The Witch's Bullet: Hairball and Hexing Tradition

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Witch Balls & Witch Bullets

"They kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair, stunt the growth of children, make cows go dry, prevent the formation of butter and soap, and inflict a variety of personal injuries and domestic misfortunes."- Journal of American Folklore

 I'm not one to espouse the use of harmful charms of folklore, and I’m not apt to teach them, but I do respect their history and their value. Nothing is more witchy than a good hex, and the New World has a particular tradition of cursing and hex charms that are ever so interesting to reclaim in our modern practices. Our baleful charms are those involving dolls, knots, needles, powders, potions, and yes, even hairballs.  

"Witches are supposed to shoot animals with little hairballs, which pass through the hide and lodge, without leaving any hole."
- Cora L. Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

There are two kinds of “witch balls”: those of Western European origin, made of glass, designed to negate or redirect the influence of an evil spirit or a witch, and, those of New World make which are balls of cattle or horse hair rolled with an adhesive substance into a small ball which is then used in cursing spells.  One is to avert witchcraft, the other is an expression of malicious witchcraft, or, counter-magic, or, an apotropaic charm.

"A small bunch of hair from a horse or cow is rolled between the two hands into small round ball, and this ball is used as a bullet.  In whatever part the ball hits the picture, in the corresponding part of the victim, a wound is inflicted." -Journal of American Folklore

Actual accounts of witch-bullets being used to harm people and livestock have been recorded throughout the last few hundred years, with reports detailing physical evidence of injury and even naming some of those witches, conjurers and sorcerers accused of practicing this magic.  Conversely, the average non-witch folk charmer often resorted to hairballs as an anti-witch charm. Effingham County Illinois folklore regards witch balls as a charm that can be shot against a witch. And just as silver bullets (another traditional charm with European parallels whose real-life applications seem to appear mostly in American gun magic folklore) were used to both create and destroy witches the simple hairball could have this power.

"Among their evil acts, they would transform unwitting sleepers into horses and ride them, bewitch cattle to stop them from giving milk, and kill or injure victims by throwing witch balls, made of hair from cows or horses, at pictures of their victims." -Jeffrey E. Anderson, Conjure in African American Society

Where the hair-balls are concerned, witches in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana folklore, were said to roll these little hairballs into bullets to be used in a form of sympathetic magic in which the balls were shot at pictures or depictions of one’s enemy.  It was believed that if one were to die from this magic, a ball of hair would be found within the victim. These differ greatly from the famed bezoars, which were said to have valuable, beneficial qualities. "Randolph notes witch balls described as being the size of a marble made of black horse hair, and another one made of black hair and beeswax that was rolled up into a hard pellet.  The belief is that a hairball (or witch bullet) could be thrown or shot at a person by a witch. This hairball (or bullet) would be found on the body of anyone killed by this method."-Gerald Milnes, Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore (p. 168)

Mentions in both story-telling and in recorded reports stretch throughout the South and Midwest, cited most frequently in the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Delaware, Tennessee, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland and even Michigan.

“The concept of supernatural shooting was common to all, but the notion that witches fired balls or bullets seems to have developed from Native American conceptualization of European technology within a supernatural framework of disease, which then was passed back to the European colonizers.”-Owen Davies, America Bewitched (p.41-42)


Cattle-Killer


"Conjure balls, snakes, and all kinds of reptiles are often found in the beds of those who have been 'conjured'."- Journal of American Folklore

Conjure balls were not unlike witch bullets, with more parallels to West African hex charms- these usually took the form of small bundles or mud balls filled with hair, rags and pins. The purpose of this magic is to cause living things within or internal turmoil, leading to death most often if not treated by a witch-doctor. Where conjure balls were concerned, it was regularly described as a ball of earth gathered from the homestead of the victim, hair (the specific number was usually not referenced but one Indiana bit of lore suggests seven or nine pieces were to be used), red knotted rag and the tips of nails, combined together and thrown at a house, above a door or in the path of a victim. "The 'cungur bag' may contain many articles, but additional value is given if it contains camel's hair procured from the camel by the possessor of the bag."- Journal of American Folklore

Or, the ball was described as an actual bundle in red cloth full of similar items, items which will cause great illness both physically and spiritually. In parts of Louisiana conjure traditions, the conjure ball is worn on the person and its ingredients are not always known, as it it prepared by an experienced conjurer or witch-doctor.  In Texas folk medicine, a conjure ball was to be worn on the person as an apotropaic anti-witch charm.  This form of Afro-diasporic magic permeated the lore of hoodoo, voodoo and conjure and found parallels in the Western-European American and Southeast Indigenous projectile magic traditions. "A spell was usually worked by means of a conjure ball buried in the victims path.  Bent pins and human hair seem to have been the commonest ingredients, though they were reported to contain snake's tongues, lizard tails, ground puppy claws and so on down the gruesome gamut."-Frank C. Brown, Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina


This form of sympathetic magic became a staple part of witch-lore throughout much of the South, Southeast and Midwest, and was exclusively tied to the act of cursing by or against witches- something that became a popular superstition in agrarian Afro-American communities and is steeped into rural white American folktales as well.   "Mr. Stephenson writes that in Northampton County, North Carolina, conjure-bags sometimes contain, along with locks of hair and rocks, dirt from the tracks of the person to be injured."-Tom Peete Cross, Witchcraft in North Carolina
Witch balls, like so many other traditions of magic in America, represent the synthesis of mystical beliefs shared between three very different cultures thrown together at a tremendously difficult time in history, in philosophy, in faith.


Elf-Shots: "Those Arrows That Fly in the Dark "

"The elf-shot, so deadly to man and beast during the Middle Ages, finds a close parallel in the missiles used by the modern witch.  Among the white population of the Allegheny Mountains witches kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair and in western Maryland "witches' bullets" of pith of hair are often found in the bodies of deal animals."- Tom Peete Cross, Witchcraft in North Carolina.

Not too much unlike the notion of elf-shots from European folklore (a feature which made its way to Scottish, Irish and German-American communities) which were invisible missiles fired by fairies and the like at livestock. Each was very different from the other in origin and material, but the intention was the same; hex-craft.
"-Anglo-Saxon references suggest elf-shot was generally attributed to internal injuries from invisible, magical, projectile weapons wielded by unseen malevolent elves, or witches." -Michael D. C. Drout, J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment


Though an elf shot was not inherently a facet of witchcraft, nor associated with hairballs, the concept would have been a familiar bit of folklore to Irish, Scottish and English settlers in the New World, which would have made recognizing the significance of “the magic evil invisible ball that kills cattle” recognized by African and Indigenous groups a familiar supernatural experience.  An elf shot was a hidden arrow, a sharp prick of some unseen missile launched from the fairies. The effect of a fairies arrow was much like that of the conjure ball and the witch-bullet- when shot at a victim, it caused death without leaving scarcely a mark on the flesh.  All that was said to be left behind was a triangular stone.

"Using Elf Shot is one of the many ways that witches and fairies overlap and it is truly a fearsome power."-Morgan Daimler, Traveling the Fairy Path

As hysteria amassed and the distinction between all that was fairy and all that was occult became ever blurred, the association between fairies and witches, their familiars and the devils themselves became ever deeper.  While I don’t personally believe the wee folk are classified with demons, devils and are not analogous to witches, I do respect the history of association between people with power and the other crowd. After all, famed witch Isobel Gowdie whose surrounding lore shaped some of our perceptions of Old World witchcraft traditions, herself claimed in her trial to have consorted with fairies at the sabbath and learned their art of deadly darts.

“Isobel claimed that her sabbath experiences included the learning of maleficent spells and the performance of harmful magic  She described stealing crops from fields, milk from cows, and fish from fishing boats; raising winds, killing people with elf arrows and increasing the sickness of a local minister with whom she and her company had a grievance.”-Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanic Visionary traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (p.88)


Shooting a Ball at Reality

There’s much to criticize in how the New World developed its unique traditions of folk magic, but there’s a lot to celebrate too, so much to enjoy about the combination of beliefs that made survival for everyone’s heritages in the New World possible.  It’s more blessing than burden, this Afro-Euro-Indigenous combination of folklore and magical currents. Even things seemingly at odds, will inevitably find some commonalities. And something as mean as a curse, has been a place of common ground. Witch-bullets have become one of those charms whose origins show a synthesis of beliefs, a recognition between peoples regarding a universal problem: witches.  And for some reason, our ancestors often agreed that witches fired shots at their victims, and in America, we do it with hairballs.

...More likely than not, our dear ancestors, who had far less understanding of medicine than we have, attributed an accumulation of hair in the stomach to that of a witch's bullet, not understanding the commonality of such an occurrence in many mammals, and so a person or livestock or pet who was found to have a hairball within it, was thought to be cursed by a witch.  The reality is most people or animals that would have suffered from hairballs in their stomachs were likely inhaling or eating materials, fibers which they could not naturally break down, people working in industries with lots of wool and textiles, people suffering from trichophagia, animals who groom themselves by licking, and of course, the witches’ themselves; cats. We know much more now about the nature of hair found in the stomach, but aside from the cold hard science, we can enjoy the spiritual value and supernatural history of this tradition of witchlore.

Modern ways to implement this practice would be to use witch-balls in their apotropaic design, to protect you, the wearer, from spiritual attacks just as those of the Bell witch haunting were said to have done. If you're not adverse to cursing, follow the old formulas of shooting the ball at at image of the enemy or at their house, or in their steps. Types of hair commonly mentioned for use are horse, cow, buffalo, black dog and black cat as well as the hair of your enemy for curses, the hair of the dead for the same, or, the hair of yourself for protection if you intend to keep the charm on you. If it were my bullet, I'd use the hair of a black rabbit... for that extra kick of swiftness.

However we came by our notion of hairball bullets, it’s a magical tradition shared in by witch and non-witch Americans alike, and ain't that grand?

References and Resources..

  • Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina by Frank C. Brown
  • Faiths and Folklore, Volume 1 by John Brand
  • Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History by Michael Kleen
  • The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories by Hubert J. Davis
  • America Bewitched by Owen Davies
  • Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore by Gerald Milnes
  • Conjure in African American Society by Jeffrey E. Anderson
  • Traveling the Fairy Path by Morgan Daimler
  • Journal of American Folklore
  • Witchcraft in North Carolina by Tom Peete Cross
  • History of Effingham County, Illinois edited by William Henry Perrin
  • Texas folk medicine: 1,333 Cures, Femedies, Preventives & Health Practices by John Q. Anderson
  • Indiana Folklore and Oral History, Volumes 13-15 by Published at Indiana University by the Folklore Institute and the Oral History Research Center, 1980
  • The Louisiana experience: an introduction to the culture of the Bayou State by Mary Alice Fontenot, Julie Landry

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