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Real Witchcraft and Folk Magic in Colonial Times
Did Witchcraft Really Exist in Colonial Times?
We have all heard the stories of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Many of us brush this period in United States history off to silly superstition and socioeconomic turmoil, then there are others who believe the witch hunt hysteria stemmed from actual practices of witchcraft in the colonial United States. In fact, witchcraft has been practiced in the United States as long as there have been people living on its lands. Let me explain further...
First, let us define witchcraft in the simplest light. Witchcraft is the practice of using magic; the use of spells and incantations, and the invocation of spirits. If we strip away the idea of witchcraft being purely devil worship, we can see that the United States Colonials brought their superstitious practices with them from places like England, Wales, Scotland, etc. And while the settlers might not have thought of their superstitious practices as witchcraft, at its simplest definition these practices could absolutely be considered "magic", "spells" and/or "incantations".
To take it a step further, "magic" could literally be found in almost every region of the Colonial United States in one form or another. You had only to take a closer look and find folk practices from the Natives, from the African slaves, as well as from the settlers themselves.
Bottle Trees in the South
It is said that the African slaves brought with them the practice of decorating trees with multi-colored glass bottles. This custom was adopted by the people who spanned out from the southern colonies to Appalachia. This is why you will still see bottle trees prevalently in the Appalachian region of the U.S. to this day. Traditionally, bottle trees were used to "trap" evil spirits and essentially protect a household from these spirits' malevolence. The idea is that the evil spirits would be drawn to the beauty of the glass bottles, go inside, and then be trapped until someone let them out...if they ever did.
Crepe myrtle trees are one of the traditional trees used in this folk magic practice. This particular kind of tree was used in the South and in Appalachia because of its certain powers or "protective" qualities. If we look at the folklore surrounding the crepe myrtle tree, we find that it is connected to cultures from all over the world including ancient Greece, the Congo, and other places in Europe and beyond.
Blue is the traditional color of bottle used in the South, but many people used bottles of varying colors to create the bottle tree. Does this practice date back to Colonial times? Yes it does, and in fact it goes back even further than that according to folklorists. You can even make your own bottle tree today.
The practice of making a "witch cake" is clearly evident in Colonial U.S. history, and comes to us from the time of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. When a couple young girls were thought to be "tormented" by local witches in Salem, MA, a couple women thought it would be a good idea to make a "witch cake" in order to determine the witches' names. (What is ironic in this is that these women were using a form of witchcraft in order to find the "witches" in the town).
In order to make a witch cake, one must bake a cake made of rye and the urine of the afflicted person(s) involved and then feed it to the victims' dog. The dog is then thought to either attack or search out the victim's tormentor or the supposed "witch". Some accounts say that the just the act of the dog eating the cake would reveal the witch in that she would begin screaming or be hurt by the consumption of the witch cake. The practice of making a witch cake most likely originates from England, as it was Mary Sibley who knew how to make the witch cake and informed the slave in the girls' household how to make and use one. Although Mary Sibley would attest to making witch cakes as a folk practice from England, the community's church officials looked at it as just another form of witchcraft and preached against it.
Today I find no account of witch cakes still being made, as the witch hysteria has long since died with the Colonial times (at least for the most part); however, you can make a decadent red velvet cake topped with a fondant witch's hat if you prefer. It will taste a lot better and be a lot less creepy!
Witch Balls were brought to the Colonial United States by the English settlers most likely in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. These are hollow glass spheres with thin fibers strung on the inside that are hung or placed in a window of a home to protect it from evil. Traditionally witch balls are gold, blue, or green and are hung in an Eastern window to ward off the evil eye, witches, and/or evil spirits or curses.
The way the witch ball worked was that the witch or evil spirit would become attracted to the beauty of the ball or of its own reflection and then be trapped inside by the glass strings. Some said that the reflection was enough to send the evil spirit or witch running, never to bother the family or household again.
It is interesting to note that glass-blowing businesses are said to make a witch ball as the first glass-blown item when opening a business - this is good luck. Also, witch balls are associated to the glass gazing balls one might see in a person's garden or yard, and they are also thought to be connected to the red spheres used in fishermen's nets. Were all of these originally used to ward off evil? Again, this seems to be a harmless folk magic practice that could however be considered a form of "white" witchcraft.
To learn more about witch balls, click here.
Another form of "white" witchcraft that stems from England, witch bottles were also used in Colonial times to ward off evil witches (you may find these witch bottles to be of similar use to the witch ball described above.) Witch bottles were glass bottles filled with specific ingredients used to trap a witch that might be tormenting a particular victim. They were usually buried on the victim's property to distract the witch from the victim him/herself and inevitably trap and/or kill the witch.
Some of the ingredients used inside of the witch's bottle included but weren't limited to: nails, pins, red wine, dirt, sand, hair or urine of the victim (to entice the witch), feathers, stones, etc. The nails, pins, and red wine specifically were used to trap the witch while the other ingredients were used to entice the witch to the bottle itself. The witch bottle was usually buried on the victim's property, sometimes it was said to have been thrown at the witch him/herself or buried on the accused witch's property. Other accounts state that witch bottles were thrown into a stream or river.
There is actual archaeological evidence that witch bottles were indeed used in the Colonial United States. The Essington Witch Bottle was found by archaeologists in Essington, PA in 1976, proving that "white" witchcraft was a real system used in Colonial times and therefore denotes that "evil" witchcraft was thought to be alive and well during those times. This particular witch bottle was buried upside down close to the foundation of an old home, indicating that this witch bottle was used to ward off a witch's malady towards the original home's owner.
© 2015 Nicole Canfield