This article is intended to provide a brief introduction to the subject of North American folk magic. Although it has been studied and written about by a number of scholars, little has been done to contextualize the subject in the way that this article does. The primary purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to the subject, to help others understand the nature of the subject and the purpose of the subject, as well as the background, nature, and methodology of the research.
On the American continent, the community of American Indian tribes is, in part, a community of magicians and sorceresses. In the United States, the core of the shamanistic tradition is an old, old tradition of folk magic. It is passed down from mother to daughter, from grandmother to granddaughter.
Cory Thomas Hutcheson’s New World Witchery: A Trove of North American Folk Magic, released earlier this year by Llewellyn, is a must-have for your own occult library, and this book review will attempt to persuade you of that.
The book is split into Twelve Rites, which cover anything from defining witchcraft and addressing initiation to typical activities in North American traditional folk witchcraft, including exercises and practical labor, to commentary on witches in pop culture.
That’s a big goal, but Hutcheson does it– this is a massive tome of a book!
Let’s begin by defining what a witch is. “Whatever picture comes into your mind when that term goes by in conversation–whether whispered respectfully or shouted in anger– it will be the defining image for you,” Hutcheson acknowledges. That has always been a thorn in my side when it comes to the word “witch.” What exactly does that imply? What role does the label play in today’s world? “Many magical practitioners reject the label ‘witch’ due of its negative or religious connotations,” he adds.
The “New World” reference in the title is to anchor the scope of the content to how a particular place shapes the form of magic there. For instance, the local spirits and magical landscape around British Traditional Witchcraft in Europe can often feel distant here in the United States, where Brer Rabbit, Sop Paw, the greasy witches of the Smoky Mountains, traditions from West Africa, and the Native Nations converge in ways that might then feel distant in Europe.
Whereas some cultural practices, such as those of the Scots-Irish, German immigrants in Appalachia, African and West Indian Rootwork and Hoodoo, and Catholicism, feel unique in Europe, they mix together in North America. New World Witchery is about a crossroads, whether you use the sociological word of a melting pot or the occult one of a crossroads.
Hutcheson defines witchery by providing an outline of the following:
- Witch flying (similar to astral travelling in Taoist sorcery?)
- Making use of magical items (talismans, charms, divination tools, ritual tools, altar relics, etc.)
- Harmful words and curses
- Blessings and healing
- Suffering is a painful experience (i.e., experiencing discrimination, prejudice, being on the receiving end of aversion and animosity for identity as a witch)
- Getting By (e.g., necromancy, witches returning from the grave to seek revenge, enduring after death)
The book then breaks down traditional witchcraft into regions: New England Cunning Folk, Pow-wow and Braucherei, Appalachian Mountain Magic, Southern Conjure, Hoodoo, Rootwork, Curanderismo and Brujeria, Native American Witch Beliefs, and Neopagan Magical Practices like Wicca. There are also more specialized types of religious folk magic, such as Mormon origins in folk magic, Polish American Jews’ Yiddish house-blessing rites, and so forth.
This connects us to modern kinds of New World Witchery, such as contemporary feminist witchcraft, which combines critical racial theory, gender studies, and intersectionality with the seven magical activities mentioned above.
The book is presented in the second person, from the perspective of a seasoned witch speaking to a student witch, and it covers a broad variety of subjects you may be interested in when it comes to modern witchcraft and how to create your own particular practice. “A New World Witch is someone who practices folk magic in North America. Use this book to wander about the terrain, discovering new things and replenishing your magical supplies along the way.”
Chapter after chapter, you’ll learn folktales and local traditions about witchcraft and magic, such as the Paiute prophet Wovoka uniting many Indigenous Nations via a powerful ceremonial dance known as the Ghost Dance. Or Auntie Caroline Dye, a seer and conjure artist from Newport, Arkansas, Tituba from the Salem Witch Trials, or Mary Black. Mother Lane, a Mexican American psychic medium and healer, and Nelson Rehmeyer, a braucherei or Pow-wow healer from York, Pennsylvania, Granny Tucker from the Gulf of Mexico, and Grace Sherwood, the Witch of Pungo, are among the characters featured. These tales are collected in sidebars under the heading “Singing Bones.”
Sidebars titled “Dirt Under the Nails” provide step-by-step spell-working instructions from various North American magical traditions, ranging from how to make a sweetening jar or a souring jar, blood verses, a success bundle spell, or a ritual for meeting the Devil in the woods at midnight, and more, to 21st century technology cleansing spells.
There’s some very excellent, meaty information on folk medicine in here, including lists of therapeutic plants classified as localized to the eastern and western parts of North America. American ginseng, juniper, witch hazel, tobacco, alder, and other plants are found in the east. Agave, cat’s claw, mallow, poppy, white sage, and yucca are some of the plants found in the western United States. What I found funny was how many of the listed plants for the east coast are cultivated by my mother in upstate New York, and how many of the listed herbs for the west coast are grown by me in northern California.
Let’s talk about the Witch Flight portion, which is something I’m not acquainted with in terms of western folk magic and witchcraft. So, pretty much everything here is new to me. My research into the subject, including Hutcheson’s book, and careful comparison analysis has led me to believe that the Taoist magic counterpart of astral travel, or contemplative visionary trips, exists.
So a legendary witch (in popular North American beliefs) travels to sabbats or perform spells on a broomstick (or the metaphor of a broom?) Then there’s utilizing a witch’s bridle to ride animals or other people, or using magically made salves like flying ointments or witches’ grease, which are essentially hallucinogens and psychotropic drugs. There are many more particular techniques covered in the book under the topic of Witch Flight, but I’ll stop here.
All of this fascinates me in the context of my studies in cultural anthropology. And it was essential for Hutcheson to put in such a book, so congratulations on that.
This book’s title is no exaggeration: it’s a treasure mine of folk witchery. Domestic magic, or infusing magical practices into cooking and housekeeping, has a lot of practical advice. One noteworthy example is the use of store-bought Pine-Sol, which a witch could employ not just to clean the house but also to expel the bad spirits from it. Magical housecleaning may also be done using ammonia and salt added to mop water. A recipe for Four Thieves Vinegar is also included. A Hoodoo custom calls for cleaning and guarding the household using pee diluted in mop water, a manner of “marking your territory” that may also guarantee your spouse’s loyalty.
One of the book’s strengths is the connection of well-known folk magical practices to location. Knot charms, for example, are often linked to Maritime Witchcraft, Mountain Magic, and New England Cunning Folk traditions for healing and regulating different occurrences. Native Huichol, Lakota, and Ojibwe folk magic are used to create God’s Eyes. In Hoodoo and Southern Conjure, fabric and cloth knots are prevalent. Or the West Coast’s paper poppets of Chinese American and Japanese American folk magic.
There’s also a fantastic part on the Devil, Satan, and the Devil’s cultural link to witchcraft. This includes legends such as a blues magician selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for musical fame and fortune, the Appalachian tradition of obtaining a witch ball (made of hair and wax) from the Devil for spellworking, and witches being initiated by the Devil in the Ozark Mountains. In folk witchery, the Devil or a Dark One figure is discussed as an archetype of the tutor, mentor, sponsor, or gift giver, with the caveat that he is a trickster.
Finally, the book concludes with a cultural analysis of contemporary witchcraft, focusing on the Satanic Panic of the 1970s and its resurgence in the 1990s. When Dianic Wiccan Z. Budapest challenged a San Francisco anti-fortune-telling law, Hutcheson covered the historic court fight that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. By the way, how significant was the case in terms of jurisprudence? It is something that almost every prospective lawyer will have learned about in law school.
The cultural commentary on modern witchcraft refers to current movements by People of Color, particularly Women of Color, who seek power through witchcraft, citing Bri Luna (aka The Hoodwitch) on Instagram and mainstream news reports of Witches of Color publicly casting magical spells to influence politics. Michael M. Hughes was also the mastermind of the notorious Trump Hex.
Witchcraft was embraced by radical feminists in the twenty-first century, particularly the feminist organization W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), which promoted the image of the witch as a challenger to patriarchy.
You’ll be able to quickly browse more in-depth reading and move between parts of the book depending on your interests thanks to the extensive Bibliography and index at the end pages.
New World Witchery is a massive collection of witchcraft and folk magic, including everything from regional customs, magical heritages, urban tales and folklore, and artifacts to familiars, divination, spirit contact, rituals and spells, and the moon and moon phases in witchery.
Hutcheson is a co-host of the famous New World Witchery podcast. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Penn State, with a focus on folklore, religion, and ethnicity. His work appears in the Oxford Handbook of American Folklore and American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales, among other publications. Whether you’re studying theory or practice from his book, his professional level of expertise and cultural sensitivity come through on every page.
New World Witchery is a comprehensive, genuine reference book on the history and cultural practice of witchcraft in North America, as well as ethnography and magical traditions, and can serve as a useful source of inspiration for your own contemporary witchery efforts.
Disclosure to the Federal Trade Commission: I got this book from the publisher for review in compliance with Title 16 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Everything I’ve stated so far has been genuine and properly represents my feelings about the book.
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