The Deadly Witchball
One of the deadliest and most feared tools in the witch's bag of tricks was the deadly witchball. Witchballs were said to be small objects, thrown by witches, that when they struck people or animals could injure and even kill. A mountain family would need to be constantly wary of a witches lurking in the rhododendron, waiting to launch a witchball at someone passing by.
But hat exactly was a witchball? Descriptions of the objects vary, but generally agree they were small, not much bigger than a marble, and often described as being composed of matted hair, animal parts, and other unpleasant elements. This unsavory object was essentially a projectile for delivering a curse. The witch would prepare a witchball and infuse it with her intended curses. When the witchball struck its target, the curses would be delivered to the victim and take effect. Other sources say that hiding the witchball somewhere within or under the house would be sufficient for it to work its evil.
What went in to a witchball and how to make one were subjects of rumor and speculation. The list of ingredients was usually given as a litany of typically unpleasant items, such as bat's brains, a black cat's bladder, dead baby's toenails, the hair of a murdered man, and the fat of corpse. Some say the witchball needed to include hair from the intended victim to be effective. The witch combine these ingredients in a pot and boil it all for a substantial length of time, uttering curses over it, until it condensed down into a witchball. Some accounts say this had to happen under the light of the full moon or the new moon.
Being struck with a witchball could mean illness or death. It was thought that witches would commonly use witchballs to curse cattle or other farmyard animals. A cow struck with a witchball would give sour milk, stop giving milk altogether, or even wither and die. This withering awway is a common thread among stories of those who suffered from an attach by a witchball. The curses didn't kill instantly, but people who had been sturck would slowly wither away and grow weaker with mysterious illnesses that didn't respond to treatment.
The best way to avoid harm from a witchball was to take preventative action. Arming yourself with a charm, amulet, or other protection from witches could stop the curse from taking effect. If this wasn't enough, expert consultation was usually required. A skilled conjure man or yarb doctor could be counted on to have the knowledge to remove the curse. The first step was usually to determine if the witchball was hidden inside the home. If so, finding it and removing it was essential to restoring the health of those afflicted. From there, the experts knowledge of roots, potions, and herbs took over.
The witchball was just one of many dangers posed by the witches of the mountains, but its potency and difficulty in undoing made it one of the most feared. The precarious nature of existence in mountain communities made caution about supernatural threats a deeply ingrained part of the community. When life in the normal world was hard enough, inviting assault from witches and other supernatural forces was just too much of a risk. Guarding yourself against assault in the form of a witchball was thought to be a practical means of guarding against danger in a precarious world.
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Gainer, Patrick W. Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians West Virginia University Press, 2008
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