Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia

Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia


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In Backwoods Witchcraft, Jake Richards offers up a folksy stew of family stories, lore, omens, rituals, and conjure crafts that he learned from his great-grandmother, his grandmother, and his grandfather, a Baptist minister who Jake remembers could "rid someone of a fever with an egg or stop up the blood in a wound." The witchcraft practiced in Appalachia is very much a folk magic of place, a tradition that honors the seen and unseen beings that inhabit the land as well as the soil, roots, and plant life.

The materials and tools used in Appalachia witchcraft are readily available from the land. This "grounded approach" will be of keen interest to witches and conjure folk regardless of where they live. Readers will be guided in how to build relationships with the spirits and other beings that dwell around them and how to use the materials and tools that are readily available on the land where one lives.

This book also provides instructions on how to create a working space and altar and make conjure oils and powders. A wide array of tried-and-true formulas are also offered for creating wealth, protecting one from gossip, spiritual cleansing, and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578636532
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 06/01/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 56,859
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

While Jake Richards doesn't hold initiations, titles, or degrees, he clearly does hold his Appalachian heritage close to his blood and bones. He has practiced Appalachian folk magic for almost a decade and teaches classes on the subject in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where he owns Little Chicago Conjure, a supplier of Appalachian folk magic supplies and ingredients.  
Starr Casas, a veteran rootworker and traditional conjure woman, has been helping people for over 35 years through her ancestral art of old style conjure. She is one of the preeminent modern masters of this southern American style of folk magic, and she maintains an active teaching schedule. Starr is also among the organizers of the annual New Orleans Folk Magic Festival. Visit her at

Read an Excerpt



Terrain and Culture in Appalachia

The Appalachian Mountain range, as it currently exists, begins at Belle Isle, just off the coast of Labrador north of Newfoundland in Canada, and stretches to Cheaha Mountain in Alabama. These hills are thought to be around 500 million years old. For some context, the Himalayas are just 40 million years old. This would make the Appalachian Mountains the second oldest mountain range in the world. So, more things have occurred in these hills than you could shake a stick at. What's left of living memory regarding the tales of this Highlands stands true to that as well. From the times of the old villages of the Cherokee to the Civil War battlefields where flesh met gun, history and superstition have always danced around each other.

The cultural boundaries of Appalachia are more so to the middle and southern regions of the mountain chain. The Appalachia that I know best spans five states: Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. But the Appalachia far beneath us spans oceans. No, really. When the mountains first formed during the time of Pangaea, they covered half the world. When the land of Pangaea broke apart, it carried remains of this mountain chain across the globe; forming the mountains of the British Isles, the Scottish Highlands, Scandinavia, and the Little Atlas mountain range of Morocco. This may explain why Scottish and Irish immigrants felt so at home here: they really just moved from one end of this mountain range to the other.


The Appalachian Mountains influence a range of weather patterns and seasons, which the old folk counted on as signs to ensure a good harvest. Spring here is filled with a confusion of rain and sunshine. We often have what the Cherokee called "false springs"; the weather will warm up, it'll rain, and all the snow will be gone. Then come next week we might be under a couple feet of snow. The valleys of the mountains protect us from most of the hazardous weather sent our way, such as tornadoes and bad blizzards in the winter. The mountaintops take the brunt of most of that and give us a storm weaker than it might have been.

Bears who gave birth in January now lead their cubs out of their caves for the first time to forage on berries and plants to get their systems up and going. Come the first few nights of spring rain, male salamanders make their way across the forest floor to the vernal pools, where the females will soon join them. Once there, a spring orgy begins to ensure the next generation. Water from these pools is excellent in fertility work — if you're lucky enough to go at the right time.

Annually, we have what Tennessee lore names "little winters," which foreshadow the approaching end of the cold season. There'll be frequent drops in temperature that last a couple of days to a couple of weeks, followed by spring blooms of specific plants. The folks here talk about little winters just like summer and fall because they are seasons to us.

The first little winter occurs in early April and is called redbud winter, as this is the time that the redbud trees have stepped up on the mountain stage. Superstition says that Judas was hanged from a redbud, and another tale says if you stick a pocketknife in the tree on August 21, the tree will die.

In late April comes dogwood winter, when the dogwood trees are in bloom for a short period that ends with their petals covering lawns like snow. Any wounds acquired in dogwood winter will heal very slowly and may even scar. This is connected to the old tale that dogwood was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified (though it doesn't grow naturally in Israel). The tree was cursed to shrink and become twisted so it may never be used for that purpose again. The five petals of the dogwood blooms represent the five wounds Christ suffered at the crucifixion, with each petal having a point at the end. These points, along with the crown of stamens in the center, form the crown of the thorns. The representation is complete with the maroon splotch in the center, said to be the drop of Jesus's blood. Dogwood root or bark is bound to a cross with red thread and hung in the living room for protection. Between the time the dogwoods start blooming and the next new moon is the right time for farmers to plant their corn. Carry dogwood bark or root for protection from enchantment, but never bring dogwood blooms into the home or burn the bark inside on the hearth, as it's said to bring bad luck.

Next comes locust winter in early May. It's said that lightning strikes locust trees more often than others, and for this reason they're used to divine a future love interest. At this time of year, saplings are dug up from the woods and planted in the front yard of one's house — one for each potential or current lover. Each tree is named after the beloved, and the tree that thrives and grows past midsummer is the one who truly loves you. And for those who do not, their bush will die. (If more than one tree lives, the one with the thickest foliage and the sturdiest stock is the truest love.) The catch is that you cannot water the trees; they are to be nourished solely by nature. Otherwise, you will favor one over the others and mess up the divination.

Blackberry winter follows with a show of the awesome white blooms of the blackberry bush in the middle of May. An old English belief that has survived here warns that it is unlucky to eat blackberries on or after September 29, as that's when the Devil steps over the bushes with his cloven hooves. Those who do are said to die before the year ends. In Scotland, it's believed the Devil spat on the bush after landing on it from his fall from heaven. It's also said that the blackberry bush provided the thorns for Christ's crown on the cross; and many still believe the burning bush was a blackberry.

The last little winter usually occurs when the whip-poor-wills can be heard and is named as such. This one isn't as cold as the others and rarely damages plants, but it's still cold enough to keep the winter wear out a bit longer. Some folks call it the ghost winter or phantom winter, as the outward signs of winter have vanished. While these winters are a part of our folklore and ecosystem, they are likely to disappear altogether as climate change worsens.

During these winters, a symphony of flowers arrives to the Appalachian landscape, blooming and disappearing over and over. Folks are off to Easter dinners, getting into spring cleaning in the attics and closets. That brisk breeze that flows through the open windows and doors while Mama cleans are the best after a cold winter. Spring tonics are drunk to get one's system back on track for the warm months, and the debris of fall and winter are cleared from the gardens. Now the mountains are fully awake with life: deer stalking behind the brush, turkey vultures looking for a field feast, and foxes roaming sometimes where foxes ought not to roam.

High summer comes with abundance of corn, tobacco, and squash. Folks are off to the lakes and rivers to cool off, and the mountains are lush with greenery. In high summer, I would be in the creeks catching tadpoles and minnows or up the mountain sitting and watching the deer graze. However, this fun was tempered by the superstitions of my mother and grandmother, especially during the dog days, which runs from July 3 to August 11. Folks believed dogs caught rabies more at this time than any other; snakes were meaner; and misfortune was more apt to be found. At this time the star Sirius moves with the sun, bringing misfortune as it goes from horizon to horizon. The tiniest cut could quickly become a dangerous infection, and you were more likely to drown. Late summer crops, like tomatoes and okra, had to be harvested before the animals or blight got them.

After the summer solstice passes and the fireflies' light shows are done, nature begins to hush. Just before the autumn equinox the corn is gathered and the tobacco is speared on the stakes. Then there's the final weeding of the garden and the dirt is turned over with debris of the garden to fertilize the soil.

This was the time that livestock was slaughtered to store up on food and to cut down the mouths that need fed on winter mornings. The mountains become ablaze with life's last moments as animals forage and store away food for the winter. With the bear cubs long grown and a generation of salamanders passed, Mother Appalachia begins shedding her garments accompanied by rainstorms, sleeping crickets, and a show of falling leaves.

Mother Mountain takes her leave for sleep and we are left chilled. The leaves have long been brown and will now see a time of freezing and melting before the earth accepts them back in decomposition. Most animals are hibernating, yet some brave the mountain winter. A lone deer, hog, coyote, or turkey will still rummage through the bones of the forest, and Mother Mountain hides her face behind low skies. The wind is the only sound on the land. The temperature drops sometimes below zero, branches are covered with ice, and the crows and hawks are the only citizens of the sky, foraging for those not strong enough for the cold. Then the robin heralds the first signs of spring in February, bringing with her the fire of summer painted on her chest, and the whole cycle begins again.


The terrain of these mountains is ever changing due in part to our weather patterns. In some parts, the forest floor is covered in old pine needles, while in other places there are grassy patches. Rocky cliffs, steep riverbanks, and mossy hills are in the mix as well. The trees are spaced by their choosing, limbs knotting under nature's hand, and the green lake waters stir only by the breeze and an occasional bass or trout.

The old folk traversed these hills in nothing more than their britches and boots. But some of these mountains are so steep you must hold on to younger trees as you climb and pray the wood is sturdy enough to hold your weight should you slip. I often climbed Big Ridge Mountain when I was little. It was just like this, until it levels out and the trees open up to show the valleys below, with the occasional free-ranging cow grazing in the distance.

The rivers are littered with boulders older than the dirt on the banks. As the water rushes past, it splashes these boulders and stones, encouraging the growth of moss and grass. The eddies created by the boulders make safe places for the minnows to rest. If you hold your feet still enough in the creeks, they'll come up and start nibbling the dead skin off.

Then there are the fields. The original colonizers described Appalachia as the endless forest. The only fields here prior to settling were made by the Cherokee, who cleared trees to make room for their gardens and homes. But even the Cherokee say there are some they didn't create, like the grassy balds near Roan Mountain. Said to be the largest balds in the world, they are described as being the footprints of the Devil as he walked over the Blue Ridge. Right around dawn, the deer and turkeys come out to graze, and groundhogs are also a common sight.

We have natural springs and pools that seem to come from another world. The people of Appalachia have always had a good relationship with water, and both the Cherokee and the Baptists baptize their children in the river. Many people spend their summers at the lakes and springs. During this heat the animals' priority becomes water to drink, so you'll sometimes see deer mosey down to the water too, standing just a few yards away.


Now nature and places ain't all that's in these hills. We also have a rich history, deeply woven into the birthing walls of America. I'm only speaking of the history in East Tennessee and surrounding areas here. To include the history of all of Appalachia would take more time than either of us have got.

By the late seventeenth century, when English immigrants arrived in East Tennessee, the Cherokee had become the region's dominant tribe and had established small towns scattered about the mountains and valleys. The Cherokee are an Iroquoian-speaking tribe thought to have originated in the Great Lakes region. However, another theory is that the Iroquois migrated north to their present place while the Cherokee stayed in this proposed "origin place."

There's a Cherokee myth recorded in the eighteenth century that says when the Cherokee first arrived here they found "moon-eyed" people living in the mountains. They were called moon-eyed because they couldn't see well during the day. They had white skin, blonde hair, and gray eyes. They are said to have been the creators of the pre-Columbian ruins found scattered in the hills. The Cherokee battled the "moon-eyed" people, sending them westward after they were defeated.

Cherokee society is traditionally matriarchal — a person's lineage is traced through their mother — and women were held in high regard. This respect for the elderly woman remains in Appalachia. Each Cherokee woman belonged to a family clan, and no one could mate with someone of their same clan. When a man wanted marriage, he would have to build a woman a house. If she wanted a divorce, she would gather his things while he was out hunting and set them on the porch. She got to keep everything else, including the house and children. When this happened, the mother's uncles and brothers would fulfill the father's duties in teaching the sons how to hunt, pray, and fight. This same kind of structure is in place in most Appalachian families.

When immigrants began showing up in the mountains in the late seventeenth century, there was hostility between them and the natives. The Cherokee freely gave land to the settlers, but they wanted more. And they kept taking it and killing for it. Treaty after treaty was broken. Most white folks thought the Indian a barbaric animal. Others, however, were kind to the Cherokee and gladly shared the mountains.

In 1830 the Indian Removal Act was enacted, and in 1838 the Cherokee nation was forced west. This was the infamous Trail of Tears. The stories about it are still told at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough and at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton. About seventeen thousand Cherokee were forcibly removed; between two and six thousand died along the way. Most of them were moved west of the Mississippi River, but some stayed behind and hid in the groves of the mountains.

The Indian wars, the genocide, and the removal all contributed to the loss of wisdom from the natives — their stories, annual traditions, crafts, and herbal knowledge. Eventually, the Cherokee who stayed bought back their own land. Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only tribe in America that doesn't live on a reservation. Sadly, their territory, the Qualla Boundary, has become a tourist spot for white folks, and the Cherokee wear headdresses to "look the part." Historically, Cherokee never wore such things. The men shaved their whole head, save for one braid in the back usually adorned with a feather. Thankfully, not all of the Cherokee stories were lost. It's the stories that carry the spirit of a people, regardless of traditions or techniques lost and forgotten. If the stories survive, so do the people. The Cherokee have attained a population count, West and East, of five hundred thousand registered people, and many are working to keep their stories and language alive. However, only about three thousand speak their native language, Tsalagi, fluently.


Appalachian folk magic came about because it gave these people a sense that things were going to be alright even in the poor circumstances most found themselves in. It let them get a handle on things, one way or another. And it works. While you won't get rich quick, you can use it to better the circumstances the world sets against you, even if you're still piss-poor afterward. With it, you can foresee the cards you're about to be dealt and change the tables somewhat in your favor.

Appalachian conjure was kept secret mostly from those with a suspicion and mistrust for it — usually the well-off church folk who sat on their own pedestal every Sunday morning. Anything "primitive" or deemed "against the good book" was of the Devil himself. Mamaw scrunched her nose at those people. You can go to every church in Unicoi, Carter, and Washington counties, but that ain't making you right with the Lord. When the well-off folks are in trouble, they'll need someone and won't be able to get the "special" help they need.

American folk magic is a melting pot of practices stemming from Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, and other European sources as well as African and Native American sources. For example, the uses of different waters like rainwater and ocean water originates mostly from the British Isles. The use of dirts and dusts comes from the Native Americans and the African slaves brought to this land. The act of placing bowls and pans under the bed for works or spells comes from Jewish folklore; the practice of throwing spells and remnants behind oneself into a stream comes from European traditions; and the use of grave dirt comes from African and European traditions.


Excerpted from "Backwoods Witchcraft"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Jake Richards.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION Through the Quilting Hoop,
1 THESE ROOTS RUN DEEP Terrain and Culture in Appalachia,
2 DOWN DEVIL'S RUN Stories and Superstitions,
3 BAREFOOT WANDERING Connecting with the Land,
4 SOUP BEANS AND CORNBREAD Ancestor Veneration,
5 FROM THE EAST, FROM THE WES Living by Signs and Omens,
6 FOLK RITES OF THE MOUNTAINEER Techniques and Methods of the Power Doctor,
7 SAINTS ON THE RIVER Spirits of Southern Appalachia,
8 CASTING APPLE SEEDS Spelling and Fortune-Telling,
9 STOLEN FLOWERS Tools and Supplies,
10 WHEN THE ROOSTER CROWS Appalachian Candle Magic, Doll Babies, and Other Trickery,
11 PRAY THE DEVIL DOWN Folk Recipes and Remedies,

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