The Ozark's Beliefs In Witchcraft
The Ozark hillfolk will talk about crop failures and weather signs with any tourist who happens along, but let him mention witches and they all shut up like clams. If they say anything at all on the subject, it will be that they do not believe any such foolishness. Some of them will even deny that they ever heard of witches or witch masters.
The truth is, however, that a great many Ozarkers do believe these things. People are firm believers in witchcraft, and have been personally acquainted with more than a score of so-called witches. A solid citizen of Little Rock, Arkansas, contends that every good Christian must believe in witchcraft.
It's just like John Wesley said, if you give up witches you might as well throw away your Bible! The Bible not only requires a belief in witches but also demands that they be persecuted. Witches are thicker than seed ticks in Pulaski county, even today. Them things are goin' on same as they always did, but it's all under cover nowadays. The young folks lives too fast an' heedless. More than half of 'em are bewitched anyhow, so they don't care what happens. It looks like the Devil's got the county by the tail, on a downhill pull!
A witch is a woman who has had dealings vith the Devil and thereby acquired some supernatural powers, and who uses these powers to bring evil upon her neighbors, This definition excludes such estimable characters as Mrs Josie Forbes of Taskee, Missouri, Mrs. Angie Paxton of Gieen Forest, Arkansas, Miss Jean Wallace of Roaring River, Missouri, and others of the same type. Newspaper writers call these women witches, and the tourists naturally follow suit, but no real old-time Ozarker would make such a mistake. They may be clairvoyants, fortunetellers, seers, mystics, purveyors of medical advice, seekers of lost property but they are certainly not witches.
Some hillfolk believe that a woman may become a witch by some comparatively simple hocus-pocus. Professor A. W. Breedon, of Manhattan, Kansas, who was reared near Galena, Missouri, in the nineties, tells that his neighbors thought that a woman had only to fire a silver bullet at the moon and mutter two or three obscene old sayin's. A lady in Barry county, Missouri, says that any woman who repeats the Lord's Prayer backward and fires seven silver bullets at the moon is transformed into a witch instanter. Most of the genuine old-timers are agreed that to become a witch is a rather complicated matter.
Anybody is free to discuss the general principles of witchcraft, but the conjure words and old sayin's must be learned from a member of the opposite sex. Another thing to be remembered is that the secret doctrines must pass only between blood relatives, or between persons who have been united in sexual intercourse. Thus it is that every witch obtains her unholy wisdom either from a lover or from a male relative.
Not every woman who receives this information becomes a witch. A mother can transmit the secret work to her son, and he could pass it on to his wife, and she might tell one of her male cousins, and so on. All of these people may be regarded as "carriers," but not until someone actually uses the deadly formula does a genuine witch appear. And thus, while a knowledge of witchcraft is admitted to exist in certain families and clans, it sometimes lies dormant for a long time.
A woman who was regarded as a witch by her neighbors died some years ago, in Greene county, Missouri. Her daughter - a college graduate, very citified and sophisticated, who has not visited Missouri for a long time. When asked if she had ever heard anything about witchcraft in the Ozarks, she did not laugh it off. She said that she believed her own mother had possessed some measure of supernatural power, and that this power was definitely evil. She had never discussed the matter with her mother. "I always thought mamma would tell me about that some day," the daughter said, "but she never did."
Some parts of the witches' routine are well known, even to people who deny all acquaintance with such matters. The trick of reversing the Lord's Prayer is a case in point. A pious Baptist lady in McDonald county, Missouri, once denounced a schoolmarm because the children were taught to shout their multiplication tables backward as well as forward. "It's plumb risky, an' there ought to be a law ag'in it," growled the old woman. "Learn them gals to say their 'rithmetic back'ards today, an' they'll be a-sayin' somethin' else back'ards tomorrow!"
A virgin may possess some of the secrets of "bedevilment," imparted by her father or her uncle, but she cannot be a genuine witch, for good and sufficient reasons. Most of the Ozark witches seem to be widows, or elderly spinsters who are obviously not virgins. One sprightly grass widder who was said to "talk the Devil's language," but most people doubted this because of her youth - she was only seventeen. A woman can "do the Devil's work" and practice the infernal arts in a small way without any ceremony, but to attain her full powers she must be formally initiated into the sinister sisterhood.
When a woman decides to become a witch, according to the fireside legends, she repairs to the family buryin' ground at midnight, in the dark of the moon. Beginning with a verbal renunciation of the Christian religion, she swears to give herself body and soul to the Devil. She removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel's tombstone, and delivers her body immediately to the Devil's representative - that is, to the man who is inducting her into the "mystery." The sexual act completed, both parties repeat certain old sayin's - terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead - and end by reciting the Lord's Prayer backward. This ceremony is supposed to be witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude, and must be repeated on three consecutive nights. After the first and second vows the candidate is still free to change her mind, but the third pledge is final. Henceforth the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity.
The dedication of a witch is a solemn affair, not to be confused with the so-called "Witches' Sabbath" which occasioned so much talk in northwestern Arkansas, when a group of drunken young people suddenly decided to dance naked by the roadside. It was a mere accident that this lewd frolic was staged at the entrance to a cemetery. The incident had no connection with witchcraft. The term "Witches' Sabbath" was applied to it, not by the natives, but by an imaginative newspaperman from Illinois.
Women who claim to have experienced both, that the witch's initiation is a much more moving spiritual crisis than that which the Christians call conversion. The primary reaction is profoundly depressing, however, because it inevitably results in the death of some person near and dear to the witch.
A woman whose death was attributed to her daughter's participation in one of these graveyard ceremonies had a funeral. The accused girl sat apart from the other members of the family and was ignored by the minister and the congregation alike. Witchcraft is very real to these people. The person who dies as a "witch's sixpence" generally goes to hell, and therefore such a crime is infinitely more horrible than an ordinary murder. It is not until after the first victim's death that the witch comes into full possession of her supernatural powers, but from that time forward she is able to do many things which are impossible to ordinary mortals.
A witch can assume the form of any bird or animal, but cats and wolves seem to be her favorite disguises. In many a backwoods village you may hear some gossip about a woman who visits her lover in the guise of a house cat. Once inside his cabin, she resumes her natural form and spends the night with him. Shortly before daybreak she becomes a cat again, returns to her home, and is transformed into a woman at her husband's bedside.
There is an old story of a drunken bravo in northwestern Arkansas who was bantered to sleep all night in a shack where witches were known to be "usin' round." He said that if they gave him a jug of whiskey he'd sleep anywhere. He lit a candle, and drank heavily, and felt very well until midnight, when suddenly there appeared an enormous cat. The creature yowled and spit at him, and the man fired his great horse-pistol - a muzzle-loading weapon loaded with buckshot. Somewhere a woman screamed, and the hillman always swore that just as the candle went out he saw a woman's bare foot, covered with blood, wriggling around on the table. Next day it was learned that a woman who lived nearby had shot her foot off accidentally and died from loss of blood. Some say that she died a-yowlin' and a-spittin' like a cat!
In various parts of Missouri and Arkansas one hears the story of a great hole in the ground, surrounded by rugged cliffs, where hunters have heard strange sounds and smelled unusual odors. Some say that the Devil lives in that hole, imprisoned under a heavy fall of rock. There are stories of old men who claim to have visited the place as children. Some of these men swear that they heard the Devil's groans and curses and smelled burning flesh and brimstone. Strange people live on the escarpments, it is said, and throw odd things into the pit at night, particularly when the moon is full. There are tales of dark-visaged "furriners" traveling at night, who make regular pilgrimages to the place from distant parts of the country.
There is a deep canyon with high rugged walls near Mena, Arkansas, which is known as "Devil's Half Acre," but the story of the Devil's imprisonment is not known to the people who live there. Some old-timers connect the story with Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The student of these matters must remember that the word witch and its derivatives are not always to be taken literally. Tangles in a horse's mane are called witches' stirrups. Snarls in a woman's hair are called witches' cradles. The great horned owl is often called a witch chicken, perhaps because of the belief that owls can charm a chicken off its roost. Witch ball is a common name for a big puffball, known also as the Devil's snuffbox; this fungus will "hold fire" for a long time, like punk, and it is said that the Indians used it to carry fire from one camp to another. Occasionally a pullet lays a very small egg, and this the housewife usually throws on the roof of the cabin, remarking humorously that it isn't big enough to cook, so she may as well "feed it to the witches."
Many of the unsolved murders, and many of the outrages attributed to masked night riders, are directly or indirectly connected with the hillman's belief in witchcraft. The Henley-Barnett feud at Marshall, Arkansas, which killed so many people that the governor sent troops to prevent further bloodshed, is said to have been fanned into flame by an old woman who could "do things."
Less than a year ago I heard a man threaten an old woman's life, because he believed that she had bewitched his son. The boy had lived quietly at home until he reached the age of seventeen, when he suddenly took to robbing tourist camps and filling stations along the highway. "My boy was brought up honest," the old man said, "an' there aint no natural reason for this here trouble. He's witched, an' I know who done it!"
Most of the Ozark superstitions are harmless enough, but this belief in witchcraft frequently leads to violent crime. When primitive people imagine that their troubles are caused by supernatural "spells," and that these spells are cast upon them by their neighbors, tragedy often results. Things happen in these hills which are never mentioned in the newspapers, never reported to the sheriff at the county seat. The casual tourist sees nothing to suggest the current of savage hatred that flows beneath the genial hospitality of Ozark villages. "Still waters run deep," as Grandmaw Tolliver used to say, "an' the Devil lays at the bottom."
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