We tend to think of our selves as being contained by our our bodies. Our self is limited by the boundaries of our skin. To appropriate the title of a feminist classic, our bodies are our selves.
Folklore and legend tell us otherwise, that our essence is also contained in the effluvia and products of our body. Why else can someone control us by incorporating our hair into a poppet, or can we stop evil from harming us by boiling our urine?
Folklore also tells us that our essence is contained in our image, which is why poppets are shaped like people, and why we need to exercise caution around mirrors and reflections. Think about people afraid that a camera will steal their soul, or poor Peter Pan who lost his shadow. It all comes from the same idea. Our images are our selves.
Folklore tells us that our essence is even contained in the minor traces that we leave behind. This is particularly true for witches, who derive much of their supernatural power from their souls' ability to leave their bodies. Their souls are loosely attached to their bodies, and their essence spreads further into the world than the average person's. As this story from Eva Speare's New Hampshire Folk Tales illustrates, even a footprint left in the road can affect a witch.
Two small children in Epping, New Hampshire often saw an old woman wearing a red kerchief passing by their house. They thought she might be a witch, and asked their grandmother how they could find out if she was.
Their grandmother said: "I have heard that if you place some article made of steel in her footprints, she will turn around and look at you, and sometimes chase you."
The children devised their plan. One day after the old woman had walked by their house, they waited until she had gone a good distance down the dirt road and then ran outside. Finding one of her footprints, they stuck a steel knife into it.
Although the woman was hundreds of feet away, she turned abruptly and glowered at the children. They ran inside the house, terrified. It was true. The old woman was a witch.