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

The Light that Has Lighted the Otherworlds

Firebug by Andrew Jimenez (commission for Via Hedera)

This year, as we welcome the spirits into our home, I welcome so many who have moved on to the otherside.  So many candles are lit when working with the spirits, the doorway of the flames offering communication as well as devotion.  In those flames are the voices and faces of our ancestors. To me, the Torch-Bearer is responsible for this tremendous gift.  Fire is by its nature a capricious thing, but one thing it never seems to fail to do is illuminate a path between us and our beloved ancestors.
The art of ceromancy offers a lot of methods and traditions of use, I won't go into them because I speak of pyromancy- the nature of fire gazing itself, whether by candle or woodland blaze- reading the visions within the flames is an old way to sharpen one’s sight, to let one’s mind drift into the light and become illuminated by the dreamy whispers that hiss and crackle from the fire.    I’ve noticed that when a lot of people write about fire divination, they’re actually talking about smoke or wax divination, rather than pyromantic prophecy. While the movement and sounds, scents and smells of the flames can have a great impact on the divination experience, they aren’t the only way to read flames and celebrate the spirit of fire.
"The ancients imagined they could foretell futurity by inspecting fire and flame; for this purpose, they considered its direction, or which way it turned.  Sometimes they threw pitch into it and if it took fire instantly they considered it a favorable omen."- Cora Linn Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

It’s true that the movements of flames themselves are important to their interpretation when asking questions, but what of receiving answers from the flames without agenda?   Sometimes it’s good to keep some things simple, and the simple act of gazing into flames can be more powerful than trying to analyze their moves with the slightest draft or fickle wick.  That’s where my interest lies, in the way our ancestors and we today are drawn to the search the flames for answers. This weekend I spent a lot of time fire-gazing, watching for the dead, and it made me truly appreciate the incredible, hypnotic relief that can come from giving your mind to the flames for a bit, especially as the moon grows full and the nights grow long.

Where witchcraft is explicitly concerned, candles were of deep importance in the folklore and traditions of witchery found in Europe and the New World.  Where the night-battles were concerned, the witch had a special relationship with the production and use of candles in diabolic or underhanded working, supposedly utilizing gruesome sources of fuel like fat from a baby or the mummified hand of a thief.  The prevailing Christian superstition of the time was that witches were also rumored to light candles as an offering to Satan- just as Catholics light votives to Mary. The symbolic connection between candles and the dead make them a perfect conduit when pursuing the forbidden art of pyromancy.

"Candles: In magic and folklore, lights to attract certain spirits and dispel others.  Candles also are associated with ghosts and the dead, divination of the future, and the finding of buried treasure."- Rosemary Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy

Candles are easy and safe ways to fire-gaze, and that’s usually where I do my seeing.  Many peoples and cultures used fire to see visions, including candles, “I have mentioned that in Australia the smoke and flame of the burial fire seem to be used for divination.  In Malacca, they use the flame of a candle for gazing, and profess to see visions in it.”- Andrew Lang, Crystal Gazing, Its History and Practice (1905).   Candles made of the fat of a hanged man-made for powerful witches in traditional English magic, and tallow candles have many a traditional use too, as evidenced in Le Petit Albert (1782) which recommends the tallow of a man to form a candle which could locate hidden riches- both these candle types, of course, are for charms and tricks, not necessarily gazing/scrying.  Beeswax candles are cause for the most delight; their scent is sweet and warming and their natural color is radiant.

An oil lamp or lampara is an instrument of petitioning and honoring the great spirits.  Lemon, lime, and orange fruit lamparas are a standard creation for many servants of the Orisha Oshun, but are also perfectly suitable for divination purposes- especially if the oil used for fuel comes from a divinatory source like oil of poppy.  Campfires of sacred woods act as great means of divination, merging the steadiness of earth with the transformative nature of the flame, and between them, deep in the glowing red coals one can see their past, present, and future- and he who stares into the tall flames may the see the face of their future love.  The warm comfort of the fireplace however, this is a special center or heart in the home around which one's ancestors and close allies may gather in the domicilium, the place of safety and home. The gazing of the hearth-fire has been recorded in Northern European folk magic and have made their way to the new world.  Those flames always invoke the family spirits.
"Build a large fire of hardwood logs and when it has burned down to a bed of brightly glowing embers, sit in silence before the fire and regard the changing colors and varying brightness that moves across the surface of the embers.  After a while, you will begin to see pictures in the embers, and the crackling sparks may begin to talk to you. This is an excellent scrying method for long winter nights."- Donald Tyson, Scrying for Beginners (1997)

When it comes to seeing into the flames, the color of the candle or the source of the fire isn’t really important, especially not the colors.   Candle colors serve a great purpose in spell-craft and they do help focus the mind on a goal and set a specific tone of intentionality for a session, but the color does not at all impact the power of the flame nor does it negate the gifts the flames have to offer.  A blue or yellow candle won't bring any more or less power to fire divination, only the flames themselves truly matter. Now, candles made specifically for divination uses, that’s a different matter- the candle is made and intended to guide the connection between the flame and the gazer.  Getting candles made with real intention- or making your own, is a great experience and may improve your divination session. Having a specific candle set aside just for divination fosters a relationship between you and the flames that come to burn in that candle.
Some traditions say to always snuff, never blow out, a candle; a sentiment commonly seen in Hoodoo, conjure and rootwork of the American South.  Others say that the breath of a witch seals portals and confers blessings and messages and should be used to dismiss candles. You are your own diviner, do what feels natural.  Hell, some folklore seeing gazing into the fire as a bad omen in and of itself, go figure- “If a youth sits musing and gazing into the fire, it is a sign that someone is doing him ill.”- Cora Linn Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World
Fire is the thing of spirit, and at Samhain/Halloween especially, that spiritual power is a thing of deep symbolism for so many all over the world. Now is the best time of year to spark the flames and gaze into them, letting the spirits dance before your eyes and whisper in your ears. Seeing into flames, we watch for the shadows between sparks and the waves above; we time the flickers and the change of colors and watch it trick us, hypnotize us.  Most of us who grew up attached to the outdoors know well the feeling of being fireside at night, in nature, in the dark. The sparks drifting through the dark canopy above, the way the cinders glowed like gems and flickered passing fantasies and visions.  Gazing into the fire doesn’t mean you’ll see the truth- most often you’ll only see what you want to see, but we gaze anyway because the fire speaks to the witch. Whether your flame was lit for the angels, ancestors or the devil itself, the spirit you summon with the spark of life is a doorway, and when we gaze, we fall through- even for flickering moments.


Neolithic Shamanism: Spirit Work in the Norse Tradition by Raven Kaldera, Galina Krasskova
The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy by Rosemary Guiley
Scrying for Beginners by Donald Tyson (1997)
Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World by Cora Linn Daniels (1903)
Crystal Gazing, Its History, and Practice by Andrew Lang (1905)

The Smoke Carries

Air by Andrew Jimenez 2009, commission for Via Hedera's Cunning Book

      Smoke and fumigation are as intrinsic to most ritualistic religious ceremonies as prayer itself, for smoke carries the prayers of the profane to the sacred while performing various other spiritual tasks such as the exorcism of unwanted energies, invocation of divine energy, placation of restless spirits or even to deliver healing.  Growing up, tia used to tell my sister and I that when you inhaled the smoke of certain sacred herbs, it was like inhaling medicine and exhaling poison.   When sacred healing herbs enter the body, they can help to "smoke out" poisonous spirits within; "Hippocrates, Discordes, Pliny, and Galen, among others, prescribed "the inhalation of smoke for the treatment of asthma and for some other ailments."" North Carolina Folklore Society.  Sometimes, smoking a cigar of a special blend during rituals is used to calm the spirits around the practitioner, lull them into complacency and docility.  Smoke could also bring forth messages or omens in the shapes cast by the puffs as they rise, in the shapes created as they pass through the mouth.

"When a man is smoking, if his smoke takes the form of rings, it is a sign that his fortune will have no end." and "If when smoking a pipe or cigar, the smoker sends forth a ring of smoke, he should put out his hand, catch it, and put it in his pocket, and he will have money inside of a day."- Cora Linn Daniels, Encyclopaedia of superstitions, folklore, and the occult sciences of the world: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life 

      The coils and caressing waves that roll from the pipe enter your body and work away all kinds of illnesses and pains, depending on what you're smoking.  As the smoke leaves your parted lips or your nose, it carries out the ills and sorrows where it is scattered into the air or choked altogether.  Sometimes, there is no illness within and the smoke exhaled by the witch is simply imbued with their power, and that blend of healing from within and without permeates the air around her and the room in which he works, giving rest and compliance to all the spirits around them.  Some smokes draw spirits in, some scatter them far.  The smokes we inhale are almost exclusively evocative, healing or traveling because the ones that purge and exorcise are as acrid and distasteful to the human lung as they are to the spirits.

"To fumigate the patient with fire, smoke, and sulfur, making sure that he inhaled the smoke. This was believed to make it painful, or even impossible, for the spirit to remain in the body." Journal of American Folklore (1978)

          Smoke is a part of my everyday life.  I know a lot of people find it disgusting, trust me, I work at a college surrounded by well-meaning people who constantly remind other adults who smoke or even burn incense that we're personally responsible for all the worlds ills.  I get it, but it's part of me none-the-less.  I burn fumigate for all my rites.  I smoke for pleasure, for prayer, for purpose, and for pain.  I was raised with the smell of burning tobacco and sage, the smell of smoking plants and forest fires, the smells of auntie's red 100's and clouds far more dangerous than that.  Capnomancy was just a normal state of things, constantly checking the sage smoke for signs, symbols, and omens.  Reading smoke as it rises from my mouth, I see through a thin veil as it clouds my eyes, and see well into the otherside.

"Capnomancers were also known to inhale smoke to induce trance states from which they were able to make prophesies."- Norma J. Livo, Sandra A. Rietz,  Storytelling Folklore Sourcebook

          Tobacco might be the sacred shade of smoke witches, but to me, she's an addiction, and not used as often in my ceremonies as others, whom I find easier to work within general (go figure).  We all have our own relationships with the inhalants around us, and I prefer mine sleepy and friendly.  Tobacco makes me sick, even though I've smoked cigarettes for years- after a few puffs my stomach turns, and yet I crave it.   No other smoke effects me like that.  That's because the relationship I have with the ally is toxic, covered in poisons.  There are other, more powerful and even more sacred herbs to work with instead with whom I share a deep and positive history.  To all realms and needs in magic belong different kinds of inhalants and fumigation.  The great invocation herbs are; tobacco, papaver, salvia, wormwood, and mugwort.  The great healers are comfrey, c. sativa, licorice, and mullein. The great lovers are; damiana, marshmallow, rose and raspberry leaf.

"There was a form of native symbolism in the inhaling and then exhaling of the smoke in that it represented the breath of life itself.  As the smoke rose thus also did the soul of the smoker arise with it."- Marjorie Tallman, Dictionary of American Folklore

         Inhalants aren't for everyone.  I acknowledge that. You'll have to inhale burning material and risk the health of your lungs, you may also risk addiction. I've been there and I don't recommend spending all of your time in the company of any herb in the form of smoke, especially not mind-traveling ones.  Recreation is all well in good in moderation, but otherwise, you'll become a slave to a greater witch than yourself, and regret it.

"Let inhaled use of the Smoke be sparing, reserved but for Ceremony, for the degradation of its power in mundane forms provokes the plant to wrath, and its affinity with the shade of Thanatos is thus increased."- Daniel A. Schulke, Viridarium Umbris

       For those of you ready to make the sacrifice in moderation, smoke can be an invaluable tool for spirit travel.   I travel faster and further on-air and darkness than I do through oils, ointments or waters.  Some drink a magic brew to step out into the sabbat night.  Others consume the seeds and fungi of the land and this takes root in their soul, dragging them to the otherworld through the roots, tuning into the mycelium network.  Others rub their skin until their whole body transforms... and some, like me, inhale deep, lay back and let the wind take us.  I fly as a moth, as an owl, as a crow, ones that disappear in smokes and fogs.

"In Denmark it is believed that specters may be driven away by smoking the room with the smoke of a tallow candle."- Cora Linn Daniels, Encyclopaedia of superstitions, folklore, and the occult sciences of the world: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life 

       Occult lore usually espouses the use of herbs like tobacco, datura, henbane seed, wormwood or mugwort or opium poppy for herbal vapors to inhale in order to achieve spiritual connection or to fly from one's form.  Often times, smoking these herbs can be a very unpleasant, acrid experience.  They are not deliciously floral like many other softer herbs, but they are the very spirits of those witch herbs themselves, ushering you beyond your skins and into the void.  How those looking to heal rather than travel, lighter herbs, ones with aromatic scents and sweet smokes like marshmallow, licorice, and raspberry leaf are effective in drawing healing into a room, into a body, into a soul.  These smokes draw ancestors and light, airy spirits but they don't pack the same necromantic punch as their poison sisters.   Locally, bearberry, salal leaf, and mullein are the main herbal inhalants.  Catnip and wormwood are often mentioned in magical herbalism, but the very smell of either of them burning is a turn-off to my personal tastes and both are known to be distressing to some people.

"In the pipe ceremony, smoke is a viable representation of prayers and intentions drifting heavenward.  The intent of smoking is prayerful and its purpose is to give thanks to the creator, to ask for health and help for humankind, and to bless, honor and heal the Earth."- Jay Cleve, Path of the Sacred Pipe: Journey of Love, Power, and Healing

        Buhner called the sacred pipe and instrument of the earth, while Schulke associates it with those spirits of fire.  Myself, I see the pipe as a part of the realm of wind, like a flute or horn; tools of the breath and stomach.  I don't currently have a sacred pipe, it's something I'm working on, I'm waiting for a friend to finish a shiny black stone pipe they've been working on, I feel like that's what I'm waiting for.  In the meantime, I use a green ceramic pipe for ceremonies, and basic natural papers when I'm looking to purify before, during and after rituals.  Pipes are conduits, they facilitate this beautiful elemental magic; a synthesis of fire, earth, and air.  And when the coughing is all said and done and tears roll down your cheeks- water.

herbs that create sacred smoke; tobacco, marshmallow, licorice, catnip, damiana, raspberry, and fairy dust.
         What we bring into our bodies as food of the earth, as drinks of water, as homes full of warmth and breaths of air; all of these things affect us, our spirits, our minds, and our work.  As one who allies closest to air and fire, I feel an affinity for that which fills my lungs and body with warmth, for those foggy vapors and gales and winds and smokes which allow my spirit to travel here and there, in waking or in dreaming.  Where fire meets earth, where smoke becomes air, this is where you'll find me floating, dissipating into nothing, and everything.

Vanish. Vanish. Into The Air.
Slowly disappear.  Never really here.
-A Perfect Circle, Vanishing

Consulted Sources

  • Path of the Sacred Pipe: Journey of Love, Power, and Healing by  Jay Cleve
  • Encyclopaedia of superstitions, folklore, and the occult sciences of the world: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life  by  Cora Linn Daniels,
  • Viridarium Umbris by Daniel A. Schulke
  • Dictionary of American Folklore by Marjorie Tallman, 
  • Journal of American Folklore (1978)
  • Storytelling Folklore Sourcebook by Norma J. Livo, Sandra A. Rietz, 

© VIA HEDERA • Theme by Maira G.