Backcountry Magick Ways: The Border Obsession with Sorcery

Each Anglo-American folk culture was the product not merely of a place but of a period. The people of the backcountry brought with them the magick that existed on the borders of North Britain in the early and middle decades of the eighteenth century. These beliefs included an interest in witchcraft, wizardry and other forms of diabolical magick but not the same sort of witchcraft obsession that had flourished among the Puritans a century earlier.

Witchcraft still survived in this culture. Daniel Drake remembered meeting a borderer in the American backcountry named Old Billy Johnson who was "an implicit believer in witchcraft, and 'raising' and 'laying' the Devil." The folklore of the southern mountains was full of witches and goblins for many generations. As late as the 1930s, collectors of folk beliefs in the southern mountains were told of many witch-beliefs.

The folk culture of the back country ran strongly to another category of magick, which might be called experimental sorcery or secular superstition. It consisted mainly in the pragmatic use of conjuring, sorcery, charms, omens, spells, potions, incantations and popular astrology to change the course of events, or to predict them.

This magick contained a vast repertory of practices for any imaginable occasion for troubles with animals, crops, neighbors, children, weather, illness. It recommended actions for the control of any possible emotion, and for the execution of any imaginable purpose in the world. In the early twentieth century, one group of folklorists collected nearly 10,000 of these prescriptions in North Carolina, from which a few examples might be selected.

A few of these prescriptions have been confirmed by science:

  • Eating cornbread causes pellagra.
  • For scurvy, apply uncooked potatoes sliced and soaked in vinegar.
  • To cure snake bite, if no wound is in the mouth, suck out the poison and spit it out; cauterize, cut so as to make the place bleed freely.

Others were positively lethal:

  • A cure for homesickness is to sew a good charge of gunpowder on the inside of the shirt near the neck.
  • To cure a fever, climb a tall tree with your hands (do not use feet), and jump off.

Many were contradictory:

  • It is lucky for a bird to come into the house.
  • If a bird flies into the house there will be bad luck.
  • It is bad luck to kill a cat.
  • For good luck, boil a black cat alive.
  • Many charms and potions showed a spirit of extreme brutality:
  • Against epilepsy wear a bit of human cranium.
  • A piece of rope by which a person has been hanged will cure epilepsy by its touch.
  • For fever, cut a black chicken open while alive, and bind to the bottom of a foot. This will draw the fever.
  • The blood of a bat will cure baldness.
  • Eating the brain of a screech owl is the only dependable remedy for headache.
  • For rheumatism, apply split frogs to the feet.
  • To reduce a swollen leg, split a live cat and apply while still warm.
  • Bite the head off the first butterfly you see, and you will get a new dress.
  • Open the cow's mouth and throw a live toad-frog down her throat. This will cure her of hollow horn.

This self-renewing backcountry magick needed none of the institutional apparatus which the Puritans of New England brought to bear upon witchcraft. It did not require any of the intellectual refinement which country gentlemen in Virginia devoted to the study of fortune. The magick of the backcountry was a simple set of homespun superstitions, designed for use by small groups of unlettered people.

The magick of the backcountry was remarkably secular in its nature and purposes. It retained vestigial beliefs in the Devil, witches, stars and planets. But mainly it sought to control worldly events by the manipulation of worldly things.

Backcountry magick was highly materialist, experimental and empirical in its nature. Its ancient rituals and homespun remedies were mainly a device by which these people struggled to understand and control their lives in the midst of many uncertainties of their world.

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