Nov 052011

Like Hubert J. Davis’ collection The Silver Bullet and Other American Witch Stories, Gerald C. Milnes uncovers vast troves of Appalachian Magickal folklore carried into the mountains by German settlers, in his book Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore (The University of Tennessee Press, 2007). Unlike Mr. Davis, who came across a forgotten series of mountain stories gathered by the WPA in the late ’30s-early ’40s, Mr. Milnes gained his material through interviews and extensive traveling throughout Appalachia, resulting in a book that is only four years old (one notes). Further identifying a tendency to think of the inhabitants of Appalachia as “Anglo-Celtic” (in terms of their English, Scots, and Scots-Irish heritage), Milnes sets out to pinpoint the substantial Germanic influence in Appalachian settlement, defining as much as possible to what extent Appalachian Magickal folklore may be traced back to Germanic extraction. (For all that his focus is on the Germanic side of Appalachian folk-culture, Milnes acknowledges that, fairly quickly, regional differences subsided in the mountains, turning instead into a distinctly Appalachian identity, as opposed to “Anglo-Celtic” or “Germanic.”)

Milnes points out that the Germans who crossed the Atlantic were Christians- but of such an unconventional, one might almost say “heretical,” nature as to seek out the American wilderness for peace and freedom from persecution (one group that settled in Pennsylvania was known as the “New Mooners” as they deemed that the optimal time to pray was at the start of Moon cycle). Making the migration in the late 1600s and early 1700s, Lutherans and Anabaptists carried with them the resolute Magickal beliefs of their homeland (a Lutheran pastor declared in 1851 that Witchcraft was so ingrained in popular belief, it was “impossible to dispel” [p. 21]). The results were “belief systems that, even from within the religious hierarchy, often encompassed the magical and the occult.” (p. 26) By the 18th century, “many Appalachian Germans were caught up in a mystical/occult-centered belief system that was not as common and, in fact, was outlawed in much of the Anglo-Saxon world. This late medieval/ early modern outlook…contributes greatly to the body of oral literature, tales, and beliefs that we identify as Appalachian folklore.” (p. 28) In short, Mr. Milnes found occult practices in “surprising quantity” during his investigations. (p. xii) While “religion dominated life…for Germans, it also harbored a belief in the reality of witchcraft, magic, and the occult. The tradition of witchery was so strong, especially within concepts of witch doctoring or occult curing, that it continues to this day.” (p. 43)

This book is jam-packed with information concerning both Magickal Appalachian lore (did you that Swiss immigrants continued to celebrate a Maypole in Helvetia, Randolph County, West Virginia, as late as the 1950s?), as well as related Germanic folk-culture (a large amount of time is given to analysis of the European phenomenon of Witchcraft, particularly in Germany). Chapters include “The Old World”; “The New World”; “The Pioneers”; “Astrology” (containing much Appalachian astrological lore, including appropriate Moon-phases for plantings and harvesting); “The Occult”; “Witchery on the Farm”; “Folk Medicine”; “Healers and Granny Women”; “Women and Witchery”; “Witch Doctors”; “Water Witching” (wherein Mr. Milnes interviews various Water Diviners, emerging impressed by their skills); “Spells and Charms”; “Magical Places” (these include crossroads, chimneys, and thresholds); “Witch Balls, Conjuring, and Divination.”

Milnes’ interview-subjects include: a man from a “curing” family, whose grandfather was a folk-healer, whose great-grandfather was known as a Witch Doctor, and whose great-great-grandfather (a Lutheran minister from Baden Baden, Germany) brought over a book hand-written in German containing a mixture of curing traditions, herbal remedies, religious invocations, and occult methodologies (p. 60); as well as an elderly lady who discusses everything from her ancestors’ occult practices (“They all done it. Ever since I knowed any of them, they all done it”) to her skills at weather-prediction and hex-breaking. (p. 77)

A lot of the folklore covered in Signs, Cures, & Witchery is familiar from The Silver Bullet, including the belief that a sure-fire way to break a Witch’s charm is to shoot a silver bullet at her effigy. The hard-and-fast tradition of performing Magick by invoking the Names of the Holy Trinity is identified, as is the use of the Rotas-Sator square as a protective charm, and the mythology of the Witch Ball as both a hexing agent and a divination tool.

Both books demonstrate that the Magickal beliefs of the Old World were brought to the New by settlers, carried into the Appalachian mountains by pioneers and continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, until they were recorded in the ’30s, and- as Mr. Milnes avers- even though “what once was common practice increasingly has been relegated to memory,” even to this day, “as curious and as abstract as it is, [occult practice] still persists.” (p. 200) “The Germanic people, who in part established Appalachian culture, had a wide acceptance of occult and magical theories and a participatory relationship to that process of understanding. What makes some of the people described in this book special is the fact that they have not lost faith. They have not found reason to reject traditional processes with which to engage life’s trials and tribulations.” (p. 201) Anyone interested in studying an authentic form of Old World-derived American Witchcraft is encouraged to investigate this book.

  8 Responses to “German Appalachian Folklore”

  1. I was so thrilled when I saw the link to this article appear on my timeline a few moments ago. In fact, I dropped everything I was doing to sit down and read this! I have been studying Paganism in its many forms for nearly 15 years (beginning at age 13) and being from West Virginia, I am particularly drawn to Appalachian folklore and magic. Helvetia, WV has been on my list of places to visit and feature on my website, Wild and Wanderlust in WV, for quite some time. I really have no excuse for never visiting before! Again, I was thrilled to read and I will be ordering the books TODAY. Thank you from the bottom of my Appalachian Pagan heart!

  2. Thanks so much, Shannon, and I hope you enjoy both books; I think they are excellent.

  3. Rumor has it that the coven that initiated Victor Anderson when he was a lad was a group that had migrated to Oregon from Appalachia. Thus, there is a strong possibility that these traditions fed directly into his Feri Trad and, hence, much of modern West Coast Paganism.

  4. [...] German Appalachian Folklore [...]

  5. Though they are fiction, Manly Wade Wellman wrote a series of short stories and a couple of novels about a character named John (alternatively named Silver John, or John the Balladeer) that drew on the folklore of the Appalachians. They were quite entertaining, and they felt true to life where they touched on the folk-magic aspects of the region.

  6. [...] C. Milnes concludes Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore (University of Tennessee Press, 2007) with the chapter “Revels and Belsnickles,” [...]

  7. [...] to be recorded in the stories found in this book, which were generated in the 1930s. Another book, Signs, Cures, & Witchery, also finds copious amounts of Old World Magick-Belief transported into Appalachia- this time, [...]

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