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Folk Magick

Well we made it to July! I think we need to give ourselves some recognition for that alone. It hasn’t necessarily been a smooth ride, but everyday is an opportunity to rewrite, or at least revise, our story. This is something I’ve been working on myself, this is something we should all probably always have in the back of our minds to some extent. And yes, it’s not reasonable or realistic or healthy to constantly be grinding, grinding, grinding, constantly focused on self improvement, never giving ourselves a break, and I swear if I see another meme talking about you have the same number of hours in a day as Beyonce… I’m gonna lose it.  

BUT. It’s also not healthy to let ourselves continue to sit comfortably in stagnation. It’s important to push ourselves a little, to challenge ourselves, to learn new things or find out what we are capable of. And if we’ve made it this far into the year, we have definitely been challenged. So kudos to all of us. Also, as an aside, I did have some major email issues this past week, so if you wrote to me and I didn’t respond, please send it again. There were a good four days or so that I wasn’t receiving emails and although it has been resolved, any emails that were sent during that time were lost in the ether, so please, just send it again and I’ll get to it right away. 

 

Today, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite kinds of magick. We are going to talk about Folk Magick. I love folk magick, because it varies so much across regions and cultures, but all of these different, seemingly disparate practices have a lot in common. These practices come from cultures in which people made do with what they had. Folk practitioners were not, as a rule wealthy and powerful; these people were working from a place of powerlessness by and large. And so that’s why you’ll see a lot of workings in folk magick for getting even with unfair bosses, or workings for keeping the tax man away, or workings for women to get themselves a good husband. This kind of magick is very, very practical.

 

And it tends to use items that were easy to come by and usually free to the people these spells were meant to serve. It’s generally regionally based. With very few exceptions, folk magick is an extension of traditional folk healing, which would have included an almost seamless blend of medicinal plants and other natural remedies, used in combination with folk beliefs, rituals, customs, traditional practices, and local superstitions. 

 

Every culture had healers and they had all kinds of names for their profession: shaman, cunning folk, witchdoctors, wise women and wise men, herbalists, curanderos, I mean, the list truly goes on and on, goodwalkers in Italy. And while I’m not going to devote a lot of time today on the herbal medicine aspect of this practice, I do just want to address where the roots of folk magic come from in order to understand the reverence and  the respect that these practices were given. These practitioners were held in very high regard within their communities. 

 

They typically would have had extensive knowledge of local plant life and remedies for all kinds of common ailments. They would likely be skilled midwives as well. So they were present and they were relied upon during the most significant times in people’s lives. They would have spent their entire lives learning and performing their respective duties in their communities, and in turn, they were generally given a special position of esteem. And the knowledge they had would have been passed down to them from an ancestor or a teacher, and they in turn would have passed their knowledge down. 

 

But it’s those supplemental additions of ritual, superstition, custom and folk beliefs that we are going to focus on today. And we are going to cross a lot of cultural lines and talk about common folk magick from a lot of different sources today just so we can have a really rounded discussion, but I do think it bears mentioning that if we look in our own backyards, so to speak, if we think about the regions we live in, the people historically who lived here (wherever here may be for you), and their own practices, and then of course in our own lineages, we can find really rich histories and traditions to draw from.

 

Traditionally, folk magic blended with everyday life in such a way that what we commonly think of as witchcraft now would have been completely normal and accepted. I know that there is a long history of persecution of anyone even tangentially associated with witchcraft, but the people of those times drew a very distinct line between widely held folk beliefs and what they called witchcraft. Witchcraft was synonymous with devil worship, cursings, hexes, consorting with demons, human sacrifice and cannibalism, and things like that. Hanging a special bag of herbs and animal bones above your bed to heal your cough would not have been considered witchcraft at all. That would have been healthcare.

 

Now, my people came here primarily from the indigenous tribes of Oregon on one side and from Oklahoma, and before that, Ireland on the other side. So there are a lot of folk beliefs to be found just in my own family line. Of course there are some of the usual beliefs, like divining whether a pregnant woman is having a boy or a girl depending on how high or low in the abdomen she carries the baby, but then there are the little customs that are more particular, right on down to the really niche practices that only exist in my lineage. I know my grandmother and my grandfather, before he passed, had a little custom of two quick kisses on the lips and one on the cheek before one of them would leave the house to go somewhere. They always did this. And the one time they didn’t, my grandmother’s Buick was t-boned by a police car in the middle of an intersection. So when I tell you they were religious about this little tradition, I am quite serious.

 

But let’s talk a little bit about those practices that kind of transcend time and place and are found in all kinds of traditions. Because I feel like the fact that some of these practices are so widespread actually gives them a lot more weight. If all kinds of different peoples were using similar methods to solve their problems, then there’s probably something to it. At least that’s my thinking. There is a lot of overlap between practices like Hoodoo, Santeria, granny magic, conjure, etc. and indeed there is a lot of overlap among regional beliefs and customs. For example, you’ll find beliefs and methods of protection against the evil eye across the world and back through recorded history. Ancient Syria, Greece, Turkey, Italy, all across Europe actually, west Asia, west Africa and more, every single one of these regions believed that you could be cursed by a malevolent glare, frequently as a result of someone’s envy. 

 

And all the people in these regions had specific methods for protecting oneself against the evil eye, frequently with an amulet or a charm of some kind. The nazar, which comes from Turkey, is the little blue-eye charm that most of us probably think of to protect against the evil eye. The hamsa, which comes to us from North Africa and the Middle East, is also known as the Hand of Miriam in Jewish culture. This looks like a stylized hand with an eye in the palm. And you’ll also find that the color blue, that bold, deep blue usually found in the evil eye charms, is used by lots of different cultures as well for protection against it, which I find really fascinating. The evil eye is so pervasive across cultures that it’s definitely one of those things that I am really confident exists, so, you know whatever method you may have for protecting yourself and your loved ones from the envy or the poison of someone else’s thoughts, as long as you’re doing something, they better off you’ll be. 

 

The idea of sacred plants is another folk belief that you’ll find in any culture. And again, these will vary by region and especially by any particular group’s place of origin. And I’m not talking only about medicinal plants. I’m specifically talking about assigning plants magickal properties. For example the lotus in Hinduism, Buddhism and ancient China is very special. It grows beautiful and white from the mud and the muck. It sits atop the murky water and represents life, fertility, and purity. Mistletoe was significant to the Celtic druids, not because it could be used medicinally; it’s poisonous as hell, but for communing with spirits, and indeed we in the West still hang it at Yuletide and may stand under a bough of mistletoe and kiss whom we find there. But just to single out a particular herb and expand on it, like we did with the evil eye, let’s talk about basil and its significance, worldwide and historically.

 

Now basil is significant to Orthodox Christians, in that they believe that basil sprang from the ground below the cross where Christ’s blood fell. Orthodox priests will use basil to purify holy water and then dip sprigs of basil into the water to sprinkle onto the congregation. But in folk beliefs, basil has had all kinds of meaning for all kinds of people. Basil has been used as an antidote for snake bites, in India, basil was carried for protection and even buried with their dead to provide protection in the afterlife. Basil was known as the herb of poverty, in that it was believed to protect the poor in particular from misfortune. In Crete, basil was placed in windowsills to ward off evil and even the devil himself. So what can we divine from all of this, what can we determine about the properties of basil?

 

Well, we see this theme over and over of basil having these strong protective and defensive qualities. So perhaps this is something we can give a little more credence to. Once again, if all these disparate cultures separated by time and place recognized the protection that basil offered, then maybe it’s because basil is a very protective plant. And this is why I think at least a basic working knowledge of folk magic can be helpful. It’s too easy nowadays to look up a plant that grows commonly in your area and find out how it’s been used by ancient cultures. And when we see how it’s helped soo many people, we can really feel confident that it’s effective.

 

Psychedelics and psychoactive plants like peyote and marijuana have incredibly rich significance for people. These plants are thought to give a person a direct line to god, to open up the mind to see and understand things in a much more spiritual way. Now there are some psychoactive plants that have become sacred to practitioners of witchcraft for similar reasons. Datura and mugwort are two pretty common plants used for flying ointments or ritual teas. Obviously, these plants need to be used with extreme caution and under experienced supervision, but the purpose is the same; to receive visions, to gain wisdom, to exist for a little while, across dimensions. And some of these plants, like tobacco, are offered ritually to spirits of the dead as a benefaction or a tribute, especially to appease them if they are considered to be angry or offended. 

 

And again, the reason I bring this up is because these plants have ritual significance across cultures. These weren’t used like party drugs, not historically. Culturally, these plants are revered for their ability to allow a person to have transcendent experiences. And again, that’s what I think gives these plants credibility. If all these cultures were just trying to get high, they’d just say that. But that isn’t how they’re used. People go through ritual preparations before using these substances, especially for the first time. The things they see, hear, and experience are considered especially sacred. 

 

Another repeating theme we see is the pentacle, which as every witch knows, is simply a star inside a circle. These are symbols of protection in witchcraft, but they are also seen all over the world in places we wouldn’t expect to see them. They are frequently found on churches, monasteries, rose windows, and in religious artwork, the star representing for Christians the Star of David. The Pennsylvania Dutch painted stylized stars within circles on their barns for protection as well as decoration. They’re called hex-signs, and they’re talismans of protection. For crying out loud, the logo for Converse shoes, the star within a circle, has been given occult significance by primarily Christian fundamentalists who see the devil there. But the fact remains that the pentacle is a powerful symbol for a lot of people.

 

Oh, I wanted to mention candle magick as well. Candles in folk magic are used a little differently to how they’re used in, I don’t even know what I would call it, mainstream witchcraft? We see a lot of witches these days dressing a candle for a certain intention, but in folk magick, usually, the candle is meant to represent a specific person. And depending on how we want that person’s situation, or even their life to go, that is how we would dress the candle. So if a person is crossed, or hexed, and we want to undo it, we would first set aside the candle to represent the hexed individual, and then carve a blessing into the wax, choose certain oils and herbs to aid in the uncrossing, and so forth.

 

Sometimes we’ll use two candles, especially in love workings or to break people up, with of course each candle representing one of the people we’re trying to affect. And then of course, we would read the flames while the candle is burning to divine information about this working, is the flame strong, is it weak, does it flicker or jump? How confident do we feel about this working based on the state of the flame. And also, once it’s burned down, we can read the wax for signs as well, shapes, different qualities of the drips of wax. Again, a practice that’s used in many different cultures. And it should not surprise us that this is the case.

 

If we travel far enough down the family tree of humanity, eventually we find that we all came from common roots. So the wisdom of our oldest ancestors lives on and reaches forward through time to teach us, to remind us of the secrets we all used to know. And a lot of those secrets can be found in folk magick. They’re not as striking or flashy as some of the newer methods of magick that we find, but they are no less powerful. 

 

And I think with all of this, what we can take away is that we don’t have to dig too deep to find a lot of traditions that we can explore, and maybe even bring back and fold into our own practices. I think we find that a lot of us tend to ignore our own histories when we are looking to connect with ancient magical practices. For whatever reason, we think that other cultures or traditions have the answers, and while there are definitely answers to be found by broadening our horizons, I think we might be really surprised and interested to learn what kinds of magick our own ancestors were practicing. So look into your own family tree, find out where your ancestors hailed from and start looking into the different folk beliefs they held. Learn more about the region you’re from and find out how people handled their business back in the day. 

 

In this day and age, with our nearly unlimited access to information it is as simple as a Google search like, folk magic in Oregon. Folk beliefs of Ireland. Start close to your own roots and expand from there. It’s really cool, and I think we tend to have an easier time connecting to traditions that are closer to our roots. I hope you find some really cool information. I hope it helps to enrich your practice, even if you don’t start using any of the information you find, I think that it will at least help to inform the way that you approach your own ancestors and venerate them. If you find anything cool that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it. Please message me on social media at @middleagedwitch, or via email at eli@middleagedwitch.com. Next week, we will talk about reading signs, omens, and messages, and I can’t wait. My name is Eli, and this has been the Middle-Aged Witch podcast.

 

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