Appalachian Witches

In mountains of North Carolina, a witch was one of the most terrifying things you could encounter. Throughout the Southern Appalachians, there are stories of witches that are capable of harming livestock, destroying crops, even killing people. Witches were supernatural creatures who could transform themselves into animals, or fly into homes through the tiniest crack. They were the personified threat of a marginal existence being pushed over the edge.

But what is a witch? The answer is complicated. In these traditions, witches straddled the line between natural and unnatural. Many stories treat witches as if they are entirely magical creatures, they appear out of nowhere, can change shape at will, and bend themselves into impossible shapes and sizes. Other times, witches are human women, quite often older women who held marginal places int he community, women for whom an accusation of witchcraft held very real consequences.

The roots of witchcraft belief in the Appalachians can be traced back to the British Isles through the Scotch Irish, Welsh, English, and other communities who came into the area, as well as a strong influence from the German and Pennsylvania Dutch communities who followed the path of the mountains down from initial settlements in Pennsylvania. There's also a unique African influence in many Appalachian witchcraft beliefs, that came with enslaved men and women who were brought to the region, or who found their own way there, either escaping slavery or attracted by the prospect of land and jobs after emancipation.

All of these traditions take place in a Christian context, with a very Christian understanding of the universe. This is a world of Protestant Christianity focused heavily on personal salvation, with the possibility of damnation. Witches were people who willingly gave up a place in heaven for power on earth. These were most often women, sometimes men, who had sold their sold their souls to the Devil. This was a rejection, even aa subversion, of both the natural and social order. It was a rejection of everything that was held to be good and just in the culture. Witches could even be seen to represent the possibility that the established order might not be the only possible one, a prospect which, in a society where economic and social insecurity are real and constant dangers, can be a profoundly frightening one.

For an action with such dire consequences, selling your soul was surprisingly easy. One of the most common ways mentioned for becoming a witch is to climb to the top of a hill at dawn taking a handkerchief and a loaded pistol with you. Holding aloft a handkerchief, curse God three times, and then shoot a bullet through the handkerchief. If blood flows from the hole in the handkerchief, it signals your acceptance as a witch.

There is very little recorded folklore from the 19th or first part of the 20th century from the perspective of anyone who was considered or considered themselves a witch. This includes a noticeable absence of any of the expected trappings of European witchcraft. No covens gathering at night, no witches sabbats, no goat-men, books, or elaborate ceremonies. Witchcraft in the mountains is a much more stripped down, economical, and seemingly mostly solo affair.

Accounts of good, or "white" witchcraft are relatively rare. Part of this is due to the nature of the religious beliefs in the area, in which faith healing was considered to be very real. This reduced the need for healers, a substantial part of the role of good witches in other traditions. Magical healing specialists weren't particularly needed when anyone, with sufficient faith, was considered a potential magical healer.

Where a tradition of good witchcraft does come up in the Appalachians, it's usually specialized services like removing curses or dowsing for water. These roles are, perhaps tellingly, almost always filled by men and almost always inherited in some way. The seventh son of a seventh son was in particular considered naturally magically gifted, an important distinction from the witch who acquired her powers. Being born with the abilities made them a gift from God, and therefore acceptable. The witch bent the natural order, the good wizard was part of it.

An important exception to this general rule existed among the African-American communities in the region, where the Conjure and Hoodoo traditions were much more open to accepting the supernatural help of root workers. There's also recorded instances of white people calling, usually discretely, on these services.

As we move into modern times, the idea of the witch is changing. Now seen as less of an threat and more of a source of social and political empowerment, many women are embracing the title of witch and recasting the role outside the traditional Christian context. In North Carolina, this has meant looking at ideas of herbal medicine, folk healing, and the idea of the "granny magic". While many of these ides may not be strictly traditional, they are part of an emerging tradition as the folklore of the North Carolina mountains continues to grow and change as the culture changes, and moves into a future where the witch may be a figure of hope instead of fear.

Sources

Cross, Tom Pete Witchcraft in North Carolina Studies in Philology, Volume XVI No. 3, July, 1919

Davis, Hubert American Witch Stories Jonathan David Publishers, 1990

Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians West Virginia University Press, 2008

White, Newman Ivey the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Duke University Press, 1964

Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 2, Anchor, 1973