Musings on Being Appalachian

I mentioned almost a year ago in West Virginia, Take Me Home about growing up in Florida until the year I turned 13, but always thinking of West Virginia as home. My parents moved to Florida for work before I was born, but they still kept that connection to home. They, like many generations before them, were West Virginian born and bred. Like many others from the state, they left home looking for opportunities. My grandparents did the same, heading out to California for some time when my mom was young, before returning home. I’ve heard it said that West Virginians always come back home, or they at least want to. It’s seemed to be true for much of my family who’ve left.

Though I sometimes feel nostalgic remembering the ocean and the river we lived on, I can’t remember ever really thinking of myself as Floridian. I can’t imagine going back outside of maybe a vacation. The idea of Florida being a place that I used to live almost feels like a distant dream – one of the strange ones that leave you wondering, “what in the world was that about?”. I simply had no connection there. When I remember my childhood, some of my fondest memories were those spent visiting my Papaw’s house in Lincoln County, WV and running amuck with the other kids up and down the hollow and into the mountains surrounding his property. Not sorry, Sunshine State, you don’t hold a candle to these hills.

I feel a deep connection to these mountains. To me, they are sacred. I grew up hearing stories from my family that I now realize are a testament to our Appalachian heritage. It was like a whole other world to me. It’s no wonder I didn’t connect with that other state. Yet, partly because I did grow up hundreds of miles away from home, I sometimes feel like I’m not Appalachian enough. This despite my living here for almost 2 decades now. Imposter syndrome is a nasty little monster that will gnaw at anything you hold dear when it finds a way in. Sometimes I also just find myself comparing who I am to some stereotype of what an Appalachian is “supposed” to be.

Religion and it’s influence is a big part of what I think of. Like most Appalachians, my family is traditionally Christian. I recall visiting the Baptist church my mom grew up in. We didn’t go back because it must have been too painful for her to be there after having lost her own parents years ago. My Mamaw, though a self-identified witch, also grew up Baptist and still held Christian-oriented beliefs alongside her craft. The culture around Appalachia as a whole often centers around Christianity. As for me? If you’re reading this blog, you’ll already know that I’m a polytheist Pagan. Sure, I now have a church aside from nature; but it accepts people of all faiths. I love that it’s so inclusive.

It’s important to remind myself that the religious influence on the culture here is based on a history of colonization that used religion as a weapon. Christianity was the dominating religion across Europe, and thus across the colonized America’s, for so long. Of course the people of West Virginia were just as influenced by that as everyone else. As people in this past century have been finding their own religious and spiritual paths, Appalachia now has a growing and diverse Pagan community. Leaving behind the religion of our more recent ancestors doesn’t make any of us any less Appalachian.

This brings me to Appalachian folk traditions/ magic/ witchcraft, also now commonly called Granny magic. Because of the history of our people, it is true that these traditions have a heavy Christian influence. Does that mean that an Appalachian Pagan can’t practice our own family’s traditions, or reclaim what we’ve lost? I’ve seen some make that claim. It doesn’t make those people right. It just makes them gatekeeping, bigoted assholes. Yeah, I said it. It seems that most have the sense not to share those harmful views, though. My family’s stories and beliefs, despite the Christian influences, are part of me. They’re part of what led me toward Paganism, to my gods and my identity as a witch. Nobody can take that from me. And, besides, a lot of the beliefs and traditions aren’t even specifically religious, anyhow. They work no matter what else you believe in. The women (and gender diverse people) in my family still have dreams and feelings that show us the future or other things we have no logical way to know. Owls are still a symbol of death and deaths often come in three. Blowing smoke in an ear can still cure an earache. Spirits are still real. So on and so forth. For me, these things are part of my Appalachian heritage.

A lot of the old traditions are disappearing among families. There are people publicly sharing their family’s traditions to preserve them, but different families have different ways. I recently spoke to my mom about our family’s old traditions. Aside from what I remember learning from her, she didn’t remember much else. Most of the older folks in my family who would have known more of the old ways are gone, or else their memories are fading. People like me, who ache for our Appalachian folk ways, are left to put the pieces back together in whatever way we can because we either waited too long or were born too late. It is for this reason I am thankful for those who are sharing the Appalachian folk magic from their own family traditions.

What it means to be Appalachian is going to vary among individuals. We’re a diverse bunch with our own backgrounds, but we’ve all got common ground. We share similar histories as a people and a love for these mountains. I am proud to be Appalachian, proud to be West Virginian.


Grannies and Christian Folk Magic

Christian folk magic. People often discuss the witch trials, modern Christian witches, and the history of witchcraft in general without any mention of Christian folk magic ever coming up. Why is this?
To answer simply: Most simply aren’t aware that Christian folk practices actually exist. Many like to claim that Christians can’t be witches, either due to this unawareness of Christian folk traditions.
For clarification, this is not the same as Christo-Wicca or Christo-Paganism. Folk magic isn’t religiously based, although it can be used within religious contexts. This is true also of witchcraft. Depending on the tradition, witchcraft can either be secular or practiced as part of a religion.

In Appalachia, the folk traditions practiced by Christians have been kept relatively secret. It is common for these practices and beliefs to be spoken of in hushed tones even among families. Often, grannies who practiced wouldn’t necessarily give their practice a name, either. It was just what they did.
Appalachian Granny magic typically involves a lot of healing using local plants and folk remedies, reading Scripture from their Bible and laying hands on the ill or injured, singing as a form of spellwork, and divining. It may also include a belief in prophetic dreams, clairvoyance, communication with spirits, and reading of signs in nature. These practitioners were especially important in their communities because doctors were in far off cities and the mountains could make it difficult to get medical help quickly enough.
Appalachian folk practices are said to be a blending of practices from European settlers, Africans, and the Indigenous people of the area. Likely, these practices began as a form of syncretism. These people often would be offended at the thought of being called a witch, although outsiders may have called them as such. It is true, also, that some modern practitioners of this tradition have embraced the title of “witch”. In addition to Christians, there are also those who may practice today and identify with another religion, such as Paganism.
These practices have waned with the advent of modern transportation and education. People in rural areas are more easily able to seek medical help from a doctor. Many modern families also believe less in superstition and folk magic than their ancestors did. This may contribute to the lack of awareness about these traditions. While there seems to be a growing interest among the witchcraft and Pagan communities to reclaim the folk traditions of our ancestors, we are a smaller percentage of the population.

When discussing the rising numbers of Christian witches, it’s important to remember that the practice of magic among Christians is in no way a modern phenomenon. These are the same people who would have historically rejected the label of “witch” while practicing their folk magic. Today, it is increasingly becoming more acceptable in the U.S. to identify as a witch and practice witchcraft. While there is still prejudice against witches, we are much less likely to be killed for our practices and witchcraft is no longer illegal in most places. I am of the opinion that this difference in culture and laws makes a major difference.
There is still, of course, the issue of modern Christian culture still affecting how people may view what is acceptable. Those who grow up in Christian homes may be more likely to cling onto Christianity out of a sense of obligation or fear. This can lead to confusion when such people choose to practice witchcraft or explore Paganism. Often, they don’t realize that they mean to practice a folk magic or otherwise secular tradition and end up attempting to combine Wiccan or Pagan practices with Christianity, instead. This can become problematic for Pagans, particularly polytheists, who are still trying to be taken seriously in a largely monotheistic Christian culture.

To extend this to discussion of the witch trials, I am of the opinion that it is entirely possible that people who practiced Christian folk magic got caught up in it. Although, we should keep in mind that evidence has shown that most victims were other types of outsiders within their communities. Often, they simply held property that their accusers wanted to gain control of. Whoever the victims, whatever their beliefs, it was a horrific thing that happened. While these people were highly unlikely to be Pagan, we modern Pagans can still feel a sense of solidarity with them. The roots of the issue did come from a shared history and it does still affect us today in many ways.

Christian folk magic has a long history. It has been carried from Europe to the Americas and blended with African and Indigenous traditions. Though there are many names across various countries, they have been grouped together as cunning folk. They include the Irish bean feasa and fear feasa, the Italian streghe, Appalachian grannies, and many more.

Here are a few links to get started on reading further:

Researching Appalachia’s Granny Women

Backwoods Witchcraft: Appalachian Folk Magic

Midwifery in West Virginia

Ozark Folklore: Potions and Cures