Making My Path

As it was for many other modern Pagans and witches, I didn’t entirely grow up with the religion and spiritual practices that I now follow. What I did have was the Appalachian folk beliefs of my family. Or, rather perhaps, what remained of them. The superstitions and folk cures passed down to me weren’t much, but I’ve realized that they’re the foundation my spirituality was built upon. They’re the seeds from which it all sprouted for me.

It never occurred to me that other families didn’t always believe in prophetic dreams, spirits, and signs until I was older. As a child, I didn’t think twice about my dad blowing smoke in my ear to cure an earache I had. These things were simply a part of life.

I don’t recall when it was that I realized these things weren’t a part of everyone’s truth, though I obviously did learn so at some point. Was it when somebody had a mocking tone when they talked about spirits and superstitions? Or maybe it was just that I didn’t hear many people talk about such things as openly as my family did amongst each other.

If it weren’t for the family stories of ghosts, dreaming about the future, and out of body experiences; would I have become so interested in the spirit world and spirituality? Sure, I greatly enjoyed popular fantasy on tv and in books. A friend and I once made up ridiculous pretend spells because we were fans of these things. But, that was all fiction. Playing pretend was one thing – belief is entirely another. My belief at the time was part of my heritage.

Despite these firmly rooted beliefs, a large part of my family’s Appalachian religious heritage didn’t stick for me. I left Christianity in search of religion that made me feel more whole, more like I had found home. In a span of a few years, as a teenager, I became a Pagan. I knew it was the right path for me because it was one I was experiencing. Instead of simply hearing some preacher on a pulpit yelling about his (very ignorant) interpretation of the NKJ version of the Bible, I was able to feel a personal connection to the divine. One of my first spiritual experiences was walking home and becoming suddenly aware of the sacred spirits that were around me. The trees, the sky, the earth itself; I realized that they had spirits as much as humans do. I realized that they are divine. I learned that the Earth, herself, is living being.

As time went on and I learned more, experienced more, my interpretation of deity changed. Instead of just one god or goddess, I realized that there are many. Some of Them spoke to me. They visited me in the Dreaming and in meditation, whispered into my waking subconscious, sent me signs. These are deities who feel real to me. They’re not some far off being watching from above, who I could never hope to know.

(All of this is not to say that those who don’t experience religion in the ways that I have are wrong. I would imagine that anyone who feels a connection to a religion will find meaning in it one way or another.)

It is likely that many of my recent ancestors may not be happy with my choice to worship the old gods. There are many things about me that they likely aren’t thrilled about, to be fair. That is, of course, assuming that the ancestors don’t learn and grow in whatever afterlife they are in. It’s entirely possible that those who would have been disapproving in life are more supportive in death.

Many Pagan traditions have a strong focus on ancestral veneration. Norse Heathenry, one of my strongest influences, is very much one of them. So, too, is the importance of family history for many Appalachians. It was never outright said, but rather implied throughout my life, that knowing where we come from and who came before us is important. That’s why pieces of family history have been passed down for so long. Though my ancestors and I are very different people, many whom I would not want to associate with in life, many whose lived experiences would be very different from mine even if we had lived in the same time period; they are important to me. Whatever they were like during their lives, there is something I can learn from them (even if it’s only a recognition of where toxic family traits and traumas came from).

I digress. Whatever my ancestors think of my religion is on them. My experiences with the gods Whom I have connected with has been wonderful. Yes, even in times when They needed to teach me difficult lessons. Even, too, in times when They feel distant, when I long to feel close to Them again.

My relationships with Them have also changed over the years. Since I came to a polytheist worldview, the gods I worship have been teachers, parental figures, friends, lovers, and more. My view of divinity has shifted from being the Unknowable, to one shaped by the personal connections which I have made with a very few of the innumerable number of gods in existence.

Sharing spiritual connections with humans is important, too. I realized this at some point after a number of years spent as a mostly solitary Pagan. Some of that connection was found online, in groups where people shared many of my beliefs. It took some time, but I found an online Rökkatru group where the members feel like a long distance family. Knowing that there are people out there who share a common belief in these gods, who find inspiration in the mythologies, and who care for one another, is comforting.

It wasn’t until shortly after moved to the city that I sought out local religious community. I found that first in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where I began meeting with the Pagan group for a while before also joining the rest of the congregation for Sunday services when I was able. My connection with this group of humans is more centered around community and secular humanism. Though it is not deity-centered, it is still spiritual.

This all leads me to where I am now. My path is a blend of Appalachian folk belief, Norse and Irish polytheist Paganism, and Unitarian Universalism. My path is also deeply influenced by animism, pantheism, herbalism, intuition, and an appreciation of science. Each person will have a different story, different experiences and influences that define their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices. We all have to find our own paths, in our own ways.

When I was just starting out, I never imagined the course that my spiritual path would take. I think that it will continue to grow throughout my life. Perhaps I will come to believe things, as I have in the past, that I never considered a possibility. Or maybe, I will be drawn to revisit a practice that I have long since neglected. Whatever route it takes me, I know that it will continue to enrich my life.


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