Backcountry Magic Ways: The Border Obsession with Sorcery

... Each Anglo-American folk culture was the product not merely of a place but of a period. The people of the backcountry brought with them the magic that existed on the borders of North Britain in the early and middle decades of the eighteenth century. These beliefs included an interest in witchcraft, wizardry and other forms of diabolical magic but not the same sort of witchcraft obsession that had flourished among the Puritans a century earlier.

Witchcraft still survived in this culture. Daniel Drake remembered meeting a borderer in the American backcountry named Old Billy Johnson who was "an implicit believer in witchcraft, and 'raising' and 'laying' the Devil."114 The folklore of the southern mountains was full of witches and goblins for many generations. As late as the 1930s, collectors of folk beliefs in the southern mountains were told of many witch-beliefs....

The folk culture of the back country ran strongly to another category of magic, which might be called experimental sorcery or secular superstition. It consisted mainly in the pragmatic use of conjuring, sorcery, charms, omens, spells, potions, incantations and popular astrology to change the course of events, or to predict them.

This magic contained a vast repertory of practices for any imaginable occasionfor troubles with animals, crops, neighbors, children, weather, illness. It recommended actions for the control of any possible emotion, and for the execution of any imaginable purpose in the world. In the early twentieth century, one group of folklorists collected nearly 10,000 of these prescriptions in North Carolina, from which a few examples might be selected. A few of these prescriptions have been confirmed by science:

Others were positively lethal:

Many were contradictory:

This self-renewing backcountry magic needed none of the institutional apparatus which the Puritans of New England brought to bear upon witchcraft. It did not require any of the intellectual refinement which country gentlemen in Virginia devoted to the study of fortune. The magic of the backcountry was a simple set of homespun superstitions, designed for use by small groups of unlettered people.

The magic of the backcountry was remarkably secular in its nature and purposes. It retained vestigial beliefs in the Devil, witches, stars and planets. But mainly it sought to control worldly events by the manipulation of worldly things.

Backcountry magic was highly materialist,experimental and empirical in its nature. Its ancient rituals and homespun remedies were mainly a device by which these people struggled to understand and control their lives in the midst of many uncertainties of their world.


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