How to Become a Witch

In the early days of the Twentieth Century, an elderly man in Zionsville recalled how he had known a man by the name of Eph Tucker who had once tried to become a witch. This happened near the end of the 19th Century, in Ashe County, where Tucker knew a man by the name of Ferro who happened to have all the powers of witchcraft. As a young man, Eph Taylor came to Ferro and said "I want to learn to bewitch folks as you can." Ferro readily agreed, saying "You come with me down the road."

They reached the end of the old dirt road, where Ferro took a stick and drew a ring in the dirt. Ferro told Eph to get in the circle, squat down, put one hand under his right foot and the other one on top of his head. Then Ferro told Eph Tucker to repeat these words, just as he'd said them:

"The Devil take me, ring and all."

By the time this happened, Eph was already feeling pretty nervous. But he said those words, just like Ferro hd told him to, "The Devil take me, ring and all," and as soon as he did he felt the ground under him start to sink, as if he was bout to go down below. That was enough for Eph Tucker. He got up and ran out of that circle and never looked back. And he never tried to become a witch again.

This is just one of many similar stories from the Appalachian Mountains that give some instruction on the way to become a witch. The exact methods and formulas vary, but the central action remains consistent: The way you become a powerful witch is to sell your soul to the Devil.

The supernatural power of the Christian Devil was taken for granted in the mountains, as was the belief that he could bestow some similar degree of power on those who swore allegiance to him, which was often surprisingly easy to do.

Another method of becoming a witch was to climb to the top of the highest nearby mountain before sunrise, taking with you a handkerchief and a pistol. Facing East, just as the rising sun begins to rise, hold aloft a handkerchief and, cursing God, shoot a bullet through the cloth. If blood begins to flow from the hole in the cloth, then you've been accepted into the fellowship of witches.

Both men and women could become withces if they desired, although it's interesting to note that the method of shooting the handkerchief on the mountainside at dawn is specifically mentioned as an avenue only available to women.

A variation on this method, recorded in a story from West Virginia, tells of a young woman who was taken up to the top of a mountain every night for three nights in a row when the moon was full by a neighbor, and on the third night The Devil appeared and demanded her signature. She became frightened and ran away only to fall sick. Convinced she has been cursed, her father drew a picture of the witch and threw it in the fire, which broke the spell and also caused the old woman to develop severe burns herself.

While in Appalachian folklore ways of protecting yourself from witches were widely circulated, the ways by which witches gained their practical knowledge remained largely unknown. Witches are said to possess a variety of tricks for plying their evil trade, mysterious powders, witchballs, and other nefarious tools, there's little or no mention of how witches went about learning these skills. There seems to have been no witch school, or even a witch correspondence course, where a witch was instructed in how to use their power. Instead, the knowledge seems to have been imparted to them in its entirety when they sold their souls, and the tools of the trade may well have been acquired directly as gifts from The Devil himself.

This view is borne out by a story from the late 19th Century, where a man stole some white powder used for cursing from a local witch, and used it himself. Some weeks later he was approached on the road by a small, dark-haired, red-complexioned man carrying a large book. "You have used some of my material, and now you must place your name in my book" the man was told, as the stranger compelled the man to write his name in the book using his own blood as the ink.

The thread running through all of these stories is a shared cultural compact, one which expressed itself in the structure and ideas of the particular variety of Christianity found in these mountain communities. To sign your soul over to the chief adversary in that view of the world was to break that social contract. To become a witch was to cast yourself out of society, and to dedicate yourself to acting maliciously against those who upheld the social order. This could go both ways, as people who were unpopular or found themselves in marginal positions in these small, tight-knit communities could easily find themselves accused of having sold their souls to The Devil. Elderly women were often the subjects of witch accusations. These were women who lived alone and were self-sufficient in a social structure that expected women to be dependent upon men. Not fully integrated into the social order, their access to the support that came from being integrated into that community were constantly precarious. Being accused of witchcraft could esily cut off that access.

Accusations of witchcraft could be an effective form of ostracism, a way of stating that someone in a socially precarious position is effectively removed from the community. And these accusations could be made easily, signatures in The Devil's book are notoriously hard to authenticate. This casts something of a shadow on these stories of people choosing to become witches by abandoning any hope of salvation, having someone completely removed from that hope also negated any social obligation to them. Stories of old women selling their souls to The Devil could be used to justify real-world acts of callousness and cruelty against those women. These lives were the cost of maintaining the social order. We can never know how people, if anyone, ever tried to become a witch by one of these methods. But we do know that many people were harmed, or even died, as a result of by being labeled as having done so. Sadly, the easiest way to become a witch was to have someone say you were one.

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