This is a very complex subject spanning almost every culture on this planet, so in an effort to not write a book here, I’m going to limit my focus to American Protestant verbal charms, specifically of the Appalachian and Ozark variety.
Firstly, when we talk about the use of verbal charms in healing traditions we have to talk a little bit about the history of the Bible in the Protestant tradition, since most of the verbal charms coming from the Appalachians and Ozarks are either pulled directly from the Bible or at least reference biblical characters and stories.
In Christian-based folk healing and folk magic the Bible has played a crucial role in the development of certain verbal charms and healing practices. But it hasn’t always been there. Up until the Protestant Revolution and the translating of the Bible out of Latin, most healers would not have been using the Bible in their work, but would have instead used common prayers, in Latin, that they memorized from just participating in the rites of the Church. Many of these charms were based on much older, pagan blueprints that were just adjusted to a Christian context much later on. See the Merseburg incantations. It was only when Protestant groups start popping up that you see the inclusion of Bible verses and Psalms in folk magic and healing. With the availability of the Bible came the inclusion of these verses in the charming repertoire of the folk healer.
Now, this is only taking into account those who actually became Protestant. We can see in many of the witch-hunts that often what defined a person as a witch was their use of Latin prayers in healing. Many cunning folk (and many good Church goers) lost their lives because of their faith in the “old” Church. And of course in those areas that retained the Roman Catholic Church there would have been the use of certain Church prayers and novenas in healing work. You can see this separation in the folk healing of the Ozarks and the “traiteur” tradition of Cajun and Creole Louisiana. The practices of healing in and of themselves are very similar, even down to individual techniques; the difference is in the use of prayer. In the Ozark tradition the Bible, in English, is most often used whereas in the Cajun healing tradition the charms and prayers come from French and Latin Catholic sources.
In the beginning of the Protestant Reformation the common people were often still left out. They gave up the Catholic Church and their Latin Bible for a different Bible that although widely (relatively) distributed was still in a language that the people didn’t understand. The folk healers were often among those left behind, hence their attachment to the old Latin prayers that they would have already known by heart. It was only until the percentage of those who were literate raised that more people were looking through the Bible and developing verbal charms for themselves. Also, as I mentioned above, the threat of being labeled as a “witch” because of the use of Latin prayers I’m sure contributed to the decrease in the use of old prayers by healers and charmers.
You really start to see an influx in the use of the Bible in healing traditions when Protestant groups came over to America. Some of the early communities that had a significant healing tradition were those who fell within the “Pennsylvania German” grouping, which often included Baptists, Anabaptists, Dunkards, Brethren, Lutherans, and oftentimes groups that weren’t even German but who shared common beliefs with these other groups like the Huguenots and the Quakers. The colony of Pennsylvania was originally set up by the Quaker William Penn as a refuge for exiled Protestant groups, so it’s no surprise that all these different communities would mingle there. Many of these groups brought with them their own unique healing traditions, most of which were based in the newly translated Protestant Bible. For more information see my posts on Braucherei and Quaker Healing traditions.
Much like these groups were the Scottish, Irish, Welsh, English, and Cornish families (there were also many Pennsylvania German families that migrated south) that settled in the Appalachian Mountains and later the Ozarks. They also brought with them their own unique healing traditions part of which included certain healing charms. These charms were often passed through the family and were hardly ever written down. You can trace the lineage of many of these charms back to their European origins. One such charm that was recorded in both the Ozarks and Appalachians is the charm for healing a burn which goes:
Two angels came out of the east,
One brought fire,
The other brought flood,
There are of course many variations of this charm, but the basic structure of the charm can be seen in much, much older Scottish and English sources.
Because of the nature of these verbal charms, that they are usually always passed through a family, there are very few charms out there that were just completely made up on the spot. I’d say nearly all of the healing charms in the Ozarks certainly have American ancestors if not European ones as well. I have noticed a trend, at least among the healers I’ve known, of changing up the old charms, or creating new ones, because of the increase in writing or printing charms in books. In the Ozarks, as I’ve been taught, this is a big no-no and essentially “kills” the charm, rendering it powerless. Many of the old charms don’t work anymore because of this reason.
While the study of verbal charms is important we have to be mindful of the taboos surrounding certain charms. Of course there are those out there who don’t mind telling people the charms they know or writing them down for researchers. But there are also those who still hold to the notion that these charms contain power, and have to be treated in a certain way. We should respect equally those who wish to share and those who wish to keep silent.
Resources for further reading on the subject:
“The Power of Words: Studies on Charms and Charming in Europe” Eva Pocs, James A. Kapalo, and William Francis Ryan
“Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic” Jonathan Roper
“Charms and Charming in Europe” Jonathan Roper