Apple, Knot and Dolly: Folkloric American Love Charms

Around his waxen image first I wind, 
Three woolen fillets, of three colors join'd; 
Thrice bind about his thrice devoted head, 
Which round the sacred altar thrice is led. 
Unequal numbers please the gods, my Charms, 
Restore my Daphnis to my longing arms.  
Knit with three knots the fillets; knit 'em straight; 
And say, "These knots to love I consecrate."

-John Dryden, Virgil, 
The Works of Virgil Translated Into English Verse

The story of the witch as a meddler in affairs of the heart is an old one, as are the different folk charms employed by the most common of man to inspire adoration or even lust.  I’ve spent many years fascinated with love charms and much of that time was spent focusing on the most famed love projects found in post-colonial lore of the new world and how we as new world witches, recreating the folkloric work of our ancestors, can bring them back into our work.

We all learn the old warnings early on, not to mess with love magic because the human heart and human mind are too fickle and mismatched to agree- so manipulating these forces is bound to bring undesired consequences, but we do it anyway.  We, like Perimede, Kirki, and Canidia before us, still long for that mystical power to ensnare whom we desire and bend the wills of men and women to our needs. It isn’t pretty and pleasant magic; often it is gritty and grimy and strange.

Neapolitan witches were said to use the rotting bits of corpses to achieve their magic, and those old Green Witches were creatures of darkness who were said to drug their victims into loving them.  But what of the witch in the New World? Well, the use of potions, powders, elixirs and oils, dollies and all manner of amulet and talisman is second nature to love charms in North American folk magic- and the magic of love could be truly horrifying and morbid, utilizing rot and decay and poison to make one irresistible.  Love charms in America more often than not were surprisingly sweeter in nature; having more to do with prediction and divination than with coercion, but they are magic nonetheless.

 In the old vernaculars of North America, love charms were called projects (North) or tricks (South) witching (South) or fortunes (Northeast and Midwest) and spells (West coast).  For all these tricks and projects there are simple tools that achieve these dubious ends.  The tools we use as witches are never as important as the intention behind our actions, but they are valuable nonetheless.  

When you delve deep enough into folklore in the New World, you’ll find several tools employed for this craft that seem to overshadow most others.  These tools are not the only ones in the box, but they are by far the most famed tools we know of with the most prolific uses in everyday folk magic. Love charms were taken very seriously by the rural folk of early America, and the fear of love potions, charms and curios is steeped deeply into Southern folklore, notably among the Ozarks (who were said by folklorist B.A Botkin, to believe those effected by love charms could not always be held accountable for their actions) and New Orleans who proudly displayed love charms in their local drug stores alongside more "legitimate" medicines. Usually, love charms call for an herbal component like vervain, devil's shoestring, shameweed and Sampson snakeroot, which, by the doctrine of plants, were supposed to either bind, find or invigorate love just by being present.

Romantic potions and powders require an essay all their own, and frankly flower magic for erotic purposes could be its own book, but what of the standard objects within our own houses which can bring and bind love? What about that domestic love magic? Within the romantic folk charms of the States, there are some prominent tools of this largely divinatory path of love witching. And the tools with which this folk art could be achieved were; apples, dolls, knots, potions, powders, and mirrors. Aside from mirrors which I've discussed before, what of the apple, the doll and the knot- the old enchantments we romanticize so well?

Witch Knots

“In our time ‘tis a common thing,” saith Erasmus, “for witches to take upon them the making of these philters, to force men and women to love and hate whom they will; to cause tempests, diseases, etc, by charms, spells, characters, and knots.”-  Cora L. Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

The knot is one of those old magic that is so completely common and universal, we actually forget about its potency and history.  This magic has roots in most ancient civilizations. Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans all dabbled in cords and knots specifically for use in love and curse magic: “You chant this spell seven times over a three-stranded cord of lapis-colored wool, you knot it (and) you bind it in your hem.  And when you enter into the presence of the prince, he will welcome you.”- Christopher A. Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic (in reference to Neo-Assyrian egalkura magic). Ancient occultism is the basis for a lot of the spells and charms seen in old grimoires and esoteric literature- this cycle of "superstition" has survived the centuries, the changing landscape of culture, the ever-evolving constancy of human storytelling.

A knot was a weary omen in the Europe of our ancestors, and as the world connected, these beliefs transmitted over culture, through time and are the basis for much of our deeper "superstitions" here in the new world. From the old-world perspective, knot charms usually meant that one was being bound in some way; bound to death, to love, to doom; Lapland witches confessed that while they fastened three knots in a linen towel in the name of the devil and had spit on them, they called the name of him they doomed to destruction.  This was one of the “sorcery cords” by which so much evil was supposed to be done.”- Smithsonian Institution: Bureau of American Ethnology, Annual Report

Garlands, ladders, girdles- whatever the knot, these strands of fate were utilized by peasant class pagans and ceremonial ritualists alike.  The East brought us instances of knot magic involving the use of beads, feathers and hole-stones which adorn the threads- often these threads included the tendons or entrails of some potent animal and would be worn on the person or hidden in the home. From Greek and Roman sources, which much of our general knowledge of love spells is derived in the Western world, knotting magic is, more often than not, also associated with love and sexual desire, as well as beauty and chastity. "If you tie a knot in a tiny tree and name it, and if it grows up, you will marry the man or woman for whom you named it." Apple tree folklore; North Carolina Folklore Collection p.624

What we in America know of knot magic comes mostly from Scottish, English, Irish and Scandinavian folk charms, as well as some West African influence where knotting magic in witchcraft was a known terror.  The charms we know of here are just as they were in the old world; for love and for cursing. Mostly love. These were very simple charms, layperson charms of no great ceremonial value which were often employed by lovesick youth.  

"Thus girls when in as strange bed would, in years past, tie their garters nine times round the bedpost, and knit as many knots in them, repeating these lines by way of incantation:
"This knot I knit, this knot I tie,
to see my lover as he goes by;
In his apparel and array,
As he walks in every day."
-T.F Thiselton-Dyer, Folklore of Women (1883)

A simple charm calls for a women's garters or stockings to be tied in a knot and hung above the bed while speaking this charm, “This knot I tie, this knot I knit, to see the young man I haven’t seen yet.”  

And another following a similar formula goes as such:

"Aubrey has the following direction for anybody who wishes to know whom he shall marry: "You must lie in another county, and knit the left garter about the right-legged stocking (let the other garter and stocking alone), and, as you rehearse these following at every comma, knit a knot:
"This knot I knit, to know the thing I know not yet, 
That I may see, the man (woman) that shall my husband (wife) be, 
how he goes and what he wears, and what he does, all days and years."

-Faiths and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, with Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated, Volume 2 by William Carew Hazlitt

A variation of a Maine knotting trick from Halloween is a charm and incantation from Maryland that goes as such: Silently ready for bed and as you do so, wind a ball of string about your wrist as you say;

“I wind, I wind, This night to find, Who my true love’s to be; The color of his eyes, the color of his hair, and the night he’ll be married to me.”-from a Southern folk-song

...And another, similar one from the Journal of American Folklore;

"On October 30- All-hallows Eve-- wind a ball of worsted and say; "I wind here, who winds there?" Fasten the loose end to some object near an open window, throw out the ball and watch."

Different colored cords, of specific material, and with particular incantations are supposed, in our lore, to weave together the very harmonies of fate in the favor of the weaver, every knot done binding an intention, and every knot pulled unraveling one’s work.  Binding magic has a sort of universal quality to it that I can appreciate.
"Three times a True-Love's Knot I tye secure; Firm be the knot, firm may his love endure."- Gaye

Threads or balls of wool yarn are an old bit of folkloric magic, used to conceal or to bind, to dowse or divine. Even without the benefit of a binding knot, a ball of thread was a useful tool of divination, and in Midwestern folklore, the use of tossing balls of thread into dark places and waiting for a conjured spirit to respond to the action was associated almost exclusively with love fortunes. "One way of discovering whom one was to marry seems to have been rather a favorite: the seeker deserted house or barn. He flung the ball into a door or window, keeping one end of the twine in his hand; then he began to reel in the twine again calling, "I wind, I wind; who holds?" A voice, telling him the name of his future bride."- S. P. Bayard, Witchcraft Magic and Spirits on the Border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia

Old world knotting magic made its way to the new world, even those charms which seem morbid and terrifying which are common to the historic love spells of the Old World.  One spell from Le Petit Albert which became a somewhat famed occult manual popular with American occult enthusiasts in the 1800’s after distribution in French-speaking territories, including Louisiana and Quebec, called for the penis of a wolf to be tied in knots in order to render a man incapable of lust for any other person, called “Knotting the Cord”.  

American versions of old-world knot magic tend to use a lot less animal parts and use a lot more personal concerns; hair, socks, trousers, underwear, etc.  Hair is one of the more important knot materials, tricks and projects (the terms used to describe love spells in parts of North America) which involved the use of binding magic often made use of hair either by binding the hair of two lovers together, weaving hair into a knot which is hidden in the home of the intended or can be otherwise fused in a way that symbolizes binding.  

Often, spells for knots in American lore relied on the number nine (three times three has well known occult symbolic force) and the lover's knot was to be made with nine knots. Sometimes, nature itself makes the knot which binds lovers; “To bring a man and a woman together put some of the hair of each into a split made with an ax in the fork of a young sapling, and when the wood grows back over the hairs the two will be eternally united.”- B. A. Botkin, A Treasury of Southern Folklore: Stories, Ballads, Traditions, and Folkways of the People of the South.

Knot magic is simply binding magic, and so, for all the work it does to bring two people together, it can just as readily be used to split them asunder or wreak revenge: “A man can make himself immune to anti-love knot magic before getting married by filling his pockets with salt and urinating just before entering the church.  In Italian lore the “witches garland” is a rope tied into knots that is used for casting curses. With every knot that is tied, the curse is repeated, and a black feather is stuck into the knot.”- Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy.  

In some ways, the idea of a woman who knew the ways of knotting was of such old school fear, that medical and occult manuals regularly specified ways in which men could be rendered impotent by a witch with a knot and other manuals detailed how to protect oneself from such evil-doing, as to avoid medical maladies caused by such witching; “The powers of these knots were recognized, especially in strengthening or defeating love, as aiding women in labor and in other ways.  One of the torments with which witchcraft worried men was the knot, by which a man was withheld so that he could not work his will with a woman.”- Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England (1864)- this information from Europe made its way into the occult lore of the New World and throughout our history, we see the witch's knot in folklore with the same fear and mystery.


"An herb-filled poppet or cloth doll is often used during a love ritual.  The doll is identified with the individual who is the object of the love spell so that it becomes that person during the ritual."- James R. Lewis, Witchcraft Today: An Encyclopedia of Wiccan and Neopagan Traditions

Wax dolls, wool dolls, corn dolls, mud or butter, dough or rags cotton or flax, wood or clay, even root- a doll made in the image of one’s lover to be bound to you in love and desire is not uncommon and was likely even more common in the past.  The “likeness” magic of dolls is part of the witchlore of many cultures, from Afro-American voodoo dolls to New English Poppets to Southwestern Wax dolls. Even here in the Northwest, bitterroot was supposed to have been used in charms similar to poppets and voodoo dolls.  

While most homunculi or simulacrum craft exist for the purpose of averting or controlling one’s enemies, they are also and often used to bind a lover to you, to control his or her movements and to keep them faithful. You were to treat your doll in the manner in which you would treat your intended lover; stroking it lovingly and drawing it ever towards you- and sometimes, piercing its heart with needles to drive it to heartache. Bits of Indiana folklore discuss the use of voodoo dolls for good love purposes; each made in a different color, with red and pink being used in charms of love and beauty. Dollies were not merely tools of imitative magic, they were also familiars; endowed with their own personalities and jealousies. Without proper care, a dolly was a dangerous foe. "I am quite indifferent to the ordinary superstitions of the hillfolk. I visit graveyards at night, shoot cats on occasion and burn sassafras wood without a tremor. And yet, something akin to horror gripped me, as I watched the witch masters' sadistic foolery. I should not care to have that man burning a poppet wrapped in my undershirt."- Vance Randolph, Ozark Superstition

When most people think of love poppets in history, they probably imagine voodoo dolls of the Caribbean, stuck with pins and needles, or maybe they think of the stuffed, aromatic poppets of Egypt which were similarly tortured items but were also used to bind lovers.  Most commonly, they’re probably thinking of Salem hysteria and Bridget Bishop’s unfortunate trial. When I think wax and wool dolls, I think of the erotic love magic of classical Greek lore, like Canidia was supposed to have done. I think of the complex rituals involving the creation of wax lover’s dolls which were given lengthy incantations and often burned (to activate them).  Erotic Greek magic filtered into our general perceptions of love magic itself in the Western world, not least among these inheritances is the lore of sympathetic dolly magic.

Erotic spells using doll pairs, according to Ogden, was commonplace in Greek and Roman love magic, and in the surrounding cultures as well- and almost always in poetry in literature is the doll a product of an erotic witch.   Wax dolls made their way throughout Southwestern lore courtesy of Hispanic settlers- though local tribes themselves used cursing-dolls made of various materials, or, performed similar magic on sand-drawn figures (Simmons, Marc). In New York and Virginia, old linen, twig and corn cob dolls have been discovered- their purposes unknown, but the multitude in one place may suggest doll-pairing, an important facet of poppet-magic.  This imitative magic is the oldest in the world and continues popular use today in Afro-diasporic magical traditions as well as New English witchlore. Of all the old love charms, dollies have to be among the darker ones.
The Apples of Love

Apples in the summer,
peaches in the fall;
If I can’t marry the girl I want,
I won’t have none at all.

General United States folklore values the apple, just as our general culture does.  The apple is a symbol of nourishment, freedom and yes, love. The branches, skins, seeds, flesh, blossoms- all parts of apple trees can be used or were used in charms of love and beauty and are common ingredients in love spells of old.  Our love charms involving apples, like apples themselves, have distinct origins in Western Europe and were disseminated by those who settled here. As always with love magic, most apple magic charms of old call for the presence of the midnight hour, mirrors and moonlight.  

Sometimes, an apple isn’t present at all, but rather a comb is used in its symbolic place and rather than eat an apple before a mirror, a girl is to comb her hair for nine strokes before a mirror.  Combs, like apples, are old occult symbols of the figures of Venus: the divine ruler of romantic and erotic love. One simple incantation to be done while eating an apple at midnight before a mirror while holding a lamp for illumination goes; “Whoever my true love may be, Come and eat this apple with me.”   The aforementioned are both divination and conjuring; the charm is meant to draw just as much as it is meant to be revelatory.

Now, in other versions, the apple is actually split into pieces (9) and, using a silver fork, one is to hold a piece over their left shoulder and in the mirror will see their future love biting the apple piece.  Some love apple spells, of the medieval period, call for inscribing angelic names, or the name of your intended, into the apple and feeding it to your intended. Apples served covered in honey is referenced in some Southern lore as a method to ensnare a lover- one could offer this to the spirits who aid lovers during their work.

The seeds of the apple are more useful for counting-fortunes (in the vein of petal plucking) using simple rhyme incantations.  Often the seeds of the apple are placed on different body parts and balanced or counted along with some kind of incantation which is meant to properly divine one’s marital future. An even amount of seeds found in an apple is supposed to be a lucky sign for love, but an odd amount is unlucky.   If on Easter morning, one is to eat an apple and say a simple incantation, “As Eve in her thirst for knowledge ate, So I too, thirst to know my fate.” And then count the seeds, the number will determine if one’s sweetheart will be true or untrue- this is also done on St. Thomas Night, St. Jude’s Day and Hallows Eve, but New years was supposed to be an unlucky time for this work.  

It’s rare to find American folklore of the apple that isn’t tied to love, even in a negative way, like our mythology concerning poisoned apples and magical evils worked through them. Otherwise, our apple traditions are all about drawing, keeping or discovering love. Apples and mirrors, may be the standard love-fortune pairing but apples and knots are also bedfellows, as referenced in the 18th century occult manuals which made their way throughout the Americas; “Concerning some secrets that one calls, according to the cabbalist sages, the Apple of Love, and are performed in this manner: You go one Friday morning before sunrise into a fruit orchard, and pick from a tree the most beautiful apple that you can; then you write with your own blood on a bit of white paper your first and last name, and on another line following, the first and last name of the person by whom you would like to be loved, and you try to have three of her hairs, to which you affix three of yours which you shall use to bind the little message you have written with another one, the which is to have nothing but the word Scheva, likewise written in your blood, then you slice the apple in two, you throw away the seeds, and in their place you lay your papers bound with hair, and with two sharp skewers made from green myrtle branches, you neatly rejoin the apple’s two halves and you will put it to dry in an oven, ensuring that it grows hard and free of moisture like the dried apples of Lent; you wrap it thereafter in the leaves of bay and myrtle, and endeavor to place it under the mattress of the bed of the beloved person.”- Le Petit Albert

The Sacred Space for Love Tricks: Moonlight, Midnight and Devil's Night

““I wind, I wind, my true love to find,
the color of his hair, the clothes he will wear,
The day he is married to me.””
Throw a ball of yarn into a barn, old house, or cellar, and wind, repeating the above lines, and the true love will appear and wind with you.  To be tried at twelve o’clock at night, on Halloween.”- Maine folklore, Journal of American Folklore.

Love divination and love charms in some American folklore usually is supposed to take place on the Friday (Venus day) nearest to the full moon, specifically at midnight under cover of moonlit darkness.  The closer this date falls to All Hallows Eve, the better, or, St. Judes Day, Midsummer, Easter, St. Thomas Night, New Year or Valentine's Day. The sacred space in which love fortunes take place is most often a darkened bedroom with only a mirror and moonlight, or little candlelight. The idea of love charms a midnight before a full moon is found all throughout New English and Southern folklore originating from Scottish and English folk customs brought to the New World.   Other places where love fortunes are tied to in American folklore are gardens, barns, cellars, basements, and woodlands. Often, walking or working backward is prescribed, but always at night, always near a full moon and best done after harvest time.

I enjoyed my thorough research into the Halloween-specific love fortunes, projects, and operations, but what’s obvious is how important the full moon is to spiritual lore in general. It makes sense that our ancestors, having long associated the full moon and midnight with bewitchment and mystery, would promote the idea that love fortunes are best had at these times since the act of love fortunes is dark and bewitching magic itself- make no mistake about that.  These days, we think of full moon at midnight as “the witching hour” and a fun part of applying folklore to modern practice is waiting for those special times when our ancestors thought the work of witches was done. I suppose it's our tradition to try our love fortunes and bind our tricks by mirror, apple, knot, comb, doll, flower, yarn, water, needle, potion, powder, nut and cake, by the light of a full moon, in the darkness. Any heart-shaped herb is our ally, and red is our banner. Cupid is our messenger, and god help our victims.

An apple, a comb, a mirror, a lamp (or candle), a clock (to know when midnight has struck), a full moon at midnight- think of this as the Love Witching altar, holding some of the tools used to divine or bind love fortunes.  Consecrating this altar, one could use salt water which is a recommended material in several love charms as well as sweet-smelling smoke- as all things aromatic are ascribed erotic/aphrodisiac qualities in our collective culture. Offerings of salt cakes make sense as salt cakes were another love charm created at midnight near Halloween to dream of future love.

I just adore the old tall tales and divinations, the stories passed on through generations, especially where the tricky tricks of love magic is concerned.  In a darkened basement, before a grand mirror, on the full moon, at the witching hour, nearest a holy feast day, place upon your altar a red apple nine times cut, place a comb, roses and your dollies.  With knotted cord bind their hands, and speak your simple words; I knit, I wind, I knot and I bind...

  • Plants of Love by Christian Rätsch
  • Annual Report by Smithsonian Institution: Bureau of American Ethnology
  • The Folklore of Love and Courtship  by Duncan Emrich
  • Journal of American Folklore
  • Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies
  • Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande by Marc Simmons
  • Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic by Ronald Hutton
  • Witchcraft Magic and Spirits on the Border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia by S. P. Bayard
  • Le Petit Albert 
  • Folklore of Women (1883) by T.F Thiselton-Dyer
  • Knots and Knot Lore by Cyrus L. Day
  • Southern Folklore Quarterly
  • Faiths and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs by William Carew Hazlitt
  • Ancient Greek Love Magic by Christopher A Faraone
  • Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore by Frank C. Brown
  • The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca by Rosemary Guiley
  • Folk Nation: Folklore in the Creation of American Tradition by Simon J. Bronner
Fascinating Sources of Interest... New World Witchery: Apples

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