genetically, that come through certain family lines. Things like the Sight, prophetic dreaming, hands-on healing and the like seem to come to most people through no work of their own; these abilities come to the surface at some point in the person’s life and may remain or fade with time.
I grew up unchurched, as we say around here, though my mother’s family were Methodists and my father’s Baptist. We went to church with my grandparents sometimes, or with friends, but were not churchgoers. I have never been baptized and have never considered myself Christian.
Misty: I reached out online to identify interviewees and at the mention of granny witchin’ and Appalachian folk magic, I was inundated with stories from friends and strangers alike. I introduced this series with a story of my own, about witching warts. And lordy, I got a lot of wart stories! One involved a rag buried and left to rot, another a string that was tied into a certain number of knots and left to the same fate. All the stories seemed to share two similarities: a full moon and leavin’ something alone to let nature run its course uninterrupted. Can you tell us a little about the origin of witching a wart in the mountain magic tradition?
Byron: The examples you gave are the ones I know, too. Because these folkways are generally shared down family lines, details of the cures and workings can vary from cove to cove and from house to house. They often have commonalities but the details may vary. There are many ways to remove warts through the methods you mention. But I am also an amateur herbalist and know the value of bloodroot tincture to do the same thing. Bloodroot is a little white flower that blooms in the spring but when the root is harvested and chopped, the juices are red. It is sovereign for removing warts and skin tags but you must be careful that the tincture doesn’t stay long on healthy skin.
There are traditional mountain burn spells that also vary from place to place. Sometimes three angels come out of the North to take fire and frost. Sometimes brides come out of the East to take fire and leave frost. As I travel around, I love to listen to the variations and to speculate on the origins of each. The ones about “brides” intrigues me. “Bride” is another name for Brigid, an Irish Goddess/saint who was involved in healing. Does this come to us from an Irish tradition? With this folkloric remnant as a clue to the charm’s origins? That’s the work of a forensic folklorist!
Misty: What would you say is the most powerful/interesting/shocking thing you have unearthed in your forensic exploration of Appalachian folklore and fairy tales?
Byron: The strength and, frankly, personality of these old mountains. I have always been here. My family has been here for hundreds of years. But there is always a new spirit (sometimes quite literally) around the bend in the path, something new to learn or experience or see. I love them afresh almost every day and find myself fiercely defending them (and our culture) like a mama bear.
Misty: I have also noticed in my research that witchcraft/folk magic and the Bible mix and mesh more often than one might expect in this region. My own great-great-grandfather was supposedly a healer, able to stop a toothache or blood by laying on hands and uttering a biblical verse that he felt was delivered to him in a dream, a verse he never shared with anyone. Is there a lot of crossover in Appalachian witchery and the Christian faith, historically and in your personal experience?
Byron: Of course there is. Appalachian folk magic—mountain witchery—comes firmly out of a Protestant Christian tradition and most traditional practitioners are Christian. There are add-ins and influences from Cherokee and other Native practices but the bulk of the work as it is practiced traditionally is Bible-based. Several years ago, an old-style practitioner informed me I couldn’t possibly practice this without being a Christian and had the good grace to laugh when I told her I’d been doing it successfully for about half a century without being one.
Because I now follow an Earth-based spirituality, many people outside the culture assume that these must be ancient Pagan practices of some sort. Leftovers of that perhaps, but as it has been and still is practiced, there is an understanding that the work doesn’t happen through the agency of the worker but through the Holy Spirit. Many workings come directly outof the Bible. The receipt (an old word for recipe) to stop a flow of blood comes out of Ezekiel and bibliomancy (divination by book, specifically the Bible) is a part of this, too.
I had a great aunt who could talk away warts. She would rub the affected area between her finger and thumb and the whole time be saying “I don’t know why people come to me about this. I can’t really do anything.” That sense of humility is central to these healing practices, the sense that we are merely tools of a Divine will and not the agents of the healing at all.
Misty: I think we’re getting know one another a little and you strike me as a straight talking backwoods broad, so. Give it to me straight, Byron… Have you ever used hillbilly hoodoo to stick it to some sumbitch who reeeeally deserved it?
Byron: Definitely. I teach a workshop called Willful Bane: the Joy of Hex. Here’s a piece I wrote about that:
Generous Wort and Willful Bane
“Only justice will stop a curse.” –Alice Walker
The notion of “re-wilding” witchcraft is flowing through some of the communities and individuals that make up modern-day Paganism. Witches have become domesticated, dysfunctional and inauthentic because we are cud-chewing and safe, some folks opine, and heads are shaken throughout Pagandom at our collective lack of wildness.
What a bunch of bunkum.
I don’t know who these sage philosophers are dealing with but the witches in my neck of the woods don’t come when called. We don’t scrape and bow and make ourselves small so that no one notices how dangerous we are. We are women (yes, mostly) who strive to have the powers of the natural world at our fingertips and revel in our freedom to do the work we’re called to.
We are house-clearing, baby-blessing, marriage-making, herb-swilling miscreants who answer to our personal ethical codes. We heal, we hex, we dance, we howl.
Yes, I have vervain, datura and belladonna in my garden. Yes, I observe the world around me, including the humans that are often unaware of my observation. Yes, I do believe if a witch can’t hex, she probably won’t have a strong gift for healing either.
That is not a popular sentiment in the modern Pagan world. I have been called to task on more than one occasion by well-meaning people who don’t really understand the difference between folk magic practice and the restrictions of formal traditions like Wicca. I will endeavor to clear some of that up here, to shed some light on these old workings.
This year I created a “Candy Magic” workshop that is an outgrowth of the popular Marshmallow Hex of several years ago. We were traveling to a festival or conference when I started riffing on using Necco Wafers to commune with the Dead and to call them Necro Wafers. Yep, I did that—and went on to think of other popular or old-fashioned candies and their nefarious uses.
Which led, as one might expect, to the Reese Cup Spell for Taking Another’s Power. I premiered that at a popular Midwest festival as part of my Willful Bane workshop an a couple of people were appalled at the notion of wanting to take someone else’s power. “Why would you want to do that?Why?” I presented a scenario where a boss was taking credit for all your work and you wanted to take the bloom off her rose, so to speak. I also reminded them that some of our Celt Ancestors were headhunters and I was only suggesting eating a delicious candy treat, not drinking from your enemy’s skull.
Gad zooks, people. Don’t you read history? Are you still so deeply mired in your Protestant upbringing that you can’t enjoy the irony of stealing someone’s glory by eating peanut butter and chocolate? Sometimes, honestly, I despair of us.
In the excavations of ancient holy springs, archaeologists have found lead rolls that hold prayers and bargainings, as well as imprecations. Alexander Carmichael and his fellow folklorists collected charming chants to change cream to butter, prayers to the Trinity and St. Patrick and St. Brigid, and charms less jolly and more sinister.
From the Evil Eye to animal sacrifice, these workings for justice, personal advancement or revenge seem to be hardwired into many cultures, mine being one of them. Bear with me as I sift through these odd and often misunderstood practices.
In classes, lectures and essays, I refer to these magics as banes, or banework. Bane’s opposite is wort. You may think of them as healings and blessings. But here’s an interesting thing about banework as I practice it: in spite of its fearsome reputation, I think of banework as an extreme healing modality. It’s a notion we will explore further.
Though I am a Wiccan priestess by training, I have inherited a folk magic tradition by virtue of being a child of the southern Appalachian mountains. I left much of that country lore behind when I went to college and grad school and pursued my chosen spiritual path. But with the birth of my daughter, everything came full circle for me and I looked backward over my shoulder to the shadowy rural life I had gleefully abandoned years before.
I began writing down what I could remember and asking friends and family what they remembered from so long ago. These old magics worked so well and were so simple, I pondered why they were so little known and whether I should share them out. As I began to talk about banework and developed my jolly attitude to the work, I came up against two of the concepts that keep this work from being more widely practiced: the Law of Return and the question of karma.
Three-fold return (and sometimes ten-fold return) is the notion that every bit of energy we put into the Universe comes bouncing right back to us. So, it seems only logical that we would never wish harm on another because that harm would return to us, three times over.
The problem with that is that, in addition to being a modern notion that doesn’t apply to folk magic, it simply doesn’t work. All of us know perfectly despicable people who seem to continue to profit from their behavior. You can look at the world of politics through the lens of history and see examples of good things happening to bad people, over and over again. It isn’t part of ancient spiritual structures and folk magic practitioners rarely consider themselves bound by this notion of return. If you are clutching your pearls at this point, then banework is not for you and you should jog on.
In the aforementioned Pagan discussions of our relative domesticity, some have stated, rightly enough, that this Law of Return business is another way to keep our practices contained, our work small, our intentions weak.
And then there is the notion of Karma. Every third meme on social media is about the power of karma to make amends where none can reasonably be made. Karma is “a bitch.” Karma will “take care of it.”
“I am leaving that up to karma.”
The problem is that karma, like tantra, is not deeply understood in the West. It is a subtle and exquisite Eastern concept. Karma links our life-force into the wheel of reincarnation. It is a beautifully woven and ancient idea that most of us get wrong. It is not tit for tat. It is not the righteous hand of justice for the guy who just cut you off in traffic. It is also not a concept that governs the work of people around the world who practice folk magic.
That being said, you should never engage in practices that you disapprove of or that you find unwholesome, my pearl-clutching colleagues. If you have ethical objections to the practices I’m describing, don’t do them. Don’t do anything that feels wrong to you. This work isn’t for everyone.
We live in a culture that seems to require us to try everything new, to sample the buffet of experiences that modern Paganism has to offer. But you don’t have to, not with this. Peer pressure is a force to be reckoned with, as any seventh grader will attest. Simply because that person you admire is touting banework as The Next Big Thing doesn’t mean you have to take it up. Search your own ethical base, be a grown-up, and discern carefully whether it meets your criteria as a valid and acceptable practice.
This applies to everything in life, by the way.
Attitude is everything in this work and I believe it should never be done in fear or anger. Shaking your tiny fist at the sky and swearing vengeance is dramatic in that graphic novel you love but it will gum up your banework and connect you energetically in ways you probably don’t want. I’ve discovered that it works best when you are relaxed, prepared, and a little gleeful about the working you are engaging.
I was visiting a friend a few years back and we sat on her porch, looking out at her garden. She told me about a problem with a member of her social circle and we discussed some simple remedies. At last, she shook her head and sighed.
“I don’t think any of that will work. We’ve really tried it all.”
I nodded and then smiled. “Have you got any black wax?”
She looked puzzled, then laughed and nodded. We went into the house laughing and assembled the materials for the necessary work. It was delightful.
Do it and let it go. Whether it’s an egg-binding gone into the freezer or a slip of paper burned at the crossroads—do the work and stand back. Evaluate the results and move on.
Perhaps a little history, steeped in injustice and oppression, will illustrate the other important piece when considering this work. Poor people who have little recourse to law have used these techniques when formal systems of justice aren’t available to them, either through financial hardship or cultural tradition. People steeped in the traditional culture of the Appalachians have always been loath to bring in law enforcement of any kind and that still holds true in many rural areas. There is a sense that poor people won’t get treated fairly in court and this has often proved the case. When there is no hope of justice, or faith in the legal system, people sometimes resort to hexwork.
Justice isn’t the only aim of banework and we are coming now to the notion of banes as extreme healing. There are situations where the family or community have been so thrown out of balance by the actions of one member that there seems no way to correct course and move forward. There are so many healing workings that can be done and folks tend to start simply, evaluate the results and see if healing has commenced. If it happens, they may choose to go a little deeper, to give the problem good attention and see if that helps.
At last, after due consideration and application of other healing modalities, you may choose a stronger method. You may think of it as amputation—losing a diseased limb to save the life—or as chemotherapy—the application of strong medicine because the illness is persistent and resilient.
It is powerful work and, I believe, necessary work. But it should not be entered into for fun or as the Next Cool Thing. You may be interested in it but feel unnerved by it. If that is the case, it is not for you. Butas with many things on a Pagan path, you may feel a call to this work.
Here are some general guidelines to consider:
—This work is never done in anger.
–Find a good teacher, a real teacher.
–It is not for everyone.
–Don’t be seduced by costly supplies.
–Start simply. Do the work.
–Evaluate your results and then consider how you could have achieved a
Whether you think of it as radical healing, hexing, or banework, stepping onto the fascinating path of folk magic’s deep healing requires study with a good and ethical teacher, it requires you to leave the drama at the door and focus on the work, and it invites you to enter into an energetic relationship with the rootworkers and hexmasters who have gone before.
You may now release your pearls and commence your tut-tutting, if that is where your thoughts are headed. But remember the Bard’s wisdom on this—there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy…
Byron Ballard, BA, MFA, is a western North Carolina native, teacher, folklorist and writer. She has served as a featured speaker and teacher at Sacred Space Conference, PantheaCon, Pagan Spirit Gathering, Southeast Wise Women’s Herbal Conference, Glastonbury Goddess Conference, the Scottish Pagan Federation Conference, Mystic South and other gatherings. She is senior priestess and co-founder of Mother Grove Goddess Temple in Asheville, NC where she teaches religious education, as well as leads rituals. She is one of the founders of the Coalition of Earth Religions/CERES, a Pagan non-profit and does interfaith work locally and regionally.
Her writings have appeared in print and electronic media. Her essays are featured in several anthologies, including Birthed from Scorched Hearts (Fulcrum Press), Christmas Presence (Catawba Press), Women’s Voices in Magic (Megalithica Books), Into the Great Below and Skalded Apples (Asphodel Press). She blogs as Asheville’s Village Witch, and writes as The Village Witch for Witches and Pagans Magazine.
Her pamphlet Back to the Garden: a Handbook for New Pagans has been widely distributed and she has two books on Appalachian folk magic, Staubs and Ditchwater: an Introduction to Hillfolks Hoodoo (Silver Rings Press) and Asfidity and Mad-Stones (Smith Bridge Press). Embracing Willendorf: a Witch’s Way of Loving Your Body to Health and Fitness was published in April 2017 by Smith Bridge Press. Byron is currently at work on Earth Works: Eight Ceremonies for a Changing Planet and Gnarled Talisman: Old Wild Magics of the Motherland. Contact her at email@example.com.
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, modified.