The Witch's Bone: Black Cat and Hexing Tradition

8:17:00 AM

The Witch-Bone

Warning: disturbing content relating to animal folklore and witchcraft 

All it takes, in the eyes of some of our early American ancestors, is the bone of a black cat to make a witch. It's a simple initiation into the dark works through the terrifying and terrible magic of witch bones. As folklore in the South would put it, a witch bone was used to "control cattle, horses, or women as user wishes”, it could also grant desires, invisibility and unlock doors.  The “witch bone” in American folklore was a marvel, it could be used to control animals at will- particularly horses (mirroring the Toadman tradition of England), and, even to fly.  Interestingly enough, it was obtaining a witch bone that could make a person into a witch according to our folklore.  The toad-witches and toad-masters of English supernaturalism have witchbones which provide them with their power.  The witches of the New World were said to have witch bones of a black cat most often, which provides them with their power.  There's much to be fascinated by with this particularly cruel, but common bit of Americana. Its cross-cultural parallels are pretty wide-ranging, and its method of obtainment, a boiling cauldron of horror.
"Carry black-cat bones and you will have the powers of a magician"- Ray Broadus Browne, Alabama Folklore, Folklore Studies (1957)

Different cultures have their own folklore regarding the possession of a bone or object of power from an animal.  These days we think of lucky rabbit's foot or gator’s teeth when we think of this tradition of magic, but moles, like toads and cats, were also perfectly suitable victims of magicians, shamans, witches or others looking to obtain substantial mystical power.  In the case of the mole, it was the paw or organs taken, not the bones, but the concept is the same: killing for power. Possession of a sacred object, including a bone from some sacred witching animal, is a staple of witchcraft across the cultural spectrum.  I for one, am both horrified and intrigued by this magic- but then again, I love cross-cultural parallels in magic, it only serves to bolster my sense of identity as a mixed pagan and an American.  One thing about witches that is universal is our association with animals, and of all the animals in the world associated with witchery, the black cat is probably top-dog.
"Amulets of animal bone appear to be both ancient and world wide.  The magical power of the black cat bone and its associated rituals have been documented, in nearly identical forms, in Hungary, Finland, and Ireland, as well as countries colonized by Europeans, including the United States, Canada, the Philippines, and the Cape Verde Islands. The English "Toadmen" tradition is strikingly parallel.  When the proper bone from a toad is recovered through rituals very similar to those of the black cat, its owner acquires a variety of uncanny powers, including the abilities to become invisible, cure various ailments, and attract good fortune."-  by Anand Prahlad, African American Folklore: An Encyclopedia for Students: An Encyclopedia for Students (p.31)

Though witch bones appear throughout a wide range of Southern folklore, the earliest instances found of black cat bone magic appear to center around German Canadian, African American and Afro Caribbean sources and is featured in hoodoo and conjure charms. It’s likely that witch bone lore in America is at least in parts, a synthesis of European, Indigenous and African magical superstitions put together. Most of the lore we've collected and studied comes to us from sources in New England, the Midwest (specifically German settled areas) and the Southeast among black communities, where there’s a long tradition of syncretic superstitions practiced by whites, blacks and others alike. "There is a superstition among the Southern negroes that a particular bone in the tail of a perfectly black cat, when carried by any per son, renders them invisible. The animal must be placed in a pot alive, and boiled."- C.L Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

In Southern folklore, a lucky cat bone is a common ingredient in hoodoo charms as well as a known protective charm for the holder.  It wasn’t considered a safe or benign magic, no, the black cat bone had a history of drawing fear and apprehension, especially in rural African American communities who saw the bone as potentially very powerful.  

"The power of a witch or a wizard to banish at will is obtained from some bone of a black cat."-Frank C. Brown, The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore: Vol. VII: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, Part 2

The black cat witch bone was purportedly used as an auspicious charm in addition to being regarded as a witch’s relic.  There’s a few theories as to why cats appear most prominently as the source of a witch bone: cat’s standing association with witchcraft and magic, their history as being creatures of the otherworld, their being known as companions for the lonely and elderly, the idea that witches can shape-shift, fly or hex people in that form...  The cat itself was believed in early American folklore to have a specific bone in its body that was auspicious and powerful.  A black cat, from the perspective of African American folklore, was particularly useful in this regard as they were perceived as more “otherworldly” and “evil”.  As you can imagine, the old witches weren’t said to wait until their cats died to get the bone, rather, they took the bone after killing the cat. That was rather the point.

"The Black Cat Bone, on the other hand, is a much more sinister object, at least in the manner in which it is purportedly collected.  According to folklore the black cat has within its body a single bone with magical properties, properties transferable to the man or woman who possesses it."- Journal of the Folklore Institute

The idea is; that one could kill a witch by obtaining and destroying her bone- the bone granted to them by their pact with otherworldly forces which contained not only their power, but their life force.  Witch bones were much like magic roots and lodestones in that way, a magical object with a life of its own- perhaps even possessed by a spirit or devil- which gave luck and power to the holder. As always in American witchlore, what can make a witch can also destroy her, and so the witch bone is a double edged magic; it may give you initiatory powers, but in the hands of your enemy, your bone could be your undoing. The general idea is, if the witch is made by the bone and it is the resting place of her power which she had traded her immortal soul to obtain, then by taking that power away and breaking it, she would be rendered impotent or dead; "Take the witch's magic black cat's bone away from her, and she cannot cast any more spells."- Joseph D. Clark, Joseph Deadrick Clark, Beastly Folklore (1968). This applies to a witch’s knots, roots, silver bullet, lodestone or mojo bag- that which gave her power can be used to destroy him as well.  That’s the nature of witchlore- there’s always an ironic loophole.

Boiled Cat and Dried Toad

There were a few ways you could become a witch by obtaining a witch-bone according to folklore, and none were very pleasant. If you wished to be a witch or magician with the powers of conversation, eloquence, divination, healing and legal acumen, you would smother the mole. If you wanted to have the power to speak to horses and change skins, you would stake the toad, if you wanted the power of protection and wealth, you would cut the foot off the rabbit, and if you wanted to gain the power of luck, flight and invisibility, you would boil the cat. The mole, toad, rabbit and cat are all allies to the witch of old, and their sacrifice was said to grant power to the one who did the deed. An unpleasant aspect of our practice to be sure, and the folklore of obtaining cat bone was particularly gruesome...

"To become a witch, drop a live black cat into a black kettle of boiling water.  (If I remember correctly, the time specified was midnight.) When the flesh has separated from the bones, collect all the bones, take them to the river, and drop them in. No matter how swift the water is, one of the bones will rise and float up the stream.  This is the witch-bone, and as long as you keep it, you are a witch."- The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore: Vol. VII: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, Part 2

Much like the toad-witching of England, the cat-witching of America required some gruesome actions that are, thankfully, unacceptable today.  

“-and the Devil took her in: told her, like he done the others, all about how to be a witch-- boillin’ a black cat at sun-up on the east side of a mountain to get the witch bone shootin at the sun with a silver bullet, and washin’ your hands in a spring nine times with strong lye soap and sayin every time you rinse,

“I wash my soul as free from grace,
as my two hands are free of grease!”
-Richard Chase, American Folk Tales and Songs

Despite the horrors of how witch bones are obtained in folklore, they’re an incredibly fun bit of magic with some real applications for modern witches.   Like most old folk charms, there are possible ways to adapt these old charms for the modern world and our modern sensibilities. But where our ancestors were concerned, a witch bone was serious business and had to be obtained through some specific, icky, formulas.  Witches of old were said to drown the cat, or burn it- and whatever bone survives is your witchbone, however, the formula tends to be a little more involved than that:

"Zora Neale Hurston, In Mules and Men: Negro Folktales and Voodoo Practice in the South (1935), explains the importance of the black cat bones in hoodoo and describes a ceremony for selecting the correct bone by boiling the cat and passing the bones through her mouth until one tasted bitter (221).  Puckett describes a similar ceremony where the person should pass the bones through the mouth while looking into a mirror." -Lynn Moss Sanders, Howard W. Odum's Folklore Odyssey: Transformation to Tolerance Through African American Folk Studies

  Fire played a role in witch bone selection; supposedly the witch bone does not burn during the selection process and that is its signature. Water plays a role in this tradition of magic, as the medium that reveals the true bone to the witch- either by way of rushing river, boiling pot or saliva from the mouth.

"--Others say the cat should be cooked in a graveyard and the bones thrown into running water.  The one that will go upstream is the proper one." Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro

A graveyard was an ideal place for this magic, for an animal caught there was considered to be a powerful spell additive. When the bones are separated from the flesh, they are cast into the river and the bone that floats is the witch. Or, according to some Southern folkore, "When this has been done, take the bones together with a small mirror and go to some cross-roads in the woods where no one will see you." This secret working of dark magic in a liminal space such as a graveyard or a crossroads is prevalent in witchlore of the Americas. The utilization of a mirror, an object of deep superstition and malefic regard had its place in witch bone magic just as water and fire. Newbell Niles Puckett continues, "Stand directly between the forks with your back to the straight road holding the mirror up before you so that the road behind is reflected." As you do this, you are to pass the bones over your tongue, and when you've reached the right bone- rather than a bitter taste as Zora described, one would see the mirror go dark. This darkness is the sigil of the witch bone obtained. Midnight also plays a role in this magic (as it does in most American folklore), as it is the ideal time in which to obtain a lucky bone after casting cat bones into running water, simply by boiling the cat and saying, "I now give my body to the King of Bedlam."

The Invisible Bone & The Cat's Revenge

"Take a black cat and carry it alive down to a spring of running water; next take a pot and fill it with water and put it over a fire to boil.  When the water begins to boil, put the black cat in it alive and let the cat boil until all the meat has been boiled from its bones.  When this has been done, pour the contents of the pot into the spring, and the bones of the cat will go up the stream instead of down the stream.  The person who has done this will begin to see the devil and all of his imps." Journal of American Folklore

When I think of the witch bone in the modern era, I’m not interpreting the lore literally.  Rather, I see the “bone” in a figurative sense; a talisman or amulet of some kind which provides spiritual aid to the practitioner who obtained it. That's because a bone isn't the only spirited object that witches form alliances with or are initiated by in North American witchlore; a sacred root, lodestone or mojo bag could provide the same witching power as well.

Maybe we symbolize and personify this force in the shape of our bones, or talismans of power, but the true place from which a witch’s power is delivered is sourced from the otherworld, and flows through that puncture, that portal within us that stores all of our creativity, imagination and willpower.  Obtaining the bone of a toad or cat won’t necessarily make you a witch in my opinion, but they were once known to act as mediums for facilitating between you and the spirit-world in a way that may otherwise be more difficult. Your witch bone may be a silver talisman, or alraun, or mojo bag full of mysteries, or maybe it is hidden inside you from the beginning. Objects of power come in a great many shapes and forms, at different times of your life.  They’ll present themselves, they’ll put themselves in your way and automatically draw you to them.  However...

Witch bones are different; they’re the kind of magic you seize by the hand with a choking grip. It is witchcraft that is wrestled away from the life of another creature.  This is a difference in magics, the kind of distinction that gives rise to the notion of black vs white magic. I don’t believe in moral duality- a witch ought to know better than that, but there is a big difference between being gifted your power and seizing power for yourself.  I make no judgments of either path: witches will witch. Frankly, obtaining a witch bone can be adapted to a more modern moral palate; there are other ways of gaining a powerful ally like a witch bone than through boiling a cat or staking a toad. However you or anyone else chooses to go about obtaining your so-called “witch-bone”, be weary, lest this piece of yourself is discovered and taken- breaking you and your witchcraft to pieces, rendering you dead of power and without a soul. Think on that before you start the boiling pot...


References...
  • African American Folklore: An Encyclopedia for Students: An Encyclopedia for Students by Anand Prahlad
  • The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore: Vol. VII 
  • Journal of the Folklore Institute, Volume 16 by Indiana University
  • Seneca Myths and Folk Tales by Arthur Caswell Parker
  • American Folk Tales and Songs by Richard Chase
  • Howard W. Odum's Folklore Odyssey: Transformation to Tolerance Through African American Folk Studies by Lynn Moss Sanders
  • Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro by Newbell Niles Puckett
  • Mules and Men: Negro Folktales and Voodoo Practice in the South by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America by Ernest W. Baughman

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