Day 102: Ozark Initiations



I’d like to talk a little bit more about passing down healing in the Ozark tradition. Some of the information in this post comes from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”, other bits come from my own experiences with Ozark healers. I’d like to add that the information presented here represents a tradition that has been dying for years now in the Ozarks. There are very few old folk out there left who believe in all this stuff. In presenting this information here I am not trying to show the current state of Ozark folkways, but rather give information with regards to the revival of certain traditions that I have collected.

Traditional Ozark folk healing can be divided into two categories: the workings of the “doctors” and the workings of the “witches”. Now, this isn’t as simply black and white as some would like to believe. The operation of doctors and witches often overlap, and it’s only because of the community in which the healer operates that they are labeled as one or the other. For instance, you might have a power doctor mixing up revenge dust for a client but because the community choses to accept that they are doing the “Lord’s work” they are labeled as a “doctor”. Likewise there might be a person healing with charms in the backwoods who people call a “witch” (a wholly negative term usually denoting someone who does harm to others and has made a pact with a/the (D)devil) who doesn’t do any of the things a witch is typically thought to do, but because of the community they are named as such. Whether a healer is considered “good” or “bad” is usually up to the community they live in and the reputation the healer makes for himself or herself. The Ozark healer has in the past had to walk a fine line between being a “doctor” and being a “witch”. Too many failures, or pissing off the wrong person could easily lead to a well-known healer being ostracized by the community as someone who “speaks the Devil’s language”.

The work of the “doctors” (i.e. power doctors, yarb doctors, goomer doctors, root doctors, or witch doctors) comes through one or more routes. It can be information that is passed down to a person from someone of the opposite sex. It can be an inborn trait, as with the cases of children born with the “caul” or children born on or around the death of a close relative. It can also be passed to a person through a near-death experience of their own.

The “gift” or “sight” as it’s sometimes called can also be inherited through a person’s experience with the Otherworld or and Otherworldly entity. This tradition comes by way of Irish and British immigrants to the Appalachian Mountains who then came and settled in the Ozarks. This would be considered remnants of the “Fairy Faith” of the British Isles. There are stories in the Ozarks of people receiving healing gifts from encounters with spirits in the woods or hills. Most of the time these spirits aren’t identified or are called certain spirits of “Indians”, but they bear a striking resemblance to stories from the British Isles of certain cunning folk receiving their powers from the “Good Folk” or the “People of the Hills”. The downside of receiving the “gift” in this way is that it makes the person naturally suspicious to others who would see this as being too close to the folklore surrounding witches and their helping spirits.

I once heard of a man who was passed certain charms from his great aunt who, as family legend has it, got them from a man inside of a huge sycamore tree. The first charm came to her when she was hunting for blackberries in the woods. She heard a voice coming from behind a tree and thought it was one of her brothers playing a trick on her. But seeing no one around she stepped closer to the tree and heard the voice again. It was a man’s voice, muffled, coming from within the tree. He taught her one charm each day for ten days then the voice disappeared. She always said the man must have been the ghost of some “Indian” that had died beneath that sycamore tree.

A witch typically gains their powers in very different ways, although it’s said that a witch can also pass down certain gifts to their children or grandchildren.

Vance Randolph has several anecdotes about Ozark initiations in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“Not every woman who receives this information becomes a witch. A mother can transmit the secret work to her son, and he could pass it on to his wife, and she might tell one of her male cousins, and so on. All of these people may be regarded as ‘carriers,’ but not until someone actually uses the deadly formulae does a genuine witch appear. And thus, while a knowledge of witchcraft is admitted to exist in certain families and clans, it sometimes lies dormant for a long time.”

A lot of the stories surrounding a witch’s initiation are similar to those of other European-based cultures i.e. reading certain passages of the Bible backwards, meeting the Devil (or a devil) in a graveyard and performing certain rites, renouncing the Christian religion and baptism, etc. But there are some stories that are unique to the Ozarks, or are just interesting enough to mention.

“Some hillfolk believe that a woman may become a witch by some comparatively simple hocus-pocus. Professor A. W. Breedon, of Manhattan, Kansas, who was reared near Galena, Missouri, in the nineties, tells me his neighbors thought that a woman had only to fire a silver bullet at the moon and mutter two or three obscene old sayin’s.“

“When a woman decides to become a witch, according to the fireside legends, she repairs to the family buryin’ ground at midnight, in the dark of the moon. Beginning with a verbal renunciation of the Christian religion, she swears to give herself body and soul to the Devil. She removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s tombstone, and delivers her body immediately to the Devil’s representative, that is, to the man who is inducting her into the ‘mystery.’ The sexual act completed, both parties repeat certain old sayin’s terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead and end by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. This ceremony is supposed to be witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude, and must be repeated on three consecutive nights. After the first and second vows the candidate is still free to change her mind, but the third pledge is final. Henceforth the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity.”

“I am indebted to Mrs. Mueller also for an account of a conjure man she knew in Holla about 1910. He was a mind reader, clairvoyant, fortuneteller, power doctor, witch master an old fellow with strange red eyes. This man told Mrs. Mueller how he learned the art of conjuring. He said that even as a small boy he always felt that he could ‘do things,’ and one day he saw what looked like a snake or an eel at the water’s edge, in a small creek. He approached, and the thing crawled out on a gravel bar. A strange animal, black all over, about a foot long, shaped exactly like a coffin, with two red eyes like balls of fire. A voice told him to kill this creature, and he smashed it with a club. From that day forward he could conjure. There are people in Rolla today who remember the old man with the strange red eyes, like balls of fire.”

There are other stories of people gaining helping spirits by purchasing them at a crossroads, or by circling a graveyard three times counterclockwise on three new moons in a row. I’ve also known healers who made certain agreements with spirits they met at unusual natural features like large stones in the middle of the woods, natural cave dwellings on bluff-faces, single trees in open fields, rivers running North, etc.

All of these initiatory experiences, whether for the “doctors” or the “witches” or those shared by the two, all have one thing in common, and that’s a break from what we might call “normal” reality. Whether it’s a simple transferal of charms from one person to another or talking to the Master of the Graveyard, there is a point where the person receiving the initiation has a moment of enlightenment, where knowledge not previously known is all at once gained. The more involved the initiatory experience, coupled with the use of powerful imagery like being outdoors, at night, in a cemetery or other “place of power”, and the use of complicated or intriguing ritual, the more powerful the break with everyday reality. Also, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the more involved the initiatory experience the more complicated the rituals and practices of the doctor/witch become. So that we see those men and women who have had a much stronger break with “ordinary reality” performing much more complicated feats for their communities.

A story related to witch initiations is “She Wouldn’t Be a Witch” from Vance Randolph’s “Who Blowed Up the Church House?”

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