Everybody who has ever looked into Appalachian Folk Medicine and Magic has likely only ever heard that it was women who healed and worked roots either for the betterment or fall of those around them. They are the infamous “Grannies” that appear in each work on the subject in excess. But barely anyone hears about the men and their contributions or expertise in either of these fields of work.
The scale of yarb doctors who were women and those who were men are just about the same. Each gender works in their own realms, somewhat, in giving medicine for women’s issues and those deemed especially potent in men. Reaching up into Northern Appalachia, the tradition of transferring the gifts or wisdom is as varied as the family lines are.
Certain gifts or cures could, according to tradition, only be given to someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t a relative; while in other areas the person had to be a relative, they could be of the same sex, or it could be shared with only a certain number of people (the number three acts prominent here as well) due to the belief that the more people who knew of the cure, the more deluded it would become. Considering that the first is the one most often heard of, it is likely it was the most common: therefore leading to an close equal number of men and women who had the gifts or cures.
When the power or gift was given to someone else, the beliefs around what occurred to the original holder also varied: either they lost the gift forever at that point, or the new holder wouldn’t be able to effectively use it until after the giver has passed away.
These varied lines of transfer gave way to many men being able to work yarbs and charms for folks just the same as the women can. Other times these gifts and charms didn’t come from other people but from God at birth, a spirit in a dream, or some mundane event that was traumatic in nature. That’s how the good Lord works ain’t it? Gifts to those to heal the pain they are under? A barren woman gives birth to nations, a stuttering preacher shares the Word, the blind man sees more than everyone, etc.
Beliefs around strange or unique births were also to blame for these gifts, although they were sometimes seen as a curse: being born on particular days such as Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, New Years, Easter Sunday or Good Friday; this includes the conditions in which a person was born such as: a child born of a widow or one who’s never laid eyes on their father at all, a child born after the laboring mother has died, born at midnight, born with a caul or blue skin, the seventh son or the seventh son of a seventh son without a girl interfering in the lines, etc.
Beyond all these valid beliefs that were applied to both men and women, only the Grannies are remembered in large today. Because of this, I made it a point in my book to address the workers of this medicine and magic equally as women and men.
The men of Appalachia are stern, big hearted, and strong-boned. They compose our preachers and miners and blacksmiths and farmers. We need to remember the religio-social structure of Appalachia in regards to the stance of men and women who did this and the communal attitude toward both. The man was seen as being the head of the house, made in the image of God, and a leader of the flock, his family. In spite of this, the man of the mountains had his own fair share of sins and bad blood weighing on his back: domestic abuse, alcoholism, gambling, wars, drugs etc.
The women were seen as made in the image of Adam, needing their hair long as the Good book said, and to stay home and keep up house. However, that doesn’t mean all women willingly followed this (as you’ll soon seen in my book about my great great grandmother Myra and her dealings with the Baptist Church over a hat) nor did all men follow that grace way of head of house-hold.
My grandfather was in the middle with this: he was a Baptist preacher who had a gambling/drinking problem, yet he was fearful of God. But his fear of God didn’t match with that of my Nana who ran that household. But who can blame her? She was a daughter of Sadie Morgan (who I also speak of in my book). Papaw always said the one thing he feared most was a woman because she could bleed for seven days and never die.
So while not every man or woman subscribed to these predominant religio-gender roles they were born into, they still had a large effect on the shape of the culture at large. Today in Appalachia, it is still barely normalized for a woman to be a preacher or for a man to stay home with the kids. The former is believed to be against God’s word and the latter is called a puss. While it’s not what my family necessarily believes, it has to be accepted if we are to see things as they were and are in the study of Appalachian folk magic and medical practices.
Another vast difference between men and women workers in the Appalachian Hills were the communal opinions and reactions to both. I have yet to hear of a male folk healer in Appalachia who was questioned for his gifts by the Church, whereas there are many accounts of women being told to stop doing such things, change the way they do it, or the church clergy advising people to leave her be because she’s a witch in league with the Old Bastard himself. This wasn’t isolated to Appalachia, but was frequently done throughout the New World, the beliefs and attitudes stemming from Christian Europe.
The male folk healer or doctor was seen as being a channel for God’s power and the woman was a witch who got her gifts from laying with the Devil, the dead, or in some other hypocritical fashion even though both the former and the latter were sought for the same varied things from healing to cursing.
However, this didn’t always spare the men from prejudice or persecution. The men were primarily the ones who made up the occupation of Sin-Eater in Appalachia, a gift thought to be blasphemous. Stemming from the British Isles and Ireland, a sin-eater was a person who had the gift to take on the sins or suffering of the dead or dying for varied reasons: either for them to get into heaven by taking on their sins and “pawning their own souls” or simply to keep them from coming back as haints with unfinished business. This was accomplished by the sin-eater sitting down and eating a meal off of a plate that had been placed on the deceased’s chest or stomach.
It was believed the sin-eater, in taking on all these sins, became physically distorted, their minds twisted with overloads of sin and suffering. Other times, folks simply avoided them. After consuming the meal and receiving his payment he either left without speaking to anyone or he was literally run out of town into the woods, a practice that is possibly based on scripture when the sins of the people were cast upon a goat and driven into the wilderness, thereby taking with it the transgressions and suffering of the people (Leviticus 16:22). Aside from being chased out of town, male “witch-doctors” were often tried in court with charges of witchcraft.
Other times, especially in old Appalachia, the reputation of the doctor or healer was founded on racism in some cases. Let’s not pretend like it didn’t exist here because it did. Male, caucasian folk healers and workers were trusted more so than the African American doctor in some regions based simply on their skin color and scattered regional beliefs that they were in league with the Devil. A story was even created to explain the appearance of those deemed “Melungeon” where they are said to be children of the Devil, an old explanation for their dark skin. This simply added to the pre-existing attitudes by whites about them practicing devil worship in their “voodoo.” This story is recorded in God Bless the Devil: Liars’ Bench Tales by James R. Aswell covering Tennessee folklore.
The components of Appalachian superstition and magic come equally from women and men, without one being the wiser. The women knew their work with herbs and charms and the men knew their own share in signs, livestock and crops, boiled milk, and witch-doctoring. It seems this stigma of Appalachian Folk Magic and Medicine has been affected by the New Age empowerment of women which is mainly flawed in its perspective of the Grannies as sweet old women, doing some house chore waiting on you with a charm for anything.
While focusing on their role isn’t a bad thing in the least, let’s not let the Granddaddies be forgotten because of the preferred focus on grandmothers healing with Vic’s rub and onions, like a sweet old crone working her roots in a lonesome cabin or going down the road to deliver a baby. In reality, the men did just as much from faith healing at the altar, doctoring man and beast with herbs, and curing warts. And the grannies weren’t the sweet doves many outsiders think of them as; they were bush switches when you did wrong, shotguns when the drunken neighbor came by, iron beams during the storms of life; they were flour covered aprons and bleeding blisters alike. They were a soft whispered lullaby and a sharp order from across the house.
Them Granddaddies were religion and sin incarnate, the best example of the human condition: Head hung in suffering or grief with both hands raised to the Man-Upstairs. They were shovels and clods of dirt clung to work boots, fishing rods and war stories, words with extra syllables and tender, worn out hands.
The work of both was equally exhausting and laboring from ploughing the fields and climbing the mountain for ginseng to walking for days to help deliver a child for a simple payment of bread or drink. It broke a sweat and stole blood, it hurt your back and possibly laid you in bed for a day or so. While a lot of this is no longer done or needed due to modern medicine, it is still called upon when the crops won’t grow, when the milk won’t give, and when the price of health insurance skyrockets! So let’s make like the grannies and always know a thing or two; and live like the Granddaddies and always keep our hands high through hell or high water.
Most important, let’s not forget them.
*photos found on Pinterest*