Protection From Witches

Around every bend, down in every valley, in the shadows of every night, the danger of witches was always lurking. In the Appalachian Mountains, witches were supernatural creatures that could change their shapes, cause death and illness from a distance, and bring ruin on a home. A rich folklore developed around knowing how to protect yourself from the threat they posed.

One of the first steps to preventing trouble from a witch was to keep the witch out of your home. Witches were known to be attracted to light, so keeping the number of lamps at night burning to a minimum and covering the windows so no light could creep out was thought to be helpful in preventing a witch from finding your home. But if she did manage to make her way to the front door, merely locking the front door wouldn't be sufficient to keep a witch out. You needed to add a little extra protection to the door.

One common method of keeping witches out of your home was to leave a broom lying across the doorway, which would stop a witch in her tracks. This simple solution came from the fact that witches had two great vulnerabilities — they could only work their foulest deeds at night, and when confronted with a large number of objects, they would be compelled to stop and count every one. So when a witch encountered a broomstick at the threshold, she would be compelled to stop and count every bristle. By the time she had finished, dawn would have come and she would have been forced to flee.

This tradition of witches compulsively having to count small objects is found throughout the American South and in the Caribbean. In the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, scattering grains of dried rice in front of the door is used to keep away witches. All of this suggests the roots of the practice may come from West Africa, where similar traditions can be found.

But a witch had other tricks up her sleeve. A witch had the remarkable power to shrink herself down small enough to be able to slip through a keyhole and enter the house that way. Hanging a sieve over the keyhole would work similarly to the broom, as the witch couldn't leave until all the holes had been counted. There was also the simple solution of plugging the keyhole at night.

If witches did manage to get in the house, sleeping with a Bible, a silver dollar, or a knife beneath your pillow had all been recommended as preventatives. Turning your socks inside out before going to bed was also thought to keep away witches. Mustard seed scattered around the bed was equally effective. Hanging a bottle with a cork stopper beside the bed was recommended to keep witches from troubling you, and some say there should be pins stuck in the cork.

There were other ways to protect a house. Hanging a horseshoe above the door is still a common practice, and although these days it's more commonly said to bring good luck, a century ago the primary purpose was protection from witches. One variation of this idea which seems to be native to Western North Carolina was that any horseshoe found along the road should be taken home and nailed to the wall. Over time could accumulate into quite a collection.

It was also advisable to protect yourself personally from witches by carrying a charm with you. A snakeskin, some say specifically a rattlesnake skin, carried with you was thought to ward of witches and other evil. Stump water, water gathered from hollow tree stump, was also thought to be effective if carried n a small vial. Various sources recommend that the water should be collected on the new moon, the full moon, or at other significant times. Carrying money around your neck or ankles was thought to dispel curses.

But sometimes even these preventatives weren't enough. Sometimes the witch would get to you from a distance, causing illness or other misfortune. Fortunately, there were options for breaking the spell. If a witch hd cursed a cow, making it so the milk wouldn't churn into butter, taking a red-hot poker and plunging it into the milk was thought to not only break the spell, but also transfer the burns to the witch who had cast the spell.

Using fire to disrupt a witch's power at a distance was commonly considered effective. If you believed yourself to be under a spell, drawing a picture off the suspected witch on wood or paper and then casting that into a fire was thought to be enough to break the curse, and like the burns from the red-hot poker in the milk, the searing pain of the fire was thought to transfer itself to the witch.

Witches were also thought to be vulnerable to silver. Like casting an image into the fire, shooting a picture of a suspected witch with a silver bullet was thought to break the spell. A silver bullet may seem like something of a rare commodity, but they were actually much easier to come by a century or so ago. The bullet did not have to be pure silver, and this was from a time when many mountain people still cast their own bullets and dimes were still minted from a silver alloy. Melting a dime down into the bullet when it was being cast would add enough silver to be effective against witches.

Silver bullets were also effective against another mysterious talent that witches were thought to possess, transforming themselves into animals. There are multiple stories of misfortune befalling a household and someone in the home noticing that it coincides with the persistent presence of an animal behaving unusually and lingering around the home. This was thought to be a witch who had transformed herself into an animal in order to disguise herself while working her magic. The animal could be of any type — cats were always popular, particularly black ones, but stories exist of witches transforming themselves into deer, hogs, and even birds. Shooting the animal with a silver bullet was thought to break the spell. If you didn't have a dime to spare, loading a shotgun with salt or poke berries could also be effective against a witch.

It's interesting to note that in the stories of witches that are passed down in the mountains, being struck by the silver bullet almost never kills the animal. Instead, the stories tell of the animal disappearing into the forest, and the woman who was suspected of being a witch later appears with injuries corresponding to where the animal was struck with the bullet.

Beyond any effects these techniques might have in defense against witchcraft, taken together they form a way of understanding and dealing with the unknowable in the world. In some ways, belief in witches is less important the practice of doing something about witches. The small markers, the horseshoes on the wall, the snakeskin in the pocket, over time become a cultural vocabulary, a series of folkways that give meaning and identity to an individual and to a group.

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

Young, Jason R. Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry Louisiana State University Press, 2007