European-American Folk Traditions

When settlers from the British Isles and Germany arrived on the shores of North America, they brought with them not only Christianity, but also a variety of folk beliefs and practices related to every aspect of life and death.

To Appalachia was brought a belief in signs and omens, numerous proverbs, and folk healing practices centred on ‘Granny Women‘. Three fascinating posts on Appalachian folk magic can be read here, here, and here.

To the Ozarks came a form of folk magic very firmly grounded in Protestant Christianity, while holding much in common with other folk religious and magical systems. A helpful glossary of Ozark folk magic can be found here.

Meanwhile, the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ brought from Germany a magico-religious systemknown as brauche, or ‘powwowing’. Powwowing is rooted in German esoteric traditions and makes use of both the Bible and material derived from European grimoires. Even today, the practice persists, albeit often still under a veil of secrecy. A good website providing information on the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions can be found here.

The wakes and feasts of country parishes

In pre-modern England, the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint was marked yearly with great celebration. The following accounts of such festivities give an indication as to how far removed the Christianity of ordinary rural people was from the staid church-going of today.

Celebrations in the South West:

Then the inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.[1]

Festivities in Lancashire:

The eve of such anniversary was the yearly wake (or watching) of the parishioners; and originally booths were erected in the churchyards, and feasting, dancing, and other revelry continued throughout the night. The parishioners attended divine service on the feast day, and the rest of that day was then devoted to popular festivities. So great grew the excesses during these prolonged orgies, that at length it became necessary to close the churches against the pageants and mummeries performed in them at these anniversaries, and the churchyards against the noisy, disorderly, and tumultuous merry-makings of the people. Thenceforth the great seal of the revels was transferred from the church and its grave-yard, to the village green or the town market-place, or some space of open ground, large enough for popular assemblages to enjoy the favourite sports and pastimes of the period. Such were the general character and features of the wakes and feasts of country parishes, changing only with the name of the patron saint, the day of the celebration.[2]

References:

[1] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.5. Citing Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, Or The Antiquities of the Common People (1725).

[2] John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson (1867) Lancashire Folk-Lore (London: Frederick Warne and Co.), p.213.

Love and death in British folk magic

In addition to healing, attracting good fortune, and so on, compulsion is often an important element in folk magical systems, particularly in regard to love and relationships. This is illustrated below, where we see reference made to two candle rituals aimed at compelling the appearance of a lover, as well as the allegation of the use of powders for a similar effect.

As folk magic emerges from within the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ people, and as it is integrally linked to the everyday and the earthy, it should come as no surprise that in addition to petitions to God and use of religious items and symbols, an appeal to the mysterious power of death itself is sometimes made, whether that be through attempting to harm another or through seeking restoration through the use of items touched by death. Examples of this are also found below.

Compelling others in matters of the heart:

‘Buckinghamshire damsels desirous to see their lovers would stick two pins across through the candle they were burning, taking care that the pins passed through the wick. While doing this they recited the following verse:

It’s not this candle alone I stick,
But A.B.’s heart I mean to prick;
Whether he be asleep or awake,
I’d have him come to me and speak.

By the time the candle burned down to the pins and went out, the lover would be certain to present himself’.[1]

Women in Durham placed the end of a tallow-candle stuck through and through with pins in a box to hasten the visit/return of a lover.[2]

‘Whenever the superstitious person is in love, he will complain that tempting powder has been given him’.[3]

Harnessing the power of death:

‘It is said in Devonshire that you may give [ague] to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head: your neighbour will be afflicted with ague until the bag is removed. In Somersetshire and the adjoining counties, the patient shuts a large black spider into a box, and leaves it to perish…'[4]

‘Moss growing on a human skull, if dried, powdered, and taken as snuff, will cure the headache’.[5]

‘The chips or cuttings of a gibbet, or gallows, on which one or more persons have been executed or exposed, if worn next to the skin, or round the neck in a bag, will cure the ague, or prevent it’.[6]

18th Century Devonshire cure for convulsions: Make a ring, which ‘must be made of three nails, or screws, which have been used to fasten a coffin, and must be dug out of the churchyard’.[7]

References:

[1] William Henderson (1866) Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties Counties of England and the Borders (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), p.139.

[2] Henderson (1866), p.138.

[3] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.308.

[4] Henderson (1866), p.118.

[5] Brand (1849), p.277.

[6] Brand (1849), p.277.

[7] Brand (1849), p.300-301.

Sacred Wells in Britain

Sacred wells (or ‘holy wells’) were once found throughout the British Isles and represent an aspect of pre-Christian belief which survived as a result of ecclesiastical ‘reinterpretation’ rendering them (just about) orthodox. The idea underpinning sacred wells is that there is a benevolent spirit (akin to a genius loci) which somehow inhabits, or has responsibility for, the well and can be engaged with in order that the water of the well might have a healing effect. While such wells came to be associated with various saints in order that they should be cleansed of pagan connotations, the same underlying principles remained intact.

A person in need of some kind of healing (which could include healing of both bodily and mental ailments) would visit a sacred well and make an offering to the spirit/saint of the well. An offering might be made as a down-payment in advance of a successful healing or left out of gratitude for a healing that had already occurred. Sometimes ritual words would be spoken or ritual actions undertaken (walking around the well a certain number of times, and so on). Sometimes a well would be visited at a particular time of year which was said to be especially fortuitous or powerful. Offerings and rituals varied from place to place but some common practices do emerge.

Rag wells were a common form of sacred well, particularly in Scotland and the North of England. At such wells, rags were left as offerings to the spirit of the well and were often tied to trees and bushes adjacent to or overhanging the well. In addition to rags, other common offerings included pins, needles, nails, shells, pebbles, and coins of low value. Such devotion was still in evidence in the Nineteenth Century. John Brand, writing in 1841, comments:

The leaving of rags at wells was a singular piece of popular superstition… This absurd custom is not extinct even at this day: I have formerly frequently observed shreds or bits of rag upon the bushes that overhang a well in the road to Benton, a village in the vicinity of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which, from that circumstance, is now or was very lately called the rag-well. The name is undoubtedly of long standing: probably it has been visited for some disease or other, and these rag offerings are the reliques of the then prevailing popular superstition.

(Brand, 1841, p.224)

The leaving of rags at sacred wells continues to this day, although I am unsure as to whether this is through unbroken local tradition or through modern revival; perhaps it is a mixture of both.

In addition to these traditions, particular types of tree are also associated with sacred wells and have often been found over them or nearby. The types of trees held to have sacred qualities that were found near holy wells are hawthorn, elder, ash, oak, hazel, holly, yew, and rowan (Varner, 2009, p.62). The elder was long associated with pagan devotion and was the object of censure from church authorities (ibid, p.63). Wulfstan, an 11th Century Archbishop of York, for example, had the following to say:

And it is right that every priest eagerly teach Christianity and crush all heathenism; and forbid the worship of springs, and necromancy, and divination and incantations, and the worship of trees and stones, and the devilish trick people perform in which a child is dragged across the earth, and the superstitions practiced with various auguries on New Year’s night and at pagan shrines and elder-trees, and a great many other errors which men practice much more than they should.

The yew has also long been held to be a tree of special significance, being planted in numerous churchyards, a practice which Brand suggests ‘might be nothing more than a remnant of that superstitious worship paid by the ancient northern nations, in their Pagan state, to trees in general, and to oaks and yews in particular – a deeply rooted habit, which for a long time infected the Christian converts of the north of Europe’ (Brand, 1841, p.260-261).

Further reading on the topic of sacred wells:

Buttons, Bras and Pins – The Folklore of British Holy Wells

What are Holy Wells?

Related:

Wishing Well

Wish Tree

British Crossroads Magic

In Britain, as elsewhere, the crossroads has traditionally been a place of spiritual power. For a long time, suicides and murderers were buried at crossroads, as it was believed that this would confuse their spirits and ‘bind’ them there, thereby protecting neighbouring communities from their influence. The crossroads was an intimidating place, yet at the same time also a powerful place, and divination took place there, as it did across Europe.

Various rituals intended to rid the individual of ailments were carried out at the crossroads. An Oxfordshire cure for warts involved the sufferer binding a large black slug upon the wart for a night and a day, then going at night to the nearest crossroads and flinging the slug over the left shoulder. People of Exeter and the surrounding area suffering from fevers would visit at the dead of night the nearest crossroad five different times, and there bury a new-laid egg, thereby transferring the illness to the egg and ridding it from their body.

On the Isle of Man, people wanting to get rid of evil spirits and bad luck would should go to where four roads meet, and sweep the intersection clear. This was done at midnight when there is a full moon and a broom was used.

It wasn’t just people who wanted to get rid of evil who visited the crossroads for ritual purposes at night, but also those who sought to raise and make contact with spirits for occult purposes. Accounts of such activities can be found in John Beaumont’s book of 1705 entitled An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. In this book, Beaumont presents the case of a 20 year-old acquaintance of his from Gloucestershire named Thomas Jerps. Jerps was a man who had sought to engage with spirits at the crossroads:

I ask’d him several particulars concerning the method he used, and the discourse he had had with the Spirits; He told me he had a Book whose directions he followed, and accordingly, in the dead time of the Night, he went to a cross way, with a Lanthorn and Candle, which were Consecrated for this purpose, with several Incantations: He had also a Consecrated Chalk, having a mixture of several things within it; and with this he used to make a Circle at what distance he thought fit, within which no Spirit had power to enter; after this he Invoked the Spirits, by using several forms of Words; some of which he told me were taken out of the Scriptures, and therefore he thought them lawful…

About a Quarter of a Year after this, he came to me again, and told me he wished now he had taken my Advice, for he thought he had done that, which would cost him his Life, and his Eyes and Countenance shew’d a great alteration. I asked him what he had done? he told me that being Bewitch’d by his Acquaintance, he resolved to proceed farther in this Art, and to have some Familiar Spirits at his Command, according to the directions of his Book, which were to get a Book made of Virgin Parchment, and Consecrated with several Incantations, as also particular Ink, Inkhorn, Pens, &c. for this purpose; with these he was to go out as usual to a Cross-way, call upon a Spirit, and ask him his Name, which he was to enter in the First Page of his Book, and this was to be his Chief Familiar.

Sources:

Beaumont, John (1705) An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. Online.

Devereux, Paul (2010) ‘Talking and Walking with Spirits: Fresh Perspectives on a Medieval Necromantic System’ in Patrick Curry (ed) Divination: Perspectives for a New Millenium (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing): 243-250.

Rogers, Liam (1996) ‘The Enchanted Crossroads’, White Dragon. Online.

Roud, Steve (2006) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (London: Penguin Books).

Eighteenth Century British Folk Religion

In the third volume of his Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1849), John Brand quotes the following from a manuscript entitled Discourse of Witchcraft, which is attributed to ‘Mr. John Bell, Minister of the Gospel at Gladsmuir, 1705’:

Guard against devilish charms for men or beasts. There are many sorceries practised in our day, against which I would on this occasion bear my testimony, and do therefore seriously ask you, what is it you mean by your observation of times and seasons as lucky or unlucky? What mean you by your many spells, verses, words, so often repeated, said fasting, or going backward? How mean you to have success by carrying about with you certain herbs, plants, and branches of trees?

Why is it, that, fearing certain events, you do use such superstitious means to prevent them, by laying bits of timber at doors, carrying a Bible meerly for a charm, without any farther use of it? What intend ye by opposing witchcraft to witchcraft, in such sort that, when ye suppose one to be bewitched, ye endeavour his relief by burnings, bottles, horseshoes, and such like magical ceremonies?

How think ye to have secrets revealed unto you, your doubts resolved, and your minds informed, by turning a sieve or a key? or to discover by basons and glasses how you shall be related before you die? Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?

In 1725, a book was published which sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. In the book, Henry Bourne collects together the results of his research into the beliefs of his fellow Englishmen and highlights the fact that both the customs/rituals they observe and the beliefs they hold to be true are in the large part not of an orthodox Christian nature; in fact, they really constitute clear examples of folk religion and folk magic. Speaking of the majority of the English population of his day, Bourne states:

As to the Opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious, being generally either the Produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance. And indeed the ignorant Part of the World, is still so aw’d, that they follow the idle Traditions of the one, more than the Word of GOD; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment.

Sources: 

John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.268-269. Available online at Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Henry Bourne (1725) Antiquitates Vulgares: or, the Antiquities of the Common People. Giving an account of several of their opinions and ceremonies (Newcastle: J. White). Download the book at Google Books or read online here.