Nine North American Traditions of Initiation

How Were American Witches Initiated?

A common question that is often discussed, but not from the perspective of American witch tradition. According to our older literary collections of folklore in North America, how did our ancestors believe witches could be made?  African and European folk traditions were so paralleled and complimentary that they wound up reinforcing one another when they met here in the new world. Coupled with the introduction of Indigenous folk medicine and religious practices (which Europeans quickly equated with their own notions of devilish witchery and sorcery most foul), the personification of the American witch tradition was born, a synthesis between three clashing cultures with shared- and in some cases nearly identical- traditions of folk-magic and witch-lore. The traditional figure of the American witch across the board was a person with the abilities to; hex, heal, divine, shape-shift, send their spirits, commune with familiars and perform great acts of good or evil. This was done by poppet and lodestone, knotted cord and incantation, by silver bullet and black-cat bone, by casting lots and conjuring spirits. The folkloric witch in our country is herbalist and doctor, trickster and ecstatic outsider. They can be cunning folk or they can be brujas, they can be basket-women or owl-women or grannies or conjurers. The traditional American witch 'fixes tricks' and 'winds charms', tells love 'fortunes' or sets 'projects' and they are initiated into these arts in the most curious of ways depending on where they live, where their people are from...

The history behind the different methods of initiation into witchcraft is vast and varied, dependent on the region and culture and country you’re looking at.  However, witch-lore shares many cross-cultural parallels and commonalities, chief among them, the curious methods by which one could become a witch.  Becoming a witch can be as simple as eating a bug, or, as complex as a seven week-long ritual involving corn kernels.  Becoming a witch could be as simple as an announcement to the spirits, or as gruesome as the sacrificial boiling of a black cat. Though many of the methods detailed in folklore are nonsensical and not necessary, others are much easier and more tasteful to implement in the modern era.  However one comes by their witchcraft; the calling, the pact, the acceptance, and the gift remains a constant foundation. 

 The Devil, who is the most commonly referenced entity in this scenario is not alone responsible for the initiation of witches in all of the stories- rather, spirits, fairies, ghosts and familiars of all kinds were similarly appealed to in the exact same manner as the Devil, further illustrating the diversity of magical arrangements which can be made between the seeker and an entity with the power to bestow magic.  The collections of Northeastern, Midwestern, Southeastern and Southern folklore often reference the Devil yes, but they also reference unknown spirits described as fairy-women or handsome men-in-all-black, or 'familiars' with animal or fantasy form, or simply spirits, ancestors, ghosts or other manner of being like merfolk and 'imps', who were likely equated with the Devil due to sheer ignorance of traditional European, African and Indigenous spiritual systems. That is to say, the Devil is not solely the master of witches nor the only being capable of working with witches, so those who may find some issue with working with the folk Devil/Man-in-Black/Man-At-The-Crossroads of American witchcraft (a rather cheerful trickster deity compared to the Father-of-Evil feared by Christians), will find that there are other familiars and spirits who can be appealed to instead if so desired.   

While my cohorts and I have been working on fleshing out our emerging tradition of folkloric North American witchcraft (more on that later, very exciting), we’ve also been pouring over ritual models within New World witchcraft that address the traditions of initiation. In our research I came across some initiation methods that gave me the chuckles and chills; I've been thinking a lot about them ever since.

Some of these methods are probably the product of overactive Puritanical imaginations conflating the rituals observed in European-descended folk healers, African American conjury and Indigenous spiritual systems while others may be pure witch hysteria on the parts of Christians, but others are also referenced throughout the folklore of the Americas as very serious business; rituals recognized as having deep meaning and power in the superstitious mind. They are part of our American witchlore heritage and intrinsic to how we the people have come to see the witch as a symbol, as a character, and as a mystery. Scouring my collections of literary resources, I came across nine methods of initiation into witchcraft that tickled my fancy and may tickle yours too.

Nine Methods of Initiation

1. The Witch Bone
By obtaining a black cat bone through the means of sacrifice, one can become an initiate into witchcraft.  One is to boil the cat, burn or drown it alive. The bones are either boiled in a pot or cast into a gentle rushing river.  The bone that remains or floats is an indication of the initiation process and keeping this bone safe would grant one the abilities of a witch.  There can be no white hairs on this cat, and all the better if the cat was caught in a graveyard. Obtaining a mole paw by smothering, or rabbit bone or foot may also make one a witch, as well as the skeleton of a toad obtained in the correct manner. Related to this is the method of becoming a witch by obtaining the hand or little finger of a recently deceased corpse; "To obtain the power and secrets of witchcraft, it is necessary to visit a churchyard at midnight, and cut off the hand of a recently buried corpse."- C.L Daniels. For more on witch-bones, HERE.

2. Silver Bullet
Shooting a silver bullet through a handkerchief, or, shooting a silver bullet at the moon while renouncing one’s former religion is said to initiate Southern witches into the arts."In eastern Kentucky, one who desires to become a witch goes before sunrise to the summit of an adjacent mountain.  As soon as the sun begins to appear above the distant horizon, and as soon as the aspirant as hurled a trine anathema at Jehova, and owned the Devil as a master, she holds up a white handkerchief in front of it, shoots through the 'kerchief with a silver bullet, and blood drops from it.  The operation is then complete."- Journal of American Folklore. This same silver can be used to kill a witch as well.

3. A Conjure or Witching Stone or Stick
Finding or being gifted a smooth black stone, conjure stone or a lodestone which is then fed camphor, perfumes, rum, iron filings, metal shavings, and nails.  In exchange, this stone will provide one with mystical gifts, cunning capabilities; "To maintain its potency, they fed it needles, steel particles, and water every Friday.  If this duty was neglected the owner pined away and died, or if the stone was misplaced or stolen, he lost his mind and dried up into a skeleton." -Marc Simmons.   Other lore of the Southeastern lore tells of one becoming a witch by finding a black stick (possibly blackthorn or even hazel) that can grant one the abilities of a witch.

4. Jay Stump Corn
Offering Indian corn to the blue-jays for seven weeks around the hollowed stump of a tree filled with water, especially done on Fridays,  will petition the man-at-the-crossroads to teach you witching. When he arrives, you may renounce old religions and make a deal. For more information on becoming a witch by way of blue jay, HERE.

5. Washing Away Grace
To wash one’s hands at a river while renouncing old religion, or  “scouring a tin or pewter plate in some secret place, and giving himself to the Devil by saying, ‘I will be as clean of Jesus Christ as this dish is of dirt.’”- Tom P Cross, Witchcraft in North Carolina.  Associated with this is going to a river or spring and washing your hands of grace seven or nine times while offering your soul to that which will guide you, or, using a witch-bone, one cleans their hands “as free of grace as these hands are free of grease”.

6. Hilltop Renouncement
Going to a hilltop or a mountainside at sunrise or sunset (the rise and fall of the morning star) and renouncing all former spiritual ties and then offering your service to the-spirit-who-calls nine times is said to initiate witches in some Midwestern and Southern lore.  Sometimes a simple renouncement will do, otherwise, one must also shoot a bullet at the moon or wash their hands seven or nine times while making the renouncement.  Renouncement didn't always have to take place at a hilltop or mountainside, one could easily go to any crossroads, wagon road, graveyard or riverside, or under any witching tree and renounce; "The common willow used to be held as under the especial protection of the devil, and it was said that if you cast a knot on a young willow and then sat under it and renounced your baptism, the devil would confer upon you super-natural powers."- C.L Daniels, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

7. ‘All Between These Hands’
It is said if you go to a crossroads or graveyard or some other sacred space like a hillside or mountaintop and ask to speak with the Devil, he will place one hand over your head and one on your foot and proclaim all between his hands to be his; "To become a witch, the candidate goes with the Devil to the top of the highest hill at sunrise nine successive days and curses God.  The Devil then places one hand on the candidate's head and one on his feet, and receives the promise that all between his hands shall be devoted to his services."- The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore.   Similarly, stand in a sacred place or under a witching tree, draw a circle in the ground with your finger and kneel with your hands to the ground on either side of you (or, stand between two witching trees with your hands on either trunk) and proclaim nine times that ‘All that lies between these hands belongs to (the devil or otherwise)’ , or, as per my current ,  ‘All that lies between these hands; serves the spirits and these lands'.  One could also go to a wagon road and call to the Devil to “take me, ring and all!”.

8. Congress with the Devil
According to much of the witchlore of the Americas and likely derived from English lore is the method of obtaining ones initiation by going to the graveyard, a crossroads or a hillside at sunrise, sunset or midnight, nearest the full moon stripping naked and offering one’s body to a witch of the opposite sex, or, to the spirits, or, the Devil. This sexual union will result in the seeker becoming initiated into witchcraft.  This folklore is extensive, from New England to the Ozarks; a woman or man who engages in sexual relations with an entity who has the powers of witching may gain that power through the act of copulation. Sometimes a “black book” or some kind of infernal legal document is mentioned in trial transcripts, namely the appearance of a handsome and charming man-in-black who pricks the finger of the seeker and has them sign a pact in their blood (while nude). It is far more common to see folklore relating to sexual relations with spirits in exchange for power rather than the use of a book (given that illiteracy was the norm for some time in this country’s early years). Boning a spirit for magical powers seems to be a recurring theme; a lot of Puritanical imaginations were running wild with misunderstandings of pagan fertility rites and just plain fear of the power of sexy-times. God bless 'em.

9. Grasshoppers and Crickets
"To become a witch, eat grasshoppers or crickets." (Durham County, NC) Journal of American Folklore Vol II.

Honorable Mention: “Natural” Witches
Those who by circumstances are born to become witches, according to folklore collections of North America such as the Frank C. Brown Collection, Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World and The Journal of American Folklore

Those born with red hair
Those born a twin
Those born with a caul over them
Those born with two long teeth
Seventh Daughters and Seventh Sons born on Christmas
Those who are born to age into old women

Remember: American witchcraft tradition states that it is best pursued on a Tuesday or Friday; at sunset or sunrise; at a hilltop, mountainside, graveyard, river, cellar, crossroads or roadside, nearest the full or new moon, nearest Hallow’s Eve, May’s Eve, Midwinter or Midsummer, in numbers three, seven and nine.

Consulted Sources:

The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore

The Green Collection of Folklore by Paul and Elizabeth Green
Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande by Marc Simmons
Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World by Cora L. Daniels
The Journal of American Folklore
American Folk Tales and Songs by Richard Chase
Witchcraft in North Carolina by Tom P. Cross
Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro by Puckett

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