Day 78: What is Folk Magic?



What is folk magic? I’m not 78 days into this project and I’m not sure I’ve talked about this yet. For me it’s not hard to understand, but I can see where there might be a lot of confusion about the subject. “Folk magic” is commonly defined as “The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to control natural or chance events or to influence the behavior or emotions of others.” That’s pretty broad though isn’t it? Well, yes, but that’s the point. Folk magic is often called “low magic” and separated from the more “ceremonial” types of work, at least in terms of traditional European magic. It’s the work of the common folk, passed down orally from generation to generation rather than be written down. The work of folk magic deals with everyday ills and sicknesses; blood stopping, wart curing, burn soothing, are all a part of the folk magician’s work. So often what we see with folk magic crosses paths with what some would call “witchcraft” although I’ve already talked about my stance on this term in another post. In brief, from the perspective of Ozark folk culture (and many, many other folk cultures around the world) “witchcraft”, but whatever word you choose to use, is always seen in a negative way as the use of some supernatural ability to cause harm to others. Even the term “folk magic” because of its use of “magic” would often be condemned by more traditional healers.

So then, what is folk magic if we often can’t even use that term to define what we’re doing? For me it’s a term that’s helpful when referring to traditional practices of healing as a way of separating it from more harmful forms of “witchcraft”. It’s a way of lumping in a lot of related practices under one heading, and tells people that I am interested in and a part of a folk culture, that is a culture that has been predominately rural and isolated from what would be considered “mainstream” society.

Folk magic is hard to define as it is common to so many different cultures around the world. It’s become a sort of catch all (much like the term shamanism) used to lump together similar folk practices without having to name them all individually. Where I see the problem with the use of this term, or the use of “folkways” or “folk culture” in general is that it is applying an exogenic term to a culture; it’s not using the names and terms the culture themselves use. Which is why you have things like “smudging” being applied across the board to lots of different traditions of smoke purification. Most of the time I just say that’s laziness, but I always try to give people a chance to do their research.

If you’re a part of a living folk culture than chances are you already know the terms your culture uses for its individual folkways, and if you’re trying to revive a folk culture than I would encourage you to always DO YOUR RESEARCH!Don’t be lazy and just blindly take the offered terms. If something makes you uncomfortable, for instance if you’re reading a book on the folk culture you’re trying to revive and you see something like, “witchcraft” or “smudging” or “totem” or “fetish” being used (these are words I see misused a lot, especially in older works) and that makes you uncomfortable, throw it out! Don’t use them because some writer or professor is using them, throw it out! If you can’t find culturally appropriate words to use than make up your own, you’re allowed to do that. Use your language and creativity when all else fails.

Folk magic and folk culture are complicated subjects, let’s not misuse the terms as a way of lazily getting out of doing research. If you’re talking about a system of folk magic, religion or culture, than do your best to use the terms from within the culture itself. Don’t assume that because some anthropologist is using a term that they are using it correctly, always verify information with multiple sources, preferably sources that are still alive and from the culture you’re researching.

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