A quest to make sense of it all. Or a sense to make a quest of it all.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Part 1 : "By the power of three times three, make them see, make them see."

If you owned a uterus and were under the age of 40 in 1996, or even if you didn't own the uterus and just hung out with humans who did, you probably immediately recognize that quote from The Craft, one of the silliest (and most enjoyable) movies ever made about witchcraft. Come to think of it, there aren't really a lot of movies about witchcraft that can be taken seriously. Even the really good ones are either more along the lines of dark humor (Sleepy Hollow, 1999) or not actually about witchcraft at all (The Crucible, 1996). It seems when the subject tries to take itself seriously, we get gems like Witchboard (1986), and oh, what a heap of fun that was. I'm not hatin'. Watching that movie is a truly fantastic use of 90 minutes.

A couple weeks ago, I made an offhand remark to a friend, joking that I had been hexed; I experienced a series of mishaps that week that left me with a sore toe and a broken phone. He asked me if I actually believed in curses, and I responded that I don't necessarily believe in the power of a curse based on its elements. I don't believe that roots or herbs or chants can directly affect me (unless said roots or herbs are poisonous, ground into powder, and slipped into my food, presumably from a giant ring worn on the witch's knobbiest finger). I do, however, believe in the power of suggestion, and that if you really think you've been cursed, it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the principle at work in hoodoo, and make no mistake-hoodoo charms and curses work pretty well...as long as those being charmed or hexed know about it and believe in it. (Note: I refer to the casting here as hoodoo rather than Voodoo, to differentiate between the magic and the religion. Hoodoo is a relatively new term, and American in origin, and is magic without a defined religion, whereas Voodoo is a religion...and a fascinating one. We're not getting into the Vodun religion, where Voodoo is rooted; that's a thesis, not a blog post.)

I got to thinking about folk magic and superstitions, and how prevalent the latter are in our everyday lives. Asking around, I found that most people hold at least one or two superstitions that they weren't really aware of holding, and which in some cases directly contradict their chosen belief system. Take for instance the practice of knocking on wood, which I also discussed with my friend that day. Basically it's to thwart the mischevious tree sprites who live in the wood. Apparently, these malicious little buggers continue to live in wood after it's been chopped down, sanded, shaped, and fused together with other bits of wood, sat on display at a furniture store, and finally delivered to your home. (Stop snarking. It's the principle. Or something.) These sprites are just hanging out, waiting for humans to mention something they wouldn't want jinxed, so that they (the sprites) can wreak some havoc. The theory is that if you clobber their homes while you're talking about whatever it is that you want left alone, the sprites can't hear you, so you're safe. I don't think I need to describe how trying to appease spirits from pagan belief systems is in contradiction to, say, Christianity. Or how the idea of luck in general is contradictory to any monotheistic faith wherein the source of your safety and good fortune is your deity...but we still knock on wood, toss salt grains over our left shoulders, don't tell bad dreams before breakfast, and attach significance to certain numbers. 13, 7, and 3 seem to be favorites. In fact, no one I asked favored any even numbers. Hmm. The number 3 in particular is attached to all sorts of superstitions and beliefs. It's a constant detail in ghost stories and stories about demonic attacks and possession. Even a casual few minutes on Google will show you that a majority of people who wake up in the night from a terrifying dream, or awake to see "a figure at the foot of the bed!" will say they woke up at three a.m.

There is some meat to that, if you hold Christian beliefs. According to Matthew 27:45-46, Jesus died at about 3 p.m. "45-Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. 46-About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?". Jewish daily timekeeping back then started at six a.m. The third hour was nine a.m., the sixth hour was noon, the ninth hour was 3 p.m. It has been suggested that the increase in demonic and paranormal activity at 3 a.m. is a way of mocking the death of Christ. (This was touched on in one of my very favorite movies, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the real-life 1976 exorcism of Anneliese Michel.) Again, we come back to the power of suggestion. Once you've heard that you're more likely to be scared out of your wits at 3 a.m., don't you think it's possible for that little information time-bomb to embed itself in your subconscious and detonate at 3 a.m., waking you up with a creepy feeling? I do. Absolutely, I do. I've had more experiences with Old Hag/sleep paralysis at that time than I care to count here.

The number 3 has long been associated with bad omens, and death omens. My mother told me a true story about my step-great-grandmother Mamie, and I found it pretty interesting. This was in 1942, and Mamie was pregnant. My great-grandfather Erskine was out of town for work, and Mamie was sleeping alone in her bed. The children, including my granny Cora, were all in their rooms. A the time, thick glass bed coasters were used to prevent the bed from sliding or marring the floor. Mamie woke in the middle of the night (time was not specified) to the sound of something under her bed...or rather, under the floor. It sounded like "someone under the house, hitting upward at the floor with a sledgehammer". There were three very loud blows, and then silence. Mamie, terrified, jumped out of bed and ran into Cora's room, where she stayed the rest of the night. The next morning, after telling the girls what had happened, they all went in to inspect the bed and found one of the coasters broken into three pieces. This unnerved Mamie, and convinced her it was a bad omen concerning her pregnancy. Whether she was correct on that is pure speculation. What is certain is that she went into labor not long after and delivered twins; one was my great uncle David, and the other was his unnamed sister, born dead.

Are superstitions and belief in omens neccessarily in contradiction with the Christianity my family professed? Probably not. But what about Ozark magic, Appalachian Granny Magic, wise women, folk medicine that relied as much on certain spoken words as on the healing powers of whatever plants or other ingredients being used? When my grandpa George was a boy, he was told that burying his mother's dishrag under the light of the moon would rid him of his warts. He did it. (I don't know if it worked...I don't remember him being warty, though, so I guess something worked between his childhood and when I knew him.) I know that when my uncle Dan was a toddler, he was roughhousing and slid hands-first into the fireplace, his little hands crashing right into the bright-hot coals and suffering terrible burns. My grandparents did not rush him to a hospital, but to a local wise woman who could "blow out the fire". The woman said words over his hands and blew on them. I don't know how long the healing took, but I'm told it was a fast healing, and his hands never showed any trace of the scarring that should have been permanent. We see here the curious kind of treatments that almost certainly fall under witchcraft, performed by people who self-identify as Christian. Also popular in folk wisdom: palm reading, tea leaf reading, coffee grounds reading, scrying mirrors. Divination, strictly prohibited by the Bible they otherwise follow. Is reading the coffee grounds at the bottom of your cup witchcraft? Probably not. But it is divination, for sure, and that's a big no-no. So why is witchcraft "bad", but folk wisdom/healing is ok, even though the practices are pretty similar? Is this a question of semantics? Yeah, I dunno.

To be continued...


Anonymous said...

I friggin' loved The Craft. You forgot to mention Practical Magic in your list of awful witch movies.

I wrote a lot about this in my anthropology of religion class. So I kind of don't want to write about it here. Teehee!

dorothy said...
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