The “witch master” is an interesting profession, or calling, in Ozark folk healing. They’re also often called “witch doctors” although that refers to the person being able to doctor the effects of witchcraft, not that the doctor is himself a witch. The witch master, along with the power doctor, are the two main users of what I consider to be the non-plant-based medicines of the Ozarks. That is to say that these two healers use prayers, charms, and physical objects such as curios to help remove the effects of witchcraft off of a person rather than plant derived medicines, although purgatives were at one time very popular with witch masters and goomer doctors.
Let’s first look at how the witch fits into the Ozark worldview. In this worldview “magic” is almost exclusively associated with witchcraft and witchcraft is always seen in the negative. Healing work, whether it is plant-based or non-plant-based, is never considered magic, even though many researchers today will mistakenly use that word when referencing these traditions. For most of the old hillfolk the mentioning of “magic” in any situation would be seen as an insult and would likely end any conversation right there. Those who are associated with “magic” are the witches. A person could be considered a witch, despite the gender, because of accusations of using some kind of supernatural power to hurt other people. Here the word witch has strong negative connotations, and witches are often seen as folks who, in making a pact with the Devil or evil “haints” (ghosts or spirits), use their gifts to cause some sort of harm to other people in the community.
An Ozark witch master, or witch hunter, would be a profession considered on the same lines as a yarb doctor or power doctor. They are a person who has a gift (that does not have its source in magic but instead in faith) for healing and for removing curses, hexes, and any other influences that comes from witches. The main difference between the healer and the witch in this context is where the gift comes from. If it comes from God it’s considered good work, but if it comes from some other place the person could be labeled as a witch. Now, this is the folklore surrounding the witch, but what is most often the case is that the local witch may in fact be a devout person but has caused some stir in the community that would lead to personal isolation and shunning. Witches are sometimes just healers who have made a few enemies.
There’s also a sort of mythological association with witches as being the source of sickness or pain itself. Sometimes the source of illness is blamed on the local “witch” who lives up in the mountains or woods, other times it’s blamed on a more transcendent, mythological witch figure (similar to the baba yaga of Slavic folklore). This witch, to whom sickness or pain is often sent back, usually doesn’t actually exist, or is sometimes associated with the ghost of a dead “witch,” but the fact remains that oftentimes, when someone feels like they have been “witched” or “hexed,” the witch master will be working, not against an actual person, but against this hag of folklore.
Vance Randolph, in his work “Ozark Magic and Folklore” lists many of the techniques of the witch master for healing their clients. Many of these techniques involve practices that many people would associate with traditional witchcraft, such as the use of poppets. In the Ozark worldview, oftentimes the magic done to a person by a witch will be reversed by the same magic, only done by a witch master. That’s to say that if the witch master feels like someone has hexed you by using your hair, the witch master may use some of your hair to counter it. Or if a doll is used against you, the witch master may use a doll against the witch.
There are several cases of witch masters using poppets to heal their clients. Sometimes a witch master will cut out the likeness of the witch out of paper then cut off various body parts over a certain amount of time, or shoot it through the heart with a silver bullet. Other times he will make a poppet out of cloth or clay then stick pins or nails in its body. There are also accounts of witch masters who perform a certain ritual with the pawpaw tree. The witch master takes some hair, nail clippings, or clothing scraps that belong to the witch, and then mixes it with beeswax (and sometimes blood) before balling it up on the end of a cedar-wood stake that is driven in the highest branching fork of a pawpaw tree. All of these techniques are aimed at sending back to the witch the harm that she sent to an innocent person. I’ve heard from people that after having gone to see a witch master they heard screaming out in the woods that they attributed to the dying witch. I’ve also heard that in one case the person who had been witched saw their assailant wither away into nothing over the course of a month.
There’s another story that a woman couldn’t get her cream to turn to butter in the churn, so naturally she suspected witchcraft, specifically witchcraft coming from her neighbor that she had quarreled with times before. So she called a witch master to help her. He came out to her house and handed her a horseshoe and told her to heat it red hot in the stove. When this was done he took it out with some tongs and after saying a prayer tossed it into the cream. After that she had no trouble churning butter, and the next time she saw her neighbor she had a big burn on the side of her face in the shape of a horseshoe.
There’s an understanding with this work, however, that the witch can struggle loose from such a reversal, if she is able to find the poppet of herself. There’s one technique mentioned by Vance Randolph, where the witch master takes a poppet made in the likeness of a witch into the woods and nails it through the heart into the north-facing side of a black-oak tree. The witch can escape her harm only if she is able to find this poppet in the woods. Great secrecy is taken by the witch master in their work in order to prevent a witch from ever interrupting what’s being performed.
We have to look at these practices from the level of the intention that is put behind them. In the Ozark worldview there are those who do harm and those who, by faith, are able to reverse that harm. With this in mind, the practices and traditions may, in some cases, seem identical to one another. For example, the use of poppets to deal out harm versus the use of poppets to reverse that harm. Faith and language is key here; it’s what separates the witch from the witch master.