Winterlore: In Memoriam: A Drunk Witch

Night-flyer by Via Hedera
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 An Ode  to Phoebe Ward
by Via Hedera

Bitch.  I wana be you.
You fun, son of a gun.
Gutter queen,
often seen
making bulls flee, way over the hagerleen.
Through a hole, over a creek;
Inspire the bold and scare the meek.
Ride men, drink sin.
By Satan below,
with his fiery glow;
I wana be you
Before I go.

You know what I love most about folklore, fairytales and fables?  The sense of identification we find with the figures we discover.  For some, the idea of a witch and the legend surrounding them means more than the facts, and over time, what is fact and fiction simply becomes folklore, legend or myth. I spend most of my time combing books.  I collect and hoard them, and I read them day in and day out taking notes on everything I find of any interest. As the cold wanes, I hunker down into my books even deeper and enjoy the stories and tales that help pass the time as we wait for the sun's return.

“It is known that she was a woman of bad morals.”

I have to say, I really love falling in love with a folktale witch.  Cross recounted a tale of the supposed Northampton Witch of North Carolina, Miss Phoebe Ward in the Journal of American Folklore, and it was later picked up and further distributed through the Green, Brown and Hand collections, giving it some popularity.  This folk narrative was highlighted in Elizabeth A. Lay’s folk superstition drama/theater piece When Witches Ride: A Play of Folk Superstition.  Supposedly, this 19th century witch was famed for the misfortune she brought to those who turned her away, (like the fairy from Beauty & the Beast), and embodied much of the superstition we love about witches here in the West.

What I liked about the witch in this narrative was that she represents the best aspects of witchery; this unashamed, unpredictable, cunning creature who could be near death in the freezing cold and still charm a man into giving her booze and a fire to sit by.  The idea of this woman engenders affection in me.  The tale says that she died very old, surrounded by a life of scandal and superstition, fear and fable.  I want to go out like that.

Phoebe was a beggar, an old woman, presumably a white American person, possibly a traveler, who made her living off of the rare charity of others.  The account states that the general atmosphere around her was fearful and negative; with people said to need to perform all acts of inhospitality in order to get her away from their homes where she was well-known to overstay her welcome.  People were seemingly quite cruel to this old beggar woman, sticking pins in the chairs they offered her and burning foul odors to drive her away- this was done using pepper, an old remedy for driving away evil spirits, devils and witches, and I suppose, poor old women.

"Through thick, through thin, way over in the hagerleen"

The transformative skin-slipper is very much the quintessential new world witch motif of old, a definite throwback to the most classic fears regarding witchcraft that happen to be shared across cultures (as magical concepts are want to do).  I find the skin-slipping witch to be the most fascinating one, a kindred spirit. 

Correspondences of her variety of hag:

  • Keyholes, doors, chairs
  • Hexes, enchantment, tricks
  • Brandy
  • Winter
  • Fire, Wind
  • Cow, horse, toad

For these new world witches of old tales, the slipping of skin was quite literal- the skin came off by means of a grease, ointment in combination with an incantation of some sort, or some kind of ritualistic movement like turning round in three circles.  The witch flew either as a beast, succubi, force or spirit- and the skin would be quite literally left behind, or otherwise, the “skin” could be interpreted as the body itself while the spirit flies away.  But Phoebe Ward had more gifts than sheer skin-slipping- that art is basic to our kind, and Phoebe was no basic bitch witch.

Among other mysterious gifts presented within the brief narrative of this folktale witch, Phoebe could:

  • Ride people at night as a nightmare
  • Fly through keyholes
  • Ride animals at night until they are spent in the morning by making them leap rivers
  • Make a bull jump a river with an incantation which when disrupted or revoked, caused the animal to fall

A witch like this could be warded off by:

  • Horseshoes hung over entrances
  • Sieves hung over keyholes (she’d have to count all the holes before entering)
  • Needles stuck in her ass by way of chair
  • Pepper burned in a fire or stove

Maybe the idea of Phoebe was just a way to express the narrative of witchery, maybe it was a hogwash tale of nonsense spurred up to to give folks some good fun.  Maybe, just maybe, Phoebe was a bonafide witchy woman (or amalgam of women) who went out like a solid boss.  I’m not sure I care, I kind of just like knowing that this personification of American witchy superstition has a name, has the wisdom to help pass along to the next generation of witches.  So here’s to you, and cheers to you Phoebe Ward the Northampton Witch of lore. 

May we meet someday on these nocturnal flights, somewhere far away from b'needled chairs... 

When Witches Ride  by Elizabeth A. Lay
Witchcraft in North Carolina
 by Tom Peete Cross
The Journal of American Folklore: "Folklore from the Southern States"-by Tom Peete Cross: Journal of American Folklore V XXII
The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories by Hubert J. Davis

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