‘Life is old there, older than the trees; younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.’ In John Denver’s re-popularized song ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads,’ he paints a picture of Appalachia that is hard to forget. His words call to mind the misty ‘hollers’ and breathtaking views found through the Appalachian chain, invoking nostalgia for those from the mountains and acting as a siren song to people from elsewhere. The sloping hills and valleys have long inspired a sense of wonder and mystery. More than the geography though, the people who have long called these mountains home are shrouded in mystery themselves. They have been stereotyped as lazy, unintelligent, and backward. Popular culture and entertainment media has framed them as criminals and murderers, violent and inbred. Often overlooked in these portrayals, however, is a people who are connected to the land in a way that is remarkable; a people made up of many and merged into one, with a religion and worldview cobbled together from as many old ways as there are origins.
Over four-hundred and some odd million years ago, a shifting of tectonic plates caused a collision of landmasses that forced magnificent rock formations from the ground in a chain that stretched from what is now Greenland all the way to Africa. As the continents shifted and slid into the places we have currently, North America retained a large section of these mountains – what we now know as the Appalachian Mountain Range. Though, no longer as tall or as imposing as the Rockies or the Alps, these mountains have held their majesty by sheer force of will. Our ever-present fascination with them is a testament to that. The area of North America commonly recognized as the Appalachians starts in New York and reaches all the way down into the northernmost parts of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. It includes parts of Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and all of West Virginia.
Generally speaking, it would come as no surprise to find that the people of these hills are a very diverse group, with different beliefs and customs. To some degree, that is the case. There are fascinating similarities, however, between the different regions and their traditions. This could be due to the fact that a large portion of the early European settlers came from the Anglo-Scottish Border country and the Ulster Plantation, bringing with them not only protestantism but folklore and deeply ingrained magical tradition. These self-proclaimed ‘Scot (or Scotch) Irish’ were joined by German, Swedish, Swiss, Finnish, Welsh, and even a few Italian immigrants as the area opened up to the coal and timber industries. Before them, however, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee (Aniyunwiya) Nation occupied these mountains, hunting and working the land and warring with neighboring tribes such as the Choctaw and the Chickasaw. They shared their knowledge of local medicinal herbs with the settlers, and some farming techniques. What would become known as the Appalachian Folk Magick Tradition was also influenced by beliefs and practices of African peoples, brought to the area by those fleeing the southern plantations or, later, those who had been emancipated.
The Folkish ways of life for this mixture of peoples began to take shape, influenced by the branches of religion and languages and cultures they brought with them. In this cauldron of folklore and belief systems, a strange form of Christianity began to bubble. Belief in God and the supernatural was tempered with appreciation for the land and an animistic worldview that held that the spirit of God was in all things, and the power of the Almighty permeated the world around them. To ask these folks (even today!) if they were witches or practitioners of the occult would be met with harsh denial. To them, any power they had came from God himself, working miracles through them. The Devil was alive, well, and roaming. To suggest that the workings the people did was due to their own power was to give him purchase and condemn the soul.
Within the realm of what is considered Appalachian Folk Magick were -and still are- practitioners such as the Granny Women, who served as midwives, healers, pharmacists to their communities; in the northern parts were the Powwows (appropriated from the Algonquin language; also known as Brauchers or Hexenmeisters) who practiced a form of healing involving scripture. In this same vein were the Conjure doctors, who worked with plants and charms and healed the sick, soothed burns, and removed warts and the like through suggestion and the power of faith. Sin Eaters clothed in black would travel from town to town, charging a coin to remove the sins of the deceased and secure their way into heaven. Water witches could find the best places to dig a well, and diviners could tell you your future in playing cards, tea leaves, and the stars.
These practitioners were absolutely vital to the communities they worked within, and their legacy lives on to this day, passed through the generations from parent to child and neighbor to neighbor. As more and more people seek out holistic methods of treatment for a much-sick society, Folk healing has seen a revival in interest. To some generational workers, this is welcomed, as they feel the practices may be slowly dying out. Others are resistant to the change, feeling that outsiders should not be privy to what they call ‘the Old Ways.’ Still, Appalachian Folk Magick and the rich history of where it came from continues to charm the mind with its gritty, wildly logical, and often mysterious ways, and sings to us from the valleys and the hills, beckoning us to dig just a little deeper into the rich earth that it sprouted from.
National Park Service: Convergent Plate Boundaries – Collisional Mountain Ranges
Learn Religions: Appalachian Folk Magic and Granny Witchcraft
Atlas Obscura: The Long Tradition of Folk Healing Among Southern Appalachian Women
Esoterica: Volume VIII