Editor’s note: In this two-part series, Laura delves into the Celtic background of Appalachian healing techniques. Part 2 will appear in our “Loose Ends” November issue.
Healers, witches, witch doctors, water witches, witchcraft, granny women, granny magic, Appalachian Magic, “the craft,” “faery folk” magic, “haints,” wands, dowsing rods, herbalism, herb doctors, folk medicine, wild crafting, snake healing, faith healing, homemade remedies, superstition, religion, tradition, and storytelling—all are terms used to describe different aspects of Appalachian medicine. Appalachian medicine is a compilation of different cultures. Eires and Scots (Irish and Scottish) both began to immigrate to the Appalachian Mountain region in the 1700s in an attempt to escape both religious persecution and to try to forge a better way of life due to the extremely poor economic and living conditions they had experienced in their countries of origin.
With them, they brought many traditions, healing skills, lore, superstitions, and religious beliefs that became entwined with those of the Cherokee (then called Tsalagi) Indians, as well as Africans who had originally come over as slaves and settled in that area. The Appalachian Mountain region covers “Mississippi to New York and includes eleven states within its official boundaries” (Stone 2010, 1). Appalachian folk medicine has been passed down orally and primarily through families for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that remedies began to be written down. Because of the isolation in Appalachia (due to the mountainous terrain), families have stayed cohesively in traditions and customs; in fact, the whole culture has stayed immersed in the past.
Family is one of the strongest components of the Appalachian culture. When geographical and economic isolation are factored in, it makes sense that families have stayed as tight and dependent on one another as they have. Much of the medicine, having been passed from one generation to the next, has stayed within the family unit and is based on that particular family’s history and traditions, dating back to life in their country of origin. This includes storytelling, one family’s particular style of folk medicine, his/her apprenticeship, or matters concerning day-to-day life. Much of the behavior and many of the remedies are based on superstitious beliefs. These are blended with herbal tradition and – 34 –
by Laura Morrison-Roets, EdD, PhD, CTRS, LADC, CM III USA Appalachian Medicine
Celtic Guide drawing of granny woman based on image from Doris Ulmann Photograph Collection
Part One knowledge of what heals the body and the soul.
Appalachians are typically very fundamental in their religious practice and beliefs yet have found a way to incorporate religion into the mix as well. Witchcraft is and has always has been a very practical part of the Appalachian culture. However, it’s very different from the conventional definition of witchcraft, what those outside of that culture envision it as being.
The witchcraft practiced in Appalachia is one which relied upon the gifts of Mother Nature. The belief is in “one universal God (the “Creator,” the “Maker”). They do, however, observe the sabbaths, solstices, and equinoxes, but do not relate them to mythology; it’s the seasonal changes they recognize” (MEDEA Study Guide 2009, 6). This form of healing and magic became known as granny magic, and the magic and healing was performed by “granny women.” These healers were an integral part of the culture. “Appalachian Granny Magic wasn’t quite a religion, not quite a secular practice. Magic and religion and practical concerns became one path, out of which many skilled midwives and herbalists and lay preachers were created” (MEDEA Study Guide 2009, 4)
Due to minimal or no access to physicians or health care in general, reliance on these practitioners was extensive. Granny Women wore many hats. Among those, they acted as midwives and were called in even when a physician had been called. In the event that a doctor couldn’t make it, they were there to deliver. If the physician did, then the granny woman would either assist and/or stay to care for the newborn and the new mother. They didn’t charge fees, so if they were the primary “doctor,” their concern wasn’t a quick delivery, as time wasn’t their main concern. Granny women used herbal remedies, superstition, and were not opposed to using pharmaceuticals if and when the need arose. Their training was through years of experience and apprenticeship.
At that point in time, the majority of women were illiterate (another reason for oral tradition). However, there were those who could read, and those few carried what was called a “midwife’s book,” which was used in the event that they had to attend to a complicated delivery. In the event that herbal remedies such as blackberry tea (for hemorrhaging), raspberry tea (to relax uterine muscles), slippery elm bark (for speeding up delivery), or willow bark tea (for pain relief) didn’t work, the granny women had no problem with the use of pharmaceuticals.
Local drugstores always had supplies of over-the-counter morphine and quinine available; therefore, if pain were a major issue, a morphine tablet was readily available. Granny women—and Appalachians, in general—were very superstitious. Witch doctors and water witches were very common and held in high esteem within each community. In fact, being known as the “local witch” was considered to be an honor. Each title spoke of specific skills, but it wasn’t uncommon for one person to possess the skills of both.
The witch doctor was one who practiced midwifery, healing, tended to sick children, and practiced magic. In both “practices,” the work was sometimes referred to as conjuring, or working. The “water witch” was she who made charms and potions, worked with water dowsing, energy vortexes, and ley lines. She was more likely to be involved with mill magic than the witch doctor (Stilwell 2001, par. 8). The Appalachian area is so isolated that many practices and traditions from the countries of origin continued, whereas in areas outside there, became modernized.
With modernization, traditions and culture changed, not so in Appalachia. The unfortunate piece is that because of oral tradition, original meanings of customs, traditions, wisdom, and spells have changed or lost. Many of the traditions and customs surround lore such as faeries and the ancestral dead (sometimes referred to as “haints”). The faery lore is brought from Europe where faeries, leprechauns, brownies, sprites, and magical creatures such as selkies and water horses were a common part of the culture. The Cherokee (Tsalagi) have their own version of the “little people” called Yunuwi Tsusdi (pronounced “Yowee Uoodskee”), and of course, the slaves still had their spirit deities from Africa.
With all four cultures, the lore of the “wee people” remained and evolved to fit the new land and new life. The Tsalgi believed that the Yunuwi Tsusdi lived in the forest and that they could be a help or a menace. Few could or would see them, but of those who did, what was seen was likened to miniature versions of warriors. In fact, one of the beliefs was that if you had offended one (perhaps by not leaving a food offering), that sharp pain one might feel in his or her calf while walking could be the result of having been shot with a miniature arrow.
The faerie lore/faith was very similar: “The body of practice that works specifically with Faery and otherworld beings is called Faery Seership” (Foxwood 2009, 4). Faeries are known by many names, including—but not limited to—faeries, them, little people, sidewise folk, and the gentry. Those practicing in this area knew more than the average person about faeries and spirits. They knew where these and
other spirits lived and how to contact them.
Additionally, they knew what to do when they were menacing or how to harness the good. Similar to the Cherokee, it was known that one should leave food for the little people. In doing so, that individual would stay on their good side and be blessed with luck and good wishes. They were considered to be like family, and as family was central to the culture, one must take care of his or her own. To not do so would be bring wrath and fury down on an individual and his or her family, and life and luck both could become very ugly. (Continued in November issue.)