Water is a prevalent component of Appalachian and Ozark folk magic and medicine. The practice originates with tribes of the Eastern Woodlands such as the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Iroquois, and also has roots in Ireland, Germany, France and the UK where waters are held high as tools for healing, cursing, etc.
In an more exoteric sense, the power of water is explained as follows: water flows through everything and has no form or shape. As a liquid it easily retains the energetic vibrations of the environment in which it flows, falls, or bubbles.
So water from a waterfall and the ocean have very different energies. Water is also used as a medium for works as shown by Celtic cursing tablets left in lakes and streams. Below is a small list of waters used in Appalachian folk magic today, some traditional while others are adaptations to this continuing tradition of magic.
Stumpwater/Spunkwater was a favorite of the Cherokee healing men and continued in use well into the late 20th century by the mountain women. Stumpwater is water that has gathered in the pool of a tree stump. The Cherokee held this water special as it has never touched the earth, making it separate from other puddles. It was believed to retain the virtues and power of the heavens, where the Thunder lives as well as the other Spirits they reverend. As such, stumpwater was used in the removal of disease, physical and spiritual. This is included in a group of things held special which has been called the “Flying things”. Essentially, stumpwater is Flying water and is the Ancestor of today’s form of gathering rain water by hand into a bowl as it falls from from sky, so the water never touches the earth, which is also reflected in old Irish cures calling for rainwater where it was believed the water would be useless if it hit anything before coming to rest into a bowl or cup. Cherokee women would wash their hair in Spunkwater with the belief it would keep their hair shiny and keep it from greying. This same practice of gathering pooled-water from a stump is found in the British Isles where the witch uses it in healing as well as wound treatment. The tree stump itself also holds special meaning for the Choctaw and Cherokee, especially if the center of the stump has rotted to soil. The water that pools likewise blesses this soil made off the earth.
Rain Water is also held special by the Cherokee and many other peoples. Rain gives life to the land, rivers and streams are fed by it and swell, further nourishing the land. As such, it has been attributed with life giving and cleansing powers. As rain washes away footprints and dust, it also rids us of yesterday’s sorrow and tomorrow’s worry. Rain water is held subject to the environment and time it occurs in, which in turn altars it’s magical temperament. Rain collected during a lightning storm is well used for power and protection as well as justice. Rain that falls “when the Devil beats his wife” or when the Sun is shining is saved for healing disease and ailments of the body, specifically the eyes.
Snow Melt is collected in deep winter and kept for only 4-6 months, after which it “forgets” and will need to be disposed of. It can be recharged or “remade” as the Cherokee address the matter, but it is very difficult to converge the energies of winter into the water when all the snow has melted and summer has come. Instead, every winter I gather snow packed tightly into a pint mason jar and store it in the freezer until the next winter. The snow will remain but will become hard like ice so it will need to be chipped off and melted. Snow melt is used to cool things down, slow down our own spirits, and is great to water the new seeds of the garden with. Crushed Ice cannot substitute this like some have reported. It will not possess the same spirits.
Ditch Water was collected from the pools of water in ditches left after a storm. The best ditch water contains debris, decomposing bugs and leaves. As ditches are a rarity now, one can keep a portion dish outside. Fill it with small leave parts, soil, and stones. I have two out front that my garden frogs have taken a liking too. Which I don’t mind as they love eating the mosquito babes in the stagnant water. Ditch water is held on to for protection from unwanted guests, crossing, hexing, and messing with those who have messed with you. I find that just having stagnant water out front does the job of keeping unkind folks away just right, unless the water ends up drying out. Then I simply refill it with a cup or so of tap water and wait for the next rain.
Dishwater Rather than healing or soothing ailments, dishwater is good for pulling the root out altogether. One way to be rid of disease is to get a rag, soak it in the dishwater, and ring it out. Rub the rag on the paining place of the body, take it outside and beat the rag against a tree or rock while cursing the sickness out. Another form is to dab the rag on the ailment and take it out to a tree. Tie it in a knot to a branch while stating your petition. As the rag dries and looses the smell of dishwater (usually a week or so) so too will the sickness “disappear” as the water did from the rag. Other uses of dishwater were: to cure warts or boils, soak the same in the warm dishwater until it is cold, then rub it with the dust or soil taken from a church and allow it to air dry. Then forget about it.
River/Creek Water is likewise held in high regard by the Cherokee. The river or creek is named the Long Man or the Long Snake, the spirit of the river who assists the People. No matter what charms or prayers the Cherokee proposes to the Spirits, the Long Man is always addressed and thanked. The Long Man takes disease away to some other place and reveals secrets to the Didahnvsisgi (Dee-dah-nah-see-sgi) or Medicine Man through divination. The Cherokee had a practice of disposing of things in the river, whether bad food or other things believed to have been tricked with by the Witch. The Cherokee would also seek the assistance of a Didahnvsisgi to be rid of a disease. The patient is take to the river and an emetic is administered. While the patient vomits in the river, the Medicine Man preforms the appropriate prayers and doings, asking the Long Man to take the disease to another people. River water can be used to bring or send things and is best used fresh. When collecting river from the Long Man one should always leave Tobacco or Corn. Never disturb the current of the river; take your basin along the route of the current, dip down and back up to collect it.
Ocean Water is often collected when a family member or friend travels to the shore in North Carolina, Virginia etc. All of my Grandmothers always requested it. It is great for healing all kinds of ailments from arthritis and rashes to the flu and wounds. I’ve never heard of anything special left in return for the water, but one could easily add on that bit, such as leaving flowers, tobacco etc. Likewise, I’ve also found that sea shells can be of great use to mix medicine in. The bigger the sea shell the better otherwise you’ll drop shit everywhere.
Well Water stems from the British Isles and is used for healing as well. When ever I’m able to replenish my store of it, I do so and primarily use it for divination but the old cures often recommend using well water for warts, boils, rashes, ‘wildfire’, swelling, etc.
Slack Water is the water in which a blacksmith cools his iron. This is used for ridding one of disease as well as protection from haints and unwanted spirits. In Ireland, this water was given to cattle that were believed to be “elf-shot,” its primary symptoms being mysterious malnutrition, loosing weight, blood in the milk or no milk at all, and crying at night.
Ghost Water is water from a graveyard. Whether a pond, puddle, gravestone or simply a bottle of water left there for a certain period. This is used it communicating with the Ancestors and the dead as it’s believed the water makes a thinner “veil” between worlds. I also use it in reversing folk illness caused by spirits.
Tobacco Juice or “Buckman’s Water” is water that has been steeped with cured tobacco until it is a dark brown hue. It is used for blessing, protection, and healing. The Cherokee include its use in many of their formulas, such as curing a snake bite or the fits, the only variation being their’s was chewed tobacco and the resulting mixture of spittle juice applied. It can be rubbed into the wound, on the ailing part of the body, or spat by the Didahnvsisgi onto the crown of the patient’s head. We also find many cures from researchers such as James Mooney and Vance Randolph where tobacco takes small space on the stage of some cures where its smoke is blown over simple water which was then used for such things as earache, stomach ache, etc.
Holy Water – either blessed by a preacher or by oneself with verses such as Psalms 23 or the Lord’s Prayer being recited over it 7 times a day for 7 days at sunrise. This is used for protection and blessing. A pinch or so of Church dirt added to the water may also be beneficial in its creation.
Willow Water is a tonic made in the spring. The new leaves of the willow are stepped in a jar of water in the Sun. This is used to relieve headaches by ingesting it or anointing the temples. It can also be rubbed on wounds to further their healing process and help with soreness or pain.
Ways of Employment
There are a few ways that magical water is employed. Here are some methods:
Bath – Healing waters can be added to a bath to facilitate the work and spread its power. This is absorbed through the skin, under the nails, etc. Pat dry, don’t rub with the towel when drying off or you’ll wipe the work off. When healing, wash downward to be rid of pain and sickness.
Sprinkling – this is also used to spread the waters power. The water can be sprinkled to cleanse an area, sprinkled on the client to aid in healing, etc.
Baptism – Coming from Appalachia, baptism has made its way into the folk ways of country Doctor. A basic definition of baptism by water would be “to change the current state of things,” things here taking place of the person or object being dunked into the water. Charms are often baptized in water specific for its use. Back in the day people were often baptized in the church by going to the river. This was preceded by the Cherokee practice of Going to Water.
Steam – waters are often boiled to create steam. This steam is more often than not breathed in by the recipient for healing a sickness, cleansing, etc.
Washing – much like bathing, washing simply entails applying the water to a part of the body or onto the charm and washing it. This is often done for cleansing. After washing, the place or charm is left to air dry in the Sun. This is often employed when mopping the floors, washing the cabinets or doors etc.
Infusions and Teas – water is often use to make teas for certain things. The Cherokee prescribe many teas of certain herbs for diseases and enchantments to be taken by the patient while fasting and during the Didahnvsisgi’s work.
Although not water, many alcohol drinks are included in folk magic. Alcohol holds energies very well and preserves things.
Rum – mostly used as an offering to many kinds of Spirits, it can be used in works of healing, love, and sexual desire.
Vodka – used for cleansing, blessing, and preserving things.
Whiskey – most often it is used in works for luck and gambling. Other than that, it also makes for a good way to feed ones charms and dolls. A cap full is blessed and prayed over and then used to anoint the sachet, charm, doll etc. You can also steep some tobacco in it for a while to make for a good rub to help arthritis or rheumatism.
Beer – the most drink offering favored by the Little People of Appalachia, beer has a refreshing and enjoyable energy about it. I use it in works for depression (not if the client has a bad past with alcohol of course), to de-stress, etc. To aid yourself in troubled times and to keep from worrying oneself to death, yarn soaked in beer over night on the full moon helps one keep a joyous attitude. It does for me anyway. Experiment with it.
Moonshine – it can be applied in works of cleansing and purging. I find it especially helpful to make a banishing wash to be rid of bad spirits, by using moonshine as the base for the wash. Dab some on your hands, feet, down the arms and legs, forehead and the nap of your neck for spiritual protection.
Vinegar – According to the Deep South Traditions of Folk Magic, vinegar is used in darker works of separation, cursing and hexing. The same was thought in Appalachia back in the day where bottles of simple vinegar were hidden on an enemies property, at the border, in order to bring them misfortune. Other times, vinegar was heated over the fire with pins and needles to harm an enemy; however it had more uses in folk medicine than magic in these hills: the bonnet of a baby is washed only in salt and vinegar for its first few months to keep off disease, ill spirits and the evil eye, of which the child is most vulnerable until it is a year old. Vinegar was applied to the wounds of man and beast as both an antiseptic and astringent. It is used in cures for rashes, worts, corns and so forth.
While the list of waters and not-waters is more extensive then shown here, I will include these and many more in my book, currently called Backwoods Witchcraft. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to the blog below and follow us on Facebook!