Johnny Clinton Irvin
Wicca, mountain, Appalachia, magic, witches, charms
This report on Appalachian magic summarizes the beliefs and practices of the mountain folk. The purposes and structures of the system are shown in detail along with various knowledge associated with the witches of the mountains. The witches of the mountains fall into three categories: witches, granny women, and water witches. Witches and granny women are categorized together here, and the terms are used interchangeably; water witches are discussed about in less detail because the tradition is passed down to men in the family and not in public view. The deities invoked are explained and certain supernatural beings are examined. The history of mountain magic, mainly Cherokee tribe and Irish witch practices, are mentioned because they are the origin of the magic used today. Even though the mountains are being modernized, the folk lore and magic are still part of the culture of the mountain community.
II. Scope and Purpose of the System
Appalachia Magic identifies itself as the basic culture of the Appalachian people. To them it is not considered magic, but it is the way of life for them handed down through the generations. There is no formal system to which it identifies itself because the magic is hard to place in its own category. This difficulty is because the magic is so deeply incorporated into the culture of the people. The folk magic is found throughout the Appalachian Mountains event though in present times it is quickly dwindling. The most concentrated area where one will find the Magic is in the southern mountains. Being available to all people, Appalachia magic still believes that some people are more apt to use magic, but the people who are able to perform the magic are not from a certain class.
Appalachia makes no official claims about itself. Some of the users make claims of the Christian God while others give credit to pagan gods, yet the magic can be used by all. No devotion to any god is given, yet references to gods to act out the wishes are used. The concern of Appalachian magic is focused on portents, omens, cures, curses, and protections (McCoy 3). Most of the magic results are intangible things such as love and health. Every aspect of life can have the Appalachian arts inserted into it. Mostly all the charms and invocations are for positive actions, so there is no “black magic” (harmful magic) in the Appalachians.
III. Authority Structure
a. Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge
The knowledge for the Appalachian people is a wide variety of sources.
There is no exact source of sacred scripture used by the witches. There are references to all kinds of religions and traditions in the charms and incantations, yet no devotion to a certain god is done by all the witches. They seem to be free to worship whom they want to and invoke which gods they desire to do their bidding.
The number three is very prominent in the magic. The emphasis on the number three is said to originate from Ireland and be a reference to the three goddesses of the Irish people. After a while in the Appalachian mountains, Christianity reached the people and the number three was then used to reference to the trinity, so today there is a mixture of people who invoke the Irish goddesses or the trinity. Some also make reference to the gods of the Cherokee people (McCoy 4). In many charms one will hear references to the personified deity of the moon, stars, and sun.
The most sacred part of the magic seems to be the traditions. The culture of the Appalachian people runs very deep. They are willing to defend, even to their death, their traditions which made it very hard for people to try to modernize them during the past 100 years. The sayings and incantations are passed down by word of mouth and are considered extremely sacred, but they are never written down for fear of losing their magical power which I will address later on.
b. Methods of Inquiry
The methods of Inquiry are very specific for the Appalachian people.
The easiest way to learn the supernatural arts is to be born around them. If a person is native to the Appalachians and lives in a place where it is practiced, he will grow up hearing stories of the magical practices and this is the beginning of his knowledge. The most common way to easily receive the powers of a witch is to be given them by someone. Most likely, the powers are given to a family member. Traditionally it is give to one female per generation. For the less powerful magic, one can learn it through a type of “apprenticeship.” One belief is that the magical power of a woman is increased during her menstrual cycle; thus, during a woman’s period is the best time for her to learn the magical arts from a granny woman (a witch who above all possesses the power to make potions). To possess the powers of a water witch, the ability to find underground water through the use of two pieces of wood or metal, you must be male. In most instances the powers were inherited through his father or grandfather. There is one more way to receive the knowledge of magic: to be given the powers through god/nature. The most spectacular natural phenomena in the mountains are lightning. Lightning is believed to be a rip or portal between the world of humans and supernatural beings (McCoy 74). Often places struck by lightning are avoided because of the belief the area is haunted, yet if a person is struck by lightning, he is considered to be given very special powers. After he is struck, he is observed for changes physically and mentally. The powers can range from receiving second sight (being able to make predictions and see into people’s souls) to a scar, indicating the area of the body in which his magic is most powerful. If you are not from the mountains, there is a very slim possibility of you learning their ways of magic because of the suspicion mountain people have of outsiders.
c. Institutions and Professional Structure
The preservation and practices are not kept in an organized manner.
As mentioned above, the traditions are handed down orally. The stories are kept by storytellers telling them to children, and the magic practices are kept alive through the people using and teaching them. With the quick modernization which is currently happening in the Appalachians, the culture is somewhat dying. There is no central authority of witches in the mountains to control who is a witch and set rules. Even though there is no official hierarchy, some witches are looked to above others. Granny women, the term used for the medicinal witches, are usually elder women in the community, and they are the ones people come to with their problems or the desire to learn magic (McCoy 11). Water witches have no hierarchy because the secrets are deeply rooted in family ties, so if a person needs to find water, they just ask the diviner, another term for water witches, to do it (McCoy 12).
The Granny women are recognized through out the community by their actions. They do not where any special garb or have any physical attributes, except being elderly, that a person can identify them by. The witches are held to a set of standards such as they are never paid for their services. They are also expected to be ethical, and never do harm to another human being. Yet the biggest rule of the witches is to keep silent about their magical art. Because of their silence, most witches learned their ways from their parents. The vow of silence was thought to originate from England’s witch hunters, yet there is another, more mystical reason behind the vow (McCoy 15). If a witch teaches her ways to someone, it is thought to take power away from her, so witches do not reveal their secrets to everyone. Even though Granny women do teach their students, most of the teachings consist of potions from herbs and not the magic which lies behind them. Because the women do not practice harmful magic, the witches of the community do not hold an oppressive control over the people. Instead, they are looked at for their wisdom and asked for help.
The history of Appalachian magic is very old. It has been carried on in the mountains since they have first been settling by pioneers. The pioneers brought their magical ways with them from Ireland and incorporated them with Cherokee beliefs when marriages between the two races started. The people had to flee their homes because of persecution, yet they believed magic was good and natural. Because of certain practices and sayings in mountain magic, researchers were able to prove the magic came from Europe. Many practices suggest European influence, but the belief in the three goddesses and the Christian devil eliminate any doubt of the origin. The three goddesses, from Celtic mythology, are called upon in many incantations to give power to the user or to carry out actions. Also the devil is called upon, but not worshipped, in many of the rituals. The spirits which believe to haunt the woods are also indications of the roots of this magic. The jackro, known in Ireland as a jackaroo, is believed to be in the mountains of Ireland (McCoy 37). In the southern mountains, a leprechaun-like creature is said to be in the mountains. Even though the origin of the name is unknown, most likely from the Indians or Irish, the Oogle is said to be race of little people roaming the hills searching for people to bestow good luck upon. There is said to even be a loch-ness like creature in “Lake Tallulah” Georgia (McCoy 35).
The sources used for this paper are the next generation witches. Edaina McCoy, writer of Mountain Magick, believes the supernatural arts of the mountain people are very useful. She first learned of them from stories told by her grandparents, yet the magic somewhat died within her family. She does practice the arts today to some extent, mostly the usage of potions and herbal remedies. The other primary source is me. Within my family from the mountains of Georgia, magic is very prominent. My grandmother and aunt are both witches to some extent and are very secretive about their practices. One of the men in my community, a dear friend of mine, is also what some call a “water witch.” Even though I have not witnessed him “divining” for water, I do know that he was the one that found the underground spring which today gives water to my house. Also the many practices, stories, and superstitions which have been passed down to me have secrets and mythology of Appalachian magic in them. I believe in the magic because it has had effects on my family. My house has water and my grandmother has healed warts and taken the “burn out of fire” (the sting from a burn) for my father and mother. Although the magic of the mountains is becoming harder to find, it is by no means obsolete. I often find myself doing traditions that were taught to me, yet I had no idea of the magical aspects incorporated into them. The traditions of carrying a buckeye in your pocket and eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day are charms which I have been taught to practice (McCoy 47).
V. Representative Examples of Argumentation
The users of magic, performed in the mountains, are very secretive and suspicious of outsiders, so no explanation of their practices is given. Yet when asked they will simply tell the person it is they way they were raised. They find no need to defend their arts because they are not trying to “convert” people, nor do they feel the need to defend their beliefs against skeptics. At first view, it does seem that the arts are in conflict with Christianity, because the witches do invoke gods and nature, yet upon research they are not “worshiping the deities”. Even though they invoke gods, they pledge allegiance to the god of their choosing or to none at all. Many Granny women are very fundamentalist Christians and are looked to as religious leaders in their communities.
VI. Suggested Position in Comparative Scales
a. Relative emphasis on traditional authority---or testimony of experience. 5
The emphasis on traditional authority and testimony of experience are divided equally. The Granny women have always been in the Appalachian Mountains, and people who have not heard testimonies or experiences still hold reverence for them. Yet the witches are so deeply incorporated into the tradition and culture of the mountains, stories of their works and results are always heard; therefore, both the authority given to the Granny woman and tales of experiences are important.
b. Relative centralization of authority---or decentralization. 6
There is no focus on a certain authority like most cults and religions, yet there is not a total decentralization of authority. The magic is available to all people, not a certain class, yet some people are more prone to have magical skills than others. The only people that can be looked at as an authority are the Granny women, yet they are not in control over anyone. Instead, they are just looked at as wise, good women who unselfishly help the community.
c. Relative emphasis on invisible realities---or material, earthly ones. 2
Most of the focus is on the spiritual, intangible realms. Witches invoke the supernatural realm to affect the material realm. The deities invoke in the charms are of the invisible realm such as the Christian god, the three goddesses, or the nature gods of the Cherokee tribe. Even the witches are said to hold powers from the invisible realm such as the power of second sight: being able to see the future. Also they are said to be able to look into people souls and to travel in spirit into people’s houses to perform their magic.
d. Mainly spiritual or moral objectives---or pragmatic aims. 8
Most of the charms are used for realistic aims instead of spiritual ones. In the magic, one will never see a charm for a clean soul or entrance into a heaven. On the contrary the charms call for results such as healing or the love of a person. In addition to those aims are predictions and safety from the creatures of the woods or hauntings. Most of these charms for simple things like healings originate from the daily life of the Appalachian people. Because of the hard conditions of Appalachian life, focus on the spiritual goals is usually overlooked. Instead of focusing on eternal life, people look for ways to ensure a good life and not to die quickly. With the magic steeply entrenched in a culture believing in harmful supernatural beings like the haints, one will find most of the Appalachian charms ward off evils.
e. Most power or agency reserved for a diving being---or realizable in individuals. 2
Although the Granny women and water witches are said to have powers, all the supernatural power give credit to a higher deity. As mentioned above the charms and incantations invoke a supernatural being, so the witches actually have minimum power because they are acting through the spirits. There is no internal power for witches to connect with, but only an ability within one’s self to invoke spiritual beings.
I. Primary Source
McCoy, Edain. Mountain Magick. Minnesota: Llewellyn, 1997.
This was my primary source which I read very meticulously because it was the only direct information about Appalachian Magic. The information in this work gave me the most information (besides previously acquired knowledge from my family).
II. Secondary Sources
Savage, Candance. Witch: The Wild Ride from Wicked to Wicca. New York: Douglas and McIntyre, 2000.
This source was not useful at all. It gave no pertinent information whatsoever and never went into enough detail.
Underhill, Callia. The Wicca Book of Divination. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996
This source is extremely useful in understanding the past of Appalachian Magic. Though it never talks about it directly, Wicca, the main subject of the book, is the ancestor of Appalachian Magic.