Track-Tricks: Footstep and Hexing Tradition

3:04:00 PM


Pulvis

My ancestors knew the value of the footprints we leave on this earth, and they knew how to alter fate from the soil in foot steps.  I look back on this magic and wonder how the various protective arts of my black American ancestors has shaped the witch I am today. Some things are lost to the dusts of time, while other things are sprinkled in our tracks, just waiting to catch us.

Magical powders; they're a great gift of the magician, the witch, the hoodoo-woman,  the shaman, the cunning-man alike. All those magical folk of the world who know the secret blends are accustomed to the arts of dust.  My joy lies in adapting old charms for my modern needs- in exploring the syncretic origin of American folk magic and how its traditions can be reclaimed today.  One hexing tradition I’m fond of is track-tricks, also known as foot-track magic: The African American syncretic sympathetic magic of placing harmful powders in the footprints and walkways of one's enemies.  To curse someone's path, much like cursing their home with a "conjure ball" is to bring them a great deal of harm. You can lay the mixture in their expected path or sprinkle it in their wake, even over their shadow.

The dust is often dry and acrid, or it can be sweet and floral.  It depends on who has doomed your path. If you’ve cuckolded your lover, you can expect the scent of liverwort and violet to their magic; deceptive as it covers the scent of human hair and urine. If you’ve been making enemies and burning bridges, you can expect a hot foot, tireless and restless legs, ill-health and black luck for days- weeks on end, perhaps to your death.  There are many ways to hex an enemy according to European folklore, including witch bottles, poppets and knots.  American witches, descended of many paths, have our own traditions of hex magic, some of which include witch bullets, conjure-balls and track-tricks.

My powders are usually made of flowers, dried and sweet of smell.  They come from the rulership of Venus and Moon, or from Hecate and the realms of hell.  They linger with the perfume of their former life, and are intoxicating to the senses. Most of my powders are meant to be added to other love mixtures or consumed in food. Only in very dire circumstances do I ever turn to track-tricks.   Typically, I like my track-tricks to be protective or diverting, leading away baleful spirits and protecting the many travelers, wanderers and hikers in my life. I always keep my track powders in small, discreet but decorated gourds- small enough to slip up your sleeve on a long walk. However you lay tracks, be careful when you do; there's danger in this magic, and it will follow in your steps.

On the Nature of Track-Trick Powders


"And by a variety of charms involving a person's tracks you may make him stagger or paralyze him, make him follow you or leave."- BA Botkin, Southern Folkways

African American folk magical traditions are largely where our North American traditions of track-trick lore comes from, and it’s where you’ll find most of the old recipes still in circulation today.  Witches were just as tied to the folk magic of tracks as any other practitioner, and the folklore reflects a deep-set fear of witchery in the conjure traditions. You may have your tracks laid by anyone with the desire to do so; family members, lovers, Christians, witches, hoodoo-men, conjurers- anyone. Track tricks and how to lay them can come in a variety of forms with varying instructions; sometimes they take the appearance of “conjure-balls” or similar to “witch bullets”, other times they can appear as red-bundles in the middle of the foot-path, or as bottles set into the ground or as cursed objects buried in the earth, placed in the chimney or hidden in the cellar.  While track-tricks aren’t always powdered (sometimes they are bundled in bags or hairballs), they most commonly were made up of ground materials to divert evil, some of that powder containing diabolic substances like snake heads, ground lizard and human body; "powder made from the dead was strewn in the path of obnoxious individuals to cause them to become ill" (Frank C. Brown Collection).
"Hot foot powder is employed in Hoodoo as a protective device or deterrent to what is perceived as evil behavior in "foot track magic"." -Anand Prahlad, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore

Hoodoo and conjure lore are both ripe with different operations regarding the enchantment of someone’s path- ranging from the casting of mud/cotton/hair balls into the path of an enemy, sprinkling the hair of black animals in someone’s footsteps, or even “plugging” one’s footsteps by casting their tracks into water to waste, or, one could do a “plugging” as a love project using track dirt; "To keep a woman true, take some dirt from her right foot track and a wisp of her hair on the back of her neck and stob it in the hole with a hickory stob" (Frank C. Brown).  One bit of Alabama folklore says that to get rid of unwanted guests, you must gather up their tracks and cast it into a river over your shoulder without looking back (Ray Broadus Browne).  Sometimes the charm is as simple as casting some bent nails and horsehair in the path of your enemy, or even more simply, tossing graveyard dust in their wake. Other operations were more difficult- involving rare substances, corpse materia and personal concerns of your enemies that are hard to obtain.  

These foot-track charms are usually done so for negative purposes, earning it a reputation as malefic magic, but it could be used for benevolent purposes too; like, recapturing a wandering lover, sweetening your intended, protecting a traveler from harm or simply to bless your steps.  In general Southern and some Midwestern (Indiana) folklore, particularly among African Americans familiar with hoodoo and conjure traditions, it is believed that one’s tracks and footprints had power, and through contagion, a person may be affected by having their tracks tampered with; this was accomplished using a variety of materials, the most popular of which is graveyard dirt, hair, nails, and the seeds of acrid spices like mustard and pepper.

"Conjurers use dirt from them in conjure.  Practitioners most commonly use foot track dirt in spells designed to drive off or keep away enemies, although numerous other uses are known."- Jeffrey E. Anderson, Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Conjure: A Handbook

Putting tricks down in someone's tracks is an odd and interesting form of magic, one most popularly referenced in Southern folk magic- particularly traditions related to hoodoo.  Conjure people were said to be able to create powders, mud-balls or bundles that when cast in the tracks of one's enemies, could render them dead (Puckett). Track-tricks were a countermagic as well, used to protect the footfalls of a person from witchcraft, or, to punish suspected witches or bad conjure folk.  

“If a thief's trail is found, a nail from the coffin in which a corpse has decayed, driven into the track with three blows, will produce the same effect as if it entered the robber’s foot.  Fasten a string around the nail’s head so that it can be drawn out when requisite; otherwise the man will die."- Folklore of the Mountain Whites of the Alleghenies, Journal of American Folklore

Witches, like robbers and ghosts and mad-men, are said to be confounded by having nails staked in their tracks, causing them deep pain.  Alternatively, one can have their foot-tracks tricked (causing harm) through use of glass shards, quartz shards or even whole bottles. Even just having your tracks gathered and plugged into rotting trees, cellar floors and chimneys could cause harm.
"If someone steals from you in rainy weather, or comes in the mud so that you can get his footprint, cut out his footprint in the clay and hang it in the chimney corner, and the thief will waste away with the footprint."- Cora Linn Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

From what I can see, there are cross cultural parallels among Americans of West African and of Western European descent regarding track magic.  Folklorists like Andrew Lang in his 1887 work, “Myth, Ritual and Religion” drew parallels between Scottish footprint nailing charms and foot-track poison charms of West Africa.  Powders to draw love or to hex an enemy are the most common kinds found in the folklore of the Americas, especially that of the South where love powder magical charms enjoy a long history among witches and non practitioners alike.  

"Shameweed or the Sensitive plant will shame a recalcitrant woman; sprinkle the powdered dry root in the woman's path an she will close up like a sensitive plant; mix it with snail dust and snail water and she will leave like a snail going into its shell." -Benjamin Albert Botkin, A Treasury of Southern Folklore: Stories, Ballads, Traditions, and Folkways of the People of the South

It was a simple magic, one expected of young people in love or jilted housewives and mistresses.  For those green witches who have come to rely on the tradition of plant medicine and magic for their arts, creating powders from herbs and roots is elementary, and apparently it was very common for young people in the past to resolve to love charms, innocent of witchery but devious magic nonetheless.  As always with North American love charms, the sacred number of operations is 9, and this is reflected in a number of charms from nine-knots in a lover’s thread to nine-hairs from the head of your intended to place in a conjure bag. Some track lore specifically states the number 9 as paramount to the operation.

"If a man counts nine steps a girl takes and gets some dirt out of her left heel track, and carries it in his pocket for nine days, she will be crazy over him." (Kentucky folklore), Frank C. Brown, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: Popular beliefs and superstitions from North Carolina

Tracks have a special meaning; they’re tied to the path one has taken in this world, and we leave behind our marks in this world in various ways, including simply by stepping forward.  When we disturb the soil of the world, we are creating that small ripple that marks our impact, and, from an animistic standpoint we are bound to the things we leave in this world, as they gain power through sympathy, contagion or imitation.  So, if one was to collect the soil a person has just disturbed they may be able to alter the fate of that person. Or, if they wish to influence the path of a person going forward, they may do so by essentially poisoning the path of their intended.  With every step, they are ensnared...

Messing with someone's tracks by planting magical powders in their footsteps, or, gathering their footprint up in the dirt (their tracks) and blending this soil with the hair of black animals and other materials, allowing the concoction to dry and then casting that powder back onto the tracks of another were among the principle means of completing this operation according to some of our Midwestern and Southern folklore.  Botkin's collection has a decent section on track magic, one bit of which mentions gathering up the tracks of your enemy and casting it into water to make them run away or decay (this reminds me of the old Western European charm of making clay figures of your enemy which are cast into a stream to deteriorate). A parallel of track-to-water magic can be found in the magical folklore of Cape Verde which made its way to the Americas, where tracks were said to be boiled and tossed over cliffs to harm enemies (Journal of American Folklore).

Even animals were supposed to be ensnared by track magic; with some folklore stating that wolves can be dissuaded from the hunt by salting their tracks, and red pepper is used as a foot-powder to throw off hunting dogs (C.L Daniels). Animals could also trick your tracks themselves according to Southern folklore; snake tracks over your path need to be rubbed out to lift the curse (A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selections from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin), squirrels and rabbits running over your tracks in certain directions could do you harm, and horse tracks with silver in their wake are actually good luck.

It’s scary, what our ancestors believed could be done with the pathways and footfalls of another.  I for one seek to keep this tradition of American folk magic alive when I need to.  I've looked to the old blends and recipes of folklore and found a balance in what I need and want.  I think the best part of reconstruction is evolving with the modern times; honoring our ancestors while moving forward with new ideas.  It's not like our ancestors had stagnant traditions- not at all, not in America especially. Our magical heritage is a mix of the old and new worlds, and we today are tasked with reviving and reinvigorating the old ways for the new times. I've been having fun following in the footsteps of my ancestors.

“You must never step in a footprint that points towards you.”

A Personal Pantry of Foot-Print Powders

Project Powder

These love projects typically included heart-shaped herbs or flowers and roots well known for their use in love magic; liverwort, periwinkle leaf, violet leaf and blood-root among many others.  Mixed with a little hair or personal concerns, these powders were a dangerous red magic. My favorite blend above shown is a blend of dried red rosebud, honey powder, angelica, cinnamon, nutmeg, bloodroot, rosewood, bloodwood powder, orris powder, adam and eve root and morning glory vine powdered along with various other materials including sugar, periwinkle, violet, fern seed (gathered on St. Agnes Eve), rabbit bone and hibiscus.

Track Trick
This one needs to be made out doors where it's well ventilated because it is a natural sneezing powder laden in red and black pepper flakes and corns, ground alum, slippery elm, clove and cayenne in addition to very fine burrs and splinters.  Handling this powder without a face mask is sure to cause you the fits and burn your throat. Mine calls for a strong and well blended powder of black salt, white salt, red and black pepper, black and yellow mustard seed, volcanic ash, honey locust thorns, graveyard dirt, ground skins, among other materials.   And my favorite Gossip-Killer is a simple blend of alum, salt, slippery elm, cloves and nutmeg powder.

Purification Steps

This one calls for my own recipe, and it’s called Silver Steps, it’s  one I’ve come to enjoy; will call for a pinch of alum and a pinch of saltpeter mixed with a pinch of corn starch, some powdered cascarilla, a few tablespoons of blessed sea-salt and a few silver shavings.  Putting this in the path before you as you travel will not only purify your way forward but protect your feet beneath you.

I love turning to old blends and recipes to inspire new recipes.  That’s evolution for you, always adapting to the new environment over time.  We witches are no different. Bringing tradition into the modern world means tapping into the very best parts of our ancestral ways while allowing room for change, improvement, imagination, and improvisation.  Among witch bones, witch bottles, witch bullets, love projects, Halloween charms and the other traditions of magic that are part of the folkloric identity of the New World witch, is the magic of track-tricks. As we walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, I’d watch out for the pepper and nails if I were you...

References…

  • A Treasury of Southern Folklore: Stories, Ballads, Traditions, and Folkways of the People of the South by Benjamin Albert Botkin
  • The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore: Vol. VII: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, Part 2 by Newman Ivey White, Wayland D. Hand, Frank C. Brown
  • America Bewitched by Owen Davies
  • Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro by Newbell Niles Puckett
  • Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World by Cora Linn Daniels, C. M. Stevans
  • A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selections from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, 1935-2009 by Ted Olson, Anthony P. Cavender
  • Popular Beliefs and Practices from Alabama by Ray Broadus Browne
  • The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore by Anand Prahlad
  • Journal of American Folklore
  • Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Conjure: A Handbook by Jeffrey E. Anderson
  • Foot-track Magic in the Hoodoo Tradition from Lucky Mojo


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