The definition of Appalachia is that constructed by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC): Appalachia stretches from northern Mississippi to Southern New York. It includes selected counties in 12 states and all counties in the state of West Virginia. This region is often viewed by much of America as poor, rural, ethnically homogenous and home to yesterday’s people. Its population racially and ethnically is over 95% white.
The name Appalachia applied to the present region is mentioned by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto when he was lost in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He called it “Apalachee” after the Indian tribes who lived there. Later, English traders were more familiar with the territory and we can see that name in maps of the late 16th century (Gerardus Mercator, 1569). The area remained sparsely populated until the mid 19th century because of its harsh mountain terrains and dire economic living conditions. Precisely because of these characteristics it developed into the unique and distinct subculture of Appalachia in the mainstream America.
Since its recognition as a distinctive region in the late 19th century, Appalachia has been a source of enduring myths and distortions regarding the isolation, temperament, and behavior of its inhabitants. Early 20th century writers often engaged in yellow journalism focused on sensationalistic aspects of the region's culture, such as moonshining and clan feuding, and often portrayed the region's inhabitants as uneducated and prone to impulsive acts of violence. Sociological studies in the 1960s and 1970s helped to re-examine and dispel these stereotypes.
Early writings, including George Tucker’s The Valley of the Shenandoah (1824), Emma Bell Miles’ The Spirit of the Mountains (1905), and Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (1913), are some of the finest examples of regional study. Kephart not only showed a sympathetic tone, but also the dark side of mountain life.
These early writers developed and nurtured the concept of Appalachian cultures, which has been often modified by the works of more recent writers, such as John Campbell’s The Land of Saddlebags, a number of works, including nine Foxfire books which are considered mostly exercises in nostalgia (W. K. McNeil), Jack Welles’ Yesterday’s People, and W. D. Weatherford’s Life and Religion In Southern Appalachia.
For a full discussion of the concept of Appalachian Culture, referr to the works of W. K. McNeil and Charles Morrow Wilson.
 Appalachian Regional Commission, a federally funded agency for economic development.
 McNeil, W. K. Appalachian Images, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1989.
 Wilson, C. M. Elizabethan America, Atlantic Monthly, August 1929, pp. 238 – 44.</span>
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When European settlers moved into these mountains, they found that the lore and landscape they suddenly occupied was not entirely different than what they’d left behind in Europe. Many of the Native American tribes like the Cherokee and Shawnee already associated these ancient mountains with magic and otherworldly power. There were even beings which very much resembled fairies living in those ridges and valleys, as illustrated in the Cherokee tale of the “Forever Boy”:
“As he looked behind him, there they were, all the Little People. And they were smiling at him and laughing and running to hug him. And they said, ‘Forever Boy you do not have to grow up. You can stay with us forever. You can come and be one of us and you will never have to grow up… Forever Boy thought about it for a long time. But that is what he decided he needed to do, and he went with the Little People” (Native American Lore Index – Legends of the Cherokee).
The presence of fairies in the mountains would have been familiar to groups like the Germans and the Scots-Irish, the latter of whom had their own tradition of “fairy doctoring” which would eventually shape a portion of Appalachian magical practice.
Germans also brought in astrology, particularly astrology associated with things like planting, healing, and weather. Despite a strongly Christian background (and strongly Protestant and Calvinist at that), most settlers accepted a certain amount of magical living in the mountains. As George Milnes says in his Signs, Cures, & Witchery:
“Among the early German settlers in West Virginia, religion was thoroughly mixed with not only astrology but also esoteric curing practices tied to cosmic activity. Folk curing bridged a gap between the religious and the secular mind-set. And forms of white magic were not disdained; in fact, they were practiced by the early German clergy” (SC&W</span>, p. 31).
The Scots and Scots-Irish who settled in the mountains were often displaced due to land struggles back home. After long struggles with England for an independence which clearly would never be theirs, clan leaders traveled across the Atlantic and began building new territories. The mountains running between Georgia and West Virginia were a perfect fit for them, according to Edain McCoy:
“The Scots found the southern Appalachians very remote, like their Highland home, a place where they could resume their former lifestyle and live by their ancient values without interference from the sassenach, or outsiders. So isolated were they that many of the late medieval speech patterns and terms remained intact in the region until well into [the 20th] century” (In a Graveyard at Midnight, p. 6).
Once these various elements were situated in the mountains together, they began to merge and blend, mixing Native and European sources to create something else. The introduction of hoodoo elements eventually changed the mixture again, though much later, and there are still old-timers in the hills practicing many of these techniques even now, though it is unlikely the entire system will remain intact for more than a generation or two as many mountain folk are being forced by poverty or circumstance to give up their highland homes. Still, for the moment, there are lots of people trying to get Appalachian folkways recorded and preserved before they perish from the earth (this blog being one very infinitesimal drop in the bucket as far as that goes). So for that, at least, we can be thankful.
Grannys, Dowsers, and Yarb Doctors
In general, the current incarnation of Appalachian magic is broken into a few categories. Mountain witches may do only one “magical” thing all their lives, or they may perform a broad array of tasks for their communities, some magical and some not. Often, the word “witch” never enters the picture or has a negative connotation (with one very key exception, explained below). But the basic functions of a mountain magician can be broken down into a set of roles, as follows.
This is probably the best known and most ambiguously defined magical “job” in the mountains. Granny women filled several roles in the community:
- They acted as healers in communities where trained doctors were scarce, nonexistent, or deeply distrusted.
- They assisted doctors when professional medicine was required, and often during childbirth.
- They acted as midwives and postpartum caretakers for new babies and mothers.
- They might be called upon to perform blessings for livestock or land before planting, owing to their roles as birth-helpers (thus helping the earth and one’s livestock birth the food one would eat for the coming year).
- In some cases, they might also perform basic divinations, like determining the sex of a baby by dangling a wedding ring over the woman’s palm or belly.
Often the work done by these women was broader in scope than mere medicine. It took into account a patient’s whole state, including spiritual or psychological. Sometimes the work done by Grannies baffled the doctors performing the births, though they obviously were a great comfort to the mothers:
“Granny-women might perform a number of rituals which doctors found silly and irrational. Some were designed to give the mother psychological, if not physical, relief from her pain. She might give the woman her husband’s hat to hold during the ordeal, thus bringing him symbolically into the delivery room. If the labor were particularly severe, she would place an axe or knife under the bed to “cut” the pain in two. Sometimes, weather permitting, she would throw open every door and window in the house, in a symbolic representation of opening the birth canal” (from “In Defense of Granny Women,” by Janet Allured)
The term “Granny women” isn’t exactly accurate, either. Many women were not particularly old when they learned about midwifery from their own female relatives, and even some men were known to assist during childbirth. While much of the training to become a Granny was on-the-job, there were surprisingly sophisticated teaching materials as well:
“To train them [potential midwives], we had a very large wooden box. At the bottom and on the top, there was a simulated abdomen and perineum—just like the mother—so we could actually teach them the mechanism of labor, and so we could teach them what was going on inside” (Foxfire 2, p.277)
Payment for a Granny woman’s services varied, often depending on the economic state of those she helped (which was usually fairly poor). A passage from Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia,</span> by Anthony Cavender, illustrates the point:
“A typical fee charged by a physician in Kentucky for delivering a baby in the latter part of the nineteenth century was about $10, a substantial sum for an average farming family. Physicians were often paid in commodities, such as corn, timber, pigs, cows, and corn mash whiskey, or labor in kind. Some granny women charged a modest fee of a dollar or two or its equivalent in materials, but many did not” (FMSA, p.129)
These women served a vital role in their communities, and while some of them were labeled as “witches,” they seldom endured physical persecution as they were far too valuable.
The exception to the rule of bad “witches” were the dowsers, often called “water witches.” These were people—most often men, though women were certainly known to perform water witching as well—who could locate underground streams through the use of various magical techniques. The most common method was to use a forked branch cut from a witch hazel tree (some sources list other trees, like willow) and to walk slowly along a piece of property until the rod reacted by bobbing up and down or giving some other sign. Despite being called “water witches,” there were seldom any negative connotations to the profession, as it was an absolutely necessary service in a time when digging wells was costly and difficult business. Vance Randolph describes them thusly:
“Nearly all of the old settlers…believe that certain persons can locate underground streams by ‘cunjurin’ round’ with forked sticks. These characters are called water witches or witch wigglers, and the forked switches they carry are known as witch sticks. Despite this sinister terminology, the waterfinder has no dealings with the Devil, is not regarded as dangerous by his neighbors, and has nothing to do with witchcraft proper…Nearly all of the really old wells…were located by witch wigglers. Even today there are many substantial farmers who would never think of drilling a well without getting one of these fellows to witch the land” (OM&F, p.82)
In addition to locating underground water currents, dowsers could also locate other materials, like oil or precious metals. Some practiced what is called “map dowsing,” where a map would be laid out in front of the dowser and he or she would use a pendulum to figure out where to start the search for whatever material was being sought. This practice is very well accepted in the mountains and throughout the rural parts of North America. In Signs, Cures, & Witchery, Gerald C. Milnes examines the widespread nature of dowsing, as well as some of its history:
“Water witching (rhabdomancy) is very common in West Virginia. According to a study done about fifty years ago, at that time there were twenty-five thousand practicing water witches in this country. The actual practice of divining with a forked stick, as we know it, began in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century in Germany. Martin Luther believed the practice violated the first commandment. Through the ages it has been roundly denounced as the devil’s work and praised as a remarkable aid to a basic necessity of rural life—finding water. It is often categorized with such rural customs as planting by the signs” (SC&W, p.133)
There have been many efforts to scientifically prove or disprove dowsing, all with varying degrees of success and failure. It seems that there is something to it, but that it may have a great deal more to do with the person doing the dowsing than the actual practice itself, at least as far as science is concerned. However, from my personal point of view, the practice of water witching is akin to pendulum divination of any kind and something worth adding to a witch’s repertoire. In one of Peter Paddon’s Crooked Path</span> episodes, for example, he talks about ley lines and the currents of magical energy flowing through the world. Dowsing is a great way to help detect those currents and to tap into and work with them to improve one’s witchcraft (again, in my opinion).
The final part of the mountain magical triumvirate is the “Yarb Doctor.” These are often seen as the male counterparts to the Granny women already discussed. These were folks who knew enough herbal medicine to make cures and remedies for all manner of ailments. Vance Randolph describes them thusly:
“Besides the regular and irregular physicians, who live mostly in the villages, the backwoods country swarms with ‘yarb doctors’…who have never studied medicine at all. Some of these nature doctors are women, others are preachers who do a little doctorin’ on the side, and many of them are unable to read or write. They rely mainly upon herbs, barks, roots, and the like. For internal medication these substances are steeped in hot water, and “horse doses” of the resulting teas are administered at frequent intervals. In some cases the tea is boiled down to a thick paste called ooze, or mixed with strained honey to make a syrup” (OM&F, p.92)
Often, this is what we think of when we talk about “snake oil salesmen.” The yarb Doctor basically dealt in herbal formulas for treating common ailments. Some of these formulas became fairly well-known. When a particular yarb Doctor’s formula reached a particular level of renown (and often even if it didn’t and an unscrupulous “doctor” was simply chasing a dollar) these medicines would become a famous “patent medicine.” This is not to say that the yarb Doctor (variously known as an “herb doctor,” “rubbing doctor,” or “nature doctor”) was simply a quack making money off of ignorant mountain folk. In most cases, these were locals with a knack for making formulas and medicines from the indigenous flora of the area, including roots, barks, flowers, and leaves. Some of the mixtures are still in use today, albeit changed much from their original purpose. Root beer is a prime example of what happens when you make a patent medicine out of sarsaparilla and sassafras roots and mix it with a little sugar and soda water. Appalachian yarb Doctors had good reason to make medicines: they lived in the pharmaceutical breadbasket of the country. According to Dave Tabler’s Appalachian Historyblog:
“Big Pharma had not yet perfected the widespread manufacture of synthetic drugs in 1932. Instead, the industry relied on ‘western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee [to] furnish 75% of the crude botanical drugs which the continent of North America supplies to the drug markets of the world,’ according to an article in Economic Geography that summer”
The remedies proffered by yarb Doctors were not limited only to plants and their components, but often included a few more unusual ingredients. For example, dealing with a toothache was a common enough problem in the mountains, where access to regular dental care was limited or non-existent:
“There were many treatments for a toothache. Some of the more common ones were holding tobacco smoke, a sip of red oak bark decoction, or whiskey in the mouth; chewing ragweed leaves; applying cinnamon or clove oil, camphor, or persimmon juice to the tooth and gum; placing a ball of cotton soaked in paregoric, camphor, turpentine, or kerosene on top of the tooth; and holding a bag of warm ashes or salt against the cheek. If a large cavity was present, it was stuffed with soda, salt, cow manure, spider webs, aspirin, burned alum, dried and pulverized buckeye skin, or crushed puff-balls” (FMSA, p.107)
There are a number of remedies used by these mountain medicine men which are still in common practice. Clove oil, for example, is still used to numb the pain of a toothache. Some methods, though, such as packing a cavity with cow dung, seem to have fallen by the wayside (I’ll not say whether I think that a good or bad thing, though I’m less than eager to put cow dung in my own mouth if I’m being entirely honest).
Other Aspects of Mountain Magic
There are, of course, many areas of mountain magic which don’t fall neatly into the three categories I’ve laid out here. yarb Doctors and Granny women had much in common and there is a great deal of crossover in their particular lines of work. Likewise, one who could dowse for water could usually also perform some other occult action, such as simple curing. I have an in-law whose great-grandfather (the seventh son of a seventh son, no less) could dowse and “buy” warts off of people in order to effect a cure, for example.
Other aspects of mountain magic have already been touched on in this blog. Some of the areas we’ve covered here which have a huge place in the folk magical practices of Appalachian peoples include:
- Knowing the signs and planting/performing work by them
- Being able to understand weather signs and interpret them correctly
- Reading and understanding major death and birth signs/omens/tokens
One of the biggest areas I’ve not yet covered in detail is the Appalachian preoccupation with death, dying, corpses, and graveyards. Edain McCoy’s In a Graveyard at Midnight</span> includes a great deal of this lore in her chapter on “Death, Dying, and ‘Haints,’” which focuses mostly on the rituals surrounding death and burial as well as protection from the dead. At some point, I’ll be doing a bit more on this topic, but for now I think the most important thing to note is that death and birth were—and are—the two most important events in a human life, and the mountain folk treated them with respect, awe, and not a little fear.
A final area of interest for mountain dwellers where the occult was concerned had to do with divining the future. Rather than foreseeing events having to do with money or fame or anything like that, almost all Appalachian divinations performed in the home had to do with love. This is, again, a topic I’ll be delving into with more depth at another time. But often the “games” played by young girls in the mountains revolved almost entirely around divining the name, appearance, or attributes of a future husband. And there are also plenty of tales which deal with the terrible consequences of treating these sorts of divinations lightly (such as the story of the “dumb supper” which eventually leads to a young girl’s brutal murder). Suffice to say, Appalachian folk know that life has its dark side, and they aren’t afraid to talk about it.
You should most definitely check out Becky’s EXCELLENT site, Blood & Spicebush. You may also really enjoy some of the other sites and people she recommends, such as:
There are some books worth looking at, too:
- Folk Medicine of Southern Appalachia, by Anthony Cavendar
- Signs, Cures, & Witchery, by Gerald Milnes
- The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis
- Witches, Ghosts, & Signs, by Patrick W. Gainer
- Staubs & Ditchwater, by Byron Ballard
- Invasive Plant Medicine, by Timothy Scott & Stephen Buhner
- Any of the Foxfire books
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"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
"115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET."
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
- Current Music:"A Christmas to Remember" by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
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2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.
3. YOU MUST WRITE THAT SONG NAME DOWN NO MATTER HOW SILLY IT SOUNDS!
4. Tag 10 friends who might enjoy doing the memo as well as the person you got the note from.
1. WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO?
On the Road Again - Willie Nelson
2. WHAT DO YOUR FRIENDS THINK OF YOU?
Anything Goes- Cole Porter
3. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT VERY OFTEN?
Look Away- Chicago
4. WHAT IS 2+2?
Hung Up- Madonna
5. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF YOUR BEST FRIEND?
Boulevard of Broken Dreams- Green Day
6. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE PERSON YOU LIKE?
The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia- Reba McEntire
7. WHAT IS YOUR LIFE STORY?
Smooth- Santana & Rob Thomas
8. WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP?
Li'l Red Riding Hood- Bowling for Soup
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Soak up the Sun- Sheryl Crow
10. WHAT DO YOUR PARENTS THINK OF YOU?
Fool in the Rain- O.A.R.
11. WHAT WILL YOU DANCE TO AT YOUR WEDDING?
The Shock of the Lightning- Oasis
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All the Small Things- Blink 182
13. WHAT IS YOUR HOBBY/INTEREST?
Black Magic Woman- Santana
14. WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST SECRET?
Promise- Eve 6
15. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF YOUR FRIENDS?
I'm So Excited- The Pointer Sisters
16. WHAT'S THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN?
Figure It Out- Maroon 5
17. HOW WILL YOU DIE?
Free Fallin'- Tom Petty
18. WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU REGRET?
You Found Me- The Fray
19. WHAT MAKES YOU LAUGH?
Forsaken- David Draiman
20. WHAT MAKES YOU CRY?
Holiday- Green Day
21. WILL YOU EVER GET MARRIED?
Sister Christian- Night Ranger
22. WHAT SCARES YOU THE MOST?
Misery Business- Paramore
23. DOES ANYONE LIKE YOU?
Dirty Little Secret- All-American Rejects
24. IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE?
1985- Bowling for Soup
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26. WHAT WILL YOU POST THIS AS?
Did You Get My Message- Jason Mraz