Bluenose Magic

March 2, 2009

Bluenose Magic: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions in Nova Scotia by Helen Creighton

The Ryerson Press, 1968

 

“Old Daddy Red Cap was supposed to have been a wizard. He put spells on people. One time he went to see a man and said he wanted to buy his cow. The man had no need to sell and said he wouldn’t part with her. Soon after, a snow-white bumblebee sat down on the cow and she didn’t give any more milk. [Allandale, English]”

— Creighton

 

I’ve always enjoyed reading folklore, and I’ve often wondered why I’ve met so many pagans and witches that avoided it like the plague. They might learn the lore of a country that they’ve never visited, or of a culture that they have no connection to, but would never consider researching local folk remedies or spells. It puzzles me. Perhaps they think that their area doesn’t have any ‘folklore.’

 

Luckily for me, my area has a long tradition of folklore and many dedicated folklorists who’ve traveled around gathering up songs, stories, and other useful bits of information. The lore of the many peoples who’ve settled here (Acadian, English, French, Scottish, Irish, German, African Loyalists, Dutch, etc.) mixed together with the legends of the Mi’kmaq people, and became something else entirely.

 

The late Helen Creighton is the Nova Scotian folklorist par excellence, and any of her books are worth reading. This particular title covers faery lore, witchcraft, folk charms, healing and remedies, meanings of dreams, divination, lore about animals, crops, and the weather, superstitions about good and bad luck, and stories of ghosts, forerunners, and the devil. Of particular interest is the concept of the “witch masters,” such as Sammy B., who filled a role very similar (identical?) to the cunning folk of Britain. They found and could control the malignant witches of a community, and could break their spells as well as cast their own.

 

This is a great book, and one of my favourites. The information in the book is linked up to a Motif Index, so you can find overarching concepts and similarities. I recommend it to anyone living in Maritime Canada, or even if you don’t. Of course, finding yourself a book of folklore local to your area might be even more interesting.

The Dictionary of Sacred and Magical Plants by Christian Rätsch

Translated from the German by John Baker

ABC-CLIO Inc, Prism Press, 1992 (1988 )

 

“In herbs may be found the full power of the world. He who knows their secret abilities is omnipotent.”

— Indian Proverb

 

They wouldn’t let me take this book out of the library, so I had to read it in bits and pieces between classes. Despite my limited time, habit compelled me to read all of the introductions and forewords, a practice which has, for once, served me well. While I expect translating anything from one language to another and keeping its meaning intact is quite difficult, translating a book about psychotropic herbs used in shamanic and magical practices around the world must be even harder.

 

The translator’s introduction to this book is well worth reading, as Mr. (Dr?) Baker discusses the difficulties of rendering into English a complete understanding of the German word Rausch. It is usually translated as ‘intoxication,’ which, in the sense of this book, isn’t quite right. Mainstream North American culture no longer has systems to utilize psychedelic plants safely, nor knows how to interpret knowledge gained from them. We view information gained through non-rational, visionary experiences to be less valid than that obtained through rational, scientific methods, and this bias is reflected in our language. Christian Rätsch introduces us to cultures that have not lost their respect for the visionary experience.

 

The author’s introduction, besides providing a (very) brief discussion of magic and what constitutes a magical plant, also includes categories that can be used to find a plant that is used for a specific purpose. Having Plants of Prophecy, Elixirs of Immortality, Death Charms, Grave Goods, and Aphrodisiacs all sorted out for you is nice if you’re in a hurry. Rätsch also gives his method of placing psychotropic plants in ritual contexts (vision quests, oracles, sacrifices, hunting magic, etc) and sorting which plants were involved in which stages of certain rituals (preparation, implementation, and integration).

 

Each dictionary entry gives the folklore and historical uses of the plant, listed either by genus or individual species if certain pieces of lore are applicable to a specific variety alone. The plant’s uses in folk medicine, spells, and religious ritual (mostly pagan) are also listed. Each entry ends with the pharmacological properties of the plant and a list of sources for further reading.

 

I found the Ayahuasca entry especially interesting. A table, entitled Native Classification of Ayahuasca, listed the many types of Ayahuasca that this tribe (whose name I’ve forgotten) knows how to make. The nifty part is that each type of Ayahuasca brew produces visions of different things; one type might induce visions of hunting, another of famine, another of the land of the dead, and another still of underwater travel.

 

The entry on witches’ ointments (which is one of the reasons I was so happy to find this book, the other being that I’m an ethnobotany geek), although it could have been longer, contained this nice tidbit from Leuner: “The witches’ ointments may be psychopharmacologically interesting because we apparently have here the only toxic technique of ecstasy in the world in which the specific components of the experience are achieved by the way the psychopharmacological agents are added together.” This differs from the various types of Ayahuasca, apparently, because of the physical sensations accompanying the trip. Either that or Leuner is out of date, I’m not sure. Further rambling is beyond the scope of this review.   

 

Rätsch gathers lore from all over the world, both contemporary and historical. He shows us the valuable interactions between plants and people that our society would do well to regain. Also, we should all take St. Anthony as our personal saint. You should read the book to find out why.

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby
Sussex Academic Press, 2005

  “‘What are you crying for, my girl?’ it says; and after this and that she told it. ‘I’ll spin the skeins for you,’ it said, ‘and every day you shall have three guesses at my name, and if you don’t guess it by the end of the month, you’re mine forever.’”
— Briggs

 The familiar spirit is a concept that is irrevocably linked to our ideas about witches, one that modern witchcraft has tried to assimilate by encouraging its adherents to become crazy cat ladies. That’s all well and good, but are pets really familiars? Most people I’ve spoken with say yes, to which I reply (if I’m feeling brave, witty, or inebriated), do you send your canary off to curdle your neighbour’s milk? I mean, I would, if I had a canary. 

Forming intimate relationships with non-divine spirits (and sending them off to do your bidding) is one of those ideas that doesn’t sit easy in the predominately white, middle-class culture of modern day witches. For some people, it’s right up there with that whole green-skin pointy hat fiction. To others, particularly those interested in traditional witchcraft or ‘shamanic’ and folkloric-based traditions, the idea is a viable one. 

Emma Wilby uses historical cases to show that not only did cunning folk and witches have different sorts of familiar spirits, these spirits were also remarkably similar to the helping spirits of shamans in various aboriginal cultures. Her argument was that while cunning folk were not shamans in a classical sense of the word, they may have been using remnants of shamanistic folk traditions, particularly in their use of familiar spirits.  

As far as academic texts go, this one reads fairly easily. It does have a few dry bits, but the writing usually flows along quite smoothly. The first part reviews familiar lore amongst witches and cunning folk (divided as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ magic-users, respectively), showing the connections with the faery and devil familiars, and how these beliefs interacted in a Christian setting. The author seems to focus on just one case a lot of the time, perhaps because it was the best documented, but I think that a wider range of detailed sources would have helped her argument.  

It is interesting to note the overlaps between the faeries and the dead, where the familiar from the main case was a man who, upon death, went to join the faeries (not all of whom were deceased humans). The author covers the basic services that a cunning person would provide to their community, how such practitioners often met their familiar spirits, and the future relationships between human and spirit. She also discusses various bargains and pacts that were made with the spirit in exchange for favours or magical assistance.   

The second (and rather short) part of the book covers classical shamanism in aboriginal cultures, with information gathered by anthropologists in the eighteenth century. It could be considered a stretch to use Siberian and North and South American data for an argument about British witchcraft, but the similarities are there, particularly in the spirit relationships.

Part three focuses on the experiences of the witches and the cunning folk in their time period and location, looking for explanations that could have caused people to experience such visions, and raising questions as to what is the true nature of mysticism. The lines between a spiritual experience and madness, in their time as in ours, are difficult to draw.

I think the main difficulty with this book is its accessibility. It’s too scholarly for most pagans to bother reading and strays a bit too far from the accepted ‘history of witchcraft’ for most historians to tangle with. As it’s published by a university press, the price itself puts the book out of the range of most impulsive book buyers (except me, who would rather read than eat). This is unfortunate, as the book provides fascinating insight into the lives of cunning folk and witches, and gives a great deal of information (not to mention excerpts from primary sources) on a topic that today has become associated with bringing Fluffy to circle.