When talking about spirit helpers we have to deviate from the ethos of traditional Ozark healing a bit and move into what might often be considered “witchcraft”. In the Appalachian and Ozark culture one folk-identifier of the witch is that they use power granted to them by certain spirits or spirit helpers rather than relying upon the power afforded by God. This identifier goes all the way back to European peoples on the cusp of conversion to the new religion of Christianity. It was a way of separating the Church-folk from those who were still holding on to their “pagan” ways. These were predominantly rural farmers and shepherds who were much more likely to hold nature-based “superstitions” and old practices. When you’re livelihood and the lives of your family depends on the cycles of nature, you tend to be more likely to hold views that would seek to befriend or appease the natural world around you. These beliefs began to hide behind Christian traditions where they have survived even today.
Communities in the New World were no different. You see similar rural farming traditions in the Appalachians and Ozarks as you do in rural areas of England, Cornwall, Ireland, etc. One Ozark tradition with likely pagan origins was recorded by Vance Randolph in the early part of the 20th century. It involves farmers rolling around naked on their newly plowed fields, or people having sex on the fields, in order to insure the success of the crop to come. Traditions like these have always been practiced by people who would consider themselves Church-going Christians, but the traditions of rural folk have always been different from those of the town and city folk.
Now, back to our original subject. The idea of the “other” plays into a lot of folk traditions. The witch is considered the “other”, the person onto whom all blame can be placed. These so-called witches are often hill folk that just prefer being away from people. The old woman in the forest is a common image based on this idea of self or community-induced separation. There are folk tales here in the Ozarks of city people who are weary of going into the hills for fear of the people living there. Those living high up in the mountains, or in swamps, or in caves, have always scared those on the outside.
Part of the reason why the folkloric witch is seen as a consort to the spirits is that the people accused of such things are often those living out in the most remote of areas. They become almost a part of nature itself. They find themselves intimately acquainted with the cycles of nature and true “owners” of the land. I’ve talked to some of these people, and if I weren’t a spirit-man myself I’d find them a bit spooky too. Living so close to nature gives rise to traditions and practices that seem wholly un-Christian. It’s a revival of a different sort of Holy Spirit. One that rather than giving us earthly tongues lets us speak the language of the land, the Devil’s language, as it’s sometimes called in Ozark folklore.
Spirit helpers are then the spirits of the land itself. Animistic representations of plants, animals, stones, the weather, and the celestial bodies themselves. They become an extension of the healer’s persona. With their help we can do much more than we’re able to on our own. Because they are of the land they have an intimate knowledge of the land. They can help the healer find the plants they need to use, or hunting grounds, or sources of water. I met a granny-woman once who lived for years in the Ozark wilderness, who knew very little about the useful plants but was “led” to the ones she needed by the spirit-voices of the plants themselves. The work I do would be much less effective if I didn’t have the help of my spirit brothers and sisters.
So then, why do people fear the person who has these spirit helpers? I think it’s the age-old fear of the wild, fear of the dark forest. I’m reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Scarlet Letter” where the dark, imposing forest is almost a character in and of itself. It’s a primal fear for humans. But, there are those people who rather than fearing the forest take a great comfort in it’s solitude and safety, and view the so-called “civilized” world as the real place of darkness.
For the hill folk living out in the woods someone who worked the spirits in order to heal or help find food was an asset, not something to be feared. It’s only when those folks from the outside, from the city, look at these spirit-people that the label of witch gets thrown around. Now, that’s not to say that the healers themselves don’t try and fight against so-called “witchcraft” i.e. the supernatural cause of sickness and misfortune, but there’s a difference between the witch as the shapeless, formless, embodiment of evil and sickness, and the witch as an actual person who can be persecuted and killed. The word “witch” in that way becomes the tool of the bigot and those who choose to embrace their fear of the forest.