285: Witch Animals

Witches have long had associations with certain animals. In the Ozarks we inherited a folk tradition from European, African, and Native sources, so when we talk about witch animals we have a wide variety to mention. First we can talk about white and black animals and their supernatural associations. Often black animals, like crows, ravens, cats, are thought to be witches in disguise and are looked at with a cautious eye by hillfolk. There’s also the boogers, a whole class of supernatural animals most often linked to black dogs, cats, wolves, pigs, etc. The boogers are specifically seen as the animal form of certain malicious witches, but on rare occasions they are creatures of their own, linked to ghosts (or haints/hants) and spirits of the land in general or a specific haunted site. It’s seldom that a black animal is seen as a creature of good or celestial power but instead are bringers of doom.

White animals, on the other hand, while still held with great suspicion, are most often associated with otherworldly, although not necessarily evil, powers. Creatures like the snawfus, a giant white stag, can be bringers of ill omen as well as entities with the power to bestow great boons on those who are fortunate to find them. For example the white stag often grants hunters certain powers over game, allowing them a sure shot that never misses. This gifts, much like those given by the fae in British/Irish lore, comes with a price, and there are many stories about these supernatural creatures coming to claim the gifted man’s soul at the hour of his death. White birds, often with no real-world counterparts, are sometimes bringers of great power. I’ve heard stories from many healers that traced their gifts back to the finding of a white bird. One story that I incorporated into one of my Mr. Green folk tales says that a strange white bird was seen one day hovering in the air near a cabin. A boy watched on as the bird fell to the ground and was transformed into a patch of white clover. The clover was eaten by a cow resulting in quickly filling udders. The boy milked and milked the cow, buckets full, but the udders remained bursting with milk. The boy drank up the extra until the cow finally stopped giving. The boy delivered the milk back to his mother and told her the tale of the bird, and the clover patch. Hearing the boy say he drank up some of the milk the mother knew in that moment that her son had been given healing powers. Occasionally you will hear a story about a healer that can turn into a white animal (or sometimes just an animal in general, with no color association) but most often the white animal is more ghostly, connected to spirits of ancestors or of the land itself.

It’s unknown whether Ozark hillfolk inherited their beliefs about owls, a well known witch bird, from their European ancestors or from the indigenous peoples of the Appalachians. The Cherokee, it seems, have had their own beliefs about owls being witches for hundreds of years before contact with Europeans, and certainly this association with owls can be found in the folklore of many Old World cultures. My best guess is that the owl, being a night bird, has had this association with witchcraft and darker magics across the world.

Crows and ravens have a similar story, being associated across cultures with death and therefore ill omens and witchcraft. The Cherokee have their raven mockers, witches that hover around a person’s deathbed looking to suck the last breath from their bodies. This belief found its way into Ozark lore where the crow is almost always seen as a witch spy or bringer of some evil power. See a crow, still living, while driving on the road is an ill omen in the Ozarks, while alternately see a dead crow is a token of good fortune.

Toads, while having a deep tradition of association with witches in European folkways, seem to not have translated into Ozark lore, or at least I haven’t been able to find the same associations here.

Red birds like the cardinal are seen as both bringers of good and bad fortune. There’s a story of a woman who beat her daughter without mercy everyday until redbirds started pecking on her window. Seeing this as a ill omen the woman changed her ways before something much more terrible happened to her. This redbird lore seems to at least in part come in from Cherokee sources where the bird is seen as having a connection to the supernatural. For more information see the story of “The Daughter of the Sun” collected by James Mooney.



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