September 23, 2012

Kidnapped by Witches in Plymouth

I have been very much on a witch groove these days. I could say it is because of the increasing darkness this time of year, but I think I'm always kind of in a witchy groove. You can't like New England folklore without liking witches!

Here's a nice little witch story from an 1893 book called The Old Colony Town and Other Sketches, by William Root Bliss. The Old Colony in the title refers to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Plymouth, settled by Europeans in 1620,  was considered the old colony when compared to Boston, which was only settled in 1630, and therefore was newer.

These 19th century local history books often have a chapter on witchcraft stories, and The Old Colony Town is no different, having a chapter of stories which Bliss heard from two elderly Plymouth ladies. I particularly like the following one.


In the Plymouth forest near Buzzard's Bay lived two old witches. They never came out during the day, but at night they would emerge from their house and wander around in the gloom, casting spells on anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them. One night they met a boy walking through the woods, and charmed him into following them home. He quickly fell into a deep slumber in the main room of their house.

Around midnight the boy awoke to see the two witches pulling a quahog shell from the oven. The women rubbed the shell behind their ears and said, "Whisk!" In an instant they vanished up the chimney. Curious to see where they had gone, the boy also picked up the shell and rubbed it behind his ears. After saying the magic word, he found himself transported up the chimney into a meadow where the two witches were mounted on black horses. Noticing their new guest, one of the witches produced a bridle and put it on a bundle of straw, which was transformed into a pony. The witches galloped off across the meadow, and the boy followed them on the pony into the night.

After a while they came to a brook, which the witches' horses easily leaped over. When the boy's pony leaped the brook, the boy exclaimed: "A pretty good jump for a lousy calf!" As soon as the words came out of his mouth, the pony reverted back to a bundle of straw, and he was forced to run after the witches on foot.

Winded and tired, he came to an old abandoned house with the black horses tied outside. From inside he could hear the sound of fiddle music. Peering in one broken window he saw the two witches and other elderly ladies dancing around a black man playing the fiddle. Terrified at what he saw, the boy ran away into the woods. Eventually he came to a to a farm house. The farmer and his wife took the boy in, and returned him to his family the next morning.


There are a lot of interesting aspects to this little tale. It definitely has a dream-like feeling, with the witches who only emerge at night, and the sleeping boy who sees them fly up the chimney. (Much like Santa Claus does in a Visit from Saint Nicholas!) When the morning comes he "awakens" and is once again back at home with his parents. The journey on the horses across the meadow and over the brook is reminiscent of various mythic journeys to the Otherworld, which is often separated from the normal, mundane world by a river.

Many New England witch stories deal with issues of women's power, and I think it's salient that the witches kidnap a boy, rather than a girl, particularly since a magic bridle is involved. In most stories about witch bridles, the witches use them to subjugate men who have mistreated them. The sexual and gender issues are quite obvious in those stories, but in this one they are a little more oblique since the boy is obviously young.

It's also significant that the boy breaks the spell over the straw bundle by speaking. Silence is magically powerful in a lot of New England folk stories. For example, Eva Speare's book New Hampshire Folk Tales mentions a spell to immobilize witches that is broken only when someone speaks, and also claims that if you manage to put a witch bridle over a witch, she will obey you until you speak. A single word will set the witch free.

The black man playing the fiddle is obviously the Devil, but black is probably not being used in it's current meaning of having African ancestry. In colonial New England black clothing was quite expensive due to the dyes that were used, and only the very wealthy and important (like ministers) could afford it. Many stories describe the Devil as being dressed in black clothing which signifies his power and material wealth.

Finally, I'll just say that the quahog shell is very, very New England.

September 16, 2012

Some Apple Magic

September is apple season. I love going to the farmers market in my neighborhood to see what varieties they have, and sometimes we head out of the city and go apple picking. I love the sight, smell and of course the taste of apples!

This week over at they ran an article about fifteen ways to use apples, ranging from barbecue sauce to apples. They don't mention you can use apples to tell the future, but you can.

Apples are associated in European and American lore with love and sex (thank you Adam and Eve!), so apple magic from New England tends to be focused on divining who your true love might be. There are many ways to do this, but here are a few of my favorites.

One of the easiest divinations is to pare an apple in one long piece, and then throw this long piece of peel over your shoulder. Look at the shape the peel makes on the ground. It should form the first letter of your true love's name. Some writers stress that you also need to twirl the apple peel three times around your head before you throw it over your shoulder.

This belief comes from England, where it was mentioned by John Gay in his comic 1714 poem The Shepherd's Week. The country maiden Hobnelia says,

I pare this pippin round and round again,
My shepherd's name to flourish on the plain.
I fling th' unbroken paring o'ver my head,
Upon the grass a perfect L. is read. 

She's happy with the result, since she's in love with a shepherd named Lubberkin. Yay!

You can easily do the apple paring divination surreptitiously while you are making a pie, but the next form of divination is a little harder to hide. Take two apple seeds, and give each the name of someone you think might be attracted to you. Wet the seeds in your mouth, and then stick them on your eyelids. Blink rapidly. Whichever seed falls off last is the person who will be your true love. If anyone walks in while you have apple seeds stuck on your eyelids just tell them you are exploring your New England heritage.

The two previous forms of divination are from Alice Morse Earle's 1902 book Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth. I think they're both kind of charming, but here's one that's a little spookier from Fanny Bergren's Current Superstitions (1896).

At midnight, stand in front of a mirror holding a lamp and a mirror. As you eat the apple, say the following:

Whoever my true love may be,
Come and eat this apple with me.

Your true love should appear, though I'm not sure if they will appear in the mirror or in person. Bergren notes that this charm works better if performed on Halloween. I will also note that sometimes the person who shows up in these love spells is not always what you expect.

There is of course a darker side to apple lore, which I have written about here, here and here. I describe some additional apple charms here. Enjoy apple season!

September 09, 2012

Morbid Rhymes for Children

Here's an interesting fact I learned from David Hackett Fischer's book Albion's Seed. In the Colonial era, Puritan parents would take their young children to view recently dug graves. They wanted them to be aware of the possibility of a sudden death, and to instill a fear of eternal damnation into them. I think a parent would be reported for child abuse if they did that today!

According to this site, children were also taken to public hangings, and Puritan ministers routinely told them that at the Last Judgment even their parents would testify to God against them. Nice.

I mention these things just to note that in New England childhood wasn't (and still isn't) all innocence and fun, and we shouldn't be surprised to see echoes of these practices show up in children's culture, like nursery rhymes and counting games.

I think everyone is familiar with the "Eeney meeney miney moe..." counting game that kids play. Here is a slightly more morbid version:

Eggs, cheese, butter, bread, 
Stick, stock, stone, dead, 
Hang him up, lay him down, 
On his father's living ground.

Here's another one:

One zaw, two zaw, zig, zaw, san, 
Bobtail, vinegar, ticklum tan, 
Harum, scarum, virgum, marum, 
Stringlum, stranglum, back and John. 

Playing jump rope also sometimes involves a counting rhyme, and here's a grim one:

Mother, mother, I am sick, 
Send for the doctor, quick, quick, quick. 
How many days shall I live?
(Note: At this point the child starts jumping.)

And this morbid jump rope rhym has been stuck in my head all week:

Apples, peaches, pumpkin pie,
How many years before I die?

Three of these these rhymes were recorded in New England in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project for the Works Progress Administration, which was centuries after the Puritan domination of this area. The other is from the 1800s. Maybe these rhymes weren't influenced by the Puritans at all, but I'm sure there is a rich history behind them. If any readers actually played these games please let me know your thoughts!

I also find it interesting that during the Depression, the government paid folklorists to go out and collect things like children's rhymes. Sadly, nothing quite that creative has happened during our current economic downturn. Who knows what weird bits of our current culture will be lost to future generations?

I found these rhymes in B. A. Botkin's A Treasury of New England Foklore

September 02, 2012

Witches Flying Over New Hampshire

John McNab Currier, a physician and amateur scientist, was born in Bath, New Hampshire in 1832. Dr. Currier was also a folklorist and contributed a couple interesting articles to The Journal of American Folk-Lore in the 1890s.

In one article, he relates how several neighbors visited his parents' house one winter night. "In the course of this rural visit, several ghost and witch stories were related, half to keep up the conversation, and half to make those stare who might take stock in their genuineness..."

A neighbor lady told the following story. One bright moonlit summer night she was out in her front yard collecting wood for the morning fire when she heard female voices, "talking and laughing merrily", coming down the road. She waited to see who was walking down the road so late at night, but when they came close to her house she realized they weren't walking, but were flying overhead.

"...I looked up and saw nothing but the bright stars. I could hear their talking and laughing as they passed along overhead. Their voices grew fainter and fainter as they passed off in an opposite direction from whence they came, until I could hear them no longer."

It's a beautiful passage. It makes me want to fly at night with those ladies!

Dr. Currier's neighbor went on to explain that the invisible women were witches, flying to some nearby abandoned house to dance and frolic. She believed witches could separate their spirits, which had flown down the road, from their bodies. Their spirits had strength equal or even greater than their physical bodies, and retained youthful vigor no matter how old the witch was physically.

Francisco Goya, Witches' Flight, 1798.

Throughout history there has been debate over how (or even if) witches were able to fly. Did they actually do it physically? Did the Devil just delude them into thinking they flew? Were they hallucinating from herbal salves they applied to their bodies?

My favorite theory is that witches were (are?) able to enter trance states, much like shamans around the world can, and send their spirits flying into the night. I wish I was brilliant enough to think of this theory myself, but I'm not. It was first stated by the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg in his books The Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. They're both great books, but very dense and academic. I'll leave the debate about the reality/unreality of spirit flights to another day...

I guess Dr. Currier's neighbor shared this theory as well, although she wouldn't have used the term "shamanism" in early 19th century New Hampshire. She went on to tell her listeners that the witches could disengage the spirits of people who were sleeping or unaware, and take those spirits with them to their revels. These captive spirits were firmly under the control of the witches, "and sometimes such stolen spirits were made the butt of fun at their evening's entertainments at some haunted house."

Clearly, don't mess with the witches, and stay away from haunted houses at night. Dr. Currier ends his story by wondering if these witches controlled the captive spirits by throwing a special bridle over the sleeper. The witch bridle has a long history in New England folklore which I've written about before.

I just found Dr. Currier's article this week, and I was really pleased to see someone from New England giving such a clear and cogent theory about the nature of witchery. It helps show the continuity of beliefs here with ancient beliefs from around the world. If you want to read the article yourself, it's in The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 2, No. 7 (Oct. - Dec. 1889).