In the religious medico-magic tradition that is Appalachian Folk Magic, the Christian flavoring has produced a people huge on blessing and being blessed in God’s grace. Blessing, anointing, and baptizing are all done religiously and magically. By an anointed brow and a pricked chest, the soul is blessed and cleansed. The body is made clean and the home set on the cornerstone of Christ.
I remember well the times Papaw called folks to the altar, to lay their burdens down and be anointed if they wished. But there was more to it than dogma or tradition. It was faith. Faith in the anointing of the brow with oil as the soul is anointed by the Spirit and the water. Whether it occured in a church or in the home didn’t matter. As long as there was faith, there was power.
“Is any among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.”
James 5:14, 15
Anointing the brow is a common practice is Appalachia that is done for protection, blessing, and healing. My sister was born premature with scar tissue on her brain which caused her childhood seizures. The doctors repeatedly told my mother she would either die or live and be unable to talk or walk. My papaw came up to the hospital and there in the intensive care unit he anointed her brow, sprinkled her with water, and prayed over her. She was so fragile her forehead bruised where he anointed her, but she lived and walked and talked. She’s the miracle baby of the family. Because of faith.
Now, there wasn’t a special oil they used. It could be olive oil, vegetable oil, etc. It didn’t even need praying over like the Catholics do. It was simply done by the Name and faith did the rest. Anointing was not a common practice in all Baptist churches but it was in papaw’s. Anointing was only done when those sick or ill requested it. My mother requested it for my sister, and my grandfather gladly did it.
Anointing isn’t based on religion. It’s based on faith and trust. It’s related to the laying on of hands: the faith in Christ’s words when he said we can do all and more of what he did. When the Bible says faith can move mountains. When it says “knock and the door shall be opened.” My mamaw Tipton always said there was no point in fearing anything because fear is faith backwards. Fear means you’re not trusting God.
As most of the religious practices in Appalachia, anointing was not restricted to only be done at the church or by the clergy. Anyone can anoint in the Name as everyone can have faith. The ways of anointing, however, sometimes differ between the church clergy and the town folk. Some anoint the feet, hands, chest, and head while others only anoint the head. Some make the sign of the cross while others simply swipe the oil over the forehead. It’s always done with the right hand though, representing Jesus at the right hand of the Throne doing the Father’s work. Therefore, so does the right hand of man do that same work.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t always have to be oil either. Whenever we were sick, mama would get some vapor-rub and rub it on us while whispering prayers, comforting words, or with song. She’d either swipe it or make the cross; being a preacher’s daughter influenced her that way. Papaw would run the egg by the cross to begin with: taking the egg and going from head to toe, right side to left before running the egg over the person.
Another form of blessing and anointing was the use of prayer rags in the Baptist Church. They often had verses cross-stitched into them or they were simple ripped rags. The whole church or just the preacher would pray over them, anoint it with oil, and baptize it in the creek. These were given to the sick, the elderly, etc. Or they may be hidden in a drunk friend’s home to keep him safe from himself. Again research just how rampant alcoholism and drug abuse is in Appalachia.
Now, below is one of the old cloths from papaw’s church. Terry Jones is one of the newer pastors they’ve had since Papaw passed, but everyone still knows us and often reaches out to see how my grandmother is doing. This one was given to her when she was in the hospital some time ago. The whole church prayed over it and anointed it. It’s printed with Acts 19:11, 12.
Anointing in Baptist Appalachia is sacred and mundane. It is done medicinally and religiously. It is for the church and the home. It is for the living and the dead. One way of protection for the home is to anoint every door frame with a cross and a prayer, asking the Almighty to fill it with the Spirit. In old Appalachian burial customs, the hands and feet and head of the deceased were anointed and sained.
Blood can also be used to anoint as well, as is apparent in the story of the plagues of Egypt where the Jews were instructed to swipe pigs blood over their doors. In Appalachia, blood is sanctified. Blood is spilled during hard work. It is spilled to put food on the table. And the old folks say it was spilled for salvation. Blood is a powerful thing, the world over. One’s life and spirit is the blood as the Good Book says. As the blood is filled with our spirit from that same Spirit, it is an omen bringer and a testimony of man. The root of the word bless is the Old English blēdsian, meaning “to mark or consecrate with blood.”
Christian belief holds that blood is the seat of the soul. They believe pacts with the devil are made by blood. Sickness was also thought to sit in the blood and drain the soul, which led to the practices of pricking, scratching, and blood letting. Folks thought to be witches were cut at the forehead, nose, and mouth to bleed their power out. The Cherokee used scratching techniques to bleed diseases out or toughen players for a ball game.
In Appalachia, one superstition calls to keep your split blood to yourself if you can, lest a witch get their hands on the rag or napkin. It’s also said that a murder victim’s body with start bleeding again if their murderer is near. If you bleed on Halloween, it’s a sign you’ll be injured badly within the year.
Besides omens and healing, a man’s blood works roots. One old, European belief was that one’s blood slipped into someone’s drink will make that person love you. For a woman it was her menstrual blood. For a man, it had to come from the little finger on his left hand.
Testifying by the blood is a rare practice, back then and today. The “blood” in question is often meaning the Blood of Jesus. Folks often claim things or get rid of things by the Blood. The most common is witnessed during communion. Wine or grape juice in Appalachia is used in place of Jesus’ blood. Other times, simple living water is used in place of the Blood.
Written charms can be baptized in the “blood”, healing can be done by anointing with it, or evil spirits cast out by. Some farmers still put a bit of wine or grape juice in the water troughs for their animals, especially the pigs as they’re the most susceptible to possession, which was evident to the old folks by the stories of Jesus exorcising demons from the swine.
So whether by olive oil or Vic’s Vapor Rub, grape juice or creek water, the folks of Appalachia still have a living tradition of healing and blessing. By prayer rags and handkerchiefs, blood letting and egg running the mountaineer holds his own, heals his own, and sanctifies his own. In nursing homes and hospitals, among wires and cords and beeping machines, there’s a whispered prayer and an anointing. There is Appalachia and God and faith and family. So let us pray and let us bleed.