Themes of an Ozark Summer Thermstice

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Celebrating the Cross-Quarter Day of Summer Thermstice (Lúnasa) in America is different from in the Old Countries. There is a lack of continuity in tradition for it; unlike the Halloween and May Day traditions that held on throughout those ancestors’ New World immigrations. Yet, there remains a seasonal event to commemorate. 

Here, corn (maize) is the prominent grain. Though the harvest start times can vary widely in this country, there is a corn harvest starting around mid-August for Arkansas and Oklahoma. Around the first weekend in August, there is a grape festival held in Tontitown Arkansas. So we see those same themes of first fruit and grain, but in quite a different context.

We have many traditions surrounding corn. Cornmeal is a traditional land spirit offering here, and it’s used many different ways in our breads, often combined with wheat flour. It is also used as the base ingredient in herbal powders used for magic. In Appalachia, fodder of corn stalks is placed about the home as a magical charm to ensure the family always has food. Red corn necklaces are made to help with fevers and bleeding. Dried corn cobs are attached above the doorway to the house, so that haints, or evil spirits, have to count each hole in the cob before entering. In the Ozarks, dried corn cobs are used in a similar way to feather and egg sweeping traditions; it is rubbed over the body then burned to destroy sickness. When you talk about “corn dollies” here, people’s first thought is of corn husk dolls, not the grain dollies of Europe. Cornsilk is prized for its many herbal and magical uses as well, as it is used much like Irish moss in prosperity spells, and as hair for poppet dolls.

Mid-august is also when pawpaws are beginning to ripen, though this sacred food may not be fully ready until the next harvest holiday. This is also the time to see if the incredibly delicious muscadine grapes are ready for harvest.

The days here in August are the hottest, as we’re in the middle of the dog days of summer. It’s much hotter here than in the countries our ancestors came from. Many Southern Pagans celebrate this holiday with an emphasis on water, for without it, an outdoor gathering would be unbearable in our August heat. Yet this is in keeping with some of the lesser known Lúnasa traditions which symbolized a quenching of the now oppressive sun.

Looking to the realm of folklore, we have our Summer Thermstice theme there as well. The Appalachian story “Old Fire Dragaman” has some parallels with Lúgh’s story: there is the symbolism of securing the land against (a Fomorian-like) force of nature, to claim the land itself, and to secure a harvest. Jack is like Lúgh in many ways. He is small and crafty; a triumphant underdog figure. Jack may not be as bold as Lúgh, but he is sneakily clever. Unlike Lúgh, Jack returns to ordinary life after every adventure. 

Following the symbolism of the story of Whitebear Whittington as a cyclical seasonal narrative, we find ourselves at the point in the story where Whitebear and his wife have three children. These three children can be seen as symbolic of the three harvests of the year. 

Also, in the latter part of the story of Ashpet, she is held prisoner by a Wild Man figure, who may represent a chaotic or Fomorian element of Nature, threatening to take back sovereignty. Like the goddess Bloddewydd, she learns her captor’s weaknesses, and relays them to her rescuer so that she may rejoin her true love. But unlike Bloddewydd, Ashpet then returns to civilization and resumes her happy ending. 

(Note: I include a lot of Appalachian lore in my Ozark Paganism because they are linked, often overlapping, and can inform and fill in the gaps for a more fleshed out tradition. We are, after all, a part of “Greater Appalachia”.)

So what might an Ozark Summer Thermstice look like? A trip to a harvest festival such as the Tontitown Grape Festival, or a “pick your own” berry farm (if not from your own garden), or maybe a trip to a favorite swimming hole may be just the thing. It’s a time to enjoy regional foods of the season; like cornbread casserole, Arkansas tomatoes, and for dessert- Ozark berry cobbler or gooseberry pie. It may also be a time for corn magic, and for ritual, one of the aforementioned tales could be played out, and/or the themes displayed in arts & crafts or altars of the day.

Bonus: a playlist!

Dawn Chorus by Maiden Radio

Rise Sun by The Infamous Stringdusters

Summertime by Billy Strings

Ozark Summer by Jed Melton Band

Snakes and Waterfalls by Nick Shoulders

Sweet Sunny South by Maiden Radio

Mighty River by Railroad Earth

Meet Me at the Creek by Billy Strings

There Is a Time by Whiskey Shivers

Thunderbolt’s Goodnight by Josh Ritter

Magical Dirts & Powders

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Dirt or stones from special places are often utilized as an ingredient in folk magic. To me, one of the most important of these is the dirt from the ground surrounding one’s own home. It can be carried along on a trip to ensure a safe return, and to keep one “grounded” in tense or unsure situations away from home.

However, graveyard dirt is probably the most famous of dirts used for magic, and is used to summon the spirit from a particular grave for help in the work at hand. If using graveyard dirt, be sure you know the character of the spirit you’re taking it from. Speak with them using divination to see if they even want to help, and leave a coin or libation in place of the dirt taken.

For money spells, folks have been known to collect bank dirt, from the land on which a bank stands, or dust is collected from inside the bank. Coalmine dirt is used for prosperity as well. Courthouse dirt or dust is used for good outcomes in a court case. Police station dirt is supposed to keep the law away, and railroad dirt is used to send something or someone away from you. Rabbit’s den dirt (carefully collected so as not to disturb the kittens) is used for fertility, easing depression, and for safe childbirth. Churchyard dirt has been used as an ingredient in healing spells, but if you do not hold faith with a church, it would be better to collect dirt from some other place you hold sacred. 

Crossroads dirt is perhaps one of the most potent of magical dirts. The crossroads invokes a sacred center, an in-between, bringing together the four corners of the earth. It also represents travel and movement between worlds. (This symbolism applies to equal-armed crosses and X’s used elsewhere in folk magic, as well. Many think it stands for the Christian cross, though it is much more ancient than that.)

Red clay (redding) is often used in a similar way as brick dust is in the deep south. Dried and powdered, it is paired with *salt and pepper, creating the sacred color trinity of red, black, and white. This mixture, sometimes placed in shoes, is used for protection from all manner of bad luck or curses.

(*Note: to avoid “salting the earth”, one can substitute epsom salts in place of regular salt, if being used outdoors.)

Sulfur is another substance from the earth that is used for magic, usually for cursing, though water from a sulfur spring is considered healing. When sulfur is mixed with saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and charcoal, it becomes gunpowder, which is used for luck, cursing, or protection. It gives your spell a good “shot”. 

Another foul smelling substance is asafetida. Is a bitter yellowish-brown material prepared from roots. It isn’t a local plant here in the Ozarks– it was commonly store bought and worn around the neck in little bags to ward off colds and diseases (mainly for children).

The regional method for making a magical powder is to grind up herbs with cornmeal and salt into a fine powder. This is then blessed and placed where someone will cross over it, or it’s scattered around, or sprinkled on the body. Powder mixtures may also contain the aforementioned special dirt, dusts, or minerals. 

A protective powder may be made by grinding together redding (or brick dust), and egg shells (I use chalk), with salt and cornmeal. This is used to line doors, windows, and used for other barriers. 

Of course, these dirt and dirt-based powder formulas are within the category of Earth magic. At a more basic level, one could simply bury a symbol of something you want to get rid of, as a sort of mock funeral, giving back to the Mother for transformation. Or the opposite- plant something to represent what you want in your life to flourish and grow. For growth or for rot, for life or for death; the Earth has the power for both.

Archetypes in Mountain Tales: Jack the Hero

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The character of Jack from the Jack tales of the Ozarks and Appalachians embodies many of the traits of the Sacred Son archetype. Jack is the everlasting hero, but also somewhat of a trickster. These are very old tales, evolved and localized. The very name Jack, when used in storytelling, assures the listener of a triumphant hero.

As for the name, it is a diminutive of John (it evolved from John to Johnkin to Jankin to Jackin…), and means “God is gracious; he who supplants”. In folktales, he is always the youngest of three brothers. You might say he’s the male equivalent of the brave Maiden archetype (like Mutsmag and Ashpet).

In American tales, he is also a modest underdog. This sets him apart from the old Sacred Son archetypal figures, which were characters that faced many trials, but were shown to be of high birth at the onset of the story, and were restored to that at the end. Jack, on the other hand, always starts out in very poor circumstances; he is not of royal or divine birth, and his adventures are often initiated by a dire need to obtain the necessities of life. 

“Most notable about the Jack Tales is their cycle form: It is always through the ‘little feller’ Jack that we participate in the dreams, desires, ambitions, and experiences of the whole people. His fantastic adventures arise often enough among the commonplaces of existence, and he always returns to the everyday life of these farm people of who he is one.”  –The Jack Tales, Collected & Retold by Richard Chase

In the Appalachian tale “Old Fire Dragaman” (and the almost identical “Jack and the Wishing Ring”), we see the classic quest for sovereignty, stealing away the goddess(es) of the land from a primordial creature or giant. A very similar Ozark tale is “Jack and Old Tush” (“tush” meant tusk in old Ozark dialect). In all these stories, a monster stealing Jack and his brothers’ food, is what sets the events in motion. In Dragaman/Wishing Ring, the creature/giant eats the food up on the spot, but in the Ozark version of the tale, Old Tush is sent by a willy-waw (an Ozark leprechaun-like creature that lives in the bottom of wells), and the food stealing is a means of getting Jack’s attention and help.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” said the willy-waw. “But ever’body knows about Jack, and how brave you are, and how you’ve had so many adventures and all.” […] “And all how you’re the onliest one can help us here in the Belowground.”  –Ozark Tall Tales by Richard & Judy Dockery Young 

Ah, did I mention that these two stories take place in the underworld (the “Belowground”)? I find it interesting that Jack is the only one who can help. One might consider him to be a psychopomp figure, as he can traverse worlds and deliver three maidens back from its depths and into the “Aboveground”. (And of course, we all remember his adventures in a sky realm, via beanstalk. “The Time Jack Went Up in the Big Tree” is another of his skyrealm/world tree adventures.)

Jack rarely wins the day all by himself. Sometimes his brothers try to help him, but being the smallest and cleverest (or just the luckiest– in some stories he plays the fool), circumstances lead to him going forth without them. And there are often supernatural or wise helpers in his tales, such as the willy-waw in Old Tush, a magical one-eyed blacksmith (Odin, is that you?) in Jack and the Gowerow, and numerous cunning and magical unnamed Maidens in many of the tales. Often, the Maidens know just what Jack needs to do, they actively help, and they encourage him to keep going, lest his adventures be cut short. 

In Jack and Old Tush, there is no magic ring, and he must fight to free the maidens. The giants he must battle in the Belowground can only be defeated with rusty farm tools. This may be another indicator that the story is about sovereignty and harvest. But also, the fact that the tools are rusted, can have many layers of meaning. First off, the rust would indicate that the tool is old, and thus has accumulated power. However, most people throw out rusty tools if they’re too far gone- such corrosion dulls edges and leads to breakage. Using such a tool reiterates that Jack is a humble figure, and uses what others might cast aside.

But also, in folk magic, rusted items are used for cursing; perhaps the giants could only be defeated with such a curse. Rust breaks down the strongest of items- metals, and returns them, crumbling and transformed, to the Earth herself.

This theme of choosing something old and worn out is also in “The Time Jack Learned about Old and New”. It is there that we learn another layer of meaning; the youngest and oldest go together. The youngest child inherits the hand-me-downs of all the siblings, and in many families, they are the caretakers of the elders of the family. In many of Jack’s stories (and this is true of folk stories about the Maiden as well), wonderful magical things happen as a result of him being kind to elders. It is in these bonds of oldest and youngest that great wisdom is carried forth.

And the Jack tales carry forth a great deal of Old World mythology in its storylines and themes. “Old Fire Dragoman” has been compared to Beowulf, and “The First Time Jack Came to America” is very much like the Welsh myth of Taliesin. There are many others as well; Jack is a magnet for themes of heroic youth and tricksters. It is through such folktales that we experience the archetypes of old in a new way, ever evolving for a new time and place.

Fire Magic

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Now that we have arrived at the longest day of the year, I thought I might write a bit about fire magic; some practicalities of it, as well as how fire is used in magic in my neck of the woods.

Of course, there is candle magic, and most of us modern Pagans have a sense of what candle colors are used for this or that need. However, it is more traditional in the Ozarks and Appalachians to just use a plain white candle. Whether its a taper or glass encased candle is often a practical matter of availability and affordability. Also, nuances of the working can’t always be narrowed down to a color theme. Working with a small glass-encased candle has the added benefit of being a little less of a fire hazard, and no dripped wax. Whereas one would carve the name of who the spell is for on a taper candle, with a glass-encased candle the name could be marked with a grease pencil or marked in cloth and tied to the candle, or marked on pure paper (brown paper bag) and pasted to the glass. For a taper candle, one would anoint it with oil while rolling it toward oneself for increase, or away from oneself for a spell of decrease. For a glass-encased candle, a bit of oil can be placed on top of the wax.

Then there’s the issue of whether you adhere to the notion of letting a spell candle burn all the way down. If you are in a position to keep an eye on your candle for long periods of time, this may not be an issue. Otherwise, you may want to either set a certain time interval to burn it and call it finished, burn it in stages (snuffing the flame between intervals, not blowing it out), or choose a fast burning candle to get your magics did and done. A chime candle can take two and a half hours to burn all the way down, a (3 inch) Hanukkah candle takes 30 to 40 minutes, and the average birthday candle takes a little over 14 minutes. You can use a shot glass or a votive holder to encase a birthday candle. Find a small raised washer that fits the end of the candle. Fasten it to the end and you can just stand the candle up in the middle of the glass. Of course, birthday candles may be too small to carve something on, but you could still put something on the glass, or put a small spell paper under the glass. You could also surround a picture or symbol with candles for your working, three or four around it are traditional.

Some people like to use an oil lamp instead of candles. For this, you would wash out the basin of a lamp with saltwater and fill it with the herbs and spell items you’re using. You can even attach a spell paper to the wick with a clothespin before you pour in lamp oil. Whisper into the basin your prayer or spell and blow three breaths into it before placing the top on and continuing with it. Say your words of power again as you light the lamp, and adjust the flame to burn small. You’re never supposed to let a lamp burn out it’s oil, or let anything touch it’s chimney. 

Aside from candle or lamp magic, there’s the simple act of burning something. As I have mentioned before, a traditional Ozark curse-avert was to tangle up some yarn and throw it in the fireplace. Folks have tossed a bit of salt into a fire for the same purpose. Before there was reliable medicine to bring down a fever, Ozark healers used to burn some black feathers under the bed of a patient.

Burning something can be an act of symbolically ridding oneself of something or manifesting something. It can also be an act of offering or celebration, as when we burn sun symbols at the Solstice. If you don’t have a fireplace and can’t have an outdoor fire, a burn-pot may be just the thing. For mine, I used a small copper cauldron I found in a thrift store and filled it about halfway with sand. A votive candle goes in the middle and I use that to light my spell paper. Though brown (bag) paper is usually my preference for spell tokens, if I’m burning it indoors, I use a small square of really thin tissue paper (the kind of tissue paper that goes in the top of gift bags). And, whereas I would normally fold a spell token three times (toward myself for increase, away for decrease), in this case, I fold it accordion style and light the entire edge, letting it catch full well before dropping it in the sand. This material and this method seems to be the fastest burning with the least amount of smoke (plus, tissue paper can be snipped into neat little sun images and burned for the Solstice). The only thing faster I’ve found is flash paper, and I only get that for special occasions (like a burning bowl ceremony at my UU church), since it’s a bit too flammable to keep around all the time.

Speaking of which, with all fire spells, remember– never leave a flame unattended.

Happy Solstice!

The Bear King and the Goddess

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When I was first exploring the Waincraft’s Lord of Plenty, it took me a while to truly understand what was meant in their description of this Power. Waincraft specifically describes him as a bear god, but in the deity names listed, he seems to be a bear in name etymology only (Mathgen, Math ap Mathonwy, Matunos…), for in the Celtic myths, I couldn’t find anything that described him the way that Waincraft does. 

Waincraft says of the Lord of Plenty; “Across ancient Europe, he was the Bear-King, ruler of the most noble, sacred and mysterious creature in the cultural imagination of the time. He is the protecting and preserving force that ameliorates the harshness of his brother’s realm.”

The parallel concept in Correllian traditions is the King archetype; “The King is the God passed from warrior to leader, nurturing family and community rather than merely himself.”

I came to think of the Lord of Plenty as a strong, kind, and generous King archetype, much like the character of the ghost of Christmas present in the Dickens story A Christmas Carol– but in the 1970 movie adaptation titled “Scrooge”.

And then I came across another bear connection quite by accident. I was looking up American folktales and found the story Whitebear Whittington from the book Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase. I immediately fell in love with this tale that is a cross between Beauty and the Beast and East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is a sacred story full of metaphor- a deeply meaningful mythology disguised as a fairytale, and it opened up a deeper level of understanding for me.

I especially love the story Whitebear Whittington, perhaps partly because the story is a traditional Ozarks and Appalachian tale, so it feels very homey and personal with the imagery and the way it’s told. But I’ve also come to realize that a lot of other bear fairytales have the same kind of archetypal symbolism. In these stories, the bear is always a wealthy prince or a king- a figure of abundance and power. However, in Whitebear Whittington, he seemed to simply be a well-off guy– a strong and gentle man who is also a good provider. 

I think a lot of the abundance and comfort feeling of the character comes from the physicality of his bear aspect. On one hand, bears are big, powerful, and scary- so to have a bear as a protector would be very comforting. But bears are also big (abundant) and soft. I’m reminded of the story Snow White and Rose Red, in which the sisters’ mother lets a bear into their home to warm up by the fire. 

“The bear said: ‘Here, children, knock the snow out of my coat a little’; so they brought the broom and swept the bear’s hide clean; and he stretched himself by the fire and growled contentedly and comfortably. It was not long before they grew quite at home, and played tricks with their clumsy guest. They tugged his hair with their hands, put their feet upon his back and rolled him about…” –-Grimm’s Fairy Tales

So this image we have of the bear is that of strength and power, but also softness, gentleness, comfort, and abundance. He is a hibernating animal, a very earthy god- he sleeps when nature sleeps. He wakens with the spring. In the tales, he has a dual man/bear nature, until at last the enchantment is broken. If we were to think of these stories as a tale of the seasons, perhaps the spell would be broken in the spring- a peek from the cave at the Winter Thermstice (Imbolc), and full emergence at the Spring Equinox. Then the Bear King becomes a Young God- Hero/Lover- Maponos once again. 

In Whitebear Whittington, he tells his bride, “Now I got a spell on me and I can’t be a man but part of the time. From now on I can be a man of a night and stay with you here and be a bear of a day, or I can be a bear of a night and sleep under your bed and be a man of a day. Which had you rather I be?”

This is another reason I like this particular version of the bear fairytale. Whitebear does not try to hide his enchantment, his dual nature, from his bride. She is given quite a bit of choice in the nature of it even. Neither is she held there in fear, for upon arriving at their home, he says, “This house and everything in it belongs to you now, and there’s nothing here to hurt you.”

The bride is never named in this particular tale, but we know her well. She is Youngest Daughter of three sisters. As the story begins, she is a Maiden. As the story progresses, she becomes a Mother. When the story takes a turn, she visits, and wins the favor of; the Crone.

At some point in many of the hero myths, the hero often sees the colors white, red, and black, (such as red blood on white snow, and a raven feather) and decides his future bride must have those colors. 

Now white is a symbol for purity, but also for light, and youthful deities of the light half of the year, such as the Maiden. Black symbolizes death and the Crone, but also the substance of decay which creates the fertile conditions for new life to grow, and the dark half of the year. Red symbolizes life blood and fertility and is often a symbol of deities of the ripening season, and the Mother. 

This ancient color symbolism is often repeated in fairy tales as well, but more so just red and white, and sometimes dark green is in the place of black. There’s three sisters and the color symbolism is frequently present in the dresses they choose. In Whitebear Whittington, those colors are attached to Whitebear himself. (An earlier telling included the color symbolism of black as well; it was a crow that dropped feathers to lead Youngest Daughter to Whitebear. Chase changed it in the book to a white bird with red speckled feathers.) Then there’s the three drops of blood that were shed on his white fur. These colors indicate that this is a story of the mysteries of light, darkness, and the life in-between. This is Youngest Daughter’s blood, and it marks Whitebear as her own. He is hers and she must reclaim him, awaken him from his enchantment. 

Returning again to imagining the story of Whitebear as a seasonal narrative; one could conclude that it could serve as a year-round story. (Though in the actual tale, as it’s told, the events happen one after another and the time of year is unspecified.) But imagine… you could say the white rose was picked on Spring Equitherm/May Day (a time when mates are chosen), then Youngest Daughter was taken as Whitebear’s wife at Summer Solstice (June- a traditional time to get married). Their three children symbolize the harvests of the year. Whitebear’s wife leaves to visit family sometime after Autumn Equitherm/Hallows Eve and soon realizes Whitebear is gone. It would be at Winter Solstice that she receives three golden magical nuts (perhaps symbolizing a Winter Solstice triple sunrise, or their three children & three harvests of the year) from the Crone (out of the darkness, light). At Winter Thermstice/Imbolc (the time of ritual cleansing) she spots him and washes the blood from his shirt, but does not yet have him back. Then finally she finds and wakes him from his slumber and enchantment at the Spring Equinox.

Ozark Tree Magic & Spirituality

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Ozarkers have a special reverence for trees, and many special trees native to the area are used in healing, magic, and divination. 

“Some observers have thought they found a suggestion of tree worship, or something of the sort, in the Ozarker’s use of the masculine pronouns as applied to trees.” –Vance Randolph, Ozark Magic & Folklore

Many of these old time spells involved driving a peg into a tree. I have been told that this does not damage a healthy, mature tree, even when done several times to the same tree. However, I will not advocate such practices. Instead I offer these alternatives; tie a string around the tree where the peg would have been in a peg cure/spell, or drive a peg into the ground instead of a tree. Many peg spells proscribe driving a peg into the ground already. In the symbolism of our folk magic, items buried among the roots, or pegs driven into the ground at it’s base, take on qualities or attributes of a tree, or are otherwise linked to its life.

Most trees are considered suitable for healing magic, except the poisonous ones; yew and hemlock. Touching or just being close to trees is believed to have healing effects and alleviate headaches. Items made from the wood take on the tree’s associations. Lightning struck wood is a powerful talisman, and a buckeye nut was a common good luck token kept in the pocket. I’ve already said quite a bit about the Dogwood in my article Snawfus and the Dogwood, as it is quite an important tree in the Ozarks.

“Tie a string in knots – the same number of knots as the number of chills you have had. Tie the string around a dogwood tree and the chills will go away.” –Mary Celestia Parler, Folk Beliefs from Arkansas

Pawpaw trees were featured predominantly in Ozark folk magic. They were considered a witching tree and used in love and peg spells. Papaw seeds were tossed into coffins to insure revenge for a murder. Once I asked my dad if he could remember people working magic with pawpaw trees. He said that when he was a kid, the girls would tear away strips of cloth from their undergarments and tie them to the branches of pawpaw trees for love spells. By the way, the fruit of the pawpaw is incredibly delicious. The best time to harvest them is when they’re falling from the tree.

Red cedar is a type of juniper that holds a special place in Ozark tradition. It is used in spells for protection, especially from accidents and animal attacks, and also used for psychic powers and breaking curses. It’s used as a fumigant and burned for the purification of home, people, and animals (in a similar way that many Pagans use sage). The berries of juniper can be used for charm necklaces. It was once the most common type of Christmas tree used here.

The seeds of the persimmon fruit are used to predict winter weather. Once split open, they reveal the images of “fairy cutlery”. A spoon indicates heavy snow, a fork for mild winter with light snow, and a knife means icy winds. Persimmons are ripe after the first frost.

Fresh young roots of the Sassafras tree are used to make a spring tonic, but it can only be drunk for a few days in the spring, as it contains a substance that can cause liver damage if taken for too long. It used to be used to make root beer. The mitten leaves of Sassafras are used to keep winter clothes fresh when packed away for the summer. Every part of this tree smells good, and the twigs were once used as natural toothbrushes. Sassafras is used for luck and prosperity magic.

There’s all sorts of folklore about the good or bad luck of planting certain trees, and of the cutting down of certain trees as well. A lot of early Ozark folk were animists, and trees and plants and stones were thought of as the residences of some powerful spirits. The sacredness of trees is not at all a foreign concept here, and although we don’t have one tree we hold above all others as our World Tree, I find that the symbolism and imagery of using it in my personal liturgy to be very well fitting. I use the following “Tree of Life” prayer as an ending segment to both short rituals and magical workings: “In the name of the Tree of Life, in the name of the Sacred Three, in the name of the Guardian Ones, and all the Powers together, so may it be.”

Magical Waters

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Water is purifying and neutralizing. In Appalachia and the Ozarks, creek and river water is used for spiritual washing and removing curses, (and the place where two creeks or rivers merge into one is considered especially potent) but it cannot be stored for later use, as it’s considered “live water” because of its continuous flowing. Ocean water is valued for its properties of healing and bestowing fertility, through bathing or soaking in it, and folks have been known to bring it home in mason jars for that purpose.

Dew is considered to have powerful properties. May morning dew (from May 1st, before sunrise) is used as a face cleanse for lasting youth, but also is said to help with skin rashes. An old Appalachian love spell calls for a woman to use dew to wash herself while saying the name of the person she desires. And a woman who wishes to become pregnant is to roll around in dew in the light of the full moon. A white handkerchief is often used to collect dew from grass, and reserved for that use, remenicient of the tradition of the Brat Bride in Ireland.

Rainwater is collected without touching the ground and is used for skin ailments and spiritual afflictions. Stumpwater (sometimes called “spunkwater”) is rainwater that has collected in the hollow of a tree stump. It is mostly connected to the healing of certain skin issues like warts, rashes, and sometimes even freckles. But the water has also been used in the making of herbal infusions. Stumpwater is believed to have more power than regular water because it is elevated above the rest of the land. The preferred method of collection is with a silver ladle while the full moon shines on it.

Tar water is made by steeping pine tar for a few days in water, then straining. This is used for spiritual cleansing, removing curses, and purging haints. Other types of water hold significance because of the importance of where they are collected, or the day they are collected. Water collected under a bridge where the living and the dead have passed (such as a funeral procession) is considered holy water. I’ve heard that in Scotland, silvered water has a similar status.

Our Scottish ancestors called whisky the “waters of life” (uisge-beatha). Whisky is a traditional medicine in the Appalachians and Ozarks, especially when steeped in bitter herbs. It is used as a spring tonic and to treat colds. Burnt whiskey (lit on a tablespoon, allowed to go out on it’s own, then cooled) is to be taken three times a day for diarrhea. Wild cherry bitters, made from steeping the cherries and inner bark of a wild cherry tree in whisky, is a popular spring tonic in the Ozarks, taken as an alternative to sassafras tea. Whisky is also used as a cleansing wash, and for luck or love. It is used to determine if a place is haunted; if you leave a jug of whisky there and the alcohol is gone the next day, or turns a different color, then a haunting is confirmed. The bottle can then be stopped up to trap the haint and used to curse an enemy, or poured out into a bonfire. For those who make offerings, whisky is also a traditional offering in North America (along with cornmeal and tobacco).

Snawfus & the Dogwood Tree

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The Ozarks is home to a giant white deer-like creature with blooming dogwood branches growing from his head instead of antlers. The blue haze that hangs over the Ozark Mountains in the early mornings, and especially in fall and winter, is his spiraling exhalations. 

The Snawfus is also said to have the ability to fly and leap into the trees. In a lot of the lore, it’s not because he has wings, but more like he has the agility of a primate. Because of this, the Snawfus is sometimes depicted as a tall man with a deer head (though I’ve rarely come across this depiction– it may be a later idea). 

Crossing paths with the Snawfus is considered a token (sign) of imminent death. But most likely, you will never see him. He will run in circles around you, just out of sight, as you walk through the woods. You may hear the birdsong in his branches, or even catch a glimpse of a dogwood petal, but you won’t see him unless he wants you to. And you may be encircled in the haze of his blue misty breath until you see nothing else.

In Ozark lore, white animals are regarded as an ominous omen. I think that this may have been a cultural memory of the caution and respect afforded to Otherworld creatures. In Celtic lore, Otherworldly creatures are white with red or pink ears, and sometimes red or pink eyes. There is nothing in the lore about the Snawfus having red or pink ears or eyes, but the dogwood flower is either pink or white with gradient pink toward the center. It’s not unrealistic to think that this may be a continuation of Celtic pagan belief, as many of early Ozark settlers were descendants of immigrants from the British isles. Though converted to Christianity hundreds of years ago, it’s no secret that many of the old beliefs held fast. It has been well documented that Ozarkers believed in “Little People” inhabiting stones and hills, and held other animistic beliefs as well.

Thinking along these lines, I ponder if the legend of the Snawfus could also be a local manifestation of the god Cernunnos. Both are antlered and associated with death. The Lord of the Otherworld god-type has manifested in different ways in Celtic myth through the ages- with and without the antlers. Just as those entities once revered as gods or powerful nature spirits became the Little People, so too might such a timeless entity as Cernunnos manifest for his people who traversed so from their origins as well, into a form in which he can be remembered anew.

I’m not alone in this pondering of the divinity of the Snawfus… I’ve come across writings of modern admirers (or should I say followers?) of the Snawfus, that call his blue mist exhalations the “breath of awen”, and regard him as the Spirit of Nature.

Yet there is another aspect of the Snawfus to explore; the great tree that grows from his head. Some stories describe it as a plum tree, but most say it is a dogwood. There’s a legend or two on how it got there- the main one being that a hunter who was out of bullets shot him in the head with a plum pit. That story is just goofy since there is no way a gun would shoot a plum pit, plus it seems to ignore the fact that it is commonly taboo to kill a white deer.

What I am more interested in is the fact that the tree is a dogwood, and the lore and legends surrounding it. The dogwood tree is native to North America and Mexico. Despite where the actual tree originated, there has come to be a lot of Christian legends surrounding it… like it was Jesus’ favorite tree so it was chosen to be used for the cross he was crucified on. (My, they would have had to go a long way to get it…) This legend also states that since that time, the tree no longer grows as tall and straight and the flowers that bloom upon it are in the shape of a cross, with indentations and blood/rust “stains” on the ends where the nails would go. The stamens are supposed to represent the crown of thorns, and the red fruit represents his blood. (No doubt, these colors seen against dark branches, brings to mind the sacred color trinity of red, white, and black.) Add this imagery to the fact that the tree blooms around the time of Easter; from about mid-April to mid-May. There’s also the legend that the dogwood was Adam’s favorite tree and so the devil tried to climb over the wall of Eden to get at it and destroy it, but only managed to take a little bite out of the end of every flower petal. So, what all this tells me, is that Christian settlers perhaps considered the tree both sacred and cursed, as they created a lore that intertwined it in such a way with their beliefs.

Here, dogwood bark took the place of rowan (mountain ash) in the old rowan and red thread protective talismans from the Gaelic countries. Dogwood was used not only for home talismans, but portable ones as well. 

“Some woodcutters who live on Sugar Creek, in Benton county, Arkansas, believe that a mad dog never bites a man who carries a piece of dogwood in his pocket, according to an old gentleman I met in Bentonville.” –Vance Randolph, Ozark Magic and Folklore

Dogwood roots and twigs were also steeped in whisky or boiled into a tea as a remedy for colds and fevers, and the bark was believed to cure colic. Dogwood and redbud are also traditional Ozark ingredients in love spells. Blooming from mid-April to early May, the Dogwood is seen in the Ozarks as an indicator that Spring has arrived. In the old countries this would have been hawthorne, which is not as common here. 

And so, the link Snawfus has with the Dogwood seems to be a profound pairing. For anyone celebrating May Day (Spring Equitherm) in the Ozarks, I think this mythos, imagery, and symbolism are an important part of the season.

Naturalistic Terms for Pagan Holidays

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Many of the most popular Neopagan terms for the holidays we commemorate are problematic. This is largely due to those specific names being popularized after being published in the Green Egg in the 1970’s. Don’t even get me started on why “Mabon” isn’t a good choice of naming for the Autumn Equinox. If you don’t already know, you can go see John Halstead’s article, the Worst Named Pagan Holiday

Many of these names have very cultural/mythological based themes. In the past, I am someone who has explored several of the cultures of my ancestors as inspiration for my Pagan practices. But in recent years, I’ve come to the realization that I need to turn my focus to my own here-and-now culture. No matter how much they inspire me, I will never be a part of those other cultures. I am separated from them by an ocean and by hundreds of years. 

My aim is to live the best aspects of my own culture, as much as possible. So I began using some of my culture’s names for holidays, but they’re incomplete, and sometimes Christianized. There are also instances in which there is no equivalent holiday in my culture, but I want there to be one to complete the seasonal narrative. (I mean, we have “Groundhog’s Day” but no equivalent of Lùnasa at the opposite end of the year? What’s that about?!)

Now I know there will be those who are quick to point out that there was never a single ancient culture that commemorated all eight holidays of the modern Neopagan “Wheel of the Year”. Yet, they are events in Nature. Having evenly placed commemorations in the cycle of seasons seems highly appropriate for a Nature-based spirituality (though I know not all Pagans are Nature-based). There is something in Nature to celebrate or commemorate at every turn of the cycle. If there are no outward signs of its marking in my culture, then that needs adjusting.

So my solution for the names I use for the holidays– for the solstices and equinoxes, it’s simple, as they have long established scientific names. But a little lesser known is that the Cross-Quarter days have similarly established naturalistic or scientific names. They are the thermstices and the equitherms.

So the solstices mark the extreme points of the daylight cycle for the year; Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night, and Summer Solstice is the longest day and shortest night. Then, the thermstices mark the extreme points of the thermal cycle for the year. This is because the thermal/heat cycle lags the daylight cycle- it takes a while to feel the effects of the solstices. So… Winter Therstice is the approximate coldest part of the year, and Summer Thermstice is the approximate hottest point of the year. 

It’s along similar lines for the equinoxes; the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes are times of equal day and night, but the Spring and Autumn Equitherms are when that equilibrium has caught up in terms of temperature, as days that are likely to feel truer to the season.

Just as the dates of the solstices and equinoxes change from year to year, so do the Cross-Quarter dates of the thermstices and equitherms, and they’re often on different dates from what cultural customs dictate. The scientific method of determining the date can be more complicated than just finding the exact middle between two dates as it also takes into account local terrain shifts. You can find accurate Cross Quarter dates for your region, as well as the solstice and equinox dates for any given year- on the archaeoastronomy website.

String & Knot Magic

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Knot magic is probably one of the most basic and practical forms of magic. It is the origin of the custom of tying a ring around your finger to remember something. It’s the origin of the saying “he’s bound to do it”.

The premise is simple- you concentrate on your goal, building up emotion concerning it, then you release that energy just as you tie a knot. The knot is a physical representation of your goal. Traditionally, knot spells are employed in a situation where you want to ‘bind’- as in binding an illness or an enemy, but also as in binding something to you- like luck or health. There was also the idea of the knot, braid or twist as a magical barrier of protection.

It was common in the Ozarks just a couple of generations ago to see people, especially kids, with red wool strings (or leather bands) tied around their necks in the fall/winter. This was to protect the wearer against colds and flu. I wear a silky red cord in the winter, as my own modern version of this, tied with an adjustable slip knot.

Knots are also untied as a magical act of release. It was once a common custom to loosen all the knots in a household of a woman laboring in childbirth. The fairies are associated with knots. If you wake up with knots in your hair, the fairies are said to have been playing in your hair as you slept. When performing magic, it is commonly considered prudent to loosen all braids from your hair or knots from your clothing/jewelry so as not to inhibit the flow of your magic. For spells of protection, however, it is considered beneficial to have these braids, knots, knitted items, etc. Knot magic is ideal for the fiber-art handicrafts; macramé, knitting, etc., making one’s handiwork also an object of magic.

In the Appalachians and Ozarks, measuring plays a key role in healing knot magic. The idea is to use the string, cord, or yarn to measure the part of the body afflicted. The string is then knotted either the number of days the person has been afflicted with the ailment, or it is knotted three times for the trinity. What is done with the string after this varies. Silk cord is often used for infants and children. Yarn or twine is used for adults. The color can vary according to use. Red string is used for chills, and white to cool a fever. For the chills, the torso is measured with the string, then knotted for the number of days afflicted and tied to the trunk of a tree in the woods. For the fever, the head is measured with the string, then is knotted thrice and placed in a cool bowl of water under the bed of the patient. For a person who has frequent nosebleeds, the ring finger of the left hand (because it’s considered closest to the heart) is measured with a white string, knotted thrice, wetted with the nosebleed, then buried at the roots of a willow tree on the east side of the tree. (The east side of anything is considered the auspicious side.) To keep a dog or cat from running away, the length of it’s tail is measured with a holly branch or red string and buried under the doorstep with a snip of fur from it’s tail and the scruff of its neck. (No knotting required for this one.) You can also measure the length of your enemy’s footprint to work magic against them.

This spell has been used historically in the Ozarks to quickly cancel out a bad token (omen). It’s also a very satisfying way to cancel out worries. Have a fire going in a fireplace, wood stove, or fire pit outside. Take a piece of yarn, about twelve inches long or so, more if you need it, in the color you need. Hold the yarn, and think about your problem or difficulty, then start tying knots in the yarn. Visualize all your troubles getting bound up in the knots and trapped there. Keep going until you feel it’s enough. When done, toss it quickly into the fire burn it.