Going to Water, Waving the Flame: Cleansing and Blessing in Appalachian Magic

Rivers and creeks have always been of importance for the mountains’ inhabitants. Animals and people alike rely on them to survive. The Cherokee camped by water as did the settlers. Animals frequent streams and set there territories where the water flows.

The Celts, Scotts, Cherokee, and German all used water in their magics. Water cleanses and holds, it rushes and stands, it falls and rises. It’s constantly moving through every plant, beast and man. It’s fallen onto every land and has traversed the globe over millions of years.

The water holds secrets of things done up river, what so and so said about you, and how Uncle is doing across the mountain. Water has seen the glory and fall of men, his sin and salvation, his love and rage. Water holds and strangles. He is allusive and not to be taken up with lightly. He often shows you what you wish to see, but if treated and respected rightly, he will let you in on the biggest of secrets. He is sensitive to our words, as science has recently proven. And Appalachians are all about the power of words. (Hell breaks loose when a promise is broken, especially with your family).

The Cherokee prayed to the Long Man in every ceremony, especially when healing and sending off illness to other places. They spoke of little folk living in cabins beneath the rushing currents and behind embankments of the creek bed. Most importantly, they went to water each morning for prayer and cleansing.

The Baptists here picked this up into their own theology and embraced the living waters of nature again. My grandfather would take folks down to the river to be baptized. Mamaw would often put her feet in the water to quite the aching in her bones. There are hymns of going to the river to be baptized in the Spirit and to pray.

Cleansing was a major component that was adopted into Appalachian Christianity. It stems mostly from the Cherokee, Irish, Scottish and British, the former being the most superstition in regards to disease and illness, while the others focused more on spiritual cleanliness. The Cherokee would not eat certain fish or game and they wouldn’t eat animals of different places on the same dish such as fish with deer meat, for the simple belief it would cause disrespect to those animals and warrant diseases sent to them. The Cherokee healers would often take the terminally ill to the river and give them a new name after divination confirmed they would die; after the name change, essentially the prior divination for the person was correct, such and such did die. But this new person with a new name will outlive the illness according to divination done afterwards. To this day, some folks will nickname a newborn the first day, to protect it from spirits who may harm it.


In today’s Appalachia, holy water is used to cleanse and protect. Some people still use river water due to the old belief that evil cannot cross running water: so the essence of the river would also protect the wearer from evil influences, either from spirits or witches.

Going to water is a practice that has died out, especially among the Cherokee who no longer follow the magic of their Ancestors. The river takes away and brings, the Long Man shows you things and is deeply connected to the Creator in its role as Sustainer of Life. As such the river often plays the role of witness in the Mountain witches works. It is often recommended to go to the river, specifically a bend that faces east, to do works or divine.

Salt water, specifically from the ocean, has also been used in our formulas for protection, cleansing, and healing. Most folks would bring back a gallon or two from the Carolinas when someone went to the beach. These were kept in the closet and brought out in times of need: such as healing a disease, getting right of bad spirits, and for blessing.

While not specifically water, alcohol and oil are used as well for blessing, protecting, and cleansing. Moonshine and whiskey were wiped on the back of the neck and maybe made into a cross symbol on the brown for protection while reciting one of the main prayers.

Now mind you, this area is the Bible Belt and is mostly composed of Baptists; there weren’t fancy churches with oils and water for this stuff like Catholic Churches. Baptist Churches were other folks homes, the home of the preacher, or a simple dinner hall down the ravine were folks gathered for Sunday church. They also used what they had available for the service of the Lord. So they made do with their moonshine, whiskey, water, and oil.

Growing up in Appalachia gives you an appreciation for the water here: the elusiveness of underground springs made known only by the water witchers, the rivers that slowly tumble through mountains, and the lakes who hold their place among the valleys. But it’s the fire that shows it’s beauty and power: sunlight reflecting every which way off the waters surface, painting the overhanging banks with light or blinding you and ingraining that summer day into your childhood soul.

“Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” Exodus 19:18


Here’s where fire comes into play. Fire was seen as a symbol of God as was the Sun. The components of healing and cleansing with fire in Appalachia originate from a multitude of places and peoples. The Cherokee healed with the Sun’s power and the Irish/Scottish had their long held use of rain water felled through the Sunshine.

“John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Luke 3:16

Many Appalachian practices utilize candles or fire in cleansing and healing. Many times a candle was lit when praying for someone, the dead were “sained” by having a white candle passed over their bodies three times before being before donned with flowers, or heating ones hands over hot coals before the laying on of hands for healing.

Saining is an old practice derived from the Scotts; Sain originating from the Scottish seun or sian meaning “protecting, blessing, or consecrating.”

A good thorough cleanse can be done by taking a white candle, lighting it while saying the Lord’s prayer (or another, it’s the faith that counts), facing east and passing it from your head to your toes. Always go downward when cleansing. After this, you do what the folks at my papaw’s church called “putting on the robe”. This is done by anointing yourself with oil or holy water and taking a white, lit candle facing east again and making the sign of the cross before you while praying for protection and testifying your strength, your faith, and your family. I speak more on testifying in my book as it is a main component of these Hillfolk formulas.

In healing disease or pains in the body, papaw’s church was much accustomed in healing hands. They’d hold their hands over a bowl or pit of hot coals (or a fire of some kind) and the ground underneath had previously been blessed with oil and holy water.

Once everything was ready, the preacher or one of the deacons would hold their hands over the fire while praying. After praying they would blow on their hands and start praying again, sometimes speaking in tongues, as they placed their hands on the patient and began rubbing in clockwise circles. They’d do so until the heat had left their hands at which point they returned to the fire, praying and speaking in tongues. This whole process was done a number of times, maybe three or seven, and usually on a consecutive number of days: for three or seven Sundays this would be done for the patient.

Fire and water were also paired in old remedies. To ease a headache, put your feet in hot water. Drink hot water for a belly ache and so on. Rain water collected while the sun shines also shows its use in healing: the water is taken up into the mouth after reciting prayers and sprayed onto the afflicted area, essentially baptizing the pain or illness; as Jesus washes human sin clean with water, it is prayed that we can wash the illness away just as much.

Smoke is also included here with cleansing by fire. The Cherokee said the smoke was the spirit of the plant reaching out with its power to aid the People. Most commonly, tobacco is used for a number of purposes. Tobacco smoke is blown into the ears to ease the pain of an earache (and it DOES work); or it is used for protection and blessing. Blow the smoke “where the soul sits” (on the chest) after reciting Psalms 23 and making an ‘X’ sign before you and no haint can haunt you that day.

There are a few more in this subject to add, but those will he saved for the book. So go to the water and wave the flame; speak your prayers and testify of the holiness that surrounds you. Pray the psalms and rub the wounds, all is well as long as you make it so and keep the faith.


Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below: Littlechicagoconjure@yahoo.com

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