Green River Magic: Baskets of Witchlore

9:25:00 AM


The Witch Devours Local witchlore is pretty gruesome.  There was a big difference between healers, medicine men and “witches”.  Love charms, apotropaic and anathemic charms and even spells with incantations are all found in the story-telling, folklore and traditional medicine of the Coastal Northwest.  Since the Northwest has been inhabited by outsiders for only a short time, syncretic religious systems spawned from shared folklore didn’t really develop here at all. It isn’t extensive, the witchlore, and it isn’t particularly kind to the witch, but just as there are the medicine men and healers the people turned to, there was a real fear of witchcraft and the stories of them in the PNW are usually centered around the idea of cannibalism- speaking to the very real concerns the people held regarding abundance.
It also speaks to the perception of medicine as something neutral that is then corrupted by the personal illness of the individual for good or for evil.  Witchcraft, like in some parts of Africa and parts of the Southwest United States, was seen more as something a person does than a designation of who they are, and some believed one could practice witchcraft without even intending to through bad thoughts and bad actions. Among some Pueblo groups, witchcraft was like an infection and has to be cured, meaning that a witch, much like in Judaic lore, is a spiritual force of destruction that harms the body, not necessarily a person you can vilify.  In the Northwest, both the witch as a person and the witch as a spiritual entity seem to exist depending on the people. Mostly, discussion of witchcraft as it occurred within families was a completely insular mystery and not shared with outsiders.
For a New World witch developing her craft independently in this area, you have to make due with the information available if you want to have a respectful relationship with the spirits here. That starts with regarding the history.  I always figured, if I'm living here, I should probably get to know the land and that includes the lore, the spirit.
"Not only Shamans, but other individuals, too, use plants as special charms, for spiritual protection, and for ritual cleansing, both internal and external, especially those who are in ritually powerful or vulnerable states-"- Nancy Turner, Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America
I’m sure there’s some stories in which the “witch” figure isn’t a “bad” medicine woman up here, but they aren’t as popular as the stories of the witch as a creature of darkness. By Northwest standards, a medicine man, unlike a healer, could use their gifts in any number of ways both for good and for evil, and those who were agents of themselves rather than the people, were often looked upon as “witches". The idea of a "good" witch and a "bad" witch are actually pretty standard throughout much folklore and mythology- for every evil doer witch out there is honorable mention of a witch who wasn't so bad, even in indigenous witch-lore from throughout the Americas. This designation between shamans and witches; and bad witches from good witches, can lead to some pretty interesting ideas of what the word "witch" really means in the context of different cultures.
The cannibalistic Witch isn't just a motif of local witch-lore, it's as old as the tales of witches themselves and exist all over the world. In many cases the similarity between the mythical man-eating ogre and the witch was strong. Controversial Celtic mythology scholar John Arnott MacCulloch argued that the European fear of the "cannibalistic witch" was a byproduct of the demonizing the sacrificial rituals of pre-Christian pagans in Europe; instilling fear that the witch is a survival of old paganism and thus perpetuating the act of human sacrifice. This hysteria manifested in many ways and culminated in hundreds of witch trials over the fear of infanticide or cannibalism perpetrated by so-called witches. History is always written by the victors, and blaming witches for every little thing including cannibalism was just as normal for the English as it was for the Southwest Pueblo. On the other-hand, the Oceanic Kombai and Korowai peoples used to practice cannibalism OF "suspected witches" called khakhua- so it isn't always the witch that eats the man. To be a witch in the Green River area today is to NOT be associated with cannibalism and child-theft.  Most of us prefer to just keep to the land and the rivers, hold company with the spirits and do our work with as little human-flesh consumption as possible. Gross.  That’s not to say the witch in local lore ought to be overlooked- she is a figure of wisdom, a lesson in the harshness of life and the swiftness with which winter and hunger can take from us.  The magical charms employed in the Northwest, which were usually plant based, offer the possibility for healing and for hexing, for medicine and for witchcraft. It’s how the individual uses this medicine that determines who is a witch or not. A New World Cauldron The woven basket holds a special significance for a lot of indigenous people, but since we’re speaking on where I hang around, lets focus on the Northwest, where basket culture is not only ripe with artistic history and cultural lore, it is also of deep religious and spiritual importance and is associated with a litany of folklore in the Northwest; including that of witchcraft.  Duwamish basket weaving is an incredible art form, and it’s been years since I’ve done reed-mat weaving but I did get the amazing opportunity to learn about reed weaving and basket culture from Vi Hilbert herself, the godmother of the Duwamish cultural revival and restoration movement. She came to my clan’s class when I was about 12, right before we embarked on our Umiak trip (Rite of Passage).  From her we became acquainted with Lushootseed, how reeds and cedar were used in mat and basket making, the significance of baskets to Northwestern spiritual systems as well as the story of the Basket Ogress. It had an impact on me. She compiled accounts from all over the Sound into a book, Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound. Baskets were a means of communication, a way of telling stories, and a lesson in history.  They could be symbolic of authority and power; told stories of the family history or helped young women achieve status.  Related to baskets are cedar bentwood boxes which are a staple for some tribes located near the Green River, notably the Muckleshoot whose cedar boxes are pretty famous due to their beautiful artistry and association with chiefdom, as well as their spiritual value.  They could be holding the power of a sacred object or of sacred food (like salal bread), usually of a very important person. Cedar is by far the most common material used in traditional basketry. Pine needle baskets, bitter cherry-bark baskets, cedar strip baskets- they all have different uses and values and were a commodity for Coastal peoples.  Up at Daybreak Star, there is a lot of preserved traditional artwork, the most fascinating of which is often the totem carving and dancing masks, but it’s really the basket work you should take a closer look at. Salish weaving styles are astounding in complexity and sheer volume. It is an art-form in and of itself and luckily, traditional basket weaving classes are offered by a few local tribes, including at the Long House.


The Witch Cooks


While basket weaving may have been one of the most important means of art, storage, cultural expression and production for Coastal Salish and related tribes, it was also the source of storytelling relating to sustenance- and even the witches of Northwest lore were part of this theme.  The Basket Ogress is a terrifying creature who by all accounts recorded, is very much a Coastal parallel to the story of Hansel and Gretel- she lures children, intends to cook them, is (in some accounts) outwitted by the children and cooked over her own fire instead...

As Cory over at New World Witchery put it; "If you think of the stereotypical folktale featuring a witch, she often winds up getting the bum end of the deal She gets shoved into an oven, hung on an old tree, burned in the town square, or swallowed up by the forces of hell."

The story of Basket Ogress wasn’t the only time that a basket-witch story was told to us; we also heard the story of the Snailwoman and Snakebasket woman; in their own ways they could be aptly described as witches even by western standards, though I’d like to note that they are more correctly defined as “bad” medicine men and women.  Medicine (in the indigenous spiritual sense) itself is neutral, but when used to harm, this person ceased to be a medicine person or “shaman” (to use that term loosely since we don’t have shamans here, we have medicine) and became what we identify in Western occultism as a “witch”. Today, when telling the stories in English, even traditional story-tellers use the word “witch” as a descriptor.



Snailwoman is a terrifying witch of local lore.  One version of the story which is more common to the Green River area is that of a hag called Snailwoman who appears mostly in winter, carries on her back a basket woven in a spiral like a snail; it is lined with pitch and full of rotting sticks, which she uses to chase and batter children before stuffing them into her basket.  In other stories, she walks with a rotting cane. Often, she dies in a fire of retribution at the end, though sometimes she eats the kids and goes on her merry way. Another version of the story tells of a Snailwoman or Snailwomen who tried to lure children into their snail-spiral baskets: long story short, the villagers trick the witches into putting rocks in their baskets and the witches sank in their canoe; they still bubble under the surface to this day.  To the east she is seen as a hag of winter and a witch of great power feared by children. The referenced basket’s snail shape is likely alluding to the Salish spiral-weave style of basketry.

"The snail shell and the basket are symbolic of the womb, but the hag’s is a carnivorous womb, devouring life instead of producing it.  She is the Earth in Winter when the leaves fall to the ground and disintegrate and salmon die in their streams.” -David M. Buerge, Roots and Branches: The Religious Heritage of Washington State


When researching witchlore of the Puget Sound, it’s the story telling that is by far the easiest, most accessible and accurate way to obtain first hand knowledge on the folklore of Indigenous peoples.  There’s no shortage of story-tellers here, I had the blessing of being well acquainted with some of the most prolific storytellers alive through my family and through my involvement in the 1990's Huchoosedah program and I can tell you that even though stories change from person to person, from clan to clan and tribe to tribe, the common elements are almost always unchanged, and the lore of the “witch” or bad medicine woman/man is a pretty solid theme.  The cannibalistic witch/woman is a common magical motif in Northwest local lore, including Canadian and Alaskan tribes who also had stories of a Cannibal woman, a kind of child-eating witch of great terror. Just across the Sound, the story of a witch with a terrible magic basket changes from that of a Hag and Snailwoman to that of a Snakewoman with a basket made of living serpents.

“There was a bad old witch who would steal children and roast them.  She had a live snake basket, woven of snakes, to carry the children in."- M. Terry Thompson, Steven M. Egesdal, Salish Myths and Legends: One People's Stories

In many ways, the basket is like the symbolism of the cauldron which both bestows greatness or creates diabolic consequences when in the hands of a witch.   The maidens who weave the baskets bring creation, sustenance and wellness to the people while the witch (who is often a hag figure) has baskets that bring harsh lessons, destruction and decay. However, I must note that a "basket hag" could also be a figure of goodness, as was the case in the story of Stormwind and his basket-maker Grandmother; who wove a magic basket to help him defeat Northwind (Thelma Adamson, Folk-Tales of the Coast Salish). I enjoy the idea that both represent a different facet to a practitioner's life, that good and bad medicine, just like good and bad magic, coexist simultaneously in the mystical world around us.  The parallels of the witch in English folklore, Zuni mythology, Akan story-telling, and Coastal folklore is pretty fun to see- the witch really is universal.

“Many Indian modes of bewitching paralleled those reported in Europe and New England.  Native witches sought locks of hair, nail parings, saliva, urine, or fragments of perspiration-stained clothing from their prey so that these might be employed in occult treatments to produce disease or misfortune.  Among tribes of the Northwest Coast, witches made images of enemies, then tortured those parts of the body in which they desired to instill pain." -Marc Simmons, Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande

My people are actually from the Southeast United States, where the Owl is the herald of death and witchcraft, and just like in the Southeast, the owl is seen a symbol of witchcraft, death and magic in the Northwest as well and you’ll be hard pressed to see owls represented in standard artwork here as often as allies like Raven and Bear.  The snail, snake and owl all seem to share a common witch-lore here, and I think it’s pretty fascinating that the animals of the menagerie of the witch is the same almost anywhere you go around the world. In the Witching Basket

The lore of magical plants in concerns to witchery is also pretty standard; roots treated as witches and cared for like those of the alrauns and charms of philia and luck like "thistle and red columbine root" (Douglas Deur, Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America, 2005). According to ethnobotonists, plants were often employed as charms by practitioners- often just the root itself like false hellebore or horsetail.  I wrote about the indigenous plantlore a while back in my post A Riverton Magical Herbal and how many plants were utilized by the peoples of the Puget Sound for magical purposes, including love magic, strengthening before battle and exorcism. Many samples of these charming plants grow at the Erna Gunther Museum up at UW, it's a nice stroll through Indigenous medicine.  

When it comes to the plants associated with bewitchment; we have the bulb of the trillium, pond lily and vetch- all of which have been recorded to have been used in romantic/erotic charms and spells by locals in botanical ethnographies like those of Nancy Turner and Erna Gunther.    Other herbs notably used in charms and spells were the famed Devil’s Club- according to the recorded stories of peoples like the Haida and Tsimshian, this was a plant that could be used to destroy bewitchment and bad medicine but its needles were also a talisman for luck in gambling, while its flesh was eaten for the same.  Also, yellow tiger lily (and other lily types) which were supposedly used to draw love and luck especially to women who rubbed themselves with the bulb and fed it to their intended. Bitterroot appears to have been viewed in a similar fashion to the European mandrake; as a semblance of a man or woman and thus meant to be treated with anthropomorphic sensibilities.  Some tribes further North of here treated Devil’s Club similarly.

a trillium specimen at a local ethnobotanical garden
A modern witch of the Green River looking to work her necromantic work may offer symphoricarpos hesperius "Ghost berries" to the dead and to your salmon or snake allies, decorate the altar in red elderberries, wear a false hellebore root around their neck (Turner) and ally with the owl, snake or snail.  She may perform love spells with a staff from a bitter cherry tree, or use a wand traditionally employed for love drawing like huckleberry (Gunther). A Green River witch today may want to avoid certain herbs while performing hexcraft, those herbs that tend to diminish her work such as juniper berry wash, devil’s club spines hung in doorways, rose tea and nettle wash.

Baskets of witchlore, full of bewitching plants and snails and sticks and snakes... I like the image of the local cannibal witch, she has style.  My world is a basket of mysterious roots and I am a witch hungry to devour whatever I catch.

Consulted
  • Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America by Douglas Deur
  • Roots and Branches: The Religious Heritage of Washington State by David M. Buerge, Junius Rochester
  • Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America by Nancy Turner
  • Salish Myths and Legends: One People's Stories by M. Terry Thompson, Steven M. Egesdal
  • Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande by Marc Simmons
  • Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound by Vi Hilbert
  • The Childhood of Fiction: A Study of Folk Tales and Primitive Thought by John Arnott MacCulloch
  • Modern Witchcraft and Psychoanalysis by Mel D. Faber
  • Witches of Normanby Island by Géza Róheim
  • Folktales of the Coast Salish by Thelma Adamson
Referenced



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