Ozark Magic & Hoodoo
by Joshua Heston
Our rational, scientific world filled with textbook knowledge and an overabundance of electronic equipment has little room for the unknown or inexplicable.
“Faith” is carefully relegated to quiet, predictable corners of our lives where it won’t interfere with the larger, homogenized world around us. And old beliefs — let’s just call it superstitious folklore and be done with it — are left in the increasingly dim past or the pages of a dusty library book.
North America is an amalgamation of peoples — and an amalgamation of beliefs. It is common knowledge many Europeans — Protestant sects and Catholics alike — fled to the New World to avoid religious persecution.
But how many escaped Europe only to be persecuted for their beliefs here — beliefs animistic and pagan? We’ll likely never know the real numbers for people hiding in the shadows rarely keep accurate roll calls.
“A moment after he said he could see a great serpent moving about the room, and became considerably excited. I saw nothing with any definite shape, but thought that black clouds were forming about me. I felt I must fall into a trance if I did not struggle against it, and that the influence which was causing this trance was out of harmony with itself, in other words, evil.” — page 34, The Celtic Twilight, W.B. Yeats
Across the world, oppressed peoples have oft-retreated to the wild places for safety: the Caucasus Mountains, the Black Forest, the mountains of Haiti, of Appalachia, the bayous of Louisiana, and the rough hill country of the Ozarks all became — at one time or another — refuge for those civilization attempted to destroy.
And it is there the lines between dark and light, magic and faith, heaven and hell, can become thin indeed.
The Ozark Mountains were a meeting place of diverse and underground cultures: Native American tribes (the Delaware, Osage, Cherokee), African-American slaves, wild, tempestuous Pentecostals, and dark, Europeans sects rarely found in the history books.
An amalgamation of ideas — some secret and hidden away, some loudly expressed — came together in these hills ultimately populated by a sequestered people not in the habit of sharing their ways with outsiders.
Vance Randolph would write, sometime in the 1940s, “Some of them [Ozarkers] will even deny that they ever heard of witches or witchmasters. The truth is, however, that a great many Ozarkers do believe these things. I meet people everyday who are firm believers in witchcraft, and I have been personally acquainted with more than a score of so-called witches myself.”
To modern sensibilities, this is the stuff of legend, of mythology and pointless folklore.
To those who believe, however, it is life and power.
The tangle of cultural influences hang like a mass of river vines over dark water. Truly, how different is the interpretation of Mark 16 — “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them” — and the rituals of Vodou’s Damballah, a snake loa celebrated in New Orleans for life and wisdom?
“Of course, we had our snake-handlers too. Those who took up serpents, they were called. They were good people, and I noticed others seemed afraid to say anything against them, because they showed such love, and wore such sweet countenances. You’ve got to walk a straight walk, walk a good walk, walk with real faith if you’re going to pick up one of those rattlesnakes fresh out of the mountains.” — page 26, Up On Melody Mountain, by Betty Jean Robinson
Into this land came dispossessed Christian sects, European witchcraft cults, faith healers, Indian medicine men, hoodoo practitioners (the “country cousin” of vodou). Join with that the Ozarks’ dark places of the earth — deep and mysterious holes in the mountains and dim, shadowy coves — and you have a hidden culture no less real than the supernatural religions of West Africa or Southeast Asia.
These old mountains are littered with place names reflective of a darker past: Devil’s Den (Notch), the Devil’s Backbone (Ozark County, Missouri), the Devil’s Kitchen (Cassville), the Devil’s Racetrack (Welcome Home), Devil’s Well (Aker’s Ferry), Devil’s Rock Pile (Douglas County, Missouri), Devil’s Half-Acre (Mena), Devil’s Promenade (Joplin).
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” reads Exodus 22:18 and more than a few back country churchgoers took that word literally, giving strength to what Vance Randolph would record as “witch masters, white witches, witch doctors, faith doctors goomer doctors and conjure folks,” —
“I once knew a man who spent half-an-hour or so every evening playing with a wooden spite doll, which was dressed to resemble a local woman who could ‘do things.’ Time after time he would thrust the little image into the fireplace, until the feet touched the glowing embers, and then snatch it out again. The expression on his face was most unpleasant. I am quite indifferent to the ordinary superstitions of the hillfolk. I visit graveyards at night, shoot cats on occasion, burn sassafras wood without a tremor. And yet, something akin to horror gripped me, as I watched the witch master’s sadistic foolery. I should not care to have that man burning a poppet wrapped in my undershirt.“ — page 289, Ozark Magic & Folklore, Vance Randolph
It is a history of persecuted peoples — the lost and wandering — despised and misunderstood by the civilizations around them, all hidden away from a larger world. It is a story of quests for power and security, love and revenge.
Ultimately, this is a story of choices between light and dark, heaven and hell, all in those strange in-between places where the lines are inexplicably blurred.
Perhaps it is not just old timey folklore after all.
June 11, 2014
Primary non-Christian holidays in the West:
- February 2: Candlemas (Imbolc)
- March 21: Vernal Equinox
- April 30: Beltane or Walpurgis Night
- June 22: Midsummer or St. John’s Eve
- July 31: Lammas
- September 21: Michaelmas (Autumnal Equinox)
- October 31: Halloween (Samhain)
- December 22: Yule
“One night at the age of twelve, I had a dream. In my dream, I was walking along a long railroad track that lay ahead. I knew I had a great decision to make.
Around the curve I could see a bright light streaming from Sister Lankford’s house, and on the other side I saw a dark house where a mean, perverted old man lived. We children always ran from him.
I knew I must choose between the dark side of the track and the side where light and warmth shown out — Brother and Sister Lankford’s little cottage.” — page 49, Up On Melody Mountain, by Betty Jean Robinson
plate 1. A simple bonfire takes on otherworldly tones, hinting of a darker past.
plate 2. A decayed sparrow, trapped in netting, presents a macabre image.
plate 2. A Devil’s Darning Needle walks down a wall by night, deep in the Ozark back country of Shannon County, Missouri.
plate 2. Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) was sought after by a number of Ozark cultures for its healing properties.
plate 2. Cattle bones eerily litter Cupp Cemetery in Taney County.
plate 2. Unused store near War Eagle, Arkansas.
“About ten o’clock tonight I was caught in a mob of ten thousand hysterics who jammed the moat in front of Hitler’s hotel, shouting: “We want our Führer.” I was a little shocked at the faces, especially those of the women, when Hitler finally appeared on the balcony for a moment. They reminded me of the crazed expressions I saw once in some back country of Louisiana on the faces of some Holy Rollers who were about to hit the trail. They looked up at him as if he were the Messiah, their faces transformed into something positively inhuman.”
— page 18, Berlin Diary, William L Shirer, Galahad Books, NY 1940, 1941
plate 2. A somber reflection of oak tree in a gray Ozark sky.
plate 2. The abandoned places of the world invite speculation as to their beliefs.
plate 2. Roosters figure predominately in many cultures’ ritual sacrifices.
Needles in the Dark:
“‘Have you ever seen any of these hexes work? I pressed.
“The thinnest farmer answered. “I used to laugh at all that when I was a young man. But I seen too much to laugh anymore. I seen people go crazy and then found out one of the voodoos had put them under a hex. I’ve seen deaths and heard worse. Killing babies, even cutting cattle in horrible places as part of their rites. I still don’t believe it, but I don’t mess with them either. One of our neighbors supposedly had a cleaning lady who was one who claimed to have the powers. A lot of bad things happened to that couple when the wife began getting into voodoo.’”
— page 91-92, The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2, Peter and Barbara Jenkins
“In some sections of Arkansas there are people who bury the entrails of a black hen under the hearth on ‘Old Christmas.’ This is said to protect the house against destruction by lightning or fire. A gentleman at Hot Springs, Arkansas, told me that people used to do this when he was a boy, but added contemptuously that it was ‘just an old n----r superstition,’ and that he did not believe it was taken seriously by any white people nowadays. However, I know that some ‘peckerwood’ families did bury chicken guts under their hearths as recently as 1935, not far from the enlightened metropolis of Hot Springs.”
— page 72, Ozark Magic & Folklore, Vance Randolph
plate 2. Church piano detail.
“William Quantrill was a dark, romantic-looking young man with hooded blue eyes who as a boy in Ohio was said to have enjoyed nailing snakes to trees and torturing dogs and cats; after he grew up he emigrated to Kansas and then for unsavory reason of his own crossed the border into Mr. Truman’s Jackson County.” — page 77, Plain Speaking: Oral Autobiography of Harry S. Truman, by Merle Miller